Free Will & Judicial Systems

Free Will & Judicial Systems

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.
The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

Judea Pearl uses soccer as an analogy to demonstrate the usefulness of freewill, even if it is only an illusion, in The Book of Why. Pearl argues that believing we have free will, even if it doesn’t exist as we believe it does, has been helpful for humans throughout our evolutionary history. He argues that being able to communicate about our intentions, desires, and actions through a lens of free will has helped us develop agency to improve our existence as a species and survive.
Pearl also views the illusion of free will as a two tiered system that helps our species survive through agency by attributing responsibility to individuals. He communicates this idea through the language of computers by writing, “when we start to adjust our own software, that is when we begin to take moral responsibility for our actions. This responsibility may be an illusion at the level of neural activation but not at the level of the self-awareness software.”
Pearl is arguing that our consciousness (software) is different from our neural activity (the computer hardware equivalent of the brain). In this sense, Pearl is viewing consciousness and free will as a dualist. There is the electrical activity of the brain, and the software (our thinking and self-awareness) running on top of that electrical activity. While we might not be able to directly change the neural activity and while it may be automatic and deterministic, the software packages it runs are not, they are in a way revisable, and we are responsible for those revisions. That is the view that Pearl is advancing in this argument.
I think this idea is wrong. I understand the dualist view of consciousness and use that model most of the time when thinking about my thinking, but I don’t think it reflects reality. Additionally, throughout human history we have used technological analogies to explain the brain. Always equating the brain and thinking to the best technologies of the day, we have viewed the brain as having some sort of duality about it. The brain was once viewed as hydraulic pumps and levers, and today it is compared to computerized hardware and software.
I don’t have a full rebuttal for Pearl. I recognize that our experience feels as though it is not deterministic, that there seems to be some role for free will and individual agency, but I can’t go as far as Pearl and actually assign revision responsibility to our consciousness. I agree with him that the illusion can be and has been useful, but I can’t help but feel that it is a mistake to equate the brain to a computer. I don’t truly feel that even within the illusion of free will we are entirely revision responsible for our consciousness (the software/operating system). I think that comparing us to a computer is misleading and gives people the wrong impression about the mind, and I’m sure that in the future we will replace the hardware/software distinction and thoughts with different and more complex technologies in our analogies.
The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

My previous post was about post-action rationalization, the idea that we often do things at an instinctual level and then apply a rationalization to them upon reflection, after the action has been completed. Our rationalization sounds logical and supports the idea that we have free will, that our decision was based on specific factors we identified, and that we consciously chose to do something. An understanding of post-action rationalization helps reveal the illusion of free will.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl uses the example of a soccer player to demonstrate how post-action rationalization works. The soccer player reacts to situations in the game as they develop. They don’t do complex math to calculate the best angle to kick a ball, they don’t paus to work out the probability of successfully scoring a goal based on passing to one player over another, and they don’t pause to think about all the alternatives available to them in any given moment. Their minds pick up on angles, speeds, past experiences, and other unknown factors unique to each situation and players respond instinctively, without conscious thought guiding how they move and what choices they make. According to Pearl, this instinctive and intuitive processing should challenge the idea that we have free will. It should challenge the idea that we consciously chose our actions and behaviors and cause us to think that we respond to situations without a real knowledge of why we are responding. Nevertheless, we all feel that we have free will, even if we know the feeling described in the sporting event example.
This illusion of free will has some benefits. Pearl writes, “the illusion of free will gives us the ability to speak about our intents and to subject them to rational thinking, possibly using counterfactual logic.” Free will helps us talk about the stimuli around us and how we respond to them, and it helps us by providing reinforcements for outcomes that go well and admonishment for outcomes that should be avoided in the future. It is useful by creating a sense of agency and feedback between us.
Pearl continues, “I would conjecture, then, that a team of robots would play better soccer if they were programmed to communicate as if they had free will. No matter how technically proficient the individual robots are at soccer, their team’s performance will improve when they can speak to each other as if they are not preprogrammed robots but autonomous agents believing they have options.”
As artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities progress Pearl may come to regret this quote. However, it is a helpful lens to apply to human evolution and how we arrived at our current mental states. Matter arranged itself to become self-reproducing and eventually became self-observant. By being able to attribute agency and free will to its own actions, matter became even better at self-replicating and self-preserving. This is the argument that Pearl ultimately makes through his soccer analogy. Robots might in the future be the most proficient at soccer without a sense of self, but at least at times in human history we have been served well by our illusion of free will. It has helped us organize and collaborate in complex social and political societies, and it has helped us work together to create the world we now inhabit. Free will may not truly exist, but the illusion of free will has helped us do everything from play soccer to launch satellites so that we can watch other people play soccer from the other side of the planet.