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Human Nature, Free Will, & War by David Williams

Human Nature, Free Will, and War by David Williams

Mark Twain, in his Letters From the Earth, has Satan questioning God about the nature of animals and their morality, considering that they were “all busy . . . in persecuting each other.” In alarm, Satan exclaims, “This large beast is killing weaker animals, Divine One,” to which the Divine One explains that “the law of . . . nature is the Law of God. He cannot disobey it.” Satan, in horror, continues: “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers. And they are not to blame, Divine One?” The Divine One answers, “They are not to blame. It is the law of their nature. And always the law of nature is the law of God.” Twain then moves on to describe Man and his nature, which is exactly like that of the other animals—fixed—with all attributes ordained by God. Of course, the implication of Twain’s essay is that Free Will is an illusion, both for animals and for us. Twain was on to something, for Science does not like Free Will. It is an untenable position. For everything that is happening now, in this moment, is the result of everything that has ever happened since the beginning of time—every movement of every atom, every action of every molecule, every neural event, every synaptic connection, every thought, every action—that anyone or anything has ever had or done. And if you switched all of your genes and experiences with someone else, you’d end up being exactly as they are, and they’d be exactly like you. It doesn’t matter if the other person is a murderous sociopath or the Dali Lama. We can’t escape the simple fact that the current state of the universe is dependent upon the totality of what has already occurred–which leads me to think of the current barbarity in the Middle East, the bloodbath that has long historical roots and seems perpetual.

We now know, from Jane Goodall’s research, that we are not the only species who performs acts akin to war. Groups of male chimpanzees (with whom we share 98.8% of our genes) can also engage in brutal and savage murder against male members of other troops living adjacent to them. Clearly, we have inherited the capacity for gang violence from a common ancestor. But the dilemma for us (and the chimps) is this—if the Divine One (or nature) did not give us Free Will, we cannot be held to blame for any atrocity we create, for if we were in the shoes of even the worst offenders, we’d do exactly the same.

We know there is nothing we can change about the past.  That’s a given.  Living in the vortex of past/present/future, the first two are constantly sliding away from us—the present becoming the past at every nanosecond.  But the future?  The Block Universe theory, which originated from Special Relativity, implies that our universe is a block containing everything from anywhere and anytime—that past, present, and future are all real and all happening at once!  As I said before, Science does not like Free Will.

So, here we are watching the Middle East combust, as the worst aspects of Human Nature, horrific and savage, are unleashed on populations, who at the level of their DNA share almost identical genes.  (A recent scientific study shows that Jews are the genetic siblings of Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese, and all share a lineage going back thousands of years).  Both Jews and Palestinians originated from the same Canaanite populations, as archeology also confirms.  Now these two siblings are hurtling toward one other again, with at least some of them on either side dreaming hopefully that the Other will be annihilated.  But if time is really a Block, and if we really do not have Free Will, does that mean we are helpless to watch such carnage, that we can do nothing to stop it?  And what does “stopping it” even mean when it comes to internalized hatred and suspicion, from old wounds that never heal—wounds inflamed by religious extremism?

The world unfolds based upon every previous input, up to the very nanosecond we might have before any thought arises.  My own genetic makeup, my family, my history, are all antecedents to who I am now, and if I think that the killing of other human beings is wrong, that idea (like all ideas) stems from inputs from the past that helped create such a notion in my head.  Ideas do shape the future, even though they originate from the past.  And though I can’t change anything from my past, a cascade of influences, based upon morals and ethics derived from my past, can move me away from barbarism.  Promoting peace and reason is not futile, as every action necessarily affects every other action in the universe that we are part of, even if we cannot alter what came immediately before.  So, how do we influence for Peace instead of War?  For Love instead of Hate?  How do we deal with aggression, or revenge (which creates the perpetual machinery of war), if we have no Free Will?

An eye for an eye (stemming all the way back from Hammurabi) has two meanings—1. To make punishment equal and fair.  2. To ensure revenge.  But if we have no Free Will then no one is truly culpable for what they do, as the entirety of existence led to who they are and whatever acts they commit.  No one is the product of their own volition.  It’s a conundrum, going against the grain of all we believe regarding human responsibility, innocence, and guilt.  Can it ever be possible for a cascade of influences from the past to shift us toward a more just world?

Human Nature is a mixed bag, which the “Divine One” has endowed to us in all its complexity. Twain gives these as—”courage, cowardice, ferocity, gentleness, fairness, justice, cunning, treachery, magnanimity, cruelty, malice, malignity, lust, mercy, pity, purity, selfishness, sweetness, honor, love, hate, baseness, nobility, loyalty, falsity, veracity, untruthfulness.” But without Free Will, is there any way to amplify (as Lincoln said) “the better angels of our nature?” The actions we take regarding the Middle East, or Ukraine, or anywhere else, depend in part upon our previous concepts of ethics and justice. Going against Putin seems clear-cut—for he is a brutal dictator invading a neighboring country and decimating the population. Hamas raiding Israel, killing and capturing innocent people who are attending a concert for peace, is another seemingly clear-cut monstrosity. But Israel’s revenge strategy, which will kill or maim countless children and other innocents, while understandable, is more complex, as revenge always perpetuates the cycle of hatred and violence, which can go on forever. Determinism, the idea that everything is fate for which we have no antidote, runs counter to our sense of optimism that things can be better than they are, and we can improve. But if we accept that we are devoid of Free Will, determinism seems baked-in, doesn’t it?

I would argue that the only way we can move toward a more peaceful mindset lies in the cascade of influences arising from the past, informing the present, and continually bumping into the future, which can generate enlightenment as well as abomination. The better aspects of our Human Nature can be triggered from what happened before as well as our most devious machinations. Hope lives in that space—in the fleeting crest of the wave—the one pointing ahead. No one invented hope. Hope arose naturally like everything else in the universe, sitting right at the razor’s edge between present, future, and past—and it is linked to desire, which in the brain equals dopamine (the neurochemical that drives our behavior toward a goal). Our species has made some shifts away from perpetuating past atrocities without having Free Will, as the cascade of influences has moved us away from the horrors of slavery and other incalculable wrongs. Maybe Hope is the only place we can find grace—the power needed to nudge the kinder elements of our past into the now. Without Free Will, it’s impossible to say we humans have a choice, but we can hope that a cascade of influences might accumulate, allowing us to amplify the better angels of our nature and strangle the worst.


David Williams, author of The Trickster Brain: Neuroscience, Evolution, and Narrative, holds a BA in Anthropology and PhD in English. He has worked in an interdisciplinary fashion his whole life: Emmy winning songwriter for his environmental work with PBS, cartoonist for many newspapers and magazines, children’s author with Random House, fiction writer, gypsy jazz & blues guitar & violinist. He is also an americana songwriter, and has been a professor of Creative Writing and American Literature at a number of universities in the US. Delving into neuroscience and evolutionary psychology some 15 years ago, David began to feel that many of the paradigms he learned from the Humanities were wrong and that the Humanities and Sciences needed to come together. This led him to a more biological approach regarding human nature, following scientists (such as biologist E.O. Wilson and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio), so that the theoretical ideas of the Arts converge with current advances in neuroscience, sociobiology, and genetics, to provide a more unified and factual explanation of who we are.

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