The window for applying for the Corban Gunn, Attorney at Law Fall 2021 Scholarship has come to a close. The applications all contained high quality essays and it was a pleasure to read them all. We’re proud to help students further their education and provide opportunities to help them take the next step. We’re excited to announce the winner of our Fall 2021 scholarship. Thank you to all applicants!
Congratulations to Meghri Sarkissian of California!
She has joined Palo Alto University’s Clinical Psychology Program to obtain her PhD.
The Fall 2021 Scholarship essay topic was:
What would be the most surprising scientific discovery imaginable?
Here’s her essay:
Do We Have a Choice?
Woven into the very fabric of our society—from behaviorally to evolutionary—humans have grasped on to the unquestionable concept that we are driven by free will. This concept has served an essential piece to our society, as it drives the punitive criminal justice system, education, careers, and our general dissonance from the fact that we are just another species trying to survive on this planet. It would shake the very foundation of our identities if neurological and behavioral scientific methods seized our free will.
Free will has provided human beings with an ego so large that they persecuted both Copernicus and Galileo, who dared state that the universe did not, in fact, revolve around the Earth (Leveillee). On a similar note, when Sigmund Freud appeared and stated that we have subconscious urges and desires that drive our behaviors—further taking away free will—he was mocked and dismissed and continues to be so to this day (Shaw). Behavior Psychologists were treated initially in similar manner. Behaviorists approach the human mind by stating that human behavior is a continuous reaction to environmental stimuli. For example, when an individual performs well at their job, they are not necessarily doing so because they want to (free will), but rather because they have been conditioned with a balance of rewards and punishments to perform in a desirable manner. On the other hand, if an individual performs badly at work, the balance of rewards and punishments may be off, to where the punishment is higher than the reward. In both of these circumstances, behaviorist psychologists state that the individual does not have free will and is merely reacting to their environment (McLeod). This perspective has been challenged passionately by people who do not feel comfortable with their free will being taken from them.
Neurological studies have also begun paralleling this mentality. To begin with, addiction was once seen (and in many places, such as the criminal justice system, continues to be seen that way) as a choice, and one that is undesirable to the community and must be punished. However, new models of addiction are showing physiological changes within the brain that display how little choice addiction gives individuals. When an individual picks up a cigarette, are they doing so out of free will, or because the nicotine triggers the neural reward pathway in the brain and conditions the brain to release dopamine? New models are focusing on the latter (NIDA). Thus, the criminal justice system is not making any difference by criminalizing addiction. This concept is also making changes within certain diagnoses, such as PTSD and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Neurological advancements have found physiological changes in the brain (such as an enlarging or shrinking of the amygdala) that show just how little control of their behaviors they have (Bremner, Fallon).
As more scientific advancements allow us to study the brain and human behavior from new perspectives, it would be a complete shock to society if the conclusion is that humans have absolutely no free will, but rather that we are in constant reaction to our environments and our neurological impulses. The implications of this would mean a complete restructuring of the criminal justice system, mental health treatment, education systems, career environments, and belief systems. Without free will, we are not so far off from the animal kingdom from which society has tried so hard to distance itself.
Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience
vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner
Fallon, James. The Psychopath Inside. Penguin Group, 2014.
Leveillee, Nicholas P. Copernicus, Galileo, and the Church: Science in a religious world. 3,
Inquiries Journal, 01 May 2011,
http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1675/copernicus-galileo-and-the-churchscience-in-a-religious-world. Accessed 04 Feb. 2021.
McLeod, Saul. Psychology Perspectives. Simply Psychology, 01 Jan. 1970,
https://www.simplypsychology.org/perspective.html. Accessed 04 Feb. 2021.
NIDA. “Drugs and the Brain.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 10 Jul. 2020,
https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugsbrain Accessed 4 Feb. 2021.
Shaw, Beau. Historical context for the writings of Sigmund Freud. Columbia College,
Accessed 04 Feb. 2021
Congratulations again, Meghri! Good luck in all your future endeavors.
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