Free Will Fraught


The conviction that nobody ever truly chooses freely to do anything – that we’re the puppets of forces beyond our control – often seems to strike its adherents early in their intellectual careers, in a sudden flash of insight. “I was sitting in a carrel in Wolfson College [in Oxford] in 1975, and I had no idea what I was going to write my DPhil thesis about,” Strawson recalled. “I was reading something about Kant’s views on free will, and I was just electrified. That was it.” The logic, once glimpsed, seems coldly inexorable. Start with what seems like an obvious truth: anything that happens in the world, ever, must have been completely caused by things that happened before it. And those things must have been caused by things that happened before them – and so on, backwards to the dawn of time: cause after cause after cause, all of them following the predictable laws of nature, even if we haven’t figured all of those laws out yet. It’s easy enough to grasp this in the context of the straightforwardly physical world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely “one thing leads to another” in the world of decisions and intentions, too. Our decisions and intentions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

So in the fruit bowl example, there are physiological reasons for your feeling hungry in the first place, and there are causes – in your genes, your upbringing, or your current environment – for your choosing to address your hunger with fruit, rather than a box of doughnuts. And your preference for the banana over the apple, at the moment of supposed choice, must have been caused by what went before, presumably including the pattern of neurons firing in your brain, which was itself caused – and so on back in an unbroken chain to your birth, the meeting of your parents, their births and, eventually, the birth of the cosmos.

But if all that’s true, there’s simply no room for the kind of free will you might imagine yourself to have when you see the apple and banana and wonder which one you’ll choose. To have what’s known in the scholarly jargon as “contra-causal” free will – so that if you rewound the tape of history back to the moment of choice, you could make a different choice – you’d somehow have to slip outside physical reality. To make a choice that wasn’t merely the next link in the unbroken chain of causes, you’d have to be able to stand apart from the whole thing, a ghostly presence separate from the material world yet mysteriously still able to influence it. But of course you can’t actually get to this supposed place that’s external to the universe, separate from all the atoms that comprise it and the laws that govern them. You just are some of the atoms in the universe, governed by the same predictable laws as all the rest.

It was the French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace, writing in 1814, who most succinctly expressed the puzzle here: how can there be free will, in a universe where events just crank forwards like clockwork? His thought experiment is known as Laplace’s demon, and his argument went as follows: if some hypothetical ultra-intelligent being – or demon – could somehow know the position of every atom in the universe at a single point in time, along with all the laws that governed their interactions, it could predict the future in its entirety. There would be nothing it couldn’t know about the world 100 or 1,000 years hence, down to the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing. You might think you made a free choice to marry your partner, or choose a salad with your meal rather than chips; but in fact Laplace’s demon would have known it all along, by extrapolating out along the endless chain of causes. “For such an intellect,” Laplace said, “nothing could be uncertain, and the future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes.”

It’s true that since Laplace’s day, findings in quantum physics have indicated that some events, at the level of atoms and electrons, are genuinely random, which means they would be impossible to predict in advance, even by some hypothetical megabrain. But few people involved in the free will debate think that makes a critical difference. Those tiny fluctuations probably have little relevant impact on life at the scale we live it, as human beings. And in any case, there’s no more freedom in being subject to the random behaviours of electrons than there is in being the slave of predetermined causal laws. Either way, something other than your own free will seems to be pulling your strings.

By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.” Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other – and especially the way we treat criminals – might change beyond recognition.

Consider the case of Charles Whitman. Just after midnight on 1 August 1966, Whitman – an outgoing and apparently stable 25-year-old former US Marine – drove to his mother’s apartment in Austin, Texas, where he stabbed her to death. He returned home, where he killed his wife in the same manner. Later that day, he took an assortment of weapons to the top of a high building on the campus of the University of Texas, where he began shooting randomly for about an hour and a half. By the time Whitman was killed by police, 12 more people were dead, and one more died of his injuries years afterwards – a spree that remains the US’s 10th worst mass shooting.

Within hours of the massacre, the authorities discovered a note that Whitman had typed the night before. “I don’t quite understand what compels me to type this letter,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts [which] constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks … After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” Following the first two murders, he added a coda: “Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.” An autopsy was performed, revealing the presence of a substantial brain tumour, pressing on Whitman’s amygdala, the part of the brain governing “fight or flight” responses to fear.

As the free will sceptics who draw on Whitman’s case concede, it’s impossible to know if the brain tumour caused Whitman’s actions. What seems clear is that it certainly could have done so – and that almost everyone, on hearing about it, undergoes some shift in their attitude towards him. It doesn’t make the killings any less horrific. Nor does it mean the police weren’t justified in killing him. But it does make his rampage start to seem less like the evil actions of an evil man, and more like the terrible symptom of a disorder, with Whitman among its victims. The same is true for another wrongdoer famous in the free-will literature, the anonymous subject of the 2003 paper Right Orbitofrontal Tumor with Paedophilia Symptom and Constructional Apraxia Sign, a 40-year-old schoolteacher who suddenly developed paedophilic urges and began seeking out child pornography, and was subsequently convicted of child molestation. Soon afterwards, complaining of headaches, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour; when it was removed, his paedophilic urges vanished. A year later, they returned – as had his tumour, detected in another brain scan.

If you find the presence of a brain tumour in these cases in any way exculpatory, though, you face a difficult question: what’s so special about a brain tumour, as opposed to all the other ways in which people’s brains cause them to do things? When you learn about the specific chain of causes that were unfolding inside Charles Whitman’s skull, it has the effect of seeming to make him less personally responsible for the terrible acts he committed. But by definition, anyone who commits any immoral act has a brain in which a chain of prior causes had unfolded, leading to the act; if that weren’t the case, they’d never have committed the act. “A neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions,” is how Harris expresses it. “Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumour in it.” It appears to follow that as we understand ever more about how the brain works, we’ll illuminate the last shadows in which something called “free will” might ever have lurked – and we’ll be forced to concede that a criminal is merely someone unlucky enough to find himself at the end of a causal chain that culminates in a crime. We can still insist the crime in question is morally bad; we just can’t hold the criminal individually responsible. (Or at least that’s where the logic seems to lead our modern minds: there’s a rival tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks, which holds that you can be held responsible for what’s fated to happen to you anyway.)

For Caruso, who teaches philosophy at the State University of New York, what all this means is that retributive punishment – punishing a criminal because he deserves it, rather than to protect the public, or serve as a warning to others – can’t ever be justified. Like Strawson, he has received email abuse from people disturbed by the implications. Retribution is central to all modern systems of criminal justice, yet ultimately, Caruso thinks, “it’s a moral injustice to hold someone responsible for actions that are beyond their control. It’s capricious.” Indeed some psychological research, he points out, suggests that people believe in free will partly because they want to justify their appetite for retribution. “What seems to happen is that people come across an action they disapprove of; they have a high desire to blame or punish; so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over their own actions] that would be required to justify blaming them.” (It’s no accident that the free will controversy is entangled in debates about religion: following similar logic, sinners must freely choose to sin, in order for God’s retribution to be justified.)

Caruso is an advocate of what he calls the “public health-quarantine” model of criminal justice, which would transform the institutions of punishment in a radically humane direction. You could still restrain a murderer, on the same rationale that you can require someone infected by Ebola to observe a quarantine: to protect the public. But you’d have no right to make the experience any more unpleasant than was strictly necessary for public protection. And you would be obliged to release them as soon as they no longer posed a threat. (The main focus, in Caruso’s ideal world, would be on redressing social problems to try stop crime happening in the first place – just as public health systems ought to focus on preventing epidemics happening to begin with.)

It’s tempting to try to wriggle out of these ramifications by protesting that, while people might not choose their worst impulses – for murder, say – they do have the choice not to succumb to them. You can feel the urge to kill someone but resist it, or even seek psychiatric help. You can take responsibility for the state of your personality. And don’t we all do that, all the time, in more mundane ways, whenever we decide to acquire a new professional skill, become a better listener, or finally get fit?

But this is not the escape clause it might seem. After all, the free will sceptics insist, if you do manage to change your personality in some admirable way, you must already have possessed the kind of personality capable of implementing such a change – and you didn’t choose that. None of this requires us to believe that the worst atrocities are any less appalling than we previously thought. But it does entail that the perpetrators can’t be held personally to blame. If you’d been born with Hitler’s genes, and experienced Hitler’s upbringing, you would be Hitler – and ultimately it’s only good fortune that you weren’t. In the end, as Strawson puts it, “luck swallows everything”.

The publishing continues..

- Author: Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!