Genes, Determinism and God is foremost a scientific work that deals primarily with empirical data, providing a wealth of scientific information. Therefore it is often technical, but not so technical that an interested scientific layperson cannot follow along. The book also interacts with philosophy, ethics, and theology. My review focuses on that interdisciplinary interaction. It is important to note that such a focus can produce two distortions. For the most part this review leaves a significant portion of the book—the scientific portion—unaddressed. This in turn can result in our disagreements getting a disproportionate amount of space. With those two caveats in mind, I give my appreciation and critique.
Noting My Appreciation
Cambridge University Press, 2017
There is so much to appreciate in this book. I will mention a few of the more salient items. First, Alexander demonstrates that the current state of genetic and neurological findings does not support a reductionistic understanding of the human person. Methodically, he shows that we are not prisoners of our genes, our character traits are not fixed and immutable, nor are we incapable of change or improvement. We are not simply automatons—robots stuck with holding the bag of responsibility. In chapters devoted to hot-button issues such as sexual orientation and legal accountability, he demonstrates that while our genes indeed powerfully impact us, our choices and lifestyle habits in turn profoundly affect gene expression. This fits well with the biblical teaching that spiritual formation is a complex two-way street of character and choices.
Second, Alexander correctly begins his discussion of the biblical meaning of the image of God by situating the concept within the context of the ancient Near Eastern milieu in which Genesis was written. The Genesis account of creation is a subversive document. In the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures of the day, only kings or perhaps priests were considered to be image bearers of the divine. Genesis overthrows such elitism by making the egalitarian claim that all humanity possesses the divine image. Using motifs that were common for that era, Gen 1–2 presents creation as a cosmic temple in which man and woman are placed in the holy place, a garden, to manifest God’s image, serve as priests, and encounter God on behalf of the created order. Alexander rightly starts his exploration of the imago Dei with these motifs in mind.
Third, Alexander clearly shows that, in the field of ethics, the consequences of abandoning the imago Dei have been devastating. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, infanticide was advocated and practiced by citizens across the spectrum. Plato and Aristotle argued for infanticide as a matter of course. Such cavalier attitudes towards innocent human life changed as the Roman Empire became Christian and all humans were understood to be in God’s image. Alexander demonstrates that the current advocacy of infanticide by ethicists such as Peter Singer is due in no small part to Western culture ceasing to view humans as image bearers of the divine.
Determinism and Free Will
Alexander acknowledges that some of the theological points he advocates could “trigger some indigestion.” I’m not sure how triggered I am, but I do have my disagreements. When the book moves from examining the biological evidences to matters that are more philosophical and theological, the discussion seems rushed and underdeveloped. Probably this is to be expected. Alexander is a microbiologist, and he is writing from his area of expertise. One of his primary purposes for writing this the book is to present the latest findings of science in a way that is accessible to non-scientists, so the work primarily focuses on science.One of his primary purposes for writing this the book is to present the latest findings of science in a way that is accessible to non-scientists. And he certainly displays a more-than-working familiarity with biblical, philosophical, and theological conversations about the mind-brain problem. Still, there are areas where I wish he either devoted a few more pages or presented positions in a more nuanced fashion. And on a few matters I simply disagree. I briefly mention three.
First, Alexander’s definitions of determinism and free will could use further refinement. At the beginning of the book, he defines determinism as “given our particular genomes our lives are not really up to us and are constrained to follow one particular future.” He then defines free will as “a Darwinian trait which all adult humans in good health display . . . [that] refers to the universal feeling of up-to-usness that all humans experience during the process of making a decision.” He is quick to admit that these are not the typical definitions given by philosophers and that he intends for them to serve as “place-holders” until he is able to give a fuller definition later in the book. However, he only discusses these concepts in relationship to the physical world. Again, this is a book about science, and I don’t want to complain about what the book is not. Still, Alexander gives the impression that the nature vs. nurture debate is the center of gravity for discussions about determinism and free will. From a philosophical/theological perspective, the topic is much larger and the issue of biological determinism is just one of a number of orbiting issues.
A Purely Functional Image?
Second, Alexander accepts a purely functional or representative understanding of the image of God. The creation account in Genesis declares that we are created in the imago Dei, but it does not spell out what the term means. Through the years, theologians have generally advocated three interpretations: the substantive view, the relational view, and the functional view.Through the years, theologians have generally advocated three interpretations: the substantive view, the relational view, and the functional view. The terms are self-explanatory. Proponents of substantive view hold that the image of God refers to something about the substance or essence of the human person. The relational view refers to the unique relationship that humans have with God, while the functional view refers to the function or role that God has assigned to humans.
Though the substantive view has been the predominant position throughout church history, lately a significant number of Old Testament scholars have argued for the functional interpretation. They argue that the terms “likeness” and “image” were used in the ancient Near Eastern cultures to refer to the king as the representative of God, and to the statues of the king placed strategically throughout the realm.
It is true that the ancient cultures did present the king as the image of their respective god in the representational sense. However, they did not understand the king merely in that sense. They often also claimed that the king descended from or was begotten by that deity and therefore in some way ontologically shared the deity’s essence. This points to something more than function. He was able to fulfill his role because of his unique identity.
When the question is considered in the light of the entire biblical canon, the case for the substantive view seems even stronger. The New Testament presents the imago Dei as a Christological concept. Jesus is the true and full manifestation of the divine image, and not simply in a functional sense. Modeling, representing, and participating are possible only because of an ontological reality. Through our union with Christ, we are experiencing the restoration of the divine image and are, in some way, becoming partakers of the divine nature. I admit that proponents of the substantive view have been hard pressed to identify what exactly about the human essence manifests the imago Dei, but I believe it refers to some spiritual quality that a human being possesses.
What of Souls?
Which brings us to the third and most significant area of disagreement. Alexander argues for monism, a view which understands the human person entirely in physical terms. In other words, he contends that we are only physical beings and that we do not possess a spiritual component typically called the soul.
By contrast, I hold to dualism. A dualist views the human person as being composed of both material and immaterial substances. The physical body makes up the material aspect while the soul (or spirit) is the immaterial aspect.There are a variety of dualist theories that are intended to address a number of persistent questions, such as how the soul originates, and how the soul interacts with the body. Dualism has been the predominant view throughout church history. There are a variety of dualist theories that are intended to address a number of persistent questions, such as how the soul originates, and how the soul interacts with the body. These nagging problems have led many to dismiss dualism as untenable.
Alexander calls his position “developmental dual-aspect monistic emergentism,” or DAME for short. He understands consciousness to be an emergent property that arises from the brain but cannot be explained merely by the brain. Therefore his position is also often called non-reductive physicalism. Alexander argues that DAME is congruent with the resurrection of the body, which is a biblical notion, but not with the soul surviving death, which he contends is an extra-biblical concept.
Emergence is one of the more interesting concepts recently coming to the fore in the philosophy of science. It is the recognition that sometimes in physical systems the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At times, as systems increase in complexity, new and surprising traits, properties, or qualities emerge. These phenomena could not have been predicted by simply examining the constituent parts that make up the system. This seems to fly in the face of the reductionist approach that scientists have employed so successfully.
There appears to be weak and strong versions of emergence theory. Examples of weak emergence would be the crystalline structures that some chemical compounds form when undergoing change in temperature or pressure. Snowflakes exhibit remarkable patterns as they freeze. There is little debate about weak emergence. Strong emergence is much more controversial. Its proponents contend that certain physical systems can give rise to new physical laws and new entities. Unlike weak emergent phenomena, strong emergent events could not have been predicted or explained by the physical system on which it supervenes. In this sense it is irreducible. Non-reductive physicalists believe that the mind arising from the brain is an exemplar of strong emergence.
For the sake of argument, suppose that Alexander is correct in holding that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon in the strong sense. If the mind does not possess physical qualities such as liquidity, temperature, pressure, electrical charge, or other similar properties, is it not better to view the mind as consisting of a substance different from the brain?Alexander is correct when he argues that the Bible emphasizes the resurrection much more than it does the intermediate state. If this emergent mind truly is irreducible, that is, it cannot be explained in terms of the physical brain, then would not this be better understood as emergent dualism? In fact, emergent dualism is exactly the position advocated by some philosophers such as William Hasker. There does not appear to be any scientific evidence that demonstrates dualism must be false. Indeed, many Christian philosophers argue that science cannot prove or disprove dualism either way.
In ancient times, the debate about whether or not the soul was immaterial and immortal was quite robust. Socrates and Plato argued for dualism. Aristotle and the Stoics were monists. This argument can also be found in the Bible. The Pharisees and the Sadducees strongly divided over the immortality of the soul and life after death. Notably, the Sadducees were the ones more strongly influenced by Hellenistic thought, yet they were more dismissive of dualism. On this issue, the New Testament seems to side with dualism.
Alexander is correct when he argues that the Bible emphasizes the resurrection much more than it does the intermediate state. This should not be surprising since the intermediate state is, by definition, temporary. However, the Bible does seem to teach that the immaterial aspect of a person continues after he or she experiences physical death. Indeed, the issue of the continuing self is significant. If I cease to exist at physical death and I am then reconstructed at the Eschaton, is that reconstituted being really me? I have the nagging feeling that in such a scenario I was being replaced with a clone.
At this point, we are all working from very powerful intuitions. Admittedly, these intuitions could be wrong. Indeed, some of the various philosophers of mind writing on this subject have professed such differing intuitions that they appear to be mutually exclusive. Therefore at least some of them (perhaps all) must be wrong. As Christians, we should acknowledge how our basic intuitions impact our thinking, and then endeavor to submit our thinking to the authority of Scripture. This is a difficult process, because discerning what the Bible authoritatively teaches is itself an interpretative process. Still, after conceding all these caveats, I believe the biblical evidence for the immateriality of the soul to be compelling.
Even though I disagree with some of the theological positions taken by the author, I appreciate and affirm the book’s overall thesis. This is an interdisciplinary topic, involving biblical studies, theological anthropology, and philosophy of mind, just to name some. Alexander displays an admirable proficiency with disciplines outside his area of scientific expertise. Our goal as evangelicals is to engage with these explorations in submission to the authority of Scripture, confident in its sufficiency. This principle is easier to affirm than it is to practice. Alexander is an accomplished scientist, so rightfully this is the area in which he makes the most helpful contribution. I applaud his effort.