Thursday, December 24, 2009

More than just 'holidays'

Many if not most human cultures have some kind of celebration at around the beginning of winter -- our holiday season.  Not just a time for food, drink, and gifts, we are supposed to reflect on life -- peace on earth, goodwill and all that.

But peace? Goodwill? Is't possible? Can humans really manage that, or are we programmed for selfishness and conflict, as is so often asserted?

If our genes make us what we are, then the prospects are bleak. The philosophical idea of 'free will' is a phantom.

But, to us, that's too simple -- even without becoming misty eyed, much less mystic, one can assert that, mere collections of molecules though we may be, we are not automotons.

There are at least two substantial ways in which this is so. First, there may be truly probabilistic aspects of nature and thus, if each atom is essentially probabilistic -- moving around and bumping into other molecules at random, then the law of large numbers may mean that in some ways our states are constrained -- it's exceedingly unlikely, even if possible, that all your molecules and a wall's molecules would line up such that you can walk through the wall. However, the countless molecules and cells of which we're made work, and developed as we were embryos and as we live, in so many probabilistic ways that there is much greater latitude in our behavior than is often stated by people searching for what makes us human. Even if each molecule's movement follows some probabilistic behavior, development and subsequent life are contingent: the state today, no matter how probabilistically derived, sets the stage for tomorrow with its own probabilistic elements.

This would be true even if there is nothing truly probabilistic in Nature. If even the positions of electrons, that seem to be probabilistic, are actually following some law that we just haven't figured out yet, still there is so much unpredictability in ourselves, and in our social and physical environments, that we are largely unpredictable, when it comes to complex things like behaviors, which are often, if not typically, hard even to define.

That means that, generally speaking, the amount of predetermination in our behavior is small, perhaps even negligible. And thus, there is at least a substantial degree of what is for every practical purpose free will, so that we can in principle will freedom from genetic determination in many ways. If as a species we can't manage to do that in practice and persistently repeat tragic actions, it is in ourselves, and not in our stars, that we are underlings.

Perhaps in this season of reflection we might put more attention on how our molecular nature allows us to be unpredictable and hence able to make decisions, than the amount of attention that is currently spent on trying to find out how we are predetermined in almost any trait you can name.

So we don't celebrate holidays because our genes (or the devil, or the advertisers) make us do it -- it's a choice we make. But can we do more than that? Can we be better at living up to what we say we believe in? At least, it is a hope we would express at this time of year.

1 comment:

Holly Dunsworth said...

We will do our best. Thank you for this.