What happens to the justice system in the Untied States when a majority of people no longer believe that humans actually have free will? There is still a debate within science as to whether or not humans actually have free will, but there is evidence to suggest that free will is a useful illusion, but not an idea that is supported by science.
Ideas of free will assume there is some sort of inner magic taking place within humans. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari compares the inner explanations of free will to Christian explanations of the soul. While I think there may still be a non-religious stance from which one could argue free will exists, I think his comparison is useful – though perhaps a bit intentionally provocative. Harari writes, “Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes, and synapses, rather than by free will.”
Science suggests that humans are pretty easy to manipulate in a controlled lab setting. We can give people suggestions and directions without them realizing it, and they will make excuses and justifications of their action that support the idea of free will afterward. This doesn’t translate into some sort of totalitarian regime of mind control, but it does challenge ideas of free will. Additionally, we can observe action potentials within the brain that trigger an action before a person is consciously aware of an action. This is another suggestion that free will is more of an illusion than a central aspect of our consciousness.
Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. A question Harari asks directly by writing, “our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries [scientific findings that suggest we don’t have free will] under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?” What happens to the judicial system when it is not just a group of brainy scientists and nerds who read Sapiens that agree that free will doesn’t appear to be real? When we view human behaviors and decisions as greatly influenced by biological factors beyond the control of an individual, how do we justify incarceration, seemingly arbitrary prison sentences, and ideas of responsibility for committing crimes?
Our judicial system relies on beliefs of the individual, of conscious, rational, and free will decision-making. When those foundational aspects of the judicial system are challenged by enough people in society, it is unclear how we truly proceed with pursuing justice. Everything from arrests, to trials, to the length of prison sentences may potentially be shaken up and reconsidered if we collectively agree that free will and ideas of the individual are more of illusions than concrete aspects of our reality.