In a most interesting review of Chris Frith new book Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World, on sp!ked-online.com Stuart Derbyshire a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, England, and director of pain research at the Birmingham University Imaging Centre offers us an overview of how contemporary neuroscientist are thinking about the relationship between the brain and the mind, or, if you prefer, the relationship between human brain structure and free will.
Derbyshire makes a number of interesting points in his review. Chief among them is his criticism of neuroscientists to think of free will as epiphenomenal, or “the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.”
I think the most salient for any consideration of spirituality and spiritual formation is his observation of the necessary, and indeed, constitutive, relationship between human limitations and human freedom. In effect he argues, as the title of this post puts it, it is our limits, those things that constrains us, that make freedom possible.
Derbyshire though says it better than I do. He writes:
The negotiation of constraint and indeterminacy is not substantive; it cannot be located in parts of the brain, boiled down and recorded on a graph. That negotiation is an active, lived process and free will is possible because of the uniquely human ability to interrogate nature. Early human mentality would have resided in the ability to put oneself into a relationship with the environment so as to call out specific stimuli such as food or warmth. Importantly, this is no longer a relationship that is dictated by anatomy or evolutionary instinct, but rather is one that is, minimally at first, breaking free from the pre-ordained possibilities provided by evolutionary history. This new relationship to the character of things calls upon a sentience that is inside the organism, but the entire process is not a purely mental product that can be located in the brain. This early mentality is that relationship of the organism to stimuli in the environment that are set free by exploration to address specific biological needs. Within that relationship, constrained by circumstance, constrained by the biological imperatives of survival and reproduction, and constrained by historical development, freedom and agency begin. This is quite different from the engagement with stimuli driven by programmed behaviours and fully constrained by anatomical limitations. For early humans, there is a transformation from stimulus-response behaviour to inquiry.
The fundamental mistake that . . . – and this is a common error – is to believe that agency or free will are products only of the human brain. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, and chasing agency into the brain will only yield disappointment or, in this case, a sense that agency is illusory. If agency is not merely a product of ordinary brains, then it follows that abnormal brains might not be the whole or only answer when there are psychiatric problems and delusions of agency such as in schizophrenia.
While a provocative argument to contemporary men and women–for whom the adolescent quest for freedom from all limitations and a consequent unlimited mode self expression is the ideal–this is a not a new thought for classical forms of spirituality. Rather, Derbyshire offers an anthropological observation that is unmistakably compatible with the biblical view of the human:
Jesus said to His disciples,
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8. 34-36)
St Paul makes a similar point, but (since he is Paul after all) more pointedly:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rm 12.15-23).
One of the great values for our spiritual life spiritual life of asceticism is the very practical ways in which asceticism, and by this I especially mean the whole range of fasting and abstinence practices as well as the Christian tradition emphasis on sexual purity, is that it introduces us to our limits.
While there are times when asceticism brings about an encounter with our limits in a dramatic or forceful way (for example the classical practice of abstaining from food and drink from midnight until after the reception of Holy Communion), asceticism’s real value is found in its long term practice. Slowly, naturally, week in and week out, month after month, and over the course of years, asceticism traces out my physical and psychological limits.
For example, through my commitment to keeping the various fasts, I learn not only how little food, drink and sleep I need, but also how much. Almsgiving and tithing teaches me not only to give gladly, but wisely, teaching me to take into account not only the needs of others, but also my own. And in obedience, I learn (almost always painfully) how attached not only I am to my own will, but curiously enough, to the will of other human beings who approval I crave or whose disapproval I fear. In all of this I learn that, whatever might be the case in the moment, ultimately my obedience is owned not to any human being but to God and God alone.
In asceticism, I learn that the encounter of my limitations is not negative, not so much a failure, but an invitation to an even greater share in God’s nature and a further realization of my own freedom in Christ. St Gregory Nyssa, of whom I am increasing enamored, expresses the point better than I, so allow me to allow him the last word is summary:
Thus though the new grace we may obtain is greater than what we had before, it does not put a limit on our final goal; rather, for those who are rising in perfection, the limit of the good that is attained becomes the beginning of the discovery of higher goods. Thus they never stop rising, moving from one new beginning to the next, and the beginning of ever greater graces is never limited of itself For the desire of those who thus rise never rests in what they can already understand; but by an ever greater and greater desire, the soul keeps rising constantly to another that lies ahead, and thus it makes its way through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.