Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Science of Determinism

The concept of Contra Causal Free Will asserts that one's ability to choose from a variety of options is not determined.  This debate has classically existed only within the realm of philosophy, and without the benefit of scientific understandings.  But, especially in recent years, the case for determinism has been increasingly sealed by scientific evidence.

Let me give you some examples of the science I am talking about. First, there is our knowledge of the brain and which areas are responsible for thought processes. Damage to these areas can effect one's ability to respond to the environment. The amygdala, for example, is well known to play a critical role in memory and emotion. If it is not fully developed, or not functioning well, an individual's ability to make moral choices is impaired, as emotions such as fear or anger can cloud out rational thought. Thus, the degree to which one possesses will is dependent upon, (or determined by), the physical state of one's brain. Not only in my work with children, but my work with adults with traumatic brain injuries has demonstrated that there is a clear relationship between one's brain function and their ability to choose.

Now, and this seems to be the crux of your critique, it is difficult to point to a single behavior and say exactly what was happening in the brain at that time, that one's decision was determined. But if we think of free will as the driver of a car, able to drive in any direction at any given time, one's mental capacity is akin to barriers that force the driver into certain routes. Therefore agency is not really free at all, and governed by ability.

The next example I'll point to is social learning. By the age of 5, children have been found to have widely varying skill sets, according to the parenting they have received. Cognitive and emotional skills, as well as world knowledge and vocabulary are determined by input from parents. (I can link to the studies, but it is well-documented.  See Hart & Risley). As children progress through school, by the time they reach adulthood, their ability to think and reason, as well as process emotions, has been similarly affected by their environment. I see this in my students on a daily basis, as most have not learned the proper skills that would allow them to make anything like free choices. Returning to the driving analogy, their routes have been strictly limited. They are simply not conscious of the choices available to them.

Now, none of this is to say that one's will cannot be increased, so to speak. Through learning, whether emotional, cognitive or factual knowledge, self-reflection or instruction, consciousness can be expanded. Yet whether this learning comes from external or internal motivation, it still must be set in motion, and thus it is caused. To return to the brain, there are a variety of stressors that can make the engagement of this process very difficult, as negative emotions are powerful dissuaders from positive action. Levels of cortisol, a stress response, have been linked to sleeplessness, for example, which places measurable barriers on emotional regulation and rational thought.

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