I should note a few things from the start. I understand that there is much prewritten work available here, namely the sequences, the codex, and my favorite fanfic ever, HPMOR. I have tried to find and understand where any of these or any other prewritten works associated with LessWrong.com might have already addressed these questions. I am writing this however because either I did not find the answers I was looking for or I have not recognized them; either way I ask for assistance.
Also, full disclosure, while I have spent the majority of the past three and a half decades (of my 53 total years) on my own exploring applied rationality and discussing it face to face with others in my life’s orbit, as of the last three years or so I have become drawn to the idea of making a book out of my conclusions so far, on the off chance that doing so could be helpful to even a single other person who comes across it. My time on this planet is limited; I’d like to leave some collected thoughts, the fruits of my time to date, to survive me – again, on the off chance that they can be helpful.
One of the realizations I’ve had more recently (largely because it was not an area of thought that interested me until recently) is the question of whether we have the option of making any other choices than the ones we actually do. This by some is called the question of free will, but I am choosing to largely avoid that phrase here in order to attempt to be much more specific, to wit:
When a sentient being (such as I or you) makes decision, is it ever possible they could have made a decision different from the one that they actually made. (Or if speaking of a future decision, will make.)
I am imagining that my chain of thinking on this topic may well seem simplistic, even naïve to the minds found here, but here it is nonetheless, the best effort I have been able to make in applying reason to this question so far, in abbreviated form:
- In order to seek explanations for the patterns we see in reality, we must first embrace the idea that even when we don’t know the reasons why something has happened, we still hold that there are reasons why it happened. We must first begin with the idea that explanations are possible to begin seeking them, even if some wind up to be statistical in nature. Even when we cannot determine how something occurred, we still understand that it had a reason for occurring.
- Thus, we embrace that whatever happens in reality happens because of reality – because of the specific details and configuration of reality in the moment.
- Human decisions and choices are also things that happen in reality.
- Thus, human decisions and choice also happen due to the specific details and configuration of reality: both the reality of the environment that the person is confronted with when making the choice, and the reality of the full nature of the person making the choice at the time of doing so.
- Therefore, a person who makes choice A had to make that choice, for to have made any other choice the person would have either had to be different than they actually were, or the situation/environment would have had to be different than it actually was. Given the specific reality of both the person and the situation they are in when they make a choice, it stands to reason that the choice they do make is the choice they must make, else they would be making a different choice instead.
The above seems inescapably tautologically true, to my best effort to find otherwise. When a sentient being makes any choice of any kind, the “rules of reality”, whatever they may be, dictate what that choice will be. This is not to say we know the rules well enough to be able to predict the choice, nor to say we will necessarily ever be able to learn the rules well enough to be able to make such an accurate prediction. But we don’t need to be able to predict a future choice to know that the choice that will be made will be the one that reality dictates must be made.
It therefore becomes irrational to insist that people “ought” to have made any choice other than the one that they do, if it is indeed true that the choice a person actually makes in any circumstance is the only choice they are capable of making, given whatever the rules of reality actually are. How does it make sense to blame a person for not doing what they are incapable of doing?
If human choice works this way, as I think the above demonstrates, we cannot be reasonably any more upset with people for their “wrong” choices than we can be upset at a car that doesn’t function: both have no choice in their response, and simply work how they must.
There was an illustration I read somewhere with this exact comparison: that holding people responsible for their choices is no different from Basil Fawlty warning his car that it better stop misbehaving and start working, and then giving his car a “well-deserved” thrashing with an umbrella when it failed to shape up.
Note: I am not saying that we should not visit consequences on those who do things that we dislike, merely that those consequences make more sense from a view to changing the future than punishing the past. Imprisoning someone who enjoys murdering people makes sense if doing so reduces future murders, assuming that is one of our goals – regardless of whether or not we “blame” the murderer.
So this is where I am at. It seems to me that no one can have the capacity to do anything other than the rules of reality demand, and as such, whenever we make a decision or choice, it was the one we had to make given all the circumstances. Since we had no option of making any other decision, we cannot reasonably have any moral duty to do what we cannot do. Thus no person, no matter what they choose to do, can be reasonably told that they “ought” to have done any different, since they simply did not have that option.
And so I have concluded that there is no basis on which to judge others as “to blame” or as “morally wrong”. Thus punishment makes no sense in terms of being “deserved”, and neither does vengeance (except possibly in terms of the vengeance seeker seeking their own emotional pleasure/relief/closure).
The silver lining if I am right I think is threefold:
- This would more clearly delineate the difference between punishment and justice: whereas punishment makes no rational sense from a moral stance, justice still makes sense because justice is about influencing the future using the past only as data, but not living in the past.
- We would have to stop blaming both others and ourselves, and instead start asking better questions, like “if I don’t like what the other person did, what do I want to do about it?” Hopefully less raging and more pragmatics.
- We would have to finally embrace a practical morality. A preacher I discourse with asked me, given that fact I cannot be held to blame for any of my actions, what’s to stop me from pushing my own mother down the stairs. My answer was simple. I don’t do such things because they are not who I am, because doing things like that would distress me. And that is also the reason I didn’t do any of that before I reached this conclusion too.
(For people who don’t have such natural instincts, that is one reason we do need consequences/justice: to both disincentivize unwanted behaviors and to remove the capabilities of those to commit such acts in the future.)
One of the main reasons I am putting this all here is it seemed to me that the sequence on Free Will, as best as I could understand it, may have been disputing some of the elements above – although much of it was either not about these items directly or over my head (or both, perhaps). For all I know, the Free Will sequence is about something entirely different than what is above.
For instance, it seems to me that the Free Will sequence was focused a lot more on the question of “why does it seem to us that we have freedom of choice” rather than examining whether we actually do have it or not. And I didn’t see anything in that sequence that addressed any of my thoughts above – either because it doesn’t or because it went over my head and I may need help making it not do that.
So, where do we go from here? As far as I can see at this moment, it seems unavoidably and even factually correct to state that no being in reality can possibly have freedom to act in any way other than the rules of reality require, and those rules must thus determine what choice they must make in any given moment. Without a capability to have made any choices differently given the circumstances, we cannot rationally assign any moral duty or blame.
If this thinking is not correct, then please demonstrate to me why? I am, as always, trying to become less wrong.