Are We Born the Way We Are, or Do We Get to Decide?
I remember well the last days of high school. There was a general sense of apocalypse, combined with the hopeful ideal that we will all soon be moving on to a better place. At this similitude of death and rebirth, it seemed like there was a frantic polarity between a desire to move on, and one to grasp everything that you have ever loved and never let go. Then, right at the center of all of this, we created artifacts of the moment, by signing each other’s yearbooks. I remember happy but desperately clingy signatures such as, “Let’s keep in touch,” “Call me this summer,” and “I’ll always remember…” But there was one theme, interspersed throughout many of these from-the-hip memorials and epitaphs, which shocked me.
For whatever reason, this idea was quite popular for yearbook signatures that year, and it populates many pages of my yearbook. It was the loving, yet damning, request to “never change” and “stay who you are.” Never change, I wondered? Why on earth would I never change? What could possibly be so precious about my 18-year-old self that I ought to solidify it into an eternal self-ness? This threw me into deep thought on what it is that we all think we are, and why we fear change. This is a thought process which I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from. Can I say that I know what I am? Can we know what we are? Or does it only matter what we do? I’m not even sure if these questions are significantly different, yet it speaks to a question which hits on so many aspects of life. What is my identity? Or in other words, are we what we are, or are we what we do?
Finding Answers in Science
Being the nerd that I am, my quest started with science. Sir Isaac Newton provided the world with, among many other things, the laws of motion. He, along with certain other brilliant minds of the 17th Century, opened up the way for computational mathematics to make sense of the world around us to an extent never before imagined, and to help understand what was accepted as the true and absolute nature of motion, and the interaction of objects in motion. Stay with me here.
The laws of motion, which Mr. Newton developed, included a law which stated that an object at rest or motion will remain in that rest/motion unless acted upon by an outside force. This law inherently stated that if one could know all information about the two objects in contact, and all is knowable, then one could predict exactly what outcome their meeting would create. At the heart of these laws lies a seemingly simple but absolute assumption, that by knowing the quantifiable information we can predict outcomes with certainty, and, furthermore, that all things are both essentially knowable and quantifiable. While this idea was near-revolutionary at the time of its creation, it soon became common sense as an approach to other scientific questions, and eventually, it crept into realms never before approached by the ‘hard sciences.’
Newton was a founding mind of what we now call Classical Mechanics. He not only stated that truth could be found empirically by an appeal to data, but provided a method for it. He invented Calculus. Another eminent scientist, Pierre-Simon Laplace, following in the footsteps of Newton, pointedly making the claim, “that an Omniscient Calculator, provided with the exact knowledge of the state of the universe at present, would be able to predict the entire future.” This approach to science and movement allowed much of the technological advances of the 20th century to happen. However, the effect of Newton’s ideas soon reached far beyond traditional physical science, and into the realm of psychological science.
This assumption, that we could achieve absolute knowledge of people, led certain thinkers, such as Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, to establish a major stream of psychology–behaviorism–that believed that with sufficient knowledge of past and current facts, a perfect prediction of future human knowledge could be made. A lot of people still believe this today. As beings of a physical world, this thinking suggests our behavior could be just as concretely predicted as any other interacting objects in space, simply by knowing the forces at work upon them. This thinking pervades most of the social sciences. It is very attractive because it promises both to tell the future and uncover the ‘nature’ of our human lives and selves. But there is also something profoundly uncomfortable about it.
John Watson, a behaviorist, confidently wrote:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
Now compare that statement to one made by the physicist and mathematician P.S. Laplace, who stated:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion… would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
The psychology of the behaviorists–which has outlived the movement itself–makes the same claim, simply borrowed from basic Newtonian Physics, that knowing all forces at hand, one could accurately and absolutely predict future responses. If we are a pre-defined, concrete being, with no dynamic self-determination in changing ‘what we are,’ then must this be true? Stephen Cave, in his Atlantic article There’s No Such Thing as Free Will sure thinks so. They try to make a strong argument that we are what we are, and not what we do. You might even summarize this line of thought to be that we simply ‘are’ what is done to us.
Put simply, Newton’s classical mechanics has profoundly affected the study of the human mind. Hilary Putnam, an eminent philosopher and mathematician, who was also critical of behaviorism, described that logical behaviorism as a belief that, “the brain may work the way it does because it approximates some system whose laws are best conceptualized in terms of continuous mathematics.” These Newtonian Classical Mechanics have been hard to get beyond in any field of study. But do they really tell us that much about ourselves? Luckily, within the last century, such absolute assertions about our reality have been, to some degree, debunked.
Quantum Mechanics and Me
Quantum mechanics shows classical mechanics as incomplete to describe the realities of the world around us. Quantum physics makes seemingly outlandish assertions, such as that pairs of foundational particles, which contain a charge, are neither defined as positive or negative until they are observed. Even more crazy sounding, simply observing one particle will change the charge of the other particle, no matter where it is in the universe at that time. These claims have been repeatedly supported by observation and experiment, and are now widely accepted in current physics, even laying the foundation for some of our most cutting-edge computer advancements. Earlier, however, these claims were so wild and offensive to the state of the science, that even great minds such as Einstein flatly rejected the possibility of quantum mechanics, stating:
Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing, but an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one.’
What quantum mechanics brought us was a view of the universe as dynamic, wild, and undetermined. Einstein didn’t like it because he felt it described the universe as simply ‘rolling the dice.’ If it can’t be determined, how can it be? Quantum physics adds a little bit of magic, the ability for things, unforced and unpredicted, to happen. To me, this strikes at the heart of what I am. To put it in the old SAT comparisons, quantum mechanics is to classical mechanics as human will is to deterministic behaviorism.
The Encyclopedia of Psychology itself raises the problem that, despite all of Newton’s Laws and Mathematics:
There is a clear dilemma in explaining human behavior through psychological principles. On the one hand, if psychology is a science of behavior, then there should be laws allowing prediction… On the other hand… individuals believe that humans control their own behaviors and possess free will.
One side states that ‘I am what I am,’ and I need to find out what that is and be true to it. Showing how entrenched this idea is, just think of a prototypical getting-to-know-you conversation. It is not uncommon, even within a few minutes of meeting a person, to hear a whole list of static descriptions of what they are along the lines of: “I am not good at math.” “I’m not a seafood person.” “I’m a Yellow Personality.” “I’m more of a touchy-feely person.” “I’m am not one who gets into sports.” “I’m not good at writing.” “I’m straight/bi/gay/etc.” All of these assume, at their base, a world where we truly are, at our core, some descriptive something, and finding that out determines our identity.
The Limitations of Labels
Sexual orientation is one area where the identity battle between ‘we are what we are’ and ‘we are what we do’ is particularly interesting. Michel Foucault, the preeminent French philosopher, and social theorist, published perhaps the most profound exploration of sexuality in modern history. In his own personal life, he openly dated other men, consistently advocated for equality, and eventually died of AIDS in 1984. Yet, he hated when anyone called him, or anyone else, ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay,’ and warned against connecting any labels with identity, including sexuality. He saw all labels as a way that society can control and limit individuals. As socially powerful as such labels may be in some situations, the younger generation, at least with regards to sexual orientation, seems to increasingly agree with Foucault. A recent study in Great Britain found that 43% of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 saw their sexual orientation as fluid, rather than fixed.
According to the most extreme take on the ‘we are what we are’ view, life is not dynamic, or under our control, but is instead a journey, perhaps even an adventurous one, but one of discovering ourselves, not creating it. It’s rife throughout many of the trite motivational phrases we preach to each other. “Find the difference you can make in the world!” “Be true to who you are!” “Go on a journey of self-discovery!” This leaves us, at best, as life-long explorers, not creators, of our own selves, setting out to ‘discover’ and then ‘be true’ to what we are. This can seem very romantic, and even motivating, but put another way, you could also describe this as a form of self-slavery, ever searching for your ‘true’ master. Perhaps as quantum mechanics showed about classical mechanics, it’s not telling the whole story.
Determining Who You Are
What am I to do if what I ‘find’ in myself is not particularly useful to the world around me? How then can I be of service? Why then am I here? Indeed, instead of finding out whether or not I am a ‘math’ person, isn’t there something inspiring about simply deciding to become good at math? Instead of determining I married the wrong person after six years, isn’t there something romantic about continually deciding to be the right person for the one I married, even if I wake up one morning and don’t ‘feel’ like it? I think there is. So, to my high school friends, don’t tell me to ‘never change.’ I’m looking to change.
But surely the universe isn’t only quantum mechanics. Classical mechanics wasn’t so much entirely wrong as it was incomplete and over-assumed. It seems just as extreme to say, “There’s no such thing as free will” as it does to say, “We are one hundred percent free will and self-determination.” That doesn’t make room for the lived experience I imagine we’ve all shared, that we very often do seem to come with strong affinities and proclivities towards one thing or another. How do we make sense of what seems to be a priori traits? The ‘we-are-what-we-do’ side claims that Helen Keller was a scholar, a speaker, and a leader. The ‘we-are-what-we-are’ side claims that she was deaf and blind. But can’t she be both, or to some extent neither, if she chooses? Surely, she was deaf and blind, yet despite those challenges, she became a powerful speaker and scholar.
It seems to me that her physical attributes created situations for Helen Keller to act within, and no doubt had some influence in the direction of life. Yet the key point, and what makes her so powerfully inspirational, was that she was not directed by those characteristics, but charted her own course, overcoming challenges presented by her physical ‘nature’ when it wasn’t helpful, and using them when it was. She couldn’t change everything, but she became the master of her own life. It’s easy to say that there are limits to both extreme viewpoints, but it’s harder to determine what those limits are, and perhaps that’s the point.
Where You are Going vs Where You Want to Be
If I have the power to act in any given situation, then I am a free agent, full of self-determination and will, yet I would be doing myself a disservice if I were to also not admit that much of what those situations are is influenced and defined by what I am at any given point. For instance, I believe that there is an innate goodness in all human beings. Admittedly, it’s a statement of faith, but I see evidence of it every day. I also frequently see, however, evidence of people choosing to ignore their good nature, or even to follow after other, more destructive, aspects of their nature.
Perhaps the one place where I can most powerfully exert my own will is in deciding how far towards either of these claims I decide to build my reality. In the end, perhaps you cannot know where you are going without knowing where you are, but maybe there is not much to be gained by focusing on where you are, if you see your life as a journeyof constantly determining and driving towards where you want to be.