“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.” Sam Harris, in his book Free Will
This is not an argument that we can’t make choices, only that we don’t understand or control our hidden motivations for the choices we make, and therefore, we don’t control or understand our choice-making. He also points to the genetic factors that are becoming more understood as the science evolves of the genetic factors that contribute to our motives. To clarify, he adds:
“Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom—for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”
Last year I read the book Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein. Elyse and Paula were part of a group of Jewish twins (and one set of triplets) who were deliberately separated at birth by their adoption agency and then studied to understand the role of nature vs. nurture. The book is compelling, and interspersed with facts about twins that are surprising and disconcerting.
“Even in cases where there is a great disparity in education and home environment, separated identical twins are shown to be more similar in their IQs than fraternal twins and adoptive siblings of the same age.”
Inherent intelligence can be taken even further, as in this example:
“In the case of separated British identical twin girls, one attended exclusive private schools and the other grew up in a lower-middle-class setting and quit school at sixteen. When the twins were tested at MSTRA as adults, their IQ scores were only a point apart. Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, found that the IQ scores of identical twins were nearly as alike as the IQ scores of the same person tested twice.”
In other words, despite the prevalent thinking that we can read to a child and greatly alter their outcomes or send everyone to college and suddenly have a much smarter populace, the likelihood is that genetics are the greatest factor, unseen and unknowable, in how smart individuals are. What else is driven by genetics rather than environment? Potentially a lot. Paula and Elyse found that their political views differed from both their home environments in the same direction:
“Compared to our parents, who tend to be more middle of the road, Elyse and I fall somewhere left of center. One would expect that our political views would be entirely shaped by our environment, but research suggests otherwise.”
That either indicates that one’s political views are more genetically-driven than influence-driven, or it could mean that rebelling against parental views is a genetic trait! We all know that weight and body type are influenced by genetics, but so are factors like what you eat and whether you like to exercise. Genetics hit across several influencing factors:
“Approximately 80 percent of the variation in relative body weight among people is due to genetic differences. Not only can genes influence metabolism, but they can also affect behaviors such as eating and exercise.”
Separated twin studies get even more eerie than this, though, when it comes to twins separated at birth. Consider this story:
“Identical twins Ingrid and Olga, separated at two months of age, first met at age thirty-five and discovered that they had each stopped menstruating around age eighteen. Both sexually active, they each assumed they were pregnant and married their boyfriends. A few months later, they both got their periods.”
What about our moods and a tendency to be happy or depressed? This was something the nefarious twin study that separated Elyse and Paula intended to evaluate by selecting parents with mental illness to track how these potentially biologically inherited mental illnesses manifested in separated twins placed in disparate home environments. Dr. David Lykken shared insight into how one’s genetics affect mood:
“[He] concluded that individuals are born with an innate happiness “set point,” an equilibrium to which their mood returns, despite life circumstances. . . About half of your sense of well-being is determined by your set point, which is from the genetic lottery, and the other half from the sorrows and pleasures of the last hours, days, or weeks. . . . [There is] little difference in well-being among identical twins raised together, compared with those raised apart.”
Just because twins tend to behave the same way doesn’t mean that they understand that it’s inherent. We all create what we think are rational explanations for our behavior:
“Neubauer writes about a set of male twins separated at birth who were both neat and clean to a compulsive degree. One brother attributed this tendency to the fact that his adoptive mother was so fastidious and the other one blamed it on the fact that his adoptive mother was a slob.”
If the following example of twins doesn’t raise an eyebrow, it should:
“The Jim Twins discovered they both drove the same type of Chevrolet, chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, and liked stock car racing, woodworking, and football. They both weighed 180 pounds and they had identical blood pressure. They had each undergone vasectomies and suffered from hemorrhoids, high blood pressure, and migraines. Both had grown up with an adopted brother called Larry and, as children, each Jim had had a dog named Toy. They both married women named Linda and then, after divorcing, married women named Betty. One Jim had a son named James Alan. The other Jim’s son was James Allan.”
If you’ve ever felt like the odd one out in your family, there’s a reason for that:
“Bouchard determined that identical twins reared apart were more alike than fraternal twins reared together, which suggests that growing up together does not necessarily make family members more alike.”
So while your own traits may be in your genetics, bear in mind that you only share about 50% of your DNA with your direct family members but twins share 100%. That’s a big difference. Thomas Bouchard conducted a famous study of identical twins separated at birth, starting in 1979. More information can be found here.
“Bouchard and his team have published about 130 papers detailing their findings, which suggested that adult identical twins perform about the same on most physiological and psychological tests, regardless of whether they were raised together or not. “I wanted to find out how the environment works to shape psychological traits,” Dr. Bouchard said in Kay Cassill’s Twins: Nature’s Amazing Mystery. “But every conceivable trait we’ve looked at turns up some genetic influence.””
“Virtually every theory since Freud had suggested that primarily environment shaped personality. Bouchard found otherwise.”
What do you think?
- If personality and choice are mostly driven by genetic factors, how much responsibility do individuals bear for their choices?
- Is free will an illusion?
- Is it helpful to understand through DNA testing or other means what aspects of our personalities are driven by genetics?
- Do you have a happiness set-point to which you return despite setbacks and successes? Is it higher or lower than that of other people you know?
First I think this area is fascinating. I did a post about 2 years back on the subject of free will. I am still chewing on what Dr. Robert Sapolsky said. He doesn’t believe in free will as he thinks it is just “undiscovered biology.” But then he goes on and admits that even though he has written several books on and around this topic, he feels it doesn’t make sense in his day to day life. He feels like he does and needs to have free will. Just looking at his beard alone makes you realize this guy is quite the thinker.
I was one of the oldest from a rather large family and I certainly have felt for decades that there sure seemed like a lot of “nature” and even with my parents trying to “nurture” us all the same – we were VERY different. And we still are today. I have seen it in my own kids. There is the one that has always asked, “why?” (over and over and over). One that didn’t ask “why” all the time, but instead worked to figure out the why on his own.
I do see that people seem to have a happiness set point. I am no cheerleader, but I do seem to wake up to each day with a positive attitude. Others I have known for decades seem to have the same. But there are challenges that can overpower this – probably more on the negative side that the positive side.
I think this is a topic that will be studied for years and results will have skeptical push back. I will die before this issue is settled. See – there is my cheerful happiness set point in action! 🙂
As a parent of 26 year old identical twin girls that are only children, to me it is fascinating just how different they are! Being born at 30 weeks gestation and requiring being in the NICU for 8 weeks, they have lasting effects from that trauma. They are also what is called “mirror twins”. One is left handed, the other right. As their hair and teeth came in we saw the opposite patterns. As adults they actually have only a few interests that are the same. The ones that are the same I just chalk up to interests of their age group. I wonder sometimes if their differing interests are partly due to trying so hard to not be the same and to express their individuality. One is an introvert and being around people is mentally exhausting for her, while the other one is an extrovert and loves people. Yet, they are extremely close, having a bond that no one can understand, not even us as their parents. They also have different medical problems, which I won’t go into detail about.
You asked if we felt that personality is driven by genetics. I’m not sure on what to think about that. It’s interesting because since our twins were born we have felt like they chose to come to this life together. The one daughter, who is the introvert, just didn’t seem to want to be here. So, the story we all tell is that the extrovert twin took her by the hand and said let’s go together. The introvert really struggled as a child. After many doctors they said it was a delay in brain development from her early traumatic birth. As an adult she still struggles with some interactions with others, but has attained an amazing amount of coping skills which lead to her being able to serve a mission, and very well at that. She now lives on her own 500 miles away from us, graduated from college and has a good job. So, was it good parenting, good counseling through therapy, an amazing mission president, her brain finally maturing? The extrovert has struggled more as an adult with mental health issues. She seems to have the same intelligence, but not the drive to succeed that her sister has. Is it choice, personality, mental illness, or genetics?
I think we have to be very careful when many of us, especially in our Church, throw around the words agency and choice. I don’t think all of us have the same degree of ability to make good or bad choices. There are so many factors that influence our decision making. I wonder so often if those that are in prison had had the same background, brain development, and nurturing we had if they would have made the so called “choices” they did. I think we need to spend more time looking at motives of why people make the choices they do. Even many so called good choices are not made with mentally healthy motives.
Fascinating, just fascinating. Although I disagree with Sam Harris on free will. Daniel Dennett, a colleague of Harris’s, has taken him to task over his views on free will. On the free will vs. determinism debate he notes that “we are freer than our parts.” Free will and determinism are compatible. Our actions aren’t necessary not determined, but they are not inevitable.
Fascinating. This has obvious implications for Latter-day Saints, who place so much emphasis on agency.
In 9th grade biology, I was taught that the ability to roll one’s tongue was a dominant genetic trait. We were told to go home and see if our parents and siblings could roll their tongues. Neither of my parents could, yet my siblings and I all could. That wasn’t supposed to be possible, so I asked my biology teacher about it. He said, “well, have you ever considered that you’re adopted?” I thought about that for a while, but decided that while I might have been adopted, and my 2nd sibling might have been adopted, I had way too much evidence that my other siblings weren’t adopted. My mother simply could not have faked all that pregnancy. Of course, maybe they were switched in the hospital at birth, or (and this thought had never entered my young mind) maybe my mother had been messing around, but those things seem unlikely and my siblings looked like they belonged. That experience has given me a deep sense of skepticism regarding anything that comes out of human biological studies, and each decade’s health fads have only reinforced this skepticism.
My personal (ie., anecdotal) experience with identical twins has been that they’ve been fairly different people, and in some cases, very different ( in one case, one brother was gay and the other wasn’t). Obviously, genetics can be very influential to a person’s character, but just as obviously other things play into it as well, so I don’t find using twin studies as an argument against free will to be very compelling.
Furthermore, I don’t think disbelieving in free will is to any practical advantage. It’s kind of like the Calvinist belief that God’s already selected his elect and everybody else is going to hell regardless — if the indications of being God’s elect is that one lives a more righteous life and appears to be more blessed, then you might as well believe your choices matter and try to live a righteous life and try to achieve.
I’ll add that I emphaticallly agree with PJP’s last paragraph, especially the 2nd sentence.
This is one of those issues where Mormon doctrine sort of gets in the way of clear thinking. The doctrine of the Pre-existence of spirits precludes affirming the reasonable idea that spirits and bodies spring into being at roughly the same time and grow together, tightly linked until death, when the body dies but the spirit lives on to eventually be reunited with a new and improved body. That reasonable Christian view accords much better with twin studies and brain studies and so forth than the Mormon view.
Brain injury cases and dementia cases likewise affirm the tight connection between brain and mind or self or spirit. Personality changes, sometimes dramatic, often accompany such cases. It seems clear that the mind or self or spirit is not a free-standing autonomous entity but tightly linked and quite dependent on the brain. This presents a serious issue for conventional religion (and moreso for Mormonism) that goes beyond just the free will problem.
Martin: “I don’t think disbelieving in free will is to any practical advantage.” I agree with you on this one. We have to act as if we can control our outcomes, even if we can’t. However, maybe a middle way of understanding our predispositions, our genetic factors, and also being a titch more skeptical of our confidence in our decision-making and its accompanying rationale would not go amiss.
Dave B., I’m not sure why you think Mormon doctrine gets in the way of “clear thinking” in this regard (other than that seems to be your default position for a lot of things). Whether or not the spirit existed prior to conception doesn’t seem relevant to me in how much it is bound with the experience of the body. With respect to the LDS doctrine of agency, we all have our agency limited by the capacities of our bodies, and some clearly have more agency than others. The doctrine of agency simply states that we have some capacity to choose within the bounds of our personal circumstance, and that we are accountable for those choices. This is true for mental illness, traumatic brain injury, debilitating illness, etc.. As for identifying a “self”, the body/brain is part of that in mortality and presumably will be in immortality, it’s just that in immortality the mortal limitations will presumably be gone.
A very autistic young man I know recently managed to communicate for the first time via a letter board, and it blew everybody away at how much was going on in that severely isolated mind of his. Among other things, he believed that God had given him agency to react to the circumstances he was in and that he felt accountable for the choices he made. This is a kid whose brain simply cannot sort out the stimulus from his eyes and ears and cannot control much of his behavior. It can be months between times when he has control enough to even use the letter board. But apparently he believes he has some control over his attitude, at the very least. It’s very humbling.
Thanks HG for another interesting post. As a student of psychology this area is of great interest to me.
The intellectual tension between the behaviourists of the mid 20th century and the newer DNA and genetic approaches still continues. The complexity of human behaviour is not totally understood in either approach, but is instead understood together – for some people genetics will be a stronger determinant for others their environment.
As has been alluded to above, the interesting thing here is how this newer genetic understanding of behaviour interacts with the teachings of the church.
Whilst it sounds nice to state that the church allows for behavioural expression in light of a persons environmental circumstances, this is in practice mostly extended to those to whom an obvious condition is apparent. For example, someone of demonstrated lower IQ, a condition like Downs syndrome or a debilitating physical limitation.
Whilst there have been recent attempts by general authorities to include things like mental illness to this group, my feeling is that by and large, the culture of the church is such that it would understand that someone with depression would do well to pick up their bootstraps and adhere more closely to behavioural tenets like reading scriptures and attending the temple in an attempt to feel better.
This is particularly apparent to me with regards to people who either express suicidal intent or die by suicide. I served a mission in the early 1990’s and a few years ago an AP from our mission, who was happily married, had five children and by all reports was living a good life, died by suicide. He was in his mid 40’s.
A mutual friend made comments on social media that basically indicated he was selfish and that the decision to suicide was rash and inconsiderate to those around him. That opinion was broadly accepted and supported by those in our Facebook group where this news was posted.
It saddens me that doctrines / teachings and cultural practices of the church lead people so easily to such a position.
As an aside, I have often mused over the notion that most of the general church leaders were raised and / or received their formal education during the hay day of behaviouralism. I see disproportionate references to a “behaviourist” gospel message the older the leader. Bednar appears to be an outlier in this group, however.
“What do you think?”
Here we go again!
“If personality and choice are mostly driven by genetic factors, how much responsibility do individuals bear for their choices?”
All of it. I suppose someone could blame DNA, but to what purpose? Blame your mother, and her mother, all the way back to Eve; or your father, and his father, all the way back to Adam. It’s all their fault. And while possibly true, what of it? My daughter chose a very different path than I have chosen. The exact reasons for that difference do not matter much; a curiosity.
My father and most leftists in my opinion are of the “tabla rasa” belief that a person is shaped entirely and solely by environment, which led Karl Marx to advocate for State raising of children from the moment of birth so they are properly indoctrinated. I hope that even a blind person can see this is not the case.
“Is free will an illusion?”
It is if you define it a certain way. So long as when I go to Walmart I am free to choose chocolate or vanilla, then I have free will.
“Is it helpful to understand through DNA testing or other means what aspects of our personalities are driven by genetics?”
Probably, if they ever get it that fine-tuned. It might even persuade some Democrats to quit hating Republicans; after all, it’s in their DNA (and quite a bit of study shows it to be exactly that way).
“Do you have a happiness set-point to which you return despite setbacks and successes? Is it higher or lower than that of other people you know?”
Yes and seems to be higher. Getting me down is not easy and I tend not to stay down.
The similarities with twins also pertains to generations. I started taking pictures around six years old. I was also into technology, radio specifically.
My father was a radio engineer and a photographer. His father was a photographer, not sure what he did professionally (a bit odd, that). My mother’s father was Scotch and a radio engineer.
Like father like son. Well, more like grandfather like son, sometimes it skips a generation. My father was a tabla-rasa leftist (a genuine card carrying member of the Communist Party in his younger years). Somewhere along the way he realized that communism simply doesn’t work, there’s no way to make it work. But he never abandoned those far-left beliefs and I have never embraced them. Some of those ideas are pretty good, and when Jesus comes and destroys everyone that doesn’t like the new way, then everyone left will love the new way (United Order). We’ll slice that wealth exactly equally; you’ll get ten grams of a Tesla automobile and so will everyone else. Anything that cannot be plucked from a tree and given to everyone, whether anyone wants it or not, will not be permitted to exist.
We will be Equal and, finally, a “we”! Our name is Borg.
Michael 2: I don’t see how blaming one’s ancestors is a relevant option if our traits are genetic. After all, they were merely the inheritors of these genes they passed on, not their creators any more than we are. And as pointed out, we only share 50% DNA with our nearest relatives, so there’s no 1:1 blame ratio even if they did somehow bear blame. That’s a strange comment.
You say you want the political sides to get along, but you refer to your father as being part of “leftists” who believe in environment shaping personality. Again, I’m not sure where your assertion about liberal views coinciding with a belief in environment dictating outcomes originates. Nothing I encountered talked about a political slant to the research. Do you have a source for this?
Martin writes “A very autistic young man I know recently managed to communicate for the first time via a letter board, and it blew everybody away at how much was going on in that severely isolated mind of his.”
I have had similar experiences advancing Special Needs Boy Scouts at an Eagle Board of Review:
I asked, “On my honor, i will do my best to do my duty…. what is duty?”
He thought about it for five minutes or so and finally said, “Duty is doing what needs to be done at the time it needs doing by the person that can do it.”
The church teachings about how to use your individual, finite, agency seem to be a good way to improve society if one accepts the proposed hypothesis.
There are many social policies that look ridiculous if the hypothesis is accepted. Massive public spending on education for adults and for very marginal improvements in childhood education seems contraindicated. Many anti-poverty and racial preference policies seem illogical as well. Merely keeping people away from known very destructive behaviors and situations seems to produce outcomes close to those the best cultural and educational upbringing money can buy.
Angela C writes: “I’m not sure where your assertion about liberal views coinciding with a belief in environment dictating outcomes originates. Nothing I encountered talked about a political slant to the research. Do you have a source for this?”
I posted details but that message seems to have disappeared. Interesting. Probably forbidden knowledge; or at least embarassing. If you search on “Tabula Rasa Marxism” you will find abundance of information. It isn’t political per se, never was. Marxism isn’t political, it is social but social attaches itself to whatever political party is nearest. Same with libertarian; it is not political, it is social; but attaches for now to the Republican party.
Tabula Rasa (blank slate) proposes that 100 people given the same cultural, educational and other environmental factors, will turn out essentially identical (equal). Observed inequality of outcome must therefore be due to non-equal environments. While environment is doubtless a factor, the existence of highly successful persons that started out poor or disadvantaged shows that the explanation is inadequate.
Free will is a Continuum. There’s only so many cute that one can make, all heavily limited by the chain of choices one has made before, genetics, winning the lottery of being born in a developed nation and modern era, etc.
I think complete determinism is compatible with Calvinist, but not Mo-ism, or any Armenian tradition.
This essay fits in with the following in interesting ways:
The link is to an analysis of twin studies and homosexuality (including comments about the weaknesses in the studies).
For more reading on the topic (rather than a link to the criticisms of earlier work):
Interesting to see how the literature evolves.
Can you talk more about what you mean by the term “choice?” Barring one exception (below, and not really applicable in this context), it seems nonsensical to me to say that an argument against the existence of free will is not an argument against our making choices. It seems to me that any view that rejects free will completely (as does Harris) entails that all my actions are entirely determined by forces outside my control. How is that compatible with the concept of “choice,” in any meaningful sense? I take Harris to be arguing that choices don’t exist and are, therefore, entirely illusory.
The exception, of course, is the compatibilist position. Under that theory, “free” will is not free in the metaphysical sense, but in the political sense: I have free will if I can act on my motivations without constraints by other persons or human institutions. But compatibilism accepts that my genetics or physiology completely determine my motivations and actions.
For what it’s worth, I have identical twin boys. They are in the 40’s. Their wives are as different as night and day. Both are active in the Church. Son #1: socially moderate, politically conservative, religiously conservative, 1st councilor in the bishopric. Son #2: socially liberal, politically moderate, religiously moderate, boy scout leader. Same genetics, same growing up environment, similar educations. Similar jobs. One lives in DC, the other in Lehi. My beliefs: socially very liberal, politically liberal, religiously liberal (but inactive, probably agnostic).
We all clearly have some capacity to make our own decisions.
Billy Possum: Based on the definition of compatibilism, I think Sam Harris’s argument qualifies. I think you understand him correctly in your summary. We “choose,” but our choices are illusory, based on things we don’t understand about our natures, preferences and predilections below the surface that are guiding our choices.
I prefer E.M. Forster’s treatment of this topic to Sam Harris, though. From A Room with a View, a conversation between the Reverend Mr. Beebe and young George Emerson who have both turned up living in the same town after meeting on holiday in Italy. Mr. Beebe tries to start a conversation with taciturn George:
“When I was a young man, I always meant to write a ‘History of Coincidence.'”
“Though, as a matter of fact, coincidences are much rarer than we suppose. For example, it isn’t purely coincidentally that you are here now, when one comes to reflect.”
To his relief, George began to talk.
“It is. I have reflected. It is Fate. Everything is Fate. We are flung together by Fate, drawn apart by Fate–flung together, drawn apart. The twelve winds blow us–we settle nothing–”
“You have not reflected at all,” rapped the clergyman. “Let me give you a useful tip, Emerson: attribute nothing to Fate. Don’t say, ‘I didn’t do this,’ for you did it, ten to one. Now I’ll cross-question you. Where did you first meet Miss Honeychurch and myself?”
“And where did you meet Mr. Vyse, who is going to marry Miss Honeychurch?”
“Looking at Italian art. There you are, and yet you talk of coincidence and Fate. You naturally seek out things Italian, and so do we and our friends. This narrows the field immeasurably we meet again in it.”
“It is Fate that I am here,” persisted George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.”
Mr. Beebe slid away from such heavy treatment of the subject. But he was infinitely tolerant of the young, and had no desire to snub George.
“And so for this and for other reasons my ‘History of Coincidence’ is still to write.”
I prefer Mr. Beebe’s perspective on the matter, that we are drawn to things Italian which narrows the field immeasurably. But essentially, George is just taking this to a higher level and making the same argument. It might as well be fate. We don’t control being drawn to Italian things. These are innate preferences of which the origins are mostly hidden to us. We don’t consider why we choose what we choose and when we do, our reasons are usually pleasant fictions.
Regardless of our DNA, genetic make-up, environment, upbringing, handicaps, privileges or any other factor, we all have the agency to choose the way we treat each other. We can all choose to love God and love our neighbor.
This is a fascinating topic and I have the feeling that science is just starting to figure out free will. I’m skeptical that we have little or no conscious control over our thoughts. That being said I’m a big believer in genetics.
I was adopted at one week old by very orthodox LDS parents and raised in an almost painfully strict home, but I was always loved. My birth mother and birth father were excommunicated (separately) and have a rebellious streak in them. I behave nothing like my family. My education choices, political views, personality, interests, and happiness point are much more similar to my birth parents (particularly birth mom) than my adoptive parents – who did everything a good LDS parent is supposed to do. I actually think I would be happier if I were more like my adopted family.
Genetics influence us more than we think, and environment probably less than we think – but having read about genetics, our genes are almost incomprehensibly complex and difficult to decipher. Intelligence has a strong genetic component (as well as environmental) but we really have no idea what genes make people intelligent.
A weird comment sort of tying this all together. There are so many factors that determine whether someone is a good person and “deserved” to return to Heavenly Father that I think either a) everyone will return to Him because the test isn’t fair or b) we all unknowingly live in a simulator because it seems like the only fair life test or c) life is a cosmic joke, possibly the easiest explanation.