The Cartesian Race

I just presented at the Graduate Student Association forum at ACU held every spring. This year it was on pSin and pSychology and focused on how psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral genetics are affecting notions of sin and moral responsibility. Well, if you are a regular reader you know that this topic is right up my alley.

Anyway, I had 13 minutes to give my spiel on the post-Cartesion situation (i.e., the demise of body/soul dualism) and weak volitionalism (i.e., a more humble view of human agency).

In the middle of my talk I wanted to explain and illustrate how weak-volitionalism and thanatocentrism (i.e., your moral "status" is fixed/determined at the moment of death) affect free will soteriological systems. How can you illustrate all this in about five minutes in a memorable way? Well, I invented what I called The Cartesian Race.

Here is the first slide of the Cartesian Race:

Here in Slide 1 we see a classic depiction of free will soteriological systems:

1. We possess "souls" that are disconnected from the causal influences of body and environment. This is depicted in our three ghosts.

2. Given that our soul is disconnected from our body/environment, we are ALL volitionally CAPABLE to respond to the Christian message. Thus, the moral race (which ends at death) is FAIR. This is symbolized by the souls/ghosts having the same starting line.

3. Given that the race is fair, your moral status at the time of death determines your eternal destination.

Okay, if you read this blog regularly you know I don't think the race is fair. One big reason is Moral Luck. That is, our "moral status" is hugely affected by contingent circumstance. So, to represent this visually I presented Slide 2, a modified version of the Cartesian Race but now incorporating Moral Luck:

Two observations about this slide:

1. We see that Moral Luck means that we all have different "starting lines" that provide advantage or disadvantage in the Race. For example, you might be born to loving, Christian parents in America. Or, you might have been born to loving Islamic parents in Iran. If "accepting Jesus as Savior" is central to Christian soteriological systems, these two children start off in very different locations. This is symbolized as the different "starting lines" for the ghosts/souls.

2. But another way to read this slide to is to note that this is a race that ends at death. And, given that death itself is a largely contingent event (e.g., some people die in random accidents), our mortal lives can be contingently extended or truncated. That is, in thanatocentric systems, the death event ends the race no matter how long or how little you've been running. This arbitrariness is also symbolized in the varying distances of the "race" each ghost/soul will run.

But there is more. As we run the race we each carry varying volitional loads. That is, responding to Christ will vary in effort depending upon a host of contingent factors that create a volitional burden you must carry to "cross the finish line" in good moral standing. For example, one child is raised by loving Christian parents and had an amazing church experience growing up. This person's volitional load is very "light." That is, responding to Christ is very "easy," volitionally speaking, for this person. But imagine another person who had a preacher for a father and this father sexually abused him/her. Further, the church he/she experienced was hypocritical and hateful. This person has a "heavy" volitional load. That is, responding to Christ is going to be much harder (if not impossible) for this person.

If we add volitional load to the Cartesian Race we get a very unfair event depicted in Slide 3:

That is, we have the following:

1. Different starting places in life.

2. Varying volitional loads.

3. And random race lengths due to the arbitrariness of the death event.

If you compare Slide 1 and this final slide you see, in a visual way, my concerns with free will soteriological systems. I just don't think they are coherent. I think the Cartesian Race is very unfair.

This brought me to my conclusion slide:

As can be seen in this slide, based on my assessment of the Cartesian Race, I call for a post-Cartesian soteriology (a "neuro-orthodoxy," which plays off the term "neo-orthodoxy"). I claim that a post-Cartesian soteriology must incorporate the following premise:

Many (if not most) humans do not possess the volitional capacity to accept Christ during their mortal lives.

I don't know where theology will go in the future, but if it doesn't factor in this conclusion I can't, as a psychologist, find it intellectually coherent or respectable. The Cartesian Race is simply unfair.


  1. Many (if not most) humans do not possess the volitional capacity to accept Christ during their mortal lives.

    This is something I've been saying for some time now. There's no logical or scientific way that I can come up with to justify the idea that our wills are free. Sure, we will and "choose" all sorts of things, but these choices are determined by our nurture and nature and I've yet to see anyone come up with a good model to prove otherwise.

  2. Richard -

    Fantastic and straightforward summary of a lot of the material you've been posting about here.

    What was the reaction and feedback?

  3. Thanks for this summary, Richard. It is quite helpful, and could easily be included in a correlative theology like Tillich's updated for the 21st century. I appreciate the role of contingency and wish that others would wrestle with it as much as you have. peace.

  4. Thanks you all for the feedback/support. Jeff, regarding the reaction it was hard to say. It seemed during the Q&A that many of the students thought my position implied giving up on people. I think they caught the smell of determinism and figured this implied "people can't change so why bother."

    So, I repeatedly pointed out that weak volitional models actually RAISE our investment in moral and social action. I gave two examples. First, as a weak volitional parent I coach my boys' sport's teams, read to them, care about the quality of their school, and take them to church. Why? Because all this MATTERS. As my children are weak volitional creatures I am ACTUELY aware of my role as parent. Second, social justice only makes sense if you are weak volitional. Why? Because horrible poverty can volitionally ruin people. Thus, efforts to fight poverty are needed to make the moral race more "fair." In strong volitional models why worry about poverty? A free, unconstrained will/soul could simply lift itself out of poverty by its own volitional bootstraps.

    My overall point was that being weak volitional is a great model. An exciting moral and action-based model full of hope and possibility. Because what we do MATTERS. Which means if we don’t act the world deteriorates. The model calls for active engagement and participation in the world.

    The only thing that I can see that needs to be tweaked in the post-Cartesian situation is the notion that one's moral status/destiny is fixed/determined at the death event. That's really the only change. And one doesn't have to be a universalist, one just needs to posit some post-mortem flexibility to make the Cartesian Race "fair." I think this is a very small theological accommodation that pays huge dividends intellectually and ministerially.

  5. I like the race. Especially the floaty ghosts and the Death with a scythe.

    I think you might improve the last slide by putting one of the ghosts really close to the finish line with almost no load, and one very far away with the heaviest load. It might make the point a little more visually obvious.

  6. One traditional model would modify your illustrations. Instead of a straight line from start to finish, this model would make it a circle. Here, one ends up where one starts. I was reminded of this when I came across the following quote from a medieval Flemish mystic, Jan Van Ruysbroek, who said:

    Knowledge of ourselves teaches us from whence we come, where we are and where we are going. We come from God and we are in exile.

    This was lifted from my copy of "The Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience" by Ralph Metzner

    This theme comes up from all kinds of places, including the Gospel of Thomas. This self knowledge, it seems to me, is one of the goals of psychology. So, keep up the good work.

  7. I also love the cartoonish grim reaper waiting at the finish line!

    This model has inspired several lines of thought for me, the main one of which has to do with a soteriology that is based on the traditional evangelical of salvation = "accepting Christ." I would like to develop it in a response right now, but no time so I guess I'll have to save it for later.

    Thanks for another intriguing post, Richard.

  8. that middle paragraph should read "...traditional evangelical MODEL of..."

    Thats what I get for posting in a hurry.

  9. As a part of my dissertation, I'm using reliable change indicies. For those not familiar with these, they basically look at an individuals score at time one versus time two and decide based upon the reliability of the measure and inclusion of practice effects whether the change observed is "real" (statistically speaking) or within the murky depths of unreliability. These are fairly interesting stats to use when you are evaluating (as my diss does) whether someone who is cognitively impaired gets better after some treatment.

    The whole reason you need RCI's when considering change over time is what happens to extreme scores by their very nature. Extremely low scores tend to drift up to the mean, while extremely low scores drift down. This problem is compounded by the reliability of your measures, and is addressed by setting a big enough confidence interval that the score must exceed to be considered significant. And thus the RCI is born.

    The relationship of this with theology? Well, God knows the reliability of measurements, the starting points and end points and all the factors that go into a person. Is it possible that He takes into account starting points and regression to the spiritual mean when evaluating someone's movements toward Him? Is it possible that the criteria are based on N of 1 studies, rather than a set cut point? That someone who starts off "impaired" can be shooting at a different endpoint than the rest?

    Rereading this, I can imagine being asked by my church to no longer teach junior high sunday school. But I honestly never thought about this issue in this way.

    As always Dr. Beck, a brain and a heart bender.

  10. Sorry for the lack of a third post this week and a delay in my responses to comments until today. I've been out of town at a conference.

    I thought of that twist too late to make the change for the presentation. That would have brought the point home much more clearly.

    That is an interesting suggestion, the circular track. Your knowledge of the gnostic tradition is always impressive!

    I does seem that some work in this area could be done (and probably has been done). That is, "accepting Christ" is generally conceived to be a volitional issue either supported by freedom (Arminianism) or election (Calvinism).

    But I think there are some traditions that reframe this by claiming that our choice is largely irrelevant, that in the Incarnation God, through Jesus, chose us. If so, salvation is given to all. The only issue is the degree to which we realize that salvation in our mortal lives.

    First, thanks for the primer on RCIs. I had not heard of them. Is there a good introductory piece on the technique? I might want to introduce my grad stats class to it.

    Regarding the metaphor, I too think it is intriguing. Might not the RCI formulation be a form of grace?

  11. Richard, yours is the best and most rational handling of this challenging conundrum that I've seen. Obviously relevant to social and economic areas of concern as well as theological.

    For a couple of articles evaluating the usefulness of RCI and other mediating methods in outcomes research, check out the Feb 2004 issue of the Journal of Personality Assessment.


  12. RCI equals Grace with faith and work I suppose... I like Temkin et al's article from 1999 in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society which compares four methods of RCI's and started the neuropsych equivalent of a slap fight on what is the best way to calculate them.

  13. Wow! I love this. Very provoking. I'm subscribing to the feed. I don't do that lightly, so don't disappoint me.

    Of course, my theological position begins with the premise you conclude with. Jesus' teachings in their purest form raise the question "Who then can be saved?" No where does he suggest, "Don't worry folks. You can do it."

    He says that even many of those hearing his words directly will not have the volitional capacity to accept him. At the same time he explains that there will be those who never saw him who will believe.

    From that line of thought we run into the cases where people seem to lack belief, but earn points for asking for belief. "Lord give me faith!"

    And what exactly did he mean, "To whom much is given much is required." (paraphrase) ?