Chemistry, Not Character, and Why Is No One Suing Ohio Over This?

comments form first comment

Driving on I-75 in Cincinnati the other day I passed a billboard telling people with a gambling problem, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry.” The web link on the billboard took me to a site put up by the state of Ohio that leads after a couple clicks to the same slogan.

And the Freedom from Religion Foundation hasn’t sued the state for it.

This saying isn’t unique to Ohio or specific only to gambling. Christian pastor Rick Warren has gone on record saying the same thing with respect to depression, the disease that tragically took his son’s life. I’ve lost a cousin and a close Christian friend and mentor to the same disease. When a Christian says there’s a difference between character and chemistry it makes sense. Christianity teaches that you are not just your chemistry. Your mental processes are more than mere chemical reactions; there’s more to you than that, as a person created in God’s image, with freedom to live and choose and act based on your character. This is standard theistic thinking.

That’s very close to what the state of Ohio is saying with this billboard. More than that, the state is expecting people to believe it. So, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry,” could very well be a violation of the First Amendment, right?

Well, no, and I doubt anyone will try to claim it is; but let me explain why the question might not be as outlandish as it might sound.

The standard “secular” explanation for human character (meaning in this case, allowing for no “religion-based thinking”) begins from the conviction that the world is a closed system where nothing except natural causes and processes can operate. Humans therefore came to be through strictly natural causes. We know this because (a) the world is a closed system where no other causes exist, and (b) in its focused search for natural causes explaining where humans came from, science has only found natural causes.

(It’s rather question-begging, isn’t it?—but let’s move on.)

Natural causes were the only causes, according to this version of secularism. They’ve always been the only causes and they always will be. That means your own behavior is strictly a result of natural causes. Take that down to the level of the source of your behavior—your brain—and you’ll recognize it means that your behavior is strictly a function of brain chemistry.* Your chemistry runs the show, and you’re just sitting there watching. (Who “you” are on that view is hard to explain, but let’s move on from that, too.)

Given that secularist view, your chemistry is your character. That’s why secularists like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris insist there’s no such thing as free will: your actions are strictly the product of electrochemical processes in your brain, and absolutely nothing else.

To say therefore that it’s chemistry, not character, is to say that this secular view of reality is false.

Which is obviously true. Everyone knows there’s a distinction between character and chemistry. It’s why patients experiencing early dementia tend to feel relieved when they’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Their mentally intact family members do, too.

One reason an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be comforting to both family members and patients, suggests Carpenter, is that it provides an explanation for what’s been going on with the patient. Caregivers, he notes, are often quick to attribute symptoms of dementia to the person, rather than the disease, and patients wonder if they are going ‘crazy.’

It’s their chemistry, not their character, causing the problems. There’s a difference between the two, and everyone knows it.

It’s one thing, however, for a pastor like Rick Warren, a believer like me, or a researcher studying dementia to draw conclusions like that. It’s another thing for the state of Ohio to shout it from billboards. It’s a message whose meaning is clearly tilted toward theism, away from secularism. So why isn’t the Freedom from Religion Foundation suing?

My guess is, it’s because the billboard is only expressing a common sense view of a scientific finding. Filing suit would draw attention to the true silliness of naturalistic secularism. They won’t touch this: they wouldn’t want to face the laughter.

*It’s electrochemical, not just “chemical”—as if the two could be separated—but I’ll stick with “chemistry” since that’s what the slogan sticks with.

top of page comments form

14 Responses to “ Chemistry, Not Character, and Why Is No One Suing Ohio Over This? ”

  1. Tom,

    I agree that “it’s not your character it’s your chemistry” strongly suggests a dualistic view of human nature (but I’m not sure dualism alone is necessarily theistic; for example David Chalmers calls his view “naturalistic dualism”).

    In any case, a non-dualistic naturalistic view would still be strongly motivated to distinguish between moral condemnation and non-judgemental, clinical analysis when trying to get people to seek help. Moral condemnation is a billboard that says “Gamblers are Losers”. A non-judgmental approach strategically (but perhaps fallaciously) disarms the moral aspect: “You’re not a bad person, it’s your chemistry. Now, get help!”

  2. So if one’s internal chemistry can be influenced through external messaging that way, resulting in behavioral change, shouldn’t the billboard read, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry as influenced by messages like this one”?

  3. As the late great Yogi Berra (May 12, 1925 –Sept. 22, 2015) said, this is “like déjà vu all over again.”

    Chalmers in his book, The Conscious Mind, wrote that “Consciousness is a surprising feature of our universe. Our grounds for belief in consciousness derive solely from our experience of it. Even if we know every last detail about the physics of the universe—the configuration, causation, and evolution among all the fields and particles in the spatial temporal manifold—that information would not lead us to postulate the existence of conscious experience. My knowledge of consciousness in the first instance comes from my own case, not from any external observation. It is my first-person experience of consciousness that forces the problem on me.” (p101,102)

    A good friend of Chalmers, UCLA Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, sees mind and will existing over and above the physical. He has used that idea to develop effective therapies for treating patients suffering with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

    Schwartz says mainstream science has yet to come to grips with… what [he] calls “self-directed neuroplasticity,” the ability to rewire your brain with your thoughts. This kind of power doesn’t only rescue his patients, he says. It rescues free will.
    The notion that we have free will flies in the face of much modern neuroscientific research, which suggests an ever-increasing number of our “choices” are somehow hardwired into us — from which candidate we vote for to which flavor of ice cream tops our cone. In fact, neuroscientists like David Eagleman and Sam Harris have released best-selling books offering that we are, at bottom, high-functioning, delusional robots.

    Work like Schwartz’s gives us scientific evidence that something that we have traditionally referred to as mind, will and soul actually exists.

  4. So, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry.” now applies to gambling addictions as well? Now, depression is one thing. It is a medical illness, after all, that quite unfairly was considered a character issue for many years. Then it became acceptable to describe alcoholism and drug addiction as diseases. I’ve always been about 50/50 on this as I know there are some physiological traits that indicate at least for alcoholism. Now though gambling problems are considered a matter of chemistry? Do they treat it with drugs?

    I hope this doesn’t seem too hard hearted (or misinformed? Let me know.). I know addictions are terrible afflictions that destroy people’s lives. However, I saw my mother go from a wonderful, vibrant, creative person to a shell of herself as depression overtook her life and destroyed it. It was certainly no different that if she had gotten cancer. She had no choice and and made no decisions that enabled it.

    Is that really the same as addictions? And at least alcoholism and drug addiction have physiological components even if they are enabled by certain choices the person makes. Gambling? A matter of chemistry?

    (Apologies. I get this is off topic but had to ask.)

  5. Who am I?

    Psychological persistence vs. persistence of memory vs. persistence of substance vs. various new-dualistic epistemologies all scramble for the golden thread of lucidity.

    Suppose that a person P’s cerebrum, the organ chiefly responsible for the person’s higher-order mental capacities is implanted into a new head and fully connected, with the result that there is a post-operation person who is in every way psychologically continuous with P; the post-operation person remembers the pre-operation person’s past experiences, shares her personality traits, and so on. Is the post-operation person identical with the pre-operation person? The standard intuition is that the answer is yes; psychological continuity yields personal identity.” (Thomas Sattig)

    Well, personal fission gets even more complex than that but there is much which precedes and follows after any such set of thought experiments.

    Various pricing sheets by multiple manufacturers help us decide what cost we are willing to pay. For example a brief look at four dimensionalism and persistence along with the possibilities amid the issue of personal identity and multiple personalities and the costly question of are you who you think you are all arrive on scene.

    Four dimensionalism, the stage view, various resolutions for personal fission, hints at some problems with both Lockean and neo-Lockean accounts of continuity, the nature of personal identity, and finding resolution between (on the one hand) our perceptual realities assured by a sort of Moorean defeasibly justifying real things (I exist) and the skeptic’s darkness (that table is not there) on the other hand all speak to the OP’s question.

    But what about Non-Theism and Dualism?

    Well, as it turns out, something of the sort seems inevitable despite the absence of the theistic approach and despite a chopping-up of Aristotelian hylomorphism:

    A book which looks at these sorts of questions is interesting for two reasons. First, it is neither theistic nor does it appeal to Idealism and secondly it is a dense and technical work. Its title is The Double Lives of Objects: An Essay in the Metaphysics of the Ordinary World and it is by Thomas Sattig. The attempt was inevitable – to synthesize classical mereology with Aristotelian hylomorphism into a singularity.

    “ By combining some of their strengths, perspectival hylomorphism diminishes the distance between the two traditions. More importantly, however, it exhibits powers beyond the reach of its competitors. Neither the classical-mereological conception nor the Aristotelian conception divides an ordinary object into components with different lives. The possibility of qualitative divergence among a double-layered object’s components is unique to perspectival hylomorphism………. The ordinary world is populated with such objects as persons, tables, trees, and mountains. This volume defends a novel philosophical picture of ordinary objects, perspectival hylomorphism. The picture has a metaphysical part, quasi-hylomorphism, or q-hylomorphism, concerning the nature of ordinary objects, and a semantical part, perspectivalism, concerning the functioning of discourse about ordinary objects. The thesis, in a nutshell, is that ordinary objects lead double lives: they are compounds of matter and form; and since their matter and form have different qualitative profiles, ordinary objects can be described differently from different perspectives. Perspectival hylomorphism carves a middle way between the two accounts that have dominated traditional metaphysics of material objects, namely, classical mereology and Aristotelian hylomorphism …… While q-hylomorphism follows classical mereology in viewing complex material objects as mereological sums of smaller material objects, it denies that ordinary objects are material objects, where a material object is an object with a spatiotemporal location in a basic, non-derivative sense. Moreover, while q-hylomorphism follows Aristotelian hylomorphism in distinguishing between an ordinary object’s matter and form, it construes forms as having a very different nature and at least a partly different function than Aristotelian forms. An ordinary object is a double-layered compound of a material object and a complex fact about this material object, which fact contains properties that realize an ordinary kind, such as person or table. The material object is characterized as the ordinary object’s matter, and the complex fact as the ordinary object’s individual form. The most significant aspect of this q-hylomorphic account is that the qualitative profile of an ordinary object’s matter and the qualitative profile of the same object’s form may diverge. In short, there may be hylomorphic divergence.”

    Given the obvious problems with “nothing-but-intuition” alone (on the one hand) and the obvious problem of the opaque skeptic (on the other hand), a moderation of the two is sought and “……..should aim to preserve the pre-philosophical beliefs and intuitions about objects that arise from our basic sources of information about how the world is and how it could be. These beliefs and intuitions are defeasible guides to reality and possibility. In a Moorean, antisceptical spirit, we should resist giving them up too easily….. On the other hand, most metaphysicians today believe that metaphysical questions concern fundamental facts about the world, which are often beyond the reach of ordinary belief and intuition, and which cannot be settled solely by conceptual analysis……”

    Space-Time and Relativity: The author concludes with his chapter discussing still yet more unavoidably double lives and notes (to paraphrase) that macroscopic objects are subject to relativistic change in shape; a macroscopic object may have different shapes in different inertial frames of reference in Minkowski spacetime and that allows us to recognize extreme cases of relativistic shape-change with disturbing consequences for our common-sense conception of the world. He states, “……I shall argue that the problem is not easy to avoid….. and extend the framework of perspectival hylomorphism in a way that it yields a solution to the problem: the conception of common sense and the conception of relativistic metaphysics manifest different perspectives on the same objects, and are therefore compatible….”

    What is interesting is how mind-dependent contours are essential for perspectival hylomorphism and, also, how the thematic range of the book converges with the predictions of Christian metaphysics as such relates to the created order of space-time and perception:

    In fact – despite the thoroughly non-theistic approach – and no appeal to Idealism – the dense and often technical work is by its own honesty forever in the throws of two realities – is forever confronting what sums to double lives being lived by everything as unavoidably dualistic topographies obtain. In short – should reason chase down reality and expunge all references of Theism’s ontology and/or of Idealism’s full stop – reason shall conclude that you are in fact living a (truly) double life. The attempt to tame both classical mereology and Aristotelian hylomorphism vis-à-vis an arranged marriage into a singularity the author denotes as Q-Hylomorphism carries us to the author’s estimation of the most cost-effective purchase of exquisitely expensive ontological real estate. That is his estimate and it isn’t Theism nor A-T Meta by any definition. Now the uncanny part: When all is said and done we hear – as predicted – all those peculiar incantations of two inescapable worlds – of double lives being lived – as the ancient Hebrew’s choruses (on the one hand) and the mind-dependent inescapably fusing with the mind-independent (on the other hand) transpose us (as D. Bentley Hart reminds us) into that which in fact sums to yet another annihilation of the skeptic’s “…….arcane idea that somewhere out there, in principle at least, there exists an infinite narrative of physical particularities that could supplant all references to unified states of consciousness, without any empirical remainder…….. At the apex of the mind, so to speak, there is the experience of consciousness as an absolutely singular and indivisible reality, which no inventory of material constituents and physical events will ever be able to eliminate. Here again, and as nowhere else, we are dealing with an irreducibly primordial datum…….

  6. Bill T.,

    It seems that on a purely materialist platform, all of it is only a matter of “degree”.

    For example, Sam Harris tells us that he can choose, but he cannot choose what he chooses. With any other “action” – of the body or of the mind – there is no difference – the same holds true.

    So the “degree” of depression is such that it “seems” susceptible to manipulation. At that “level” or “degree” it “seems” that we are “involved” (hence the entire hallucination that is medicine). Whereas, the “degree” of something further down – more out of reach – perhaps like gambling – is at a “level” that is not impacted by the “seeming” layer of biochemistry and so we say we cannot help it.

    But of course we are not “helping” any of it.

    We choose, but we do not choose what we choose.

    So for some of us gambling biochemistry shows up on the “seeming” side of biochemistry and for others it lay somewhere else and so we say it does not “seem” that I choose it.

    But of course neither one is choosing any of it.

    And so too with love. We love but we do not love what we love nor do we choose what we love. We do choose what we love but we do not choose what we choose when we choose what to love.

    And so too with reason. We reason but we do not reason what we reason nor do we choose what we reason. We do choose what we reason but we do not choose what we choose when we choose what we reason.

    It’s all very clear.

  7. Bill T.,

    Of course, none of that is real (valid).

    Medical issues are real – and depression is as real as cancer.

    Medications can help with OCD behaviors, depression, and so on, as can DBS (deep brain stimulation) on some fronts.

    But the mode of delivery does not change the premise. Nor does the premise allow the materialist to escape the problem of the philosophy of mind.

    Chemical / Energy impact Feelings.

    It’s not any help to the Materialist. It’s often thought it is – but that is only because one does not take it far enough.

  8. Tom,

    The problem of which behavior to modify begs the question. Gambling isn’t a problem if you are rich. And being poor isn’t a problem on Naturalism. Such is only to say that while the philosophy of mind approaches this from one direction, the ontology of morality approaches if from the reverse direction. Stuck in the middle, it is not obvious that the physicalist can make any move in any direction without offense.

  9. Tom,

    So if one’s internal chemistry can be influenced through external messaging that way, resulting in behavioral change, shouldn’t the billboard read, “It’s not your character, it’s your chemistry as influenced by messages like this one”?

    The internal chemistry related to gambling may be more closely related with behavioral conditioning at a young age which may predispose a person to pursue a fast or slow life strategy — fast being take risks, don’t save for the future, eat the marshmallow now, while a slow-life strategy delays gratification in anticipation of future reward. There is evidence an unstable childhood leads to a fast-life strategy which is seemingly characterized by a lack of self-control and planning, which could be a possible source of gambling problems.

    The internal chemistry related to being socially influenced by billboards would be quite functionally distinct from this–different brain modules, different priorities– so calling both “chemistry” in the same sentence would be confusing. If we really must have Exact Truth in Billboards, I would put it

    “It’s not your moral character that’s the problem, it’s your tumultuous childhood and the effect it had on your growing brain that’s at fault. If you can read and understand this message clearly, don’t blame yourself for your problem entirely, seek help without guilt.”

    Getting wordy.

  10. There’s a determinative difference between “don’t blame yourself” and “you’re not a responsible agent.”

    (Uncharacteristically un-wordy on my part this time…)

  11. DougJC,

    You raise an incredibly important point.

    Early trauma, pretty much of any kind, increases the odds of tendencies which fall (generically) under the anxiety umbrella (that’s an umbrella of terms, not the feeling of anxiety). That manifests in different ways. Of note, coercive CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) established that choice is maintained through almost all spectrums – the older forms of CBT that is. That is to say, compulsions (and acts such as gambling etc.) are laid aside if the consequence is immediate and severe. So we are almost always dealing with something other than choice. That is to say, one can choose to do otherwise. In urban slang we would say that a gun to the kneecap would deter the gambler from sitting down at the table.

    Alcohol, cocaine, and chemical addictions (etc.) where one undergoes the pains of detoxification (physical withdrawal) brings in a new element. Choice depends on the severity of those immediate and severe consequences – if they are bad enough some addicts will withhold to the point of delirium – and some will not withold despite those immediate and severe consequences. Though, the delirium of detox will defeat the whole attempt anyway. So that’s a bit different once that point is crossed.

    That brings us to your point – or the more important point which your observation raises.

    That is that even should such bizarre CBT succeed, we have not helped per se. We have not dealt with the underlying fuel – typically anxiety (that’s a generic term, not to be confused with feeling anxious), we have not dealt with the various levels of emotional and/or physical traumas which you note are a big part of what is going on.

    Obviously we have to be careful on our terms. Also, our terms have to precise with the following: The craving is not the Self per se. I have a craving. I (stop). Have (stop). Not I am. I “here” observe the craving “there”.

    Overall choice seems to be intact, and the Self seems distinct from the feeling. And trauma, evil, that is to say, The Good minus-some-thing, is very, very destructive. That lovelessness is so definitive in the human experience is expected given the Christian’s paradigm of course. And it seems not only for Man. Scripture speaks of wolves and lambs, of children and lions – and so on as the entire creation houses her final causes towards the pattern of love’s reciprocity which we find in the triune.

  12. DougJC,


    “That is to say, one can choose to do otherwise. In urban slang we would say that a gun to the kneecap would deter the gambler from sitting down at the table.”

    That should have read as the threat perceived to be real of the gun/kneecap in that urban slang. Not actual Etc.

    Obviously the less extreme is seen as well inside of love and hope fueling choice to withhold, but (our) trends in selfishness simply make the more coercive easier to measure. Overall each affirms the capacity for choice.

  13. Note the horrific consequences of the billboard:

    For the victims of acute, chronic, sexual, and all other forms of abuse no apology is actually needed. These victims of abuse often tell themselves, “It’s all my fault, I’m garbage….”, which is irreconcilable with reality, and there the reality of one’s trauma has to be embraced, one has to allow oneself to assign guilt on another human being, one has to get to the place where one affirms “Yes – what so and so did *was* wrong – it was *not* my fault – and he should *not* have done so… *yes* it is true that he did not *have* to do that to me…..”.

    Yet the philosophical conclusions of materialism implicitly housed in the opening statements in fact tell the victim that she ought to be telling herself that in fact what he did to her wasn’t wrong and in fact she is not only anti-intellectual but she is also at fault for affirming that he should not have taken his actions. The materialist cannot escape his factual elimination of the whole show. We witness – by the materialist’s hands – a thousand asinine deaths of a thousand asinine qualifications as we behold the Death Of Apology, the death of I’m sorry, and the death of I ought not have as the materialist leaves the victim standing there – in no place in particular – stripped of what brutally repeatable data affirms over and over again actually, factually, ushers in healing.

    To declare the Lie to be the Truth, and to declare the Truth to be a Lie, merely to defend one’s own worldview – or one’s own set of definitions – is to damage one’s own self and one’s own neighbor. Eventually.

    It is interesting how the notion of the abused, and of apology, and of guilt, and of choice, all seamlessly merge with the premises of Christianity. As noted by a Christian, “W.L.”, elsewhere:

    “In my view it comes down to this: Only Christianity characterizes God as offering Grace to sinners, all of whom desperately need it. Our own need for Grace from God is palpable. And the God revealed by reason to all is a God of Grace. So Christianity is the truest religion. Of the religions with any currency in the world, it is the only one that could be true.”

  14. Journalist Kevin Williamson made a point in an article he published online just yesterday (10/17/15) that I think is very pertinent to the discussion here.

    The vulgar version of the gay-rights argument goes: “Blacks are born black and gays are born gay, so having negative feelings about homosexuality is the moral equivalent of racism.” Q: What if thieves are born thieves or rapists are born rapists? A: “How dare you compare these nice homosexuals to those awful thieves and rapists!” But once you acknowledge that an inborn tendency toward homosexuality is not from an ethical point of view very much like an inborn tendency toward rape, then you are acknowledging that your “Born This Way” argument isn’t complete, that there is a second piece that, for whatever reason, sexual liberationists are hesitant to speak about. The strict biological-determinist model is an argument either for anarchy or totalitarianism, while most of our traditional ethical models are not very well equipped to account for a strong biological basis for antisocial behavior.

    Read more at:

    Indeed, there are evolutionary psychologists who argue that there is an evolutionary, biological basis for rape.

    Thornhill and Palmer argue that rape evolved as an “alternative mating strategy”, and they contend that it is a “natural, biological phenomenon and a product of our evolutionary heritage”. They also take issue with the idea that rape is fundamentally an act of violence. That theory was put forward 25 years ago by feminist scholar Susan Brownmiller. In her treatise Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she described rape as an attempt by men to dominate and control women.

    But if rape is an evolved “alternative mating strategy”, what makes it wrong? Even though Thornhill and Palmer claim they want to reduce the occurrence of rape, apparently they don’t think it’s as wrong (or, for that matter, as serious) as our current criminal justice system does.

    This is where you end going when you start meandering down the path of biological/ psychological determinism. Do we really want to go there?