Monday, June 13, 2011

How Free Are We, Really?

Sorry, Your Soul Just Died

One of the more important essays of our era comes from Tom Wolfe, novelist and student of the American Experience. It dates from 1996 and was originally published in Forbes Magazine—“Sorry, Your Soul Just Died.” In it, Wolfe reported about and riffed in his inimitable way on the astounding new discipline of neuroscience that was drawing on tools, such as MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, to view, in actual time, the firing of the brain. In reviewing the new brain sciences and related evolutionary studies, Wolfe considered the timeless dialogue between Nurture and Nature. This dichotomy is one facet of the philosophical/theological debate regarding determinism and free will. He predicted a new determinism that would undercut both liberal humanism and traditional theology regarding the notions of free will and the human soul. In this essay Wolf was both provocateur and seer. Wolfe wrote:

Here we begin to sense the chill that emanates from the hottest field in the academic world. The unspoken and largely unconscious premise of the wrangling over neuroscience's strategic high ground is: We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal. And the issue this time around, at the end of the twentieth century, is not the evolution of the species, which can seem a remote business, but the nature of our own precious inner selves.

… [T]he new generation of neuroscientists are not cautious for a second. In private conversations, the bull sessions, as it were, that create the mental atmosphere of any hot new science—and I love talking to these people—they express an uncompromising determinism.

They start with the most famous statement in all of modern philosophy, Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am," which they regard as the essence of "dualism," the old–fashioned notion that the mind is something distinct from its mechanism, the brain and the body. (I will get to the second most famous statement in a moment.) This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. Neuroscientists involved in three–dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self–consciousness (Cogito ergo sum) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea. I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth.

Now, I remind you that our Enlightenment Religion, Unitarianism, departed from The New England Calvinist church over the notion of free will. It is our founding tenet, that each of us is free and responsible to determine the course of her or his life. We hold our destiny in our own two hands. In human experience this leads to individual character (and so we are saved) and to progress in society (ever onward and upward).

This morning, I consider free will not only as a personally important consideration, but also as the hottest/most important intellectual debate of our day.

First and Second Nature

When I woke up on Monday, May 16, I didn’t expect that I’d be thinking about the notion of free will, one of the great philosophical/theological questions. But a NY Times article about the so-called housewives reality shows that plague the contemporary television landscape nudged me in that direction.

Critic Neil Genzlinger wrote, “’One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on,’ the great religious scholar P. J. O’Rourke wrote in Rolling Stone in November 1989. ‘And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.’

“We are faced with two possibilities. One is that there is no free will, which means that God actually planned for there to be a 'Real Housewives of New Jersey ' and for people to watch it. Contemplating a universe built on that premise can lead only to collective insanity, and therefore the notion must be rejected.

“Thus we must embrace the other possibility: that there is free will, and that the enablers who make “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” possible could transform the show from the lame caricature it is, if only they — in Mr. O’Rourke’s formulation — looked at their driver’s licenses. That they have not done so suggests a need for some forcible action.”

Though tongue-in-cheek, this article led me down the Unitarian Universalist path of freedom and responsibility.

Personally, I don’t put God into the free-will equation. I am a Religious Naturalist and frame my musings by the insights of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. From these perspectives, I see both determinism and free will. For some years, I’ve mused about a First Nature and a Second Nature.

Our First Nature is our creatureliness—what has evolved over billions of years to become the Human Species that bends us toward generally shared behaviors that seem determined. (Anyone who has ever been sexually attracted to another knows how powerful First Nature influences are.)

Our Second Nature emerges from the workings of our incredible, highly evolved mind—its consciousness and self-consciousness. Through reason, we make choices that counter our First Nature instincts, and can be called a result of free will. (Though sexually attracted to another person, we might choose not to act on the urge for a variety of reasons, including a vow of exclusivity to another.)

Metaphorically, human nature describes a realm somewhere between angels and animals. The phrase “angels of our better nature,” speaks to what I understand as our Second Nature possibilities.

In the end, I maintain that each of us is responsible for her or his actions. O’Rourke has it right. When we begin to assess the source of our problems, the place to begin is one’s self. Yes, look at the face on your driver’s license. Or remember Michael Jackson’s reflections about the “Man in the Mirror.”

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
(Change his ways-Ooh!)
And no message could've been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
(If you wanna make the world a better place)
Take a look at yourself and then make that...
(Take a look at yourself and then make that...)

The Soul Is Dead, But the Spirit Lives On

I always read David Brooks’s op-ed pieces in the New York Times. His politics are too right of center for my own point of view; however, he’s always well-reasoned and even more importantly draws upon much of the scientific research that I find authoritative, regarding the human condition. Brooks has an interest in morality, as do I. He often cites evolutionary biologists and psychologists, as well as neuroscientists who explore the landscape of the mind.

I’ve long been convinced that these areas of science have successfully challenged traditional philosophy, ethics, and theology. The popular writer Tom Wolfe, relatively early on, recognized the impact the new sciences, neuroscience, in particular, would have in a 1996 essay “Sorry Your Soul Just Died.”In it he wrote, “Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: ‘The self is dead’—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche, he will probably say: ‘The soul is dead.’ He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: ‘The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists.’”

On Tuesday, May 17, Brooks posted an op-ed piece “Nice Guys Finish Last” in which he makes a case, based on recent scientific thought that human beings are intrinsically moral, though programmed by evolution to be selfish. Is this an oxymoron? No. Because evolution also involves complex equations to be cooperative and part of a community. If the group benefits, so the individual benefits, reasons Brooks.

Brooks continued, “In his book, ‘The Righteous Mind,’ to be published early next year, Jonathan Haidt joins Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and others who argue that natural selection takes place not only when individuals compete with other individuals, but also when groups compete with other groups. Both competitions are examples of the survival of the fittest, but when groups compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. The idea of ‘group selection’ was heresy a few years ago, but there is momentum behind it now.

In the end, Brooks makes a conservative pitch for religion/ethics, saying, “[T]he big upshot is this: For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous ‘scientific’ system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.

If I could question David Brooks, I’d ask him to name the “people” who sought a scientific system divorced from morality. Sounds a bit like a straw man to me. I’ve never seen science (scientists) wanting to diminish morality—or religion or God. Such a judgment comes from the religionists or traditionalists who become defensive.

My bottom line maintains that we human beings, by virtue of millions of years of creaturely evolution are hardwired to be moral. Morality has been a linchpin in a scheme that has allowed the human species emerge, survive, and yes, thrive.

A few years ago Jonathan Haidt, a leading evolutionary psychologist, described five moral colors, which he describes on his web site’s home page as

1) Harm/care, related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. This foundation underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulate the theory in 2010 based on new data, we are likely to include several forms of fairness, and to emphasize proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Ingroup/loyalty, related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. This foundation underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

4) Authority/respect, shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. This foundation underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Purity/sanctity, shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. This foundation underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Previous remarks regarding First Nature and Second Nature have relevance here. To my reckoning Second Nature is the rationalization and application of First Nature instincts, including the five moral colors. To these five instincts, I certainly add the mammalian bonding instinct which has resulted in a cornucopia of the various nuanced expression of love.

To return to Wolfe and the soul, the soul may be dead, but the human spirit is more vibrant than ever—a source of awe and wonder. We are one in the sense that our desires and drives are essentially the same, coded by the complex wonder of our shared DNA. We are many in the sense that we develop a second nature that modifies our first nature and makes each unique. In this context we have plenty of free will and in our own life span create the character we choose to become.

When we speak of such notions as transcendence, soul, even human spirit, we are really talking about second nature qualities. I’d say that our second nature is a sublime imperative. Every conscious deed we do presents us with choices. Each choice forges our character.