Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grab Bag Thoughts: Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, and Predestination/Determinism

Source: therawness.com
Every so often I seem to make my way round back to the question of human nature. This time it has been prompted by my recent interest in evolutionary psychology. Essentially, this paradigm asserts that current human behavior can best be understood by inference from our ( mostly primate) evolutionary past or ancestral environment. To give just one example, which happens to be one of the more controversial ones, the basic differences between males and females when it comes to sex is made sense of by evolutionary psychologists through positing that in the ancestral environment parental investment was a much greater affair for a woman since she incurred the many risks associated with pregnancy (such as death), but also because she had the lion's share of the burden of caring for a child over a lengthy period of time. By contrast, male parental investment probably rarely went beyond providing the sperm for conception and bringing back food for the tribe. Consequently, males could be quite free in their choice of mates because of the low reproductive and rearing costs to themselves. This is then extrapolated into modern times to explain why it seems that (most) women are much choosier than (most) men when it comes to sexual partners, i.e., because the risks associated with the consequences of sexual intercourse were far greater for the female than the male in the ancestral environment and which is still ingrained in human sexual behavior today.

The implications of many of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology for human nature are what got me thinking about this subject again. Of course the most basic question to ask about this long standing problem in philosophy is does such a thing as human nature even exist? (Modern day Lockeans and Behaviorists are among those who deny that it does). And if there is such an entity how contingent is it? Or to put a finer point on it, is human nature simply the result of millions of years of evolution in which our ancestral environment "produced" it (this is of course where evolutionary psychology lands)? Or is it rather something that's inviolate and so independent of factors such as evolution and/or culture?

Of course how one answers these questions will depend a great deal on whether or not one's worldview includes the metaphysical or supernatural. Those who believe in a deity or deities of some kind will generally affirm a human nature that is divinely created and immutable while naturalists, quite naturally, will tend to deny that such a thing exists or to assert that human nature is a product of various historical processes (e.g., evolution plus culture). Additionally, one's political leanings can also influence how one thinks about human nature. Conservatives will usually favor a view of human nature that is static whereas liberals will be more likely to see human nature as something more malleable. To use sex differences as an example again, conservatives will tend to stress that differences between the sexes are considerable and an inherent part of humankind; liberals on the other hand, in the interest of egalitarianism, will normally assert either a total lack of distinctiveness between the sexes or will only acknowledge a few basic, inconsequential ones.

For my part the first time I engaged to any degree of seriousness with the problem of human nature was indirectly during my former pious Christian days and my anxiety over Calvinism/Reformed belief, specifically over the pernicious doctrine of predestination. In fact, this theological problem was probably the first real rigorous intellectual topic that I had ever undertaken up to that point in my life (I believe I was around 16 or 17 then). The role that human nature takes in that debate has to do with the slippery Christian concept of "original sin." For Reformed Christians Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden implicated the entire human race to such a degree that man's nature became utterly corrupt and always predisposed toward evil. Because of this man is unable to save himself and so depends entirely on the grace of God for his salvation. Furthermore not only is man unable to achieve his own salvation, he is unable to freely choose to receive it. Therefore, God must enable a person to accept salvation by changing his sinful and corrupt nature. But of course in these Reformed systems of thought God only elects a certain number for salvation, i.e., he predestines those he has chosen to salvation aside from anything they have done or that is in them. The rest are consigned to damnation.

At that time this theological problem vexed me considerably. I eventually settled into a comfortable skepticism over the issue. But oddly it has come to rear its ugly head again but this time with a distinct naturalist coating: causal determinism.  One of the more uncomfortable potential implications of evolutionary psychology (with a bit of neuroscience thrown in) is that all of human behavior is causally determined such that the feeling of free will we have is merely an illusion fostered by evolution. (I should note that behaviorists usually also adopt some kind of causal determinism.) Of course there are all sorts of philosophical distinctions that have been made here to try and make this view more palatable (e.g., distinguishing between hard and soft determinism), but they all effectively say the same thing, namely, that man is “free” only in the sense that he can “freely” choose to act in accordance with his desires (or intentions) even if these desires themselves have been causally determined.

This implication causes me great discomfort for many of the same reasons predestination did so long ago principally because it seems to leave no room for any genuine notion of justice or responsibility except as merely social constructs intended to maintain order. And it’s not just this paradigm’s implications in regards to determinism that has made me feel considerable angst but much of its conclusions regarding other issues such as morality to name just one. Though I haven’t completely bought into this system of explaining human behavior (e.g., I doubt that the differences between males and females are as significant as does this view) it has immense explanatory power. Furthermore, my considerable discomfort over some of these implications may be a clue that much of this stuff is true. Often the discovery of truth is presented as refreshingly liberating and it certainly can be at times. However, at other times the process of uncovering the truth can be an extraordinarily painful one. Perhaps, at least for me, that is the case here. Further exploration of these issues is in order.