Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hard Determinism and the Meme of Free Will

Oh, the Greeks knew what they wanted—
Strong determinism stunted.
It is clear that if the populace was driven by free will,
Then society was blameless;
Truth be told, it was a shameless
Grab for power, and the senators were showing off their skill.
These philosophers were cunning
And in truth it was a stunning
Bit of framing—we can tell, because it lingers to this day.
We will claim we chose it freely,
Though the evidence says really
Our behavior was determined, and there’s nothing more to say.

You may cherish your illusion
It’s an understood confusion
But the truth is, you’re mistaken—it is nothing but a meme.
For the culture, it’s adaptive
Cos it keeps the people captive—
If you chose, then you’re accountable—a blame-the-victim scheme!
If the murder rate has risen
We just build a bigger prison
Cos it’s better than admitting that society has failed—
Better jobs and education
Can prevent incarceration
But denial of determinism keeps our people jailed.

Punishment, but not prevention,
Always focuses attention
On the action and the consequence, but not the prior cause,
So instead, we claim we see a
Mental state we call mens rea;
This reliance on an inner cause is written in our law.
If we look beyond the actors
In our quest for causal factors
Some environmental factors are quite easy to discern;
If mens rea and true freedom
Are illusions, we don’t need ‘em
We’re not stuck in ancient Athens—we can change, and we can learn.


The Ridger, FCD said...

You incorrigible optimist, you.

Cuttlefish said...

The funny thing is, you are right in saying that a view that denies free will is an optimistic one! Try selling that, though...

MTaur said...

Hear, hear.

MuseSusan said...

Random question for you: is there a technical term for the kind of verse this is (rhyme scheme and meter combination)? I've been trying to come up with a mathematical limerick for a presentation I'm doing (on a very specific topic, so existing limericks won't do), and I'm wondering if I might do better with a short snippet in this style instead.

Cuttlefish said...

I honestly don't know, MuseSusan; I am an amateur at this. has a page of Online Poetry Resources that might answer your question, but I did not see what I was hoping for--a simple list of poetic forms. There must be one somewhere--perhaps *shudder* wikipedia...?

(and I am dying to know--what is the topic?)

MuseSusan said...

It's not a big deal--I don't have to say what kind of poem it is in order to share it! (I don't have to write a poem, either, but who wouldn't want to write a poem about math to share with other math geeks?)

*grin* The topic is topology, specifically as applied to configuration spaces. Last year I came up with a limerick that summarized my topic, and I'm hoping to do the same this year but it's a bit more complicated.

George Weinberg said...

we can change, and we can learn.

Can we? Your verse seems to be claiming that individuals lack free will yet society as a whole somehow has it.

As Ambrose Bierce put it,

"There's no free will," says the philosopher; "To hang is most unjust."
"There is no free will," assents the officer; "We hang because we must."

Cuttlefish said...

We do change; we do learn; we do choose. We do not do so freely. We are active; our actions are selected from, not elicited, but the molar view of our actions still is deterministic. The good news is, by recognizing that we are shaped mostly by short-term consequences, we can do our best to adjust our short-term contexts to reflect what is in our best long-term interests. I have no idea how one would influence truly freely chosen actions.

Bierce's philosopher is only halfway right. Certainly if there is no free will there is no "blame", this is true. But neither is there a requirement for "blame"--that is part of our culture's assumption of freely chosen actions. If a determinist model says that actions are shaped in part by their consequences, then Bierce's policeman is also halfway right; if we wish to reduce a behavior, why would we eliminate the consequences of that behavior? (Of course, hanging does not change behavior, it simply eliminates the person. Bierce, delightfully as always, engages in hyperbole to make his point, but both his alternatives are more strawmen than real.)