April 23, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Can Hardwired Humans Have Rational Choice?

Two articles recently claimed that we humans are “hardwired” for certain processes. 

  1. Fairness:  Science Daily reported on work by UCLA psychologists that suggest humans are “hardwired for fairness.”  A sense of contempt arises when games appear rigged unfairly, they found.  The psychologists found a particular region of the brain was activated during this response, but a different region when the subject was uplifted by seeing fair treatment.  The study found “these emotional firings occur in brain structures that are fast and automatic, so it appears that the emotional brain is overruling the more deliberate, rational mind,” the article said.  “Faced with a conflict, the brain’s default position is to demand a fair deal.”
  2. Hierarchy:  Another Science Daily article claimed humans are “hardwired for hierarchy.”  Humans have a pecking order, and the brain responds to changes in social status, scientists at the National Institutes of Health concluded.  Again, the study involved putting subjects into artificial game situations and watching brain firing patterns.  One researcher said, “The processing of hierarchical information seems to be hard-wired, occurring even outside of an explicitly competitive environment, underscoring how important it is for us.”

Neither study mentioned evolution.  It appeared, however, that the researchers were attempting to reduce human thoughts and behaviors to neural episodes in the physical brain that act autonomously and automatically – i.e., determinism instead of free will.

There’s no question that human beings, as “rational animals” have numerous mind-body connections.  Fear makes the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline, and we breathe faster and run harder.  Happiness makes us laugh and feel the rush of endorphins.  The sight of food makes us salivate.  We can use our minds to study minds, just like we can use our eyes to study eyes.  There is no way, though, for research like this to argue for determinism over free will.
    To show that determinism cannot be proved by rational means, invert the argument.  Ask a scientist to disprove the thesis that she is hardwired to do science.  When she does science, you can say, certain parts of the brain light up on the screen.  Perhaps her research was predetermined by the social network in which she found herself.  Choosing a science career lit up the attractive impulse of becoming elevated in the pecking order.  Making certain inferences and scientific conclusions produced a pleasurable sensation in her ventral striatum.
    If she agrees thus far, ask her how she could possibly know any of the above to be true, outside her brain’s hardwired propensities.  Sounds like a fair question.

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