Are we nothing more than a bag of chemicals?
Published: 29 July 2010 (GMT+10)
In a paper published recently by the National Academy of Sciences, Anthony Cashmore1 unequivocally asserts that we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals. Consciousness and freewill, he claims, are no more than illusions: “The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”2
Of course, there is nothing new about this view, as Cashmore points out. Charles Darwin wrote, “The general delusion about free will is obvious… one deserves no credit for anything … nor ought one to blame others [for doing wrong].”3 Thomas Huxley agreed, and argued that we are no more than “conscious automata.”4 Similarly, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, opined, “The feeling of freewill is an illusion.”5 Referring to the popular belief in freewill, the evolutionary psychologist, Susan Blackmore wrote, “I think nature has played this enormous joke on us.”6
Such views are the inevitable consequence of the acceptance of materialism—the belief that nothing exists except matter. If this is true, then there is no place for any explanation of people and the ‘choices’ they make other than chemistry—the interactions of genes and the environment, and the random behaviour of matter. Consequently, Cashmore argues, the concept of human responsibility is also invalid. The evolution process, he claims, gave rise only to the illusion of responsibility. Indeed, he maintains, “[n]either religious beliefs, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world.” William Provine7 speaks in a similar vein: “There is no way that the evolutionary process … can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.”8 So is evolution compatible with religion and free will? Daniel Dennett9 extolled Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’ as a ‘universal acid’, dissolving traditional ideas about both religion and morality10—see this short review.
So sure is he of this view that Cashmore even argues that the judicial system should take these ‘facts’ into account. The courts, he believes, wrongly assume a person’s capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and more ‘utilitarian’ criteria should be used in determining society’s responses to criminal acts. The objective of the judicial system, then, would be no more than: a) to protect society; b) to protect the offending individuals from society; c) to provide such individuals with appropriate psychiatric help; d) to act as a deterrent; and e) to alleviate the pain of the victim.
Such views, however, reflect thinking which is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Bible. They deny any sense of the appropriateness of retribution and are a wholesale rejection of the concepts of sin and righteousness. According to the book of Genesis, man’s nature is very different from the rest of the biological world. Only when God breathed into Adam the breath of life did he become a living being (Gen. 2:7). In contrast to all other life, he had been made in God’s image, and could choose to live in a way that was pleasing to God. He was held responsible for his actions, and was judged when he did wrong, suffering and dying because of his sin. According to the Bible, wrong-doing is a most serious matter and cannot go unpunished. “Without the shedding of blood,” explains the writer to the Hebrews, “there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Cashmore’s view is also a total denial of Christ’s teaching that we may be united to Him in His death and resurrection and thus be freed from sin, and empowered to live a new, godly life (Rom. 6). If our behaviour is determined simply by our genes and the environment, then we cannot change, and Christ’s work on the cross has no value. The Christian concept of repentance, so central to Christ’s preaching, is made null and void, as is any notion of sanctification by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
In their publication, Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science (see here for a book-length critique), the National Academy of Sciences expresses the view that “accepting evolution as an accurate description of the history of life on earth does not mean rejecting religion… Religious and scientific ways of knowing have played, and will continue to play, significant roles in human history.”11 Ostensibly, then, in their attempts to woo people into accepting their evolutionary beliefs, they are claiming not to be anti-Christian. However, in publishing Cashmore’s paper they have struck at the heart of Christianity and have made plain the incompatibility of Christian and evolutionary beliefs. The National Academy of Sciences, then, has revealed itself, not as a neutral organisation merely seeking to promote science as it claims, but yet another secular organisation whose aim is to undermine the Christian faith. As we’ve often demonstrated before, e.g. here, there’s really no such thing as neutrality.
- Antony Cashmore is Robert I. Williams Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania. Return to text.
- Cashmore, A., The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(10):4499-4504, 2010; http://www.pnas.org/content/107/10/4499.full.pdf html. Return to text.
- Darwin, C., Old and USELESS Notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points written about the year 1837 & earlier, p. 26, 27; http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1582&viewtype=text&pageseq=124. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 4503. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 4500. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 4502. Return to text.
- William B. Provine is a biologist and is the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University. Return to text.
- Johnson, P., Darwin on Trial, 2nd ed., Illinois, USA, 1993, p. 127. Return to text.
- Daniel Dennett is a philosopher of science and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Return to text.
- Cited by Phillips, M., The World Turned Upside Down, Encounter Books, London, 2010, p. 308. Return to text.
- National Academy of Sciences, Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1998, pp. viii, 58. Return to text.