Two weeks ago, we began discussing the conundrum of freewill verses determinism through the fictional court case of People vs. Dr. G. Petto. As you may recall, Dr. Petto is a scientist who constructed an android named Pinocchio that was programmed to be free and, thereafter, killed a human being. As Pinocchio’s creator and programmer, Dr. Petto finds himself accused of murder.
In this third and final column on this subject, I make my closing arguments on why I believe the android’s actions (and mankind’s, by analogy) are free. I begin by acknowledging that science has discovered more about the operation of the brain in the past fifty years than it has ever before. For example, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson studied our genetic makeup and founded the discipline of sociobiology, which traces the biological basis of social behavior. In addition, advances in evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, neurophysiology and neuroscience have together, formed an interesting set of lenses through which we can study and very accurately predict human behavior. Even so, I wholeheartedly maintain that we, and my client’s android, act freely.
It is elementary that none of us act in a vacuum. We possess an integrated mind-body system, which is very complex. Much of our behavior is generated by emotions and, to some extent, the subconscious. Additionally, our genes determine which personality orientation we will inherit. Whether we are careless or careful, sloppy or neat, impatient or patient—all can be traced to genetics. For example, if we have a shorter stretch of DNA that inhibits serotonin in chromosome 17, we are more likely to be anxious and neurotic.
It’s as if we find ourselves in a sticky web of predispositions. It is, therefore, not surprising that, to the social scientist, our decisions are often predictable and easily manipulated by neurological, genetic, environmental, cultural, emotional and political forces.
The mistake of those who champion determinism, including Dr. Petto’s prosecutor, is a failure to differentiate between predispositions, as described above, and predeterminations or tight causal connections. To illustrate the point, let’s recall the recent movie, The Best of Enemies, which highlights the true story of Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis who trafficked in racism and segregation his whole life. When, however, he was called to cast the deciding vote on school integration in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, he shocked everyone by voting in favor of school integration. The vote violated every predisposition he had ever been exposed to; yet, his life experiences caused him to choose to reevaluate his values and override those predispositions.
Like C.P. Ellis, we have and continuously experience the feeling that there are alternatives when we act. While we may choose to continue to advance the preferences we already enjoy for whatever reason, we also have the power to reverse course. If not, diets, self-help courses, political debates, couples counseling, and so on and so forth, would all be for naught. The important fact here is that we choose to continue to act as before or we choose to change. Even if the majority of us act as predicted, it is still in the act of choosing to not change that we exercise our freedom.
When I was 22 years old, I was confronted with a major life decision—do I continue my graduate studies in philosophy, do I go to law school, do I get a job, or do I join the military? As you are aware, I went to law school because I decided that the best way I could help people was to become a lawyer. My choice was a rational one, made after careful deliberation. However, the final decision was based on my value system, which a scientist could argue is traceable to genetics, upbringing and other factors, all of which made my choice predictable. Predicable, but not inevitable! If I were to do it over again, it is entirely possible that I might choose differently. The decision is always wholly mine to make. It was an exercise in free choice in 1971, and it would be again today.
Those of us who believe we act freely, even as we are pushed and pulled by a myriad of forces, fall into two major schools of thought. The first group, which I subscribe to, adheres to the position that we are free as long as we do what we want to do, even if we have no control over our wants and desires. The second group, known as traditional Libertarian, not to be confused with political libertarians, hold that we act freely only if our wants and desires are under our control as well. For me, the classic Libertarian position, although attractive, is unrealistic. We have the power to evaluate, change and even resist our predispositions, but whether we succeed depends largely on our self-awareness and our strength of character. As you can imagine, it’s not easy.
Intimately intertwined with my notion of freedom, comes the concept of responsibility. As long as we are conscious, free beings, we are responsible. As we act we all experience the fact that how we think, feel, and behave are all up to us. This is the feeling the android experienced at the moment it took a human life. Its depraved act was not necessitated by any action by my client, G. Petto.
It is certainly true that we are constantly told how we should think, feel and act by society, church, friends, laws, political partisans and conscience; but, whether we acquiesce to these outside forces or instead forge our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior is an act of freedom itself—and one that is entirely up to us.
So, I leave you with this concluding thought. Throughout human history, it is clear that we, as a species, are dreamers. From the moment we enter into this world, regardless of our situation, we have the ability to entertain a million dreams. Even as we realize their impossibility, we may continue to strive for these goals. We do this because we cannot do otherwise. To exist is to be free. The most important contribution of the existentialist movement is its rallying cry that to be free is to act, to take initiative, to make choices, to accept responsibility, to dream big dreams, to succeed, to fail, but always to try. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We discover our freedom by making choices. Any life situation that forces an individual to become acutely aware that he is making free choices expands his consciousness and enhances his capacity for freedom.”
It should be abundantly clear by now that there is no clear evidence to demonstrate that we, or the android, act without choice. Thus, just like us, Pinocchio must embrace responsibility for his actions, whether praise, indifference or, in this case, condemnation.