Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why I don't believe in moral accountability

I think this is the one belief of mine that people find to be the most bizarre, objectionable, and difficult to understand. So I thought I would just come out and try and tackle it head-on, and try and explain my position as clearly as I can.

I agree that we all can make choices. The question is whether our choices are an ultimate explanation of our behavior, or simply a proximate explanation. My position is that our choices are only a proximate explanation, and the ultimate explanation lies in our genetics, our environment, and our influences, broadly defined. Another way of putting it is that our brain is a deterministic system, like a computer. A certain input yields a certain output. However, predicting that output is incredibly difficult because the system is so complex. A good analogy of this is the weather.

I recently read about weather prediction in “The Signal and the Noise.” The basic principles of weather prediction are rooted in physics and were understood a long time ago, but very slight changes in the initial data lead to vastly different predictions. The key to successful prediction turned out to lie in high-resolution data and a lot of detailed computation. The brain is similar: even though it is deterministic, its complexity makes prediction very difficult.

So why am I sure the brain is deterministic? Well, because it is made of out deterministic parts. I know a computer is a deterministic system because it is made out of wires and transistors, and the wires and transistors are deterministic, so the computer as a whole must be deterministic as well. Similarly, neurons and molecules are deterministic, so the brain must be deterministic as well.

I’ve often heard many of the same reactions to my position, so I’m going to respond to some of them:

Couldn't it be that my choices affect my neural activity? Well, no. First of all, you are your neurons, so you can't separate yourself from your neural activity. Secondly, a clever neuroscience experiment showed that the neurons indicating a particular choice began firing before the subject perceived that he had made that choice. It seems that neural activity causes the choice, not the other way around. That is exactly what I'd expect, since I believe that we are our neurons.

Are you saying my choices don’t matter, since everything is already determined? No, not at all. Your choices have consequences. I am saying that the reason you make the choices you make is because of your past experiences and brain states. I made the choice to write this blog post, but I ultimately made that choice because of my genetics, my (limited) knowledge and experience, etc.

If you tell people they’re not responsible for their own choices, they’ll behave badly! I believe that choices ought to be made on the basis of their consequences, and that a good understanding of the consequences of any choice will motivate the right choice. Therefore, a better understanding of truth will usually lead to a better outcome. I believe that people are inherently empathetic (due to evolution) and wish to do good, rather than harm, to other people.

Does this mean we can’t justifiable punish criminals as a society, since they are not accountable for their actions? No. I don’t think we should punish criminals because they “deserve” to be punished. I don’t think anyone “deserves” to be punished. I think that we should punish criminals to provide incentives for good behavior. Dangerous criminals ought to be locked up, not because they deserve it, but in order to prevent them from causing harm to themselves or others.

Quantum mechanics shows that molecules are more probabilistic than deterministic. Yes, but brain parts are large enough that I think the randomness of quantum mechanics has a trivial effect (if any effect at all) on brain function. Even if it adds an element of randomness, that doesn't justify moral accountability in my opinion.

So that about wraps it up. You’re welcome to ask questions, debate me, offer another viewpoint, or generally say whatever you want in the comments as long as it’s respectful.