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Theologians love to debate issues of free will, human agency and sin. Neurobiology has much to add to the conversation. Consider this case study.
In 2003, neurologist from the Virginia Health System reported on a forty-year- old male schoolteacher who, throughout the year 2000, collected pornographic magazines and increasingly frequented pornographic web sites emphasizing images of children and adolescents. He also solicited prostitution at “massage parlors.” He later noted that he regarded these activities as unacceptable, and that he had gone to great lengths to conceal them, but found that he was unable to stop himself from acting repeatedly on his sexual impulses. “The pleasure principle overrode” his urge restraint, he explained.
When his stepdaughter reported his subtle advances toward her to his wife, his wife discovered his growing preoccupation with child pornography and called the police. He was legally removed from the home, diagnosed as a pedophile, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced either to an in-patient rehabilitation program for sexual addiction or to prison. Despite his strong desire to avoid jail, he was unable to restrain himself from soliciting sexual favors from women at the rehabilitation center, both staff and other clients, with the result that he was to be imprisoned.
On the eve of his sentencing, complaining of a headache, he went to the emergency room of a local hospital; admitting to suicidal ideation and a fear that he would rape his landlady, he was admitted for neurological observation. The medical staff reported that, during examination, he solicited female members of the neurological team for sexual favors. A magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan found an egg-sized tumor displacing the right orbitofrontal lobe, an area of the brain commonly implicated in moral-knowledge acquisition and social integration. Upon removal of the tumor, his sexually lewd behavior receded to the point that he was believed no longer to pose a threat to his stepdaughter and he returned home. Within a year, he developed a persistent headache and began collecting pornographic materials. Magnetic resonance imaging disclosed tumor regrowth, resulting in further surgery to remove the regrowth, after which his symptoms subsided. *
Was this school teacher responsible for his actions? Was he capable of free will? However philosophers parse the term “free will”, it seems clear enough that, in this case, the capacity to choose was lacking. As the attending neurologists Burns and Swerdlow comment, that his symptoms resolved with the tumor resection, twice, established a causal relationship from this man’s tumor to his sociopathic behavior. What is more, the narrative of his medical and behavioral history demonstrated that his sociopathy was the product of his loss of impulse control rather then a loss of moral knowledge or moral compass.
From Joel B. Green’s Bible, Soul, and Human Life:The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Baker Academic:2008):73-74.
While we don’t want to claim that all immoral or illegal behavior is “nothing but” biology, neither can we claim that our decisions are unaffected by biology. Green’s example is unique but it does raise interesting questions about free will and personal responsibility. New information about the way our brains work may require us to think in more complex and nuanced ways about sin, free will, consciousness and what it means to be human.
How do we help each other think about these issues in ways that take both science and the Christian tradition seriously? What might we lose and what might we gain from bringing neurobiology into theological conversations?