Determinism and Free Will 2a of 4

Recently, I wrote about Determinism and Free Will. It was basically an introduction and consisted of a transcript of the Reasonable Doubts guys. Well, this is the first half of their second episode on the subject. I decided to break it up into two posts because, as you can see, it's incredibly long. And it was taking me forever to transcribe it.

So in this part, the guys are talking about determinism again, especially in regards to how to deal with people who break the law or do something wrong. This is a very touchy subject but the guys explain it well, especially when they talk about parenting.

Here you go:

1:56 Dave (D): So in our previous episode, Free Willy vs the Determinator part 1, we talked some about determinism and free will, but we didn't get to the moral implications associated with a hardcore determinist world view like the three of us seem to share. And not all naturalists do.

Jeremy (J): No, we need to acknowledge that there is diversity amongst naturalists. I will say I don't feel bad going further in saying, though, I think they're wrong. I think they're demonstrably wrong. I think accepting determinism, unfortunately or not, is necessitated by a consistently naturalistic world view. But there are people who disagree.

D: But it's a very hard thing to do, and it took me a very long time to just decide that, "yes, in fact I'm going to follow the evidence", because you're giving up a lot of things, apparently.

J: You're giving up things you never had.

D: Well, yeah. But things that I thought I had.

Luke (L): Well, it parallels the religious discussions we've had in that most people kind of like us, I think, follow the evidence, however reluctant it might be, and however negative the implications might be. Because we value the evidence, in the same way that religious beliefs are sometimes reluctantly rejected. I think that in some cases free will is reluctantly rejected. We recognize that yes, it feels free, but still the evidence seems to conclude that much of that is an illusion.

D: And frankly, if it feels free, that's all I know, then I really don't see the problem. If I feel like I have the illusion of free will, then I have the illusion of free will, and that's fine. I don't feel like a meat puppet, even though I know that I am a meat puppet.

J: But, what happens when we come to questions of morality, questions of law, questions of crime and punishment? It does become a problem because, if we are not absolutely free, if our choices are determined, then what sense does it make to say, "this person was responsible for their actions". Take for example, the Texas Sharpshooter.

4:16 L: Charles Whitman. This is kind of almost an extension of our discussion last time, the Phineas Gage problem, of the clear brain injury leading to clear behavioral changes. Whitman was a case where the guy went amuck in 1966 and shot up a bunch of people. The guy in the bell tower at the University of Texas.

So after this happened and they killed him, they did an autopsy and tried to do a reconstruction of his last days, what was going on, and they found a lot of contributing factors. He was an alcoholic, he was kicked out of the Marines, he had some abusive background, so there were some environmental-type influences there. But then one of the more intriguing ones was they found an amygdaloid tumor, a tumor in the part of the brain that is in the limbic system that controls a lot of the emotional, fight-or-flight fear reactions. So it led some people to conclude that maybe some of his behavior might have been caused by abnormal brain activity, that caused him to be aggressive.

J: And I think that view is supported by the diary that he left behind.

L: Which is strange in its detachment, almost, from himself, like he's saying "I can't explain why I feel these violent urges, but yet I'm compelled to do them".

J: But actually I think there's some retention of sympathy and love that you can find in there. For example, he murders his own mother, and his own wife, yet in his suicide note, he's writing how he made a great effort to make sure that the murder was painless, that she didn't suffer.

L: That they were very good people and that he's sorry he did it.

J: Right. He says that he loved them and he was sorry that he did it.

D: He just couldn't control the impulse to kill?

J: Yeah, and he even left money behind. In the suicide note he said he wanted his earthly belongings to go towards research on the brain, to try to find out what happened to him, and to prevent this happening to other people. So this was premeditated, this massacre. And there's some part of him that feels this rage, but is trying to resist it, like, realizes it's wrong and abnormal and that it shouldn’t be the case.

L: You can imagine yourself if there were a way that somebody could have installed electrodes in your brain, you might find yourself, given what we talked about last time about the causality and the brain, you might find yourself doing actions after which you're forced to confabulate them. And if they're extreme enough, if you just found yourself having the impulse to hurt somebody, how would you rationalize that afterwards. It might seem perplexing to you, that you did this yourself.

J: A question I share with my philosophy class is, look at the legal test for the insanity plea. Would the Texas Sharpshooter actually qualify? Would he be able to plead not guilty by reason of insanity? I'm not sure he would, because part of the test there is, do you recognize that your actions are morally wrong. And he did.

L: We make a distinction often between the psychological explanations versus legal definitions of things. So many people are like, when you have a case where somebody is clearly psychotic, or take the woman who drowned her kids in the bathtub; she was hearing voices that told her to drown her kids, the Andrea Yates case. And she didn’t think that way when she was properly medicated, or not under stress. So many people can look at that and say, "well, there's a case where yes, her brain illness influenced her to do those actions.

But really, if a psychopath or a sociopath, or a person who has violent epileptic seizures; if that causes somebody to do something, how is that any different? And the more we find out about conditions, the more genetics and brain research we find out, we're surely going to find out more causes in the brain for behaviors that are purely biological. How is that any more distinct from these other causes of like, schizophrenia or brain damage?

8:08 J: People mock the Twinkie Defense, they call it.

L: The Harvey Milk assassin case, Dan White. Dan White's defense was that he had a binge eating with junk food and that contributed to his…

D: And there's also the Clockwork Orange Defense that was big in the UK in the early 70's when the movie came out, when they had seen the movie and that pushed them to these ultra-violent acts.

J: Now some of the stuff is silly, I'm not sure I want to sign on to all of that, but it is the case that as we come to know the causal roots of our actions more, these things are going to be more and more plausible and it really does… what we're going to be grappling with the issue is determinism. Because our legal system assumes some free will on our behalf. And it just wonders, when does that free will stop happening? If you expose the fact that it's never going on, that people are always determined by something going on, where does that leave our legal system?

L: Many people are uncomfortable when somebody introduces for a killer's defense that he was abused as a child. And now you're going to hear more interactions of things like environmental determinism like child abuse, with things like genes, and he had a head injury, or his mom dropped him on his head, or hormone imbalances. People are disconcerted by that because they think it implies that the person wasn't in control or they didn't do it. That seems to be an objection to determinism.

Like we were saying at the beginning of this episode, just because something is disconcerting doesn't mean it's wrong. It is disconcerting to think that someone could get off or that it would explain away their behavior from that, but it doesn't mean that the explanation is not correct. To the free will person they say that, "yes, he could have had bad brain genes and he could have been dropped on his head, but he should have known better and stopped, and not pulled the trigger", or something like that. But it's meaningless to say that.

J: Then of course we have problems for ethics in general.

L: If you've ever read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, he talks about objections to determinism and distinguishes between a type of justice that's punitive like a free will system like, "that'll teach you", "I'm going to give you five lashes", versus a justice system that simply is protective of people, like if somebody kills somebody let's lock them up and remove them so they don't do it again, or that there's a punishment almost like a Skinnerian system, like if I kill somebody they're going to lock me up.

That's distinct from saying, "you, bad person, you're to blame for that, shame on you." Which from a deterministic system is meaningless.

D: But corrective imprisonment, corrective punishment makes perfect sense. Right? If someone commits a crime and rather than being shoved into jail where they learn how to do better crime, which is usually the case, if it's actually a correctional facility, and they help them learn different things they can do to get money, and learn new skills, and learn why this is wrong, that sort of thing; if we're actually correcting the behavior, then we're adding these deterministic influences to them. So that when they're released back out into the world, they've gotten this corrective work, these new deterministic influences.

J: Determinism is not as scary when you start to realize what Dave just pointed out here. And that is that, because our behavior can respond to outside influences, we do have somewhat of a basis for saying that we hold people responsible.

Let's say you're getting angry at a friend, I don't know for what, make up a reason. He broke your Nintendo Wii. He broke something of yours because he was being reckless and careless and everything else. Well, he couldn't have helped doing that, right? When you freeze that instant of time, his stumbling over your Wii and smashing it to bits, it had to happen. There was nothing else that could have changed it. It was determined.

But, it does make sense to hold him responsible in some sense, even if that is the case. That is, if your response to him has the potential of influencing his future behavior; because your social responses to people go into that causal matrix out of which the behavior happens; if your response saying, "man, you're a total dick, you stepped all over my Nintendo Wii, you destroyed it to bits and I think you should buy another one". If that response is going to prompt him to be more careful, watch where he steps next time, then it makes total sense to hold them responsible.

12:56 L: This is the kind of argument that I think B.F. Skinner advanced in some of his futuristic books, like Walden Two where the world is stimulus and response, and that we can't avoid that. Better to have a humane administration of stimulus and response, of  punishments and rewards, to shape peoples' behavior to correct things, rather than deny that it's an influence.

D: I have to say, as a parent, that makes absolute sense. And it's so clear.

J: People know this intuitively, when they're dealing with people anyway.

D: It's so obvious, If the kids do something either accidentally or on purpose that they shouldn't do, and if you correct them on it in an instructional way, in a way that is going to help modify that behavior in the future, it's not going to happen again. But otherwise if you're just punishing for the sake of punishing, or if you're shaming, that's not going yield results. You have to correct the behavior, you have to help give these other influences that will make it not happen again.

J: People already do acknowledge and admit determinism in many areas of their lives, they're comfortable with it. Think of the way we excuse people for certain things; the teenager who's acting rambunctious in high school. Maybe he's hitting on girls relentlessly, and stuff like that. We don't let them off the hook totally for their actions, but we say, hey, he's bottled up with all these hormones inside, he's got that on the brain; people be careful, Sally is being a little bit nasty today because she's on her period. Feminists out there, no commentary on whether or not PMS is real. Just trying to establish that we, in our normal day to day behavior, we recognize that if you change that soup of neurotransmitters that behavior will change as well.

So that's one way in which determinism is not threatening. But we are so trapped in that Christian world view that western society developed out of, which says, you are a soul inside your brain, you are a free agent, you are completely responsible for your actions, and you could do otherwise in any sort of situation. That our thinking easily becomes schizophrenic on these issues.

15:25 L: It leads to a much more emotional response, too, rather than the deterministic thing leads to a much more dispassionate administration of rewards and punishments, and judgments or lack thereof. If it's a free will view, you see that person as being willfully... I mean look at Dobson's parenting books; The Strong-Willed Child. The kid is rambunctious because he's a little, essentially a satanic agent, and a willfulness, that you have to break his little will, and then he's going to become godly.

Whereas if you just simply viewed it as, it could be a temperament issue, of his genes, he's had a poor learning history from previous lax parenting; you become less emotional about that when you view it as just a product of determinism. I'm administrating a time-out in a non-emotional way because this is the only way he's going to learn.

J: Like Dobson, when you take that view of the autonomous agent in the head that's doing everything, it makes sense to do that kind of beat into submission, or the way that I think a lot of religious and authoritarian people try to deal with problems, from terrorism to poverty, anything, is just to try to beat the situation into submission. Just make it right, stand up, do the right thing, pull yourself up from your bootstraps; instead of taking a look at… because if we aren't little autonomous agents, if we are the product of our environments, if we are the sum total of millions of different influences, then you have to look at this situation almost in an ecological way. You need to look at the total environment, and what helps foster a situation where we're going to thrive, be safe, be comfortable. You need to start addressing social problems from…

D: It makes it a much larger picture, which is for people who would rather just spank one child to correct their problem, it makes it a little overwhelming, because now we can't spank the child, we have to spank society.

J: We can't call the person on welfare a total freeloader and they should just do better, we can't call the violent person…

D: Or the pregnant teenager a sinner. What is causing teen pregnancy rates to go up?

J: We need to look at the broader approach, the more careful approach that will make meaningful change. Just shouting at the problem to change it won't make it different. And really, in a way, this is an argument for how determinism could actually lead to a more moral society, to a more compassionate society. Because we're stuck in a situation where we have to be more empathetic with people and their situations. We have to hear them out and know where they're coming from, because the only way we can make things better is to affect their behavior.

L: It doesn't add anything to say that somebody is evil, or an evildoer. This is the problem with some of that language from the religious world view, because when you call somebody evil, you don't have to go beyond that and explain it, they're just wicked. Whereas if you say, there are reasons why this person did this, and let's find out what those reasons are, that is a more humane and a practical way. Conservatives and religious types hate that because they think it's somehow explaining it away; "you're trying to say why this person did evil and therefore your justifying it". No, it's just simply pragmatic. If you want to stop this person from doing something in the future, calling them evil and wailing away at them with a rod, it's just noise. What does it add to the situation?

19:00 J: It's a really simplistic view; where if you acknowledge that people are not completely responsible for their actions, that there are other things responsible, therefore we remove all responsibility, and it's just going to be anarchy. Let's say the Texas Sharpshooter actually survived that massacre. Would the consistent determinist say the appropriate response is to just let him free. Go back into society. Because he's not responsible for his actions. Of course not. We would lock him up, but we would lock him up for different reasons. We would lock him up because he's a threat. If we keep him out on the street he might end up shooting, killing more people.

L: It's a more pragmatic approach as opposed to a retributive approach.


Stay tuned for the next transcript of Reasonable Doubts’ Episode 30, part two, where they bring up these points and much more.

All 4 episodes:

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 29 – Free Willy vs The Determinator: For this episode, the doubtcasters draw upon arguments from philosophy and psychology to make the case for determinism. But if a naturalistic outlook rules out freedom of the will is morality still possible?

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 30 – FWvD2: Judgment Day with Guest Tom Clark: Having argued for determinism, the doubtcasters now turn to its implications. Is moral responsibility possible in a deterministic universe? Could justice and self-knowledge still be achieved if free will is just an illusion?

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 34: Determinism… One Last Time: for this episode the doubtcasters, as promised, respond to our listeners emails (and elaborate and explain everything in more detail)

  • RD Extra: Jeremy on the Don Johnson Radio Show: This is incredibly painful to listen to. The Don Johnson Radio Show is a Christian apologetics show. You can safely skip this episode and not miss anything (except a headache and a brain embolism) and still understand what’s going on.

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 69: Determinator 4 – Rise of the Machines: Through billions of years of evolution, small molecular machines have acquired an amazing range of abilities including the capacity to think, feel and change. For this episode the doubtcasters once again return to the subject of determinism–answering questions from our listeners about Jeremy’s debate with Don Johnson. (They also explain things even better, adding onto all the rest of the information)

You can download the podcasts directly from their site at the links above or from iTunes. I highly recommend listening to all of the RD episodes.

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