You, your neurons, and free will: Concerns about reductionism and the popularization of cognitive science

Along with a longstanding Adventist commitment to the development of the whole person, as well as to the development of character through effortful practice, the Adventist position on human nature has much to offer cognitive science and the public at large, especially given the current state of popular cognitive science.

Imagine yourself lying on your back in a narrow tube. Your head is comfortably restrained, your ears plugged against the incessant banging of the machinery surrounding you. You are in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, and your brain is being scanned. Your task is to lie quietly and watch a stream of letters that, one after another, appear on a screen suspended before your eyes. Every half second, a new letter appears. You have been instructed that, at a time of your choosing, you should freely decide to press one of two buttons that lie beneath your left and right index fingers, and that you should then do so immediately. After about 20 seconds, if you are a typical research subject, you make that decision, and freely press a button.

As soon as you have pressed the button, the screen in front of you changes, and you see the last three letters that appeared before you pressed the button. This is no surprise – the researchers told you that this would happen, and that you should indicate which of the letters was being displayed when you decided what button to press. Most of the time, you indicate that you decided what button to press about a second before you carried out your freely-chosen action. The task is simple; the choices are easy. The experimenters thank you at the end for your contribution of time to the study of free choice.

But all is not well, at least where your free choices are concerned. The researchers have been analyzing your data1, and they have discovered that they are able to predict which button you will press by examining local changes in blood flow seven seconds before the button press. The researchers can also predict when you will press the button based on local increases in blood flow about five seconds before you press the button. And so, seconds before you reported your decision, there were signals in your brain that indicated what and when you would make that decision. The implication: your brain decided what you would do long before any conscious urge.

This is not the only study to show this. An experiment conducted by Benjamin Libet and his colleagues in the 1980s2 suggested that a brain wave thought to be a precursor of action (the readiness potential) preceded a hand movement by as much as a second, while estimates of the urge to act only preceded the hand movement by about half a second. In fact, over the last 30 years, the basic patterns of the Libet experiment have been replicated a number of times.3 And so it is that neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers are settling on the conclusion – even dogma4 – that free will and consciousness are illusions.

This conclusion flies in the face of what most people believe about themselves. An illusory free will calls into question the intents of education, of democracy, of law, of religious belief, and of a Christ who began His ministry with a call to repent – to literally rethink your thinking. When presented with the arguments for the illusion of the will under laboratory conditions, moral decision-making suffers,5 raising the possibility that the perceived truth about the illusion of free will threatens society itself. And yet this view of conscious free will as an illusion is being popularized on bestseller lists,6 in national newspapers,7 and in highly-respected scientific journals.8 All is, indeed, not well.

The speed at which popular cognitive science9 has arrived at the conclusion that free will must be an illusion is troubling. While the problem of free choice has often been discussed with respect to determinism (the claim that all events have prior causes),10 I will be examining the relationship between the claims of popular cognitive science and reductionism.

Reducing the mind to nothing (but neurons)

Reductionism is the view that phenomena at a given level of analysis can be explained in their entirety by phenomena at an underlying level of analysis. In this case, mental experiences (psychological phenomena) are being reduced to the firing of neurons (biological phenomena). Despite – or perhaps because of – the simplicity of this idea, reductionism is part and parcel of the claim that free choice is an illusion. If choices can be reduced to nothing but neural activity in a particular environmental context, and the neural activity and environmental context can be measured, then all future decisions for a person can be known. Of course, this assumes a relatively simple view of reality, where all causation is from simpler to more complex events and phenomena, but the explanation, in its simplicity, is intuitive. Indeed, although there is little evidence that reductionism results in the best explanations in science,11 reductionist thinking is being increasingly applied to the question of what it means to be human. For example, men and women have been reduced to purported differences in brain structure12 (the corpus callosum is often blamed), even after those differences have been shown to be an artifact of publication bias and misinterpretation of single studies by talk-show hosts.13 Love, in all its many splendored forms, has been reduced to blood-level concentrations of neurotransmitters and hormones,14 glossing over other, more-troubling studies that implicate the same chemicals in envy, gloating, and in-group bias.15 Such reductionism should be of great concern to Seventh-day Adventist Christians, because one of our core beliefs about human nature is that human beings are an indivisible integration of mind, body, and spirit – without any one of these, the human self cannot exist16 (this is known as holism). Indeed, unlike the majority of Christians,17 Adventists are (or should be) materialists – we do not appeal to a dualism of body and soul in this life, after death, or in the life to come. In this, Adventists are consistent with modern cognitive science. But, unlike increasingly common popularizations of cognitive science in the press, popular culture, and even scientists’ public comments, Adventists cannot condone the reduction of the human person to “nothing but a pack of neurons.”18

These concerns are not new. In 1893, Ellen White preached a sermon19 on the dangers of popular phrenology – the belief that the mind could be reduced to the structure of the brain and thereby read from bumps on the head – in which she spoke forcefully against popularizations of the cognitive science and psychology of her time (to wit, popular phrenology). In her sermon, she told the story of a Brother Butler, who was convinced by a phrenologist that he lacked the brain area for faith and thus was a hopeless case. When Brother Butler began to preach the gospel at White’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) insistence, he found that the hollow in his head filled in. (It was likely never there – modern attempts to replicate phrenological readings have shown that the reading was a function of the phrenologist’s intentions and expectations.20) White concludes that phrenology offers no hope for change – but God does.

It is worth noting that the popular phrenology of Ellen White’s day provided the language that everyone used to talk about the mind – we still talk about people needing to have their heads examined, or about having hollow heads, both echoes of our phrenological past – and the language of popular cognitive science plays a similar role today. Indeed, the current state of popular brain science in self-help and purported “brain-based” books is no better than the popular phrenology that Ellen White spoke against in the late 19th century. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who has studied popular understandings of psychology and neuroscience, reports that only 5 percent of popularized works are based on any empirical study at all.21 Indeed, most “brain-based” learning strategies and products are based on what Sashank Varma, Bruce McCandliss, and Daniel Schwartz refer to bluntly as “neuromyth”22 in their comprehensive 2008 review of the relationship between cognitive neuroscience and “brain-based” education; these myths have become pervasive in the 21st century.23

Neuromyths and well-lit brains

Neuromyths are created through what Eric Racine, Ofek Bar-Ilan, and Judy Illes refer to as neurorealism and neuroessentialism.24 Neurorealism occurs when brain imaging is used in order to decide what is real – it reduces the mind (and spirit) onto the brain, describes people as nothing but their brain processes, and interprets correlations between brain activity and certain tasks as evidence for normative human behaviors. An example of neurorealism would be a description of love as nothing but chemicals in the brain.25 In neurorealism, any aspect of mental life that cannot be (or has not been) imaged does not exist. Neuroessentialism involves making the brain into the self; again, the self is reduced into the brain, this time in order to describe people as they supposedly really are. Because neuroscience involves trying to understand the dysfunction of the brain as well as the function of the brain, this often leads to describing normal brain function using the language of pathology and illness – as when love is described as nothing but an addiction. Neurorealism and neuroessentialism are especially incompatible with an Adventist approach to human nature. To begin with, holism and reductionism are incompatible; moreover, if we believe in restoring human beings to the image of God, we cannot describe normal brain functions primarily in terms of pathology (if God is love, can love be an addiction?). Neuromyths are also a problem, because they disrupt our interactions with individuals and communities. If the poor and prisoners can be reduced to dysfunctional “packs of neurons,” why clothe or visit them; if our sins were predetermined by our brains, why try to repent or forgive?

So what can we conclude from this? Should Adventists shun anything to do with the popularization of cognitive science? I would suggest that we take Ellen White’s advice – given in 1884 – seriously: “Be guarded on every hand.”26 Adventists must think critically about the modern science of the mind. This will not be an easy task. Separate studies by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and her colleagues,27 and by David McCabe and Alan Castel28 demonstrate that when unsupported claims about the mind are presented in the context of pictures or even mere mention of a “brain lighting up,”29 people, even those with some training in neuroscience, accept those claims uncritically – even if they would otherwise be very critical of the same statements without the brain-based content.

The only people to critique appropriately “brain-based” claims in the Weisberg study were professional neuroscientists with extensive experience in thinking critically about the design and interpretation of brain-imaging studies. It was not sufficient to have merely taken classes in neuroscience; an interest in and familiarity with neuroscience made readers more apt, if anything, to accept poor arguments in the face of the mention of the brain. While these studies have recently been challenged,30 they are consistent with longstanding evidence that people tend to accept empty statements in place of explanations as long as they have the right form – that is, unless habits of mindful, critical thinking are present.31 Training such critical thinking skills requires time, practice, and effort;32 nevertheless, such training is at the core of what we desire when we talk about the integration of faith and learning.33

Along with a longstanding Adventist commitment to the development of the whole person, as well as to the development of character through effortful practice, the Adventist position on human nature has much to offer cognitive science and the public at large, especially given the current state of popular cognitive science. As we integrate a position that finds balance between eliminating free will and over-committing to self-sufficiency, we can provide a model that makes sense of the wealth of data about human nature discovered in the last few decades. In so doing, we can promote a view of human persons that neither excessively excuses nor blames individuals through reductionism. Several lines of evidence pointing toward the role of effort in human development,34 the efficacy of prayer for changing religious experience,35 the role of practicing self-control in preparation for future resilience,36 and, in my lab, work showing the importance of internalization of Sabbath-keeping for human well-being all suggest that a wholistic, developmental approach to human nature – such as that held by the Seventh-day Adventist Church – holds more promise for the task of making humans whole than the illusion of reductionism.

Karl G.D. Bailey (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is a professor of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.). E-mail:


  1. C.S. Soon, M. Brass, H.J. Heinze, and J.D. Haynes, “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain,” Nature Neuroscience 11(2008): 543-545.
  2. B. Libet, C.A. Gleason, E.W. Wright, and D.K. Pearly, “Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential): The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act,” Brain 106 (1983): 623-642.
  3. P. Haggard, “Human volition: Towards a neuroscience of will,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9 (2008): 934-946.
  4. W.R. Klemm, “Free will debates: Simple experiments are not so simple,” Advances in Cognitive Psychology 6 (2010): 47-65; J. Shepard, S. Reuter, “Neuroscience, choice, and the free will debate,” AJOB Neuroscience 3 (2012): 7-11.
  5. K.D. Vohs and J.W. Schooler, “The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating,” Psychological Science 19 (2008): 49-54.
  6. S. Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012).
  7. J. Coyne, “Why you don’t really have free will,” USA Today, January 1, 2012.
  8. K. Smith, “Neuroscience vs. philosophy: Taking aim at freewill,” Nature 477 (2011): 23-25.
  9. I use cognitive science to refer to those fields in which studying the body and brain using the scientific method is a means to understanding the human mind. A short list of the disciplines involved would include psychological science, physiology, neuroscience, computer science, mathematics, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy.
  10. M. Pauen, “Self-determination: Free will, responsibility, and determinism,” Synthesis Philosophica 44 (2007): 455-475.
  11. N. Murphy, “Introduction and overview.” In N. Murphy, G.F.R. Ellis, and T. O’Connor (eds.), Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Freewill (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2009).
  12. L. Brizendine, The Female Brain (New York: Broadway Books, 2006). Brizendine’s work contains numerous misinterpretations of studies and simply incorrect statements in the service of reductionism. For a full-length critique, see C. Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (New York: Norton, 2010).
  13. Many of the popular misinterpretations of the supposed differences in corpus callosum size or volume between men and women can be traced to talk-show host Phil Donahue, who wildly misinterpreted a 1982 study by de Lacoste-Utamsing and Holloway. These misinterpretations have even shown up in Adventist discussions recently, when they were repeated by Pastor Doug Batchelor in a widely-discussed sermon on the role of women in ministry, presented on February 6, 2010.
  14. P.J. Zak, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (New York: Dutton, 2012).
  15. S.G. Shamay-Tsoory, M. Fischer, J. Dvash, H. Harari, N. Perach-Bloom, and Y. Levkovitz, “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating),” Biological Psychiatry 66 (2009): 864-870; C.K. De Dreu, L.L. Greer, M.J. Handgraaf, S. Shalvi, G.A. Van Kleef, M. Baas & S.W. Feith, “The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates parochial altruism in intergroup conflict among humans,” Science 328 (2010): 1408-1411.
  16. Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #7: Nature of Man.
  17. P. Bloom, Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
  18. F. Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Scribner, 1994).
  19. “The New Zealand Campmeeting,” Review and Herald, June 6, 1893, gives the context for this sermon. Portions of the sermon itself can be found in Manuscript Releases, Vol. 9, p. 3-6, as Manuscript Release No. 666: “Phrenology or the Power of God?” The full sermon (excepting a missing page) is manuscript MS-012-1893.
  20. K.M. Trevino, K.K. Konrad, “Replication and pedagogy in the history of psychology II: Fowler & Wells’ Phrenology,” Science & Education 17 (2008): 477-491.
  21. S.O. Lilienfeld, “Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific,” American Psychologist 67 (2012): 111-129.
  22. S. Varma, B.D. McCandliss, D.L. Schwartz, “Scientific and pragmatic challenges for bridging education and neuroscience,” Educational Researcher 37 (2008): 140-152.
  23. S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, J. Ruscio, and B.L. Beyerstein, “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior,” (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); S. Aamodt & S. Wang, Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life (New York: Bloombury USA, 2008).
  24. E. Racine, O. Bar-Ilan, and J. Iles, “fMRI in the public eye,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6 (2005): 159-164.
  25. National Geographic (February 2006) published an article titled “Love: The Chemical Reaction,” that is an example of this kind of popularization.
  26. This article written by Ellen White was first published in the Review and Herald on February 18, 1862. It is also found in Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1948), 1:290-302. This statement is from the opening paragraph. The full article makes it clear that the sciences of the mind are most dangerous when used to (1) imperceptibly introduce error, and (2) introduce spiritualism and self-sufficiency, both of which are at odds with an Adventist understanding of human nature. White also notes that “fables” are preferred to the truth of human nature found in the Bible.
  27. D.S. Weisberg, F.C. Keil, J. Goodstein, E. Rawson, and J.R. Gray, “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20 (2008): 470-477.
  28. D.P. McCabe and A.D. Castel, “Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning,” Cognition 107 (2008): 343-352.
  29. The images that are presented as evidence in brain imaging articles often show colorful splotches over areas of increased activation relative to some control task. This is what is referred to when we talk about the brain lighting up. These images are the end of a complex analysis process; the brain certainly does not light up, and brain activity is not even constrained to these areas. For a full discussion, see J. Dumit, Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 2004).
  30. M.J. Farah and C.J. Hook, “The seductive allure of ‘seductive allure’,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 8 (2013): 88-90; D. Gruber and J.A. Dickenson, “Persuasive images in popular science: Testing judgments of scientific reasoning and credibility,” Public Understanding of Science 21 (2012): 938-948.
  31. E. Langer, A. Blank, and B. Chanowiz, “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of ‘placebic’ information in interpersonal interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (1978): 635-642.
  32. D.F. Halpern, “Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Dispositions, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring,” American Psychologist 53 (1998): 449-455.
  33. K.G.D. Bailey, “Faith-learning integration, critical thinking skills, and student development in Christian education,” Journal of Research on Christian Education 21 (2012): 153-173.
  34. C.S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Random House, 2006).
  35. T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage, 2012).
  36. R.F. Baumeister and J. Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York, New York: Penguin, 2011).