Monday, September 26, 2005

Column on doing things on our own

Science versus Society?

Tibor R. Machan

One would assume science is on society?s side, which is to say that what
scientists learn can make things better for many of us. And this is
certainly generally true. But there appear to be some exceptions or,
rather, puzzles. Here what the scientists produce often leads to more
confusion than understanding.

In his book Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior (2005), Mark
Blumberg, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, argues that our
behavior is prompted by our DNA and by the environment and explores how
much of it is due to which. He is, in other words, chiming in with his own
reflections on the old nature versus nurture debate. What is so puzzling
is that there is no room left for Blumberg?and, admittedly, to most of
those who discuss the topic?for what most people outside of the scientific
community think is the main explanation for how we act, namely, ourselves.
(For that we would need to turn to the late Edward Pols, whose Acts of Our
Being [1983] explores that possibility thoroughly.)

Yes, indeed, Blumberg spends some 200 pages without ever considering that
beside how our genes and environment influence what we do, there may well
be just a bit of room for personal responsibility. That option is
apparently so absurd for him that he will not even mention it.

Yet, of course, much of society?its institutions, policies,
problems?assumes that although DNA has a serious impact on us, and the
environment matters, too, the main force in producing our behavior is the
individual, by means of the exercise of what has traditionally been called
one?s free will. This is why criminals are convicted of crimes. This is
why those in charge are blamed when various organizations, firms or
governments foul up?just think of FEMA or Enron or the Iraqi war. Even in
the scientific community, where Blumberg conducts his discussions, people
hold one another responsible for mistakes and sometimes even charge that
out and out malpractice is taking place.

So then how can a scientist write an entire book about human behavior but
omit from consideration whether and how individual agents decide to act?
How are this scientist?s readers and students going to come to grips with
all those aspects of human life that are attributed to such decisions and
actions of individual human beings and not to DNA or the environment?

Blumberg?s discussion is fascinating as it delves into many interesting
topics anyone who ponders human life would find relevant. I was especially
taken by the ruminations about language and its basis in our make-up. But
to fail to even mention that perhaps some of what people do is up to them,
that they are the ones bringing about this behavior and not their genes or
the environment, is certainly puzzling if not out and out irresponsible.

The failure may be to, in part, to the fact that a simple picture of how
the world works had for a few centuries gripped the imagination of many
students of human conduct. This picture would have it that everything
operates more or less as do the balls on a pool table?by way of nothing
more than mechanical causation. One thing moves and then makes another
move and so and so forth, endlessly. This simple?even simplistic?view of
causality leaves no room for initiated behavior. It requires that
everything be part of a daisy chain of endless causal links.

But immediately a difficulty arises: What of the claims the scientists
themselves make? Are these claims simply a product of this endless causal
chain? Must the scientist?is he or she compelled to?make those statements
and must those who disagree with the scientist make their dissenting
statements as well? And if someone were to presume to adjudicate between
the two sides, would that individual too be simply uttering statements
because, well, of an inner or environmentally induced compulsion?

If so, how is anyone ever going to gain an independent stance from which
the dispute could be adjudged objectively, without prejudice and bias?
Anything that makes utterances that cannot but be made?say a parrot or a
tape recorder?isn?t in a position to figure whether those utterances are
true. It is like anything that?s said in a drunken stupor or under the
heavy influence of drugs?practically meaningless.

What is needed is a reconsideration of what kinds of causes take place in
the world. Some are, of course, like what takes place on a pool table and
elsewhere, mechanical. But there are other possibilities, such as when
something, such as a Beethoven or Tolstoy or, indeed, Mark S. Blumberg,
the author of Basic Instinct, set out to do something original, something
creative. That is their undertaking and it isn?t going to be explainable
fully either our DNA or environment or the two of these alone.

The very idea of responsible scientific conduct rests on having to make
room for the individual person whose actions we are considering.

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