13 December 2012

Nature, Nurture, and Free Will

Some interesting news:
The same genes that gave rise to higher mental function are also responsible for a number of brain disorders, the results reveal, suggesting that the evolution of intelligence came at the cost of mental illness.

The discovery pinpoints when in history the genes that enable us to think and reason evolved, giving us the ability to learn complex skills, analyse situations and have flexibility in how we think.
It’s obvious, I think, that there are physical limits to free will. The will to become an NBA star is not enough to overcome the limits of, say, being a quadriplegic pygmy. One’s will, and the freedom thereof, do face constraints of time, space, and personal ability.

I was talking to a friend the other day about this subject. I was explaining why I thought his niece would have difficulty learning math. I knew she was relatively intelligent and had a decent amount of self-discipline. Unfortunately, she was homeschooled and her mother had taken a job, which precluded her from having an instructor. Since girls do not do as well as boys at learning and understanding math—a phenomenon partially due to differences in brain structure if memory serves me correctly—and since his niece was going to have to teach herself algebra, I surmised that she was not going to be particularly adept at math.

This assertion surprised my friend, and he rejoined by asking if I thought his niece had free will. I replied that I thought she did, and he rejoined again by claiming that she could learn math if she set her mind to it. I didn’t really have an answer for this claim at the time, but it struck me as being somewhat absurd. My initial response was that there are neurological and physical limits to human abilities, and then, as an example, I cited studies (like the one above) showing that there tend to be a link between freakish intellectual abilities and mental disorders.

My own hypothesis for this is that, all things considered, the brain is a finite organ, and can only handle a finite number of tasks. Given the brain’s tapering plasticity, it seems likely that developing a skill at an early age—or being freakishly inclined towards a skill at an early age—can preclude other neurological developments. I wonder, for example, if one reason why some prodigies, like those in music or science, had a tendency towards womanizing was in part because their development of their prodigious skill hindered their development of self-control. I have no idea whether this was the case in any specific instance, but I think it is certainly possible.

Now, this isn’t to say that one’s neurological limitations morally excuse any and all behaviors, but rather this is simply an explanation for why self-determination isn’t as always neat as some like to think it is. Yes, if one has free will, one can desire to do whatever one likes. But actually being able to act on one’s freely chosen desire is an altogether different matter.

My friend’s niece, for example, can desire with all her heart to master algebra. But this will is no guarantee that any such thing will come to pass, just as mere desire is not sufficient to turn a quadriplegic pygmy into an NBA star. Free will must conform to the reality of one’s neurological and biological limits.

Furthermore, free will must conform to one’s environment. One could desire to steal a million dollars from Fort Knox, but this will is insufficient to ensure action if one is currently locked behind bars. One could desire to grow up in an intact family, but one’s will is insufficient to compel one’s parents to comply. One’s desires are not intrinsically linked to reality, and so one can often desire things that, realistically, one has no hope of ever attaining. Again, free will cannot override environment.
So what, then, is the moral implications of a free will limited by biology and environment? Is it meaningless? Can we blame our failures and shortcomings on natural and biological limitations instead of willpower? What are we to make of this?

I would suggest that the best way to understand free will is that it is first and foremost connected with emotional desire, and is not particularly connected to potential reality. I would also say that, in keeping with this, the danger of free will is seen in its desire, not its actualization. To approach this theologically, I would say that the ultimate purpose of free will is to give man an opportunity to select his own god, to follow his own path, to worship his own idols, regardless of whether doing so makes any sense or is even attainable. God’s desire is that men yield their will to his, and he desires that men choose to do this freely. Of course, this would imply that man must first be able to focus his will and desire onto something other than God, hence the existence of free will. Whether man is actually able to do what he wants is beside the point. What matters is that man is able to focus on something other than God. Thus, there are no moral implications to a free will whose exercise is limited by biology and environment; the point is the choice, not the action.

However, it is hard to know where failure lies. When you look at the people God calls faithful, you find that there is quite a range of human behaviors. Samson was considered a man of faith in spite of acting like a horny fool for a good portion of his life. Who knows if he had neurological predilection towards being so short-sighted and foolish.  He doesn’t seem like a high-IQ sort of guy. Was his failure biological in nature or was it predicated on a misguided will? It’s impossible to say. Only God can know his heart for sure.

Anyhow, it should be clear that it is often difficult to say with certainty whether failure stems from biology, environment, or a misguided will. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. However, even those with good hearts are limited by their abilities and circumstances. The point, then, is not to become exclusively focused on controlling one’s actions. Rather, one should focus on having an honestly good heart. Then the actions will, for the most part, take care of themselves.


  1. You bring up a lot of points that provoke interesting arguments when looked at from a Christian perspective.

    I knew a Catholic priest who devoutly believed in free will. He was also totally ignorant of neuroscience. He thought there were no limits to human behavior imposed by will. He didn't think humans could execute arbitrary actions like the Green Lantern, but he did think that humans could use free will to execute any physiologically possible action.

    The problem with "free will" is that it was a very strong assumption of medieval Christianity that stuck around after the West got a lot more materialistic and scientific.

    The thing about Christianity is that it involves a lot of scolding. "You didn't sin for any good reason, you sinned because you chose to sin, it was your fault." Even after Westerners jettison Christianity, they still love scolding. "Your actions are your fault, and I, the morally superior atheist, schooled in Dawkins, will fearlessly denounce your unworthiness." In fact they have retained the worst aspect of Christianity without any virtues!

    By the 20th century, Americans were talking as if willpower were the only limit to human behavior. This makes many Americans talk as if they have Green Lantern style super-powers. "Everybody has unlimited opportunity. If you're poor, you can fix that with willpower. Work smarter, not harder."

  2. I'm a girl who has never been good at math- and yet I've done more math than I ever imagined, and in the end managed to understand it. Not a genius, but pretty adequate.
    Currently, I am dealing with cognitive science, and here's the short story: all our abstract abilities more or less use brain structures that are there for other reasons. Mostly for physical reasons. Our brain is in fact a body, and math is full of space and physical metaphors.
    A feminine body would build a brain to control it- and this brain would come with certain predilections. Less muscle, less spatial orientation, may make understanding some abstract things much, much harder.
    And yet: you can hack that system. Surprisingly, athleticism helps with math a great deal. If you move like a man, you think like a man.
    And basically, our brains are not that different. With time and effort, it is possible to offload the abstractions of algebra onto a brain wired for the feminine body, the feminine space-orientation. Algebra is not natural, perhaps- but so what? You can invent an unnatural approach.
    Someone may be a natural in a discipline and get behind. For others, it may be uncanny, and yet they master it.
    So the story is a bit more complex, it's not just about brain wiring. You can do a lot with any old neurotypical wiring. Cognitive science still has not discovered the ultimate "algebra brain".
    Indeed, most math goes against my very nature- and yet I figured it out, and, knowing my nature, simply did the opposite.

  3. The father of the young girl struggling with algebra seems to be confusing freedom of the will with efficacy of the will. As I understand it, when one affirms freedom of the will, one is simply asserting that the self canbe an "uncaused cause." It doesn't deny that the self is very often--perhaps in some cases always--a mere conduit of impulses originating outside the self, only that this is not always the case. So free-willers are not claiming that everyone is responsible for everything they do. And they are certainly not claiming that the ability to freely form an intention is somehow tied to an ability to realize that intention. Free will is perfectly compatible with comprehensive failure in life. In fact, I'd say free will entails comprehensive failure in life in at least some cases. This seems to be the point of your theological comments.

    On the other hand, will seems to be most efficacious when it is least free. The flibbertigibbet exhibits great freedom of the will, but almost no efficacy; the man with "pig-headed" determination exhibits very little freedom, but his "willpower" is often rewarded with success.

  4. "I'm a girl who has never been good at math- and yet I've done more math than I ever imagined, and in the end managed to understand it."

    @Hipparchia- I suspect this will be the case for the girl I was writing about. Understand that I don't think she's going to end up so retarded that she can't figure out that 2+2=4. My point, which I probably did not convey very will, is that I think there are limits to the force of her will. She may desire to be the world's next math genius (I doubt this is the case for her, but it might be). This desire doesn't mean she actually has the capacity for it. She may max out her abilities at trig. She may max them out at Algebra. She may actually learn differential calculus. I do not know what will actually be the case, but my intuition is that her environmental and neuro-biological limits do not favor her becoming the next Nash or Coase, no matter what she may desire deep down in her her heart of hearts. That was simply the limit of my point. I was not asserting that one's will is never efficacious, nor was I asserting that no girl can learn any math because their brains are not well wired for it. I was simply saying that in one particular instance, one girl may not become a math genius because of the limitations she faces.

    @JMSmith- technically, it's the uncle. And yes, he does seem to confusing efficacy with cause. I'm not sure why, since it seems intuitively obvious that efficacy of will is not the same as mere existence, but perhaps his confusion was at the margins. After all, if free will doesn't have perfect efficacy, then how can one be held responsible for it? It's not the easiest question to answer, and I can't say that I'm wholly satisfied with my answer. Anyhow, one point I was getting at is that failure is not simply a matter of being weak-willed. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not.

  5. I was a competitive runner in high school and college, and that taught me a lot about will power and its limits. Some of my teammates were pure talent: they ran like gazelles but cracked under pressure and pain. Others were nearly all will power: pain and pressure was the fuel on which their rickety engines ran. The champions had both in abundance. I relied more on will power than talent, and that made me very familiar with the limits of my will and my body. That is to say with my limits.

    I'm now an academic, and I see the same combination of talent and will power in intellectual activity. When I reach the inner limits of my comprehension, I can always try harder, and this almost always carries me a little deeper into the problem; but sooner or later I reach my absolute limit. I have no more will, and if I did it wouldn't matter because my brain is redlining. Many college students have a hard time dealing with this.

    I have school-aged children, and they are constantly fed the therapeutic lie that they can "be anything they want to be." How I wish they schools would instead adopt the old Army recruiting slogan: "be all that you can be." That's all any of is is asked to do, and we should be contented with that.

  6. @JMSmith

    Agreed. You can't put in what God left out.