Blogging Through Augustine/Martin’s Anthology “The Myth of an Afterlife” part 7

The Myth of an Afterlife post 7: Personality

Chapter Three: (pg 69) Explaining Personality: Soul Theory versus Behavior Genetics

By: Jean Mercer

 As I mentioned in a previous post, the guiding perspective we inherited from the history of Philosophy is the issue of Being, which has traditionally been interpreted in terms of essentia or questioning beings in terms of “what” they are, and existentia or questioning beings in terms of “how” they are.

Even in Plato’s time, there has been an ambiguity in what we mean by “essence.”  On the one hand, if I ask after the essence of house, I’m asking for what is general or common.  By contrast, if I ask after the essence of Socrates, I mean what is central and unique about him.  Keeping these issues in mind, what is ownmost in Socrates, let’s consider the topic of personality.

The introduction for this chapter reads:

  • This paper explores the causes of the unique individual patterns of reaction we call personality and compares the view that these are determined by the individual’s soul with the view that biological factors are responsible for personality characteristics. The paper discusses current evidence for genetic influences on temperament, psychopathology, and intelligence and examines complexities such as the influence of environment and epigenetic factors. It concludes that in all likelihood our unique personality traits are determined by biological factors alone, without any need to appeal to a nonmaterial or ethereal element. 1. Confirming Nonexistence — 2. What is a Soul? — 3. Personality, Soul, and Behavior Genetics — 4. Measuring Personality – 4.1 Temperament – 4.2 Psychopathology – 4.3 Intelligence — 5. Examining the Genotype and Its Effects – 5.1 The Human Genome – 5.2 Polygenic Effects – 5.3 Epigenesis and Imprinting – 5.4 Gene-Environment Interactions – 5.5 Evolutionary Psychology — 6. Connections between Genotype and Behavioral Phenotype – 6.1 Temperament – 6.2 Psychopathology – 6.3 Intelligence — 7. Conclusion: The Principle of Parsimony Undermines Soul Theory

Before systematically applying the study of genetics to humans, we have seen this connection in animals:

  • Before technology for the study of genetic material was developed, some information about the effect of the genotype on the phenotype was already in place. This was derived from familial studies and from systematic breeding of plants and domestic animals. Work on behavior genetics began with insights gained from observation of domestic animals; for example, it was well-known that some breeds of pigs take excellent care of their offspring, while others must be monitored to prevent them from lying on or even eating their piglets.

We can see the importance of genetic influence in all types of environments:

  • First, there are active interactions when an individual’s genetic makeup pushes him or her to seek out specific types of environmental experiences. A person who is biologically inclined to risk-taking, for example, may involve himself in risky physical sports, become expert at them because of practice, and thus become more inclined to carry out risky actions. Second, in passive gene-environment interactions, a child is born into an environment that has already been shaped by the parents’ genetically determined behavioral traits. If the parents are predisposed to low activity levels, for instance, they may provide little encouragement for the child’s physical activity and may even punish it, or may choose to live in a home full of breakable possessions that are likely to produce trouble for even a moderately active child. Finally, in evocative gene-environment interactions, children’s genetically determined behavior causes specific types of responses from adults, and those responses help shape the child’s behavioral phenotype. In each of these situations examination of the genotype alone would be no more than partially successful in explaining behavioral traits.

The author points to the genetic dependence of the personality from such varied aspects from psychopathology to intelligence.  For instance, she writes:

  • Strong heritability of general cognitive ability (GCA) has been reported by a variety of studies carried out on different populations (Johnson, 2010). Interestingly, the measured heritability of GCA increases with age—that is, older monozygotic twins are more likely to have about the same IQ than younger ones. During childhood, shared environmental influences account for about 35 percent of variation, and genetic factors for about 30 percent; in later adulthood, genetic factors account for 80 percent of the variability.

This makes good sense given what we know about aptitude and creativity.  Aristotle interestingly asked why people who have achieved so much in the various intellectual pursuit domains were so consistently melancholic.  Even Thales and Heraclitus remarked that thinkers are not close to life.  There seems to be a genetic connection between this kind of creativity and being a step back from life, not being caught up in the everyday goings on of things.  In German this is called Nicht-Da-Sein or Weg-Sein, a distance from life.  It makes sense, because such a personality trait as melancholia would grant perspective, being able to see the forest despite the trees:  It’s like a person who can’t see the toxic nature of their romantic relationship even though it is blatantly obvious to her friend because she is too caught up in it and close to it.

The genetic base for intelligence also makes good sense when we further analyze it into its component parts of the various aptitude domains of Multiple Intelligences.  So, for instance, someone might be highly effective and creative when it comes to linguistics and music and art, but not so in the domains of math and bodily/kinesthetic pursuits.

As for things like anxiety, bipolar, and schizophrenia, that there is a biological base for these traits is amply evidenced by the effectiveness of medication on treating them.  Certainly, there are environmental factors.  Descartes redefined truth as certainty, free from doubt, following a tradition that stretched from Thomas to Luther that what had to be certain, in the sense of freedom from doubt, was certainty at the salvation of the soul.  The problem for us moderns with this “certainty stance” toward life is that if we are in the mode of securing against doubt all the time, this is going to increase anxiety levels analogous to the diet-er obsessed with healthy food who is exacerbating a problem because they are thinking about food all the time.  A Cartesian-like experience of obsessive systematic doubting could certainly result in a psychotic episode or balloon into OCD, but all of this simply represents what is going on at the physical level, which is why medication is so important along with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance.

 Similarly, our “person-ality” (constructed like animal-ity) is going to affect the way we experience the world.  So, an average person like myself is not going to experience the world like Einstein or Mozart, any more than I will experience the conspiracy-laden world of certain bipolars/schizophrenics, or the profound lack of certainy of someone with severe OCD.  The way the mind encounters the stuff of sense is not primarily  “knowing,” but organizing/schematizing this chaos because of how it is enjoyable, revulsive, and useful to us.  Hence, if the material did not serve this function, it may not be encountered.  Hence, Heidegger says:

  • “The angle of vision, and the realm it opens to view, themselves draw the borderlines around what it is that the creature can or cannot encounter.  For example, a lizard hears the slightest rustling in the grass but it does not hear a pistol shot fired quite close by.  Accordingly, the creature develops a kind of interpretation of its surroundings and thereby of all occurrence, not incidentally, but as the fundamental process of life itself: ‘The perspectival is the basic condition of all life (VII, 4) … The living creature possesses the character of a perspectival preview which circumscribes a line of horizon about him, within whose scope something can come forward into appearance for him at all (Heidegger, 1991, 212).” 

When we speak of beings as “substances with properties,” this is an effective way of organizing the world, though it is not “objective,” which we see the more empirical we get, such as at the quantum level where “substance with properties” is not as much of a useful descriptive category as it is at the macro level.  Physicist Carlo Rovelli has argued Time is like this, not existing at the quantum level.