Free will…

Last week I caught the episode of Horizon on “good and evil” – a very lame overly metaphysical/religious title so I’ll say what it was actually about – psychopaths. Aside from being incredibly interesting (I recommend it for a watch if you can still get it on iplayer) it brought up a philosophical question which I just can’t reconcile – the concept of free will.

To very briefly summarise; in the programme it was discovered that psychopaths had significant differences in some gene sequences from the normal which resulted in different brain patterns, a propensity to anger etc – these gene sequences were very likely to be activated by trauma in childhood. In the program a man who murdered his wife was found guilty of murder with diminished responsibility because it was found that he had the “psychopathic” gene sequence and presented attributes related to psychopathy in a brain scan.

I don’t want to focus too much on the criminality aspect because its not really what I’m interested in. I guess the bit that really puts me in a quandary was related to the nature vs nurture debate – how much of our decisions is down to socialization, and how much is down to our biological make-up? It’s a fascinating debate I’ve had lots of times throughout my degrees and recently with a 20 stone body builder (this was brave enough on my part to give it mention I feel). Basically I always come down heavily on the socialization side (not to discount genes entirely of course). One thing I’ve never thought of is how little it matters – and this is the start of my problem.

We can’t pick our genes; short of some crazy sci-fi world of splicing which I’m not sure is worth the page space here. If these genes have any effect on our lives then it is by means which we can’t choose. A biological predisposition to a certain behaviour is surely beyond our control.

This leaves socialization, but again, this is also something beyond our control. Every decision we make is based upon the life experience that precedes it, right back to our birth. If that is the case then every decision we have made is a foregone conclusion, based upon socialization and biology – both of which we have no control over.

Fascinating as this is it leads to my problem. All the above leads to the idea of free will being a myth – if this is the case then nobody can ever be responsible for any of their actions. From the worst criminals to when you are let down by friends or family, acts of random unkindness in the street, or acts of incredible generosity – no individual action is ever really a choice – it is only the illusion of choice, “free will” becomes a myth. If free will is a myth can we ever punish or praise a person for any action?

I guess this whole train of thought leads to the “what is the point” existential point where all philosophy seems to end up. I guess its most poignant for me because I constantly deal with research based on biology, socialization and experiences that lead to the worst outcomes in people; paedophilia, sexual abuse, violence (the joys of working in social services).

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this now – maybe my existential angst is building again. If you (anybody crazy enough to read my pseudo-philosophical ramblings) have any thoughts to add to this I’d be more than happy to hear them – I miss debate/heated argument.

I’m going to be really decadent now, feed the nihilist in me and end with some Nietzsche (I know he was talking mainly about the problems of religious doctrine but it fit nonetheless)..

Whenever responsibility is assigned, it is usually so that judgment and punishment may follow. Becoming has been deprived of its innocence when any acting-the-way-you-did is traced back to will, to motives, to responsible choices: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially to justify punishment through the pretext of assigning guilt. All primitive psychology, the psychology of will, arises from the fact that its interpreters, the priests at the head of ancient communities, wanted to create for themselves the right to punish — or wanted to create this right for their God. Men were considered “free” only so that they might be considered guilty — could be judged and punished: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness (and thus the most fundamental psychological deception was made the principle of psychology itself).

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