Nature vs Nurture

Do We Really Have as Much Free Will as We Think?

Finding our way (my photo)

I had the privilege of working with a wonderful fifth grade team of teachers for many years.

I don’t remember that we ever exchanged a cross word. I give a lot of credit to one teacher on our team. She was the most upbeat cheerful person that I’ve ever known. She literally radiated optimism and sunshine wherever she went. It was hard not to respond in kind. Once, I asked her if she was always so upbeat. She told me that her mother said she came out of the womb laughing.


Can you even imagine. I don’t have the darkest outlook on life but I’m a far cry from smiles and sunshine. Incidentally, our other team member was a man who was a joy to work with as well. While not nearly as upbeat, he contributed a steady personality and work ethic that made collaboration easy. He was an avid cross-country skier, a granola crunchy fitness devotee, thin, and a nonsmoker. One morning he got out of bed to go to the bathroom and dropped dead. The doctor said he was probably dead before he hit the ground. Turns out he had a congenital heart condition that no one knew about including him. Go figure. He was the last person I’d have expected to die at the young age of forty-seven.

Life is strange.

We’ve been told that humans are endowed with free will, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. The debate over which has the most influence on how we turn out, nature or nurture, has been a hot one for quite a long time.

We’ve made progress when it comes to recognizing that schizophrenia, addictions, clinical depression, anxiety, OCD, PMS, autism, and many other conditions that once were explained as demon possession or a conscious decision to be uncooperative and anti-social are actually due to things like a chemical or hormonal imbalance.

We now accept that the wiring in our brains as well as inherited genetics can contribute to our behaviors as well.

We even have ways of treating these problems. I suspect that in the future there will be improved treatments that will replace current practices. The onus of placing the blame and responsibility on an individual by insisting all they need to do is exert their free will and choose to be the best version of themselves is heartless.

In many if not most cases, humans just might be doing the best they can do.

It also seems likely to me that both nurture and nature determine how we turn out, our world view, and either limit or enhance our opportunities. I was trying to think of things where my free will alone determines my choices.

I started with something simple like preferred food.

I have different eating habits than my husband. I like to believe that I can change my eating habits, especially when I have a good reason to do so like for my health and well-being. For example, I can give up bacon and its high salt content easily. My husband would miss bacon a lot. I don’t hate bacon, but I literally could go an entire year and never think about bacon. I wouldn’t miss it. Take away my sugar treats and I’d be feeling sorry for myself. My taste buds as well as my addictions influence my eating habits. So, my choices aren’t a clear matter of free will.

I’m choosing what my taste buds prefer. My taste buds are choosing for me.

I see overweight people and wonder why anyone would choose to eat themselves into obesity. Personally, I don’t think they choose. Who would choose to weigh 300 pounds, struggling to merely walk. Nobody. There’s something else going on there.

Something they have little to no control over and certainly negates free will.

Even if a person has the will to push their way through demanding situations, I’m guessing that an abundance of will power sufficient to get the job done varies from person to person. The wiring in our brains even influences how tidy we are, organizational skills, and the ability to complete tasks.

Some of us are introverts while others are extroverts.

Did we get to choose that? of course not. Does being an introvert influence our capacity to spend time with people? Absolutely. Just as being an extrovert determines how much time we’ll willingly throw away while hanging out with friends. There’s a reason why prolific writers can produce so much written material. They’re probably introverts.

Even something as essential as empathy levels appears to vary from person to person.

Some people have little to no empathy. They simply can’t imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They can be taught to sympathize, but you can’t teach someone to empathize. So, if a person appears to be heartless when they see others suffering, it may not be because they’re selfish. It could be because they literally have no empathy, or they fall so low on the empathy spectrum that it takes a lot for them to feel an appropriate level.

After all, someone must be the executioner. I doubt it’s the person with a lot of empathy. Where does free will fit into this mess?

It doesn’t much of the time. Can everyone be who they want to be? If we just focus and commit to following through can anyone become a cardiologist? Between our genetics, wiring, and chemistry as well as the culture we inherited at birth, by the time our brains are fully developed, around age 25, there’s not a lot of room left for free will to take the lead in determining our course in life.

The patterns are set.

Some people work to develop self-awareness. Why they’re more interested in self-awareness than most is probably something they didn’t get to choose either. Many people go to their grave with little to no self-awareness. They don’t evolve over time but remain stagnant for the rest of their lives, unable to understand how to make small adjustments let alone major changes in their lives.

Life is complicated.

We are told that if we work hard and apply ourselves that we can be anything that we want to be. Our parents may or may not have modeled that for us. So often, we live our lives totally unaware that we even have choices to make.

So where did this idea of free will get started?

I expect it goes back pretty far and has been influenced by a vast array of cultural expectations. In the western world there’s been a long-held, cherished belief that we were born in sin and thus need redeeming. The Christian god also blessed us with free will. So, it’s our job to choose who we want to be and if we don’t choose to be a Christian, well, that’s our choice but God will punish us when we die. Life is a testing ground designed to determine whether we choose to worship the creator of the universe or not. He’s that interested in each one of us. In fact, it’s kind of a competition between Satan and God. Will we use our free will to choose to worship God or will we choose instead to follow Satan straight to the pit of hell?

Surprisingly, many choose to follow Satan.

Yet, each one of us have different limitations that make this choice either easy, hard, or impossible. It’s a crap shoot as to whether nature and nurture work to our benefit or our detriment.

Like I said, there are no doubt many reasons the philosophy of free will has taken root and flourished.

Even though choice isn’t as simple as we want to believe, we continue to cling to the promise of being the masters of our own fate. While there might be individual things that we have some control over, free will is clearly not what we’ve been told.

There’s so much we don’t yet understand. In a confusing world where survival is instinctual for most of us, we have little time to think things through. We’re born, we grow up, we live out our lives, assuming that what we’ve been told is the truth.

Most of the time, it’s not.

Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.



Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. She’s also a top writer on climate change and the future.

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Teresa Roberts

Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. She’s also a top writer on climate change and the future.