I recently read an interesting, some might say a disturbing, op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (Sunday, July 15, 2012). Entitled “Head Case Puzzle,” it was written by a Stanford University professor of neuroscience by the name of Robert. M. Sapolsky. In this piece, Sapolsky essentially asks one basic question, namely, how free are we to make choices in life? Another way to phrase the same question is: do we, in fact, have free will? He cites the case of Jerry Sandusky, the football coach who was recently convicted on numerous counts of having sexually molested young boys. Sapolsky goes on to describe in some detail the neuroscientific research that has been done of late, which shows neurobiological differences in the brain between pedophiles and the general population. I won’t belabor the details of the extensive research he cites, including even in-utero abnormalities in hormones which contribute to the regulation of brain development. If you are further interested in this, I recommend the article to you.
Sapolsky raises the question, though, as have others, of whether or not pedophiles at very least deserve sympathy, or even if there may be some degree of lessening of responsibility on their part for crimes committed, given these brain abnormalities. He next goes on to, in a sense, argue against himself, or to anticipate counter arguments against such a position. Such counter arguments essentially cluster around the issue of free will. They mostly lay claim to something like the following: just because someone feels a tendency, even a very strong tendency, toward doing something, does that necessarily mean that the person has to act upon those impulses? Do we not, in other words, have the ability to reflect, to consider, and ultimately to decide? Are we not capable of imagining the pain that the crime to be committed would inflict on the intended victim, and therefore saying to ourselves essentially, no, this I will not do!
His answer to such questions reflects back to his training as a neuroscientist. He says that if pedophile urges are neurobiologically determined, that is, if it’s true that they are reflective of changes, or let us call them “mistakes,” in the physiology of the brain itself, then so too might not an ability to administer a degree of self-discipline or impulse control also be biologically determined? Indeed, if that were not the case, what else would we posit? Is there otherwise some “separate part of us,” as Sapolsky says, “(one that) enables us to resist abnormal urges that have arisen from an abnormal brain”?
Indeed, is there such a separate part of ourselves? It seems to me that this is a major question in regard to the issue of free will versus what might be called biological determinism. It is, of course, easy for most of us to imagine being able to say “no” to impulses that we do not have. Who can forget (if we are old enough at least) Nancy Reagan’s famous, and famously ridiculed, “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, for example? Surely, if it were as simple as “just saying no,” then would we ever have anyone addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or any other substance which can ultimately be shown to be enormously harmful to oneself, let alone to society? Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, always refers to alcoholism as a disease, and one which we very frequently see running in families (just as pedophilia does, by the way, as Sapolsky also points out), and so this would indicate there being some kind of neurobiological abnormality in the brain, would it not?
Still, people do stop drinking. They also stop taking drugs, and many quit smoking. Some people, indeed, do all three! So, why not stop (or even better, never start) molesting children? Again, the science appears to point to the fact that such behavior can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop, and it is definitely true that the recidivism rates among convicted child molesters are extraordinarily high.
So, does this mean that there are some people who, because of brain abnormalities, are beyond the pale? Are there individuals who cannot help themselves from doing certain things most of us would condemn, not just molesting children, but committing let us say even more heinous crimes, serial murder, for example? It has always seemed to me, in fact, that anyone who willfully kills another person, not in self-defense but in a calculated and cold-blooded way, must in some sense be out of his or her mind. But does that mean that we should not arrest such individuals, but instead give them a pass because they are, in some way, not “responsible” for crimes committed? No, surely not. Every society on record has always reserved the right to protect itself against those who, for whatever reason, do not follow its most basic laws. And what law can be more basic than one that stipulates not to kill one’s fellow citizens? Or not to molest them, for that matter, not to inflict unwanted sexual advances on any person, but particularly on a vulnerable child? Surely, everyone has the right to be protected against such an assault. At the same time, ought we not to also show a degree of sympathy for someone who “cannot help himself” because of something beyond his control?
Again Sapolsky cites in his article another piece written by University of Toronto psychiatrist Dr. James Cantor entitled “Do pedophiles deserve sympathy?” Cantor, in fact, argues exactly for this. Not that it is easy to feel in any way sympathetic for someone who has harmed us, or one close to us. And yet, here again we come up against the notion of sympathizing with someone who has powerful impulses that we do not have. Most of us would never dream of molesting or otherwise harming children, let alone killing another human being in a calculated and cold-blooded way. But let us suppose that things were different in our own background. What if somehow, whether in-utero or elsewhere, neurobiological changes had taken place in our lives, which produced thoughts, ideas, impulses which we “did not want,” but “could not control”? How would we then feel? Would we think it too simplistic to “just say no” to impulses that may otherwise feel to be beyond our control?
I therefore ask the question: what are the limits of our free will? And does (abnormal) biological determinism trump free will? As for myself, I have to say I do feel as though there is some “place,” to use a metaphor here, somewhere outside of our physical brains, which can at least have influence over our lives and over the choices we make in our lives. Whether or not that “place” is called the soul or spirit, or any other such metaphysical state of being is something that is, of course, outside the realm of science to comment on. We have, instead, now entered into the arena of faith, or as some yogis and mystics would say, of experience, although clearly experience beyond that of the mere body.
There are no easy answers to the question of how free any of us is. While again, most of us would probably never willfully harm a child, which one of us can say he or she has never harmed another human being in some way? What, for example, of the person who may have loved us once, but whose love remained unrequited on our part? Was that person not harmed by us? What of the cheating spouse, or what simply of the myriad meannesses of the human heart that each of us is capable of inflicting on other people, or on animals for that matter, almost on a daily basis? Are we not responsible for these? Or are we, ourselves, so injured, so damaged either by a biological abnormality or by the actions of others in our own past, be they advertent or inadvertent, that we too have less control than we might wish to admit? And if so, who then has the right to blame another?
Here is one of my favorite passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Song of Myself, Section 48, lines 1269-1272):
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral, drest in his shroud
Whoever walks one furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his own shroud. We are in fact dead to ourselves and to the world around us if we are incapable of empathizing with another, whoever he or she may be, whatever he or she may have done. My view is that this must in fact be among the highest, I might even say the truest, uses of free will, that is, to recognize that we, too, have faults aplenty to go around, wherever they may come from, and that, as human beings in the world, we are, all of us, more than capable both of the most sublime actions, and of the most heinous of deeds.