the Myth

One of the benefits of teaching is to have students question things that seem to go against their grain. I teach a philosophy class and have over a decade. One of the areas that we cover is the philosophical debate between free will and causality. Let me assure you that most everyone of every class will side with the free will position. They will say that all of us have free will to make any choice that we wish to make without any outside causers. That belief for me makes absolutely no sense.

The term tabula rasa is Latin for what the ancient Romans did with a tablet filled with wax. The tabula or tablet contained wax for note taking. Using a stylist, they could write on the wax. It was their version of an ancient version of an iPad. When they no longer needed the data instead of deleting it as we do today, they would heat the wax or scrape it flat resulting in a tablet that was erased or deleted.

Tabula Rasa

This is a painting from Pompeii of a tabula.

Tabula Rasa 2

Tabula Rasa

Aristotle was probably the first philosopher to use the term unscribed tablet. However, it was not until the 11th century when the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina, known to us in the West as Avicenna, said that the "human intellect at birth is rather like a tabula rasa, a pure potentiality that is actualized through education and comes to know."

However, half millennia after Ibn Sina, philosophers in the West really developed that notion. We do not enter the world as an infant with what in the 17th century John Locke called a tabula rasa. Locke believed that with the tabula rasa, individuals could create their own unique personhood via the tabula rasa of their mind since humans come into the world with a clean or blank-slate. Jean-Jacque Rousseau in the 18th writes the same thing in his attempt to talk about war.

No one with any psychology background believes that we come into this world with a tabula rasa. We enter the world with a human genome containing 20-25,000 genes which contain much of our physical and psychological strengths and weaknesses. We are born with an IQ. Intelligence is not a matter of free will. You cannot decide to be smart enough to join Mensa with an IQ better than 98% of the population with a free will choice. The tabula rasa is merely a myth.

Another example of the dispelled myth is that we enter the world with our brains containing one or the other dominant hemisphere. We do not think out of a round brain sitting inside our head. We think primarily out of one or the other hemispheres that lie parallel to each other. The left hemisphere thinks differently than the right hemisphere. This is not a choice nor is it a matter of free will. Sometime during pregnancy when the brain is developing, each of us has one hemisphere that will be dominant when we are born. We are either left or right brain dominant. Here is an overview of each of each hemisphere:

Left Handedness

Left brain, right brain

This is another example of the functional differences between each of the hemispheres:

Mind Maps

Using Mind Maps

We tend to use one hemisphere than the other. Most people are dominant primarily on one side or the other of the brain. Interestingly, additional research tends to see our political view caused by whether we are left or right brain.

Left brain vs. right brain

Conservative Left Brain, Liberal Right Brain

We don't come into this world with free will and decide whether we love math/science or creativity/art. Our brain determined our likes or dislikes for much of what we feel. The notion of the tabula rasa remains is a myth without true meaning.

Birth order is another example of how free will is a myth. Read Kevin Leman's The Birth Order Book. The ordinal position in which we are born determines much of what we do, think, and feel. First borns are competitive, over-achievers, and driven. Middle children are content, family people, and aren't as competitive as first borns. Last borns are gregarious, fun-loving, and happy-go-lucky. There are exceptions to the rule that are based upon age differences between siblings, their sex, and ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, free will is not a factor.

For example, when a first born male is followed by a female with or less years between them, the female often becomes the first born. Females brains develop faster after birth than males. The males brain will reach parity with females in their early 20s. Another exception is that when more than 5-years separate children, they begin new families. A family could have 3-children separated by 5-years or more and have in reality 3-first borns. Again, the tabula rasa is not a functional reality.

If you have any lingering doubts about the absence of free will, the Minnesota twin studies will end your doubt. I was having dinner with a couple of my children and my granddaughter and told them that I was writing this article. In passing, I said that the twin studies are mentioned in almost all introduction to college psych classes. My granddaughter knew about this already, and she was a junior in high school.

The University of Minnesota identical twins study started in the early 80s. It is both an absolutely great research project and fascinating findings about identical twins separated him each other at birth. The university went to hospitals and looked at records to find identical twins that were given-up for adoption immediately after birth. The twins did not know that there was another identical twin out there. Then the university was able in some cases to find the separated identical twins. And what did they discover?

This finding leads us to believe that the similarities between twins are due to genes, not environment. Given that the differences between twins reared apart must be due totally to the environment, and given that these twins are just as similar as twins reared together, we can conclude that the environment, rather than making twins alike, makes them different.

One example of the amazing similarity of twins reared apart is the so-called "Jim twins". These twins were adopted at the age of four weeks. Both of the adopting couples, unknown to each other, named their son James. Upon reunion of the twins when they were 39 years old, Jim and Jim have learned that:

  • Both twins are married to women named Betty and divorced from women named Linda.
  • One has named his first son James Alan while the other named his first son James Allan.
  • Both twins have an adopted brother whose name is Larry.
  • Both named their pet dog "Toy."
  • Both had some law-enforcement training and had been a part-time deputy sheriff in Ohio.
  • Each did poorly in spelling and well in math.
  • Each did carpentry, mechanical drawing, and block lettering.
  • Each vacation in Florida in the same three-block-long beach area.
  • Both twins began suffering from tension headaches at eighteen, gained ten pounds at the same time, and are six feet tall and 180 pounds.

Twin Research

The following link contains several actual examples of this phenomenon: Identical twins separated at birth.

Now, this entire discussion is not suggesting that we are preprogrammed robots without choices. We have choices if we understand that we are not tabula rasas. If we think that we are free to choose whatever we wish, then we are merely functioning like robots.

We have the ability to respond to cause and effect. If you are first born, you will know that you want to lead...all the time. Being a first born has both strengths and weaknesses associated with that ordinal position. First borns' desire to lead is a benefit, but it also can cause negative responses for other people...regardless of their ordinal position. There is a thin line between being a leader and being too pushy. If you know you strengths, those very strengths also have potential for creating problems unless you can control your behavior. However, control is not motivated by free will; it is caused by the problem. No pain, no gain.

I cannot think of a class that I teach in which I do not mention one of my all-time favorite wide receivers in professional football, Lynn Swann. He wore number 88 for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1982. He helped Pittsburgh win 4-Super Bowl championship and was the MVP in Super Bowl X. He was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Swann was my height and weight while playing, which is not an ideal height or weight if you want to catch passes and not get stopped by a much bigger defensive player. So how did he deal with his pain? He did what any wide receiver should do...joined the ballet. His choice was not a free will choice. Swann did not join a ballet as a choice without a cause. The problem caused him to learn how to jump higher and become one of the greatest wide receivers in professional football.

Lynn Swann

Sports Illustrated

In conclusion, while the tabula rasa seems like a nice and agreeable truth, it does not exist in reality. It behooves us as intelligent people to address the various issues that cause our behavior or affect our lives. If we address many of the givens in life, we can change or modify many of them...often to our great benefit. Whether you are a Lynn Swann or just an average person dealing with problems of life, remember the saying, "No pain, no gain."