On free will-13: Dealing with the consequences of not having free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is time to examine the consequences if we are forced to conclude, as seems likely, that there is no such thing as free will and that our actions are determined by the unconscious neural activity of a physical brain that was itself the creation of the genes, environment, and stochastic processes that make up our personal and evolutionary history.

The most obvious implications lie in the areas of crime and punishment and personal morality. Does the absence of free will mean that we are condemned to an amoral anarchy, in which people can claim that they are not responsible for any and every action because they did not freely choose to do so, and thus should bear no consequences?

Actually, no. In chapter 10 The Fear of Determinism in his book The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker argues that we need not perpetuate the fiction that there is free will when there is none simply because of fears of such an outcome. Apart from the fact that it is almost always better to base our policies on what is true than on illusions, the lack of free will can actually be more effective than having it because it enables us to see more clearly when and how to assign responsibility for actions.

Take first the question of crime and punishment. Even in the absence of free will, punishment for committing a crime still makes sense because it has the effect of deterring future crimes by both the perpetrator of the crime and by other aspiring criminals who observe the culprit being punished and know that they will be punished similarly. Whether this deterrence is achieved via the product of unconscious neural network activity or a free will making a conscious decision is of no practical consequence. What the elimination of free will does is remove the element of moral judgment from punishment. The sole reason for punishing people is to deter the commission of future crimes, not to make moral statements about the culprit’s character or to seek retribution and vengeance.

The only reason for the mitigation of punishment is if the perpetrator’s brain system is incapable of responding to deterrence. As Pinker says (p. 183), “We don’t punish those who were unaware that their acts would lead to harm, because such a policy would do nothing to prevent similar acts by them or by others in the future… We don’t apply criminal punishment to the delirious, the insane, small children, animals, or inanimate objects, because we judge that they – and entities similar to them – lack the cognitive apparatus that could be informed of the policy and could inhibit behavior accordingly. We exempt these entities from responsibility not because they follow predictable laws of biology while everyone else follows mysterious not-laws of free will. We exempt them because, unlike most adults, they lack a functioning brain system that can respond to public contingencies of punishment.”

Right now we assume that people are responsible for their actions unless they are considered incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, which is why we do not make moral judgments on the actions of infants, animals, etc. In the legal arena, the guidelines for absolving someone for responsibility were for a long time largely based on the M’Naghten rule, named after Daniel M’Naghten who, in 1843, wanted to kill the British prime minister but killed his secretary instead. He seemed to be what we would now call a paranoid schizophrenic and he was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of insanity.

This verdict caused general concern that people might invoke this kind of plea too freely as a means of escaping punishment, and in response the House of Lords drafted the following rule named after him to standardize the grounds for future claims of insanity: “Every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

The M’Naghten rule focuses on the cognitive awareness of right and wrong and is quite a stringent test. The only reason to not punish a wrong action is if the person could not have been deterred by the thought of punishment in the first place because their brain was incapable of making the kinds of judgments involved. As Pinker says (p. 184), “If someone is too addled to know that an act would harm someone, he cannot be inhibited by the injunction “Don’t harm people, or else!” The M’Naghten rule aims to forgo spiteful punishment-retribution that harms the perpetrator with no hope of deterring him or people similar to him.” If everyone knows that that the lack of cognitive awareness is the sole reason for exculpation, then the deterrent effect of punishment is still strong. The only people who would not be deterred are those whose brains are similarly addled.

The rules for mitigation have sometimes been expanded to include cases where the person did know the difference between right and wrong but was unable to control their impulses or was coerced. For example, we believe that the instinct to survive is so strong that if we are faced with a deadly threat we may kill the attacker before they can kill us, even though we know that killing is wrong and that we may face punishment. The law recognizes that in such cases, we are not really making a free choice, but that we are acting on instinct, and so we have the self-defense argument. The cases of coercion are somewhat easier to adjudicate. If someone is forced to do something at the point of a gun, we view the action with leniency.

More complicated are the so-called ‘crimes of passion’ in which some acts occur because of emotions so strong that even if the perpetrator knows the action is wrong, they carry it out anyway. The ‘police officer at the elbow’ test (i.e., would the person still have committed the act even if a police officer was in the immediate vicinity) could be used to make such discriminations.

Where we run into problems is when too broad a view of brain science is taken in adjudicating crimes. Belief in free will actually creates more problems in determining who should be punished and for what, as I will discuss in the next post.

New WikiLeaks release

As rumored, WikiLeaks has released a new batch of documents. The Guardian has probably the best coverage of what is in the documents.

A small sample:

The cables published today reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network, with diplomats tasked to obtain not just information from the people they meet, but personal details, such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material.

Classified “human intelligence directives” issued in the name of Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, instruct officials to gather information on military installations, weapons markings, vehicle details of political leaders as well as iris scans, fingerprints and DNA.

The most controversial target was the UN leadership. That directive requested the specification of telecoms and IT systems used by top officials and their staff and details of “private VIP networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys”.

PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman in Washington, said: “Let me assure you: our diplomats are just that, diplomats. They do not engage in intelligence activities. They represent our country around the world, maintain open and transparent contact with other governments as well as public and private figures, and report home. That’s what diplomats have done for hundreds of years.”

“One two three, what’re we fighting for?”

In a survey of those regions of Afghanistan where the NATO troops are having the heaviest fighting, a survey finds that 92% of those Afghans don’t know about the events of 9/11.

This has staggering consequences for the battle for hearts and minds of the population. It is one thing for people to see foreign troops as being in their country to ferret out rogue elements among them that attacked other countries, which is the stated mission of the US and NATO, though one has to suspect that there are always covert goals behind the overt ones. Then there is some chance that they will support your endeavors and join with you in eliminating the threat.

But if the local population is oblivious to this history, they will see the foreign troops as simply invaders trying to take over their country and will naturally resist.

But not to worry! We totally know how to deal with the hearts-and-minds thing. As the Washington Post reports:

In another recent operation in the Zhari district, U.S. soldiers fired more than a dozen mine-clearing line charges in a day. Each one creates a clear path that is 100 yards long and wide enough for a truck. Anything that is in the way – trees, crops, huts – is demolished.

“Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?” a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor’s office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said.

Because it is of course well known that nothing inspires warmer feelings towards the government than having your home destroyed by its troops and then making a long trek to a government office to try and get compensation. After all, wasn’t ‘destroying the village in order to save it’ a phenomenally successful strategy for the US in Vietnam?

Country Joe McDonald’s song at Woodstock seems depressingly apropos. (Language advisory)

Heathen’s Greeting!

Yes, boys and girls, Thanksgiving is over and you know what that means. It’s time to start the War on Christmas! So let the games begin!

First off, the New York Times reports on the unveiling of a new billboard ad campaign by four different secular groups to encourage atheists and even just doubters to realize that there are a lot of unbelievers out there and that it is safe to come out and join them.

Right on cue, we have religious believers begin to whine about how atheists are being mean to believers by spreading such messages during the Christmas season. In my local paper the Plain Dealer, columnist Regina Brett gets the ball rolling, criticizing the ad campaign. To be fair to her, she tries to be even-handed, also decrying the demonization of atheists. Hers is a “Why can’t we all be nice to each other during this holiday season?” kind of column.

This is fair enough but her message is confused. As with most believers, she sees statements about disbelief as aggressive while statements of belief are taken as the norm. So being nice to one another means that atheists should either shut up or use gentle humor or word things carefully so as not to cause cognitive dissonance among believers.

For example, Brett condemns as ‘just mean’ one billboard which has an image of Santa saying “Yes Virginia … there is no God”. She does not seem to get the humor of one imaginary entity parodying a well-known quote to assert that another imaginary entity does not exist.

She also puzzlingly says that “God is love. It says that in the Bible. But I doubt that will end up on a billboard to recruit atheists.” She’s right, it won’t, but what’s her point? Why would an atheist campaign even consider advertising that god is love when we don’t believe that god exists in the first place? Religious people are the ones who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, claim that god is love, and they put that message up all over the place

What believers don’t seem to get is that many atheists enjoy Christmas as a secular holiday (which is its actual origin), a good excuse to relax with friends and family. If religious people want to overlay the holiday with all kinds of god messages, they are welcome to do so. What we don’t enjoy is being told that we have to accept the whole god package as well.

If we want to secularize the holiday and greet each other with “Seasons’ Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” or even “Heathen’s Greetings” or “Reason’s Greetings”, then religious people will just have to learn to live with it, just the way we atheists and non-Christians live with overtly religious symbolism all around us, especially during December. Many of us even say “Merry Christmas” and refer to it as the Christmas season. It really does not bother us because Christmas has, thanks to the relentless merchandizing of businesses, become a secular holiday.

Bye, bye, Ernie?

Quick, do you know what the official terror alert level color is right now? You should because it hasn’t changed since 2006. The official color scale is on the left and the much more memorable one is on the right.

terroralertcolors.jpg terroralertsesame.jpg

The system was a joke because it did not tell people anything useful. If the color changed, what implications did it have for the average person? How should their behavior change? No one knew. Furthermore, it quickly became reduced to only two colors, Bert and Ernie, but Ernie has been the sole possessor of the title for four years now, despite the failed Christmas bombing and Times Square plots that occurred during his reign.

The authorities must have been in a quandary because they were never going to lower the threat to Cookie Monster because that would not serve the purpose of keeping people in fear. Oscar was simply out of the question, dangled in front of people purely for window dressing, to give them the illusion that there would come a time when the war on terror was over. They could not also raise the level to Elmo because people might freak out thinking that the Armageddon had arrived.

Well, it looks like that system is on the way out. It not only will not be missed, its disappearance will not even be noticed.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I hope everyone who celebrates this really nice holiday has the opportunity to spend the day with family and friends.

This article provides some of the facts and debunks some myths about the origins and traditions of this holiday.

I have been disturbed by the creeping commercialism that is threatening to overtake this holiday. In order to lure customers to come to their stores first, they are scheduling sales that begin at midnight. What this means is that their employees are forced to work on Thanksgiving day, getting ready for the hordes of people camped out in front eager to get their hands on the few loss leaders that the stores put out. I hope we do not have a repetition of 2008:

A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store’s front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

On a passing note, this week my bank sent me a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ card from its vice president. Do these big corporations think that people are pleased to receive formal greetings churned out by a computer? This not only seems like an absurd waste of money, I fear it might be the start of a new marketing trend to inflict the same cards-and-gifts consumer binge that afflicts Christmas.

Left-liberal smearing of John Tyner

Glenn Greenwald defends John Tyner against the attempt by The Nation to smear him for his protest against the TSA’s porno scanners and groping methods.

What is it with some people that they cannot form a united front with others on civil liberties issues unless the people protesting as well as who are being protested against fit with their broader agenda?

I myself do not care one whit if the protests against methods of the TSA are being fuelled and funded by right-wing ideologues and are meant to embarrass Obama. What has that got to do with whether the methods being used are good or not?