What we miss in the free will debate

I’ve written about free will a few times on this blog, and anyone who’s familiar with these writings will know I’m very critical of most conceptions of free will (Link 1, Link 2). And yet I also feel like we often are missing something really important when engaging in this debate. Let’s not forget what it is most people are arguing about when debating the existence of free will…responsibility. And yet much of the debate surrounding free will is guilty of one of two things. Either focusing on the concept and whether it exists (neglecting the responsibility aspect) or focusing on whether we’re justified in holding people in general (or someone in particular) responsible for their actions.

The first scenario does seem like a case of missing the forest for the trees, forgetting the relevance of the conversation to practical matters. But I think the second scenario actually is case of the same thing. What exactly is the purpose of holding someone responsible for their actions? Is it simply a label we bestow on them, or is there some larger purpose in the way we as human beings interact that this notion of responsibility plays an important role? Well, the normal response is that responsibility is integral to punishment and reward, expectations, our justice system. If someone is “responsible” for an action we treat them differently. A small child, an insane adult, and a hurricane are all normally not held responsible for their actions, and more importantly, for the consequences and affects of their actions on other people.

What does the debate on free will actually accomplish in a practical sense? Does it tell us anything new about human cognition? About the psychological and neurological factors that cause human behavior? Does it help us form systems that can lead to a more desirable society? Whether you want to label something free will or not is, ultimately, not what I’m interested in. If we want to draw a line and call everything beyond that line of neurological functioning “free will”, I’m fine with that. Whether someone in prison for armed robbery was truly “free” in their action is not what I’m concerned with. What I am concerned with is what are the causal factors that led to this person committing that act and what are steps we can take to help that person realize the error of their ways so to speak. Can we change the flow of the interactive pattern that is “them” to follow a more positive route? What are the kinds of systems we as a society can set up to direct the development of individuals towards positive goals. Etc… If words and education aren’t enough, what are the ethics of more invasive measures?

Part of what I am arguing for is an entire reconception of what the purpose of the justice system is and other areas where responsibility is important. Free or not there are reasons for every action we engage in and every decision we make. Those reasons may be known to us or not. If known, we might be in error about their true nature. Regardless, the action occurred. Is it the kind of action that person ought to have been engaged in (yes…determining what we ought to engage in is a whole separate issue)? What are the reasons that kept them from engaging in what they ought to have been engaging in? Was the affect of their action something that infringed on the well being of other beings, and to what degree (if any) do we need to step in to protect this from happening to others?

This is a call for us not to concern ourselves with the debate over free will, but about how our knowledge of causation and intention should inform how we interact with each other. Free will is a red herring in this argument in so far as it matters whether free will in some metaphysical sense exists. Though obviously a scientific pursuit of answering the question is likely to inform more accurate conceptions of human behavior, and in that sense, it’s a worthy pursuit. I’d like to think that beyond societal level issues affected by this sort of pursuit, each and every one of us could gain some measure of empathy in our day to day interactions with others when we have a more accurate conception of the reasons behind their actions, and the limitations and constraints we are all bound by. On this new conception, free will isn’t about punishment, or even responsibility, it’s about understanding, and using understanding as a means to help us all actualize and become the types of people we wish to be.


edit: this is something I wrote in the comments below, but I realize it should have been included in the original post. Rather than rework the post to include it, I thought I’d just make it an addendum.

what is the purpose/goal of designating responsibility? Is to to punish people for certain types of actions and reward/praise people for other types? But what then is the purpose of assigning blame and praise? Again, there has to be something more here than a label…what is the function? If assigning praise to certain types of actions has something to do with encouraging more of those types of actions in that person and in others (by instilling a feeling of self worth, creating desirable conditions for replication, etc..), then the notion of responsibility isn’t really necessary for it. We can cut out the middle man. And if assigning blame is important in lowering the repetition of certain types of behaviors, responsibility is again not necessary. What’s necessary is working towards creating conditions, in the individual and the environment, that will allow them/cause them to behave in different ways. Yes, when applied to the justice system, part of this conversation revolves around protecting those affected by the behavior of the individual. But whether that individual is in jail, or an asylum, or under probation during that time is not in theory what I find to be most important, as long as during that time there is a system working towards creating the conditions I talked about. Otherwise we’re either being ineffective at discouraging these types of behaviors in society, or we’re focused on punishment/vengeance, and don’t care.

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