📆 August 22, 2020 | ⏱️ 15 minutes read

Free Will is Incoherent - Part 2


If you haven’t read my part 1 post about why free will is incoherent, I recommend reading that before continuing. In it, I demonstrate that free will not only does not exist, but it is incoherent on many levels. To sum up, the cosmos is either deterministic or random. This leaves no room for the conventional notion of free will since neither determinism nor randomness get you free will. It’s impossible to imagine a cosmos where free will does exist, and that’s not because of lack of imagination. Even worse than that, there is no self to which free will could be ascribed in the first place. So, it’s a deeply confused idea.

What I want to do in this post is talk about the implications of those facts. I want to talk about how we can still hold others responsible knowing they don’t have free will, how we can justify a justice system and laws if people aren’t ultimately responsible for what they do, and how realizing free will does not exist opens the doors to compassion. Responsibility is a good starting point to introduce the other topics, so I will start there.


If we have no free will, shouldn’t we just do nothing since our choices aren’t our own anyway? No. Because the choice to do nothing is itself not of your own free will. So you aren’t “escaping” your lack of free will by doing nothing. Besides, can you really just sit around and do nothing for the rest of your life? Should you just not resist bad urges then? Also no, because every time you successfully resisted bad urges like overeating, that wasn’t of your own free will either. But how can people be responsible without free will? In other words, if a thief or murderer literally could not have stopped themselves from thieving or murdering, then how can we fault them for it? To do so would be like faulting a falling rock that lands on someone for obeying gravity because it has the exact same degree of free will as people do; none. I have talked about responsibility before in my previous post on individual responsibility. I’m not sure how we should redefine responsibility. That’s philosophy of language and not really what this post is about. But, there are a few other things I can speak to.

Sam Harris gives the example of a brain tumor which I will reiterate here. A person has a tumor pressing against their brain causing a violent episode in which they commit murder. Let’s say they wouldn’t have committed murder absent the tumor. Then the tumor is fully exculpatory of the murder. It was the tumor’s fault. The murderer couldn’t help that they grew a tumor and we can all pretty much agree on that. But what if there was no tumor? We know as a matter of physics that the moments that led up to the murder, specifically the states of the murderer’s brain, fully determined that a murder was going to happen. If we could see the full chain of prior causes starting at the birth of the murderer to their upbringing, the memes they were taught by their society and culture, their genetic predisposition, down to the way their brain grew, and the moments and thought processes that led up to the murder, we would have a very different intuition. Seeing the full chain of prior causes is as fully exculpatory as learning about the presence of a tumor. The only difference is a tumor is more obvious. We can see a tumor. We can’t necessarily see a chain of prior causes. Instead of feeling anger or hatred or whatever at this person, we would feel empathy because we could see how, moment by moment, they were inevitably pushed into murdering. If we swapped places with this person atom by atom, we would have done exactly as they had done, inevitably forced by the chain of causality.


One consequence of this is that hating people no longer makes sense. Even people that committed unspeakable atrocities such as Hitler and Stalin can’t rationally be hated for what they did. I’m not defending them either. Pick any villains you like. They are as much a victim of the chain of causality as morally good people are. No one is responsible for the way they are, not in any ultimate sense. This also means that feelings of pride and shame don’t really have any merit either. It doesn’t make any more sense for you to be really proud of your successes than ashamed of your failures. Your successes and failures are not of your own doing. How could they be? And besides, you are a constantly changing organism. So, it’s a legitimate question to ask if the continual process that is you is similar enough to how it was when it succeeded or failed to actually stake claim to past successes and failures.

This opens us up to feel more compassion for everyone, not just people we like. It’s precisely because we could have been in their shoes, that we could have been them in another life so to speak and done exactly as they did (if only we had their atoms) with no ability to choose otherwise, that we are able to cease judgment and feel compassion. This also explains why we feel more forgiving of our own mistakes than others’ mistakes. We can see the full chain of prior causes through our memories. “I’m the way I am because of my parents who raised me. And they are the way they are because of their parents etc. But my neighbor or friend or coworker who is a mess is like they are just because that’s how they are. With me, Adam committed the original sin and therefore nothing is my fault. With my neighbor/coworker/friend/person who cut me off in traffic though, it’s a different story. The buck just stops at them”.


How can we justify throwing people in jails and prisons if they aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions? Simple. Society is better off that way. Being “tough on crime” is completely compatible with disbelief in free will. What doesn’t make sense is punishment for the sake of it. Given what we now know about free will and how that corrects our idea of responsibility, it doesn’t make any sense at all to punish someone just for the sake of it. How does it make sense to punish someone for the sake of it when they literally could not have done anything else? Punishment should always be toward some end. Hopefully toward a constructive end like rehabilitation, rather than a destructive end like vengeance. Sadly, the (in)justice system in the United States (and many other countries) does not reflect our modern understanding of the brain or free will. That is to say it isn’t based on reality.

The philosophy of punishment for the sake of it, punishment because it is “deserved”, pervades the United States (in)justice system. One stated purpose of the (in)justice system is rehabilitation. But this is in stark contrast to how prisoners are actually treated. It is, frankly, absolutely disgusting how our society treats lawbreakers, especially felons, in and outside of jails and prisons. The punishment itself is only supposed to be separation from society to keep the public safe and rehabilitate the criminal. The justification should sound something like “We have to isolate you from the general public to rehabilitate you for your own good and everyone else’s. It’s for the best”. But we all know it goes far beyond that. As a felon in the United States, it’s hard to get a decent job or housing. We need to ask ourselves, how does this help with rehabilitation? How does telling someone they can’t vote because they committed a crime help reintegrate them? What is the rational, rehabilitative basis for mandatory minimum sentencing? Is it justice to make several million workers work for slave wages (a few dollars per day) because they previously committed a crime? In what universe does slave labor help rehabilitate incarcerated workers? What about the fact that prison food is often unhealthy and nutritionally inadequate for adults? How does that help? How does it help prisoners by throwing them into solitary confinement for sometimes years to the point where they become antisocial and lose communication skills? I could go on but you get the point.

The way incarcerated people are treated in the United States demonstrates 3 things:

  1. The (in)justice system does not reflect an understanding that free will is incoherent, but endorses it as “universal and persistent” foundation for our whole legal system.
  2. The (in)justice system fails to address the root psychological causes of recidivism and actively makes recidivism worse through dehumanization and punishment for the sake of it.
  3. The (in)justice system demonstrates a psychopathic lack of compassion for incarcerated individuals that shows many involved have no actual interest in rehabilitation, only a desire for vengeance.

The most surprising of these for me is number 2. I understand there is a prison-industrial complex which focuses on making the rich richer rather than rehabilitating prisoners. With that in mind, there stills seems to be either an extremely impoverished understanding and deep misunderstanding of criminal psychology by correctional officers, prison staff, and prison administrators who demonstrate their misunderstanding by egging on violence and needless suffering in prisons through policy and actions or an almost psychopathic lack of empathy and compassion from a combination of personal callousness of the suffering of others or being in an extraordinarily toxic environment where rehabilitation is only a word on paper and not a philosophy permeating the prison system and the only goal is to get home safe, not help incarcerated people. I’m afraid it’s both.

How incarcerated people are treated says more about our society than it does about those incarcerated. Take the death penalty for instance. By putting someone to death, we are essentially saying, “We have no idea how to help this person. We lack the knowledge or resources to sufficiently rehabilitate them, so we just have to make them not exist any more”. That says more about our competence as a society than it does about the incarcerated individuals. Every time someone is executed by capital punishment by the state, that is a failure of our society to be competent enough to help that person. The very act of capital punishment, or decades-long prison sentences, demonstrates that fact.

We Can Do Better

I’m big on evidence-based thinking. No amount of me preaching about how broken our (in)justice system is shows that we can in fact do better. I can say everything I have above, but it doesn’t prove anything. It’s just me preaching. So I want to briefly cover some examples of how Nordic prison philosophy is more effective at rehabilitation and why their data makes sense in the context of everything I’ve already said. I’d highly recommend watching the documentaries out there on the Nordic prison system. I like the one about Halden Prison.

Norway has one of the world’s lowest recidivism rates sitting at 20% while over 50% of prisoners in the United States will be back in jail within three years of release (Deady, C. W. (2014, March). Incarceration and Recidivism: Lessons from Abroad. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from https://www.salve.edu/sites/default/files/filesfield/documents/Incarceration_and_Recidivism.pdf). Norway has no death penalty and a maximum of 21 years in prison. Meanwhile the United States has 25% of the world’s prison population despite only having 5% of the world’s total population. Americans are incarcerated for much longer than people in other countries and for non-violent offenses that wouldn’t even lead to incarceration in other countries. Here is a quote from Time Magazine in 2010:

Norwegians see the island (Bastoy prison) as the embodiment of their country’s long-standing penal philosophy: that traditional, repressive prisons do not work, and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. (William Lee Adams, “Sentenced to Serving the Good Life in Norway,” Time, July 12, 2010. Accessed August 22, 2020, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2000920,00.html).

Who would have thought that treating human beings like human beings with a real interest in trying to help them would be the best thing for society? Halden prison in Norway allows prisoners to freely roam for up to 12 hours in a day while max security prisons in the United States allow comparatively very little “yard time” surrounded by electric fences, razor wire, and snipers. It’s honestly very sad and disappointing that the United States and many other countries fail to do better than that. In Halden prison, each inmate’s room is private containing a desk, fridge, kitchen, and television according to an NPR article by Jeffrey Kofman. Halden has no razor wire or snipers and is less overcrowded than max security facilities in the United States. In Halden, violence is extremely rare. And escape attempts are very rare also.

The data doesn’t lie. It’s not a big happy coincidence that Nordic prisons see better results. It makes psychological and social sense that they see better results given how they treat prisoners. Their philosophy is one of restorative justice, creating better neighbors and equipping inmates with the skills to be successful back out in society, not just throwing them in a cage for inordinate amounts of time and hoping they “learn their lesson”. I’m not saying there is no place for punishment in prisons, but there is an excessive focus on punitive actions in American prisons that is directly driven by the philosophy that free will exists and they “deserve” what they get. Watch prison documentaries and first-person accounts in America and other countries with a high recidivism rate and compare them to prison documentaries in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It’s amazing to watch some long-time prison officials take trips to the Norwegian facilities and even get emotional because they realize how broken our system really is and how they contribute to that.

A New Mindset

The key to a new mindset about justice really is introducing the meme of no free will into society and rethinking our idea of responsibility. Our idea of responsibility cannot include the idea that people are ultimately the “author” of their actions. We know that has to be false as a matter of physics and philosophy. Once the incoherency of free will is understood and its implications for compassion and justice, that really pulls the rug out from under the justification for hate and retribution.

I spent a lot of time talking about the implications for justice. Not only in our personal lives is it important to cultivate compassion for conscious beings, but it is important for our institutions as well. Even if you are a completely selfish person, don’t you want to live in a society of healthy, compassionate and self-actualized people just for your own sake? Your environment affects you like you affect it and who is in your environment affects you. If a segment of our population is suffering, that is not only that segment’s problem. That is everyone’s problem because we are not all isolated little egos separate from one another. While there isn’t always something you can do to help others, that does not mean you shouldn’t practice compassion for them.

I want to propose a principle of radical universal compassion toward all conscious beings. One of the most important things we can do is find ways to practice compassion toward those that have wronged us and toward ourselves for our own past transgressions against others. I’m not saying you ought never to feel bad about having wronged someone. But continuing to beat yourself up is not useful. Some people are toxic and you should avoid associating with them. But holding on to negative emotions, continuing to feel angry or guilty isn’t useful. And it doesn’t feel good either. Holding a grudge harms you more than the person against whom you hold the grudge. Holding a grudge is akin to the thought process “It’s important that I stay angry at this person for much longer than the normal half-life of my anger because they’ve done something so unforgivable”. While you may cut ties with someone for compassion toward yourself, the hanging on to negative emotions is more harmful to yourself than to them. It’s like picking up a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the only one that gets burned.

By realizing that no one is ultimately responsible for what they do, we open the doors to compassion. A person has exactly as much free will as a rock, and therefore holds as much ultimate responsibility for their actions as a rock does for falling on someone. You may object that humans are not like rocks. Humans have a nervous system and rocks don’t. Humans know what they are doing, even if they aren’t ultimately responsible. If a person commits a murder, we can conclude they are more likely perpetrate violence in the future. If a rock falls on someone, we can’t conclude the same rock will fall on someone again just because it did so once before. What I’m saying is rocks and brains have the same degree of free will. In that respect, they are the same. So it makes no more sense to blame a brain for planning a murder than it does to blame a rock for falling on someone. Develop a justice system that deters future violence and promotes better patterns of thought and behavior in brains? Absolutely. But that isn’t what is happening in America’s justice system and many others and the minds of many citizens. Blame is what is happening. Vengeance is what is happening. Needless suffering is what is happening. And that can’t be justified given a lack of free will. The guiding principle that does make sense in a justice system is compassion, and the results from Nordic prisons bears that out.