Thursday, August 29, 2019

Biology and Free Will

The September issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC features a short piece titled "Why You Like What You Like." It explores the biological basis of likes and dislikes, attraction and repulsion. It cites the discovery that the Toxoplasma organism can make rats unafraid of cats and may possibly cause "increased anxiety" in humans. Other examples of biological influences on tastes and behavior include genetic links to aversion to broccoli, preferences in sexual partners, and conservative or liberal political tendencies.

The author expresses dismay at the realization that he's been wrong all this time in believing "my likes and dislikes were formed through careful deliberation and rational decision-making." The findings detailed in this article don't come as that much of a shock to me. It seems like an obvious truism that most of the time we "can't help" liking or disliking things or people. As for political, philosophical, or religious tendencies, our genes may predispose us to see the world a certain way, but surely they don't totally control our choices. The article itself acknowledges this fact, because "embedded within your genome, there are many potential versions of you." The science of epigenetics has revealed many environmental factors that influence the way genes are expressed; chemicals, protein interactions, and even the microbes living inside us can affect our DNA. Those influences still imply that we don't have the conscious control we think we do, though.

"There are biological gremlins driving every action and personality trait that you assumed were of your own volition." Again, I've never assumed my personality traits were chosen by my "own volition," and I doubt many people think that way. Personality comes as part of the start-up package. Moreover, "driving" doesn't necessarily mean "controlling." After this somewhat pessimistic summary of the evidence, the author acknowledges that very fact and assures us we aren't "destined to be slaves of our DNA." With heightened awareness of how genes and other biological factors shape our minds and behavior, we may develop more efficient ways to change the traits we consider undesirable. So he does allow room for free will. So do the scientists who maintain that consciousness itself is an illusion, by the very act of making that claim. For an illusion to exist, there must be a mind—a consciousness—to embrace that illusion.

Even at the mid-twentieth-century heyday of the "blank slate," radical malleability of human character, environment-is-destiny position, one of the primary fictional exemplars of that belief, BRAVE NEW WORLD, allows for free will. At least one character conditioned from the moment of conception to fit into Huxley's utopia of programmed happiness questions his society and its culture. Our ability as authors to write interesting stories would be severely limited if we and our readers believed our characters couldn't have any freedom of choice.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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