I got in trouble for skipping class once in the eighth grade. It was more exciting than you might think. Near to the end of the class hour, the gym teacher whose period I skipped spotted me and a buddy in the hall. We sprinted away, chased by his angry yells and I assumed, by him as well, charging like a rhino with a personality disorder. We escaped, but we’d been seen, ensuring a lecture and punishment the following day. I hadn’t skipped a class before, so I had no idea what that meant. It certainly wasn’t what I would have imagined.
I was given “in-school suspension.” This meant that I was brought to a small room with a half dozen other ne’re-do-wells. We each got a little cubicle along with homework assigned in the various classes that day. It was quiet, and the teacher’s assistant who drew the short-straw babysitting us did not much interact. It might have been the best day I ever had in middle school. I loved it. I could do the homework sans the lesson for it I did not need, and could complete the homework hours before the school day was over, uninterrupted or distracted by teachers or students. I probably spent almost half the day reading a Terry Brooks novel, having nothing else to occupy me. This “punishment” really did tempt me to get in more trouble, but I wasn’t sure how many more harrowing chases through the school my heart could take.
I write this (my homework for today) sitting in a similar cubicle as I did all those years ago, as part of another joyous punishment which I recently fled from, but caught right back up with me: jury duty. I also just took time to read my SIN cohort Jonathan Pearce’s interview over at Kaveh Mousavi’s blog On the Margin of Error. The discussion is on free will and political free will. If we don’t have the first can we have the second? One of the hot-button reasons everyone cares about fictional or illusory free will existing is the idea that we can’t hold a person accountable for their actions without it. If I am picked for a jury, can I rightly punish a person for actions they could not have prevented or controlled? The short answer is, who cares? Sometimes the short answer and the snide answer are the same. But let’s unpack that a bit, why not.
Free will has to approach, nay exceed such ideas as evolution and climate change in terms of the gap between the understanding of experts and lay people. Most people subscribe to a naive free will that has been intellectually obsolete, arguably for centuries, but consensus-wise, perhaps decades. This naive free will is that there is some homunculus or quasi-homunculus that is doing the “free” part of the free will somewhere in the mind and explicable as a soul, quantum effect, or nigh-mystical “emergent” property of a brain that can never be reduced to deterministic causes.
Most philosophers, and certainly folks like Dan Dennett and JP, would agree to one or other sort of “compatibilism”, a happy philosophical medium between “nothing we do matters” fatalism and naive free will. The gist of it is, as JP said over at Kaveh’s, there is a meaningful difference between me volitionally raising my hand to object to tacos for lunch and someone else grabbing my hand and raising it because they want Chipotle. The action is perfectly deterministic in either case, but only one was caused by “me”. This is all well and good, but doesn’t really explain anything, and doesn’t satisfy people. They still cling to naive free will as if it were made of Dragon bacon. There are two problems here. One is that we think we know what free will means, but we don’t. The second is that we think “determinist” causes are external to our minds. I’ll explain.
Sooner or later one of your jerkbag friends has or will say “That’s not really a wall… or that’s not really 80% juice because its actually 99.9999% empty space.” You know they’re correct, if less clever than they imagine, because every atom is mostly empty space except for neutron stars. Why can’t we pass through a brick wall, if both it and us are 99.9999% empty space? Mostly because of the repulsion of the electrons of the two objects. The nuclei never touch. Does this mean that we never really “touch” anything, or that nothing is really “solid”? No, it does not.
The observations simply tell us a more precise description of what “solid” is or what “touching” means at a more fundamental physical level. Our evolved intuitions about physical reality encapsulate features salient to our lives at the scale we live them. Solid means a substance or object that is unyielding or relatively impenetrable. The physics tells us why some things are unyielding and impenetrable. You really do touch someone when you shake their hand because touching means the interplay of electron repulsion of the respective bodies. Nothing about these ideas has changed just because we put the phenomena under the microscope.
And that’s how free will is, too. It seems to contradict our intuitions, but doesn’t. It explains why and how our intuitions about free will work and make sense for a large-brained species like ours. When we put free will under the philosopher’s microscope, the features of it important to ethics, law, society etc.., reduce to this very simple structure:
External inputs -> [Person’s mind that performs some series of processings using internal logic and information] -> behavioral output.
It could be put simpler still,
Inputs -> [processing] -> outputs
This is the most precise and literal meaning of free will. It may be stated as “the unique and ordered pattern in which specified inputs lead to particular outputs”. Moral responsibility then means “the degree to which the processing permits the inputs and outputs to be different” or “the features of the processor that produce a particular output pattern from a given input pattern”.
Understood in this way, even though all of this is 100% deterministic, we still have moral responsibility, we simply understand better what “moral responsibility” precisely means. In this case, a killer should be punished because they have a kind of processor (mind) in which the relationship between the inputs and outputs is unacceptable. Since their punishment is an input for all the other minds (the information that harm results in punishment), it can positively effect other outcomes.
You’ll notice that not only does this kind of view permit moral responsibility, moral responsibility actually requires it to be true. Punishment can’t deter anyone whose will is completely free, in the naive free will sense of acting completely independently of external inputs, because they could act independently. Deterrence, socialization, learning, growth, maturation, experience… these all depend on the will not being “free”.
We should call it free will, though. The valid sense in which it is free, is that the inputs and the processor are separate things, and the processor could conceivably vary in many ways. In this sense, the inputs are not determinate. Dogs and people can both watch Jeopardy!, but only one come away from it knowing the longest river in China. This brings us to that second problem.
The characters Neo and Morpheus have this exchange in The Matrix,
Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
It’s uncomfortable to think that external forces dictate our choices, but it is also mostly wrong. Deterministic forces may comprise our behaviors, but most of the important ones are inside of us, that is, they are us. We tend to unintentionally or intentionally externalize-ify things that are “deterministic” as if taking literally the homunculous/soul of naive free will— even people who do not believe in those things do it. Thus, the uncomfortable feeling those awful deterministic forces “out there” somewhere are controlling us. But most of them are not out there. The forces literally are us and we are them. The bits pull on our behavioral levers, but they should! Those are bits of us doing the controlling. How could it be any other way?
I know that almost everyone implicitly endorses this naive free will perspective because every month or so I see another headline that reads something like,
Does reading actually change the brain?
Study showing “conscious” choices are made several seconds in advance, erodes free will
As opposed to what? A cognitively complex activity like reading that activates many systems and produces lasting, observable psychological effects, somehow magically leaving no trace on the brain, the thing that “does” lasting psychological effects? Or re: conscious choices, what was the other possibility? That complex decisions requiring the collaboration of many neural circuits and must be made in extremely quickly turned out not to be nigh-magical instantaneous ejaculations of the very small part of the mind that we are directly aware of? Or that the systems working so that we can consciously (appear) to react quickly are somehow not “us”, thus not part of our “free will”? Those nonconscious parts of the brain are just as much a part of us. They almost certainly make conscious experience possible. They’re the engine under the hood, and we ridicule them because they’re not the gas pedal.
So it is, dumping a naive idea of free will ultimately changes nothing about morality, law, or social organization. I told you it was a lot of “So what?”. Well that wraps up the free will controversy once and for all. Oh and just in time for lunch. Now I kind of want tacos.