Are We Free?
Article by Jason Runyan (2014)
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What is the Science?

Do we have free will? Or are we determined to act according to how the neurons fire in our brains? Ever since the famous Libet Experiment in the 1980s, neuroscientists have struggled to reconcile our perception of free will with research that suggests physical processes in our brains determine our actions. Some neuroscientists reject free will and attribute all of our actions to physical processes in our brain. Others believe that while our brain determines the options, we still have free will to reject actions we do not desire to take. Neuropsychologist Jason Runyan rejects these options and points to research on the many different ways a brain can react in different situations. He points out that when we talk or listen to certain people, the left side of the brain might be predominant; while when we talk or listen to different people, the other side might be predominant. Additionally, when facing the same situation multiple times, our brain pattern changes, looking a little different each time. In conclusion, Runyan asserts that we cannot be certain how a person’s brain is going to react, suggesting that there is more to our actions that simply physical processes.

“In everyday life, do we actually do and accomplish what we typically think we do? Do we think about what we do and accomplish in an accurate way? Are we the kinds of agents we think we are?” – Jason Runyan

What is the Theology?

The free will vs. determinism conversation has been going on in Christianity for centuries. Some streams in Christianity emphasize the sovereignty of God, believing that God controls everything that happens in the universe. Others emphasize human freedom, believing that God largely stands back and observes without interfering in humanity’s freedom. Most fall somewhere in the middle, affirming the sovereignty of God while also taking into account human freedom. This is wrapped up in our understanding of who God is, how God works in the world, and what it means to be made in the image of God. Runyon asserts that our religious convictions and personal experiences should be brought into conversation with scientific research before we draw conclusions about whether or not we have free will.

What to Consider

  • In your tradition, how is the sovereignty of God understood? How does the sovereignty of God interact with human freedom?
  • What does it mean to be morally culpable if physical processes in our brain contribute to our actions? What about if these processes determine our actions?
  • How does this article affect your understanding of sanctification? What role might processes in the brain play in one’s sanctification?

How to go Deeper

  • Preach a thematic series on the theological beliefs of your tradition. Discuss such doctrines as the sovereignty of God, divine action, human depravity, and sanctification. Use this article throughout the series as a conversation partner with these historic doctrines.
  • Share this research about the brain with the congregation. Put it into conversation with Genesis 2-3 and the doctrine of original sin.
  • Gather a group that is interested in ministering to addicts. Read an article such as this one on how the brain contributes to and is changed by addiction and put it into conversation with your theology. Consider taking a field trip to a local recovery center to discuss how you can minister to addicts in your context.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

Aeon – “The Free-Will Scale”

 Closer to Truth – “Big Questions in Free Will

Aeon – “Dishonesty Gets Easier on the Brain the More You Do It

BioLogos – “Genes, Determinsm, and God

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

2 Comments

  1. matt@ncstudycenter.org August 14, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Very interesting article. I wonder if the brain studies could be viewed as descriptive (this is what happens in the brain when free will is operative in decision-making), rather than prescriptive (this naturalistic brain process determines how one will choose)? If so, that would seem to change the terms of the debate

  2. matt@ncstudycenter.org August 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Cool to see how this debate in modern science pretty directly correlates to debates from church history!

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