We dont need free will


Reading Stephen Pinkers’ “How the Mind Works”,
in its first chapter, before starting to explain how mind works he tries to preempt the use of his work to justified immoral behavior by claiming that understanding the physical condition that necessitate an immoral act does not mean the said acts are justified. He wrote “A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent…”. He did not stray away from the view that free will is necessary for discussion of morality, law and punishment. in fact it seems that he went out of his way to show that the idea of free will is still intact even if science has proof it is an illusion.

This protection of free will comes from the believe that our justice system cannot function without it. in the sense that free will allow us to punish people who commit crime and reward people for their good deeds. without free will there will be no agent to punish or reward.

I disagree. I do not believe that free will is needed for a functional justice system.
Criminals dont have to be met with punishment because they deserve it, but because our society collectively decide thought democratic process to raise the cost of acts they committed. Punishment become not a form of revenge, but an incurred cost to prevent occurrence of socially undesirable act.

Indeed, it is the rejection of the notion that people are free, and they comment crime because they are evil; and the acceptance of people commit crime because their behaviors system demands it under certain circumstances, can we look beyond punishment as the only preventive tool but a tool among many.

We can look at what causes a criminals’ behaviors system to grown to such a state that will act criminally where others wont and seek to neutralize those causes. Those causes will come in forms of how is build up by the accumulated interaction between genes and the environment (parenting, schooling, memes, culture, society in general). Understanding those cause, will lead to innovative solutions that may involve better parenting education, better education system, legal systems and other current unknown factors.

Acknowledging free will as an illusion, demystify human thought and open up possibility for new crime prevention strategy. Free will, I believe, we are better off without it.

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8 thoughts on “We dont need free will

  1. I understand that whatever we do is a reaction based on our past experience, genetics (so called the “warrior gene” could contribute to aggressive behaviors) and given situations but I do not see how the realization of this fact could influence our lives. Understanding that the past decisions were, in fact, inevitable could ease the feeling of regret but I don’t see any further benefits. And even if people do come in terms with the fact, it still wouldn’t eliminate the process of “choosing”. Our mind will still compute in order to come up with the only option and this should certainly give people the sensation of free will (kind of like love being a cocktail of hormones and chemicals but people still get emotionally attached even if they know this). I mean you wouldn’t go to a restaurant and think “hmmm, my past experience and the current vacancy in my stomach suggest that I should eat tacos” would you?
    As for the justice system, in my humble opinion, I do not believe that it needs to be drastically changed. Why do I believe that? It is because most countries seem to share a similar system (apart from capital punishment) but there are significant gap in crime rate between some countries, therefore the problem is not the legal system but the environment surrounding the criminals as you mentioned. Some countries have extremely low crime rate with the standard idea of legal system so where is the need to change it? Culture (often underestimated factor), education and preventative measures (CCTV, Police etc, some societies do not need much of this but its proven to be effective in recent N.Y), those kind of things should be the focus if the purpose is to build a safer society.
    Sorry if I strayed away from the main topic but the bottom line is, what could possibly be a productive application of this realization to any field?

  2. The author suggests that we can try to invent a kind of justice system that is ‘free will’-independent. This is interesting. Once the biotechnology advance far enough (after we have some efficient tools to measure how one’s genes react with the environment), the new kind of flexible legal system can be set up. It may provide new way to calculate the cost of serious crime, like killing. Developed countries have used special rules to judge psychopathic criminal. Criminal’s sentence can be commuted if he can provide the evidence of mental disorder. The judgement can be generalized to “normal” people, the similar situations are possible to be applied on “normal” people. I think the better justice system and crime prevention strategy can be expected.

  3. @Ansel, I see your point that the level of punishment coud be put into consideration if the defendant could prove his/her mental disorder. I haven’t read the book so I decided to order it on Amazon, it sounds very interesting. I’m still a bit sceptical as to how this fact could efficiently innovate the justice system. Taking into considrataion one’s upbringing and genetics could make a punishment certainly fairer but fairer doesn’t necessarily mean efficient if the purpose is to lower the crime rate (even these days, claiming to have mental disorder has become criminal’s favourite method to lower the sentence). Anyway I’m not going to make further judgement until I read the book.

  4. Thank you two for your thoughtful comments.

    @Manabu

    I think you have a great understanding of the free will paradox
    which is that you still feel like you are choosing, but there is only one choice.

    I want to point out in my post is the the difference between am understanding of criminal behaviors that is base on free will and as oppose to non-free will.

    Free will based understanding of criminal behaviors is very simplistic. eg. S/He did a bad thing, the cause is s/he is a bad person, punish her/him, end of story. free-will people dont try to look for causes beyond the person committing the crime.

    on the other hand, non-free wills’ understanding is much more sophisticated. eg. s/he did a bad thing, what are the environmental factors when interact with which (sets) gene(s) that led her/him to such behavior. This kind of understanding invites us to look beyond the person committing the crime, and and as the result we would look at society, economic condition, childhood condition to find cause and prevent criminal from developing into a criminal in the first place.
    This kind of understanding does not change the fact that the criminal them selfs are the focal point and the most immediate way to prevent crime is raise the cost of crime (risk of getting caught and level of punishment. you mention CCTV and more cups in New York, this would be related to risk of getting caught.)

    Btw the book “how the mind works” is not a debate on free will, its about the cognitive functioning of our brain.
    I was unhappy when set the framework of the book, the author briefly tried to protect free will fearing that the lack of free will will undermined our justice system. I want to argue the exact contrary.

    One more quick point, i believe that non-free-will mind-set will force us to not only look to understand why a criminal commit crime, but also looking into our self – all members of society, what do we need to change in order to nor turn our kids and neighbors kids into criminals. I am against death penalty for this reason, because feels very unfair for the criminal to be the one paying the ultimate price for a crime that everyone are complicit. I know society pay for the death penalty, but the punishment is just too proportionally unfair. this is of course subjective.

    @Anzel,

    We will live in a better society if all crime are consider a form of anti-social psychological disorder, and try to fix it in that mind-set. of course we will have another set of complicated debate when that happens.

  5. @Neo*utO. I completely agree with you that the main focus should be finding out what are the key factors contributing to the production of criminals. I’m still not sure if the same approach should be used to judge the levels of punishment though. As I said before, acknowledging one’s inevitability to commit crimes will make a punishment fairer but it can also act as an incentive. It could dilute the threat posed by preventative measures. If one is confident to prove his/her disoder and knowing that the society will take that into consideration, then the risk of committing a crime will naturally be lower. In short, the main focus should be the “why?” but “fair” might not be the best way to go if the purpose is to lower the crime rate instead of being humain.

  6. in no place did i suggest that we need to reduce sentence in order to be human and fair.

    i wrote “[non-free will] understanding does not change the fact that the criminal them selfs are the focal point and the most immediate way to prevent crime is raise the cost of crime (risk of getting caught and level of punishment.”

    which means i fully support punishment as a form of crime prevention.

  7. I apologize if I mistook your POV. You’ve mentioned, “I am against death penalty for this reason, because feels very unfair for the criminal to be the one paying the ultimate price for a crime that everyone are complicit. I know society pay for the death penalty, but the punishment is just too proportionally unfair.” ← I think I overreacted to this comment. I knew that you support punishment as a form of crime prevention but I also thought that you saw the need of it being completely proportional to their background and disorders.
    BTW, I forgot to say this on the last thread but Happy New Year! Kotoshimo yoroshiku.

  8. That passage you quote reflect my desire to held the whole society responsible for all crimes by paying for the cost to isolate criminals. i note at the end of paragraph that it is an subjective view. and yes it is desire on my part to reduce capital punishment to life in prison, so i was wrong when i say “in no place did i suggest that we need to reduce sentence in order to be human and fair.” Still, it death reduce to life, its very harsh either way.

    Moving on,

    i want to point out a potential contradiction in my view.

    I am on a delicate balance. I want the cost of crime to be harsh enough to deter crime, but i also want criminals to be as patient of psychological disorder. This presents a dilemma, which probably cannot be solved. The only thing that can be done is to avoid it as much as possible, by preventing people from becoming criminals in the first place, which is allowed in a non-free will view.

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