Recently on Facebook, some friends made comments on determinism, calling it a worthless theory and simply an excuse to avoid responsibility or keep the masses down by explaining away things like poverty. This caused me to rip my hair out and gnash my teeth, because I firmly believe that the sticky question of biological determinism is the future we are headed towards and a massive seismic paradigm shift that will occur especially within religious circles in the future.
Determinism is already here
When taking a cognitive psychology class, the very first day my professor explained that psychology, in order for it to work in any kind of rigorous, scientific way, must assume that the human brain is deterministic. “Imagine it this way,” she explained. “Suppose as a chemist you are trying to figure out how hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine to make water molecules, and one day, the molecules decide, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make dirt molecules instead just because I want to.’ Then the other day, they combine to make water, and then the next day after that, they decide instead they want to turn into ice molecules. You wouldn’t get very far.”
Thus it is with the science of psychology. We cannot get very far if we discover that certain parts of the brain simply just “decide” that they are going to act differently today. “I know that I’m usually in charge of basic emotions and memory retention,” your hypothalmus reports. “But today, you know, I really just feel like an amygdala. Maybe the amygdala can take my job and I’ll take hers for a change.” This simply doesn’t happen.
People believe in deterministic behavior to a certain point because, like anything else in life, if it lacks consistency, it lacks any relevance or usefulness to our lives. In an extreme example, we as a society do not like it when children see graphic depictions of violence or sex. Why is this? Aren’t children, as people, free enough to determine for themselves what is right and wrong? No, we respond. They’re children. Already we understand at an instinctual level that age (and physical brain development) has something to do with cognitive functioning and imprinting.
In less extreme examples, I know that when I’m hungry, I get cranky. I snap at my wife, I become irritable, and I drive more aggressively. Because of this, when I feel this mood coming on, I understand it is imperative that I should eat something in order to prevent this unpleasant mood. I understand at some basic level there is some determinism involved. I certainly could try to will it away, but I’ve discovered that eating some crackers work just as fine and in a quick manner. There is something biological happening here — my lack of blood sugar and my emotional mood — and it would be difficult to deny that exists.
Everyone is already a determinist; they just don’t know it
Everyone, to an extent, is a “soft” determinist. As parents we attempt to raise and discipline our children, because we understand that the environment they grow up in determines some characteristics. While most of us will not throw our hands up in the air and say, “It’s all genetics, whether we try or not!” and walk away, the vast majority of parents will try to influence a child’s current and future behavior, though we should not think this the case if we believe in free will.
And even while most Americans may not abdicate personal responsibility to genetics, we understand there are hard, biological limits to free will. We may become frustrated with Down Syndrome or autistic children from time to time, but we would never tell them today that they can become “normal” if they just “tried hard enough.” Hopefully, most of us are educated enough to understand that telling a depressed person to just “get over it” does not work, especially if hard biological components are involved. The advent of psychotropic drugs which help medicate conditions from depression to schizophrenia are a miracle of our modern scientific world — all based on the premise that human behavior and cognitive thinking is deterministic. They follow strict scientific laws, even if we cannot understand all of them right now.
The evidence continues to mount that much of our behavior can be deterministic. The infamous Mischel’s Marshmallow Study showed that child behavior at ages as early as two can indicate how successful that person will be in our society today (even President Uchtdorf of the LDS Church cited it in General Conference, somewhat ironically). I have friends who are suicidal, anorexic, or violent without their medication. We’ve found that we can influence and condition somatic responses (via Pavlov’s drooling dog experiments), that certain substances like cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD can drastically alter behavior, mood, cognitive thinking, sensory perception, and all other facets of our personalities. Someone who is drunk should never think they can just “will the drunkness away”; I would hope even the most ardent foe of determinism would take away his keys.
At some point in time, everyone has done something that predicates on a deterministic mindset, whether or not you did it yourself for deterministic reasons, or if you treated someone in a deterministic way. People would, I hope, think the idea of “willing away” a high while taking LSD is patently ridiculous. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that some people are more biologically predicated to alcoholism, or the idea that kids who are less patient with marshmallow waiting at the age of two are more likely to end up in trouble with the law? People would, I hope, think that children should not grow up in abusive homes because it can psychologically scar them. Why, then, do they ridicule the idea that people growing up in a culture of poverty find it hard to break out of it, or the idea that gang behavior is stronger in certain cultures over others?
God is a determinist
While many religious people who believe in the concept of free will or agency, especially in context with the Christian concept of sin, will scream for my blood and head on a pike when I say this, this does not sway the fact that the Christian God is a determinist. He tells us all that we are sinful, flawed creatures — this is a fate that not a single one of us humans can escape.
Mormons (and I use them as an example because I am most comfortable with their theology) reject the Calvinist concept of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will go to heaven and hell. However, we also believe in an omnipotent God, who knows everything — including who will go to heaven and hell. So we have concocted the doctrine of foreordination — that God understands us children so much that he can predict behavior, but he does not force us to do right things. He gives us the choice to come to him or reject him, but because he knows us so well he puts us in situations that suitably test us and give us the appropriate chances to embrace him (or at the very least, embrace goodness, for those who never come to know him in this life).
To explain, my wife gave the example of her younger sister. Her younger sister loves sprinkle donuts. If given the choice between many kinds of donuts, she knows her sister will choose sprinkle donuts. My wife knows this, yet she is not forcing her sister to do so — her sister chooses sprinkle donuts out of her own “free will” — and my wife knows this future information because she understands her sister’s personality enough.
But while this may eliminate the idea that God forces us to do certain things, it merely shifts the burden of determinism from God to us as flawed people. My wife’s sister will choose the sprinkled donut because some facet of her personality forces her to do so. To like or not like a sprinkled donut seems arbitrary, and even silly, as an example of determinism, but it shows how pervasive it is in our lives. If my wife alerted her sister to this fact, she may choose to eat another donut out of rebellion (and if my wife knows her to be especially rebellious, she can predict this, too, because of the principles of basic human determinism). But her sister will have very little in her power to enjoy the alternative donut more than her favorite, sprinkled donuts. This lack of free will becomes even more apparent when presented with the choice of broccoli over sprinkle donuts; her sister would have to be a Zen master in order to truly feel that broccoli is as tasty, let alone tastier, than a sprinkle donut. She is a prisoner to her unique brain mapping.
Foreordination does not provide any form of free will as many of us believe in it; in fact, it only reinforces the fact that God himself understands that we are deterministic creatures that will respond in predictable, specific fashions to specific stimuli. A good Mormon like myself would argue that God knows what is good for me and what is bad for me; what will help me grow and what will break me. But all of these rely on the idea that I am a predictable, deterministic being. If this isn’t the definition of determinism, I don’t know what is.
Because of this, God can make sweeping edicts that hold true in every situation, one of the most important being this — all of us are sinful creatures in need of his mercy. None of us can break free of this edict. None of us (except for Jesus Christ, if you swing that way in religion) can do this; it is bar none an impossible task, undoable no matter how much will or effort you put into it. Something inside of you, something embedded deep within you, some physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual shard of imperfection will compel you to sin. God cannot be God and lie at the same time. Whether it is God that is forcing you to sin, yourself that is forcing you to sin, or the environment that is forcing you to sin, all of this is immaterial to the fact that something will cause you to sin, and that is predictable behavior because humans are deterministic.
The Religious Implications
This puts people who love (yes, even worship) the idea of free will as we currently understand it in a very difficult pickle. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit that something they’ve done had some form of deterministic cause. Everyone, at some point in their lives, must admit they treated someone in a certain way because they believed it would have some form of deterministic consequence. But we must also adhere to the principle of free will! We must all have some form of personal responsibility, or should we just forgive rapists because “they couldn’t help it, they were born that way?” Our society’s moral fabric will fray apart!
These are all very serious and very true problems. But hoping determinism goes away is not the right way to address these issues. Science cannot explain everything; even with all of the advances of science today, the combined efforts of psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and all the other -ologies cannot explain much of anything. We have only begun to scratch at the surface, slowly shifting away the dirt beneath our feet to find we are standing on an intricate and priceless mountain of gold. We can, and some would argue that we must, assert that the idea of personal responsibility must exist somewhere in the universe — but to deny a growing tidal wave of scientific evidence only serves to alienate religion especially from the newly discovered realities of our world.
Just as heliocentric models of the universe forced us to re-consider our position in the physical universe, just as how biological evolutionary models and modern geological techniques forced us to re-consider the creation of the physical universe, so the new deterministic behavior models of humans will force us to re-consider our relationship and influence from and to the physical universe. We may all possess some form of free will; personally, I believe this shard of free will is a birthright from our perfect spiritual Father. Still, we are imperfect through and through, and where the gaps of our free will exist, determinism fills it in.
As for my personal opinion? As I’ve grown more and more aware of the environmental, internal, biological, and social pressures that influence me in a myriad variety of ways that can only be described as the largest, most complex cocktail ever devised, I’ve taken the time to sit down and meditate, to pick apart the reasons why I do things. If personal responsibility exists, I must find it for myself; I cannot have anyone hand it to me. If I am to create any semblance of true freedom, I must first acknowledge all of the pressures and influences and forces that work in my life. As I’ve walked down this difficult personal path, I can see, for the first time in my life, why I act like this — my rebellion against my mother’s Confucian values; my Buddhist feelings and thoughts coming from my father’s “seminars” during weekly family nights; my love of Nibley’s anti-money ranting over my own complicated childhood experiences with money; my unique Mormon lens derived from the unique Mormon congregations I attended as a child and unique, Mormon experiences I had as a teenage missionary.
When I look into myself, I see American social values clashing with internalized Korean social values. I see how my parents’ desire for me to succeed in education drove me to intellectual elitism, while my father’s background growing up as a subsistence level chicken farmer in Paraguay drove me to decry American consumerism and materialism. I can see how the unique biological makeup of my brain that has revealed itself over the years shows me perennially optimistic and yet deadly anxious around personal interactions. I see challenges and confront them because I believe I have some kind of personal responsibility and free will, but I look at my biology and socialization to discover them. And when people fail in life in whatever sense, I find myself deeply sympathetic and my heart swells with mercy because, with just a few tweaks in my brain chemistry or genetic string of proteins, that drunk in the street or that socially incompetent and painfully awkward co-worker could have been me.
When I see these threads that weave a very unique tapestry inside of me, I’m amazed at the beauty of humanity. We are intricately complex, deeply beautiful, and infinitely flawed machines. I personally believe there is a clock maker out there, some master architect, watching and from time to time personally intervening in the lives of his clockwork creatures. True freedom, for me, does not come from burying my head in the sand, denying that there are impulses and traits in me that are difficult, if not impossible to control. True freedom comes from examining within, finding the “bugs” inside of me and either repairing them or learning to work around them, like a self-modifying computer program. Imprinted in me is the master architect’s hand, his own personal flourish. I, for one, as a determinist and a Christian, intend to find it and praise it.