Freedom of Choice? Beyond Nature & Nurture

As I entered my senior year in college (CCNY), I had to start seriously thinking what I was going to do with my life “when I grew up”. With an almost straight “A” average in my college grades, I understood that I could get into almost any graduate school of my choice – but in what? For the first time in my life, I had to “introspect” – not something easy to do for a 21-year-old “whippersnapper” (for those too young to have heard this term, it means a young and inexperienced person considered to be presumptuous or overconfident). I had a good mind, and even “better” mouth – indeed, my cousin babysitters, Ruthie and Naomi used to say about me when I toddled into the room: “here comes the mouth”!

After a while and some “consultation” with a few of my college professors, I whittled down my choices to two relevant (for me) possibilities: Law School or Graduate School (for a PhD). With my grades, I was almost a sure-bet to get into Harvard Law and Harvard Graduate School for Arts & Sciences (GSAS). Which was it to be?

The considerations were pretty straightforward (I am only slightly exaggerating here): if I go to Harvard Law, within 5 years of graduating I would probably be earning $500,000 a year (and that’s back in the mid-1970s!). If I attend Harvard GSAS, then I would be earning about $50,000 annually. A no-brainer? Not exactly. A high-powered career in Law meant (still means) that I would be working close to 24/7/365: oodles of money and no personal, free time. A career as a professor meant far less money but a lot more freedom to do what I want professionally, when I want, and how I want.

“Prof. Sam” provides the clue to my ultimate choice. And I have never regretted that decision.

 One of the most hotly debated issues in academia these days is the Nature/Nurture divide. Simply put: in the way we behave and think, are humans mostly/completely a product of our biological-genetic makeup, or mainly influenced by our environment (social and physical), e.g. parental upbringing, education, societal norms, weather etc? I do not intend here to dive into this very thorny controversy, but only remark that the latest scientific research (e.g. epigenetics) clearly shows the interaction between the two.

However, there is a third factor here that is not given much attention: personal choice, otherwise known as “free will”. That too is a highly fraught term in contemporary scholarship, with serious arguments – philosophical and neuro-scientific – on both sides of the issue. Some argue that our decisions are a deterministic product of all the internal and external forces that impinge on us. For instance, why do I choose to eat a banana right now? First, because I am hungry (internal pressure); second, because I read somewhere (external) that bananas have potassium which I need after playing an hour or so of intensive basketball. Others claim that “we” don’t really have free will because it turns out (incontrovertible empirical research) that our brains make a decision (for us?) a split second before we are aware that we have decided!

Our common sense understanding of free will, however, accepts that at the extreme margins, we do not have “free will”. We are all aware that we can’t decide to have our bodies fly through the air or see through walls; without the necessary wealth, most of us can’t simply decide to take a round-the-world cruise over the next two years; and so on. Our internal, physical makeup and external, social environment puts quite a lot of restrictions on our “free will”. We live with that because “that’s the way it is”.

Between those polar extremes, though, we do feel that we can make choices large and small – even if they are in some loose way influenced by other life factors. After all, if instead of educating us our parents had put us in an isolation cage for eighteen years with almost no external stimuli, our choices in life would be far more circumscribed (no language, no education, no exercise etc). By being “out in the world”, we are pushed and pulled by an almost infinite number of “influences”. And yet, we are not a planet stuck in orbit around a sun for time immemorial; we can determine to some – and even a large extent – our personal life orbit.

However – and here’s the key point – in order to make choices based on some measure of free will, we have to be aware of the “deterministic” factors around and within us that might cause us to act more like a gravity-captured planet rather than individuals with freedom of choice. In short, it is not so much political dictators that prevent us from acting freely; it is our own lack of self-cognizance regarding what is pushing and pulling us down a “pre-determined” path.

This involves several things:

First, as Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman (and his pre-Nobel-deceased research partner Amos Twersky) have shown, our cognitive apparatus (aka: “brain”) is full of traps and obstacles to clear thinking. We leap (in this case, “jump” is too mild a word) to conclusions without sufficient evidence or logical thought. Not only the “uneducated”; professors and researchers/scientists are almost as guilty of this – especially regarding almost any topic not within their field of expertise. (By the way, expert knowledge is not the reason that at least within their expertise they don’t fall into mental traps, but rather that in such fields they have been trained to weigh the evidence in “reasonable” fashion; unfortunately, such thinking patterns are not easily transferable to other topics.)

Second, we are all influenced in some way by social norms: some blatant, others subtle. Blatant: in theory, there is no reason why we couldn’t all walk around without clothes on (when it’s warm enough), but we don’t because society clearly does not approve – which is why “nudist colonies” are almost always found in remote regions. Subtle: in America, we expect our conversationalist partner to stand about a yard/meter away from us; in Latin countries, that’s considered to be “distant” (literally and figuratively). No one in any of these countries ever thinks about the norm of “personal space” until meeting another culture where the norm is different. But in our own society we all act (a bit more or less) in accordance with that norm. I won’t repeat here what I have already noted in a previous “Prof. Sam” essay (“Connections”) regarding the great impact living within a social environment has upon us.

Third, if societal norms reflect the macro-situation, then our family and close friends also have expectations regarding our behavior. Indeed, as Muzafer Sherif’s famous pre-teenager, color war experiment found in the 1950s, it doesn’t even have to be someone we are close to – it’s enough to feel “part of the group”. We are all social animals, having evolved eons ago in groups of around 50 people – so when we’re in a group of any “small” size, we will quickly adhere to what’s “expected from us” in order to “survive” (other researchers have now found that the maximum number of people we can be truly friendly-with/close-to is around 150). To take but one kind of example, movies such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Big Sick” seriously (and hilariously) show how family pressure can significantly restrict our ability to make major life decisions for ourselves.

Luckily for me, my mother was not the “my son the lawyer” type. Would my decision to pursue a career in academia have been different were she that sort of mom? Who knows? But if I had to make that decision thirty years earlier (the 1930s), when antisemitism ran rampant in professorial academia (not that the legal profession back then was a bastion of tolerance), I probably would not have chosen this career.

Fourth and finally, the matter of free will and our conscious decision-making process is greatly complicated by a phenomenon that only recently have neuroscientists become aware of, one that I mentioned above: it is not clear who/what is the “I” making the decision! Before I continue, apologies for the semantic confusion this might cause, because our language has not caught up with the latest research. I will use the first person here to make things easier.

When I am faced with a decision of any sort, I eventually decide what to do. But it turns out that my brain makes the decision about four-tenths of a second before “I” (consciously) do! Of course, my brain “belongs” to me, but still there is a difference between “me” deciding and my brain deciding for me before I am aware of it. How does this affect our concept of “free will”? You decide (pun intended): either our free will stays intact (I am my brain, so in fact I made that decision), or it becomes a slippery concept (I was not aware that my brain was “deciding for me”).

The bottom line: we are always “free” in theory to make our own decision, but the degree of such freedom is heavily dependent on the number and power of the cognitive and social obstacles we have to overcome to make such a personal choice – not to mention our understanding of what/who exactly “we” are when deciding something. Greater personal freedom, then, is not only a matter of “freeing” ourself but also (perhaps primarily?) reducing society’s strictures and expectations of what each of us should be doing and deciding, as well as being aware of subconscious processes deep in the recesses of “our” mind.

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