If a human being landed on an alien world, could the alien population have a reasonable expectation of how the human in question would behave? Would it be reasonable for them to assume that the human is a social creature? Is the human going to react violently when threatened? Will it be curious about its surroundings?
The answer to these questions are revealing, and, as I told a friend recently over a cheap beer at a cheap bar, are indicative of the real meaning of the term “free will.” We could almost ask, with some semblance of seriousness, whether the alien population would be safe to assume that the human would believe himself to be in possession of free will – unbounded potential for self determined action. And they could, I believe, assume this, all the while preparing for a known range of probable actions. They could, for instance, observe that the human is male, and take the proper precautions against what is likely to be a human prone to physical expressions of anger.
Certainly humans are incredibly malleable creature. We are not, however, infinitely malleable creatures – at least not in the microcosm of a lifespan; perhaps the eons of evolutionary time will prove otherwise. The myth of the blank slate – tabula rasa – has been thoroughly debunked by science. Again taking the male example, the idea that men are more or less violent due to their social setting is only partially the case. Male violence is a fact of humanity that cuts across all cultural lines and is true throughout all historical periods. As Azar Gat, the war historian and evolutionary theorist, said, female children are more interested in people while male children are more interested, in broad terms, in things (79). If the mind was a blank slate, we would have to imagine the impossible: that genetics, that the accumulated evolutionary data that has proven successful in the millions of years prior to our birth, has no impact on the mind.
In other words, humans have the freedom to will anything within a defined range of possible actions. To put it simply, we are not free to will what we cannot will. Let me explain. When we encounter a stray dog, we can be certain that it will behave, quite simple, like a dog. In the same way it is only reasonable, when encountering a human, to expect it to behave like a human – and we are increasingly aware of how humans act. We know, for instance, that humans need social interaction to feel “happy.” We need to feel wanted. We are prone to violence if we feel trapped or threatened. We know that the different ways that men and women experience sex leads to two different understandings of the sexuality and the expectations which go along with it.
This leads us to a darker point. We know, for example, that men with higher than normal levels of testosterone are more likely to commit violent crimes. The same is true of young men who are without female interaction. We are becoming aware that humans have about as much control over certain behaviors and emotions as they do over being born male and female, or even human at all. What this means for public policy and criminal justice is a question that demands answering. Are we not, when punishing, say, sociopaths, blaming the victims of genetic circumstance? Well, yes we are.
To be clear, I am not touting out a theory of genetic determinism. Instead, science is painting a picture of human nature which lies somewhere between tabula rasa and genetic determinism. The more we are aware of the genetic strings causing us to act, the more free will we can obtain in rebellion to them.
The discussion about human nature reminds me of the ages old and incredibly bloody dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians within Christianity. On the one hand the Calvinists claims that humans are predestined – programed – by god to behave a certain way. On the other hand Arminians claim that we have total free will. Here is an example where religion was asking the right question but lacking the scientific tools to answer it. Genetic Calvinists, as I think of them, the genetic determinists, are correct that we are far more like puppets responding to genetic stimuli than we know. Humanist Arminians, the tabula rasa crowd, are wrong about their basic assumption: humans are not “free” in the purest sense – we are free within a set range.
However, we have more freedom the more we understand our own constraints. Science, applied to the human condition, offers us the chance to widen the range of human consciousness, to define our own limitations, and to become better at tackling the environment wherein our various dramas are played out. We are animals who desire more than replication; we desire happiness and do ridiculous things to find it – we wear condoms and climb mountains for fun. We are biological beings who are increasingly realizing our place in the universe, yet refusing to be content with it.