(from a thread but became so substantial I couldn't bear not to share!)
I'd like to chime in here. I think I mentioned in a prior post that what originally led me to question whether something such as free will existed was my desire to get to the root of a difference between modern liberal and conservatism. Very crudely: liberals feel that society should intervene on behalf of the less fortunate, while conservatives feel that they should be held to greater account.
In following these logics, I realized that the difference lay in how the two philosophies viewed human behavior. When seeking to explain personal circumstance, liberals saw it as greatly dependent upon biology and environment, while conservatives frequently deferred to the concept of individual "free will".
My undergraduate background is in social sciences, so I spent a good deal of time studying social research, which unfortunately, has been essentially the domain of the left since the civil rights era (what was basically being examined was the "history of inequity", not something conservatism is generally concerned with - one could almost say is "defined against".) But that is somewhat beside the point. What I want to emphasize is the degree to which inequality not only exists but is strikingly predictable based on a plethora of very simple factors such as race, income-level, parent education level, etc.
The immediate question is begged: why do these inequalities persist? If it is true, as the conservative argument goes, that everyone is just as capable of success, than why the predictive difference in equality across demographics? If it were merely a matter of individual choice, having nothing to do with biology or environment, than would we not see similar results across the board? There are many other events that occur with relatively similar frequency amongst different races or economic backgrounds. Although in fact, it is difficult to find a human behavior that cannot be correlated in some way with a socio-cultural demographic. I think advertisers have known this for years!
Which finally brings me to your original post:
""If you could take the same child and put him into completely different circumstances he would make completely different choices in life. This is common sense. We may have free will in a limited sense. But the circumstances we are born into and raised in have a huge impact on decisions we make in life."
Is there any way to know that for sure? We have no real way of testing, so would it *Really* be the "same" child?"
While you couldn't possibly give the exact same child different experiences, you can make valid inferences. You can take a group of 10,000 children, say, try and eliminate as many variables as possible, and look for patterns. The results are complex, as the variables are tough to pin down. But some pretty big themes will emerge. Things like family environment, nutrition, peer grouping, violence, education have strong correlations with levels of success.
There was quite a powerful study that came out in the 90's (published in book form as Meaningful Differences, by Hart & Risley), that came out of the 60's war on poverty, itself part of the broader civil rights movement, that examined what role language development played out at various class levels. Three socio-economic groups (high, working & low) were studied, with home observers recording language use amongst family members, coding it, and measuring its correlation with early-childhood language development. The results were striking: the differences between the high, working and low were large. Kids were simply getting very different experiences at home, which were then correlating with different levels of success in school.
Now, this is all actually pretty common sensical. Would you rather your child have a safe, healthy, richly stimulating and positive childhood, or one that was unsafe, unhealthy, etc.? The answer is obvious.
In your following comment, you made a very common argument to support your position - that either you or someone you knew indeed lived a disadvantaged childhood yet managed to find success. In logical terms, this is an appeal to anecdotal evidence. If the question was whether it is possible to succeed at all despite the odds, your example would provide falsification. But the proposition is different in critical way. M. Zehnder wrote:
"....the circumstances we are born into and raised in have a huge impact on decisions we make in life."
Notice that he is only claiming that those circumstances have a "huge impact", not a definitive role. We will never be able to gather data on every single thing that has happened to a person, but we can develop pretty good theories as to what type of environments do what to a person, drawing from sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.
Yet even then we will still be missing the internal, biological nature of the individual. Fortunately, people are pretty similar, again, from psychology, anthropology, neurology, etc. we have pretty good data on baseline human nature. In fact, much of what we know about the human brain has only come about in the past 30 years, coinciding interestingly enough with the civil-rights era push into social studies.
Now, removing all of that, what we are left with is what one might call free will. Somehow all of that data is not enough, and we must still resort to that mysterious, scientifically dubious proposition.