April 9, 2009

"Genes, Neuroscience, and Free Will" at AEI

A panel discussion on April 24th, from 10 to 12, at the American Enterprise Institute in DC:
As we learn more and more about the extent to which heredity equips people with personality, attitudes, and convictions, what happens to free will and human agency? Will this new understanding undermine, if not destroy, the possibility of holding people morally and legally accountable? In short, will science defeat free will?

These are the questions that eminent scholar James Q. Wilson is asking today. In 1993, when he published his widely acclaimed book The Moral Sense--in which he argued that an innate moral sense is powerfully shaped by our social relationships and interactions--many of today's insights into the biology of behavior were glimmers on the neuro-technological horizon.

At this event, he will discuss the implication of neuroscience's boldest claim: that it can explain everything about the human condition. Responding will be columnist David Brooks of the New York Times and AEI's Charles Murray and Sally Satel, M.D.

Discussants:
David Brooks, New York Times
Charles Murray, AEI
Sally Satel, M.D., AEI

Moderator:
Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI

Sally Satel's life was saved a few years ago by Virginia Postrel donating her a kidney. Genetic and environmental determinism in action? Or free will?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

If genes, neuroscience, and morality as a Darwinian construct were correct, then there would be no way to account for the independent social fact of the fear of being labeled 'racist'.

Fernandinande said...

"If behavior were chosen by an utterly free will, then we really couldn't hold people responsible for their actions. That entity would not be deterred by the threat of punishment, or be ashamed by the prospect of opprobrium, or even feel the twinge of guilt that might inhibit a sinful temptation in the future, because it could always choose to defy those causes of behavior. ... We could punish a wrongdoer, but it would be sheer spite, because it could have no predictable effect on the future behavior of the wrongdoer or of other people aware of the punishment." - S. Pinker in 'The Blank Slate'

Luke Lea said...

As far as society is concerned, the only issue here is whether human beings can respond to the threat of punishment. Rob a bank and you go to jail. Those who cannot respond go to jail. I guess that means if you don't have free will you lose your freedom.

Anonymous said...

David Brooks?


I have about as much intellectual respect for Geraldo Rivera.

Anonymous said...

Now you have really gone to sophmore year in college. If genes cause everything; then your genes cause what you write and there is no reason to discuss anything you publish on the Internet (other than responses programmed by other peoples genes), and it is no matter of catching someone frabricating evidence or drawing unfounded conclusions because what they believe is the expression of their genes,,, Und so weiter.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I just wish the AEI could round out that panel with somebody else who's written a great deal about these sort of things. But, who could this person be? I mean, we've invited David Brooks, and he has a high forehead and writes for the NY Times so he clearly knows this stuff cold, but who else?

Who? Who?

--Senor Doug

ben tillman said...

Luke Lea has the right idea. We can respond to incentives/disincentives, and we should therefore continue to discourage (through threat of punishment and otherwise) actions that harm the community. But free will?

It's trivially easy to refute the notion that there is such a thing.

Blode0322 said...

"Free will" exists as a concept to give something to talk about in coffee shops.* Steven Pinker apparently thinks "free" means "random" (the rest of his book was excellent though).

* ditto for "predestination"

Pia J said...

"We can respond to incentives/disincentives, and we should therefore continue to discourage (through threat of punishment and otherwise) actions that harm the community."

You people keep leaving out intrinsic motivation. When all the punishments & rewards are ultimately controlled by as well as defined by the state, the state is either going to run out of employees or have to resort to drastic measures. Another problem with the state is rigid adherence to what may well be counter productive procedure. A large, impersonal entity simply can't respond flexibly or efficiently especially in unforeseen circumstances.

Just thinking about all that can go wrong with excessive/inappropriate interference in the lives of citizens convinces one that a libertarian approach couldn't go nearly so awry. Perhaps this is because people do have patterns of behavior they won't deviate from unless something else is drastically wrong - this usually being diagnosable by the type of aberrant behavior exhibited. Of course the state hasn't provided a manual outlining unpredictable occurrences along with the proper response. Consequently, such random events may be defined in inappropriate terms and responded to in bizarre ways.

I can't see how anyone can argue there's no such thing as free will despite the fact we are all most certainly creatures of habit. The trick is to be able to resist routine responses when it's obvious you're not solving problems with them.

Anonymous said...

The end of white America:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200901/end-of-whiteness

Anonymous said...

Re :"Darwinian construct"...I am dubious of any argument which has the word "Darwinian" in it if applied to huma beings. The most important reason is due to the lack of influence supposed Darwinian mechanisms have in the average human's life. Which one of us act as "maximizers" of our reproductive potential and which as "optimizers"? If you are a maximizer, you live your life as Darwin said you should; i.e., you reproduce to the carrying capacity of your personal environment; every action you do is done to further your reproductive fitness. You understand that "he who leaves the most offspring wins" , and you act that way. If you are an optimizer you balance your output, so to speak, with information from the environment so as to optimize your convenience, health, etc. You may choose to not have any offspring at all, for any number of reasons including the most flimsy. Let's be honest: humans in the modern world just don't act according to Darwinian laws. For all who would like to read more I suggest searching for the philosophical works of David Stove.
Genes may have an influence on us but it doesn't follow therefore that we act on impulses programmed to maximize our fitness, and thus the idea that we are constrained by Darwinian mechanisms is wrong.

Anonymous said...

I can't see how anyone can argue there's no such thing as free will despite the fact we are all most certainly creatures of habit. The trick is to be able to resist routine responses when it's obvious you're not solving problems with them.


I disagree with the genetic determinists, but you are not refuting them or even properly engaging them with this argument. Habit has nothing to do with this.

Jim O said...

This stuff reminds me of why I had to drop Metaphysics in college.

headache said...

"Anonymous Anonymous said...

The end of white America:"


Ha ha ha ha ha. South Africa is your future. You liberal American and European arrogant know-everything’s were strutting around treating the Rhodesians and Afrikaners as Neanderthals. All the while they were ahead of you on the demographic curve, and knowing what was coming, were trying to fight for their survival. So now those of us who lost and were scattered around the globe as losers are at least enjoying watching you guys sink slowly, painfully, inevitably. What poetic justice!

Snore said...

Once again, Sailer plays Cato and censors a post of mine on "genes, neuroscience, free will, and the enormous national elephant in the mid-century room".

Absolut.Feminist said...

The determinism vs free will debate has been around for thousands of years. Before we knew genetics, it was determinism by God vs free will. Now it is determinism by physical elements vs random chance at the other end. I don't think anyone really knows what free will is and if it really exists.

Anonymous said...

Nothing coming from the AEI can be good.

Pia J said...

"...but you are not refuting them or even properly engaging them with this argument. Habit has nothing to do with this."

Well, help us out here. I don't see why you even bothered to post such a vague argument to point out my bad one. I still say habits of thought and habitual behavior are the results of conditioning by your parents and society. Maybe I'm departing from the intended focus on an individual's genetic programming? Then again, maybe I'm responding to an ambiguous assertion that already blends environment and genes. This relates to another assertion I might make at another time: Though we aren't born genetic blank slates, we're certainly cultural blank slates at birth.

AmericanGoy said...

"American Enterprise Institute"

It's neither American (or rather pro-American), nor for enterprise, nor an institute.

Ronduck said...

headache said...

What poetic justice!

By that time most of the people who supported that will be dead. Its one hell of an inheritance to leave a country's children.

David Davenport said...

I don't see why you even bothered to post such a vague argument to point out my bad one. I still say habits of thought and habitual behavior are the results of conditioning by your parents and society.

The genetic determinist would say that habits are comparatively weak superstructures learned on top of genetically inherited tendencies or drives toward more or less need for excitement, dominance, obedience, introversion/extroversion, sex, substance abuse, etc.

Genetically inherited drives/tendencies/tropism are not habits. Habits can be un-learned. Genetically inherited behavioral tendencies cannot be un-learned.

Yes, a person can and should can resist bad behavioral tendencies as much as they can. However, biology is destiny and pre-destiny for most humans.

Biology is not an excuse for bad behavior, however. People revealed to have bad genes should be discouraged or even prevented from passing on their biological heritage, unless and until bioengineering can change such gene structures.

-- Your 21st Century Calvinist

David Davenport said...

"If behavior were chosen by an utterly free will, then we really couldn't hold people responsible for their actions.

Why not?

... That entity would not be deterred by the threat of punishment, or be ashamed by the prospect of opprobrium, or even feel the twinge of guilt that might inhibit a sinful temptation in the future,

Why not?

... because it could always choose to defy those causes of behavior.

Whoever said that is wrong.

The hypothetical existence of free will doesn't necessarily mean that one is oblivious to or immune to social pressure to conform, or to feelings of guilt.

In general, if a person had free will, why would that person necessarily and invariably choose to be Lucifer?

Pia J said...

" All the while they were ahead of you on the demographic curve, and knowing what was coming, were trying to fight for their survival. " - Headache

VS

"The hypothetical existence of free will doesn't necessarily mean that one is oblivious to or immune to social pressure to conform, or to feelings of guilt.

In general, if a person had free will, why would that person necessarily and invariably choose to be Lucifer?" - DD

Conformity and the type of social pressure used to instill guilt in the nonconformist are culturally determined. Though I have noticed a certain phenotype that jumps on the bandwagon of any group proclaiming itself the arbiter of morality in society without noticing or caring that those values have changed drastically.

Were you a hall monitor in elementary school, DD? I won't comment much on your bringing Lucifer into the discussion except to say it smacks of the same baleful motive as the totalitarians who cry NAZI! at every perceived infraction.

I think this would make an interesting war of two words in our minimalist society, btw:

Marxist: "NAZI!"
Mindless Patriarch: "LUCIFER!"
Marxist: "NAZI!"
Mindless Patriarch: "LUCIFER!"

Now, if Headache starts a survivalist camp somewhere, I'd join and OBEY. Go suck your thumb, DD, and stay out of trouble.

headache said...

"Its one hell of an inheritance to leave a country's children."


Talk about it. I'm in the process of extracting my folks from South Africa. What a battle. On top of having to cope in a foreign country, competing with well-trained Europeans in a declining job market. Of course the poor whites left back in South Africa have no way out. Maybe miscegenation is the only viable personal option for them. I never thought I’d even contemplate that.

Whoever was the architect of the disasters Rhodesia, South Africa and maybe the US in the future is an evil bastard.

Ronduck said...

Maybe miscegenation is the only viable personal option for them. I never thought I’d even contemplate that.

There has to be another option. If millions of Mexicans can illegally immigrate to America, and millions of Muslims can be invited into Europe the Whites of Azania should have an option, even if it means violating the laws of the remaining Western countries.

Ronduck said...

Headache, my response didn't make through the filter, sorry.

Anonymous said...

I see the potential for medications/gene therapy to assist people in overcoming their genetic predispositions.

David said...

Pia,

Mindless Patriarch wasn't calling you (or anyone) the devil. He was making a subtle philosophical point.

And to answer M.E., here is Milton giving Lucifer's self-justification: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Free will.

Thoughts said...

I hope these speakers will discuss the "readiness potential" where brain activity related to a conscious decision precedes the conscious awareness of the decision by up to 7 seconds (See Conscious free will)

Pia J said...

"And to answer M.E., here is Milton giving Lucifer's self-justification: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." Free will." - David

Heaven & Hell - Those being the only two choices oh, subtle one. I'm not sure if I'm more appalled by your lack of nuance or your rhetorical extremes. Mind your words now, with all these open mics you can never be truly certain you're alone even in the privacy of your own home.