What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter considers what morality and free will tell us about human beings, with a critical analysis of some of the latest experiments in neuroscience and arguments for the evolutionary basis of morality.

So far we have considered John Gray’s argument that self and consciousness are illusions. This is only the first of three steps in a chain of argument in Straw Dogs that we must now follow. Effectively Gray argues that:

1. Self and consciousness are illusions, therefore:
2. Free will is an illusion, therefore:
3. Morality is an illusion.

We have already questioned whether Gray is correct to think that self is an illusion, but we must now turn to the question of free will. Gray argues, uncontroversially in my estimation, that we are only aware of a fraction of the knowledge our senses acquire, but he goes further than this, attacking the very idea that we have any decision making capacity. Gray’s logic is that if consciousness is only illusionary then there can be no such thing as a choice based on the human will – in fact our bodies are acting in keeping with their basic instincts, which arise ultimately from our selfish genes. The end result is that people cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. Now it seems to me that there is an assumption being made by Gray here. Even if dualism is wrong and the self does not exist separately from the brain, why must that mean that choice is an illusion? Could it not be true, even if Gray cannot conceive of it, that the brain could support a voluntary self that can make real choices that determine, to however limited a degree when all other factors are taken into account, the individual’s destiny? Does modern science support Gray’s claim that free will and morality are illusionary?

Libet’s Half-Second Gap

Gray appeals for scientific support for his denial of free will to the work of physiologist Benjamin Libet (1916-2007).[1] Libet's research, published in 1983 [2] demonstrated a delay between the appearance of a 'Readiness Potential' (RP) on their electro-enchapalogram [3] when subjects decided to move their hand and the moment at which they were conscious of making the decision. The RP appeared around 0.5 seconds before the person knew they had made a decision. Libet suggested that the brain has already made the decision to act before the 'mind' is conscious of it – the decision is not a conscious one; consciousness merely registers the brain's decision. Libet himself did not interpret his findings as a complete denial of free will. He retained the possibility of 'free won't', believing that during the delay the conscious mind might be able to veto the brain's decision and cancel the action. There are, however, several disputed aspects to the interpretation of Libet's work:

• Firstly, it is highly questionable whether Libet's laboratory conditions can be translated into the world of everyday decision making. In his experiment the subjects were told what to do and were waiting to do it. They didn't have to decide from a range of possible actions; the only decision they had to make was the timing of the action. This situation is highly artificial and does not equate to the kind of complex decisions we make repeatedly throughout every day.

• Secondly, there are a number of alternative explanations for the 'gap' Libet observed. It may be argued that the brain activity seen in the RP reflects not the making of a decision but a state of readiness before the decision is made as the subject prepared to make a decision. Although Libet went to considerable pains to eliminate any delay in subjects determining when they were aware of making a decision, the possibility remains that the delay he recorded was actually in their ability to process the information from their visual pathways. It is also possible that consciousness is involved in the decision but that the registering of that consciousness is delayed. We might ask whether consciousness in decision making and awareness of consciousness are the same thing.

• Thirdly, subsequent research has not conclusively supported Libet's findings. Research published in 2008 using functional MRI scanning (a much more advanced indicator of brain activity than the EEG used by Libet) showed activity in areas of the brain that are believed to be involved in decision-making up to ten seconds before awareness of making a decision.[4] This suggests a much longer gap than Libet found, but it creates a problem, as we may wonder how we can possibly square a ten second delay with our experience of life. Are we really to believe that we are living ten seconds behind what actually happens? More recent research published in March 2010 disputes Libet's findings. New Zealand scientists Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller compared brain activity before a decision to move and before a decision not to move and found no difference. They "conclude that Libet's results do not provide evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously."[5]

It seems that Gray's conclusions are at best premature and that they arise more from what he wants to be true rather than what has been demonstrated to be true. We will return to the issue of 'free will' at a later point in terms of what Christians believe about it, but at this point it is important to say that science is very far indeed from describing what happens when a person makes a decision and that it has certainly not disproved the idea that we are capable of making real decisions with real consequences.

Morality an Illusion?

If the self and free will are illusions, it follows that morality as it is commonly understood does not exist. Our choices would simply be results of our physical make-up and a universal standard of 'morality', if it exists at all, would be simply a description of the normal way in which our brain conditions us to act. Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson summarise this view succinctly:[6]

Morality, or more strictly, our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God's will… In any important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.

Within this statement is an attack on a Christian view of ethics, which is dependent on God. Ruse and Wilson are not, however, completely accurate in suggesting that a Christian view of ethics is based on 'God's will'. In the Bible, God's will is an expression of His character – He wills good because He is good. Christians do not believe in obedience to blind rules that emerge from the will of an unpredictable and capricious God, but in relationship with a God who can be known. We will return to the Christian idea of ethics in due time, but for now we must ask whether there is any evidence that morality is more than simply an evolutionary illusion. Before considering some additional evidence it is worth noting, however, that Ruse and Wilson cannot avoid using language that describes genes as conscious agents (how can genes fob anything off on anyone?) This is a consistent feature of the writings of many evolutionary biologists. It may help people to accept the arguments of these writers by making them sound more plausible, but could it also reflect a fundamental inability to believe in seemingly purposeful action without an intelligent cause?

A recent edition of the magazine New Scientist [7] included a number of brief articles about current scientific thinking about morality. Contributions included:

Peter Singer (ethicist) – Beyond intuition

Singer draws on work by moral psychologist Joshua Greene that suggests that we have an instinctive negative response to hands-on violence, but not to actions that cause the same outcome in a less direct way. Singer sees this as support for the idea that our 'moral' decisions are simply based on intuitive emotional responses. In this he appears to support a naturalistic worldview, yet he still argues that we can rise above these intuitive emotional responses to find more carefully reasoned responses to moral dilemmas. He writes:

It certainly doesn't follow that we ought to do what our instincts prompt us to do… Rather, by undermining the authority that some philosophers have given to our intuitive moral responses, the new scientific lines of evidence about the nature of morality open the way for us to think more deeply, and more freely, about what we ought to do.

Where does this word "ought to" arise from? Who decides what we ought or ought not to do? Singer seems to depart from a purely naturalistic view here. Morality is no longer simply a natural response; we can rise above our inbuilt instincts and do better. But surely we can legitimately ask why we should bother! Does evolution need a helping hand from our intelligence? If we believe that evolution got us this far, why would we now question its ability to lead us on? Even if we could rise above our instincts, why should we bother if there is no God and no purpose greater than our own survival and pleasure? Surely we should simply eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

Paul Bloom (developmental psychologist) – Infant origins of human kindness

Bloom suggests that the foundations of morality are built into babies since in his research they were drawn to puppets that helped another puppet up a hill and reject puppets that pushed the struggling puppet down. This pattern was observed at age six months and even three months. These findings provide a strong challenge to the 'blank slate' theory of human nature, but do they indicate that morality is purely a result of our genes? Bloom writes about the inspiration for his research:

Many scientists who study morality are interested in why people behave badly, but I am more curious to understand why we are so nice. We give extraordinary amounts to charity, donate our blood, give directions to lost tourists and perform acts of random kindness every day. It is no surprise that modern humans can often be selfish and cruel, but this kindness poses a deep puzzle.

Bloom has identified a key question for evolutionary biologists. Selfish genes are a good explanation of selfish actions and they may even explain actions that are for the overall good of the whole community (my relatives’ genes are my genes, hence any action that protects and preserves my relatives could benefit my 'selfish genes'), but how can they explain true altruism? Why would they cause me to care beyond my own 'clan'? Science is far from explaining a plausible evolutionary basis for these aspects of morality.

Sam Harris (neuroscientist and 'new atheist') – We can send religion to the scrap heap

This article is really a trailer for Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape. He has realised that morality is a weak point in the arguments of the new atheists and is concerned to see more scientific research into morality so that religion can finally be dismissed. He attacks the Catholic Church and proposes a variant form of utilitarian ethics [8] in which issues like truth, justice and fairness can be included with pleasure and happiness in an all-encompassing concept of "well-being". He expects that scientific enquiry as to the “the way the universe is” will guide us to what is best for the experience of conscious creatures – that we can discover an absolute system of ethics based on nature. Harris appears to have confused two key issues – the issue of describing what is and what works in life (a legitimate area of enquiry for science) and the issue of why it is that way and what is of ultimate value (which is beyond the remit of science). Even if science could unravel exactly what everything in the world is currently like, the questions of whether it could be better (and how we would decide what was 'better'), how it came to be this way, and whether it has any purpose, would still be wide open. Furthermore, there would undoubtedly still be differing ideas of what “well-being” is and in the absence of anyone who can adjudicate the inevitable result would be conflict. It may be argued that most of mankind’s failings are not the result of knowing what action would be best but result from either a lack of will to do what is best or a lack of power to do it. Human greed and selfishness have ruined every dream of utopia to date, and it seems inevitable, based on the lessons of history, that Harris’s utopian dream will be confounded too.

Patricia Churchland (philosopher of neuroscience) – Brain roots of right and wrong

Churchland is confident that a better understanding of our brains will explain the origins of morality. She writes that:

Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; recognition of others' psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy. These factors result in the emergence of a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances.

These ideas are very interesting and seem quite plausible, but they hardly solve the entire mystery surrounding morality. In the first instance, Churchland has not suggested a solution to Bloom’s problem. She speaks about the benefit of defending the clan, but what of altruistic goodness across clan divides? We care for our offspring, but why do we also care for strangers? Secondly, she is still talking about descriptions of what we are and what comprises what we are. She makes no suggestion as to why we are that way. The question of purpose is left unanswered. Thirdly, we might ask whether Churchland is correct in claiming that the conscience is “socially sanctioned” or is there, in fact, an aspect of morality that is more intimately programmed into our psyche? What of Bloom’s discovery of elementary morality in children as young as three months?

Martha J. Farah (neuroscientist) – My brain made me do it

Farah writes about the implications for ideas of justice of the theory that morality arises from unconscious brain function rather than from volition. Can people be found guilty of crime if their brain made them act that way? She refers to evidence from functional MRI scans that murderers have abnormal activity in some areas of the brain. This is, however, something of a 'chicken and egg' situation. Are their choices the result of this activity, or do these changes in the brain result from their choices and repeated patterns of behaviour (if that part of the brain that is involved in violent thoughts is repeatedly used may it not expand and so be over-active in people who have become violent to the degree of committing murder)? Furthermore, even if an individual has a greater propensity to murder because of an abnormality in their brain, does that mean they are no longer responsible for their actions when they commit murder? What about the possibility of reform? Is it possible for a murderer to reform his ways – experience in my own country of Northern Ireland would suggest that it is. What happens to the brain activity of these reformed murderers? What of the idea of resisting temptation? Every person seems to have areas in which they are particularly prone to actions which society or their own conscience says are wrong, but recognising this does not necessarily mean that their actions are not wrong. Could it be that the subjective feeling of guilt or of shame (which we predominantly experience will depend largely on the culture in which we are raised) is a pointer to an objective moral standard – that there might be a cosmic Judge before whom we are guilty or a loving Creator before whom we ought to feel ashamed? Whatever the basis for an action in a particular case (whatever factors worked together in leading to the action), we can still ask whether the action is morally wrong. It is one thing to say that a particular individual should not be held culpable for murder in a particular case, but would we really be happy to say that murder is perfectly acceptable and that we should not attempt to catch murderers and put them on trial? It is important that individual cases are tried on an individual basis, but there must be a standard against which to try them.

Another challenge to the naturalistic idea of morality comes from the ability to be influenced. If our actions result simply from our genes, then how can we explain the ability of other people to influence our ideas and morality? Farah includes in her article a quotation from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA:

'You', your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

She then refers to a 2008 study in which some subjects were asked to read this statement before taking a computerised test. Those who had read the passage were more likely to cheat in the test than other subjects who had not read it. Farah claims that this finding supports the idea that “awareness of the neural causes of behavior influences our behavior”, but surely it is more accurate to say that belief in this basis for behaviour is what actually makes the difference. It is because subjects believed that their choices were programmed by their brain that they felt that they were no longer responsible for their actions and that cheating could be justified. If reading a passage of a book can influence how we think about morality, does that not imply that we are capable of changing through the conscious absorption, weighing and acceptance of ideas? If so, then our choices are not simply determined by our genes and brain structure. We choose to read the passage, we make a decision whether or not to believe it, and we reference it when we are faced with a moral dilemma. That, at least, is how it appears to us, and the research Farah references seems to me to agree.

Natural Law?

Taking all of these articles together we can conclude that there is a growing body of scientific evidence for the idea that human nature, including a sense of morality, is at least in part a result of our inherited nature. It seems that we can indeed reject the “blank slate” theory of human nature. Several of the contributors clearly lean towards a belief that human nature and morality are entirely the result of our genes, but the evidence does not exclude the role of our environment (nurture) in shaping us and our morality. Furthermore, it does not refute the idea that we can make genuine choices, even if these are heavily influenced by both environment and our genes, which have real consequences. More importantly still the scientific evidence does not even begin to answer questions about why we are moral at all or why we should care so much about morality. Questions of purpose, once again, are outside the reach of the scientific method. It appears that there is a form of morality ingrained in our very nature. It may not be a complex morality, perhaps determined primarily by a recognition of good and bad actions as in Paul Bloom’s research or a few basic principles as suggested by Patricia Churchland, but it is there nonetheless. We may add to this from observation of various cultures on earth that there are certain principles that seem to be universal among different groups of human beings. These are perhaps best determined by asking people how they think others should treat them rather than observing what they do themselves. Our sense of morality is much more acute when we are the injured party than when we are justifying our own actions. This principle of wanting to be treated well by others is enshrined in many different religious and philosophical systems in what is known as the 'Golden Rule'.[9] Also called the ethic of reciprocity, this rule says that it is morally wrong to do to another person something we would not want them to do to us.

Observations from human culture and modern science, then, converge in suggesting that morality, at least at some basic level, is ingrained in our being. We might call this a 'natural law' that is common to all mankind. It seems to me that it would be intellectually obtuse and morally perilous to observe a kind of 'law' at work in our hearts without considering that there may have been a 'law-giver'. Even if we prefer to speak of principles rather than law, then it still seems logical to at least consider the possibility that these principles had their origin in an intelligent mind. Christians claim that God created us and that 'natural law' originated with Him. The most significant New Testament passage that is often quoted in this context is Romans 2:14-15:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

These verses are found in the context of a discussion by Paul of God’s righteous judgment of mankind. Paul has spoken about the Jewish people who have the law of God (the Old Testament Law given to Moses), but here he speaks about Gentiles who do not have that written law. He acknowledges that human beings are capable of doing things that God expects or requires even without knowing who God is or having heard His words. The reason for this is that the law’s requirements are “written on their hearts”. Paul is in agreement with cultures and modern science in saying that morality is ingrained in our beings. Where Paul differs from some naturalists, however, is that he does not believe that all of our actions come directly from our instincts. If that were true then no action would be wrong and this natural law from God would justify every action of human beings. Naturalists will argue that if something comes naturally to a person it cannot be morally wrong. Paul, however, believed that we can either follow the principles of this law written on our hearts or we can reject them. It is at this point that the conscience comes into play. This inner voice either accuses or defends us depending on how we have acted. It speaks on the basis of the law written on our hearts, but it is not an entirely reliable guide. In another passage Paul can speak about people “whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). It is possible for us to make repeated choices that go against natural law with the result that eventually the conscience ceases to function. We are expert at justifying our own actions to ourselves. The natural law written on our hearts can guide us to what is wrong and also what we ought to do, but it is, according to the New Testament, clouded by our own self-deception and the influence of evil spiritual powers. As Christian philosopher J. Budziszewski has written:[10]

On the tablets of the heart a law is written indeed, the same for all men … not only as to rectitude but as to knowledge. But it is a far cry from knowing something to acknowledging it, and the human race has been in the condition psychologists call ‘denial’ ever since the Fall. Acknowledging what we really know is now an act of faith.

Natural law may guide people to right actions, but it also awakens them to their need of further and clearer guidance and to a sense of shame or guilt when they fail to live up to the standard. There is no suggestion in Paul, or anywhere else in the New Testament, that mankind is able to construct from an examination of our own hearts a universal and error-free ethical system. Some philosophers have tried to do just that – the intricate system of Confucian ethics, based on relationships of proper respect and deference, and Kantian ethics, based on the principle of treating others as ends in themselves rather than “means to an end”, are prime examples. The problem with this approach, according to a Christian view, is threefold. Firstly, the information is incomplete. The evidence written on our hearts is not a complete picture of God’s will, and it is obscured and distorted because of our sin. It may awaken us to the existence of a Creator, but it cannot tell us who that Creator is or how we can know Him. Secondly, although the resulting system may include many good principles (I am struck, for example, by how many Confucian ideas are similar to Christian principles), if it does not include the relationship with God for which we were created it will always fail to solve our root problem. Ethical systems that begin with our hearts always focus only on our relationships with one another and with the world we inhabit – they neglect the third dimension of human life. Thirdly, these ethical systems are guides to what we ought to do but they contain no source of power to enable us to achieve the standard and no basis for restoration when we fail. Without the power of God Christians believe we are incapable of achieving the will of God and without reconciliation to God we remain alienated and lost in our own helplessness.

Some concept of 'natural law' is evident from human culture and modern science, and it is entirely predictable based on the Bible. The evidence leads us this far. We are forced to make a leap from this evidence and the 'leap' in this case is to whether this 'law' arises simply from natural processes that are part of our genetic make-up (for the naturalist this conclusion is inevitable) or from a law-giver who created us for a purpose (the theistic position). The question of the existence of a Creator is one we cannot afford to ignore. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher who was a convinced Christian, described the reasoning of a person who refuses to consider the possibility of the existence of God and an afterlife in which account must be given to Him in the following terms:[11]

As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I do. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts, but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step toward its discovery.

Pascal’s language may seem outdated, but surely his logic is faultless. Our decision about the “Why?” questions of human morality and existence will depend upon our belief or disbelief in a Creator. To settle the question of God’s existence we must venture outside the limitations of science into the realm of philosophy and religion. We would need to ask if there is further evidence of a Creator having revealed him-, her- or it-self to us.

Go to 6. Consistent Naturalism?


[1] Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta, p.67.
[2] An extensive discussion of Libet’s research is found online at: http://www.consciousentities.com/libet.htm, accessed 23.10.10.
[3] EEG, a reading of electrical activity in the brain.
[4] Soon, C.S. et al. 2008, 'Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain', Nature Neuroscience 11:543-545.
[5] Trevena, J. & Miller, J. 2010, 'Brain preparation before a voluntary action: evidence against unconscious movement initiation', Consciousness and Cognition 19[1]:447-456.
[6] Ruse, M. & Wilson, E.O. 1985, 'Evolution and Ethics', New Scientist 108:50-52 (17 October).
[7] New Scientist issue 2782, 16 October 2010.
[8] Utilitarianism is an ethical system within which decisions are deemed to be morally acceptable or unacceptable depending on their consequences for all feeling beings.
[9] For a list of versions of the 'Golden Rule' in different belief systems see the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Rule, accessed 2.11.10.
[10] Budziszewski, p.183.
[11] Blaise Pascal, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.67.

Go to 6. Consistent Naturalism?

© 2010 Paul B Coulter
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.