By Ron Patterson
When it comes to the determinism – free will debate, I like to divide the world into two camps, the determinists and those who do not understand what the debate is all about. I say this half in jest and half out of sheer exasperation.
Almost every argument I have ever encountered about determinism and free will actually came down to a debate over semantics. If there is anything I do not wish to debate here, it is semantics. So before we can even begin, we must first nail down exactly what we are talking about. And, I believe, if I can do that, the entire argument will simply vanish in the ecstasy of understanding and we can, like Archimedes, run through the streets shouting “Eureka”.
Alas, that is not likely to happen because the illusion of free will is I believe, innate and nothing taxes my powers of explanation, as does this difficult subject. But if I am successful, I can promise you that you will never see the world in the same light again. More on that later but now let’s deal with the semantics.
The term “free will” has two meanings; the first as it is used in everyday language and the second as it is used philosophically.
Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:
1. Voluntary choice or decision. “I do this of my own free will.”
2. Freedom of human beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.
Now you can see where the confusion arises. The first definition is correct but only as it is used in everyday language. It is not correct in the philosophical sense, only the second definition is philosophically correct. Unfortunately it is the first definition which the vast majority wish to use, even when debating the existence of free will in the philosophical sense.
That we have free will, as described in Mr. Webster’s first definition, is self evident. Only a fool would argue against free will in that usage. The second definition is an entirely different matter. This definition specifies that free will implies choices that are not determined by prior causes. The last four words of the definition, “or by divine intervention” are redundant because divine intervention would be a prior cause. We can therefore shorten our definition of free will to, “freedom of human beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes”.
Henceforth when I use the term “free will” I will always be using it in the second usage, “choices that are not determined by prior causes”.
The philosophical theory that human beings have no such freedom is called determinism.
Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:
a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrence in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.
Before we go further I would like to clear up one point of confusion about determinism. It is often argued that quantum physics proves the theory of determinism wrong. Because the random decay of a radioactive isotope is truly random and cannot possibly be predicted, future events cannot be determined. This may very well be true but it has absolutely nothing to do with our debate here. We are not talking about predictability or determining future events we are discussing only causes, that is, the why behind acts of the human will. If an atom of carbon-14 decays in a neuron of your brain, causing you to choose one act over another, that is still a cause. Such an analogy really strengthens our argument rather than weakening it.
Spinoza, in his essay on ethics, put it beautifully short and exactly to the point:
“There is no such thing as free will. The mind is induced to wish this or that by some cause and that cause is determined by another cause, and so back to infinity”.
Notice that Spinoza uses the word wish. We are induced to wish this or that. This is a very important point. It is not what we do but why we wish to do what we do. It is not the choices we make but our reasons for making those choices. In other words, exactly why do we wish to do this or that? Exactly what kind of cause is Spinoza referring to here?
Let’s get to the meat of the matter. There are two kinds of determinism, there is biological determinism and there is environmental determinism. Simply put, biological determinism means your genetic makeup that was determined at conception and environmental determinism means everything that has happened to you since. Your heredity and your environment are who, or what, you are and that is absolutely all you are.
I do not wish to debate the weight of genes over environment or vise versa. I only wish here to point out that determinism, without a qualifier, implies the sum total of both your heredity and environment And, I might add, it implies absolutely nothing else. That is enough however because there is nothing else to add.
Now one could argue with this point. One might say, “No, there is something else, something other than genes or environment. But what would this something be, what would it look like and what properties would it contain? Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal” put it this way:
“Of course, you can argue with the proposition that all we are is knobs and turnings, genes and environment. You can insist that there’s something…something MORE. But if you try to visualize the form this something would take, or articulate it clearly, you’ll find the task impossible, for any force that is not in the genes or the environment is outside of physical reality as we perceive it. It’s beyond scientific discourse.”
Now one may ask, so what? So we are the sum total of our genes and our environment, does this really mean anything profound to us? Well, yes…it does. The implications are absolutely enormous. Dwell on this for a second; all your decisions, everything you choose to do or say, will be determined by the person you have become which was determined by your heredity and environment. That is the entire essence of the determinism – free will debate.
I have often debated this subject with others who hotly contest the idea that their every action, their every thought is determined by their heredity and environment. The debate invariably goes something like this:
“Okay, if you do not believe that your heredity and environment is the determining factor in your every action, then just tell me what else there is?”
They wrinkle their brow, purse their lips, then they raise their index finger as if to make a very important point. Their next words are as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.
What is meant by the “but still” is; “I realize that everything I am was created, either by my genetic make up or by my past environment, but I still have free will. I cannot explain it, I just do that’s all”.
Or, perhaps just as often it goes something like this; “while it must be true that we are the product of our heredity and environment we still have a sense of right and wrong, that much is self evident”.
Well, yes and no. A sense of right and wrong is a relative thing but that is not the point of contention. Even how you became the person you are can no longer be disputed. Unless one chooses to believe in something else, something nebulous, something outside of the domain of science, then it must be accepted that one is the product of one’s heredity and environment. But what does this say about responsibility, about culpability, about just rewards or punishment, and more than anything else, what does this say about fairness? Well, I shall say more about these very profound questions a bit later, but now let me digress a little.
French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s famous maxim is existence before essence. That is, we had to exist before our nature could be revealed. Existence had to come before anything else. Sartre felt, and I agree, that this was a self-evident truth. To that, I would like to add my not so famous maxim, essence before action. It must be our nature to do something before we do it.
Essence before action or, the evil a man is must precede the evil a man does. Likewise, the good a man is must precede the good a man does. For a person to purposefully commit any act, then that person must already possess the qualities that predisposed him to commit that act. That is the entire determinism – free will debate in a nutshell.
So what, you may ask, an evil man commits an evil act, what has this to do determinism? Well, the question is, how did he get to be evil? The man could not make himself evil because that would be an evil act and a man must already be evil to commit an evil act. The answer is simple; the evil man was created from his heredity and environment.
Okay, I can hear you screaming your objections, but allow me a few more lines. You have heard of the words “psychopath” and “sociopath”. Both words mean exactly the same thing, “without conscience”. Those who believe that a lack of conscience is genetic favor the word “psychopath”. Those who believe the abnormality is caused by ones environment tend to use the word “sociopath”. The latter believe it is a socially induced abnormality. It really makes no difference whatsoever, the point is, the person did not deliberately destroy their own conscience, they simply found themselves without one.
A good analogy is a blind man, a man who was either born blind or lost his sight in a childhood accident. A psychopath can no more be blamed for the loss of his conscience than the blind man can be blamed for his loss of sight.
But in a psychopath we are dealing with the extremes. What about evil people who are not psychopaths you ask? What about ordinary people? Ordinary people are subject to the same genetic and environmental as a sociopath. Just because one was born with the genetic material for a normal conscience does not mean that extreme forces in the environment cannot numb it.
But the fact that our environment often molds us should come as a surprise to no one. Moralists have for centuries been preaching that children should be brought up morally straight in order that they become morally straight adults. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it”, Proverbs, 22,6. Or the priest’s adage, “Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you the man”.
Likewise, where a good and moral upbringing most often leads to a good and moral adult, a child brought up in a pernicious environment very often leads to a wasted, ruinous and villainous life. The ghetto child, with a single mother who is often a dope using prostitute, and is brought up in the streets where murder, thievery and illegal trafficking in narcotics is a way of life, cannot be expected to develop into a model citizen. The verse from Proverbs could be rewritten, “Train up a child in the ways of the ghetto and when he is old, he will not depart from it”.
But still, one may say, a good child will often turn badly and a ghetto child will often become the perfect moral citizen. Granted this sometimes happens but it never happens without a cause. The cause could be genetic, as is the case of the psychopath, or it could the child suffered a traumatic experience. More often however, it is caused by the influence of others. Peer pressure has far more effect on children than most people imagine. But also there is often the influence of a powerful adult personality in the child’s life. A neighbor, a relative, or even some role model that the child only knows from a distance can be the trigger effect that starts him or her down the wrong path or turns the child to the right one.
But still….. Notice how we keep coming back to that objection. But still, first the child, then the adult knows right from wrong and this makes him morally culpable. Well, not exactly. Such knowledge is a relative thing. Knowing what conduct society expects of them and what they perceive is a right and proper course for themselves is often two different things. Any act of the will, regardless of the moral consequences of that act, is always based upon prior data absorbed from one’s environment.
In 1997 there was a great chess match. Both opponents were near evenly matched. When one player would make a move, the other would weigh all of his possible moves before deciding on his next choice. Each choice was made only after deep consideration of the possible consequences of that move. The match lasted for six games before a winner was determined. The winner was a computer called Deep Blue and the loser was the world’s champion, Garry Kasparov.
Those who would attribute Kasparov’s every move to free will would surely deny the same to Deep Blue. But why? Kasparov’s hardware was made of DNA while that of Deep Blue was made of silicone. Deep Blue’s programming consisted of massive amounts of instructions and data received from programming experts, chess experts, and past histories of other games. Ditto for Kasparov.
It is not my intention in the above example, to suggest that people are like dispassionate computers. My only intention is to show that freedom of choice does not automatically infer free will. That is, the choices one makes are caused by past experiences. Past experiences and genetic makeup are the molding forces that created the will, which determined the action. Choice and action do not automatically spring from nothingness. Your choices and action are determined…..determined by the person you are which was determined by your heredity and environment.
Hypothetically, suppose there exists a man who was born with none of his five senses. Suppose this man had a normal brain, except there were no possible inputs to this brain whatsoever. Now we are dealing hypothetically here, so we are supposing the man survived until adulthood via feeding tube and other medical devices that kept him alive. But here is my question, what would the man think about? What philosophical questions might this man contemplate?
The answer is of course, the man would contemplate nothing, he would not have a thought in his head. A man could not possibly think about anything until he had something to think about. Since nothing had ever entered his head, nothing could be thought about. The man’s mind would exist in a void of nothingness and, in this case at least, nothingness begets nothing.
Before I go further, I must state that I am not of the tabula rasa school. That is, I do not believe that we are born with a mind, which is a blank slate, to be molded entirely by our environment. No, we are born with a plethora of instinctive tendencies. All of us have some instincts in common, the suckling instinct for instance. But other instincts such as jealously, are not shared equally by all. Some are more prone to violence, which I believe, is at least partially instinctive. Of course it goes without saying that such genetic traits as a propensity to violence are never distributed equally among those unfortunate enough to inherit them. And, I believe emphatically that many are born more or less genetically endowed with a thing that can loosely be called general intelligence than others are.
But ideas and concepts are not instincts. I have heard it argued that spirituality is a genetic trait. Perhaps so but Catholicism is not. If one is genetically bent toward religiosity, one is still likely to be religious only in the religion of their early environment. One is not born with preconceived ideas on politics or religion. All such concepts are usually drummed into our heads as children. They can however, be absorbed from our general environment if we were fortunate enough to have parents who were not determined to mold our malleable little minds in the shape of their own particular dogma.
Parental influence should never be underestimated. Psychologists have known for decades that abusive parents were themselves, in the vast majority of cases, abused as children. Their abused children will in turn, very likely become child abusers themselves. It is ironic that the children, while they are being abused, are the recipients of our overwhelming love and pity. But the moment that they take their turn on the abusive cycle, they are the targets for the deepest and vilest hatred we can muster. Never a thought is given as to how they arrived at this loathsome point in their lives. Any excuse they may offer falls on deaf ears and we sanctimoniously declare that they will get the punishment that they so richly deserve.
Monsters can be created. Any child raised by parents who are incapable of love, who never show the child any affection, never caress or hold the child and give them kind and soothing words, will be incapable of expressing love as an adult. Then if you beat that child severely, usually for little or no reason at all, then that child will likely do likewise when he or she becomes an adult. Some monsters are created. Others, like the psychopath, are born that way.
In every measure, you are who you are and behave the way you behave because of genetic and environmental happenstance. Your moral code, your entire philosophy of life was built using bricks and mortar of your genes and environmental fortune. Any moral quality that you now possess had to first find its way into you by happenstance before it could become part of your moral philosophy. That, in a nutshell, is genetic and environmental determinism.
Okay, now that we have settled that, what does it mean? What does this say about culpability, about how we should treat criminals? What does this say about our belief system?
That is a very deep and complex subject of which I can only offer a few hints. First, if you can grasp the full implications of the illusion of free will, it will probably dramatically change the way you think about other people’s behavior. It should not, however, change the way you behave. That may sound startling at first, that we should continue to treat the illusion as if it were real, but that is really absolutely necessary for a society to function properly.
First, moral training works. We should, as the proverb goes, train up a child in the way he should go. A great deal of tribal dogma is bound to slip through with all the good training but is an unfortunate side effect of the system. Second, because the proper training often is not received or does not work, a system of rewards and punishments is necessary. Remember that our environment influences us all and when quick retribution is seen as a probable consequence of improper behavior, it effectively alters behavior.
I know, if we are not ultimately responsible for our actions, retribution is unfair, it is blaming the victim. Yes, this is absolutely correct, it is unfair but nothing in life is fair. It is not fair that some are born far more genetically fit than others are. It is not fair that some are born into riches and some are born into abject poverty. In some places of dire poverty, many children are dumped on the streets to fend for themselves while still in their pre teens. They are forced to steal for their daily bread. Even to those whom life has dealt such cruel and unfair blows, we still must heap on more unfairness. No, it is not fair, only necessary. Without the threat of punishment for improper behavior, society could not function.
The retributive urge is a Darwinian adaptation that goes back to our animal ancestors. The fear of retribution has kept both man and beast behaving in a manner that contributes to the proper function of their respective societies. Without this fear, without a system of rewards and punishment, anarchy would reign. In an anarchical society, there would be no order, only chaos. Retribution therefore has a practical foundation though it is totally without intellectual foundation.
Though some aspects of the blameless criminal has worked its way into our justice system, the insanity defense for instance, it is not likely to go much further. I believe however, that our justice system should look at the criminal differently. Instead of focusing on the just desserts of the criminal, it should focus entirely on society instead.
Since nothing is truly fair, there is no such thing as “just desserts”. What the system should ask itself in every instance is this question, “In sentencing the convicted criminal, what course of action would have the greatest positive effect on society, on possible future criminals, and on the future behavior of the convicted man himself”? First, the sentence should remove the man from society if he still poses a threat to the public. Second, the sentence should be sufficient to hopefully deter others from committing the same or similar crimes. And third, the sentence should emphasize rehabilitation rather than retribution.
It should also be recognized that some criminals could never be rehabilitated. The psychopath, for instance, was born without a conscience and no amount of training will ever create one for him. The homicidal psychopath or pedophile should therefore never be released into society as long as they are physically capable of committing such crimes, as is their nature to do so.
As evolutionary psychologists come to realize the true implications of the illusion of free will, one might think this would have some effect on our criminal justice system. This is not likely to be the case. The vast majority of judges, jurors, prosecutors and especially victims, will continue to push for retribution. The illusion of culpability is embedded into our psyche by thousands of years of evolution and will not be removed by a few academics saying “but it’s not really their fault”.
The harsh retribution dealt by our criminal justice system, is really not a tragic consequence of the illusion of culpability. As I pointed out earlier, a system of rewards and punishment is absolutely necessary for the proper function of a civilized society. Full enlightenment by the general public of the illusion of free will should not change our system in principle, only in degrees. The insanity defense would disappear because, after all, everyone would have that same defense. Criminals, convicted of very serious crimes, would be sentenced because such people must be removed from society until they are rehabilitated, if they can be rehabilitated. The sentence should also be meted out with an eye on the effect such sentencing will have on others who might be inclined to commit such crimes. The word “retribution” would be totally absent from any and all proceedings.
People often ask me, “If you do not believe in free will, why do you always behave as if you do”? I find this question most strange. How am I supposed to behave? Free will is an illusion but it is an illusion I cherish. You and I, regardless of our insight into the matter, must behave as if free will was not an illusion. Free will, or rather the illusion of free will, is the meat and potatoes of everyday life. We go about our daily lives seldom realizing the causes of our actions but always on guard as to the consequences of them.
There is one place however, where realizing that free will is just an illusion has made a dramatic change that is in my belief system. I no longer believe in anything remotely resembling divine retribution. So called divine retribution was never anything but a hammer, a tool used to frighten and coerce credulous people to follow one particular religious dogma or another.
I know not what, if anything follows this life. I think it very unlikely that anything will exist of our consciousness after death. But of course I cannot prove that as no one can prove a negative. I would not even argue that because I have seen a few things in my lifetime that have planted lingering doubts in my mind. There are two things however, that I believe with every fiber of my being.
Life is terribly unfair. No two people on earth are created equal, or are born into equal circumstances with equal opportunities or have an equal chance for happiness in this life. This makes life so desperately unfair. And the unfairness only ends at death.
Ronny Orman Patterson
Addendum, February 12, 2017
Two statements that cannot be denied:
- Every Choice you make is determined by who you are.
- Who you are is determined by your genetic makeup and everything that has ever happened to you since conception.
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