I'm fascinated by the subject of free will. Or more accurately, the lack thereof.
As noted in countless (more or less) blog posts I've written about free will, the arguments in favor of determinism strike me as much stronger than a belief in some sort of magic free will fairy dust that, poof!, somehow makes it possible for us humans to transcend our genetics, experiences, culture, education, upbringing, and so much else that has caused us to become the person we are now.
My latest foray into this subject is Hannah Critchlow's book, "The Science of Fate: Why Your Future is More Predictable Than You Think."
Critchlow doesn't focus much on free will, per se, but rather on specific examples of how factors outside of our control affect us.
So rather than taking free will on directly, as authors such as Sam Harris have done, she makes a case for fate by discussing how, for example, something so seemingly ethereal as love and sexual attraction can be persuasively explained by goings-on in the brain and body.
I've read almost all of the book and have been enjoying it. Here's a couple of passages from The Cooperative Brain chapter that I came across today. They provide a good overview of the book's central theme.
Namely, even though we're not really in control of who we are, what we do, and what happens to us, the astonishing complexity of the human brain assures that each of us is very much unique.
The latest neuroscience breathes new life into the concept of fate by situating it at the core of what we increasingly believe makes us who we are: our brain. It shows us that we are born with our behavioural propensities already sketched out.
Neurobiology and environment then work in tandem to to keep us inking in the lines of the sketch, finessing the detail in order to produce the full picture of our life.
In seven chapters we've been following the thread of an argument that goes something like this: the brain we are born with, the product of millennia of evolutionary forces, is subject to many species-wide characteristics but shaped by our unique genetic blueprint.
Our early years tend to cement our proclivities through considerable exposure to an environment that has typically been created by our parents, from whom we inherited those tendencies in the first place.
Given that our brains filter information on the basis of prior experience, our present and future reality is based on an avalanching amplification of what has happened before.
We end up stuck in the version of reality that our brain has constructed, a simulation that has moulded itself to fit our expectations. Much of the time we dwell there quite happily but occasionally we feel its constraints or notice its glitches.
We are unhappy and can't shake the mood. We try to change a habit and may struggle for a while before giving up. Or we try to change somebody else's mind, which doesn't end well. We bump up against the constraints that govern our selfhood, other people's and our version of the world.
The experience can be frustrating. Misunderstanding, resentment and aggression may result. That's just human nature, you may say. We're fated to struggle with ourselves and each other, and most of the time we struggle in vain.
... During the course of researching and writing this book I've ended up convinced of something I hadn't entirely anticipated: that there's no such thing as human nature. Not really.
Yes, we share species-wide characteristics; sure, biology is deterministic at an individual level to a huge degree, but to say we are collectively this, that or the other is yet another over-simple model. It denies the glorious complexity and flexibility on offer to us as our brains, those billions of unique models of reality, encounter one another.
Our brains provide us with a fantastic paradox.
We are primed to seek out patterns in our environment; we comprehend the world by categorising, simplifying and making assumptions, based on what we have experienced before. This skill helps us to take shortcuts in information-processing, meaning we retain the phenomenal speed at which our brains can make calculations, judge situations and direct our decisions.
Yet it is precisely this architecture of the brain, its flexibility, its intricacy, its dynamism, that means every person on this planet is a true individual with the scope to exhibit such wide complexity of behaviours arising from the 100 trillion connections in their mind.
This ever-changing landscape of complex neural circuitry, which is driven to seek patterns, ironically means that attempting to categorise people by simplifying their behaviours to binary brackets is nonsensical, since the scope for variation in perceiving reality and complexity of thoughts and behaviours is so vast.