Friday, June 7, 2013



I want to once again present some thoughts, perhaps a bit rambling, on the issue of Free Will (FW), in the context of the question “Can we hold wrong-doers to be blameworthy?” 

In private conversations, I continue to see what I think is a great deal of puzzlement on this issue. For example, many wonder if FW is illusory, given that all of the processes in the universe presumably follow causal laws of physics. Bertrand Russell, in his brilliant essay, “A Free Man’s Worship”, called humans (and all animals)  "accidental collocations of atoms" (let’s leave aside for the present purpose that it would seem there could be no “accidents” if the universe unfolds in a strictly mechanistic manner). 

It is common to hear people say that quantum mechanics (QM) does away with strict causality, implying that that solves the FW problem in that it allows room for us to have it. I think that is partly right, in that QM seems to allow an escape from strict Laplacian determinism: The apparent randomness, or probabilistic nature, of processes at the quantum, or micro, level, might conceivably be amplified up to macro levels, where the “Butterfly Effect” of chaos theory 
leads to indeterminism in the evolution of the universe, and of all “collocations of atoms” within it. In other words, an organism might not have to be considered “a puppet on a string”, with the strings being pulled only by the iron clad laws of physics. QM does indeed seem to offer a way out of Laplacian Determinism as the sole cause of an person’s actions.

But I think this misses a deeper aspect of the problem: namely, that we human animals seem to be products of nature (genes) and nurture (experiences), and these two factors seem to be exhaustive in determining our choices and actions. What other factors could possibly be involved in these? There do not seem to be any.

Among other confounding aspects, this raises knotty moral issues. If an individual’s genes and experiences are all that make him/her act as he/she does, and there is no one to blame for these, how can there be any justification for punishment? Or for credit, praise, or assigning merit, for that matter.

A new born baby seems to have certain innate, or instinctive traits (as we have learned from Dr. Steven Pinker's persuasive book The Blank Slate); but surely these traits and inclinations are morally neutral. As the baby grows into childhood and adulthood, he/she acquires experiences, which create memories, opinions, loves and hates, desires, prejudices, insights, and so on. At some point in the toddlers development, as surely every parent or guardian must know, he/she is capable of being “naughty”.

Does perhaps each person have an " Adam and Eve"-like "Fall", a threshold in time, where he/she is first capable of knowing good and bad? But there is a problem here. The terms “good and bad” apply to actions that are presumed to be freely chosen, and if the developing person has genes and experiences that determine how he/she will act, the terms “good and bad” seem to become of dubious applicability.

Hence, on this view, it seems wrong for society to punish crimes (Crimes being a certain kind of immoral action; clearly there are immoral acts that should not to be considered crimes, such as rude or loutish behavior). But this view leads to an absurdity, or into a circular path, because the individual humans comprising society, and in particular those in a position of prescribing punishments for crimes, are all themselves subject to the same all-encompassing, molding factors of nature and nurture. Hence it would seem that they cannot be blamed for punishing criminals.

It is odd, in a way, that so much political and sociological heat has been vented in the past 50 years or so on whether “Nature or Nurture” are dominant factors in determining or forming a person's moral and intellectual character. Both factors are deterministic, and would of course imply that a what one does is beyond his/her control.

The sad fact is that many contemporary political agendas, especially those on the Left, would like to argue for Nurture dominance partly because it seems to further their agenda of forcing a more active role of the government to install a favorable social environment. The idea seems to be that if we create a "Utopian Society", everyone will be happy ( excuse me for being a bit cynical here: I suspect a hidden agenda of optimizing their own identity-driven political position). In addition, they seem to want to minimize the Nature side of the equation, since that is perceived as being associated with Fascist regimes and/or Racist philosophies.

Let us turn back to the issue of moral culpability. My college Philosophy book on Ethics (Value and Obligation: Systematic Readings in Ethics, ed. R. B. Brandt contains an essay by philosopher C. A. Cambell titled “is Free Will a Pseudo Problem?”  In this, he points out that what most of us mean for a person to be blameworthy, or guilty of some act, is that he/she must have been able do what she/he ought to have done even even being exactly the kind of person he/she was, and all other conditions being exactly as they were. I think this is one of the best ways I have seen the free will and blame conundrum framed. Note that determinism would say that with those stipulations, the person could not possibly have acted differently. His/her behavior would, after all, be wholly fixed by the casual factors related to genes and experience. So if there is somehow some other factor, someone "inside" that is somehow outside of those stipulated factors, the act might have been free (and hence subject to moral blame or praise).

This suggests that one way---can it be the only way?-- out of the nature-nurture deterministic trap is to postulate that a given conscious being has some kind of eternally existing soul, or at least one that is outside of time. Postulating that we have souls, or spirits, that are created and formed as we live and grow in this world do not allow a way out, for all of the reasons presented above; i.e., the soul would still have been formed by causal factors that could not be considered the fault of that soul. 

My own suspicion is that somehow the fact that our subjective consciousness is anchored in time prevents us from seeing how FW can actually be possessed by sentient life forms. But I am not at all sure of that. And by the way, the emergence of consciousness is to me another one of the great mysteries, and is very possibly related to the emergence of FW (if there really is such).