Thursday, December 14, 2006

Engineering Behaving Selves

Today is not going so well. I bit my colleague's head off (sorry SteveG). I convinced myself that two of my friends think I am mean. And, if that wasn't enough, I made a student cry. I think I might have cleaned up on that one though. I helped her get an incomplete in my class because I was certain that she would have a nervous breakdown if I made her rewrite the paper in 3 days. But, I gotta say, I woke up with a kind of emotional intensity that makes no sense. Sure, we can make the usual jokes about me getting my period or other biological explanations for my hysterical behavior.

But, ultimately, turning to the biological as an explanation for my nastiness is an odd move. Sure, sure, the patriarchy has been blaming bad female behavior on the hormones for centuries. And, sure, sure we blame male aggression on testosterone. But each time we appeal to a biological explanation for our behavior, we are moving further and further away from a language of responsibility. (Don't start panicking. I am not going to write a long defense of personal responsibility). I want to reflect more generally on the implications of scientific/deterministic accounts of human behavior. They are appealing because they characterize human behavior in objective language. We can give causal explanations for why I snapped at my colleague or got paranoid about my friends. And, hey, pointing to the biology of my moods and behavior are sure helpful ways of making sense of my actions.

But, is there any room left for a modicum of free will? Could I have, for example, chosen to avoid a certain topic of discussion? Should I have meditated for a few minutes before speaking ? Could I have just worked at home today (which is what I finally decided to do)? Aren't there ways that I can intervene and interrupt my bodily driven behavior?

This question of free will has been preoccupying me for at least two years. I am so excited by brain research, that I forget to stop and ask what the implications of neuroscience are for how we conceive of ourselves; that is, will we be able to see humans as selves at all, or will we become machines and objects?

Will being a moral person consist in altering our biology to behave in accordance with cultural mores? Will visiting the psychiatrist truly replace the parish priest?

If you think this post is too damn wacky, then blame it on the hormones.