Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Free are We?

Ursula Hegi, the German-born novelist and author of the best-selling Stones from the River, has a fine new novel, Children and Light, which I have recently read. It was recommended by a friend and former student, and I can see why. Hegi is a masterful stylist with a compelling narrative.

It is the story of a teacher, a young woman named Thekla, in the fictional German town of Burgdorf who worries about the boys she teaches:it is 1934, and many will be expected to join Hitler Youth groups. She doesn't want her boys to become future cannon fodder, as in the last war. She tries to get them to think: "the absence of doubt will turn these humans into beasts," she says in her narrative.

How far can teachers go in shaping the destiny of their pupils? Can teachers help prevent violence, even the suicides of their charges? Can they protect their students? These are the recurring questions she, and the reader, must face as the next war draws nearer, as Hegi wrestles with her own conflicting feelings about her German past.

Thekla's main lesson is summed up when she says, "For us, as humans, there is choice." Yet she knows that choices are difficult and complex in the real world because of fear and shame. We are not capable of not doing wrong, she says.

I recall Isaac Bashevis Singer once saying, "We must believe in free will; we have no choice." Yet the prevailing attitude of the social sciences in modern times has been to focus on the brain as the origin of behavior that is physically determined. We are not only the products of nurture but of nature, of our own biochemical systems.

Challenging this is a recent book by Michael Gazzaniga, Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. It has attracted much attention in several articles and reviews I have read because the author, a neuroscientist at the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, believes that "we are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe."

This strikes me as a crucial statement, a valuable response to the thinking of the ages, which have usually upheld freedom of the will as essential to morality. Now we have a scientist who suggests that the origin of personal responsibility lies outside the brain. Thus he looks beyond a strictly physical basis for good or bad behavior.

These hypotheses will be challenged, of course, and discussed, as they should be; but they point up what is for me the central issue: that there is a non-material element, often called the mind or soul, that cannot be left out of any understanding of ourselves as persons or of our actions. It is refreshing to see that Gazzaniga apparently prefers to go beyond physical determinism and remain open to mystery.

I suppose he would agree with Singer that we have no choice but to believe in free will. Not to believe in freedom, it seems to me, can lead many to blame God, nature, or society for human evil. Not to accept complexity and an element of mystery seems simplistic.

No comments: