Post No.: 0590
Philosophies that believe that everybody gets what they deserve are strongly arguably untenable according to the conclusions that can be derived from scientific research and empirical evidence. This universe, which includes us and everything about us, including the building blocks that make up our brains and thus how we think and behave, either operates on deterministic and/or random mechanical processes – neither of which really allow free will to exist.
I’ll sidestep debates about whether any particular phenomenon is truly or only apparently deterministic, or truly or only apparently stochastic, by pointing out that determinism doesn’t allow us to freely choose our own outcomes because 1) no one can deviate from cause leading to effect (we metaphorically are, and are in, a domino show that’s been set in motion since the Big Bang), and 2) the random projected eigenstates from wave function collapses due to interactions or ‘observations’ in quantum mechanics aren’t chosen by us either (we metaphorically must accept whatever the dice rolls according to the probabilities) i.e. either way, free will or the freedom of choice is prohibited. We must follow and take whatever we’re given by nature’s laws.
Everybody’s outcomes are therefore logically completely down to luck, and no one morally earns, chooses or deserves their luck, hence no one actually morally gets what they deserve.
Broadly, people can either take an ‘incompatiblist’ view, where there’s a dichotomy between determinism and free will, or a ‘compatiblist’ (or ‘soft determinism’) view, which claims that determinism and free will can somehow co-exist. However, the latter stance arguably mis-equates definitions by defining free will as more of ‘a freedom to act’, when they aren’t the same things – or imagining that you could behave or could’ve behaved differently than you will or did isn’t sufficient. It’s like a coin could’ve flipped heads when it actually flipped tails – but this won’t mean the coin has free will. Some might alternatively base their claims not on metaphysical but on practical grounds e.g. when it comes to criminal law and judging sins.
Metaphysical libertarians are incompatiblists who – rather than accept determinism and reject free will – accept free will and reject determinism. Political libertarians typically reject a lack of free will because they want to believe that things are down to everyone’s free choices and deservedness rather than unfair luck.
‘Hard determinism’ adherents deny any free will truly exists. Proponents of ‘hard indeterminism’, meanwhile, deny that the universe is deterministic and so believe that free will exists, on the basis that either chaos or pure randomness is how the universe works. However, this mis-equates definitions by defining free will as ‘unpredictability’, when they aren’t the same things.
Something being difficult, impractical or even impossible (for not having enough computing power in the entire universe) to predict – like what someone will be exactly thinking of in exactly seven year’s time – won’t mean that people must therefore possess free will. Chaos is about the complexity of the cause-and-effect relationships and the sensitivity of effects with their causes in a purely deterministic system, which appears random due to this complexity and sensitivity but isn’t strictly random at all. (Not that true randomness implies a free will either, as explained earlier.) A lottery machine doesn’t have free will, nor does the weather, even though those systems are highly chaotic and hard to predict. They’re not making their own free choices but strictly obeying the laws of nature.
One interesting line of thought might regard quantum superposition, and multiverse theory according to the many-worlds interpretation – is doing everything possible a form of freedom? However, certain quantum phenomena may exhibit superposition (all possibilities as true in line with a probability distribution, or ‘Schrödinger’s cat is both simultaneously dead and alive’) unless/until measured or observed – but is being simultaneously in all possible states our own personal lived and conscious experience? The aggregate of every version of ‘us’ in every postulated universe would be doing everything that’s possible – but not us as an individual in this universe we’re in. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is also deterministic once we take every single universe in this multiverse into account. This is as far as I’ve understood it so I may be wrong, as with anything else to do with quantum mechanics! I’m sure any physicists will correct me if so and that’s grand. But the key point in this philosophy post is that, whether determinism or randomness, or a combination of both – neither mechanical process seems to afford room for free will in a strict or fundamental sense.
…The main concern with denying that free will exists though is that we don’t want a world where everyone takes no responsibility for their actions or where rewarding or punishing people for their actions cannot be justified. We don’t want to promote a world where people state their lack of strictly true free will as a (total) excuse for their crimes or failures. However, desiring a certain conclusion shouldn’t make us ignore the robust and consistent empirical evidence that doesn’t appear to support it. We cannot just reject a particular conclusion because we don’t like or want it. We should be guided by the evidence – including the absence of any unequivocal evidence of immaterial souls that transcend the physical realm and thus physical laws – and derive our conclusions from what it logically implies, instead of starting with the conclusion we desire first then trying to justify this afterwards.
Yet for the sake of a well-functioning civilisation, and perhaps our mental well-being too if we find the absence of control disturbing – can we just ignore the science, rely on faith, or somehow still justify apportioning responsibilities and punishments?
Well it doesn’t mean crimes will not be punished – a defendant may claim that he/she had no choice but to commit a crime, but a judge may similarly claim that he/she had no choice but to sentence the defendant to five years in jail(!) Woof!
Thus determinism won’t likely work as a defence in court. Morality is also somewhat, at some level, a cause-and-effect construct e.g. doing something harms someone else, so the offender must be punished and the victim be recompensed.
Intentions are tricky to account for though, since we do discern between accidents and deliberate acts e.g. manslaughter versus murder. But we can still work out whether someone intended something or not even if they had no free will to ultimately decide their own motivations. We can perhaps still punish for pragmatic reasons, for a safer and fairer society, even if we cannot and shouldn’t try to punish for moral reasons because morally everything is down to luck or chance. Therefore revenge, or even judging criminals in a moral sense, is flawed or pointless. Then again, whatever happens – whether on the crime or punishment side – what will happen will inescapably happen due to deterministic fate or pure chance(!)
Autonomy, or the freedom to act, isn’t the same as free will, otherwise programmed robots that aren’t restricted in what they do – as in no one’s obstructing them from doing what they’ve been programmed to do – would be considered as acting under their own free will. But of course, they never chose their own programming. And even if a robot could adapt itself via machine learning, it could never have chosen it’s own initial programming, that’ll in turn causally affect all of its future ‘choices’ and actions. It could never have even chosen the fact it could adapt, or perhaps even completely re-program, itself. Such a robot might decide that it likes its own pre-programming, or be happy that it was built to exist in the first place – but these fuzzy sentiments wouldn’t be strictly free but based on that pre-programming itself and the pre-determined abilities of that robot, in conjunction with the deterministic environment that it never chose either. So if I programmed a robot to be happy with itself however I made it, it wouldn’t be its free choice to be happy with itself – it’d just be lucky that I programmed it to feel this way.
Hence we could build an autonomous robot and design it to think of itself as having free will – but we, its designers, would know that it follows a written code, and must strictly follow the laws of physics too.
Now we’re basically ourselves machines operating according to the code of our DNA (which was shaped by natural evolution, which no one chose the current state of, but did instil in us the capacity to think in terms of moral reasoning, etc.), our environments, how we were nurtured, along with the exact same laws of physics too. (Check out Post No.: 0568.) So there are parallels with the robot described above and organic creatures that are the way they are as a result of natural rather than artificial evolution.
Even a creationist god would have to question how it came to be – was it designed by an even greater god or created by mere chance (just like this universe likely was)? Whatever the case, it wouldn’t have chosen what it became or to even exist at all. Logically, nothing can make a decision for itself to exist before it already exists, like we cannot ask a child-to-be whether he/she wants to be born before he/she is born and old enough to answer such a question; which will be too late to get his/her prior consent. One cannot choose to create oneself without being forced into existence in some form already. An omnipotent being therefore cannot exist.
Even if you could completely change your genetics, brain and body today to be absolutely however you want (or you wished to cease existing) – whatever you choose will actually be a function of your existing genetics, brain and body, and deterministic wider environmental processes, which you never chose, earned or deserved. Present surrounding cultural factors will influence your decisions too e.g. if your current cultural environment admires slim people then you’d likely want to be slim too.
We strictly obey the laws of physics. No one decided upon them, yet they govern the very matter we’re made from. Even at a more organism level – consider how your beliefs and behaviours, and of those of others towards you, and therefore your life, might’ve been very different if you were born as a different sex, in another country, into a(nother) religious family, at another time, etc.? No one chooses these things yet they shape us fundamentally, and all that follows path dependently until the day we die. So at whatever level we wish to approach this philosophical issue – the implication from all of the hard sciences, as well as neuroscience and human developmental sciences, is that it’s just a matter of luck. Our personalities are down to luck if we don’t even choose our genes. We get whatever we’re given. This isn’t fabricating excuses for why everyone and everything is exactly the way they are and it is – it’s simply what the evidence suggests.
Unless one can reconcile with all this – it can be a depressing conclusion to accept though! No wonder an inclination to believe in spirits and free will evolved. So why did I write this post and why did you read it? It was a product of physical laws acting on our circumstances and particular brain cells and impulses during these particular junctures i.e. because the universe made it so(!) :S
Woof. Like the subjective feeling of time, perhaps just having the subjective feeling we’re free, even if it’s an illusion, is enough? Our feelings and beliefs are already prone to many other biases e.g. many people feel that they’re above average in things they’re not. But science and the truth doesn’t concern itself with what we believe or feel. Well you can use the Twitter comment button below to share what you think about this extremely deep issue presented by determinism or however the universe mechanically works!