Do criminals have free will?

If you ever thought philosophy was for people with glasses and sticking-out ears who need to get out more, you may be in for a shock. EveryThings That Bother Me by Galen Strawson crime thriller you’ve ever read is steeped in philosophy. As is every courtroom drama – real or fictional.

For one thing, there’s ethics – the branch of philosophy which asks piercing questions about right and wrong. No crime novel or TV series could survive without right and wrong – however blurred they may become.

But most of all, there’s the hot potato that’s free will.

Personally, I love philosophy. It forces my brain to work more deeply than almost anything else I read. I’ve been studying it much more recently, to help develop some of the deeper themes in a novel I’ve been working on.

And one of my essential weekly reads is Oliver Burkeman’s column This Column Will Change Your Life in Saturday’s Guardian. He always inspires me to think in a surprising way about some aspect of our brains, our ideas or our philosophy.

This week he focused on the chapter on free will in the latest invigorating book by philosopher Galen Strawson Things That Bother Me.

Is it possible to have free will?

The question of free will has occupied philosophers throughout history. But it has become more and more acute as science has grown more all-embracing. The more we know about the world, the more everything seems predictable – from the colour of you hair to the diseases you’ll be prone to.

Even our minds are a mix of genetic programming and nurture. Every thought a series of electronic impulses, caused by other electronic impulses.

So, do you have any free will at all. Is what you do down to you? Or to your DNA? Or your upbringing?

Luck swallows everything

If you won the Booker Prize, Strawson and Burkeman would say that’s no reason to praise you. It’s just luck. You had the right genes, the right teachers, the right opportunity. Inherited the self discipline you needed.

On the other hand, if you broke into a house, or knifed a man in the street, that would be bad luck. Genes, parenting, where you were born.

Suppose you argue that you taught yourself the self-discipline that won you the Booker? “Still luck,” says Burkeman, channelling Strawson. “You were gifted with the sort of character capable of cultivating self-discipline.”

And as Strawson goes deeper, Burkeman says, everything “gets a lot more uncomfortable.” Whatever you achieve or fail to achieve, if you search back far enough, you find some starting point that wasn’t your doing.

Or in Strawson’s vivid image, “Luck swallows everything.”

The free will con trick?

We might think we have free will but that – according to determinists like Strawson – is just an illusion.

We are caught tight in the bind. Everything is caused – every thought, every feeling. Even the feeling that we have free will. But in fact we have no free will. None of our choices are really ours.

Therefore nobody is at fault for anything. Not the serial killer. Not the drug dealer. Nobody.

(Is your brain hurting yet?)

Strawson says that his philosophy students all end up agreeing with him. Every single one. (Of course, you might say: they would, wouldn’t they?)

But still, reading that summary of Burkeman’s, something felt wrong. For all the hard logic, I felt I’d been conned.

Three problems

Here are three problems I have with Strawson’s argument:

1. The entire argument is based on an a priori statement – that’s to say, a belief that we must take for granted. It assumes from the start that everything is caused. Worse…

2. The argument itself is circular. Essentially, Strawson says, “Everything is caused, because everything is caused.” The statement is called on to prove itself.

3. It’s so all-encompassing as to be effectively useless. In that way, it reminds me of arguments for and against the existence of God, which can call on any conceivable event to prove (or disprove) that God exists.

In the same way, it’s impossible to imagine any event that could prove the existence of free will to a determinist. Whatever decision I might make, he could argue that something must have caused it, even if he didn’t know what this was.

Choice or no choice

But despite Strawson and his obedient students, there is an alternative way of seeing the world. Suppose I began with a different assumption. Suppose I assumed that we always have a choice.

Of course, it’s not an entirely free choice. You can’t snap your fingers and find yourself on a beach in Bali (unless you actually are reading this on a beach in Bali, that is).

But you always have a choice between different possibilities. Whatever the limits of my intelligence, I have choices I can make. However rich or poor my parents, there are some things I can accept or decline.

Even if someone holds a gun to my head, I can choose whether to obey or not.

And, following Burkeman, I can keep going back in time and at every point find I had a choice that could have gone differently. Yes, I can only play with the cards that life deals me. But I can still choose how to lay them down.

Of course, some of those choices may have been unconscious. But your unconscious mind is still a part of you. A very important part.

It’s your choice

My point is that you can propose a theory that everything we do is by choice and the world that results is indistinguishable from the world we live in.

Just as with determinism, you can’t imagine an action that could disprove that. In fact, there is one advantage, which is the general belief that we do have free will.

Determinists deal with this by calling it an illusion. But maybe it isn’t. We are free, indeed, to choose to disagree.

Feel free to disagree with me too. If you see logical flaws here, feel free to shoot them down in flames. I look forward to reading what you think.

It’s your choice.


Oliver Burkeman’s column – Your success isn’t down to free will

Galen Strawson Things That Bother Me – UK USA

The Information Philosopher – Determinism