Friday, November 14, 2014


Science and Freedom
Jonathan Lee

            Do we have free will?  Have we the freedom or even the ability to actualize our desires in the physical world?  And even then, are our desires our own, or simply the effects of innumerable external forces?  This question has generally been confined to the realms of religion and 18th century philosophy.  However, it is a question that shapes our view of society and the world as a whole.  If we are not responsible for our actions, how can we rightly be punished for them?  Shall we just defer to our circumstances, as they determine our fate?  Have we the capacity for collective betterment?  Biological determinism asserts that we do not; we, as well as our actions, are ultimately determined by our genes.  The implications of this assertion are far-reaching, composing an apparatus capable of controlling a passive population.  It is in this way that science has replaced religion as the go-to institution for doing so.  The negation of free will is easy to argue, but it is certainly the most effective technique in the hands of scientists to disenfranchise and pacify the oppressed, and is thus the ultimate device for legitimating the status quo.
This question is of utmost importance within the context of geneticist Richard Lewontin’s book Biology of Ideology.  The main focus of the book is the doctrine of what Lewontin refers to as “biological determinism,” that is, the idea that our fate is encoded in our genes, ranging from our individual characteristics to society as a whole.  This doctrine is consistent with that of hard determinism, wherein all events are the result of preceding causes and preconditions, and thus inevitable.  Such a position disallows any notion of free will.  Among the central themes of Biology as Ideology is that the tenets of biological determinism vie to invalidate free will and the human capacity to plan environmental change for collective betterment.  Naturally, Lewontin is staunchly opposed to such a worldview.
            Determinism alone is not a problem.  In fact, from a scientific perspective, it is rather attractive.  Every phenomenon falls into a neat cause and effect relationship.  The problem arises when it makes the claim that everything is how it ought to be, as everything is inevitable.  USA Today, in an article entitled “Why you don’t really have free will,” defines free will as “When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation.”  The article goes on to assert that “free will is an illusion,” describing humans as a collection of “meat computers” whose brain cells are products of their genes and environment.  Such an analogy is comparable Richard Dawkins’ description of humanity as “’lumbering robots’ whose genes ‘created us body and mind’” (13). If everything is predetermined from the outset, why bother?  Whatever happens is certain, imminent.  As Lewontin puts it, “if 3 billion years of evolution have made us what we are, do we really think that a hundred days of revolution will change us?” (90) Such an attitude promotes passivity, allowing the extant regime to remain in power over an apathetic population.  Although USA Today is describing merely the actions of individuals, the claim is quite far-reaching, as it is assumed that the nature of society is merely the sum of its individual components.  This determinism has been made airtight by science, and is thus unquestionable.  It is for this reason that Lewontin goes to such lengths to undermine this legitimating apparatus.
            E.O. Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, writes of aggression, specifically regarding dominance and morality.  He asserts the inevitability of aggression and competition, as an organism must remain competitive for the sake of its own self-preservation.  This is manifested in the dominance and subordination that occurs among individuals.  Another form of aggression outlined by Wilson is “moralistic aggression,” which “is manifested in countless forms of religious and ideological evangelism, enforced conformity to group standards, and codes of punishment for transgressors” (Wilson 243).  In one fell swoop, sociobiology manages to solidify the legitimacy of dominance, religious aggression, conformity, and codes of punishment.  Such justifications are the main preoccupations of sociobiology.  Every phenomenon is examined and explained in some way via biology, and is, by nature, inevitable.  The problem with this is that new or hypothetical phenomena are neglected, as any behavior we have exhibited hitherto outline the entire framework of our genetic potential. 
The sole purpose of this process is to explain our behaviors within the context of our genes, over which we have no control.  If there is a behavior that we exhibit, sociobiologists rush to interpret it as being imbedded in our genes.  If humans wage war on each other, it is because aggression is an inseparable component of the individual.  Sociobiology takes it a step further by asserting that society is just the extension of the individual.  Therefore, according to sociobiology, we wage war because we as individuals are aggressive towards one another.  However, if this were true, why would we have the draft?  We can clearly see that war is not the result of individual aggression, but of a small group of individuals exerting power over a larger one for their own personal gain, resulting in the detriment of the collective.  This process of offering plausible explanations for our behavior insidiously shifts the responsibility for all of our woes from the politically empowered to our genetic makeup.
            Not all brands of determinism justify the status quo, however.  Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris writes off free will as an illusion, ascribing everything to “a series of impersonal events: Genes are transcribed, neurotransmitters bind to their receptors, muscle fibers contract, and John Doe pulls the trigger on his gun” (Harris 27) Such is the deterministic world Sam Harris envisions.  However, he concedes that our decisions bear influence on our actions.  Lewontin argues that humans differ from animals in that “they can plan the changes that will occur,” as well as that “human beings should want to make a world in which they can live happy, healthful, and reasonably long lives” (118-119).  It can be assumed that Lewontin is in agreeance with the supposition that all can be understood within a cause and effect relationship.  In this sense, Lewontin would, as would most scientists, be considered a determinist.  However, it is hard determinism which Lewontin disdains.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is quoted in “A Story in Textbooks,” argued that determinism and free will are compatible.  Man has the capacity to desire something, and then actualize the vision.  According to Hobbes, this qualifies as free will, even though the desire is the effect of factors outside the man’s control.

When USA Today writes that free will is an illusion, it’s missing the point.  Society simply can’t be reduced to an ensemble of meat computers fulfilling our predetermined destiny.  Negating free will is equivalent to depriving individuals, of whom society is composed, of their agency.  The notion that every event is predetermined disenfranchises the populace by equating the scientific understanding of the universe, i.e. determinism, with man’s inability to actualize his desires for a better world.  Lewontin says that we can “change the world extremely rapidly and, by willful activity, change the world in various ways that we may think beneficial” (115).  Lewontin, along with others who would consider themselves determinists, is a firm believer in free will, and the reason he is so concerned with biological determinism is that it imprisons humanity, deliberately curtailing its potential to better the world for the collective good.

1 comment:

  1. Your introduction is effective, although it would be more so if driven by an example. Are you trying to add to Lewontin? There’s a danger here that you’ll seem to be just echoing hi.

    “Determinism alone is not a problem. In fact, from a scientific perspective, it is rather attractive. Every phenomenon falls into a neat cause and effect relationship. “ -- this paragraph is well written and shows a great understanding of your material. But again, what is your contribution?

    “In one fell swoop, sociobiology manages to solidify the legitimacy of dominance, religious aggression, conformity, and codes of punishment.” -- I think this is an oversimplification. Certainly Wilson doesn’t *intend* to simply put a rubber stamp of approval on, e.g., the crusades, or ISIS’s religious warfare in Iraq and Syria. Now, clearly Lewiston believes that Wilson *is* legitimating such things, but the devil is in the details here. I’d like to see more than a well-written repetition of one of Lewontins’ central claims.

    One thing I would have liked at the end - and would have made me feel more strongly that you are adding something to a big and nuanced debate, rather than simply explaining Lewontin, which is the pitfall here - is a clear statement of how much determinism is enough, and how much is too much. You seem to be threading a needle here, which I find quite interesting - taking science seriously demands a degree of determinism, but rescuing ourselves from being “meat computers” demands that this determinism goes only so far. Figuring out how and why to locate the *correct* amount of determinism in our thought would be challenging but also exceptionally interesting. Digging deep into that problem is the unrealized opportunity here.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.