Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nature, Nurture, or Free Will?

Before we get to today's question, a couple quick shameless plugs. First, if you haven't bought your copy of the Grateful Dead and Philosophy yet, the best place to go is to Open Court, the publisher of the volume for the cheapest price. A significant number of the authors are also Playground regulars (I, Hanno, Confused, Maybe Not, and of course, yours truly), so you it'll be like a conversation with old friends. And speaking of conversations, if you are in Indiana, you can catch a conversation with me about the book with Tommie Lee and the Bartender 95.3 WAOR's morning show tomorrow around 8:00 eastern time. They seem like great guys and the station website has an on-line simulcast, so tune in if you'd like.

Speaking of the Grateful Dead and Philosophy, another of my favorite pieces in the bunch is Chuck Ward's "Mama Tried: Biological Determinism and the Nature/Nurture Distinction." Chuck's an old friend and a good philosopher who writes on the history and philosophy of biology with an interest in questions raised by evolutionary psychology. He picks up on the fact that so many Dead tunes are about unsavory characters. For a peace and love hippie band, all of their songs deal with murderers, gamblers, thieves, adulterers, folks you generally don't want to mess with. But interestingly, the songs are often introspective about how the thug came to be who he is and the sort of line that meditation takes changes.

In Mississippi Half-Step Toodle-loo, we have a completely deterministic explanation,

On the day that I was born,
Daddy sat down and cried,
I had the mark just as plain as day,
Could not be denied.
The mark, something present in many a blues song, for example, Hoochie-Cootchie Man, is a clear indication that the person will live a troubled life. these days, we've rejected the metaphysical version of fate and replaced it with biological determinism, the view that our personalities and a predisposition to act in certain ways is if not genetically predetermined, actively encoded within us biologically.

The usual sparring partner to this human nature based approach is influence by the environment. We are raised in a society by parents and they shape who we are and how we behave. Consider this passage from Brown-Eyed Women,
Had eight boys,
Only I turned bad,
Didn't get the lickin's that the other ones had
The blame for the tragic act of murder here is based on parenting, on the way the personality was shaped by the character's personal biography.

Of course, both of these views assert that our behavior is shaped by an external factor. The objection to this presupposition is that we are free agents who possess undetermined wills that allow us to choose how we act. This is the line the Dead gets from Merle Haggard's Mama Tried,
In spite of all my Sunday learning,
To the bad I kept on turning,
No one could steer me right but Mama tried.
She tried to raise me better,
but her pleading I denied,
That leaves no one but me to blame 'cause Mama tried.
Mama and the Sunday school did all they could, but the wrong-doer in this case chose not to heed the lessons and made his own bed. There is no one else to blame, no other operative force in the equation.

Now, of course, there are biological aspects to our personalities that make certain people more likely to act in certain ways than others. Of course, parenting has a deep effect on the development of behavior later in life. And, of course, we have some measure of free will by which we choose how to behave. All three play a part, but which one is the dominant factor? Nature, nurture, and will are all part of the equation, but that doesn't mean that one isn't a stronger influence than the others. So, which one is most important in understanding why people do what they do?