Trying to Explain Nature and Nurture

Trying to Explain Nature and Nurture June 21, 2019

This is an account of a frustrating experience, attempting to explain why the concept of free will is not necessary to explain human behavior. The following quotes were all by a single individual and occurred in a comment thread here.

Free will makes the empirical distinction between a person autonomously choosing for themselves versus a choice imposed upon them by someone or something else.

The human decision-making process is determined by our genetic heritage and our life experiences…sometimes called “nature and nurture.” I think of it as our “programming.” That programming is not “someone or something else.” It does not require free will, but it does control our decision-making process.

Also remember that rehabilitation presumes and requires free will. The goal of rehabilitation is to release a person who is now willing and able to make correct choices on his own, autonomously, of his own free will.

Life experiences are part of an individual’s programming. Imprisonment…and other rehabilitation efforts by prison staff…are life experiences that can influence programming.

Your genetic makeup and life experiences is “you” – it is not an external force in control of you. The truth is that whatever these things together decide, you have decided, and whatever they choose, you have chosen. There is only one, single, complex entity, and it is yourself. You are doing the choosing.

Your programming is an internal force that is in control of you. To a great extent, you had no control over the content of that programming. There is no question that you must be held accountable for your choices.

ME: Free will is a “necessary fiction” whether it exists or not, and thus is irrelevant.

You’re statement is confusing. if free will is necessary for holding people to account then how can people be accountable for their actions if it doesn’t exist?

Because it is necessary for society to function. The phrase “necessary fiction” comes from a book by Robert M. Price titled “Blaming Jesus for Jehovah.” It contains a long discussion of free will. I will add that the fiction would not be necessary if our society would accept the fact that we do not have free will, but we still must be held accountable for our actions. The concept of free will is part of our religious tradition, and is acceptable to most of our citizens, so it is the path of least resistance…thus, a “necessary fiction.”

To hold the offender responsible for his actions implies that we are able to control our own actions. The concept of responsibility contains its own operational imperative: that we can in fact control what we do.

I will assume that by “responsible” he means “accountable.” And yes, offenders must be held accountable…that is, subject to the laws that society has established…and to the punishments, such as fines and imprisonment that are imposed. And yes, we can and do control our actions through our programming.

ME: If your actions are determined by your genes (which you can’t control and cannot be changed) and your life experiences (which to a great extent you cannot control, but can be changed) then where does free will come into the equation for actions?

You are missing the fact that all of those things – you’re genes and life experiences – make you what you are. When they choose you choose.

If you had little control over that programming, then you are not choosing your actions through free will. Your programming has already made those choices for you.

Rehabilitation couldn’t work without the assumption that you are dealing with an autonomous rational person.

Rehabilitation means reprogramming has occurred due to additional life experiences. The unpleasant experience of imprisonment may have increased the deterrent effect. Possibly other experiences, such as rehab efforts by prison personnel have created additional motivation to avoid criminal actions.

How can we hold people to account if we ourselves are not able to control our own behaviour?

Quite simply…because we have to, in order to make society work. even if we recognize that they were impelled to commit a crime by their programming. By threatening them with punishment in the form of fines and prison, we attempt to deter those who would commit crimes. In that case, we are coercing them, and their response cannot truly be called the result of free will, any more than it would if you pointed a gun at them. Of course, imprisonment removes the threat of further harm to society. That is clearly necessary.

Being accountable means you take responsibility for your own actions and that you can control – and modify – your own behaviour.

No, being held accountable means that you will be subject to legal actions that society establishes through laws, including fines and imprisonment. Whether you “take responsibility” for your actions (whatever that means) is irrelevant. The recidivism rate of criminals suggests that a lot of them cannot modify their behavior.

I agree with you that people need to be held to account for their actions. But if people cannot actually control their own behaviour and are not responsive to reason then what you say is incoherent.

I answered this so many times, I have lost count. People do control their own behavior…based on their programming. And they must be held accountable for their actions for society to work. No matter how many times I repeat it, he does not get it.


"I’m not sure I saw it as comedy, rather satire and irony."

Misleading US History
"He debunks myths and attacks racism. If you could ever stretch to a two line ..."

Misleading US History
"Yet he has just produced a stinging video that I’ve cross checked and is accurate. ..."

Misleading US History
"It’s not just the wording of 1A that is being discussed here, but its subsequent ..."

AU vs. Winslow Unified School District ..."

Browse Our Archives