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Adrian Roberts

Volition vs Determinism; Nature vs Nuture.

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14 posts in this topic

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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1 hour ago, Adrian Roberts said:

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 read somewhere in recent weeks, something to the effect of a brain is not puddy pounded in to shape by experience

In my own words, what is being suggested is that the brain, and the sum of all it's functions, it's ideas, characteristics, or traits are not a direct product of their environment or genetic makeup.

That the individual is relatively free of being just a pounded mold.

Reading is a good example of what molds a person. Intellectually and physiologically, a person develops upwardly or downward on the intellectual scale.

And if you want to be just a product of an environment, it's especially good to be an environment that includes a high volume of reading.

 

 

Edited by Marzshox

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6 hours ago, Adrian Roberts said:

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.

Thoughts, anyone?

I'm always happy to share my thoughts on religion. As far as I can tell, you're not giving yourself enough credit for independence of thought. The idea that some sort of genetic condition insures that one would never abandon belief in any deity seems unlikely. But, of course, I am no expert either. Indeed, there are many persons of genius ability, both historically and contemporary, who hold to Christian and/or some other deist belief. It seems you've arrived at your atheism through independence of thought; by what motivations for your doubt, only you can say. It's been my understanding that people who hold any faith in supernatural phenomenon simple lack motivation to engage in the depth of thought that leads to doubt, and ultimately to disbelief. To support this, I cannot present any body of evidence, only personal experiences of conversations with the faithful. Religion has been an institution deemed so important to humanity, since the time of our hominid ancestors to the present, that publicly challenging this "sacred" institution may still engender distrust among most people, hostility from others. It would stand to reason that there may be a few among the genius-level intellects of our time who reserve their private thoughts of doubt and/or disbelief to themselves for the purpose of social convention. Indeed, Marx and Lenin were not shy about their religious views, but when these were two of the most famous (infamous) atheists in history, an atheist may be inclined to keep his/her atheism a matter of personal conscience. I think this is unfortunate. I believe more professionals in the intellectual fields should be more open about their atheism, if for no other reason, it may encourage more non-professional intellectuals to be more open about reason-based solutions in our democratic societies.  

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It's too simplistic to say that temptations are due to genes. Genes would certainly alter, say, how dopamine or serotonin is processed after taking cocaine. But it doesn't say if or how cocaine is in fact enticing. The thing about addiction is that a person can strongly habituate behaviors enough so that they may as well have lost control once they even see cocaine. Addiction doesn't start in a vacuum, it is built up over a long time, including how people around you talk about addiction, or one's beliefs about drugs.

My point is that genes certainly impacts how information is processed, just as being blind from a form of brain damage has nothing to do with volition. But what leads to your choices has to do with numerous factors, especially how you end up thinking about the information you are faced with. None of this I see as contrary to Objectivism. Volition isn't some disembodied power, it's part of your whole self, body included. Some constraints on how it works doesn't mean you can't help yourself.

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Thanks for the comments. I've been debating on other forums with people who believe that our genes mean there is no such thing as free will. Not unexpectedly, these people would label themselves as left-wing. Objectivism's emphasis on volition may not be totally attainable, but it is still a higher ideal to aim for. The point is to make the best of whatever opportunities we do have, and break out of constraints that may be imaginary.

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I don't think it's their left-wingness that matters here (to say social constraints exist isn't saying you lack an ability to choose to act), and if anything, they're probably arguing against the libertarian free will position that I agree is wrong. I don't think Objectivism takes that position, although people on this forum have argued for it. The emphasis on volition is entirely attainable, as long as you recognize where your control lies and what genes in fact control. Genes don't control behaviors, and usually it's bad science to say genes explain why behaviors happen. What usually happens is that for things apparently genetic are really just things learned early on. Early development isn't "may as well be genetic", it's a hot topic in psychology to talk about what is learned early (implying volition) or what was there to begin with.

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From my understanding there is very little required to prove free will: Determinism is a self-contradiction!

If you had no free will, how would you even know you have no free will? Does that knowledge flow to you automatically? Yes? So it's not actually true that there's no free will, it's just those damn genes or whatever "forcing" you to think that?

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1 hour ago, DiscoveryJoy said:

From my understanding there is very little required to prove free will: Determinism is a self-contradiction!

If you had no free will, how would you even know you have no free will? Does that knowledge flow to you automatically? Yes? So it's not actually true that there's no free will, it's just those damn genes or whatever "forcing" you to think that?

That proves that free will is an axiom, not that we have free will. The proof that we have free will is introspection and observation of other people:

"Free will is self evident through observation. Further, it can be demonstrated by as many arguments as you care to muster. Everything you observe about human consciousness tells you that it operates by choice: not only your introspection, but also your observation of other people." (from Ayn Rand Answers, p. 152)

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2 hours ago, William O said:

That proves that free will is an axiom, not that we have free will. The proof that we have free will is introspection and observation of other people.

What's the difference? If you've proven that free will is an axiom, you have proven it's metaphysically given existence.

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1 hour ago, DiscoveryJoy said:

What's the difference? If you've proven that free will is an axiom, you have proven it's metaphysically given existence.

You can not prove any axiom is an axiom. No axiomatic concept can be proved because there is no way of escaping the importation of those axiomatic concepts into the premises on which your proof necessarily depends, i.e. there is no way to escape circular reasoning. Volition's status as metaphysically given can not be proved because it is its status and reality as being metaphysically given that makes possible the concept, application, and method of any and all proofs. Volition is the means by which we direct/steer our cognition and assign the status of things like "true" and "proved" and so volition can not then itself be judged as true or be proven.

Edited by KALADIN

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14 hours ago, DiscoveryJoy said:

What's the difference? If you've proven that free will is an axiom, you have proven it's metaphysically given existence.

The objection you gave to determinism is a reductio starting from the assumption that determinism is true ("if determinism is true, then you don't know that determinism is true"). However, since all knowledge comes from observation, a reductio by itself cannot establish that free will exists in the absence of observations supporting free will's existence. It only establishes that you have to start with free will, not that we have free will.

I would argue that this is a bit of a moot point since there are so many observations supporting the existence of free will, as Rand pointed out in the quote I gave in my previous post. However, it is important to keep the proper hierarchy in mind so that you avoid rationalism.

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Kaladin said:

Quote

You can not prove any axiom is an axiom. No axiomatic concept can be proved because there is no way of escaping the importation of those axiomatic concepts into the premises on which your proof necessarily depends, i.e. there is no way to escape circular reasoning.

The above equivocates proof of axiomatic status with proof of the truth of an axiom. Dr. Peikoff addresses that difference in the 1976 lectures. One can prove that something is an axiom but only by presupposing and relying on the truth of that axiom. One can only validate that the axioms are true but that is not the same as proving that some concept is in fact axiomatic.

All axioms are true but not all truths are subject to "proof".

EDIT:

Dr. Peikoff recapitulates the same point in OPAR:

Quote

The foregoing is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is a proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable. This proof itself, however, relies on the axioms. Even in showing that no opponent can escape them, Ayn Rand too has to make use of them. All argument presupposes these axioms, including the argument that all argument presupposes them.

 

Edited by Plasmatic

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21 hours ago, Plasmatic said:

Kaladin said:

The above equivocates proof of axiomatic status with proof of the truth of an axiom. Dr. Peikoff addresses that difference in the 1976 lectures. One can prove that something is an axiom but only by presupposing and relying on the truth of that axiom. One can only validate that the axioms are true but that is not the same as proving that some concept is in fact axiomatic.

All axioms are true but not all truths are subject to "proof".

EDIT:

Dr. Peikoff recapitulates the same point in OPAR:

 

Thanks for the correction.

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On 4/12/2016 at 8:43 PM, Plasmatic said:

Kaladin said:

The above equivocates proof of axiomatic status with proof of the truth of an axiom. Dr. Peikoff addresses that difference in the 1976 lectures. One can prove that something is an axiom but only by presupposing and relying on the truth of that axiom. One can only validate that the axioms are true but that is not the same as proving that some concept is in fact axiomatic.

All axioms are true but not all truths are subject to "proof".

EDIT:

Dr. Peikoff recapitulates the same point in OPAR:

 

Okay, fair enough, I wasn't using the term "proof" in that strict of a sense, but merely indicating that something is somehow "demonstrated" or "made to surface" by my argument.

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