Pre-packaged Excuses For A New Millenium

When I wrote “mad people are everywhere” I didn’t mean “schizophrenics”. “Schizophrenics” are an entirely theoretical construct. No one has yet supplied any convincing proof of their existence. They’re like the sasquatches of the post-modern era–all unicorn.

This brings me to a post in the National Post, written a few days later, We’re all schizophrenics now: Jonathan Kay on James Holmes, Sam Harris, and the morally terrifying case against free will.

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist. I find it no surprise at all that a neuroscientist, blood brother in research terms to your bio-medical psychiatrist, would be disputing the existence of free will. Funny thing though, I understand he wrote a short book on determinism that he called Free Will. The book isn’t about free will at all, it’s about his belief that free will is an illusion. I’m wondering if it would be feasible to write a book called “Determinism” all about free will.

I have no desire to read the book Sam Harris authored. I am free not to read his book, and so there. He can’t make me read his book either.

Not surprisingly, again, the author of this piece on that piece is indulging in what seems to be fast becoming a national pastime, namely, the pathologizing of criminality, or pin the “mental disorder” on James Holmes.

But a new book raises a question that puts the very existence of that continuum into doubt: What if none of us are truly “responsible” for our actions?

I’m also a firm believer in responsibility and accountability. I don’t see a lot a movement taking place in the human world that isn’t guided by some semblance of consciousness. Yes, let’s say that this person or that person acted this way or that way because he or she made the conscious decision to do so.

By way of example, Harris provides a list of five hypothetical killers — (1) a four-year-old who accidentally shoots someone while playing with his father’s gun; (2) a severely abused 12-year-old who kills a tormentor; (3) a child-abuse victim who, as an adult, shoots his ex-girlfriend after she leaves him; (4) a 25-year-with a solid upbringing, who kills a young woman “just for the fun of it”; and (5) a seemingly heartless murderer who later is discovered to have a large tumor that is short-circuiting his prefrontal cortex.

I feel like we’ve entered the lair of the forensic shrink. Could you please make it five hypothetical lovers instead? Oh, Okay. I guess not.

By conventional analysis, #3 and #4 would be branded evildoers; #1 and #5 would be given a free pass on grounds of age and biology, respectively; and #2 would lie somewhere in between. But Harris’ point is that, once you put aside our mythical religious baggage about good and evil (as he sees it), all of these cases are motivated by the same amoral whirling of a human brain’s synaptic gears. But not for the luck of the biological draw, any one of us — in another life — could be #1, #2, #3, #4 or #5: There is no magical, spiritual, free-willed force within our minds that will allow us to overcome the fate that is wired into the physical universe.

I’m not sure anyone should be given a free pass, especially when that free pass is a pass to murder. I also think at least one of the hypothetic killers should have been a police officer. Police officers, you might have noticed, kill a lot of people.

I’m still awfully curious about those hypothetical lovers. I wonder, do lovers choose their victims?

Actually I think the people who come up with these unlucky schemes for other people find a loophole that allows them to count themselves among the lucky ones. How convenient! I, on the other hand, think there is something to planning that can potentially avert disaster in the long run. When disaster can be diverted, it isn’t determined. Free will, in other words, for me, is no illusion.

4 Responses

  1. Schizophrenia exists. You may not feel that you have convincing proof but I do. It is not automatically a life sentence, although. It can be cured or handled.

    “Do lovers choose their victims?” sounds a bit cynical. One hopes that lovers choose their lovers and love them. Murder figures, however, suggest that you are closer to the truth. There are theories about attraction that suggest this is the case on a subconscious level if not a conscious one. Victims inadvertently choosing their killers is in there too.

    I would give numbers one and two a break here. Number one doesn’t know and number two has suffered enough at the hands of someone they could not escape from. A lot of counselling is needed, although, for number two because we would want to avoid that child thinking that killing someone in the future is a good way of resolving things; they will also need to come to terms with the killing. In this instance, I would say that justice has been done, after a fashion. Number five – is that what happens? Is murder a normal response? I would jail number three and number four. Number three knows deep down that his ex-girlfriend is not to blame; he does not want to accept that she is no longer under his control in some way. People who have been abused have a greater need to control because of the way they were controlled; it reassures them. This does not excuse premeditated murder. It was an act of selfishness. Number four I would lock up for life. He would do it again.

    From the same article:

    “..a desire for retribution, arising from the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion — and perpetuates a moral one.”

    I do not think that a desire for retribution is the main issue. Logically, if you were not to jail number three, the idea that killing your ex-girlfriend is acceptable would lead to more killings.

    “..we can build a “scientifically informed system of justice.” Under such a system, criminals would be jailed, yes — but only to pursue the explicitly utilitarian goal of preventing them from committing more crimes.”

    With this, Harris conveniently forgets the deterrent effect upon others of seeing someone jailed for a crime.

    Free will exists. There would be plenty more bodies around the place if we did not exercise it on a daily basis; we can avoid murdering each other in the main.

    Police officers are among the people who do get a free pass to murder in the US. It happens all the time. The military too, but not usually in our neighbourhoods. Heads of state are the worst. They murder the most people without compunction or redress.

    • Show me a schizophrenia, and I will show you a unicorn. You say you have proof. Proof of what? That there is a schizophrenia? I don’t think so.

      According to Judge Judy the divorce rate is at 52 %. That stat would put the workable marriage rate at 48 %. No, I don’t think I’m being cynical.

      Speaking of victims, the first suspect in any murder case is usually the person closest to the deceased. Nuff said.

      I’m not playing judge and jury. I’m not making the decisions for these hypothetical defendants. I think it is wrong to cry “mental illness” every time a lone gunman fires into a crowd. I’ve seen the way this plays out in state legislatures, and people in the mental health system are the ones who pay. Most of them are not there because they’re violent despite the legal definition of insane. Most of them are there because they are unwanted.

      In my view freedom is incompatable with determinism. We live in an indeterministic universe. This means essientially that we are not fated, we are the masters of our fate. We can destroy ourselves, yes, but we have the option of saving ourselves if we so choose.

      Justice is a matter of retribution not science. BF Skinner’s utopia of scientists, or more precisely, pseudo-scientists, is hell as far as I’m concerned.

      Police officers, soldiers, and heads of state fit the legal definition of insane in that they are more dangerous to self and others than most people who have had experience in the mental health system. Very true.

  2. Apparently it is getting bigger..

    “Now, the alliance between the prefrontal cortex and the forces of greed takes the form of globalization – spreading the values of freedom, democracy and free trade. Once again, the bottom line is the same: get rich, get powerful and do it believing that it’s all part of the greater good. Your greed is morally unassailable.”

    And from:

    “Dr. Burns first met the man after he showed up at UVa hospital complaining of headaches and saying he feared he would rape his landlady.”

    He stopped himself from raping his landlady. Free will, anybody?

    “The tumor wasn’t completely the cause of the behavior,” Thomas said. “He had to have the impulse somewhere within him. The tumor simply made it difficult for him to act against that impulse.”

    “Sexual impulses are common to everyone, of course,” he said, “but I don’t believe the impulse to molest children is common in everyone.”

    (George Thomas, a UVa professor emeritus of philosophy.)

    From the same article:

    (In the 1920s)

    “A lawyer named Clarence Darrow argued that all criminal behavior was caused by mental or physical illness,” Thomas said. “He said we should think of criminal behavior as a disease that could be treated mentally or physically.”


    • Although there are exceptions, in my view, bad behavior doesn’t stem from bad brains. Bad behavior stems from bad decisions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: