Brian Edwards on Determinism

Brian Edwards recently expressed his innate laziness by rehashing his views on determinism. He cites the fact that he is a “hard determinist” as support for his position on crime and punishment. Basically, because a combination of genetics and environment entirely determine a person’s actions, it makes no sense to punish them.

While I appreciate Dr Edwards’ sentiments, I take issue with various points and turns of phrase.

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Individual Responsibility

So, rather than removing personal responsibility from the picture, the naturalistic worldview shows that holding people accountable is actually an essential part of the chain of causation that can shape good behavior. Furthermore, naturalism makes us more likely to be compassionate and effective in how we hold people accountable, since as we’ve seen it undercuts justifications for harsh punishment that ignore the causes of crime.

Good to see that someone wrote it, saving me the trouble of doing so. This article is about how the notion of personal responsibility can be incorporated sensibly into a deterministic (read: non-magical) view of human behaviour. [Later edit: sadly, this article has disappeared from the internet. Please leave a comment if you can find it.]

Free Will, Preliminary.

So much of my views on so many things is dependent on my views regarding the words “free” and “will” being put together as if it meant something, and the cancerous growth of bullshit it signifies.

I want to write about this, as I always do, but I want to write it right, so I want to make a preliminary observation.

Actions arise out of a combination of values (aka desires), recognised options and beliefs about the world. One chooses (with some other factors) the recognised option that will bring about the most-valued outcome – as predicted by one’s understanding of the world and causality.

For example, someone who sincerely believes that lemons are sweet, who hypothetically has no value besides desiring the taste of sweet things, will choose to eat a lemon, over other options, if eating a lemon is a recognised option. They are not being irrational. They are merely mistaken about the world.

That’s the problem with mistaken ideas of the world. They give rise to actions that bring about undesired results through mistakenly predicting desirable results.

Taking the Lead out of the Crime Pencil. Yes, that’s it.

Who knew he fought violent crime too?
I’ve explained before that free will is superstitious nonsense. The reasons for a person’s actions are determined by factors outside of their control – this is a logical necessity. And so the rational way to treat crime is as a sickness with causes, rather than a sin of volition.

Put me in charge of parking fines in Auckland City, and I can make a statistically significant number of drivers pay for parking – by doubling the fines. Nothing else will have changed, except for me upping the fines, and that will change their behaviour. External factors.

It’s fairly well known that the book Freakonomics claimed that crime rates in the US markedly dropped as a result of legalised abortions. 20 years later, there was a generation of unwanted 20-year-olds born to impoverished young single mothers who didn’t exist to join gangs and smoke the marijuana like a cigarette. Crime, which had been a growing concern in the US, plummeted.

The Independent is now reporting that crime has dropped due to leaded petrol being banned. Lead had been associated with minor brain damage in children exposed to it – potentially resulting in higher rates of criminal behaviour as adults. The UK was one of the last developed countries to ban lead in petrol, and it’s the last to see a significant drop in crime.

To be concerned more with the long-term causes of crime than the immediate prevention and punishment of criminals in the short term is typically a left-wing political perspective. Right-wing politics are often identified with harsher sentencing and more police powers – whether due to the ideology of the politicians or the simple practicality of an easily grabbed senior-citizen vote.

Unfortunately, people have very short memories, and policies that have long-term reductive effects on crime are seldom appreciated in the form of popular political support. In other words, if you’re asked what you’re going to do about crime, and you say you’ll remove its causes 20 years from now and the other guy says he’ll make “life mean life”, you’ll lose, and 20 years later, crime won’t have dropped off.

No more wall candy, people.

Magical Thinking

Belief in free will is not merely an abstract idiocy. It has concrete and idiotic practical applications. For example, last night I was talking to someone who likes John Key and National’s emphasis on “personal responsibility”. It was implied (or explicitly stated – one of the two) that people can “freely choose” whether or not to go to university, whether or not to commit a crime. When I pointed out the overwhelming tendencies of violent criminals coming from lower socio-economic areas and tertiary-educated people coming from wealthier areas, I was met with a kind of blank stare and a repetition of the assertion: people choose whether or not to do these things.

Otherwise rational people adopt this insane stance. It’s like some kind of bizarre brainwashing. Their reasoning is something like this. I say, “Decisions are entirely determined by factors outside of a person’s control.”

They respond: “You’re saying that external factors account for 100% of the determinants of decision-making. This is wrong. External factors influence decisions, but not 100%. Something like 70% or something. And the other 30% is made up of KRSHHRSHSTATICSHHSRRHSRH. Therefore, people are to blame for their own actions. They could have acted differently, but they didn’t.”

Fuck knows what’s going on in that part where their reasoning becomes static. If you try to get them to think about that part of their reasoning, their eyes glaze over for a moment, then they fast-forward to their conclusion and start repeating it over and over.

Alan Watts coined a word – “goeswith”/”gowith” – to refer to those things that are flip sides of the same coin. For example, cause and effect. Cause goeswith effect, and it’s both confused and confusing to speak of them as separate. One might ask, “How on earth does the cause leap forward in time to interact with the effect?” But it’s all one thing, a cause-effect.

That’s what we’ve got here with this free will nonsense. Choices gowith reasons. The 30% of static in the reasoning of the person who believes in free will provides a kind of imaginary space in which the decision is made separate from the reasons. Within this imaginary space, the imaginary agent gazes dispassionately at the surrounding 70% – the fears, hopes, desires that make it possible to evaluate the preferability of the options – and then chooses which ones to give weight to.

And that feels to them like it makes sense, because they’re forgetting that choices gowith reasons, and if they’re going to choose which reasons to act on, they’re going to need reasons for that decision too.

What’s another way to put it? The 30% of static is, to them, like a swing vote. It’s those voters who are undecided. 35% want to get up and go to work. 35% want to stay in bed and call in sick. 30% are undecided, and it could go either way! That’s what the static is. But, in keeping with the analogy, the 35% were compelled by reasons for voting for, and the other 35% were compelled by reasons for voting against, and the 30% swing voters will also be compelled by reasons for or against. But the static obscures the fact that until they decide, undecided voters are no voters at all. To the reasoning of the free-willer, that 30% is a different kind of thing from the decided voters.

And finally, it’s the unpredictability of decisions that provides cover for the 30% of static in the reasoning. It’s the fact that, unlike obviously determined things like the striking of the match, we don’t have the ability to perfectly predict how someone will act. You can tell me everything you know about someone, but I will only ever be able to tell you how they’re likely to act. Jenny’s fairly mature, she’s never given indications of being depressed, she is expecting good things in the future, so it’s really unlikely that she’ll jump off the bridge as she walks over it. But she might! But she probably won’t. But she might! And I can’t say for sure.

The unpredictability is not due to some lack of determinism in decision-making, but simply the complexity of the process and the number of factors influencing it. It’s analogous to the weather. We can’t predict with 100% accuracy whether or not it will rain tomorrow, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking that it’s determined – which is to say, if we did know everything about the factors involved in weather, we would be able to predict it with 100% accuracy.

I am increasingly convinced that a LOT of the foolishness in human society is based on the magical thinking at the base of a belief in free will. It affects every aspect of human organisation – economics, government, religion, war, crime and punishment. Sanity needs to spread if things are to get better.

Warrior Codes

Samurai Showdown: vastly superior to Street Fighter.


In 1997, I accepted a tenure-track position in the ethics section of the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the U.S. Naval Academy. My students are intelligent, well-rounded, surprisingly earnest, and extremely likable young people. My six years of teaching philosophy to these future Navy and Marine Corps officers have made it impossible for me to see discussion about the ethics of war as a mere academic exercise. The men and women in my classes have volunteered to be America’s warriors. It is important for all of us to understand what that means.

Some of my students reported having trouble understanding how anyone, no matter what his convictions, could agree to take part in terrorist operations that are not limited by moral constraints and that involve intentionally targeting innocent civilians. They wondered: Are the people who can do these things inhuman monsters? How can they create meticulous plans to slaughter unsuspecting civilians without being stopped in their tracks by impossible-to-ignore pangs of conscience?

Ethics professor Shannon French sets her US military students an interesting assignment. When Teaching the Ethics of War is not Academic.


Doing Your Time

The topic of the day, besides changing Shortland Street actresses, seems to be violent criminals being paroled and then going on P-fuelled rampages. The term comes from the French word for “word” – the idea being that a convicted criminal can give his word that he won’t break certain rules, and so he’s allowed out of prison.

Now, whether or not that’s a good idea naturally comes down to your attitude towards prison and the justice system in general. What is the justice system for? And does parole help towards that goal?

Stephen Franks says parole’s pointless. He reckons that by (further) lowering the odds of spending a lot of time in jail, the gambling mind of the criminal is even more likely to commit crimes. Also, criminals aren’t serving the sentence they’ve been given. Graeme Edgler explains non-parole periods of imprisonment as the actual punishment, and the maximum sentence provides protection to the community. He says, “The existence of a system of parole means we can keep certain criminals in prison even after their punishment is over, if their release would pose a risk to the community.”

Both attitudes are to some extent tainted by the superstitious idea of “deserving punishment”. A popular concern with parole – especially with the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which embodies the superstition – is that criminals are getting off easy, without having been punished with the suffering they deserve.

I’ll try to explain this bizarre idea of “deserving” and “punishment”, in case you’re not familiar with it. Basically, these think that humans have a thing they call “free will”. It’s never really clear what this thing is, but it’s sort of the idea that when you make a choice, even though you chose to do one thing, you could have chosen to do something else. It’s as if you can totally step out of yourself and your situation and choose without any of those things that make choice possible (upbringing, hormones, emotions, etc.)

To make things worse, there are “good” actions and “evil” actions, and if you choose to do an “evil” action, you accumulate invisible points in a magical invisible scale in space or something. This is called “guilt”. And once you have accumulated invisible guilt points, the world will be a better place after you have suffered. And since the world doesn’t always make guilty people suffer, we have to do the job ourselves, and even up the invisible point scales by inflicting suffering on those who have accumated invisible guilt points. And failing to inflict that suffering is an evil action itself, and you can get invisible guilt points for it.

So when it comes to criminals, they’re people who chose to do evil things, even though they could have – and “should have” – done good things instead, and so they have invisible guilt points and the justice system makes the world a better place by inflicting suffering on them. The more evil the action, the more suffering it takes to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, these poor, deluded individuals have been rather influential in the past, and so the justice system has traditionally been more interested in evening up the invisible scales than actually reducing evil actions. Partly because to suggest that you can systematically reduce crime is to suggest that maybe crime has causes, rather than it just being those instances when people use their free will to choose to be evil.

On top of that, once the invisible scales have been evened up, there’s no reason left to inflict suffering on someone, so it’s good to let them go back into the community, no matter what kind of person they may still be.

If they were really concerned with reducing crime and not evening up invisible scales, the whole emphasis of the justice system would be on:

    1. Prevention – looking at the factors that cause people to commit crimes, and reducing them.


  • Protection – of the community from people who have proven themselves dangerous.



  • Rehabilitation – methods of changing people from being the kind who commit crimes to the kind that don’t want to.



  • Disincentive – a poor substitute for (1) and (3).


That would have two consequences for parole. Firstly, if a person has proved themselves to be a violent, dangerous person, they should not be allowed out until they have proven themselves to be a social, non-dangerous person. Secondly, the complete emphasis of prisons should be on rehabilitation, with no superstitious ideas of “punishment” getting in the way of that project.



Robert Anton Wilson
1932 – 2007

In the year 2000, I went a little nuts. I basically had a kind of breakdown, where I could no longer handle the corporate IT job I had. You know that thing where you stare at a word for too long and it ceases to have any meaning? Everything around me was like that. So I quit my job, gave away most of my stuff, bought a backpack and headed south. I ended up in Christchurch.
That was where a friend lent me The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson (and Robert Shea). This was back when I was a Christian, before I had any idea what anarchism was about, etc. The ideas in the book, and the way they were conveyed, had a significant impact on me.
In retrospect.
Anyway, he’s dead now. It’s been a long time coming.
“If you think you know what the hell is going on,
you’re probably full of shit.”
Robert Anton Wilson