Free will and punishment

On several occasions we have published posts about criminal law on this blog. In general our position is that only acts which cause harm on non-consenting others should be prohibited, and should be punishable by law. What constitutes harm is subject to debate. However in this post we want to discuss another topic: whether the existence or non-existence of a free will is relevant in matters of criminal law.

Some authors have argued that if humans do not posses a free will, they cannot be held responsible for their actions and therefore society has no right to punish them. Some people have used the reverse reasoning to defend the existence of a free will: if people have to be held accountable for their actions, they should posses a free will; therefore a free will must exist. This latter argument is a fallacy, the so-called moralistic fallacy or the idea that the existence of A can be established from the moral desirability of A.

The most important argument raised against the existence of a free will is determinism. This is the ontological position that the order of events in the universe has been predetermined and consequently cannot be changed. There are many different types of determinism, but currently the most important one is the determinism of Laplace or Laplacian determinism. French scientist Laplace deduced from Newtonian physics that the universe should be deterministic at the end of the 18th century.

Central to Newtonian physics is the concept of force: a particle on which no forces are acting will either remain in rest or move in a straight line at a constant speed. In order to accelerate or decelerate, or to change its direction, you need to apply a force on it. The change in velocity and direction of the particle, is dependent on the magnitude and direction of the force acting on the particle. Laplace made the conclusion that if you would know the location of all particles in the universe and all forces acting on them at a given moment in time, and you know all laws of physics, you would be able to calculate the configuration of particles and forces at any other point in time.

Laplace’s determinism is based on the idea of a causal chain: cause and effect. Though Newtonian physics has been replaced by relativistic physics, determinism was still strongly established. After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less deterministic than Newton’s theory. Even though many, if not most, physicists believe that quantum mechanics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, there are still many scientists who support deterministic versions of quantum theory.

Even if we, for the sake of the argument, assume that quantum mechanics is probabilistic and that random quantum fluctuations are capable of steering the human mind; the existence of a free will is still not proven. After all, we have no influence on the occurrence of these fluctuations and consequently we do not control their effects. Suppose that the human brain depends on a single quantum event: the spin of a particular hydrogen atom somewhere in our nerve system. The spin is either “up” or “down”, each with equal probability. If the spin is “up” the brain will choose action A, but if the spin is “down” it will choose action B. Since the spin of a hydrogen cannot be controlled by the brain, we cannot strictly speak of “a free will”.

We can conclude that a strong case can be made against the existence of a free will. So the question is now whether the non-existence of a free will matters in case of moral issues such as crime and punishment. I will argue it does not matter at all. Let we consider the following analogy: a game of pool. If a ball lies on a pool table, while no forces are acting on it, the ball will remain where it is. If a player pushes another ball with his cue stick. the second ball will follow a trajectory which is determined by the initial force (from the player) and friction. However when the second ball collides with the first one, the trajectory of the ball will be changed and also the first ball will move. But if the payer had not pushed the second ball, the first ball would have remained in rest.

Determinism is often misunderstood as that outcomes cannot be changed. But in fact, at least in Laplacian determinism, determinism only says that if you know the input, you also know the output: if you know that x+y=z, once you know both x and y, you automatically know z. However if don’t x, y or both, you cannot know z.

We can model the human mind as a function f of y and y: f(x,y)=z. Here are x and y what we can call external variables, and z is the internal state of the human mind. Now for every pair of x and y, there is one value of z; which makes this model a deterministic model of the mind. By changing x and/or y, we can control the state of the mind.

Even we do not have a free will, we can still suffer. Regardless of the (non)-existence of a free will, the reduction or elimination of harm is a good thing to do. By prohibiting harmful action and imposing penalties on such actions, we might reduce harm. How can this work?

First, punishment might act as a deterrent: the imposing of penalties might act as external variable which changes the state of mind z such that the person affected will not commit a crime. Even if the deterrence function of penalties only reduces the amount of crimes committed, it would be a good result. Secondly, punishment might change the way the criminal thinks: either the experience of punishment is such an unpleasant one, that he does not want to experience it again, or as result of punishment the criminal’s “mind function” is transformed from f(x,y) into g(x,y). Also in this case it would a good result, if crime is only reduced by some amount. Thirdly, punishment might remove a criminal from society (either by imprisonment or death), so he cannot commit any further crime.

None of these functions of punishment do require the existence of a free will. In fact the contrary is true, to some degree. In order for these function to work there should be some determinacy in the relation between punishments and criminal behaviour.

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “Free will and punishment”

  1. Good subject to write about. Especially now. Thanks for posting it.

    “The most important argument raised against the existence of a free will is determinism. This is the ontological position that the order of events in the universe has been predetermined and consequently cannot be changed.” The most distasteful thing I’ve ever heard during my life is the predestination belief of Presbyterians to eliminate free will; that no matter what we do, some of us are going to hell, and others are going to heaven, already decided in advance by God. It is so distasteful to me that it actually causes me to feel anger. I’d not known of the term “determinism” before reading your article. I learn something new every day. “The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will.” Necessitarianism: “Someone who does not believe the doctrine of free will.” Indeterminism: “The doctrine that not all events are wholly determined by antecedent causes.”

    It is true that at this time in our history there are many things in life we have no control over. Natural disasters and weather among them. We don’t yet have the ability to stop an asteroid from hitting our planet, including one large enough to obliterate us. Make no mistake about it. One that big will probably hit us in the future. Countdown. We have a limited amount of time to find a way to stop it, or to find a way to survive elsewhere if our planet is destroyed or temporarily caused to be uninhabitable. As is, we are just a Type 0 Civilization. We have yet to become a Type 1 Civilization as defined by Michio Kaku. We probably need to become Type 1 to stop an asteroid, and at least Type 2 to be able to survive the destruction of our planet by having colonies on other inhabitable planets, or self-sustaining colonies out in space.

    I believe we have free will, but I’d now describe it as a kind of limited free will. There are things in life we have total control over, things in life other people have control over to control our lives, and things no one has control over. So “control” is the key word, relating to authority and power and strength. Free will is at least in part about control, who has the power, who has the authority. In crime and punishment, if a person exercises free will to do what others don’t approve of, then those who have the strength or other means to maintain control can inflict whatever punishment they want to.

    I was impressed by the 2000 movie Cast Away staring Tom Hanks. A man stranded on an island. Alone. No other people. No one else has control over his life there. No one to interfere with what he wants to do. But what can he do without other people? When an individual’s free will clashes with the free will of others, it then becomes limited free will. I believe most free will is limited by other people, and those things we have no control over. Chuck Noland, the main character in the movie, says: “I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over NOTHING!” A realization after an earlier accomplishment making it possible for him to survive there: “Aha. Look what I’ve created. I have made FIRE!” Those words realized, “power over nothing” hit me like being hit by an asteroid. Ego crusher. And to some extent I could identify with it. How much control have I really had over my life? Is free will just an illusion? I’ve always been free to make choices; go left, or go right. Even so, the fact is, the reality is, all paths lead to one grave location. Life is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Every second . . . the ground gets closer. Free will to do what you want or are able to do on the way down. As for crime and punishment, those who interfere with the free will of others might find the ground arriving sooner than later. Executions. War. We are all going to hit the ground sooner or later, so the issue appears to be who controls what happens to themselves and to others during the fall.

    1. Jim I disagree with you. You say

      It is true that at this time in our history there are many things in life we have no control over. Natural disasters and weather among them.

      Is there a time in man’s history when he had control of natural disasters?
      I don’t think we have free will. You don’t chose to act freely. You are part of nature and obey the immutable laws of nature, the most likely thing here is that since the cause of a particular action may be in the distant past or is so small, man thinks he acts freely. Now I recognize that in any situation, a person can act in two ways, but I go further and say that man acts as he does depending on temperament and the motive. There is no freedom.

      1. Makagutu:

        “Is there a time in man’s history when he had control of natural disasters?” You misinterpreted my words and focused backwards in history as my meaning was forwards in history to include Type 0 to Type 3 Civilizations as defined and described by Kaku. Weather control and handling other natural disasters is included in Type 1. My position is clear. At this time in history we have no control over the weather, but we could in the future. At no point did I imply there was ever any weather control in the past. That’s just one example of natural disasters. It relates to how much control we have over our environment. You should read my words more carefully.

        You say “You don’t chose to act freely.” Quite right. But again a reverse interpretation. I believe I am free to act, and to act the way I want to, such as to go left or right. That simple example is the extent of it. Other people can force me to go left or right, but it is still my choice to cooperate or not. Nature can cause me to shelter in place or try to outrun a tornado storm, but it is still my choice, which could end or save my life.

        There is an error in my posting where I wrote “I believe we have free will, but I’d now describe it as a kind of limited free will.” I meant to write “believed” instead of “believe” for past meaning. I believe in “limited free will” because of life experiences I’ve had that indicate to me total free will is not possible. You have different life experiences, which may rightfully result in you reaching a totally different conclusion. We could both be right, each in our own way. We could both be wrong. There is a vast gulf between believing something is true and knowing it is true. I’m usually careful to make clear what I believe compared to what I know; neither of which may be applied to everyone, because everyone has different experiences and different sources of knowledge. I’m not going to say you are wrong in what you believe. You have the freedom to believe whatever you want. You cannot deny your own belief. You don’t believe there is freedom, but that’s your choice, and you are free to make that choice, which makes my point.

        Freedom has different meanings for different people. I’ve been concerned I might be confusing Free Will with Freedom of Choice as perceived by Americans like me here in the US, in my posting here. So I added a couple of paragraphs to my editorial article about it at my Timeglass Journal WordPress blog, and at my Virtual Reality Faith WordPress blog, which I previously did not post here in my original comment but separately. These next two paragraphs…

        Excerpted from Wikipedia: “Although there are various impediments to exercising one’s choices, free will does not imply freedom of action. Freedom of choice (freedom to select one’s will) is logically separate from freedom to implement that choice (freedom to enact one’s will), although not all writers observe this distinction. Nonetheless, some philosophers have defined free will as the absence of various impediments. Some modern compatibilists, such as Harry Frankfurt and Daniel Dennett, argue free will is simply freely choosing to do what constraints allow one to do. In other words, a coerced agent’s choices are still free because such coercion coincides with the agent’s personal intentions and desires.”

        Do you have “free will” in your life? If not, then take advantage of today’s special to get it for only $9.95. What I mean by that is “free will” usually isn’t free at all, that it usually comes with a price, especially when interacting with the “free will” of other people. Some have more “free will” than others. In our evil greedy vulture culture, money and power has a lot of say regarding how much “free will” you have.

        What I believe “free will” is might not be what you believe “free will” is, and might not be as defined by others who claim to be the experts on the subject. I’m free to believe what I want to believe, as are you and everyone else. My basic belief applied to most issues is “Each to their own way.”

        As is, nature can destroy anything man writes in stone. In nature’s environment, we have power over nothing, as realized by the main character in the Cast Away movie. We only have power in our own human environment, and even that may be an illusion.

        Here in the US we have the illusion of Freedom of Choice by being allowed to vote for who will be in our representative government. I no longer believe in a representative government, because our government no longer represents “the will of the people” and many here have reached that same conclusion recently. They make all kinds of promises to get us to elect them, and then when they get the power they do whatever they want to; their will be done, not our will be done. I’d prefer to see what is referred to as a “straight democracy” if it could be done via Internet and a secure means so there can’t be any cheating. I wonder if it is really possible for politics and government to function without corruption.

        You and anyone are free to disagree with my views. I can respect the views of other people. I don’t like it when people distort my views so that they can disagree with them. It should be easy enough to disagree with my views without doing that. Have a clear understanding of my views and then make your argument. You position is clear. No free will, and no freedom. That’s good for you. I don’t have to accept it for me. The fact that I don’t have to accept that is my choice by my will.

        I don’t know, but I believe, that I have found a possible answer that might explain EVERYTHING. I did not realize, until just now, that in an indirect way, it might address the issue of Free Will and/or Freedom of Choice. It started out as an idea within my science fiction novel titled Expedition Mirandus, as an idea being considered by characters engaged in conversation about religion. They have computers and something like the Internet. They can create virtual reality in which their characters can kill and be killed, while they live on unharmed in the real world. What is presented is that the physical universe is the virtual reality of the spiritual universe, that the physical universe was created by spiritual beings to be their virtual reality. Here in the physical universe they can kill and be killed, while living on unharmed in their spiritual universe. The physical body is like a car, and the soul is the driver. We are them. They are us. It is with a bit of humor that the characters in my novel speculate that maybe God really did create the heavens and earth in only 6 days, and did so with his personal desktop computer.

        Anyway, I am considering the possibility that the physical universe was created by spiritual beings to be their virtual reality, and am exploring that subject at my Virtual Reality Faith WordPress blog. The physical universe of matter, the spiritual universe of supermatter. It’s just IF-THEN theory. IF it were true, THEN that might explain a lot about Free Will and Freedom of Choice. To be clear, I do not accept biblical creation. I do not accept godless evolution. I am considering a variation of Intelligent Design, by many different spiritual beings rather than one god. I believe the long ago “big bang” was the actual beginning of the physical universe, created by spiritual beings who have since then been giving it upgrades perceived to be what we refer to as evolution.

        Even if it is wrong, it is a fun idea to consider, and I approach it with some sense of humor. It is something I’ve created that now answers all of my questions to my own satisfaction. Now I can be content when I hit the ground. As stated in my previous comment, life is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Eventually we all hit the ground. Believe anything you want, to give your mind comfort, on the way down.

          1. Mordanicus:

            That’s a good question and good point for you to make, even with the clarification I need to make…

            We are the spiritual beings in physical form, is my idea. A person is not the car, but is the driver. The physical body is like a car, needed to get around in by the soul as driver while functioning in the physical universe. In the virtual reality comparison, we in physical form are the avatars of the spiritual beings. While acting out a physical life, we don’t have access to memory of our ongoing spiritual life. A physical life of 60 years might be nothing more than an hour – 60 minutes – to the actual spiritual being – the soul. The perception of time measurement might be different for spiritual beings in the spiritual universe, especially if spiritual life is measured in billions of years at a minimum, if it is. We are not the avatars or characters we create in our own computer generated virtual reality. Virtual Reality Faith is just speculation, a theory, my present belief I’ve created for my own comfort, not something I know to be true. I’m satisfied with it until something better comes along.

            As for your inquiry, if the spiritual beings do not have free well then we do not have free will, because we are them, they are us. If they do, then we probably do. However, in the idea I present, I do note the difference between the human mind in the physical brain and the spiritual mind in the soul. So it is possible that they have free will, and have not designed it into their physical forms – us. Do we give free will to the avatars – the characters – in computer generated virtual reality? No. What a nightmare that would be if they were to become self aware and gain their own free will to take over the computers and the Internet. Star Trek the Next Generation addressed that issue in one of its episodes about a holodeck character, who to some extent became real and was then recognized as a new kind of life form. This leads in to the question in a separate posting about if we have free will, then can we design it into and give it to artificial intelligence in robots or androids or whatever you want to call them. Can they become self aware and have free will? I don’t know. But it is fun to consider. Some people are so anchored in science that they do not have the ability to consider science fiction concepts. Anything is possible in science fiction, and they don’t have the ability to see that. They lack imagination to consider “What if…” and rely only on what they believe in hard science.

            One thing I’m really not certain about is if we are in agreement regarding what free will actually is, other than the official definition. I might believe it is something slightly different, which if so, then could easily lead to various disagreements and misunderstandings. I don’t have to accept the official definition. It’s just an opinion agreed to by the top brains, lacking what I’d consider to be proof. The majority is not always right. At one time the world was defined – described – as being flat and at the center of the universe. Not everyone agreed with that. That is an extreme comparison and really not fair for this, but just to make the point. What I mean is that my perception of what free will is might not fit the official definition, and might not be the same as your perception of it, and the perception of it by others. I tend to associate it with freedom of choice, even if that freedom of choice is an illusion. I’ve tried to split the difference by saying perhaps we only have limited free will rather than total free will. Or that we have an illusion of free will. I also tend to associate conscious self awareness as part of and as being necessary for what I believe free will to be. My belief of what free will is and how it functions might be wrong, or just different from what other people believe. I do see it as being a complicated issue and subject.

            Also, for me, it is a fun subject to consider, so I’m happy you have written about it and are accepting comments. I’ve injected some of my own kind of humor into it, which via Internet might not be recognized as being humor, so perhaps I should stop doing that, especially if some people have a very narrow and deadly serious view and position on the subject. I already know sarcasm does not come across well on the Internet, so I’ve tried to stop doing that too. There’s a teen in jail over here for having made a sarcastic remark on Facebook, a big news story now. So there are dire consequences for such misunderstandings. In the past, in person face to face with others, I’ve been known to be excessively sarcastic with some warped humor. They get it. But it does not work as well in written words read by others. Even when I’m being serious and careful with my written words, it is as if some people misunderstand them by choice and assign conclusions or meanings not intended by me. That is usually done by Internet trolls, not intelligent people, but even good people and intelligent people with good intentions can have honest misunderstandings.

            1. “it is as if some people misunderstand them by choice and assign conclusions or meanings not intended by me. That is usually done by Internet trolls, not intelligent people, but even good people and intelligent people with good intentions can have honest misunderstandings.”

              I cannot judge what people are thinking, so I cannot decide whether people are wilfully misunderstanding or are honest in their misunderstandings. I can only advise you and others to make clear when your are making a thought experiment or using sarcasm, by using appropriate words.

        1. Jim, I don’t know why you are being confrontational. I did not take your words out of context. I copied what you had written. Thanks for the clarification that you meant a future civilization. How this relates to the question of free will is beyond me though.

          When you say you can choose to go right or left or to shelter from rain or cooperate when being forced by others; has it occurred to you that there is always a motive, a cause which your acting is the effect? Or are you arguing that there is never a cause. You act arbitrarily?

          You have no choice in what you believe. You believe to the extent you are convicted of something. You have no freedom in believing what you want. You can on the contrary imagine to exist a goat that has a cat legs, the face of a woman and the back of a tiger but you can’t believe such an animal exists. Unless of course one is really confused!

          That distinction doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, that is. The question of will is related to action. When I talk about willing, it is tied to an action. So whether it is freedom to choose or act, all I need to be shown is whether there is such a freedom.

          I would like you to point me to where I erect strawmen of your arguments. To say I misrepresent your views without citing such instances is really unjustified. Besides you have brought issues of democracy, representation and corruption which appeared nowhere in my query!

          You have taken your fiction idea too far. I have no belief of a point of creation either by one being or many. I just can’t speculate a time when matter didn’t exist. It is beyond my pay-grade so I leave that to meta-physicians who try to convince us that a spiritual, immaterial being created the material world. That to me is illogical and has no basis in reality.

          In conclusion, I see no reason why you should be confrontational. This is a very friendly blog, my query was very friendly and if you have reasons to disagree, I think it is only fair that you respond to what I have said. Am not stopping you from digressing, if that is your fancy, but I prefer we keep the discussion civil and where possible, to the OP.

        2. Jim humor me, where have I willfully misrepresented you or misunderstood you. I will be glad to be corrected but to go so far as to say some people are internet trolls without really showing where or how I mistook your humor is being evasive. There are times I don’t recognize humor, and a clarification would do for me.

  2. And there’s this, a possible difference that I thought of, just in case I’m confusing the two subjects… Excerpted from Wikipedia: “Although there are various impediments to exercising one’s choices, free will does not imply freedom of action. Freedom of choice (freedom to select one’s will) is logically separate from freedom to implement that choice (freedom to enact one’s will), although not all writers observe this distinction. Nonetheless, some philosophers have defined free will as the absence of various impediments. Some modern compatibilists, such as Harry Frankfurt and Daniel Dennett, argue free will is simply freely choosing to do what constraints allow one to do. In other words, a coerced agent’s choices are still free because such coercion coincides with the agent’s personal intentions and desires.”

    Further… Do you have “free will” in your life? If not, then take advantage of today’s special to get it for only $9.95. What I mean by that is “free will” usually isn’t free at all, that it usually comes with a price, especially when interacting with the “free will” of other people. Some have more “free will” than others. In our evil greedy vulture culture, money and power has a lot of say regarding how much “free will” you have.

  3. I love this. I have argued against punishment and I hold it too that free will is an illusion.
    As to whether punishment can act as a deterrent, am not fully convinced. Motives will determine how a person will act in any given situation. A guy who has been in prison and attempts to rob a shop knowing fully well he will go back isn’t worried about prison at the time of his acting simply because the motive outweighs the fear of punishment.
    I recognise though that society has a duty to protect itself. To do this, my first suggestion is that we must live in healthy societies, one where there is access to education, shelter, and equal opportunities. A society where the rich do not exploit the poor[here the rich include corporations exploiting their employees] and so on.

    1. “I recognise though that society has a duty to protect itself. To do this, my first suggestion is that we must live in healthy societies, one where there is access to education, shelter, and equal opportunities. A society where the rich do not exploit the poor[here the rich include corporations exploiting their employees] and so on.”

      We are on the same line here, they things you mentioned are the things which would have most significant effect on reducing crime. Being tough on crime should also include on being tough on the causes of crime.

      “As to whether punishment can act as a deterrent, am not fully convinced. Motives will determine how a person will act in any given situation. A guy who has been in prison and attempts to rob a shop knowing fully well he will go back isn’t worried about prison at the time of his acting simply because the motive outweighs the fear of punishment.”

      This is what American criminologist Peter Moskos has to say about deterrence:

      “Classic deterrence theory […] depends on a certain level of rational thought and long-term comprehension that seems to be lacking in criminals who are desperate, high, or mentally disturbed. There’s little evidence that most criminals consider possible punishment before committing a crime. They don’t think they’ll be caught.” (Moskos p. 29, 2011).

      We might can conclude that by improving education, more people might become able to think rationally and therefore abstaining from crime.

First comment? Please read our comment policy first

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s