Free will, vengence, and the decline of Canada

In a nutshell: Free will does not exist. All human behaviour is a consequence of cause and effect. Bad behaviour is caused. It is, therefore, unjust for a society to punish transgressors as an act of vengence. Society would do better by taking corrective action to modify behaviour. Freedom is real and it is a natural right so society should tread lightly upon the freedom of an individual. If an individual poses a substantial threat and corrective action is not possible then incarceration is justifiable. Otherwise incarceration is only justified in so much as it is required to correct behaviour.
Aristotle thought that the mind resides within the heart. Of course this must be true.

A young man knows that viewing a pretty woman brings a change to his state of mind that is physically felt as a great thumping in his chest. (An old man may have forgotten.)

The advance of scientific inquiry has given us a different picture. Now people might think of the mind residing within the brain. Those heart palpatations are caused by messages transmitted from the brain by agency of hormones and nerves. Once cause and effect have been identified we realize that Aristotle was wrong.

There is a lot more evidence linking mind to brain. We have been able to directly measure how electric signals from our brain are related to what we will to do and think. Recently technologists have taken this so much further, achieving thought-control of a machine.

Electric signals from the pilots brain were measured and then fed into an appropriately programmed computer which sent radio waves to a toy aircraft. With a little practice the pilot could control a flying aircraft just by thinking.

Only fakes, like Uri Geller, claim that they have some unphysical, psychic power with which they can bend spoons.

The word "mind" has so many meanings that it could be considered to be more abused than used. For thousands of years "the mind" was the subject of too much unscientific study by Aristotle and his imitators. Mountains of weird and wonderful stuff are attributed to "mind". Discarding notions that have no basis in measurement can be useful because such notions cloud our understanding of cause and effect.

Galileo ditched Aristotles ideas about the mechanics of motion. That laid the groundwork for Newtonian mechanics and ushered in the modern era. Of course there are always those old reactionaries who hold tight to dumb, old ideas. The Catholic Church sentenced Galileo to prison for the rest of his life (9 years) and would have burned him at the stake had he not retracted some of his marvelous work.

"Peace of mind" is only one of many things that are attributed to the mind. Sam Harris has written a book about another of them, free will. Sam Harris says there is no such thing. I have not (yet) read his book but I did watch a video of him lecturing on the matter. Whatever your opinion of his exposition (I think it's pretty darn good), you have to accept that Harris is pushing an idea that has a good pedigree.

"Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills)"
Albert Einstein

Belief in free will has consequences. If you get stung by a jellyfish you do not say that the jellyfish is at fault anymore than to blame the jellyfish for being a jellyfish or a compass for pointing North. Rather than calling the police to arrest the jellyfish, I would curse for getting in its way. What would you do? Would you waste your time getting vengence?

An axe murderer has no more free will than a jellyfish. When an axe murder is hauled into court and found to have committed the crime then corrective action is required, not revenge. The axe murderer might have a brain tumor. Remove the tumor. Perhaps the axe murderer became what he was because of a bad upbringing. Perhaps some gnawing irritant, a Council by-law or a drug addiction, had altered the state of his brain for the worse. Perhaps he was a soldier and suffered some battlefield trauma. It might be a matter of bad genetics.

Whatever caused the pathology, the correct response for society is to do whatever can be done to solve the problem. Good fellowship? Counselling? Psycho-therapy? Gene therapy? Mind-altering drugs, LSD? Perhaps, in some instances, punishment might change behaviour in some beneficial way --- and often it's counterproductive. If no solution can be found then incarceration might be required to protect the public.

Always, we must make every effort to figure out what caused the pathology. This is seldom done in any serious way. We are diverted by a base desire for vengence. We do not learn.

Vengeful punishment is not warranted because the axe murderer has no more free will than a jellyfish. Yet the Canadian and American legal systems are increasingly motived by vengence. Victim impact statements and noisy demands for ever more punishment and ever less tolerance have become the tenor of our times.

Clamour for vengence has always cut both ways. The law becomes both more vengeful and more frequently a victim of vengence. Belief in free will is harmful.

In Canada, no man has done more to exacerbate this state of affairs than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He shifted the law of the land towards that primitive instinct called revenge. He says that he is making Canadians more secure. Obviously it must be so because we keep having to pay more and more for his RCMP security detail.

I do not blame Stephen Harper for exploiting the delusions of citizens. That is what politicans do. Harper is a poltician in the same way that a jellyfish is a jellyfish.

Take corrective action. It is time for all of us to put delusions in their proper place.


Cause and effect

The idea that application of a force causes a mass to change velocity is at the heart of Newtonian mechanics. Here, the force is the cause and the changed velocity is the effect. When coupled with Newton's formulation for gravitational force, the previously mysterious movements of planets became simple to understand. The result was profound. Heavenly bodies moved according to the same rules that apply on Earth.

Scientific enquiry has never revealed an instance in which causality did not apply. There were times when the complexity and subtlety of nature caused us to question causality. Causality has always prevailed.


When Einstein asks "What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing?" We might flippantly answer "addiction to nicotine". Should society blame the victim for being addicted? Doesn't society benefit from the taxes and economic activity of Tobacco Companies? Is it a good idea to create a similar Marijuana Industry?

Einstein's questions illustrate an inescapable difficulty with free will, free will requires an infinite recursion. (The theory that God created the Heavens and Earth has the same difficulty.) Perhaps a religious person might imagine that each of us is host to a soul which creates our wills. In that case it would be the soul that is free. Our brains and bodies would be slaves to these internal tyrants. (Would the soul have his own internal demon?) Does the soul then become the villain when someone like Justin Bourke runs amook? Should we take vengence on the physical man or his unphysical soul?