Sam Harris on free will
Here is an excellent talk by Sam Harris on the non-existence of free will, as discussed in his book Free Will:
This is an excellent summation of why free will does not exist, and why our perception of it is an illusion, as I’ve discussed before.
There is one point of exception I’d take with his view, about the rationality of hatred and the desire for vengeance. An irrational burning desire for retribution against transgressors—and, more importantly, clear demonstration of the willingness to carry this out—is itself an extra deterrent for would be transgressors. I mean, who are you more likely to offend, someone who will coolly weigh the appropriate punishment and exact whatever limited form of reparation they believe is due, or someone who would unrelentingly hunt you and anyone you care about down? As well, hatred motivates one to confront and destroy or at least neutralize threats. That’s not to say that these aggressive responses are at all good for society or civilization, but they do have some logic behind them.
That said, a more utilitarian, pragmatic view of crime and punishment is called for. Sure, would-be criminals need to have the knowledge that their crimes will be punished, otherwise the deterrent effect is undercut, but the reality of the situation is that people vary in their ability to respond to the deterrents we’ve put in place, and we need to recognize that if we want to elicit the desired behaviors from people. Indeed, this works with a lot of things, and this is the fundamental purpose of all ideology and political thought: how to get people to act in the ways we want them to act.
Because of the very non-existence of free will, I don’t expect most people who read this to understand, but it’s important to realize that people are limited in their range of behaviors and responses to stimuli. This especially evident when I hear people throw out the word “addiction” in response to some discovery from neuroscience that illustrates compulsive behavior—as if those who speak of the addicted are somehow less compelled to behave the way they behave. I will expand on this point in a future post.
In any case, the non-existence of free will is why classic tragedy works so well, and why it has been with us since the time of Sophocles: it really is a sound reflection of the human condition. This human tragedy and the problem of crime and the criminal minded described by Harris is captured well by this scene from The Dark Knight: