Just for fun, let’s imagine that years from now, you and I form a law firm. Like many startups, we hope to land the “big case” that will put us on the map. But after months of trying, we have no success and we start to feel hopeless—until, that is, one fateful day when a potential client walks through our door with just the case we’ve been waiting for!
Our potential client, Dr. Gary Petto, explains to us that he is a brilliant (his words) computer scientist who has created the first ever android (Pinocchio) capable of duplicating human characteristics to a T. Unfortunately, Pinocchio killed a human being and the police have now arrested the good doctor, and charged him with murder. G. Petto says that he has enjoyed reading my columns over the years and now wants to hire me.
Agreeing to take his case for a nominal fee, I immediately get to work. My first step is to call the assigned Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to ask what this is all about. ADA Dillon informs me that the prosecution has an open and shut case (like I haven’t heard that before!). She states that my client is guilty of murder since he alone programmed Pinocchio. I reply that this android was uniquely created to make its own choices. She then insists that the specialists in her office have explained to her that Pinocchio could not possibly have freewill since its choices are the direct result of its original construction and its subsequent modifications caused by its environment. “The android has no say in either,” she maintains. Since Pinocchio’s choices and actions have been determined by forces beyond its control, G. Petto, its creator, is responsible. Anticipating my response, ADA Dillon further insists that even if Pinocchio were able to change its programming, the extent to which it could do that was set by my client. She ends the conversation with a line I have heard a thousand times before— “this case is a dead loser for you, you better talk to your client about a plea deal.”
The case is before a judge the following day. The ADA is now asking that my client’s bail status be changed to “remand”—that is, incarceration pending trial, without any possibility to bail out—since, after consulting with experts, she is certain that Pinocchio has no freewill and that G. Petto is, therefore, guilty of the murder. After she finishes her impassioned plea, I am allowed to address the court.
“Your honor,” I say, “if Pinocchio lacks freewill because of his original construction and his environment, then humans, including my client, lack it as well.” As that comment is being digested, I continue; “Aren’t we all the products of our genetic makeup, physical characteristics, upbringing, experiences, and environment? Aren’t we, like the android, programmed by forces over which we have no control? But who would deny that we have freewill? If this court does, then you have no business punishing people for actions that they cannot control. But if you agree with me that we have freewill, then so did Pinocchio and my client is guilty of nothing.”
Our fictional courtroom colloquy highlights a longstanding philosophical question. While scientific developments over the last century have opened our eyes to the fact that we are the products of our genes and environment, we still want to believe that our actions are free. So much of our societal beliefs and institutions are dependent on that very notion. This seeming contradiction between recent scientific findings and our experience of making free choices is what philosophers call the problem of freewill vs. determinism. This quandary warrants a closer look.
As with any philosophical enterprise, we need to begin our analysis by trying to examine our problem with some degree of precision. It is obvious to me that we are inclined to believe that every event has a cause. Statements like, “everything happens for a reason,” are reflections, albeit primitive in their conception, of this very notion. This view is known as causal determinism. Even if we sometimes don’t immediately comprehend the causes of an event, we generally think that, even if presently unknown, every event has a cause.
Similarly, we also imagine that our actions—that is, what we do, say or choose—also have causes, since our actions are events as well. We understand that our acts are the result of our heredity, our experiences, our personality, and perhaps something that immediately preceded the acts or even something otherwise unknown. Yet, oddly, we also believe that we have freewill—that we can make choices and it will be up to us what we choose. Flowing from this notion that we act freely, we believe we are morally and legally responsible for what we do. But if everything has a cause (causal determinism), how is it possible for us to have freewill? Two of our most fundamental beliefs appear to be inconsistent. Is it really that our actions are not free but rather the byproducts of factors beyond our control? Or, is determinism false? Or, could it be that we are misapprehending the problem altogether?
We should not underestimate the importance of our answers to these questions. What’s at stake is the entire concept of moral and legal responsibility. If we are not free in any meaningful way, we cannot be praised or condemned for what we do. Our deeds would be perceived as the result of a causal chain that could be traced back to the indefinite past. We would be living in an “everything happens for a reason” hell.
Before we take a philosophical plunge into the solutions that various thinkers and traditions have given to this thorny issue, we probably should first reassure our client, G. Petto, that the prosecution’s case against him is based on a contradiction. The District Attorney’s theory is that actions, specifically those of Pinocchio, are not the product of freewill, even though freewill was written into his program. As a result, she maintains that, unlike our client, Pinocchio is innocent and free of responsibility. But, using the prosecution’s own argument, we must hold Petto free of blame as well. Under her own theory, he too is an innocent byproduct of programming—namely, genetics, environment and experience.
Due to word count constraints beyond my control, I am now forced to end this column! Nevertheless, we shall continue this discussion next week, and, as always, you are free to join me once again. Or, are you?