In chapter 4 of Peterson’s book, he delves into one of the fundamental and valuable aspects of human life and experience, free will, and what role emotions plays in affecting the decisions we make. Freedom is significant in understanding ourselves from a theological standpoint and how we function in the world because theology provides a framework for understanding meaning and purpose of life. Our sense of freedom is profoundly impacted by our biology and an understanding of the cognitive neurosciences gives us deeper insights to who we are and what our freedom entails. On a metaphysical level, cognitive science poses important questions about the kind of freedom we possess and the extent to which we identify ourselves as unified whole beings.
Damages to the brain give us an open window to how the brain and consciousness operate. For instance, damage to the hippocampus can result in severe short-term memory loss, but procedural memory can remain intact as well as the patient’s I.Q. and emotions. What this reveals is that consciousness arises out of complex interactions within the brain and that the self is a complex emergent reality stemming from an interaction of mind, brain, body, and environment. Research done by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga on “split-brain” patients who underwent a splitting of the cerebral hemispheres at the corpus callosum revealed that the severing of the brain hemispheres resulted not only on a split brain but also a split mind. Questions arose as to whether we had two minds or one. Further research revealed that the hemispheres retained indirect connections via the brain stem and other areas. Similar brain dysfunctions, like patients suffering from blind sight and anosognosia, reveal that the self, the “I”, is the result of an ongoing process of many complex, interacting brain systems and not a singular area within the brain.
One part of our lives where we seem to have the least control over is our emotional states. Studies done by Antonio and Hanna Damasio revealed the vital role emotions played in our reasoning processes. They revealed that our reasoning by itself is unable to make us do anything; instead, reasoning processes must be attached to an emotional evaluation. On this point, I personally would have wished that Peterson could have explored more on how much emotion impacted our (“rational”) religious decisions and convictions, but perhaps he’ll cover this more in later chapters. For instance, how emotions affect religious conversions, why people switch to different religions, or decide to become atheists for that matter.
Peterson writes that our “spirit”, however you may define it, emerges out of the activities of the mind/brain interacting with our bodies. Any talk about “spiritual transformation” will also necessarily involve a biological transformation as well. Therefore, any complete talk about salvation will involve activity within the brain. Theological claims about soteriology are incomplete unless they take the whole person-body, brain and all – into account. Furthermore, the cognitive sciences also reveal to us that the kind of freedom we have is dependent upon the complexities of our mind/brain. Therefore, the kind of free will we have is also complex itself and not simply a matter of what we can or cannot do, but more so about what we are enabled to do.
Peterson concludes his chapter on free will by writing that the very determinate structure of our brain and biology enables the unique kind of freedom we have. For instance, our ability to speak, ability to empathize with others, to think about your thoughts, and remember faces provide degrees of freedom that are important for social interactions and relationships. He reminds us that though cognitive science has reminded us that our identities are as integrated whole persons, theological claims about ultimate freedom transcend what can be ascertained by cognitive science, such as the claim made by Luther that true freedom comes about through a transformation brought about by Christ. Given this, cognitive science can steer theology on a proper path and prevent it from adopting erroneous escapist soteriologies or naïve views on human freedom.