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Adrian Roberts

Volition vs Determinism; Nature vs Nuture.

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Ayn Rand believed strongly that we make our own choices and are responsible for them. She believed we are free agents who use Volition in deciding on our life choices, and rejected any kind of Determinism. Probably that is what attracted most of us to her philosophy.

However, since she was writing, psychology and neurology have moved on considerably. I am not claiming to be expert enough to go into details of the proof of this, but it seems that the current scientific understanding is that people's character traits depend on how their brains work, at least to some extent. How their brains work is a mixture of genes and early developmental experiences.

I don't think that many would claim that this takes away free will entirely, rather that people's genes or upbringing mean that they are more likely to make certain decisions. I can walk past a casino or betting shop and not feel the need to go inside and place a bet. I have my vices, but I am too mean for gambling to be one of them. But someone with an addiction to gambling would not be able to walk past without being tempted to go inside. At least that would be his excuse “I couldn't help myself!” The reality is that he does have a choice, but it is more difficult to exercise it. That is how his brain works – his temptations are due to his genes. Similarly with homosexuality: current Reason-based scientific thinking is that this trait is either genetic, or if developmental then it is rooted so early in a child's development that it might as well be genetic. A person does not choose to be gay. They have a choice, not about their orientation but about who they have sex with, or very often in the past Society imposes that choice on them: but their genes will influence their choices about whether they go against social norms. Generally, I think people are free and have volition, but their choices will be channelled by genetic or societal factors. Does this distinction pose any problems for Objectivism?

I wonder how much of my own development has been of my own choice. For most of my life I was a Christian. I was over forty before doubts started to creep in and over fifty before I ditched religion and became effectively an atheist. Most churches are very close communities where everyone reinforces each other's thinking and most people cannot conceive that they could possibly be wrong. Why did I break out and everyone else not? I like to think it is because I am more intelligent but I am sure that is not the case: there are highly intelligent people who are Christians. Possibly I am more likely to use Reason to follow my thinking to its logical conclusion, and change my mind if faced with enough evidence. I would like to think that free-thinking was my Volition and therefore a moral strength, but more likely that trait pre-exists within me, probably genetic in origin. Some psychologists have postulated the idea that people are religious because they have a religious gene: which is nonsense if taken literally, but feasible if it means that a certain combination of genes may cause people to surrender their thoughts to a religious code. In which case, presumably I changed because I don't have that gene combination and my religiosity was socially driven: my friends and family have always been mainly from Church circles. But after leaving religion, why did I turn to Objectivism? Not all atheists are Objectivists; Marx and Lenin weren't! Obviously it was because there were certain aspects of Objectivism that chimed with me. I wasn't converted as such; I found something that I like: but how much of my leaning towards Objectivism was due to a process of Reason, and how much to my underlying personality, I am not sure.

Thoughts, anyone?

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