Free Will, If Any

Why Goats Don't Nest In Trees

August 11, 2003

One of the funnier illusions of mankind is that our behavior is rational. This curious rejection of the obvious permeates the approximations of thought engaged in by politicians, professors, and those seeking federal grants so as to live well and improve us.

But no. Actually our behavior is largely built-in, with the software preinstalled at the factory and packed into a complex read-only file. We make the choices our instincts allow us to make, and have the freedom of choice of a bowling ball rolling down the lane. We seldom notice, because behavior in accord with instinct seems perfectly reasonable. Lemmings probably wonder why humans don't stampede over cliffs and drown themselves. (An idea worth looking into.)

"Instinct" is hard to define. Is the flowering of the sexual drive at adolescence instinctive, or is it a chemical response to new hormones? Is there a difference? Since we have decided to believe that the brain is a purely chemical entity, and ignore the obvious questions regarding consciousness and the mind, one might say that instinct cannot exist. Take your choice. Here I use the word to mean behavior that is built in, however effectuated.

If we have free will, it's only within built-in constraints. We are programmed from birth. A newborn wants to suck. Nursing isn't learned behavior. It's just what babies do. The behavior of girl babies differs slightly but unmistakably from that of boy babies. They do not learn this from other babies. Thereafter every step of the way to adulthood we do very much the same things at the same time. Babies cry when they're unhappy. The Terrible Twos come and go with children who have never seen the Terrible Twos. Talking is learned, but at the same programmed time. Blind children have never seen anyone walk, yet they walk. It's built-in.

When the hormones of puberty hit, we become obsessively interested in the other sex. This too is scripted. Young males, if not restrained, begin butting heads over girls, remarkably like the males of other mammalian species. The girls begin competing with other girls. The boys do foolish and dangerous things and, when there are risks to be taken to gain access to the girls, the boys take them.

Sex, like fighting, is a major and irrational organizing force in our lives. We are always in heat, always looking or at least considering. People spend hours thinking about sex, reading books about sex, trying to find sex, looking at pornography or reading the mandatory stories about sex in women's magazines. Dogs, more sensible, become interested only when a female is in season. It must be an easier life.

The illusion of free will is more convincing when one considers the making of what appear to be choices. Learning to walk can be regarded as purely physical. Being a libertarian or a socialist seems more the result of ratiocination. But our politics are equally instinctive. We form groups and fight other groups. What appears to be intellectually determined usually isn't.

Teenagers begin their political existence by realizing that they understand everything far better than their parents do. They join crusades to retake Jerusalem or to save the world from the International Monetary Fund. They believe they are making principled choices. Their reasons are often persuasive: The young are not necessarily stupid, despite convincing simulations. They can both learn much about the IMF, and weave arguments both subtle and sanctimonious.

But it's always something, and always at the same age. If it isn't the IMF, it's stopping the war in Vietnam, or saving the baby seals, or ending international finance capitalism. These causes may be good ones, but only accidentally. When five hundred generations do the same things, one begins to suspect that the fix is in.

Deceptively, while the ends we pursue are predetermined, the means of achieving them depend on reason. Fighting wars for example is incredibly stupid. They waste huge amounts of money that could otherwise be spent on ineffective social programs. Yet the design of an intercontinental ballistic missile is beautifully rational: the engineering elegant, the mathematics sophisticated, a thousand difficult technologies melded into a gorgeous baseball bat with a nail in the end. Our brains are the tools of our glands.

Thus the history of the species is a tale of war, rape, pillage, torture, and butchery. This is not curmudgeonly fustian (though I think highly of curmudgeonly fustian). It's how we have been, and how we are. We fight. We just do.

Savages everywhere that I know of regularly fought neighboring tribes for booty, women, horses-or so they presumably believed. I think they did it because they were--we are--wired to do it. When people became a tad more civilized, they kept on fighting, butchering, and torturing. They just had better plumbing in their houses.

The Aztecs, a brutal military empire, invented open heart surgery to the astonishment of the Spanish and practiced it with abandon. They were propitiating the gods, see, to get good weather or something. The Spanish, a civilized people who burned heretics at the stake, were horrified by the Indian's practice of human sacrifice. Civilization doesn't temper barbarity. Later the 18th century French, a truly sophisticated society, wrecked Europe under that wretched little Corsican.

Horses don't behave this way. Different wiring. They run around in herds till they get slow and the wolves eat them, but they don't butcher each other. We do. It's built-in.

The race isn't improving with time. We can't: we don't know how to change instincts. In the past, armies put cities to the sword after capturing them. More recently we've done it before capturing them, because we could: Dresden, Hamburg. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be any reason at all, as in Pol Pot's liquidation of Cambodia. It's just how we are.

The instinct to conquer accounts for the unending wars of expansion, the empires that balloon like bubbles and collapse. It also accounts I think for the rise of commercial empires like J. P. Morgan's, or Microsoft. Bill Gates could probably get by on ten billion. Yet he wants more. Not for anything. Just more.

To me, the automaticity of our larger impulses militates against faith in progress toward a peaceable world. We like to think of ourselves as more advanced than, say, the ancient Persians, and technologically we are. But recently, as in all the intervening years, we have done exactly the same things they did, only our chariots have turbines and high-velocity smooth-bores. We act the way we always act, because it's the only way we can act.