In the 1970s and 80s, an American physiologist named Benjamin Libet designed experiments that showed that, before we consciously will ourselves to take an action, a cascade of neurological processes is already underway, impelling us to do what we do. Our subjective sense of self-determination, his work seemed to show, comes after – not before – our actions; our intentions are the effects – not the causes – of what we do.
Ever since Libet’s experiments, an impressively credentialed set of psychologists and neuroscientists has been telling us that free will is an illusion. According to their theories, everything we do is predetermined by incomprehensibly complex cause and effect relations set in motion by the ‘initial conditions’ that generated us. As the cover design for Sam Harris’s Free Will suggests, we are just puppets, jerked around on strings by the irresistible force of all that has gone before us.
This means, says this line of research, that if we could only map exhaustively a person’s inherited make-up, we could predict precisely what he or she will do and become. In the words of Saul Smilansky of the University of Haifa, whatever path a person takes in life is only ‘an unfolding of the given’ – the working out of everything that has gone into a person’s biological construction (for the quote from Smilansky, see this article in Atlantic Monthly by Stephen Cave).
As someone whose late twentieth-century American upbringing gave me no choice but to embrace the ideology of modern heroic individualism, I find these claims disturbing. And I am not alone. Further research has suggested that loss of faith in free will can lead to depression and can undermine people’s sense of moral responsibility for their behaviour. If they have no choice, they reason, how can they be blamed – or praised, for that matter?
When I look at the appointed Scripture readings for today, I can’t help but notice at least one element of congruence between the Bible and this modern scientific account of free will as an illusion. These texts – from 1 Samuel 10, Psalm 139, and John 1 – are all classic examples of call narratives, a genre that seems emphatically to assert that a person’s life is simply ‘an unfolding of the given’, the working out of things set in motion long before his or her birth and moving towards foregone consequences over which he or she has no real control.
But, whereas I am conditioned to resist the scientific accounts of determinism, there’s nothing I like better in the Bible than a good call narrative. Despite the implication that individual volition has little to do with vocation and may, in fact, be at odds with it, I love these stories. And the reasons why I love them are obvious. When I was a youngest child at home and a misfit at school, they comforted me greatly. They taught me that to be youngest and least, like Jacob and Joseph and Gideon, and to come from Nowheresville, like Jesus himself, was to be poised to subvert all expectations and step into an inevitable destiny. What’s not to love about these stories of being special? Like King Arthur and Harry Potter too – wouldn’t it be great to have a much-storied and prophesied fate? Never mind that it’s all been laid out for us.
The ingredient that can make biblical determinism seem more palatable than biological determinism is, of course, God. The ‘given’ that unfolds is not a blind amoral momentum but a divine plan. And by strenuous ingenuity, many Christians have for centuries tried to persuade ourselves that the plan of an all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful God is not incompatible with human free will. We have formulated a paradox so familiar we hardly notice it: we blame death and evil on human free will, exercised as disobedience, but claim that human disobedience could not occur without divine foreknowledge and assent, without being part of God’s plan, in other words.
Our beloved call narratives teach us this paradox very well. Often they subject the chosen ones to trials and temptations and show how some – like Saul and Judas – fail by choosing to disobey and betray. But do they? We hold Judas culpable even as we say his betrayal was ‘an unfolding of the given’ will of God. The Gospels (and Paul) suggest that even Jesus might have failed; that he actively chose obedience, and that the fate of God’s plan hung in the balance. But does our notion of God really let us imagine a maverick Christ?
The seasons of Advent and Epiphany especially remind me just how thoroughly the tradition of prophecy presupposes that everything that ever will be is already given in the mind of God. Prophecy depends on this; it depends on the prophet being shown a glimpse of a future that is already laid out, like a country visible only from a mountain top. How can that country ever be other than what it is already? It may come into view in unexpected ways but never in any truly doubtful or original ways. The future is ‘an unfolding of the given’.
What would happen, however, if both the neuroscientists and the theologians let go of the idea of the given? What if nothing is ever simply given, and everything – including God – is in process? What if every so-called ‘initial condition’ is an irreducible composition of things, situated in an infinite regress of such compositons, with neither beginning nor end?
There would still be plenty of determinism and room for scientific predictions, but also plenty of indeterminacy and room for surprises, for genuine differences, for unpredictable freaks and terrors and wonders – maybe even for miracles, who knows?