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"Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not 'deserve' our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. "

Yes, that's correct. It is abhorrent. Take the bit about "sinners" out of there (since there's nobody to sin against) and I agree completely. He's saying a murderer had no choice but to commit murder, a rapist had no choice but to rape, a thief had no choice but to steal. That is (I cannot emphasize enough) utterly ridiculous. Under what circumstances is a criminal forced to commit a crime?

Deter, rehabilitate, absolutely. By "contain" does he mean (Gasp!) "imprison"? Well, that's a punishment by any standards. Let's not beat about the bush; taking away someone's freedom is a punishment.

And is he also saying that it is by some biochemical device that a person works 80 hour weeks, kisses the ass of the boss for ten years, and rises through the ranks rather than go home at the end of 8 hours and watch the telly? That there's no choice involved? That's very convenient for people like me, I'm not a lazy unmotivated bastard who hates the clowns in the front office, it's just that I have no free will! I had to go home at quitting time! I can't volunteer for overtime, I have no free will!!

What school did this guy go to, anybody?


Do we have free will? Are we puppets attached to strings (i.e. pre-destined)? If everyone has free will than no one can follow such a plan.

We do NOT have free will with the emphasis on the word free. Everything is deterministic and each of us is influenced by our environments, genes, brain chemistry, and experiences. However, we have volition which is the power to control our will that is bounded by all those factors. Volition is this free will that people commonly reference. Our volition and our desire to be above causality and nature is what make us human.
Free will is an illusion. In order to have free will then you must be able to make decisions without any outside influence causing you to make those decisions. You may have the subjective experience of this ability but it is not supported by reality, we live in a universe of cause and effect. You make your decisions based on who you are and who you are is ultimately determined by your genetics and what you have learned from the environment that you were born into. These two factors of nature and nurture determine who you are and you did not choose your genetics or the environment that you were born into. So if you follow the causal chain of your decisions backwards to the source you will end up outside of yourself. The more we learn about Neuroscience and Psychology the more evidence we have of this reality.

In Neuroscience the prime example is the Libet experiments and the many variations thereof. The experiment can be summarized as the subject being hooked to some kind of brain scanning device, such as a fMRI machine, and then asked to make a decision while watching some sort of clock or series of images to mark the time in which the decision is made. When the brain scans are compared to the moment in time the subject made the decision in consciousness it is shown that the decision was already made in the brain before it was made in consciousness. The experience of making the decision is only the conscious witness of the decision being made in the physical system and not the actual cause of the decision.

In psychology there are many examples as well, one of them being the hungry judge study. In this study it was shown that an inmate's chance of being paroled is greatly determined by how long it has been since the judge has last eaten. The data shows that an inmate is about 65% more likely to receive a favorable decision from the judge after the judge had eaten and nearly 0% just before the judge takes a break for lunch only to rise back up to 65% after he returns from his break. Now of course the judge would not say that his decision was determined by how hungry he was but that is what the data shows. There have been similar studies done on how tired the judge was affecting his decision and with similar results. Other studies show how a person's behavior can be affected by something as trivial as the temperature of the drink they are holding in there hand where a person was more likely to be generous and cooperative if they were holding a warm drink versus a cold drink. When asked to explain people will come up with ad hoc excuses for their behavior but the data shows that it was determined by other factors.

So we are making decisions and acting in ways that are being determined by factors that we are not even aware of. If we do not even know why we are making these decisions or if our decisions do not even originate in consciousness how can we say we are making them of our own free will. A will is not free if it is being determined by outside influences. The reason why I think it is important is because our criminal justice system focuses on retributive justice based on the concept of free will. I believe it is immoral to take revenge on a criminal for something they ultimately were unable to control. Instead we should focus on rehabilitation and providing deterrents to prevent future criminal activity and not taking revenge for past criminal activity. So for example the death penalty has not shown to provide a stronger deterrent than life in prison and it has proven to be more expensive mostly due to legal fees. The only real reason for the death penalty is to enact revenge on the person who committed the crime. I would say this is immoral, especially in the absence of free will.

I agree with everything you said here, and I had read about those experiments as well.

@tnorman1236 Thank you 🙂

Bull puckey. You're just playing with words. I CHOSE to read this thread and I CHOSE to reply to you, just like I choose to work or not work, choose what to eat and drink, choose who to love, choose how to live. Whether my past experience informs my choices does not negate my freedom of choice. My past experience was also shaped by my free will.

Sam Harris is a closet Calvinist.

How would you go about rehabilitating a criminal? Would you consciously alter the chain of causality that results in the undesirable behaviour? Can you give an example of a "deterrent to prevent future criminal activity" that does not involve a negative consequence for the offender?

@mrdunn More prisons need to have psychiatrists to help deal with prisoners’ mental disorders and psychological issues. Prisons also offer classroom settings in which inmates can learn to read and educate themselves. These methods are proven to have a positive effect on the prisoners and have helped many to overcome a background with little or no education. Upon their release, prisoners who have stuck with these programs are given a better opportunity to succeed and to become law abiding citizens.

Rehabilitation of prisoners is an extremely difficult process. Inmates are segregated from the general public and forced to live in a society with people for whom crime is a way of life. For many, time spent behind bars will push them farther into a life of crime, but for others, the horrors of prison life and the lessons they learn there are enough to deter them from committing crimes again in the future.

@daveeleceng Yes, I agree that education and acquiring practical skills are very beneficial in helping prison inmates make better decisions once they leave prison & re-enter society, but I do not see how this can be reconciled with a purely deterministic universe. If it has been predetermined that a person will commit a crime and go to prison then there is no way that crime could have been prevented, so how can future crimes be prevented by an intercession? This in itself would be an illusion, just a predetermined reality playing out. Every crime that will ever be committed is already, irreversibly, set in stone. In like manner, the chain of causality that may give the illusion of a prisoner being "rehabilitated" is already determined, any difficulty in the process is illusory.

I am interested in learning more about this "volition" you mention. Could you elaborate further? How does this "power to control our will" differ from free will?


I have ordered Sam Harris' book on Free Will, but haven't read it yet. I have read arguments against it that seem convincing, though.


Some neuroscientists are heavily invested in the idea that humans are nothing but machines that have no free will. Free will complicates the picture too much. So does consciousness. Some of them are saying that there’s no such thing as conscious awareness—it’s all illusion.

I think it is important not to swallow their unproven assertions. The materialist/physicalist/ reductionist philosophy may be soothing balm to some, but IMO it does not hold up to critical thinking.

I've been leaning more that way the more I read.

@tnorman1236 Have you looked at this work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff?


@WilliamFleming No. I'll give it a look, but right now I'm tired and am getting offline.

Though I consider myself a materialist, or naturalist, I am not convinced that a material world could not produce an emergent property such as free will. It may well be because I’m not bright enough to follow the arguments, but I’ve read many of them and am not convinced. It may also be because I am not using the same definition of free will. It all sounds like double-talk to me... they’re all saying “It is, but it kind of isn’t” or “It isn’t but it kind of is”. I’d need to see a tighter definition of free will (that I could understand) before I could make up my mind.

@skado The way I look at it, a computerized robot could well exhibit what appears to be free will, but we know that all its decisions are based on either programming, or with AI, internal analysis. Its decisions could be influenced by its memory bank or by a random number generator. Even if two robots were otherwise identical, their memories would be different, and their random number generators would give different results, so that each would respond differently to the same situation.

They would seem to have free will, but without self-awareness what meaning would that have? If a robot doesn’t have a conscious self is it meaningful to say it has a will? And if our bodies are nothing but robot-like material objects, then I feel that they have no free will either.

Yet we experience both conscious awareness and free will. If those things are illusions then everything is an illusion because all our experiences are framed by conscious awareness.It is a profoundly enigmatic question, but I can’t help but lean toward the idea of universal consciousness, where our true identities are a part of ultimate reality. It seems the most likely scenario to me.

I do not make such a claim with certainty. Mostly I am confused and bewildered. I am confident though that our worldly perceptions are not true reality. We make up a gross, symbolic picture of reality in our minds in order to organize sense information for survival. Ultimate reality is totally incomprehensible in terms of matter, space, and time.

I find myself somewhat in agreement with you. This is so rare that I thought I should make note of it.

We are indeed biomechanical robots, but the nature of our brains produce consciousness. You're probably going to disagree with me on that point, but where I agree with you is that we're free-willed robots.


He gave a speech on this topic a while back on TED Talks.
Was very interesting.
I'm pretty sure it's still on youtube.


I get the gist of it and totally agree with his thinking.


Its confusing to me.

The article is kind of short, and doesn't go into his arguments about why we don't have free will in the way we normally think of it.

@tnorman1236 I have Harris's book about free will, but it still confusing.

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