Tabula Rasa

“Everyone needs a theory of human nature.”

– Steven Pinker

Free Will

I am rarely impressed by discussions about free will. Freedom of choice may be illusory, and we very well may be running through a narrow canyon whilst pursued by an irresistible force, incapable of veering right or left, or even acquiescing to our fate. Then again, some conceptual or linguistic weakness inherent in our species may be all that is preventing us from dismissing fatalism outright and without reservation. However, no matter if the answer to the riddle is forthcoming or forever denied to us, we must always proceed as if free will is a fact of existence.

Our legal system is rooted in the assumption of free will. In other words, we cannot begin to discuss what constitutes acceptable behavior until free will is already out of the way. In fact, if a defendant is determined to have acted without free will, then the defendant is not guilty, and by definition. Motive is everything, and that notion trickles into our daily lives as well, where we easily forgive accidents and rigorously condemn willful harm.

Lest I am accused of contradicting my very opening sentence, my interest in free will amounts to whether it need be bothered with, and not if “rational actors” is a non sequitur. Some questions only inform themselves, and if we must proceed in all cases as if free will exists, then free will is such a question.

Human Nature

Mega genius and coiffure revolutionary Steven Pinker wrote a very important book called The Blank Slate. I will defer to Wikipedia for a synopsis:

Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three “linked dogmas” that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:

  • the blank slate (the mind has no innate traits) – empiricism
  • the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society) -romanticism
  • the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology) – mind/body dualism

Every discussion about pretty much everything is clouded by mostly unconscious assumptions about what our conversation partner thinks about the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. Most people I know subscribe to a mixed view of blank slate and noble savage with dash of materialism (biology). The rest cannot get past the ghost in the machine, and very often espouse non material theories of mind without even realizing it.

Relativism, especially, cultural relativism, has no legs without an almost fundamentalist adherence to the blank slate. The notion that we cannot judge another culture based on the values of our own assumes one of the following:

a) That genetically speaking, all people are not virtually identical.

b) Universal human values do not exist, and are the product of culture.

Choice A is manifestly false, as even the most rudimentary genetic science proves beyond any reasonable doubt. So we are left with B.

Universal human values do exist. It is never okay to steal your neighbour’s stuff. It is never okay to burn innocent children alive (as punishment, or if they are possessed by a demon, or to appease the gods, is another matter). It is never okay to set fire to the village on a whim. In all cultures, those actions will be condemned. Regardless of the specifics of religion or creed, economic conditions, or geography, the situation must be truly desperate before you can borrow your neighbour’s yak without asking.


It is probably true that there is divide in attitudes in boys and girls when it comes to the blank slate. Feminists defend the lack of success among women when contrasted with the success enjoyed by men by citing inequalities that exist in culture. Equal capabilities are assumed in all fields, and when substantial gender disparity in a given discipline is discovered, a patriarchal explanation will be the default (and sometimes only) position of those who view the world as a feminist first.

Steven Pinker expertly points to a case of gender inequality in the sciences, and asks the reader to compare it to a case of gender equality. Within the field of physics, there are about nine men for every woman working. In biology, there is approximate parity. Now, whether one assumes the reasons women physicists are rare due to cultural conditioning of young girls to pursue other career choices, or that women are uninterested although still capable of completing physics related tasks, or that woman are by and large unsuited to a physics career, what is true, is that the physics establishment is not keeping women down.

To assume patriarchal domination within physics is to assume some enlightened feminist view within biology. Given that both fields were dominated by men until the very recent past, there is little reason to suspect either. Some other forces are at work, and our attitude toward the blank slate plays the dominant role in shaping our opinion of what those forces are.

Read The Blank Slate

Read The Blank Slate.

Robin Lindsay



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