On natural factors in behavior, evil, reason, and faith

The CADRE has been having occasional internal discussions on the role of biology in our thoughts, behavior, emotions, and even spirituality. I think it’s safe to say I’m of the minority opinion, but it’s been an interesting conversation and I expect others might enjoy hearing the different sides of the conversation. I’m encouraging those in the CADRE who hold different views to also share those here on the blog in case anyone else would like to think through the different views with us.

I’ll start with my assumptions so you that you can see them for yourself. Then I’ll work my way through the usual questions that come up: emotions, perceptions, reason, irrationality, behavior, crime, punishment, responsibility, faith, and implications for Christian apologetics. The short version: admitting a strong view for biology does not lead to nearly so bleak an outcome as many people suppose. I hope any material here is helpful in its own right in considering things that are right (and wrong) with human reason and behavior, regardless of whether “biology only” is proved or disproved. In particular, I hope that people who engage in Christian apologetics will at least entertain some of the thoughts here about the problem of human irrationality as an obstacle to our apologetics efforts, ways to understand the problem of irrationality, and practical approaches to that problem.

My assumptions

My view – remember , the minority one – is that I don’t object to a fairly strong connection between biology and our emotions, perceptions, and reason. I am not here arguing that the “biology-only” views of reason and so forth are actually yet proven; only that this is the question on the table. I’m walking through the possibility, “What if it is so?” Theories of genetic predisposition to various behaviors (such as alcoholism) and electrical/chemical components of thoughts and emotions, on my view, don’t seem to call for automatic opposition from Christians, though before committing to a position we do need to wait for more research to come in so we can assess things more accurately. One of the early ventures into studying genetic/behavior links – atavism – is in retrospect a bit of a flop. But the point is to research carefully, not to write off the involvement of genes or other purely physical parts of us. We also do not want to assume more than is proven. Not every connection that someone proposes will stand the test of time and proof, or be as simple as seems at first glance.

Am I a Calvinist? No. A determinist? No, certainly not in the usual sense of thinking we’re prisoners of fate. On the other hand, I have a fairly high view of nature – the ability of “merely” physical things to be holy and wondrous. Anyone who has been overawed by the stars at night or seen a piece of land that awoke dreams of Eden may have some idea of what I’m talking about. Just because something is “physical” doesn’t make it “merely” anything, as if nature should be degraded by being itself. It would be a bit beyond the scope of this post to go into the nature of “meaning” and “holiness”. For present purposes it’s enough to mention that being “merely natural” on my view doesn’t preclude true meaning or true holiness. On a Christian view, God’s plan and God’s design permeate nature and are the basis on which nature exists; that’s no small start. I would not be bothered if the mind turned out to be this type of natural wonder.

Emotions: the example of love

When the debate moves from safe, distant topics like the stars to more immediate topics inside the human mind, some people become uncomfortable. Since people like to safeguard the topic of their rationality, I’ll start with an easier topic: emotions. Let’s say a man falls in love with a woman, or vice versa. On the one hand, there’s doubtless a role of hormones, a perception of “beauty” that often has an obvious connection to the object’s health and reproductive receptivity. When people connect with each other for no better reasons than these, the attraction is as short-lived as the reasons. Few people like to admit of a short, intense romance that they were merely riding a hormone-high that had little to do with their beloved’s character, but looking back, many people have to admit that it was so.

On the other hand, there are other factors in the beloved that may also attract us. We may be attracted by honesty, intelligence, kindness, a sense of humor, or a generous and forgiving approach to life. These attributes may have value in terms of raising children or raising the odds of a being an enduring life-long companion of good quality. These character traits may also be admired for their excellence, apart from their usefulness. If that’s the case about character traits, then we have established (without leaving the natural plane) that one person loves the other because the other person has real value. Is that such a horrible thing? The flood of warmth we feel considering the excellence of the other person is not to be despised for being only natural. If this view of attraction is true, wouldn’t it mean that certain people with strongly-developed good character traits would be widely valued by many people? That often proves to be the case.

Perception and an inch toward reason

Occasionally I’ve heard arguments that, if our thoughts are in any way brain-dependent, that they must be deterministic, and that rationality itself is in doubt. It probably doesn’t help matters that I openly say that people are not quite as rational as they usually suppose (more on that in a minute); here I’ll just say that I don’t believe that we’re completely irrational either. I’ll explain myself more fully as I go on. First, the assumption that brain-dependent equals deterministic is a bit over-simplified. For another thing, the question of whether brain-dependent is deterministic bypasses the more appropriate question: whether the thoughts are still valid and rational. Brain-dependent does not necessarily mean something randomly manufactured by unreliable means.

Let’s take a less controversial example, a simple perception such as the sense of sight, and consider that as a starting point. The sense of sight works as light passes into the eyes and is transformed until the perception is interpreted in our minds. Is that “deterministic”? In the sense that where we look determines what we see, maybe, but not in the conventional sense of “determinism”. I’d be far more concerned about times when where we look did not determine what we see – more concerned if there was not a clean correspondence between what our eyes look at and what our minds perceive. If we look at a keyboard, we want to perceive a keyboard with each character represented in our minds just as we see it. Call this “forced outcome” or “determinism” if you want, but I’d hardly want any “freedom” to look at a keyboard and see (for example) a rabbit instead of what is actually in front of me. To talk of misperceptions and bad eyesight at this point would just sidetrack us; the point is, the closer eyesight works to this purely natural model, the more likely we are to call it “accurate”.

First impressions on truth and reason

Reasoning is the process by which we try to build in our minds the best model to explain what we perceive around us. In order for these models in our mind to become increasingly accurate over time, the main thing required is for us to want them to become more accurate, in which case we will apply our reason and perception to that job. Truth is the extent to which the impression in our minds corresponds with reality. Just as we already saw that we may (on a natural view) legitimately value a loved one for their worth, we can also see (on a natural view) that we can legitimately value truth for its genuine worth as an accurate map of the world around us. So a purely natural approach to reason does not, from the start, require the results to be unreasonable.

First impressions on irrationality

There are problems with human rationality – but the problem is the extent to which things do not work “deterministically”, the extent to which people can “see” but not see, “hear” but not hear, and be blind to what is right in front of them. Peoples’ minds do not work with the reliability and accuracy that we should wish. Just as legitimate value in “love” does not prevent people from following hormonal lust, also in reason the legitimate value of “truth” does not prevent people from following power, self-flattery, advantageous position, or simple self-preservation. Truth, like love, may be the higher end, but it is not the only possible one. Not to say too much in advance and spoil the ending, but for apologetics, these problems with rationality can become a noticeable issue.

Determinism in behavior?

Biological determinism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Let’s start with an undisputed example of an inborn drive: the drive to eat and drink. Let’s start our example also with an animal that is not too bright: a mouse. Let’s say the mouse is thirsty, and there’s a bowl of water nearby. Call it “determinism” if you want, but the mouse is going to get a drink. To show the limits of determinism, change the picture slightly. Now imagine a cat next to the bowl of water. Not a lazy cat who is friendly towards mice like Garfield, but a hunting cat with teeth and claws at the ready. Is the thirsty mouse still going to get a drink? Not right now. What happened to biological determinism? Well, call it “determinism” again if you like but self-preservation is now keeping the mouse away from the water. The scales just tipped in the primitive cost-benefit analysis and the mouse may possibly die of thirst (if no other water can be found) in preference to being eaten. For all that someone might legitimately cry determinism, the mouse has yet to do anything irrational. The natural response is not so inflexible that it cannot respond appropriately to the situation at hand; neither have its responses been unreasonable.

Destructive actions, crime, punishment, and reform

Some people hesitate to look at the role of biological factors in behavior because they worry about implications in other areas of life. For instance, would an alcoholic still seek treatment, and can treatment hold out any hope, for a biological problem? Would a violent criminal still be punished, or be sent for corrective therapy, or be given hope of reform, for a biological problem? Does the person still have responsibility for his actions in any meaningful sense of the word? Legitimate questions, and legitimate also if someone should bring up again that “biology only” is not a proven thing at this point. It would not be legitimate at this point for me to argue, “we must face this because it is true”; we simply don’t know that yet. But the question is on the table, “what if this should be true?” and that is what I’m seeking to explore. The answer is not nearly so bleak as many people suppose.

Let’s go back for a moment to the example of the thirsty mouse and the cat guarding the water bowl. The mouse has the drive, but doesn’t act. Why not? The cat is a deterrent, obviously. In the case of an alcoholic, the drive is an unhealthy drive to excess drink. A deterrent might be feeling ashamed (whether the deterrent is strong enough is another question). In the case of a criminal, being caught by police or convicted in the courts could possibly be deterrents (I’ll leave the problems of our justice system out of this for a moment; the point is that these things theoretically could be deterrents). Besides “deterrents” – scaring the person away from their goal – there are other types of remedies. One is finding a safer outlet for the drive that’s causing the problem. Another is finding a way to lessen the drive in the first place. These two are more along the lines of “reform” and there are a number of different ways to go about them.

In this general view, deterrents and reform both work together to turn a person from a destructive action. From a standpoint of crime, it is a legitimate goal for society to make punishment into a deterrent. Far from saying that people are not rational enough to be punished, it may actually be the risk of punishment which makes someone re-evaluate how rational it is to go ahead with their crime. In our other example, alcoholism, one of the more popular reform movements (AA) centers around support groups that offer incentive to reform and also (in a friendly context) genuine accountability for whether self-control has won the day. In the case of alcoholics, many have suggested a hereditary component – and yet despite that, a certain number of people win free and show that the hereditary component did not quite amount to a deterministic doom.


Responsibility is, in the law, a gradual thing. Infants are not considered responsible for their actions. As children grow, up to a certain age they are not legally responsible for their actions; their parents are. Does the law make sense in not regarding children as responsible to the government? Yes; while we can debate when a person has reached adulthood, there is no doubt that a two-year-old cannot be legally responsible for his own behavior. He doesn’t have the understanding. As many a parent can tell you, the way to teach a child responsibility is to remind the child of how they are expected to act and the reasons for self-control, and to hold the child responsible until the responsibility begins to sink in. As the child develops and the concepts become more familiar, over time parental control gives way to self-control.


Many Christian apologists seek to convince atheists of the existence of God by means of reason. “Faith and reason” is again a topic too large cover thoroughly in this space, but still I’ll mention a few things.

It is telling that one of the most common skeptical arguments presented for atheism is the argument from evil. Why is this so telling? Because the argument from evil is not actually an argument against the existence of God in the first place. The argument from evil does not seek to prove that God does not exist, just that a good God does not exist, or (to say it the other way around) that God is not good. The argument from evil cannot get to the place where atheism is actually rational. It is more of an argument that God is, after all, like the cat waiting to devour the mouse. The implication is that even if God is real, turning away is still rational as an act of self-preservation. That last bit is usually not said out loud. For one, Christians maintain the goodness of God, and will not sell that out for the sake of winning an argument about God’s existence. And again, atheists may be content to argue against the Christian concept of God, though that in itself is not quite enough to logically sustain full-blown atheism. There are religions that teach unblushingly that God created and wills evil, and it is telling that those who use the argument from evil do not seek out such a religion if they should actually think it is more in keeping with the truth. For the record, I believe that God is good all the time; I’ve commented on the problem of evil before on this blog and may again, but not in this post; I’m too wordy already. But for the argument from evil, most people who cease to believe in the goodness of God seem to eventually cease to believe in God at all, and usually sooner rather than later. They may for awhile rail against some “evil monster of a God”, but in the end they are like the mouse who goes looking for another way to get water, leaving behind even the thought of the monster they could not face.

I’ve mentioned a few times by now that “determinism” seems to me to be a needlessly paranoid and somewhat inaccurate way of looking at “things working according to their natures”. If nature is reasonably healthy, it amounts to “things working like they should”. The problem is when nature is not reasonably healthy. What you get is still not the classic “fate” of determinism, but is not too distant kin to the Christian teachings of original sin, an inborn predisposition to turn away from God and towards harm of self and others. What of our power of reason in cases like this? Reason is an excellent faculty but we’ve already noticed in passing that reason sets itself after the truth only if the person is seeking the truth. Otherwise, reason is a passenger making up rationalizations for wherever the driver happens to be going. Then “reason” tells you all the reasons why the thing you want is right. It plays the yes-man to the will. If the person is seeking self-flattery, or victory and power, or self-preservation, reason will set itself to work there too.

Some might wonder if it is really wise to speak quite that plainly about the problems that can taint even such a good thing as reason. I’m not attacking reason itself, but pointing out the human ability to harness reason to unreasonable ends. My first purpose in doing this is that I believe it to be accurate. The reason I choose to mention it here, on a Christian apologetics blog, is because of how often apologetic conversations go astray, making mistaken assumptions about whether the other person’s reason is pursuing truth, or whether the other person’s reason is pursuing self-preservation and fleeing from God as if he is a threat. Those aren’t the only possibilities of course, but they’re common enough and I’ll stick with those for today for the sake of whatever brevity I can still salvage. Both truth-seeking and self-preservation are rational in their own ways, though only one has truth as the ultimate goal. But if we have reason to believe that the person considers God as a threat – that the opposition to God is not born of intellectual objections to the truth but of self-preservation in view of approaching the Holy and Almighty, we will handle the conversation differently. If a person views God as a threat and has decided to go the other direction, that person's reason will work to build reasons why going the other direction must be right. In this case, our conversation should focus on the trustworthiness of God and goodness of God, not his mere existence. Because in this case, the person doesn't actually doubt God's existence – in this case, their belief in his existence is exactly what’s causing them to move away from him.

Christian Apologetics

Having left a dozen unfinished asides in this post, I’ll leave one more: when we have reason to believe that someone’s atheism is founded on self-preservation, a flight from a God considered to be a threat, the answer is the cross of Christ. That is where we see plainly: God would rather die than condemn us. We don’t see God plainly anywhere but in Christ. How do we know that God doesn’t make people sick just to be mean? Because we see God in Christ healing the sick. How do we know God actually cares about human lives and deaths? Because we see Jesus raising the dead. How do we know God is not just searching for an excuse to zap sinners? Because we see Jesus reaching out in forgiveness to people who had really messed up their own lives and other peoples’ lives. He didn’t make them miserable, he healed them and forgave them. He didn’t toy with them, he was humble and gentle with those who acknowledged that they needed help. He didn’t receive them on probationary status, he received them as brothers and sisters. When people found out Jesus could heal the sick, the crowds were big. And when people found out Jesus could feed the hungry, the crowds were big. But when people found out Jesus could forgive, with all the authority of God (“that’s my final answer: you’re forgiven”) I expect the crowds were bigger still. Far from being out to destroy us, Jesus laid down his life for us. Far from abandoning us to the horrors of life, Christ took them upon hiimself. Few people ever meet such a humiliating, painful, despised, horrifying death as Jesus did. He is not working to harm us. He is working to redeem us.

Sometimes people accuse this approach of being mere emotionalism, but it is not: it is a direct response to the question of whether God is a threat, whether the rational direction is away from him or towards him. This type of reason is geared not towards intellectual curiosity, but towards the profoundly rational wish for self-preservation and the wholly natural thought to flee whatever is seen as a threat. (In the language of some theologians, that’s “the natural man’s enmity towards God being overcome by the cross of Christ.”)


D. P. said…
For what it's worth, I am also not terribly concerned with finding strong connections between biology and emotions, perceptions, and reason. It seems to be a very Hebraic concept: our nephesh ("soul") is not some invisible, intangible part of us--it is us. That doesn't absolve us of moral responsibilities, it just puts those responsibilities in a larger context.

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