By Kimmy Phan
For centuries, the question of free will has puzzled philosophers and neuroscientists alike. In a way, their methods to finding truth are similar. Philosophers work to achieve simpler ideas from the complex questions pertaining to free will; neuroscientists hope to answer the same questions through understandings of the simple workings of molecules and compounds within us, first beginning from the brain to its neurons to its dendrites, all the way down to its quark spins. But in this way, the lost neuroscientists only spawn more questions, trapped in trying to simplify our molecular mechanisms down to fundamental laws of physics. The flaw in moving down the scale of biology is that it merely poses the same questions in which how those molecules and electrons relate to the larger images: how do these molecular interactions relate to the production of thought and choice? Philosophers believe that perhaps the answers comes from simpler understandings of free will and is better sought in the live experience, that is, through literature. When we cannot find answers through scientific evidence, philosophers pave the way to finding the truth through works such as Antigone, offering insight to the mind and its reactions. In fact, by returning these ancient stories and theories of the mind formulated by philosophers and authors many centuries ago, we may be able to answer the questions of free will posed even by the neuroscientists.
In Antigone, although Haemon shares the blood of his father Creon, he does not share his father’s intransigence. Neuroscientists suggest through their studies that our DNA makes our decisions, as “these molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our ‘choices’—are dictated by those laws” (Coyne). In this sense, Haemon’s words and actions should reflect Creon’s callous and selfish nature. Since Haemon’s choices are derived from the genetic coding endowed from his father, these choices should be pre-determined and predictable through his father. But we know through analyzing both characters that that is truly not the case. What we see in these two are differences in principles, which are clearly defined through each other’s judgments and leadership.
When Creon delivers his first speech to his people, he emphasizes the positive impact he will make. To search for respect out of his people, Creon announces to his people that Polynices, Antigone’s brother, had committed shameful violence in betraying his countrymen and that he will mercilessly deny Polynices, a traitor of his country, a sacred and traditional burial, saying stridently that, according to his principles, “Never at my hands/will the traitor be honored above the patriot” (232-233). He establishes his power over the citizens of Thebes, who’d just been rocked by war. He also reaffirms the people’s trust towards him, announcing that “I now possess the throne and all its powers” and adds that he will keep his people safe (190-210). He states that he will not put his needs over his people, for “whoever places a friend/above the good of his own country, he is nothing:/I have not use for him” (203-205). However, as the story progresses, we find that he makes these promises only to break them later, and these once-ardent ideals slowly deteriorate, revealing Creon’s true incentive: power.
Haemon, however, is undeceived and continually criticizes Creon for his lack of judgment and weak leadership. When Creon asks Haemon whether or not he should rule the land “for others or myself,” Haemon replies that, “It’s no city at all, owned by one man alone” and mocks Creon, saying that the only place he could rule in that way is on a “deserted island” where he could rule himself. Haemon exclaims to his father that he must allow the burial of Antigone’s brother, considering her feelings while saying “she shouldn’t bear to leave him dead, unburied,/food for the wild dogs or wheeling vultures” (780-781). Creon finds himself suspicious that Haemon knows his real intentions and becomes wary of his son’s opposition and possible overthrow. He responds by attacking Haemon’s character, accusing him of being a “woman’s accomplice” and ridiculing his way of thinking since he’s siding with Antigone and wanting to conduct a ceremonial burial for Polynices (823-836). These examples tell us that although Creon and Haemon may share similar DNA, they are very much different in many aspects.
It is clear that Creon is motivated by self-interest, while Haemon is driven by the good of the people. Creon’s inconsistency in his actions and words demonstrates the fallibility of his leadership, which eventually leads to his petrified state when both Antigone and Haemon die and his power is inevitably slipping away from him. But how can this be if, as father and son, they have almost identical DNA? In comparing son and father in Antigone, it raises the issue that if genes are supposed to hold a pre-determined ability if they follow the predictive laws of physics, what accounts for these differences in the choices, thoughts, and actions that they deduce from their principles?
Recent studies in genetics provide some insight to explain what’s happening. Epigenetics raises the idea that if our choices really are made chemically, not all of it is heritable. It tells us that gene expression is constantly manipulated by external factors and genes are constantly activated and deactivated as a response to subtle environmental stimuli, and though we have an endless possibility of coding within us, we do not reveal our full genetic potential. In other words, not all of the genes are being actively coded and expressed—only certain genes are active while others remain dormant (Lea).
Studies like these imply that our judgments are influenced by environmental stimuli. But this would not explain how people with similar genetic coding and similar experiences and environments do not make the same judgments, like with Creon and Haemon, having both experienced death and lived in Thebes. There must be other factors that influence how we make decisions other than our DNA. Left with unanswered questions, we turn to the philosophers, who may carry some insight on how our choices are actually made, if not influenced by our genetics.
Aristotle’s theories on the mind may contribute to today’s debate on the subject of free will. He designates choice as , in which both intellectual thought and moral values stem from (Chamberlain 147). The prefix pro- refers to “temporal and preferential priority” and the root word hairesis means “choosing” (“Decision”). This is different from a deliberate choice or choice made on a whim, where the decision is made to submit to internal desires. For the ancients, choice almost always coincided with rationality. Reflex-like behaviors are not acts of free will, for the mind would then not have complete control over itself. Rather, this is where the body overrules the mind—where internal desires manipulate the environment without the person’s total control. According to Aristotle, deliberation and judgment are key components to choice and free will.
In Antigone, Creon’s strives to fulfill his desires in wanting to dictate his land. But it is through his own judgment and rationality that power is what he should achieve and he sticks to his principles with a firm hold. However, Haemon produces the idea himself that he should not rule a kingdom for himself but for his people. Haemon demonstrates a complex level of judgment that of which is far beyond Creon’s, and through ancient philosophy, must have been cultivated from careful consideration and emotional feeling for others, an ability obviously not inherited from his father but through his own free will. According to Aristotelean theory, this compassion was achieved through deliberation, not through his DNA. While Creon and Haemon experienced similar situations, their process of deliberation and rationalization differed. Our decisions are not just made through environmental stimuli that alter our genes—it’s how we decide to react to and rationalize our conditions, which embodies free will.
While their environments were alike, Haemon was able to transcend the limitations of his biological coding through the way he reacted to his circumstances and considering others’ feelings. In this way, through deliberation and sensitivity, he achieved his own values and gained the principle of helping others, which led him to have sympathy for his countrymen and for Antigone. The logic and reactions between Haemon and Creon to similar environments were what drove their differing judgments and leadership. The mind, inclusive of its values, emotions, and moral understanding, has jurisdiction over how the external factors can influence our decisions.
Though Antigone may be a work of fiction, we can see how these theories play in the real world. For example, siblings born from the same parents or even twins with identical DNA will most likely make different choices. We are endowed with genes from our parents, but these molecules are only one part of the synergistic whole. The scientific theories and calculations held so highly today reduce us to molecules and elements and neglect the fact that we are sophisticated beings with complex minds. Genes are only one of the components that determine who we are. Significant determinants behind our choices, actions, and thoughts are from components of our own free will—through our ability to rationalize and react to override the predictability of genetics. This free will gives us individual preferences for how we base our principles. For some, rationality may drive them to strive for power through whatever means possible. For others, they not only recognize the faults in the world or in others, but also rely on judgment and feeling for others in developing their thinking, feeling, and rational selves.
Chamberlain, Charles. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 114, (1984), pp. 147-157. 11 November 2014.
Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 March 2012. Web. 30 October 2014.
“Decision.” The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Bunnin, Nicholas and Jiyuan Yu (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 October 2014.
Lea, Allison P. “Looking Beyond Our DNA.” Horizons in Bioscience. Web. 11 November 2014.
Sophocles. Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. United States: Viking Penguin Inc., 1982. Print.