Philosophy

Does Behavioral Genetics Indicate Room for Free Will?

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Economist Bryan Caplan thinks that he thinks the answer might be yes:

Virtually every BG [behavioral genetics] study partitions variance into three sources: genes, shared family environment, and non-shared environment.  Typical estimates are something like 40-50% for genes, 0-10% for shared family environment, and 50% for non-shared environment.

And what exactly is non-shared environment?  Everything other than genes and family environment!

….suppose human beings had real, honest-to-goodness free will.  If it made a difference for behavior, where would it show itself?  In the BG framework, it would be filed under "non-shared environment."

….If you could fully account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, you'd count it as a confirmation of determinism, right?  Well, if you buy this argument, you also have to buy its mirror image: The harder it is to account for a person's choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, the stronger the case for free will.

…..Identical twins raised together are still, in many ways, very different.  The believer in free will can simply say, "The good twin and the evil twin just made different choices."  The determinist, in contrast, can only ask for a blank check: "One day, we're figure out the hidden forces that caused them to be so different.  Until then, bear with us."

…..I strongly suspect that if non-shared environment's contribution to behavioral variance were a lot smaller, determinists would be heralding the result as "proof" of their position. 

In May 2003, Ron Bailey interviewed philosopher Daniel Dennett about determinism for Reason magazine. Whether you click on this link to read it may or may not be up to you.

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  1. Although I disagree with him on many issues, Dennett is one of my favorite modern philosophers.

  2. There is no free will. There is just ignorance of the full spectrum of reasons why we do the things we do.

    As for the religious conception of Free Will… when cops treat citizens like that, we call it entrapment.

  3. Mrs TWC is an identical twin and despite the many uncanny similarities she shares with her twin sister, they are in many important and unimportant ways unique individuals.

    For one thing, her twin sister ain’t no libertarian (although she married one, ironically enough).

  4. Sugar, I have often argued that if it’s all genetic and free will is a myth then there is no point to classical liberal thought. That would explain why there are virtually no libertarians in America though. Because only 1.2% of the population has the small ‘L’ gene.

  5. I hereby declare that this thread be taken down IMMEDIATELY. It’s only a matter of time til Matrix geeks show up to try to ruin the movies with all the positing about the philosophical underpinnings. That is all.

  6. SugarFree,

    *Which* religious conception of free will? There’s more than one.

    America has a strong Calvinist streak, and Calvinists also assert dogmatically that “there is no free will.” Acknowledging free will would be an insult to God, don’t you see.

  7. Bow before me, pathetic meatlings!

  8. I should say, “has *historically* had a strong Calvinist streak.” Dogmatic Calvinism has been strongly diluted, although secular versions of it (like yours) keep cropping up.

  9. I find the definition of “Free Will” itself to be kind of slippery. Like SugarFree, I personally think of it as a choice in accordance with one’s needs and desires and predispositions at the moment a decision is made — thus something theoretically predictable if one had complete knowledge of all the relevant influences. The result of a coin toss or roll of dice can be viewed the same way — predetermined in the abstract, but unpredicatable and “random” for any practical level of knowledge.

    While “Non-shared environment” sounds at first like it simply means one’s peer group outside the family, it apparently encompasses all individualizing factors — everything that one twin experiences but the other doesn’t, simply because they don’t occupy the same physical space.

  10. It’s only a matter of time til Matrix geeks show up to try to ruin the movies with all the positing about the philosophical underpinnings. That is all.

    Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy or are you not a Matrix geek.

    There is no free will. There is just ignorance of the full spectrum of reasons why we do the things we do.

    Yes, but isn’t there a quantum of uncertainty? If consciousness is merely strangely tangled hierarchies, can’t that limited self-ignorance actually be the source of so-called free will? Or am I confusing arbitrary decision-making for free will? And if so, what is the distinction?

    Paradoxically, increasing self-awareness of one’s own subconscious behavior patterns seems to me to increase the likelihood of actual “free” decisions.

    What does the concept of ‘limited’ free will mean to you?

    I just started reading “Godel, Escher and Bach” [Hofstadter], incidentally, maybe I’ll be able to ask more informed questions after completing that.

  11. The result of a coin toss or roll of dice can be viewed the same way — predetermined in the abstract, but unpredicatable and “random” for any practical level of knowledge.

    While this is true at the macro level, what about at the quantum level? And doesnt that quantum level “true” randomness affect things ever so slightly on the macro level?

  12. (sigh) so…tired…not really sure I’m lucid

  13. Art POG!!!!!!!!!!!!

    *shakes fist in Art POG’s direction*

    No. I’m not a Matrix geek. All that babbling by Keanu almost ruined the whole movie for me. I even started doing the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gig during Revolutions and had everyone cracking up.

  14. Naga,

    Repeat after me: There was only one Matrix movie.

  15. robc,

    But I liked all the gratuitous violence in 2 and 3 as well. Problem was that all the babbling took up a third of the film.

  16. All that babbling by Keanu almost ruined the whole movie for me. I even started doing the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gig during Revolutions and had everyone cracking up.

    Man, Revolutions was probably had the biggest disparity between expectations and product of any movie I’ve ever seen. There definitely was an awkward tension in the theater.

    Keanu’s babbling is always a high point for me, though.

  17. I just started reading “Godel, Escher and Bach” [Hofstadter], incidentally, maybe I’ll be able to ask more informed questions after completing that.

    Or perhaps you’ll just ask the same questions with a more profound conception of your own ignorance.

    I liked that book, but the only deep truth I found in it was a way to wrap my little brain around Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

  18. Arrrggghhh how is the train station “between” the Matrix and the ‘real world’, WTH does that even mean!!!!???

  19. When I say “religious Free Will,” I’m confining my comments to the notion of people being given a choice by God to sin. Not only is it a false choice metaphysically in that God is omni-everything, but a choice made under duress cannot be a free choice. I think that sort of Free Will is a conscious obfuscation of the paradoxes created by God-as-perfect-being. Much like the problem of evil, I find the theological gymnastics to explain away those problems to be extremely unconvincing.

    I am an atheist, so it is only an academic debate for me.

  20. Arrrggghhh how is the train station “between” the Matrix and the ‘real world’, WTH does that even mean!!!!???

    It’s a USB port.

  21. Or perhaps you’ll just ask the same questions with a more profound conception of your own ignorance.

    Thanks for the sunshine, Muddy! :p But seriously, good points.

  22. It’s a USB port.

    😀 Well, that clears it up!

  23. A USB port? Really? Where are you getting your info from?

  24. TWC,

    I don’t think that a deterministic universe invalidates the notion of free will as a affirmation of freedom. The ignorance of of why we do things says nothing to our right to do them. I think we libertarians might be better off avoiding the metaphysical debate all together. For example, I don’t care if property rights or a right to self-defense has any metaphysical basis. I just think that the world will and does work better if we behave like it does.

  25. Where are you getting your info from?

    I think it fits the narrative paradigm. Things in the Matrix are sometimes metaphors for actions occurring under the surface on the machine code level (the pill Neo takes is really a trace program, the gun that sucks the tracer probe out of his stomach is really just a program that deletes spyware.) It would make sense that a transfer queue for export to other hardware (the renegade programs are being exported from the Matrix hardware back to cold storage or an inferior processing medium) would take on a form that resembles mass transportation in real life.

  26. SugarFree,

    So basically you’re saying “Look past the obvious setup, and use your fucking imagination.” 10-4 big guy.

  27. SF, (SugarFree, not Special Forces)

    Your concept has merit, but maybe I’m too literal-minded. I could see experiencing the real world. I could see experiencing a simulation of the real world. But sum’thin tells me the experience of a USB port would look like Tron at best.

  28. I just think that the world will and does work better if we behave like it does.

    As long as we don’t collapse to a point like probability wavefunctions. 😉

    But to Piggyback what Naga said right before my last post, I can accept your interpretation, but only in the way that I reluctantly accept that the Browns will continue to suck for the foreseeable future.

  29. Or perhaps you’ll just ask the same questions with a more profound conception of your own ignorance.

    Thanks for the sunshine, Muddy! :p But seriously, good points.

    Well, Balko’s been slacking, so someone has to supply the futility and despair.

    Just doing my bit, is all.

  30. ‘a choice made under duress cannot be a free choice.’

    What’s the duress to which you are alluding?

  31. Art-P.O.G.,

    “A USB port” was a bit a facetious oversimplification. Think of it more like a printer queue.

  32. “A USB port” was a bit a facetious oversimplification. Think of it more like a printer queue.

    Oh, OK, that’s a better visual, really. But despite my griping I really do get the point about how “sub-realities” are (necessarily) made of the same constituents as their parent realities and that there is no discrete seperation between the abstract (or digital, I suppose) and the analog world. An interesting point, I suppose. Seems either profound or banal, depending on how I think about it.

  33. But . . . but . . . but SugarFree . . . HE is the ONE!

  34. Mad Max,

    The threat of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal glory in the presence of God. If I offer you the choice between and apple and an orange and I honestly do not care which one you take, then you are choosing freely. If I make the same offer but tell you that if you take the apple I’ll give you $2000 and if you take the orange I’ll shoot you in the knee, your rational choice to take the apple is not a freely made choice.

    I understand the notion of Free Will as it being a conscious effort to defy God to choose to sin, I just think it should be pitched as something other than “free” will. There’s nothing free about “do as you’re told or you’re going to get it when we get home.”

    Of course… if you believe that God exists, then it is quite rational to follow His rules.

  35. Individually, choices are always imperfect. The information isn’t all there. Collectively, these choices comprise the market. The market tells us that our choices may well be socially retarded.

    We can either wallow in the certitude of our choice’s correctness (a very honorable libertarian tendency) or capitulate to the adulation that wins friends (sycophants=encourage showing the cunt sign while remaining aloof.)

    I suppose that is why libertarians understand and love the market better: they are always on the outside looking in.

  36. Seems either profound or banal, depending on how I think about it.

    Then my work here is done.

    By the way, my personal opinion is that the movies didn’t go completely tits up until Neo kills the squid in the real world. That makes no sense at all and his powers become magical at that point.

  37. Keanu lives in Idaho with his spud-muffin.

  38. *yawns*

    This thread has gone the way I feared. Farewell.

  39. Damn you SugarFree! You stole my thunder!

  40. Sorry, I don’t buy any claim for free will that doesn’t square with free will’s fundamental incompatibility with (the correct) tenets of materialism.

    We can quibble about questions of the materialists’ arguments’ “empirical strength”–that is, the degree to which science has so far explained away free will, but an appeal to ignorance that disregards the strength of the materialists’ theory (and the determinists’ theory) is no better than the shoddy appeals to ignorance that are so often passed off as “proofs” of the existence of God.

    In other words, I need an argument that tells me WHY science CAN’T explain away free will–not just a statement of the fact that it has yet to do so.

    Determinism is the consequence of sound philosophy. All else is (metaphysical) intrigue.

  41. And here I thought I provided an axiomatic smackdown of determinism so we could go forward without this false dichotomy impeding our common understanding of science. Silly me.

  42. Is it legal to threadjack and then complain about the jacking of the thread?

  43. Well, if you buy this argument, you also have to buy its mirror image: The harder it is to account for a person’s choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, the stronger the case for free will.

    …..Identical twins raised together are still, in many ways, very different. The believer in free will can simply say, “The good twin and the evil twin just made different choices.” The determinist, in contrast, can only ask for a blank check: “One day, we’re figure out the hidden forces that caused them to be so different. Until then, bear with us.”

    Great point. Furthermore, whenever someone starts a line of reasoning with, “Scientist don’t yet understand this phenomenon, but some day they will.” he is setting up a non-falsifiable hypothesis. Unless that person gives a time limit for declaring scientific research on a topic a success or failure, I remain skeptical about its value.

  44. Commenters, Look inward. Do you see similar wiring within you common to fathers, brothers, sons. Consider the friends you chose (AHA, free will) and how they affected your life. Sure, it is frightening sometimes how haphazard those decisions came about.

    Genetic drift rules all. It is hard to accept that yes although our genes somehow ‘inform’ our decisions, our decisions often elude that information. It is hard to accept that alternatively shitty/lovey-dovey families produce children who equally wish to be informed externally by their peer’s families.

    But we do that. And the arbitrariness of those decisions of whom should be our friends would be frightening except that they produce bonds that often surpass familial ones.

    Blood may have a higher specific gravity than water, but that is false analogy. Our friends have blood in their veins as well, NOT the supposed water. And they wield a bit more influence on our lives than many care to fancy.

  45. Do scientist on the operational level, as opposed to philosphers who claim the mantel of science as if it were a Cthulu like entity and they were her clerisy, practice there profession as if Determinist had everything packaged with a neat little bow. Not really.

    just one good example

  46. Honestly, as much thinking and reading that’s been done in this vein, I tend to put into the “I have suspicions about the answer, but don’t know enough to be remotely sure; too hard” pile. I suspect that it’s deterministic, and the more information that we are able to determine, the more likely I expect people to find cause/effect relationships, but I don’t think that we’ll get anywhere remotely close to enough information in my lifetime, so at this point I’m operating as if Free Will is real, since it’s an acceptable stand-in for the black-box determinism model until we can pry the damn box open.

    That said, training submissives on weekends is a fun hobby and the recurring patterns in behavior training helps incline me towards determinism rather than free will.

  47. Of all the Carangidae, I especially love fishing for Yellowtail, Seriola dorsalis, my favorite fighting fish in the Sea of Cortez. I am sure the Thread Jack is some slinky, skinny-ass fish that someone wants to promote to aficionados everywhere. Good luck Gulf Coasters! The Thread Jack is dead.

  48. forgive my dangling modifier. (No I am not hung like a horse either.)

  49. Genetic drift=determinism. That is if you have no control over your self. As though you are just an egg in a globule of salmon eggs floating in a stream at whim devoured by a predator based on where your position amongst the rest of the globule happened to fall. No survival of the fittest there.

    Folks, yes there are times mostly behind us in our formative years when we were as vulnerable as salmon eggs. The rest of our lives we can exercise free will because we become less vulnerable by simply being capable of reacting to stimuli we couldn’t before.

    Knowledge ultimately will free us more, but still the brute chance of a lightining strike offers that element of genetic drift that no reasoning can overcome.

  50. i am deterministically in the free will camp – I can’t help myself. Its in my RNA (nope, its not the DNA – I’d explain, but its just a big gordian knot)

  51. SugarFree,

    No one here is going to have gone through a reasonable philosophical study of free will.

    When you have, you realize it’s a nonsense term.

    I prefer to think that we are computing machines and we have some choices, limited by our intelligence.

    This is one reason why I question democracy and open markets: the average person (100 IQ points) is very limited in the choices they can make, and very easy to fool.

  52. To me, free will is indistiguishable from a sufficiently complex computing system which has a complex enough system of internal and external feedback loops. We, on the outside, may be able to derive an algorithym to define given enough parameters, what the machine will do, but if the machine tried to analyze itself, the very process of analyzation would go through a different looping structure than the actual decision itself, leading to a false result. The act of observation would change the results, much like our attempts to observe things on the subatomic level. The best we can hope for are guidelines for which there will always be exeptions. Thus, since we cannot fully predict our own actions, the concept of free will always exist, because regardless of how deterministic it may seem on a theoretical level, on a practical level people will always diverge from any model, thus making the future unknowable.

    So enjoy your free will!!

  53. Subatomic is incorrect, I meant quantum.

  54. But why is there something instead of nothing?

  55. Perhaps there is no free will, but unfortunately the laws of physics are forcing me to believe there is.

  56. There are those who think that life,
    Has nothing left to chance.
    With a host of holy horrors,
    To direct our aimless dance

    You can choose a ready guide
    In some celestial voice;
    If you choose not to decide
    You still have made a choice.

    You can choose from phantom fears
    And kindness that can kill,
    I will choose a path thats clear
    I will choose free will.

    Each of us
    A cell of awareness
    Imperfect and incomplete
    Genetic blends
    With uncertain ends
    On a fortune hunt
    Thats far too fleet…

  57. “In other words, I need an argument that tells me WHY science CAN’T explain away free will–not just a statement of the fact that it has yet to do so.”

    Here you go:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism

    If someone gave me a choice between eating a chocolate bar and getting a hit with a hammer, I am always going to choose the chocolate bar. That’s determinism. I was totally free to choose between the two options, and decided to pick the chocolate bar. That’s free will.

  58. The threat of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal glory in the presence of God….

    But those aren’t the only factors a would-be sinner weighs when deciding what to do in a given situation, or people would have incentive to sin at all.

    There’s also that other spiritual dude wandering around, offering great and immediate materialistic and/or physical rewards, in exchange for his selection of the destination of one’s eternal soul, something the average person doesn’t need to worry about for 30 or 40 years.

    So it’s basically an economic decision, coming down to time preference, a concept not unfamiliar to many libertarians and free-market supporters….

    Meanwhile the good Spiritual Being is offering you a chance to cancel your signed contract with the other dude anytime you change your mind — talk about the ultimate bailout!

  59. Meanwhile the good Spiritual Being is offering you a chance to cancel your signed contract with the other dude anytime you change your mind — talk about the ultimate bailout!

    Talk about the ultimate MORAL HAZARD!!!

  60. But why is there something instead of nothing?

    The gods themselves, even if they existed, couldn’t answer that question. There’s no reason to exist, and no reason not to. It just so happens that stuff exists. Life, the Universe, and everything is all pointless and arbitrary.

    If this disturbs you and you want a real answer to this question, then perhaps you should be asking “will the universe ever not exist?” If the universe did self-destruct someday, then this question never happened and thus there is no anxiety over it anymore.

    Just need to figure out how to make the universe not exist now…

  61. “The harder it is to account for a person’s choices using genetics and measurable environmental variables, the stronger the case for free will.”

    Bullocks. That’s assuming that choices from free will = choices made out of non-shared environmental influences. If you buy that, then basically we’re just arguing semantics. Yes, some decisions might be the result of influencing factors outside of genetics or family environment. If that’s what he is calling free will then I can agree. But that seems like a twisting of the definition, especially the “free” part.

  62. Brian,
    I know you’re joking when you say, “whether you click on this link to read may or may not be up to you” but isn’t this the way a lot people view the free will vs. determinism debate: that determinism = no conscious involvement with the decision while free will = complete autonomous control (outside of any sort of influence whatsoever, genetic or environmental) of all decisions. If so, surely the former is ill-formed while the latter is just impossible.

  63. Mike | April 24, 2009, 4:52pm | #

    “In other words, I need an argument that tells me WHY science CAN’T explain away free will–not just a statement of the fact that it has yet to do so.”

    Here you go:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism

    If someone gave me a choice between eating a chocolate bar and getting a hit with a hammer, I am always going to choose the chocolate bar. That’s determinism. I was totally free to choose between the two options, and decided to pick the chocolate bar. That’s free will.

    Good point. Looking at the cost and benefits of behavioral choices eplains most of human behavior. The answers to many questions are so obvious that we don’t even bother to ask the question. For example, why do most people decide against jumping off their roofs? Because they don’t want to get hurt when they hit the ground. The general rule of thumb, “My neighbor will make the same choices as me when faced with most dichotomous decision,” works fine for predicting most of my neighbor’s behavior. This rule breaks down when the costs and benefits of behaviors are close, ie the choice between eating chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream. In cases like this, I have an amazingly effective method of predicting my neighbor’s behavior; I ask him.

  64. Is Craig talking about Randall Flagg?

  65. Is Craig talking about Randall Flagg?

    SF,

    Apparently…

  66. Just need to figure out how to make the universe not exist now…

    Should be impossible for the universe not to exist according to the laws of thermodynamics. This particular (iteration/version of the) universe might not be inevitable, but at the risk of stating an awful tautology, the odds of ‘a universe’ existing is (apparently) unity.

    Like you said, the why is either a meaningless or metaphysical question.

  67. I should tie these statements into the anthropic principles, but there are any number of individuals that could do a better job of that than I.

  68. Anthropic Principle applied to the universe’s existence:

    Regardless of how likely it is that something would exist as opposed to nothing existing, the only time anyone could wonder about how likely it is that the universe exists is if something capable of thinking exists. Thus the fact that someone asked that question does not mean that this universe’s existence was likely to happen, even though it did. It just means that whenever that question is asked, the answer must always be “100% chance of the universe existing”.

    If nobody asks that question, the universe could still exist. It would just have to be a universe in which nobody asked such questions. But still, asking such questions would also not happen in a nonexistence.

    But I do not see any reason for why the universe couldn’t suddenly not exist anymore. Or even not exist while existing. That might be illogical, but logic seems pretty arbitrary as well. Maybe we only think logic is a necessary truth.

    Also, what if the entire universe collapsed into a single singularity? Would still it exist? Is there any difference between nothing existing, and only one homogeneous thing existing? I think it’s like how good can’t exist without evil, so that only one thing existing is equivalent to nothing existing. But get more than one thing existing and then something exists again.

    But I am, needless to say, not very optimistic about the possibility that the universe will collapse into a singularity. Is there not some other way?

  69. “Is Craig talking about Randall Flagg?
    SF,

    Apparently…”

    I prefer to call him by Walter O’Dim.

  70. A decision not influenced by anything whatsoever: no genetic, environmental, experiental, or social influences at all and no combination of any of those forces at work; no event preceded by any of the above forces…..now that really would be an amazing scientific discovery

  71. I think I need these terms defined before I can wrestle up an answer. So, what do we mean by “free will” here? “Determinism.” If by “free will” we mean making choices in a vacuum, as suggested above, then no, that seems impossible, as everything we do, Bryan Adams (short for “all events and factors”) has done it for us. Every event has a causal forces preceding it, whether we know the cause(s) or not.

    However, if what we mean by “free will” is the notion that we cannot, at least as yet, always predict what those causes are, then I can get on board with this. But I don’t get why that would fall under the category of “free will.”

  72. Of course, such cherished notions as “right”, “wrong”, and “responsibility” also become nonsensical if there is no free will. Strict determinism and nihilism are pretty much two sides of a coin.

  73. Dean, your comment is what is nonsensical. First of all, you do not address the issue itself, but instead distract us with a “yeah, but what happens if we let out all the injuns from the rez” non sequitur; in other words, you make a utilitarian argument, failing to address whether it’s possible to make decisions in a genetic/environmental/social vacuum.

    I won’t go into detail about why determinism does not negate responsibility or notions of right and wrong as others have done this exhaustively before ( read up on Pinker in “The Blank Slate” for one ). Or just read more in general.

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