Looking at Determinism with Amnesia and Christianity

On Saturday, I heard a segment on National Public Radio in which a mother and her daughter are interviewed about the mother’s sudden incident with transient global amnesia. You can listen to it online (listen from 6:27 to 17:18) if you are interested. Nothing like it had ever happened to her before, but one day she just simply forgot what month it was, forgot what her boyfriend’s car looked like, etc, and her daughter called the paramedics to take her to the hospital.

In the hospital, the daughter has a conversation with her mom, and it would seem like every 90 seconds the mother’s mind would reset. They would have the same conversation over and over for hours. “Do you know what day it is?” “No.” “Tuesday.” “What’s the date?” “August 24th.” “My birthday already passed?” “Yes.” “Darn.” I found their YouTube video, and you can watch it for yourself.

The mother’s behavior from one cycle to another was almost exactly the same. In the segment, an expert on amnesia said that everybody in these states becomes a broken record, and the brain essentially becomes a machine. In other words, if the sensory input into the brain was the same, the reactionary output is almost always the same. “It’s almost as if the patients have no free will,” he said.

No free will?

Do we have free will? In order to measure this scientifically, we need to have controlled factors and repeated experiments. And it’s harder to get better controlled factors and repeated experiments as far as humans go than to have a patient with transient global amnesia. You can have somebody that “resets” every so often, hold controlled factors, and see if there is a direct correlation between input and output. If there is a direct correlation between input and output, then one can theorize that humans do not actually have free will.

Of course, there are all sorts of ethical issues that may come with such an experiment. But it does make me wonder, “Is what is true of the amnesia patient true of all human beings?”

I took a class called Religion and Reason when I was at Cornell, and I learned about a philosophical stance called determinism. The basic idea is that the whole universe is essentially a huge machine, and all of history is just a large cause-and-effect chain. In other words, from the beginning of the universe, everything about this very moment’s exact scenario, from the human population of the earth to the depth of the ocean, was predetermined. From the start, there could not be any other scenario. Why? Because if the laws of physics and chemistry apply equally to everything, and if these laws are always the same, then every little bit of nature can only behave one way. This universe is just a bunch of molecules that succumbs itself to kinetic theory.

Take a billiard table. If you have ten balls on the table, in a seemingly random formation, and if you hit a ball so that it hits other balls, you will end up with a different formation. But if you reset everything to the original formation, and if you hit that same ball with the same stick, at the same angle, with the same force, etc, you will end up with that same second formation. If you keep all the factors the same, there will only be one outcome. Determinism says that what is true of the billiard table is true of the whole universe.

I bring that up because if you take determinism to its logical completion, humans have no free will. What is true of the billiard table is true of the human being. To make things personal, I live in Baltimore, and I like basketball. It might seem like I simply chose to move to Baltimore a year ago, and it might seem like I chose to like basketball. And in one sense, I did. But in another sense, both of those facts were already predetermined even before I was born.

Even before my parents immigrated from China, it was already determined that in 2014 I was going to live in Baltimore, and I was going to like basketball. Why? Because all I am can be reduced to nature and nurture. What is my DNA? And what is my environment? If there was another individual who had my exact DNA and experienced everything that I ever experienced to the slightest detail, we would be the same person. And where did my DNA and environment come from? Essentially, you can trace every little thing along this huge cause-and-effect chain to the very beginning of time. And just because humans are complex organisms does not mean that they have become exceptions to the laws of cause and effect.

Anyway, when I first learned about determinism, there was a part of me that was a bit uncomfortable with the idea. There’s a sense of hopelessness and futility. Even a sense of slavery. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it simply made sense, at least intellectually. Every argument I seemed to have against it was an emotional one. And now I believe that if there was no supernatural being, determinism can only be true.

But that’s the key. If there was a supernatural being, that means that the laws of nature can, in theory, be broken, or at the very least, altered, manipulated, or withheld. If anybody can break the cause-and-effect chain, God can.

Let’s look at the Bible. On one hand, you have Paul saying in Acts 17:26, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Paul claims that God determined for us when (“periods”) and where (“boundaries”) our lives were to happen. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:3-6, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” Here Paul claims that our spiritual blessings, our adoption as sons, or, in other words, our salvation, was a product of God’s will, and the product was determined even before the creation of the world. The Christian can’t help but notice the similarities between determinism and predestination. It all seems pretty deterministic to me.

On the other hand, there is a lot of language in the Bible that seems to imply that a fundamental shift has taken place firstly through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and secondly through the life of the normal Christian. That the Word, the Creator of all things, would become flesh and dwell among His creation, (John 1:1-14); that death, the ultimate end of all living things, could now be reversed (1 Corinthians 15:55); that though sin should cause death, eternal life is given instead (Romans 6:23); that we as Christians are described as being “born again” (John 3:3-8) and being “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17), all signify that God’s divine intervention somehow causes things to happen unnaturally. What “ought to be” is somehow superseded by God’s superimposing will.

Perhaps the greatest “scandal” of all is what happened on the cross. Here, the law of cause and effect could not prevail. Jesus, who had no sin, bore the consequences of sin. And humanity, dead with sin, was given the consequences of holiness.

We might say that the natural cause-and-effect chain can at times be broken by a supernatural cause-and-effect chain, and though that supernatural chain might have been predetermined by God, it is so unnatural to us that it is at times foreign and unfamiliar to us. And only in this amazement of that unique unfamiliarity, we reserve the use of words like “glory” or “holiness.”

The atheistic understanding of determinism can only lead to hopelessness and slavery. At best, we are stuck in a mindless machine that has no purpose or direction. At worst, according to the implications of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, our world does have direction. It is slowly deteriorating into chaos and madness.

But the Christian understanding of determinism is different altogether. Though God has already planned the universe out, it is not a broken record. It is not a boring, predictable path. God’s plans are filled with wonder and excitement, with suspense and triumph. It is a written story that has a glorious ending, but at the same time it is still being written. In this story, life can penetrate hearts of stone, and what is old can transform into what is new. In this story, what is chaotic is being made serene. What is broken is being made whole. What is dead is being made alive.


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