One of the perennial chestnuts of philosophy is the problem of free will. Mostly a problem for theists rather than non-theists, it still holds a few mysteries for everyone. Is our natural intuition of freedom true, that we reign as sovereign beings, maybe influenced, but never finally determined, in our choices? Or are those choices entirely determined, as the Marxists, physicists, and Tolstoy tend to think- by history, social conditions, the factors of production, character, genes, etc?
And if free will is an illusion, then what of morals? Can anyone be blamed for their choices? Can moral responsibility and agency exist without free will? This is surely the more interesting question.
The physical basis of life is now well-known, so if one assumes that our minds arise from the activities of our brains and, like everything else, are bound by physical principles, there is no escaping that free will really doesn't exist. Certainly there are theists who still believe in souls, supernaturalism, magical interventions in the evolutionary process, and the like, but without much cause aside from precisely the sort of intuitions that are better examined than taken at face value.
The physical world is causally closed as far as we know, and while that may or may not encompass the origin of itself in the pre-big-bang, it certainly seems to encompass our bodies and brains. So whatever we make of our feelings and agency, there is nothing we do or decide that could, on these physical principles, possibly occur without being the consequence of a train of prior causes & physical events. This means that we don't have what I would call "atomic" free will.
The quantum revolution throws a minor wrench into the situation, because the fundamental uncertainty it finds at small scales means that, however much we know, we can never predict where the full set of physical causes is going to take us. Everything may be caused by prior events, but that doesn't mean everything is determined to a singular fate, as Laplace tried to argue. Some of our prior events are truly random, and thus unknowable in advance. Yet that hardly gives us any more agency- it only leavens the causes that determine our decisions with a bit of comedic randomness.
Daniel Wegner wrote a very nice book about how our minds/brains nevertheless maintain an illusion of free will. For instance, if a person is (falsely) convinced that he did some act, he will typically spin elaborate post-rationalizations to explain its motivation to the interviewer. This is most strikingly true for people with neurological disorders, like split brain patients where one hand literally does not know what the other was doing. The verbal half of the brain will typically make up stories to rationalize what the disconnected half is doing. One can see similar things going on in the history of religion, where humans compulsively make up stories about literally everything under the sun that is mysterious. Many of which have had to be retracted, somewhat painfully, at times, or conveniently re-blessed as artistic myths.
More minutely, the work of Libet showed that our actions, and especially our conscious choices about them (like deciding to raise a coffee cup) are always preceded by unconscious trains of neurological activity. The choice is never de novo, but is itself a consequence of prior unconscious activities in the brain, and indeed comes to our consciousness- as a choice- well after it has taken place and set the physical events in motion. So consciousness is not sovereign at a very granular level either, but more of a caboose on the train, learning about things after they happen, more part of a feedback mechanism than of an action mechanism.
So we don't seem to have actual free will. Why do we feel like we are, nevertheless in charge when we hoist a glass to drink? At this point we have to ask the Buddhist/Hume question ... what is the self? Isn't it really an unending stream of causes, influences, and effects- our life histories caroming off our genetic and developmental inheritances? The deeper you look, the messier it is, to the point that a discrete "self" is undetectable. And the mess is mostly invisible, since only a tiny part of the mind's contents are conscious, and the far vaster unconscious activity rests on even more inscrutable molecular foundations. We simply don't know what is going on in our own minds, so can hardly be blamed for regarding it as magic, with the convenient (and, as always, narcissistic) assumption that we are master of this house.
Very well- free will is illusory. What consequences does this have for our moral and legal universe? This is where things get more interesting. For theists, aside from the convenience of off-loading the self into a god-like magical soul that, as they postulate, lives forever, the idea of free will also helps account for evil, since with God stipulated as all-good and all-powerful, there has to be someone else to blame: us, our original sin, and our darned free will to screw everything up!
For non-theists, of course, this angle is completely irrelevant. Yet still, the issue of blame reappears in mundane guise. If the self and the choices it makes are not sovereign, but rather inexorably caused by prior events, then how can anyone be blamed for anything? Doesn't morality become an empty joke?
Thankfully, the answer is no- it doesn't. The reason lies in another aspect of our programming, which is that we are not just physically-bounded no-free-will flesh-bots. We are physically-bounded no-free-will flesh-bots that can learn. Learning is the crucial ingredient in a moral universe, rendering us different from inanimate and non-learning beings. Do we blame rocks for falling on our heads? No we don't, unless we regard them as spirit-inhabited. Do we blame rabid dogs for biting us? No- they have lost their reason, and specifically, their ability to be trained (and we would blame their masters, anyhow). Do we blame insane people for murder? No, they get an insanity defense, because, crucially, they either don't know better, or are incapable of doing better. They are locked up securely rather than punished, because punishment wouldn't do any good.
And what good was punishment supposed to do anyhow? Ideally, (and I am not speaking of our current appalling penal system), punishment teaches the criminal a moral attitude, especially empathy, hopefully inducing deep personal change. Additionally, it has the exemplary role of teaching others the fate that immoral action leads to, as judged by the social system they share. It is a training exercise, which is exactly the sort of prior influence that comes back around to (hopefully) affect our future actions which, as we saw above, do not result from free will.
The (stricter) muslims cut a hand from the thief, which has all these salutary effects. Aside from significantly incapacitating the person from future thievery, it reminds him as few other punishments could of the social rules, and reminds all others who see it as well, influencing their future actions in turn. Unfortunately, its harshness also seriously impairs the society's claim to greater moral ideals and empathy, counteracting its training purpose.
In so many ways- eating, gambling, drugs, advertising- we know very well we don't have free will. There is hardly a richer literature than that of the tragic battle against temptation and fate. And throughout history, (including that of religion), we labor on, seeking social power and influence to defend others from temptation and bend others to our ideas of human betterment, descended as they are from, to paraphrase Keynes, some defunct philosopher. "Free" has nothing to do with it, but learning and mutual social influence certainly do.
We live in a matrix of influences and prior events. We are built as social beings to give and receive these influences, wired for empathy, for conversation, and inspiration. We cultivate each other and ourselves in a constant effort to attain our overall goal, on which our unconscious and conscious minds are in full agreement- increased happiness. The moral landscape is just another word for that mutual cultivation, on which everything depends.
- A blogging friend writes about punishment and its moral role, coming to a similar point from a very different direction.
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"Martin Feldstein, a Harvard professor, a major architect of deregulation in the Reagan administration, president for 30 years of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and for 20 years on the boards of directors of both AIG, which paid him more than $6-million, and AIG Financial Products, whose derivatives deals destroyed the company. Feldstein has written several hundred papers, on many subjects; none of them address the dangers of unregulated financial derivatives or financial-industry compensation."