Friday, 10 February 2006

Nature v Nurture - character is all

There are some things you just can't do anything about.

We can't do anything about who we are born to, and how and where we're raised. Those choices are all in the hands of others. And neither can we choose the human faculties with which we're endowed: our pleasure/pain mechanism; our emotional faculties; all those bloody hormones charging around... if that was all we had -- if nature and nurture were the whole of the debate -- then that would be it, and we would be ruled only by our animal functions, as indeed all other animals are

But we humans have a certain trump card to play, something different on top of all that which changes the game. Man -- as Aristotle defined him the rational animal -- has rationality on top of his animality.

Rationality gives one great thing that's a game-changer in the nature/nurture 'debate,' something called Free Will.

Specifically, what free will gives us is the capacity to turn on the conceptual faculty of our brains, and to make our own choices. That's where our free will starts; the choice for each of us is what we can do with that.

Free will means we are not contained either by our nature or by our nurture: these two are simply our starting points with which we can then either take wing, or take flight.. What we are given is given by nature and nurture; what we do with what we're given is then entirely up to us.

Philosopher Tibor Machan puts it this way. What we're given by nature and by nurture he calls our personality. These are the things about which we have no choice -- our particular skills, talents, and faculties. What we then make of all this, he calls our character.

The 'nature/nurture debate' as it's popularly termed is just too simplistic, reckons Tibor, and conveniently excludes what makes us distinctively human. If we are to have a debate, it might be better couched as one of nature/nurture and free will.

Our free will makes us distinctively human; it is what gives us wings. As the poet said, by our choices may you know us. It is wrong to have this particularly human faculty excluded from a debate about what it is to be human.


  1. You're wrong. Humans are pure nature/nurture, and only use rational reason inasmuch as it is in their nature to do so. There is no magical, dualistic, separate "free will" here. The determinant (perhaps partially random) laws of physics clearly show the existence of "free will" as you think of it is a logical absurdity. We feel as though we're in control, but that's just a product of our nature as well!

  2. Clearly, Anonymous, you had no choice about writing that, did you. Or at least, as a good determinist, you would at least be required to maintain that you had no choice. And in fact, if as you say there's no free will, then it's pointless even arguing about it -- true? -- since whatever we decide (if indeed we could make up our minds wiuthout being able to choose) we have no choice about accepting or rejecting anyway.

    Silly stuff, huh?

    Iisn't it telling however that in order to examine the nature of human beings, you maintain that we must begin by defining away one of our crucial defining characteristics. You seek to deny the basis of our rationality, leaving only animality to study. Silly, huh?

    "The determinant (perhaps partially random) laws of physics clearly show the existence of "free will" as you think of it is a logical absurdity."

    On the contrary, the laws of physics show exactly nothing of the sort.

    So am i wrong? No, not at all. That the nature of human beings includes as a defining characteristic the ability to think conceptually and to make choices is clear -- or at least can be made clear if you so choose (irony intentional). That we have the faculty of volition is part of nature. Whether we choose to use it is up to us.

    That the locus of free will is with the choice to turn one's thinking on, or not, is the point at which I say volition, cognition and rational activity starts. Whether or not we chose to turn our thinking on or not, however, is up to us. If we don't seek to think or to understand and we choose instead to evade the necessity, or just to let ourselves mentally drift, then we've still made a choice. A bad one.

    And if we feel we're in control once we do exercise that chouice to turn on our brain, then that's because we are in control, at least to the extent that existence allows us.

    So to conclude here: We can no more evade either our nature or our nurture -- which are given to us, just as our faculty of volition is given to us -- than we can deny the effect of the faculty of volition that nature gives us: the effect is that it gives us the power to think and to choose, which means the ability to function as a human being. Or not. The choice is up to you, as is your character.


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