Thursday, December 28, 2006

Free Will RIP - The Economist on preemptive punishment

It has begun.

"Free Will" was a convenient fiction; the transmutation of the Soul into something that could live, for a time, with science. It was always doomed to folow the Soul into the exile of theology, the only question was when. I said my farewell in the early 1990s -- neurosciences and genomics had shrunk Free Will into a tiny remnant of its old self. In retrospect it didn't really matter, whether by the happenstance of circumstance or the tyranny of genetics we are the products of chance. The Calvinists covered this long ago.

It takes a while for something like this to sink in though. This editorial in The Economist tells us that the news has traveled from the heralds of science fiction to the realm of politics...
Liberalism and neurology | Free to choose? | Economist.com

IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different...

...At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.
Yes. The Economist, slow as it is, is a bit quicker than the mainstream media. The others will follow over the next two to three years, with conversations in movies and the talk shows.

How will the realization dawn? Will there be a ferocious counter-attack, or will we discover that the edifice of resistance has been crumbling in the West? Hard to say, but I don't think this is much of an issue for most faiths. All functions of Free Will can readily revert to the Soul, and many Christian faiths have dropped Hell -- removing the most troublesome issue with a supposedly benevolent deity. Calvinists, of course, have never had a problem with those born to be damned. The going is even easier for Hindus and Buddhists, but I'd wonder about Islam...

The death of a Free Will is, however, a problem for "true (19th) liberalism" (i.e. The Economist) and, if they exist, compassionate Libertarians. The long feared embrace of 20th century Liberalism looms for both.

It will also be a significant challenge to modern American evangelical Protestantism, which has promoted the separation of Free Will from Soul and combines a "just" (but not merciful) God with eternal damnation. Something will have to give there.

Kudos to The Economist for launching the conversation, and for connecting it to the oncoming train of preemptive punishment.

Update 1/19/07: See also (all connected to The Economist, interestingly)

2 comments:

pidgas said...

I am reminded of a memorable moment from my high school education. During a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), the discussion turned to the existence of God. One student was in the midst of teenage angst regarding the existence of God. The typical arguments were offered, recycled, etc. Save one...

A particularly clever student framed his argument for the existence of God in terms of free will. As I recall, his argument was as follows:

Our bodies are fundamentally chemical. There is no "free will" in any known chemical reaction. Therefore, free will exists if and only if God exists.

John said...

Great comment, though I don't think one would need God to enable Free Will as much as the supernatural. A singular omnipotent deity is one instance of the supernatural. For this particlar purpose demons, Faeries or Zeus would work as well.

Another way to rescue the a transformed vision of Free Will is to think of it as 'the choices we make as an emergent result of history and context'. That's a Free Will for the 3rd millenium, with different implications for reward and punishment, forgiveness and vengeance, salvation and damnation.