The Blog of Brian Stanton

Free Will (Part 2: Myths and Morality)

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This is the second post in a two-part series on free will. In case you missed it, here is the first

Imagine you have the power to rewind the Universe. You set your watch for this time yesterday. You hesitate. With one click, you realize, every atom in space will revert to its prior position. Every synapse in your brain will carry yesterday’s charge. And this means, of course, that your memory banks will also be reset. You won’t be the you of today, but the you of yesterday.


The question is - could your rewound self do anything differently the second time through? Could you choose the white shirt instead of the purple? Eggs over cereal? Pellegrino over Perrier? Spookiest of all - could you choose not to rewind the Universe the next day? Or would you be doomed to relive the same 24 hours in precisely the same manner, ad infinitum?


When you rewind a movie, the cast seems perfectly oblivious and acts normally. This would be no different. Each trip through your personal time loop would be experienced as if for the first time. You would simply be along for the ride.


The logic here is fairly basic. All events have causes, and these causes stretch back to time immemorial. Rewind these causes and the same actions play out. Our brains, of course, follow the laws of physics just like everything else. Every thought stems from mountains of inscrutable background activity that even a super-intelligent AI would be helpless to analyze. And nobody - not even Tony Robbins - has control over this activity.


In fact, consciousness itself seems to be a mere byproduct of this causal chain. There’s no evidence - subjectively or objectively - that consciousness determines our thoughts and actions. It seems to have no purpose at all. Strangely enough, as the philosopher David Chalmers has noted, one can imagine a fully functioning “zombie” sans consciousness. Based on its behavior, there would be no way to tell the lights were off.


The somewhat spooky conclusion is that we don’t have conscious dominion over our choices. In fact, most scientists admit that libertarian free will - the notion that one “could have done otherwise” - doesn’t make sense. But this hasn’t stopped intellectuals like Saul Smilansky, a professor of philosophy, from spreading a myth.


“Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue,” writes Smilansky, “and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal sense of value. Illusion and ignorance appear to be conditions for social and personal success.”


To his credit, Smilansky is conflicted on this point. But in the end, he’s on the side of deception. Society, he believes, must be sheltered from this ugly truth. In making his case, however, the professor has drifted miles from the beachhead of scientific inquiry.


An analogy to the origins debate will help us get our bearings. Is society better off believing that Earth was created six thousand years ago? If so, should we rush to hide all the dinosaur bones and burn every last copy of “The Origin of Species”? Of course not. The intellectual costs would be catastrophic. I’m arguing that lying about the causes of human behavior represents a similar move.


But what if Smilansky is right? What if truth about free will spirals humanity into a dystopian planet of the apes? Some research does support this gloomy prediction. But plenty contradicts it. In fact, beliefs about free will and moral responsibility have been shown to vary independently. Morality, it seems, does not rely on the widespread embrace of a fable.


To dispel the illusion of free will, in fact, is to clarify our ethics. In no area is this more obvious than in American criminal justice, where free will is assumed as a matter of jurisprudence. The blameworthy actor simply must pay for their crimes. Conversely, Norway treats offenders like malfunctioning robots. They are to be repaired, not punished. The result? A mere 20% of Norwegian convicts return to jail. In America, on the other hand, the figure is closer to 75%.


This doesn’t mean we should give the goons of the world a free pass. But it does prove that people can change, if given the chance.    


“Clearly,” writes the philosopher Sam Harris, “we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, and bad luck - which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for?”


In a sense, criminals are just weather patterns gone bad. Their every thought and action springs from causes which they did not intend. Can we blame them for having the brains they happen to have? Or for growing up in a lousy environment? Or for watching too many gangster movies?


Of course not. We could rewind the Universe as many times as we liked and the same people would commit the same crimes in exactly the same ways. In fact, there’s reason to believe that every slice of time - past, present and future - exists in perpetual limbo, like a set of coordinates in space. Our consciousness merely illuminates these slices in a linear fashion.


And so, perhaps we’re riding a rollercoaster that has already run it’s course. Yet this ride, it seems to me, is all we’ve got.  


Print Sources


Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print.


  1. > Strangely enough, as the philosopher David Chalmers has noted, one can imagine a fully functioning “zombie” sans consciousness. Based on its behavior, there would be no way to tell the lights were off.

    First. You cannot imagine this. The only place a consciousness can be observed is from inside the consciousness. P-zombie doesn’t have one. You have no place to imagine this.

    Second. Actually, Chalmers said about logical possibility. This makes argument circular. If consciousness is epiphenomenal, then p-zombies can logically exist, then consciousness is epiphenomenal. If consciousness is a necessity, given particular brain structure/functions, then p-zombies can’t logically exist.


    August 28, 2016

  2. To clarify above message. What you can imagine is our universe with an attached label “There’s no one here, so do not try to imagine what it feels to be someone in here, otherwise you’ll end up with our usual non-p-zombie-universe”.


    August 28, 2016

  3. brilliant! thank you

    james foley

    August 31, 2016

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