I enjoy most of the comments left on my Church of the Churchless blog posts, the exceptions being from people who are preachy, closed-minded, or dogmatic (worst of all, preachily closed-minded dogmatic).
So when I got a email message this morning from frequent commenter Appreciative Reader, who disagreed with my contention that not believing in free will implies not desiring retribution as a guiding principle in a justice system, leaving rehabilitation, deterrence, and protection of society as the core remaining principles, I told him that I'd convert his message to a comment, then respond to it in a blog post tonight.
Which I'm doing here. I'll share my thoughts after the comment.
From Appreciative Reader: Sant64 argues, or tries to argue, in his comment above: “Every time an atheist is asked on what basis human life has value, they sputter.”
That’s a completely fallacious argument. It assumes that it is only belief in God that keeps men moral; and that without belief in God people would go looting and raping and killing their way through life. Which is a completely circular argument, and entirely mistaken: because only some out-and-out psychopaths would do that; and a psychopath would probably do that even if he believed in God.
Now that’s a completely clichéd argument; and an entirely done-to-death rebuttal of that pathetic argument. And there’s absolutely no reason to hash this out with those who put forward this argument, at least not unless they’re sincere and might sincerely listen to reason. The only reason I mention this, and spell out this cliched fallacious argument and its rebuttal, is that it occurred to me that no-free-will folks quoted in this and other blog posts seem to be making that exact same error.
Here’s what I mean:
(And before proceeding further, let me get two things out of the way, within the space of these parentheses. First, I completely believe that there’s no free will, as I’ve said many times, in as much as that follows directly and trivially from a scientifically-grounded materialist paradigm. And two, none of this has anything, remotely, to do with compatibilism!)
It's been argued recently that understanding that there’s no free will lets us stop wanting retribution, and instead base our justice system on simply deterrence.
Now, it suddenly occurs to me, to say that is to make the exact same error that Sant64 is making! That’s begging the question, much like he’s done; that’s a circular argument, much like his is; and that’s a fallacious argument, like his is.
It's assumed --- completely baselessly --- that believing in free will necessarily sets someone to seek retributions for wrongs done (or perceived). And that simply isn’t true.
For instance, take Jains. They expressly believe in free will, and an immaterial soul as well. Yet, basis the karma theory that the Jains first put forth, most of them completely abjure retribution, in as much as they believe any retributive act will bounce back on them as karma. For that matter, not just Jains, but every belief system that subscribes to the karma theory, including RSSB, will essentially dissuade people from seeking retribution, on exactly those grounds.
Even leaving aside that sub-section of people (Jains, and Hindus, and RSSB-types, and Sikhs, and Buddhists --- the Indic lot, broadly speaking, basically) who specifically believe in karma, think about it: After all, why should only believing someone has free will want me to seek retribution? Let’s say, hypothetically, that I believe in free will. Let’s say I believe that someone has wronged me, because they have free will. Thing is, whether I seek retribution, or not, is entirely a function of how *I* am constituted. I may well, basis my own value system, not want retribution, even despite believing someone who’s wronged me has free will.
Likewise, even if I did not believe in free will: nevertheless, if retribution is how I’m wired, then that’s what I might go for, even against a highly evolved AI-powered self-driving car that may have harmed my near and dear ones. (Heh, like how in Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’, the detective is completely antagonistic to all robots, at a personal level, basis his own specific, personal experience once in the past with robots, despite knowing they’re simply programmed automatons simply following the program that’s been fed to them.)
In fact, I’d say that only the subsection of free-will-believers that believe in the Abrahamic eye-for-an-eye creed (specifically those who believe in the Old Testament, and those who believe in the Koran --- and not who believe only in the gentler teachings of the New Testament don't subscribe to the OT nonsense, and certainly not others who don’t subscribe to the Abrahamic faiths at all) will insist on retributive justice because of believing people have free will. And in their case, it’s not so much their belief in free will per se, as their belief in the vile (im)morality taught in the Old Testament Bible and in the Koran, that is to blame.
So then, what I’m saying is, the idea that realizing that there’s no free will is an argument for doing away with retributive justice, is fallacious, is what I’m saying. The one has nothing to do with the other. You can believe in free will, and still not want retributive justice. And you can believe people don’t have free will, and yet vote for keeping retributive justice. The free will part is completely redundant --- or, at best, an incidental tangent --- to deciding whether we want our justice system to be retributive.
(And, to repeat, I say this while believing, myself, that there’s no free will. I’m only pointing out this error in reasoning, as it appears to me, is all.)
My response: I'm not going to weigh in on the issue of whether atheists have a basis for finding value in human life, because I agree with Appreciative Reader that this is an absurd question.
I'll simply observe that most of my friends are atheists. They find value in life via many different ways. These are the same ways religious people find value in life: being of service to others; belonging to a community of people with shared beliefs; feeling part of a whole that is much bigger than oneself; embracing love and friendship.
Now, on to the question of no free will and its relation to retributive justice.
This question is a large part of every book I've read about the illusion of free will, including Robert Sapolsky's Determined. For if we accept that someone didn't have the ability to act this way rather than that way, and the way they acted was illegal or against a societal norm, then punishing them for an act that stemmed from circumstances, not free will, is as illogical as blaming a lion for killing a gazelle, or cursing a tornado for destroying houses.
I believe Appreciative Reader is confusing "is" with "ought." I'm quite sure that neither Sapolsky nor any other author arguing that free will is an illusion has said, as Appreciative Reader did above, "It's assumed --- completely baselessly --- that believing in free will necessarily sets someone to seek retributions for wrongs done (or perceived)."
That word, necessarily, is off base here, as it almost always is in reference to the brain, mind, and human behavior.
Sapolsky, for example, goes to great lengths in his 400 page book to explain how amazingly complex we humans are, how what causes an action or thought or emotion or anything else is determined by what happened a few seconds to a few minutes before, and also a few hours to a few days before, and also a few months to a few years before... continuing on to cultural and genetic influences that stem from hundreds of years to thousands of years before.
So while I and others who don't believe in retributive justice may also not believe in free will, it's very difficult to prove that the two beliefs are causally related in a necessarily sense. For it's very rare, perhaps nonexistent, for some human trait to be the result of a single cause. Even genes, as Sapolsky points out, create effects through interactions with other genes, and are activated by the environment though epigenetic influences.
What I see Appreciative Reader failing to recognize is that a no-free-will author like Sapolsky or Sam Harris isn't saying that giving up a belief in free will will make someone give up a desire for retributive justice. That's an "is" lacking evidence. Instead, what they're saying is that giving up a belief in free will "ought" to lead someone to consider the wisdom of punishing someone for an act that is either illegal or against societal norms. Note the "should's" in this quotation from Sapolsky's book, which are synonymous with "ought."
Suppose trials were abolished, replaced by mere investigation to figure out who actually carried out some act, and with what state of mind. No prisons, no prisoners. No responsibility in a moral sense, no blame or retribution.
This scenario invariably provokes the response "So you're saying that violent criminals should just run wild with no responsibility for their actions." No. A car that, through no fault of its own, has brakes that don't work should be kept off the road. A person with active COVID-19, through no fault of their own, should be blocked from attending a crowded concert. A leopard that would shred you, through no fault of its own should be barred from your home.
Again, there are always many, many, many causes acting upon us. Human behavior and human beliefs are inherently unpredictable. This is guaranteed by our 100 billion or so neurons, each of which has thousands of connections to other neurons. The most complex structure in the known universe is the human brain. That's why it doesn't make sense to say this necessarily causes that.
The situation is akin to thermodynamics. A molecule of air is inherently unpredictable. But measure a roomful of air and we can say what the temperature is. Likewise, Appreciative Reader makes good points when he says that some belief systems, like Jainism, accept free will but not retribution. Here he makes the excellent point that "whether I seek retribution, or not, is entirely a function of how *I* am constituted. I may well, basis my own value system, not want retribution, even despite believing someone who’s wronged me has free will."
This is just the point I made above. Individual personal behavior is very different from a collective abstract belief system. This is why it makes little sense for Sant64 to speak about atheists in general, just as it makes little sense for Appreciative Reader to speak about those who deny free will in general. For while we can make generalizations about large groups of people, those generalizations necessarily obscure the complexity of how individuals in those groups actually believe and behave.
I'll end by observing that while I agree with most of what Appreciative Reader said in his message to me that became a comment, I think he is off base with this contention: "So then, what I’m saying is, the idea that realizing that there’s no free will is an argument for doing away with retributive justice, is fallacious, is what I’m saying."
No, that argument is strong, because those who make it are speaking in "ought" terms of how a society should be, not in "is" terms of how individuals or groups within that society actually behave. Over and over, in his book Sapolsky speaks of how difficult it is for even him to give up the desire to punish people who do despicable crimes that Sapolsky finds abhorrent.
Virtually all of us have a long history of either explicitly or implicitly accepting free will. Changing to accept that free will is an illusion doesn't alter the memories, experiences, and neuronal connections of many years and decades. Altering our view of the world is a messy process. It proceeds in fits and starts, with steps forward and backward and sideways.
And while Appreciative Reader doesn't find this view of mine that I shared in a reply to his email message to be relevant to what he said in the message, my mind finds it relevant, though admittedly rather tangential.