Determinism vs. Free will: When the debate turns scientific

Right now, Christians, at least the Evangelical variety, debate Evolution. That seems to be the big inconsistency with the Bible.

But when that dies down in a few years, Christians will have another huge debate on their hands. In fact, it’s not just Christians. Everyone will probably weigh in on this one.

The debate will center on the question of how a mechanical brain relates to a spiritual soul.

Not all Christians believe people have souls, but virtually every one of them agrees on the existence of some form of afterlife, some form of human responsibility, and some form of ethical imperative not to physically tamper with anyone’s freedom to make decisions in these regards.

But how does this square with a naturalistic explanation of the brain?

Alvin Plantinga has some interesting thoughts and arguments about this, actually about how it relates to Evolution. So do a number of other philosophers from the past. But when this goes mainstream, it won’t be just the philosophers who make claims and draw lines.

It’s too practical a consideration. Are we just firing neurons? Do our decisions have any meaning beyond the raw chemical reactions? Should humans be allowed to peer into the mechanics of the brain? Should we be allowed to alter what happens inside? Why, or why not?

Novelists and film makers have brought some of this into focus with stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and many others. And people in general have debated human autonomy for thousands of years, just like they’ve debated the existence of God, the origins of the universe, and so on.

The difference in the coming years will be that science will advance to the point where understanding the brain in mechanical terms will become more mainstream. It’s one thing to claim that thoughts are just a function of electrical impulses rattling around our skulls. It’s quit another to gently prob that brain and as a result make me believe with absolute certainty that I’m strolling along the beach or eating a jar of jelly.

What about when computers get involved and start mapping out our memories or creating new ones that never existed before? What about when they create entire personalities that never existed?

When that happens, how will Christians respond? For that matter, how will everyone respond?

Perhaps the technology still has a long way to develop. But it’s coming. And it’s a debate I think all of us need to consider before it actually hits us. Because by then, it’ll might be too risky to trust any reasoning.