Determinism and its Moral Implications
Q: There are powerful arguments that there is no such thing as free will. But people in ordinary life tend to presuppose there is free will when they talk about people deserving good or bad treatment, rewards and punishments. Some kinds of rewards and punishments encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior, so those make sense even if there is no free will. But what about punishments for crimes that are impossible to deter (like crimes of passion) or rewarding talents people can’t choose to have (like Olympic medals or Nobel prizes for science)? Do these practices still make sense if there is no free will? If not, how would it make sense to change our institutions?
Our entire mental state is a product of the chemical and physical properties of our neurons at any given time, and changes are produced directly by communications within the central nervous system and between the peripheral and central nervous system. To be astonished at this fact is to underestimate the design complexity and sheer number of neurons present in the body. To assert there is a magical force called free will is unfounded and illogical. Your mind is governed by the same laws which govern all other matter of which you have no control. Free will, however, remains a popular belief mainly because of its connections to religion and the perception of introspection. When we introspect it is easy to convince ourselves that there is something spiritual inside; our mind is spontaneous, indecisive, creative, and often irrational. These qualities are, for the most part, absent in robotics, which supports a widely held belief that they can’t be synthesized. Determinism simply says that the mind can be predicted like a chemical reaction can be predicted; there is nothing special about our minds which hold them above physical laws. The mind is a complicated construct, and its vast number of interactions with the environment makes it impossible to predict. The simplest computer able to accurately model exactly what will occur in the human mind would be as complex as the universe itself. Because one does not have control over the functions inside one’s own brain, and because the functions in the brain determine thought process, no one has control of their thoughts. Determinism raises a number of interesting moral questions.
Determinism is an unpopular theory mostly because its conclusion is misunderstood. Determinists can agree on a type of free will, which is simply defined on an individual acting or thinking in a healthy mental state and without influence. Given this situation an individual can be said to be thinking independently. The individual, according to determinists, has no control over his thought process, but he is, by popular definition, using his free will and judgment. Even if it is intangible, the concept is none the less incredibly important. The complete rejection of free will would have devastating consequences. Without free will humans lose responsibility, and without responsibility humans lose justice, which is the purest and most righteous human construct.
The theory of determinism uses logic not based on speculation, and as theories come, it is one of the most foolproof. The important question to me is how to go about recognizing the truth of determinism without allowing it to affect life negatively. No one can say for sure whether complete recognition of determinism would be a good or bad, but I believe there is an overwhelming argument that the rejection of the concept of free will would have disastrous consequences. It brings up the interesting question if it is better to know the truth about something if it has negative consequences. Though I believe strongly in determinism, I treat my actions like I have control of them. This attitude is important for my well-being for numerous reasons.
If one does not have control one’s thoughts or actions, are rewards and punishments necessary or even beneficial? The answer is yes. A healthy mind needs rewards and punishments in every situation in order to grow and improve. Reinforcements increase the likelihood of an action and punishments tend to decrease the likelihood of an action. Taking away these vital signals in the brain would cause disaster for the psyche. As a child you are constantly being conditioned. It’s the reason you have the gut reaction to think for a second before making a large purchase. It’s also the reason you work hard in school or at a job. Every time you were praised for a good grade or punished for a bad one, it ingrained in your mind what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ which in turn influences your motivation and attitude. The more reinforcement you receive the better conditioned you are to cope with your environment.
We don’t, however, learn simply from reinforcements. A lot of trial and error is saved because we can observe others and learn from them. Everyone tries to emulate those who they see being rewarded the most through a conscious or unconscious attraction to their reinforcement. These people are known to us as heroes. Inversely we also tend to try not to be like villains - those who fail to gain rewards or are excessively punished. This is why it is so important for us to reward athletes and scholars, even though they did not exhibit free will. As children, most people aspire to be firefighters, soldiers, astronauts, or police officers. More than other professions, these are people who are presented to kids as heroes. The sole purpose of rewarding heroes might have the trivial goal of rewarding their good deeds, however it also has the noble effect of inspiring others to emulate them. By taking away the benefit of prestige, excellence fails to stand out from mediocrity.
In psychology there is a subject called attribution. It is the study of what people attribute their experiences to. Some people blame themselves for things, and therefore are called internal attributers (as opposed to external attributers). If a person believes that their experiences can be manipulated they are called dynamic attributers (as opposed to static attributers). In order to truly believe that your experience is a result of your actions and that you can also change those actions, you must also believe in a form of free will. Without free will you could not change your actions, nor can you be held accountable for them. Psychology has shown that people who attribute their experiences internally and dynamically are less likely to suffer from depression than all other attribution types. In addition to depression many other types of psychological disorders such as mania are thought to be caused by static and external attribution.
Free will is a defining theme in the punishment/reform debate dealing with prisons. If free will isn’t real the American prison system should operate solely for the purpose of reform and the isolation of those determined to be a danger to society. Without free will, punishment is trivial except for its uses as a reformation tool and as a deterrent to those thinking of committing a crime. In the case of life in prison or the death sentence there is no possibility for rehabilitation. If a prisoner couldn’t be rehabilitated using a reasonable amount of resources, a determinist may accept the benefits of a life sentence or death penalty. Life sentences and death sentences are considered positive because they keep people who are dangerous isolated from those they could harm, while simultaneously serving as a warning to others to prevent them from committing acts which could prove them dangerous. It is hard, when comparing the life sentence with the death penalty, which is worse. Whichever causes the least harm to the individual in question would be the best option. I personally believe it is more humane to end a human’s life painlessly (and as soon after conviction as possible) than to keep them locked in a cell until they die slowly of disease.
It is likely that our ancestors were predisposed to the idea of free will and were favored because of it. The concept of free will gives you more motivation to hand down reinforcement, whether it is positive or negative, to those around you. It also helps you accept reinforcement from others. The concept of free will is a powerful force that keeps societies working correctly. Our entire legal and social system is based on the concept of free will. Everything in society is interlocking, so if we try to change society to fit the new idea that free will is irrelevant we will find inconsistencies and injustice until a solution is found in a stable society not based on the recognition of free will. Societal upheaval would be ridiculous because it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Judgment using free will is second nature to us as humans. When asked about Hitler, a Holocaust survivor, even a determinist one, wouldn’t say, ‘He did terrible things but it wasn’t his fault because he has no control over what happens in his brain.’ Determinist ideals can only go so far before they become eclipsed by human emotion; therefore it would be ill advised to try to change society to fit the new theory.
As you can see, the theory of determinism has many interesting theoretical implications, but very little actual applications. Its theoretical implications could be the most important, however. Combined with nihilism and agnosticism, it forms a rounded view of the universe which is grounded in science and reason without confusion from religion or human emotion. I believe that if philosophers can pursue this track of thought, devoid of spirituality and belief, philosophers can finally make progress in finding real answers. Determinism is still widely misunderstood. I was surprised how many of my classmates did not understand even the basic principles after spending time learning about it. The challenge philosophy faces is to present determinism, and other theories like it in a way which people can relate without losing the true meaning.