Friday in Washington, D.C. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event titled “Genes, Neuroscience, and Free Will.” The panel, which discussed whether new findings in neuroscience and genetics have destroyed our notion of free will, consisted of James Q. Wilson (Pepperdine), David Brooks (New York Times), Charles Murray (AEI), Sally Satel (AEI), and moderator Christina Hoff Sommers (AEI).
I won’t bother to record the differing views of the panelists, for their differences were very few and very far between. Essentially, they all argued that we have an innate sense of free will and that findings in genetics and neuroscience have not undermined it because: (1) sure, genes determine behavior, but not 100%; often the environment contributes to our behavior also, and (2) the number of factors determining our behavior are so many, and the human brain so complex, that we will never be able to pinpoint the genetic and other material causes of our behaviors.
To all this Hoff Sommers asked the obvious question: Sure, genes might not determine all our behavior, for the environment may contribute too, but is that really enough to escape determinism? After all, both my genes and my environment are outside of me and my will?
To this, the two giants of modern social science research–Willson and Murray–had
little to say. I don’t believe they understood the full weight of the objection. After all, they seemed to think, we are mere material machines and we know we have free will, so this must all work out just fine. Murray spoke of how our behavior is bounded (or limited) by genes and environment but not determined. But one wonders which part of Murray stood outside of his genes and environment to make this observation? His response assumes that there is a reality, “us,” which is more than the sum of “our” genes shaped by our environment. And this is exactly what materialist neuroscience denies. Wilson fared worse. In his response he actually said that he wasn’t interested in the question. (N.B., (2) doesn’t help the case for free will at all, for it represents an epistemological limitation, not a refutation of determinism. It amounts to saying that “we” may never be able to fully comprehend the myriad ways in which we are determined.)
If you watch the discussion, I think you will be struck by one other thing. At the very beginning Hoff Sommers seems to imply that DNA gives a hard material basis for human nature. (I believe Wilson has written along such lines, also.) But this seems clearly mistaken. If Darwinism is true, there is no such thing as a human being, let alone human nature. There are just various organisms which right now happen to anatomically resemble each other and will one day in the not too distant future evolve new physical and intellectual features.
You see, Darwinism destroys the classical view of essences. There is no underlying immaterial, unchangeable stable reality to the natural world. Rather, there is just a long spectrum of organisms, and what we call a ‘species’ is really just an arbitrary snapshot in the history of life. All of this goes to the heart of many of the panelists’ concerns. Hoff Sommers, I believe, is very concerned with letting boys be boys and girls girls; several of the panelists are against over-medicating our children; Murray is terrified at the prospect that government and society might begin to manipulate our genomes. But what unifies these concerns and gives them legitimacy is the one idea they implicitly deny: That there is a stable reality called human nature.
The classical mind saw the necessity of these things and postulated a soul. But as that is unfashionable now-a-days, materialist intellectuals are happy to overlook the inconsistencies and retain the notion of human nature (and all that comes with it like humanity’s moral and intellectual nature) even though their materialism denies such a nature.
So in the end, this panel of incredibly smart people could neither marshal a plausible defense of free will nor human nature.
For those interested in going deeper into these issues, I heartily recommend Benjamin Wiker’s Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists and John West’s Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.