Monday, December 13, 2010

Do my hormones make my choices?

In We are our brain the Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab, defends the thesis that in the end everything we do is determined by the biology of our brain. Our brain steers our development, mainly with the help of hormones. Sexuality, juvenile behaviour, depressions, aggression, psychological diseases … This is just a random choice of our hormone guided behaviour. Therefore it is no surprise that Swaab concludes that there is no “complete ‘Free Will’ ”.
If one sees the free will as the possibility to take decisions independent of internal or external limitations, so Swaab, our present neurobiological knowledge makes clear that there can be no complete freedom. Conceived this way, I think there’ll be hardly any person who thinks that there is. The limits of our body, but also of our social and cultural environment, are widely accepted as the limits of our freedom. However, Swaab does not make clear what our freedom then is, but I guess that he doesn’t see much space for the free will.
Yet, despite himself, he gives a hint where our freedom has to be sought. One of our characteristics determined by hormones during our prenatal development is the meaning of eye contact. In Western cultures, so Swaab, women use eye contact in order to understand other women better, and they enjoy it. For Western men, however, eye contact means testing their place in the hierarchy, which can be very menacing. In business negotiations, eye contact between women leads to more creative solutions, while eye contact between men has a negative effect on the results. “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, so Swaab concludes.
I think that just this remark says a lot about the limits of the determinism of our brain. In order to explain this I want to refer to a distinction by Jürgen Habermas between two levels of meaning, level 1 and level 0. The former is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. The latter level is typical of those sciences that have to deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. This made me distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0 (see here). The former is the kind of meaning used on the first level. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character; it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.
When we return to Swaab’s description of the meaning of eye contact and his conclusion, we can apply the distinction of two levels of meaning here, too. When a researcher studies the effects of hormones on the meaning of eye contact, she is on level 1. When Swaab says, however, “You can take advantage of this practical tip”, he is no longer on the level of the biological mechanism.  In fact, he says then what this mechanism can mean for us, the appliers of the eye contact, and also that the mechanism needs no longer be an automatism but that we can use it for the benefit of ourselves. By interpreting the biological mechanism this way we have arrived at level 0. It is the level where we can reflect on our biological constitution and where we can take advantage of it, if we are conscious of it. Just this conclusion by Swaab shows that our determinism has its limits. Therefore I think that there is room for a free will on level 0. Swaab gives also another hint that points in this direction, when he describes the meaning eye contacts have for Western women and men. For doesn’t this refer to the idea that our biological functioning can have another interpretation in another culture and so lead to other choices in other cultures?


Gralgrathor said...

Wouldn't say the thesis of the book is that "everything" we do is determined by our biology. It does make a strong case for *many* human behaviours being at least *partly* attributable to the biology of our nervous system. The book does not in any way negate the need or desire for personal responsibility for our behaviour.

Also, you seem to be suggesting that there is a problem with Swaab deviating from the mere accounting of biological facts. Let me put it to you that if he were merely reviewing neuro-endocrinological research, he'd have published a scientific review, not a book. In a book, it is not only allowed, but expected that one expresses ones personal views on a subject.

Simon said...

Henk I think I can get where you are going with it but to be economical couldn't one rather look at a underlying systems approach that could incorporate both physical and social? In that I'm both a bounded physical system embedded in a relations/information system/network.

Maybe though what could be more along your line of thinking is the relationship between 1 and 0 is more evident in say psychiatry where cultural and social viewpoints have a large impact on both what is studied, how it is studied, and how it is interpreted.

I wonder in this light is the question of free will itself a cultural construct and totally dependent on different level 1 interpretations? Or say with something like homosexuality can a moral judgement based on 0 be closer to 0 like fairness in game theory?

HbdW said...

Both Gralgrathor and Simon thank you for your reactions. As for Gralgrathor, the problem with a blog is, of course, to say something in a few words and to say something correct, and to be a bit provocative.But when I read Swaab's boook, I really get the impression that maybe not everything but very much is determined by our brain, and I wonder, at least that is what I read in the book, how much room there still is for personal responsibility in this view. In my view, Swaab ignores many things that can give a better view on our responsibility for what we do, which makes clear that we are free at least in some way. I wanted to stress that.
I do not understand your second point. On the one hand, one can give a personal opinion also in a review (anyway, I do and others do), and besides that, I have no problem with it that Swaab deviates from merely accounting biological facts. I do not have the idea that I suggested that. Anyway, thank you for your reaction.

As for Simon, your suggestions ignores, as I see it, the idea that social facts have a double interpretation: an interpretation by the investigator and an interpretation by the investigated (which has to be interpreted by the investigator). Physical facts do not have such a double interpretation, since physical things cannot interpret themselves. So, it is not simply a matter of being economical. You are right that the level difference is for psychiatry (social sciences, and the like)but what I wanted to suggest is whether it is not better to look for the free will on the personal and social level. On the level of dead things there is no will and no freedom at all. And then it may become clear, indeed, that the free will is merely a cultural construct. Whether it is so, that's what the discussion is about, at least in my suggestion.
Thanks again for your reply.

Simon said...

Henk wouldn’t one –with the need to be balance- equally say we would have to investigate not having free will as a cultural construct?

Yes Ok on the level of non complex, non information processors, but again why would one think anything has qualia just by looking at ions jumping synapses, if we didn’t already experience ourselves? Maybe you cannot jump either way?

BTW I’m not very convinced that the Chinese Room is such a good analogy and is more on the level of the ions and synapses or at the very least very raw information processing. So talking about dead matter really doesn’t compare with complex information processing physical systems with sophisticated feedback. Or complex adaptive systems for that matter.

Regardless it would be interesting though to get a cross-cultural perspective.

HbdW said...

Hello Simon,
Actually I don't know well what to say here. As you say it, talking about dead matter really doesn’t compare with complex information processing physical systems with sophisticated feedback. And I think this is a mistake that Swaab and others make when they ask whether a free will exists and discusses it in terms of hormones or our basic material make up. I see our bodily constitution as a precondition that makes a free will possible. It determines also the limits of our free will. Personally I think that there is room for a free will, but even when there isn't, the problem is elsewhere, maybe in the social and cultural dimension (level 0). Maybe my hormones can make that I have become a blog writer, but I think that it is quite unlikely that my hormones makes that I write exactly this blog with these individual contents. I think that on this level the question of the freedom of the will has to be asked; not on the basic level of our bodily constitution. See also my blog next week, where I wonder (without giving an answer) whether and to what degree we are free to experience.

Simon said...

The thought I've just had, is that as such we don't have free will it is an illusion from our 1st person perspective -& the fact that basically underlying mental processes aren't transparent- and that any system that can respond to variables in the environment is a systematic or self-directed way has a form of free will.

It is just what we do have is relatively sophisticated processing of multiple inputs and internal weightings of our processing network, which includes hormonal influences. In many respects free will is a sort of gauge of the versatility or flexibility of the self directedness of a system to respond to its environment.

A production line robot in a sense has free will but only of a very limited response repertoire kind when presented with its environment; whereas our free will isn’t so much a difference in kind but in degree and range. We are still confined to the choices/behaviours our cognitive system allows, it is just when combined with this 1st person perspective and our high degree of versatility we have culturally created a certain amount of exceptionalism regarding ourselves and ‘free will’.

Ok some systems like ourselves have learning which -unlike the production line robot- means we can continuously reprogram ourselves and increase our ‘choices’ and versatility, but I still see this as just at one far end of a continuum rather than a difference in kind.

HbdW said...

Hello Simon,
What you say here is in agreement with the idea that most of what we do is done unconsciously (our zombie) and that the conscious part is our brain interpreter that only brings part of the unconscious processes into our consciousness. I think, it is the point of view of the Dutch neuroscientist Victor Lamme, for instance. However, I think it leaves many questions without an answer. For instance, how can it explain that you wrote just this answer to me? Not an answer like this one, but exactly the answer you wrote in just these wordings. I think that you find just here a certain room for the free will. Or not, but I guess that the answer on the question whether there is a free will or not is on such questions.

Simon said...

Modular Brain

Notice the two concsious streams

Quitting success

You may think you have strong will-power when in comes to giving up smoking or using more sunscreen. But scientists have found that a person's perception of their inner strength is not nearly as good as reading activity directly from the brain. And by scanning a certain region of volunteer’s brains while they are watching health promotional advertisements, they can tell which ads will work better than others, and who is most likely to succeed.

The planner story teller doesn't always know what it will do.

Do genes make up your mind?

Genes Hormones and neurotransmitters that all combine to make you the individual you are.

HbdW said...

Thanks Simon. These links will certainly also be useful for other readers of my blogs.