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Forced to be Free?: The Debate on Determinism

What I am asking is: can we honestly lay claim to ownership of ‘our’ thoughts or are we merely a distillation vessel for the mixing of genes with education?

Discussions of morality usually go hand in hand with discussions of free will and determinism. Thus, the debate concerning blame and moral or legal responsibility is stimulated. If one fully subscribes to ’cause and effect’ then we surely live in a deterministic universe, that is to say that the 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in your brain are affected so greatly by a number of factors antecedent to us such as genetics and upbringing that the concept of ‘free will’ existing within these pre-set parameters has become completely defunct. These critics argue that free will is a poor illusion, transparent upon scrutiny. This can be demonstrated by a simple experiment; if you try to think of a capital city, a list of municipalities will be jostling and tumbling in your mind, a list that you didn’t pick; cities seemed to sprout out of nothing. Of these, some appear more prominent than others; I highly doubt that the city you ultimately chose was Cape Town, or Baghdad. That is not to say that you weren’t aware these two places exist, merely that they weren’t on your subconscious’ radar. This shows that thought is unconscious, something over which you have no control, and ideas bubble up out of the murky depths of your brain into the fulgent images that you can now envisage.

Ask yourself this: just then, did you have free will to choose your thoughts or were they ‘just there?’ What I am really asking is can we honestly lay claim to ownership of ‘our’ thoughts or are we merely a distillation vessel for the mixing of genes with education? I don’t think you are convinced yet.

Clarence Darrow was an American lawyer and philosopher who famously represented ‘Loeb and Leopold’: two openly remorseless killers and kidnappers of 14-year-old Robert Franks. They both admitted that they had done the crime and were on trial merely to decide their sentence, whether it be death or life in prison. Darrow was the first exponent of hard determinism in the courtroom, providing mitigating circumstances which account for why a person committed a crime, of which some are still used today. In a very heart rending closing statement, Darrow spent days informing the jury of how both boys were unloved by their fathers, abused as children and never truly felt accepted by society. This unfortunate series of events, Darrow argued, led the accused to have a warped perception of the Nietzschean philosophy of the ‘superman’, one which seemed to advocate the idea of the perfect crime. Twinned with the feeling of rejection felt by both Loeb and Leopold from childhood almost, they were inclined to crave attention and to try and exert power and force over children, a sort of crude role reversal where the victims became the abusers. Try and tell me that these two men had the same free will that we apparently enjoy.

Determinism is fraught with misconceptions about its apparent similarities to fatalism and predestination, ones which I bitterly resent, but I hope that I haven’t been unclear, but if I have, I welcome emails asking for disambiguation. Many also try and argue that because they aren’t carbon copies of their parents, determinism cannot exist. This clearly flawed view would suggest that a child’s only contact with humans and the world is through his parents, not through television, newspapers, friends, or wider social exposure.

So, what are the social ramifications of this? Does this affect the way in which we counsel these people or punish them for their crimes? Do our definitions of crime change accordingly? It seems that many measures taken with particular regard to criminals are done out of a desire to see the perpetrators ‘punished’ for their crimes, but if the criminals aren’t responsible in a traditional sense, how can it be fair to punish them? If one views imprisonment solely as a means of keeping these criminals off the streets, it seems deeply unfair on the criminal for living his life as shaped by factors out of his control. If these people are no longer committing crimes, are they just mentally sick, that meaning, their morality doesn’t fit with societal norms and therefore they will not function within this community successfully? If one views prison as a primarily rehabilitative function, then we must ask is it possible to ‘cure’ a rapist or murderer with the aid of drugs, re-education, or surgery? What must be done? Do we as a society focus on “Education, education, education” as Tony Blair ordered in 1997? Or is the solution perhaps more oblique than that? Do we profile people according to their backgrounds and then grade them as high or low risk of crime and adjust police records appropriately, in a sort of Minority Report fashion?

I realise that my conclusion was just a series of questions, but that is because I have no answers. I wrote this article because it seems axiomatic that people need to start accepting that their inherited characteristics do not finish with their accents, eye colour, skin colour, and hair colour; it is more profound and broad-reaching than that. Like the ebbing of the tide, or the blossoming of flowers in spring, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, or the transience of life, determinism can be observed retrospectively, and predicted prospectively. My one piece of advice? Try and liberate yourselves from the manacles of parochialism by employing a critical faculty at every opportunity, in turn you will be able to distance yourself from the apple tree from which you fell.

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