How the Nature vs Nurture Debate Contradicts Free Will


By Aidan Higgins, Editor

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the psychological argument I have alluded to in the title, the nature versus nurture debate is an intellectual conflict that has been waged across various fields of study (including, but not limited to, biology, psychology, and philosophy) since the mid-1800s. The dispute is centered around whether human behavior is determined by the environment that one is exposed to since his or her conception or by predetermined factors like genes, a matter on which scientists and thinkers seem to have been unable to develop a consensus over the past 200-or-so years. Though the debate is a topic that my mind has frequently revisited, my key concern about nature versus nurture pertains not to which side of the argument is correct. Rather, I fear that the very idea of the debate presents a direct contradiction to the Catholic perception of free will and its effects on our ultimate destination. Yes, I know this seems like a radical and heretical suggestion, but please hear me out.

The Descartist within me seems to be calling me to declare that everything I have been taught was “built on sand” and that I must raze the building of knowledge that defines my intuition and start from the very beginning, so that is exactly what I shall do. I will start with what I can reasonably assume to be true: human action is either entirely dependent upon nature, entirely dependent upon nurture, or somewhere in between. Can everybody agree upon this as a reasonable, logical suggestion? Yes? Okay, I’m glad we are all in agreement.

Allow me to use two unnamed Chicago teenagers, whom Fox News tells me are the most recently charged murderers in the U.S. at the time of this sentence’s formation, as pawns in my argument. The two young men were among four males who attempted to hold up a local convenience store; after they took cash from the register by force, owner Mohammed Maali took out his gun and fired shots before he was fatally wounded by the suspects’ return fire.

For the sake of the argument, let’s temporarily adopt the biological approach to the nature versus nurture debate and assume that the two teenagers’ actions were a result of their genetically inherited personality traits, preferences, and levels of intelligence, as well as their innate, biological drive for aggression. If we hold this as true (and we currently do), we cannot preach against these men’s actions without indulging in the vice of hypocrisy. Believing that all human activity is determined by hereditary factors mandates the denial of free will, for man cannot maintain any sovereignty over his conduct if each of his actions is already decided by his genetics. According to nature, the homicidal actions of the two young men were inevitable – they did not choose the genes that ultimately drove them to commit murder. Their rash personalities, which prompted them to return fire at the store’s owner, were predetermined before they even entered into the world as fully formed humans and especially before they developed their cognitions. This considered, how can a just God punish the pair and subject them to eternal torment in Hell when their actions were merely a result of their loss in the genetic lottery? Well, that’s the problem. He can’t.

So, we’ve established that the nature argument and free will cannot coexist without contradiction. Let’s try nurture instead. The central idea behind the nurture side of the debate is the belief that all human action is a direct result of the environment one is exposed to, both prenatal and post-birth. Our minds begin as blank slates and are slowly shaped by the experiences we undergo. These same experiences are the arbiters of our first “independent” actions when we gain the ability to reason and make calculated choices. After this, the consequences of our behavior begin to play a major role in our growth, and we begin to have some influence over how we mature.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the façade of mental autonomy, but we mustn’t overlook that even the small dominion over our growth that we are awarded does not really belong to us. While we do “control” our actions, it is all our prior conditioning, which we have no control over, that prompts us to act. Because the only things affecting our character growth until we make our first “conscious choice” are uncontrollable factors, our first choice is really chosen for us by our environment. Thus, the effects that first choice has on our development, and the effects of every choice that follows, are technically out of our control.

A good example to supplement this argument is how most people react to a pre-teen’s misbehavior. If a 6th grader hits his classmate, most people don’t think “That child is inherently evil,” because…he isn’t. He probably never learned how to properly express his emotions, and it is possible that he has grown up in a family environment where such behavior is acceptable. However, if that same child grows up to beat his wife and children, we react quite differently and say that he is a “bad man” and a “depraved man” or something of the like. So, when does this man stop being a product of uncontrollable circumstances he has been exposed to? Does some hidden switch flip in between his childhood and his adulthood, causing him to magically obtain his free will? Well, according to the nature side of the debate, no. His actions, even as an adult, are the results of prior occurrences. Remember, he started out as a blank slate and then was slowly formed by his environment. The effects of this formation don’t spontaneously disappear upon entrance to adulthood.

Now, obviously, this man has significantly more control over his actions as an adult and can always choose not to hit his wife and not to beat his kids – he had “free will,” so to speak. Where nurture and Catholicism come into conflict is the question of why this man chooses either (1) to continue to hit his wife and children, or (2) to restrain himself. The nurture argument outsources this choice to (surprise!) prior conditioning. The deciding factor between whether this man remains a wife-beater or changes his habits could be something small that everybody else would overlook – maybe he overhears a stranger’s conversation about the barbarity of domestic violence, is prompted to reconsider his actions, and chooses option 2. Or maybe not, and he chooses option 1. Either one is entirely possible; what is important is that, in both cases, he does not control the factors that determine his actions.

Objection, your honor!

Catholicism objects: this man cannot be operating of his own volition and exercising his free will if his environment has the ultimate say in whether or not and how he acts. Nurture attributes this choice to chance. There’s a big issue here: man doesn’t control chance.

Just as committing two wrongs doesn’t make a right, combining nature and nurture will not accommodate the debate to free will. Though the likely reality, and the belief that most people espouse, is that some combination of nature and nurture determines all human action, altering the scope of either’s influence on man will not change the fact that both present a direct contradiction to Catholic theology. No matter how much gravity we attribute to each factor, we will never control what traits and qualities we inherit through our genes, nor how we are shaped by our environment. Thus, as is true with each element alone, the belief that a combination of nature and nurture determines all human action is antithetical to free will.

Now, please do not misunderstand my intentions, dear reader. I mean not to disprove or oppose the existence of Heaven; I only seek intellectual discourse upon an obstacle that I have struggled to bypass in my journey of faith. However, I am aware that Martin Luther, who is perhaps the most famous heretic in the Church’s long history, supposedly cited the same motives in his rejection of Catholic doctrine, and I also know that my suggestions sound eerily similar to John Calvin’s predestination theory. If Dante Alighieri were alive today, he would probably say that both men are burning in a coffin for all eternity in the Sixth Circle of Hell, which is a fate I would rather like to avoid. Even the thought of suffering forever at the hands of Dante’s inferno, though, cannot force me to ignore the fact that free will, as it is endorsed by Catholicism, simply seems impossible to reconcile with any facet of nature versus nurture.