I have difficulty wrapping my head around free will. It’s either me or free will, and I tend to think it’s the latter.
Most people, on the other hand, find it hard to imagine that we don’t have free will. One of the big advantages of free will is that it lets us blame people for stuff they do, because they could always have chosen not to do that stuff. And if we can’t blame people for stuff, how can we have a criminal justice system?
Radiolab recently ran a podcast called “Blame“. The main story involved an epileptic who had surgery to control his disease; a side effect of the surgery was that it made him compulsively download child pornography. He is arrested and brought to trial. Is he guilty of a crime? Should we blame him for his actions?
As neuroscience marches on and we gain a clearer understanding of how the brain works, there will be more and more situations like this, and it will be harder and harder to say that someone is to blame for his misdeeds. The Radiolab hosts, Jad and Robert, seemed to find this a vexing moral and legal dilemma. But again, I don’t get it. If we got rid of blame, we could still have a criminal justice system. You could still send someone to prison, if only to send a message to other people–other brains–that the person’s behavior is not something that society tolerates.
Blaming people, of course, is deeply satisfying, so I can’t imagine it will ever disappear, any more than religion will. Still, I can dream.
The latest Radiolab podcast has an odd story called “Rocked by Doubt.” It’s about a geologist who is having a crisis of faith. Here’s the description:
In 2010, Lulu Miller was biking across the country, taking some time to clear her head for a new phase of life. And somewhere in Nevada, she ran into a guy named Jeff Viniard who was on a similar journey. They shared the road for two weeks, pedaling hundreds of miles together until Utah. Along the way, they got to be pretty close, and Jeff, a geologist by training, rekindled Lulu’s long-lost love of rocks. But it turns out the ground beneath his own feet was shifting that summer… and he found himself desperately searching for some rock-solid evidence to help him figure out his future.
Jeff, it turns out, was engaged to a nice religious girl, but then one night he’d had a “deconversion” experience–a strong feeling behind his sternum that there was no God. His girlfriend doesn’t want to marry someone who doesn’t share her religious beliefs, so he goes on a long bike trip looking for a sign telling him what to believe. He doesn’t find it on the trip. But then, a year later, he gets another feeling behind his sternum that God exists, so he and his girlfriend get married.
And that’s the story. Sorry for the spoilers.
Jeff in Utah
The story is told in the usual entertaining Radiolab way, and Jeff seems like a very likeable, earnest young man. But geez. Is the most important decision in his life based on nothing but feelings behind his sternum and signs from above? (A ceiling tile falling onto Jeff’s sandwich at an Arby’s also figures in the story.) Jeff is an educated guy, but nowhere in the story do we hear of him reading any philosophy or theology or history or neuroscience. He never seems to think about what he has experienced and how it could be explained.
As someone who has never had a religious feeling of any sort behind his sternum, I find this depressing. Because of course all the logic and science and reasoned argument in the world are not going to be able to overcome that feeling. People are going to believe what they are going to believe. Unless maybe a falling ceiling tile intervenes.