SocietySpiegeloog 408: Consequences

Free Will: Causes or Consequences?

By December 10, 2020December 21st, 2020No Comments

Why did you click on this article? Presumably, you did simply because you wanted to. Yet, as a psychologically interested person, you probably know that there are many unconscious factors that influenced you in this decision. But if this is true, how can you still have free will?

Why did you click on this article? Presumably, you did simply because you wanted to. Yet, as a psychologically interested person, you probably know that there are many unconscious factors that influenced you in this decision. But if this is true, how can you still have free will?

Image:  愚木混株 Cdd20 

Consider the following (true) story. On August 1st, 1966, the life of 25-year-old student Charles Whitman took a terrible turn. Shortly after midnight, he visited his mother and killed her, stabbing her in the heart. He then returned home where he killed his wife in the same manner, while she was sleeping. Around 11:35 on the same day, Whitman headed for the university where he was a student, went to the top of a tall building which was part of the university, and started shooting. With high precision, Whitman killed more than a dozen people and injured 31 others before he was shot and killed by the police (Murderpedia, n.d.).

You might be wondering: Why on earth would anyone want to do something like this? In Whitman’s case, the answer is particularly intriguing. Before he committed his crimes, he wrote several letters describing recurrent, violent thoughts he has had, and that these thoughts were overwhelming him. Writing that he is truly sorry for his actions, Whitman even ordered the money from his life insurance to be donated to mental health research. Yet, most interestingly, an autopsy later found a tumour in Whitman’s brain – a critical hint to what might have driven Whitman to go on his killing spree.

Whitman’s behaviour was clearly the result of biological forces out of his control, but isn’t this true for all of us, just in a slightly more subtle way? There might be no tumour in your brain, but your actions are dependent on your brain, nonetheless. Your brain, in turn, is shaped by your genetic makeup and your experiences. Did you choose your genes? Did you choose which family to grow up in? Since none of us did, the standard argument goes, we don’t have free will. Ultimately, anything you do is caused by something you have no control over.

“there are only two options to how this world might tick, and neither of them makes room for free will”

Interestingly, you don’t need any psychological knowledge to arrive at this conclusion – logical reasoning is enough. This is because there are only two options to how this world might tick, and neither of them makes room for free will. To begin with, the world might be deterministic: everything is dependent on factors that existed before. With perfect information (and computing power) you could predict any event, including people’s decisions. If determinism is true, free will can’t exist because you are determined as well – no matter whether it’s genetics, the environment you grew up in, or something immaterial. Even the existence of a soul provides no escape: after all, you haven’t chosen your soul, either. But what if not everything is determined by factors that existed before? In that case, the world would include true randomness, but this doesn’t give you free will, either. If, for example, a random number generator causes your actions, then you are also not truly free. In short, everything about you is caused either by some factor that existed before or (partially) by randomness.

As this line of reasoning provides a final, clear answer to the question of free will, this approach seems very powerful; and various pop philosophers (e.g., Sam Harris) have helped spread it across society. Maybe I have even managed to convince you, dear reader. In this case, I am sorry to tell you that there are good reasons why this view is profoundly mistaken.

To evaluate whether there is any truth to the concept of free will, we first have to decide which kind of truth we are talking about. Consider the following statements: “The earth orbits the sun” and “Killing babies is bad”. Both statements are correct but in very different ways. The first one is correct because the sentence accurately depicts the real world. As we can observe, the earth does in fact revolve around the sun. The second statement, however, doesn’t state how the world is, but rather how it ought to be – namely, that a world in which babies are not killed is preferable to a world in which they are. 

Scientists explore how the world is. It’s about finding the underlying causes of natural phenomena, and in the case of psychology, the underlying causes of the human mind and behaviour. From a scientific point of view, your mental state is a consequence of natural causes. For moral philosophers, however, it’s about how humans should behave, and hence the emphasis lies on your mind causing your actions, and not on your mind being the consequence of something.

“the essence of free will is about moral responsibility”

The problem with the argument against free will presented above is that it simply assumes free will to be part of the former realm of truth, while entirely disregarding the latter. It is necessarily true that everything you do is caused by something out of your control, but this is not the point of free will. Rather, the essence of free will is about moral responsibility. In fact, the concept of free will only exist because of its moral implications. Thousands of years ago, did anyone bother that we are simply the products of determinism or indeterminism? No, because free will was (as it is today) about taking your life into your own hands, knowing that you can only effectively shape your future if you assume that you are the true cause of your actions.

Did Whitman have free will after all, then? Well, I don’t think he did as there’s the chance that he was forced to do things against his will. Committing crimes although you don’t want to do so is very different from committing crimes because you want to commit them. In fact, any person whose mental capacity is severely limited also has less free will. This is why the law has special rules for criminals that are of unsound mind or underage. Yet, for the rest of us, this does not apply. Contrary to children and mentally incapacitated people, we are able to evaluate the moral implications of our actions; and if we nevertheless decide to do wrong, we can (and should) be held morally responsible.<<

References

-Murderpedia. (n.d.). Charles Joseph WHITMAN. Murderpedia. Retrieved from: https://murderpedia.org/male.W/w/whitman-charles.htm.

Consider the following (true) story. On August 1st, 1966, the life of 25-year-old student Charles Whitman took a terrible turn. Shortly after midnight, he visited his mother and killed her, stabbing her in the heart. He then returned home where he killed his wife in the same manner, while she was sleeping. Around 11:35 on the same day, Whitman headed for the university where he was a student, went to the top of a tall building which was part of the university, and started shooting. With high precision, Whitman killed more than a dozen people and injured 31 others before he was shot and killed by the police (Murderpedia, n.d.).

You might be wondering: Why on earth would anyone want to do something like this? In Whitman’s case, the answer is particularly intriguing. Before he committed his crimes, he wrote several letters describing recurrent, violent thoughts he has had, and that these thoughts were overwhelming him. Writing that he is truly sorry for his actions, Whitman even ordered the money from his life insurance to be donated to mental health research. Yet, most interestingly, an autopsy later found a tumour in Whitman’s brain – a critical hint to what might have driven Whitman to go on his killing spree.

Whitman’s behaviour was clearly the result of biological forces out of his control, but isn’t this true for all of us, just in a slightly more subtle way? There might be no tumour in your brain, but your actions are dependent on your brain, nonetheless. Your brain, in turn, is shaped by your genetic makeup and your experiences. Did you choose your genes? Did you choose which family to grow up in? Since none of us did, the standard argument goes, we don’t have free will. Ultimately, anything you do is caused by something you have no control over.

“there are only two options to how this world might tick, and neither of them makes room for free will”

Interestingly, you don’t need any psychological knowledge to arrive at this conclusion – logical reasoning is enough. This is because there are only two options to how this world might tick, and neither of them makes room for free will. To begin with, the world might be deterministic: everything is dependent on factors that existed before. With perfect information (and computing power) you could predict any event, including people’s decisions. If determinism is true, free will can’t exist because you are determined as well – no matter whether it’s genetics, the environment you grew up in, or something immaterial. Even the existence of a soul provides no escape: after all, you haven’t chosen your soul, either. But what if not everything is determined by factors that existed before? In that case, the world would include true randomness, but this doesn’t give you free will, either. If, for example, a random number generator causes your actions, then you are also not truly free. In short, everything about you is caused either by some factor that existed before or (partially) by randomness.

As this line of reasoning provides a final, clear answer to the question of free will, this approach seems very powerful; and various pop philosophers (e.g., Sam Harris) have helped spread it across society. Maybe I have even managed to convince you, dear reader. In this case, I am sorry to tell you that there are good reasons why this view is profoundly mistaken.

To evaluate whether there is any truth to the concept of free will, we first have to decide which kind of truth we are talking about. Consider the following statements: “The earth orbits the sun” and “Killing babies is bad”. Both statements are correct but in very different ways. The first one is correct because the sentence accurately depicts the real world. As we can observe, the earth does in fact revolve around the sun. The second statement, however, doesn’t state how the world is, but rather how it ought to be – namely, that a world in which babies are not killed is preferable to a world in which they are. 

Scientists explore how the world is. It’s about finding the underlying causes of natural phenomena, and in the case of psychology, the underlying causes of the human mind and behaviour. From a scientific point of view, your mental state is a consequence of natural causes. For moral philosophers, however, it’s about how humans should behave, and hence the emphasis lies on your mind causing your actions, and not on your mind being the consequence of something.

“the essence of free will is about moral responsibility”

The problem with the argument against free will presented above is that it simply assumes free will to be part of the former realm of truth, while entirely disregarding the latter. It is necessarily true that everything you do is caused by something out of your control, but this is not the point of free will. Rather, the essence of free will is about moral responsibility. In fact, the concept of free will only exist because of its moral implications. Thousands of years ago, did anyone bother that we are simply the products of determinism or indeterminism? No, because free will was (as it is today) about taking your life into your own hands, knowing that you can only effectively shape your future if you assume that you are the true cause of your actions.

Did Whitman have free will after all, then? Well, I don’t think he did as there’s the chance that he was forced to do things against his will. Committing crimes although you don’t want to do so is very different from committing crimes because you want to commit them. In fact, any person whose mental capacity is severely limited also has less free will. This is why the law has special rules for criminals that are of unsound mind or underage. Yet, for the rest of us, this does not apply. Contrary to children and mentally incapacitated people, we are able to evaluate the moral implications of our actions; and if we nevertheless decide to do wrong, we can (and should) be held morally responsible.<<

References

-Murderpedia. (n.d.). Charles Joseph WHITMAN. Murderpedia. Retrieved from: https://murderpedia.org/male.W/w/whitman-charles.htm.
Valentin Weber

Author Valentin Weber

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