On Monday I started an article about Free Will called I feel like I just had to write this article. You may want to check that out before continuing here.
The problem of a lack of Free Will is one that happens in society. If we don’t believe in Free Will then how can we blame people for the things that they do?
The biggest problem with the theory of Free Will is everyone has the everyday experience of making decisions and being able to rationalise them. Now Scientists have proven that people will much of the times rationalise their behaviour after they have done something. It’s most likely that you’ve even seen direct evidence of this. One of the most interesting parts of a hypnosis demonstration is that they will sometimes ask somebody who is no longer under hypnosis why they were doing the things that they were doing. The answer is never “because you were telling me” to because they don’t remember that they come up with incredibly contorted rationalisations to prove that they had a perfectly good reason to do what they were doing. And apparently we do that all of the time even when we’re not under hypnosis.
So in reality we feel like we’re in control, which means that people feel like they are able to blame others for their actions. So how does society cope with this situation? It simply pretends that Free Will exists.
Right around the point that people think of determinism people usually recreate in their minds the idea of Laplace’s Demon. Pierre Simon Laplace believed in determinism and thought that if you took it to it’s logical extension there could be a demon who could work out exactly where every atom in the universe was and use that information to determine the future. Now there are two problems with the demon (other than the fact that it doesn’t exist).
The demon can’t know itself because to remember something it has to store it somewhere and the memory must take at least as many atoms as the thing it is remembering and to know if its atoms are affecting any other atoms it would have to remember the position of all of the atoms in its own mind which would require more atoms up until infinity.
Also it would need to know everything and calculate what everything was going to do next faster than the time it takes for anything to happen. Which because of the fact that something has to happen for it to be able to work out what is going to happen next means that things out in the universe would have been happening as well so it must be too late.
For added measure even if it could work out what everything was going to do it would be impossible for it to do anything about it faster than in the space of time where everything would have changed.
The point of mentioning this is that Laplace’s Demon teaches something important locally. It shows us that we can never know why we are making a choice. Because we never have all of the information.
Okay so what does all of this mean for ethics? How do we say to somebody that they need to be locked up for having done something wrong, when they can reply that they didn’t choose to do it?
The answer is that we have justice the wrong way round too. It’s a hangover from the ideas of Free Will that people have to be punished for the things that they have done. The correct way of thinking of this surely is that if somebody is a murderer the best way of stopping them from murdering somebody else is to put them in prison. It’s much harder for them to murder people from in there.
The biggest failing of the current system is the idea of diminished responsibility. Why is it right for somebody to be able to get a reduced sentence by claiming that they were temporarily unable to control their actions. I don’t mind losing this legal loophole. Because as far as I’m concerned I don’t understand why under the current system every murderer doesn’t claim temporary insanity. When the judge asks on what grounds surely they could simply say “well how often do you kill someone”? Frankly the only reason people don’t claim this all of the time is because they either think they can get off or they know they didn’t do it. In either of these situations they don’t want to have to say they did it, which is what you have to do if you want to claim temporary insanity. Sometimes people do admit guilt and don’t use the temporary insanity clause but those are the people who are actually truly insane.
The question you have to ask yourself at the end of all of this is the one I was attempting to answer in my first article, <a href="http://www.gamboling.co.uk/2006/11/free-willy.html
“>Free Willy, which is how much difference does all of this make?
In the end it comes down to a question of symantics. Understanding the issues around Free Will doesn’t allow you to act any differently (other than perhaps allowing you to use the word “demon” at a party without sounding like you’re into science fiction – although I’d probably advise you to avoid parties where describing questions of Free Will are likely to come up: “Why worry about having killed that hooker while high on drugs it’s not like you choose to do it”).
Essentially what’s the difference between being able to say that you chose to do something and the alternative which is knowing that you didn’t make the choice yourself but that nobody will be able to ever predict what choice you will make. A lack of choice does reduce us to the level of robots on the one hand but it doesn’t matter because. When we look at a robot we can know exactly what they are going to do next because we can find out all of the information that they evaluate and predict what’s going to happen next. But we can’t do that with humans because we would have to evaluate more information than we could understand fast enough to do anything about it and we would have to store it somewhere larger than all of the space we have for in our own brains. And we would have to do something about in less time than we have time to do anything. So what difference does knowing that Free Will doesn’t exist make? I think absolutely none, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.