Twenty years ago I remember being absolutely outraged by an acquaintance, an M.D. by trade, who told me he was a strict biological determinist. Everything about us, he related to me over coffee, was attributable to heredity. I was flabbergasted – and indignant. Especially because he insisted that his position left no room at all for freedom of will, which he regarded as a myth. Flash forward to the present, and now I find myself in almost complete agreement with him – almost.
Partly, that’s due to the weight of the evidence that has accumulated in the intervening years. My major response to this guy, by the way, was basically to keep asking him for the evidence: “Where’s the proof that being attracted to blondes is genetic?” And so forth. Well, the evidence is in, and there is an enormous amount of evidence that much about us is genetically determined.
Some of the most striking data comes from studies of identical twins separated at birth – who were found to dress alike, have similar careers, similar hobbies, similar political views, similar taste in food, even to drive similar cars and have wives with similar names. Giving them IQ tests was like testing the same person twice – the definitive proof that intelligence is almost entirely genetic, and that environment hardly influences it. You can read about these studies here , and see this fantastic film  about identical triplets separated at birth.
I’m not going to go into greater detail about the evidence for genetic determinism, because a great many of my readers are already familiar with it. Of course, there is more to biological determinism than genetics. For about a decade now I’ve been an avid reader of popular science books dealing with sociobiology, brain science, sex differences, and other topics.
My reaction to finding out that so much about myself was “natural” (i.e., biologically based, and outside the realm of choice) was exactly the opposite of what I expected it to be. Instead of feeling horrified, I felt strangely comforted. I suppose this is because I’d always had the vague feeling of being a freak; an unnatural animal. It was nice to find out that much of what I’d thought peculiar about me had identifiable causes and fell into not-uncommon categories – and that much of it was just part of having a male brain. The odd comfort I felt in learning more and more about how “determined” I am felt oddly freeing. I suppose this is at least partly because I no longer felt responsible for those things. A weight had been lifted off me; I was set free by determinism.
I hasten to add, however, that this was not a matter of making excuses for the bad in me, or settling into an attitude of helplessness. I am an extremely self-critical person. This voyage of self-understanding I’ve been describing was not entirely a matter of reading popular science books. It also involved coming to understand how many things about myself were clearly family traits. Now, a fair amount of those traits are things I don’t like. I know that a tendency to depression tends to run in the Costello family. So do intense feelings of regret about what we did or did not do in the past. Then there’s our mania for making lists and for accumulating clutter. Yes, in a way it was curiously comforting to realize that these weren’t unusual to me, but were instead things I’d been saddled with.
But not for a moment did I entertain the possibility that those inherited tendencies must rule me; that I have no choice but to turn out exactly like my parents and grandparents did. Not once did I think to myself, “Well, I guess I just have no choice but to go on accumulating junk.” For as long as I can remember it’s been the case that when I detect a problem in myself – a bad habit, for example – I aspire to try and change it. Usually, I follow through on those aspirations, and seldom fail to improve, at least to some extent. But I suspect this too is part of my unchosen, biological baggage. Don’t listen to those who tell you that people never change, or that change is impossible. They’re usually just making excuses for themselves. People can and do change, and I’ve improved my life in dramatic ways, especially when I was in my twenties.
But I think you’ve got to be wired for change. Some people aren’t.
So, if even the will to change oneself is “determined” by factors beyond our control, is there really any “freedom” at all? I am going to offer a tentative yes.
When “freedom of will” is claimed, it’s usually by people who want to assert that there is a fundamental difference between human beings and animals. Conversely, those who affirm determinism think it leads to the conclusion that human beings and animals are fundamentally the same; that humans just are a kind of confused animal. But this claim is obviously false. Your typical, garden variety determinist overlooks the most obvious truth of all: there are no animal determinists. In other words, animals are not aware of their determination. Only human beings can see how their lives are shaped and determined by unchosen factors. Only human beings study what causes them to be the way they are, and become aware of those causes.
Could freedom, real freedom, have something to do precisely with our capacity to see our determination? At first glance, that doesn’t seem much like the “free will” we’ve been promised by philosophers. A freedom that consists just in my capacity to helplessly witness myself being shuttled about by the forces of determination seems hardly like freedom at all. And yet, if it is possible to resist the forces that determine us, the first condition is recognizing them and seeing their hold on us.
I’m thinking of things like bad habits or negative tendencies – to procrastinate, or lose our temper, or talk too much, for example (all of which, of course, could be hereditary). If we are able to actually see these things, it creates a space between us and them, a space in which a capacity for change can emerge. You see, normally we live as if we are our habits and tendencies, in complete identification with them. But if I’m able, even fleetingly, to objectify a habit, to see it with an attitude of “oh, there it is again,” then I don’t have to be it – at least for a moment. And then change may be possible. Maybe. But it will take repeat viewings, and a decisive commitment to action.
Of course, it is entirely reasonable to think that just as our capacity to change, to act against influences, may itself be “determined,” so may our capacity to see. In other words, it may be that some people are wired for the sort of self-knowledge I’m talking about, and others are not. This seems to lead to the odd conclusion that some are determined to be “free” and others aren’t. So, someone might object, why treat this as “freedom” at all?
I suppose the only answer to this is to say that while some of us have been equipped with the conditions that make it possible to see and to change, it remains a mystery why we avail ourselves of these possibilities, and why we don’t. There seems to be an inescapable element of “choice” involved in my deciding, in a given situation, whether to let myself be carried along by habit or inclination, or to see and, possibly, resist. I know that such seeing and resisting is possible for me, since I’ve done it before. But I frequently choose not to see, and just be carried along. On those occasions when I do see, is something “making” me see? The strict determinist would insist that that is the case.
But it may be a mistake to hold to such a strict and fine-grained model of determination. It seems more reasonable to think that, in the case of human beings at least, determinism entails a set of factors that strongly incline us to behave in certain ways, but do not always strictly necessitate an outcome. There is still room for that “seeing” I’ve spoken of, which is able (more in some people than in others) to step back from those influences, evaluate them, and, up to point, resist them.
Again, of course, the capacity to see is not something I have chosen; I was born with it, or with the potential, with maturity, to develop it. But to argue that this entails I am not free is like saying that a concert violinist deserves no credit for his artistry because, after all, he was born with talent; had he started from absolute zero that would really be impressive. But none of us begins from absolute zero. Freedom is possible only on the basis of certain conditions, most of which we are born into and do not choose. For example, surely part of developing a consciousness such as I’ve described – one which can see its habits and inclinations and potentially resist them – is the presence of adults early in our lives who encourage us to do this. And that’s just one example.
Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right, taught us that the notion of an absolutely unconditioned freedom is an absurdity. To have such a freedom we would have to be disembodied and asocial spirits, each of whose “free” acts was free of any antecedent conditions. In other words, every “free act” would be a creation ex nihilo. Instead of endorsing such a fantastic abstraction and damning our own capacities for not living up to it, we need to recognize the contextual nature of our freedom – that it has myriad conditions, biological and social, that make it possible. If we accept this, if we own those conditions, then they are no longer an alien other that “determines” us. In a way, they are us. Freedom, in other words, involves willing or affirming our determination (i.e., the conditions for our freedom).
Ultimately, the constrained vision of freedom I have argued for in this essay is indistinguishable from the ability to rise above the basics nature has doled out to us in terms of inclinations and urges, and to create distinct, individual human personalities, as well as culture. We all know that some people – and some groups – are better able to do this than others. Some remain slaves to their biology and never become free.