During a metaphysics class, the topic of free will came up during an argument as to whether god exists or not. I wanted to extrapolate fully my views on free will and how they differ greatly to the commonly held beliefs surrounding the question of whether we do actually have free will. I also want to relate this back to moral responsibility and criminalisation. Most of my views on the topic have came about as a result of the speech Sam Harris gave at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2012 during which he discussed incompatibilism.
My proposition, if you will, is that free will is in fact an illusion and that, because of this, more scrutiny is necessary as to whether our judicial system can ethically justify the punishment of criminals.
I’d like to thank Sam Harris for the next little thought experiment. Let’s get to it.
Close your eyes and think of an object. It could be absolutely anything you like… Got it yet? You may have thought of a hammer, a trombone, a wheelbarrow, a piece of cheese, or a rabid lion. Now close your eyes and think of another object but this time try to observe how the object arises in your mind. What’d you come up with this time? But more importantly, how did you come up with it?
You’ll find absolutely nowhere do you make use of free will in the procurement of your arbitrary object. Indeed you could have thought of a toothpick, a bundle of leaves, or a motorbike. Whatever you thought of, you didn’t impose your will on the manifestation of this object in your mind.
You see, these thoughts just arise in our minds. As Sam says, for us to have free will, we’d have to think of the objects before we thought of them, and then make some sort of conscious selection about whether we ought to think them! Essentially, what we have is a spectatorship of the thoughts that do arise in our minds. We don’t know how or why they arise but we can spectate the creation of the thoughts that do arise. And this is why we think we have free will when in actuality, we just have front row seats to the thought creation process which is, as far as we can observe, completely arbitrary (and maybe a little spooky). Indeed, we feel like we are the ones creating the thoughts themselves, but in actuality, this is just the illusion of being so close to that process.
Another point I wanted to bring up, and it was also mentioned by Harris, is the idea of deliberately doing nothing all day. Let us suppose you made the following statement: “I will make absolutely zero plans for tomorrow. I will have no priorities, no goals, no tasks, no boundaries, nothing.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to see just what you ended up doing tomorrow if you just went with the flow?
Eventually, you’d get out of bed, you might dawdle around for a bit, perhaps stare at the wall for a while, but sooner or later, you’ll end up doing something. A thought will, at random, arise in your mind and you’ll roll with it. You didn’t do this out of free will because you didn’t create the thought. It just came about. Completely at random. You may have decided to go to the circus or perhaps you decided to visit a friend. You cannot control which thoughts enter your mind.
So, let’s say during our “anything goes” day, we come up with two thoughts more or less at the same time: ‘go to the circus’ or ‘visit a friend’. We appear to have a decision to make. Most people think we make such a decision out of free will here. This is not the case. The decision we do make relies on this great big chain of causality. An infinitude of data will be subconsciously taken into consideration.
We observe as our mind makes its decision based on the thoughts that appear out of nowhere: “I haven’t seen Sally in a while”, “The circus is only in town for a few more days”, etc. And there is a large amount of data taken into consideration subconsciously that our conscience doesn’t mention. In any case, the decision to visit Sally or go to the circus is simply a product of cause and effect. In the same way, a murderer’s decision to kill someone or let them live is based on a similar chain of causality. The principle of cause and effect states the only influence on a decision is the previous causes and nowhere does free will enter this equation. As explained in the previous example, we do nothing more than spectate the decision that our brain is determined to make based on an arbitrary contrivance of thoughts.
Try to explain the next thing you’re going to think. It’s impossible. We can say what we’re going to say next but we absolutely cannot predict the thought that will be next to crop up in our mind.
Let’s take 200,000 unborn children as our sample, exactly 100,000 of which are to be born in Honduras and the other 100,000 are to be born in Liechtenstein. These children, at birth, obviously don’t get to choose their parents. It’s luck of the draw and they will either be born in and brought up in Honduras or Liechtenstein. It’s a coin flip.
One difference between these two places is the murder rate. In Honduras, 90 of these children, at some stage in their life, will be murdered. On the other hand, if they happen to be born in Liechtenstein, it’s more than likely none of those children at all, at any stage in their life, will be murdered. By now, you’re probably asking me what the point is…
Before birth, our 200,000 to-be children are perfectly equal. We have no idea whether they’ll be born into Honduras or Liechtenstein. If we assume (and it’s fine for the sake of simplicity) that for every murder, there is one victim and one murderer. This means 90 of our 200,000 children souls will grow up to be murderers.
If everyone is born completely equal, logically, 45 murderers would go to Honduras and the other 45 would go to Liechtenstein. So why is it that all of the murderous baby souls are being born into Honduras? This is purely a result of the socioeconomic surroundings that soul is born into. Of our 200,000 baby souls, none of which get any say in whether they are to be brought up in Honduras or Liechtenstein, the 100,000 who go to Honduras have a higher chance of becoming a murderer and being incarcerated as a result. And so the chain of causality begins.
It is only logical to make the inference then that for someone to become a murderer, the main influencing factor is the socioeconomic environment of the child during their upbringing.
As soon as someone is born, immediately they become a product of causality. Their parents will teach them certain ethical principles, as will the people they associate with. In 90 of our 100,000 Honduras children, at some stage in their life, there will have been a chain of causal influences that lead to their becoming a murderer.
These children, as I said before, don’t pick their parents. They don’t pick what lessons their parents teach them. They don’t choose anything: it all happens as a result of, firstly, where they’re born, and then secondly, the influences in that environment. And so their rationalisation of murder is a direct result from their environment too. If these 90 children were brought up in Liechtenstein, none of them would commit murder as the environment in which they were brought up would be vastly different.
This is the foundational argument of determinism. That is, that all events including the actions of our own, are predetermined based on previous events or stimulus that we could not have, in any way, controlled.
In the case of a psychopath who becomes a mass murderer, where is the free will here? Yes, the psychopath made the decision to murder innocent people, but this decision came about not as a result of free will. This is where most of us get it wrong and put the onus on the psychopath. In actuality, the psychopath did not, at any point in their life, make the conscious decision using their free will to become a psychopath. The behavioural condition comes about sometimes from birth but often as a result of an abusive upbringing (one which they didn’t choose to undergo). Even if the psychopath had made the explicit statement of, “I’ve decided I want to become a serial killer because it looks fun”, the conception of this statement itself could be attributed to a prior set of factors the subject could not control. In any case, the decision to murder resulted from a long series of cause and effect.
And so now the question arises, if we have no free will, and everything is determined to be as it is, and we then commit a crime, should we be punished? If we’re not responsible for the thoughts that arose in our mind or the causal chain that lead to our committing our crime, why should we be punished? You punish people who assume responsibility for what they do. But for so long, we’ve been assuming responsibility for things out of our control. Our society condemns people, as Harris puts it, who appear to have a conscious intent to do harm. But if we can now agree, free will is illusory in nature and so no one truly has any such conscious intent to do harm.
Everything is based on luck. You are unlucky if you happen to be a serial killer and are forced to spend years in prison. Similarly, you are lucky if your causal chain leads you to stardom and celebrity status. This enhanced view of free will indicates a world based purely on luck.
Now, this isn’t to say we should just sit back and let life play itself out… We certainly feel as though we’re sitting in the driver’s seat and there is a distinct difference between fatalism and determinism. But it seems to me the most logical, albeit unintuitive, belief is that of the incompatibilist determinist.
I don’t want to speculate as to whether we should punish people for essentially being unlucky. There are certainly benefits to judicial incapacitation. Most of us are happy to assume responsibility for our crimes simply because the illusion of free will is so convincing, we manage to convince ourselves that we are responsible and so we default to a compatibilist stance. And I’m yet to speculate as to whether compatibilism has any meaningful grounds for consideration in light of this argument. But as Sam Harris said, “where is the freedom in doing what one wants, when one’s wants are the product of prior causes which one cannot inspect and therefore could not choose and one had absolutely no hand in creating.” I can only logically say, along with Harris, that compatibilism doesn’t quite offer a solution to the problem of free will.