Over on his Waking Up app, Sam Harris has posted a series of podcasts regarding the absence of free will -- a subject Harris has frequently written and talked about.
The titles provide a feel for Harris' subject matter.
(1) Cause & Effect
(2) Thoughts Without a Thinker
(3) Choice, Reason, & Knowledge
(4) Love & Hate
(5) Crime & Punishment
(6) The Paradox of Responsibility
(7) Why Do Anything?
Today I listened to the talk about responsibility. Harris made a lot of sense, as he always does.
When we think about someone acting responsibly, such as by telling the truth, there's several assumptions underlying the usual way people look upon the meaning of "responsible."
Most obviously, if I am responsible for an action, this means that I was the one who carried out the action. This is akin to a parent saying to her three children, upon noticing that a dish has been broken, "Who is responsible for this?"
But the meaning Harris talked about involves whether someone could have done an action differently. An example Harris used was a golfer missing a short putt.
Given my putting skills, it wouldn't be a surprise if I missed a three foot putt. However, Harris said that if the top-ranked golfer in the world misses a short putt, questions are going to be asked: What went wrong? How did this happen? Could the golfer have done better?
The first two questions fall within how Harris views free will. Namely, that it doesn't exist. Causes and effects make the world go 'round, including making skilled golfers miss short putts occasionally. Maybe something distracted the golfer, so his mind was elsewhere.
That would answer the "how" question. We're left with the question of whether the golfer could have done better, if he could have made the putt.
Not if the state of every atom in the universe, including the golfer's brain, was in the same state as when he missed the putt. Exactly the same causes are going to produce exactly the same effects. There's no immaterial free will genie inside our head who can conjure up a different outcome from precisely the same inputs.
So if somehow the golfer had been able to return in time to the moment he was about to attempt the putt, the same thing would have happened. He would miss the putt.
Where does this leave the second notion about responsibility, that the golfer could have made the putt if he had just tried harder? That would be true if the golfer's brain was different from the state it was in when he failed to sink the putt.
If the golfer had been more focused, more attentive, more relaxed, more something, then the outcome of the putt could have been different. But this assumes that time travel is possible, that the golfer could change the past to fashion a more satisfying result -- a successful three-foot putt.
But this isn't possible, so it is senseless for someone to say, "That top-ranked golfer is responsible for missing a short putt." Sure, as noted above the golfer moved the club that struck the ball that failed to go into the hole, so in that sense he was responsible.
However, in no way was the golfer at fault for not doing something that could have been done differently, because there always is only one thing going on in reality: whatever is going on.
Harris notes that since free will doesn't exist, this should make us look upon criminals in a more enlightened fashion. Just as the golfer did the only thing he was able to do, so is a murderer; so is a thief; so is any other sort of law breaker.
Unfortunately, the legal system is founded on a mistaken belief that a person could have acted differently, if they had chosen to do so. This makes punishment a primary motivation since it is assumed that a criminal deserves to be held responsible for their actions. A more enlightened view would see that prevention of future crimes is a better goal, which might require keeping a person in prison during a hoped-for rehabilitation period.
Of course, that isn't guaranteed. But it is worth a try, since punishment makes no sense if free will is an illusion.
It would be akin to punishing a baby for pooping in its diaper. That's what babies do. They have no choice. Likewise, punishing a grizzly bear for attacking a human makes no sense, since the bear had no choice.
I find this view of responsibility to be highly appealing.
All of us can think of things in our past that we wish we had done differently. That sense of regret is healthy if it motivates us to perform wiser actions in the future. But it is unhealthy if we revisit past mistakes, believing that it would've been possible for us to have behaved more responsibly.
No, that wasn't possible. Missed putts can't be redone, nor can anything else.
We can learn from our mistakes. We can't undo them. Only in our imagination is it possible to have done this rather than that. In the real world, there is only what actually happened, not what might have happened in an alternative reality.
So forgive yourself for what you regret. There's no real need to do this, given that you could only have done what you actually did. However, it might make you feel better to say to yourself what a good friend would say to you: "Don't be hard on yourself; it wasn't your responsibility."