Freedom and Judgment, Part 2, by Sean Agius

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Within the conclusion of a previous article titled ‘Freedom and Judgement,’ I implied that certain factors such as mental health, culture, and family, knowledge, and so on play a decisive role in determining the actions that one chooses to perform. In this article (which will be very creatively titled ‘Freedom and Judgement Part II’), I shall further expand upon this notion – concluding that the said factors, though singularly acting only as behavioural influences, in unison act as determiners – ultimately rendering one’s actions equally as determined as those of a rabies sufferer, consequentially demanding a rethink of the manner in which we judge other people’s moral value.

(Please note that since this article shall be utilising a case study described within the first article, it is highly recommended that one reads the said article before this one; otherwise, you may expend the majority of your mental energy trying to figure out who this ‘Paul’ character is.)

The first and most obvious factor in this regard, besides physical illness, is mental illness. Returning to the case study, let Paul suffer from schizophrenia instead of rabies. Having neglected to take his medication, he became convinced that everyone was prepared to murder him and thus acted in what was, in his mind, self-defense. Guessing again, I would say that, based on this information, our judgment of Paul has again become significantly more lenient since, due to his mental illness, he is not deemed fully responsible for his actions.

The mental illness variable also, however, begs a re-analysis of the sociopathic version of Paul. At face value, the cases may seem distinct, but the concept is at its core identical – how brain chemistry (which one usually bears little control over) influences actions. In essence, Paul did not choose to suffer from either schizophrenia or sociopathy. In the case of the latter, Paul has no choice but to suffer from brain dysfunctions that force him to thirst for blood.

Now one may still criticise this version of Paul, arguing that in spite of his lack of freedom from his desire, his actions were still his own. The vast majority of those people, though, probably never suffered from mental illness. As those who have or do suffer could tell you that the abstract possibility of doing or not doing something does not necessarily translate to an actual ability to do so. An illness (both physical and mental) by definition implies the lack of freedom from that which one suffers from, whether that be due to cholesterol in the case of somebody who suffers from heart disease or brain functions for somebody who suffers from mental illnesses. This is why someone with depression cannot just get out of the bed, or an OCD-sufferer just stop washing their hands. They suffer from a disease, caused by external forces outside of their realm of control, which compels them to act in the manner that they do. Sociopathy is similarly classified as a mental illness within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and therefore like OCD or depression equally influential in compelling the sufferer (in this case Paul) to act in the manner that he does.

(Important note: the inclusion of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and OCD is in no way meant to liken sufferers from such disorders to murderers, but only to highlight the role that brain chemistry plays in determining actions.)

The point, however, still stands that such dispositions are not alone sufficient to render an action as determined. Not all sociopaths, after all, go on violent rampages. Furthermore, even if we do concede that certain actions are influenced by brain function, what about the first scenario – Paul the gangster? The case is seemingly rather clear-cut. Surely his action were not determined as he held full control over both his mental and physical capacities! There may however be one determining aspect which Paul (or anybody else for that matter) holds no control over – his circumstances, which though alone acting simply as influencers, in unison morph into determiners.

The first factors that come into play in this regard are cultural and familial backgrounds. That is how culture and family play a role in influencing aspects of an individual. For example, South Americans are significantly more likely to be football fans than North Americans for whom the sport is not as ingrained within the culture. The same can be said about individuals whose family either love or hate
the sport. It is somewhat absurd to conceive of the majority of North and South Americans choosing such disparate tastes independent of influential factors such as familial and cultural sensibilities which affect joys and annoyances.

If there are any North American football fan readers right now they are probably clutching on their LA Galaxy shirts screaming I’m North American and I’m a football fan! I don’t even call it soccer!’ The angry North American fan makes a salient point, not about the football/soccer argument, that I remain agnostic upon. The point here is that although culture and family could influence behaviour, they are not strict determinants.

Prior to tackling said issue however, I would like to highlight a few more influencing factors, the first of which being one’s life experiences. Life experience plays a significant influential role in our decision-making process – a dog-attack victim is for example significantly less likely to choose to enter a dog park than a non-victim.

Furthermore, since one attains knowledge predominantly through their life experiences (nobody is after all born knowing how to walk, talk, calculate complex sums or philosophise the concept of determinism), life experience plays an additional influencing role in this regard. Let us consider weight loss as an example, though weight-loss requires a large amount of will power from the loser’s end, it is nonetheless influenced by circumstances outside of one’s realm of control. Perhaps one was influenced to lose weight after learning about a new type of diet that motivated their interest, or by a personal trainer who proved the utility of exercise, or even by one’s knowledge of the simplest dietary concept of diets in/out, which though obvious to most is not an innately knowable concept. This, therefore, highlights the influential role that knowledge attained through life experience plays in influencing behaviour (as well as providing some half-decent dietary advice).

Another factor that was already touched upon but deserves further discussion is the role that neural chemistry plays in influencing decisions. Science has already proven what a major influential role the brain in general plays. Baba Shiv, a neural researcher, has shown that neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and so on have a significant effect upon who we are and the choices we make, even to the extent that one may be bound by said neuromodulators to make alternative decision in the morning and evening of the same day. The famous case of Phineas Gage further sustains this idea. After suffering a devastating head injury, Gage, a previously polite and respectful individual, began to display personality shifts – exhibiting animalistic behaviours such as irritability, impatience and so on. This was, it was hypothesised, due to the said brain injury which mainly affected his prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with behavioural control).

Though the neurobiological link between the brain/neuromodulators and decision making seems concrete, there remain two apparent flaws to the deterministic argument: firstly, the fact that the discussed factors are influencers, not determinants; and secondly, the presence of choice. I shall begin by tackling the latter; the choice-based counterargument to determinism is a particularly pertinent one because it proves the theoretical possibility of a series of alternative end results occurring due to choices made by the agent, the term choice being the supposed checkmate. Whilst I accept this concept, I nonetheless sustain that one may bare the capacity for choice and yet conversely still not be free, even though it may initially sound like an oxymoron.

The theoretical capacity to choose to perform an action does not necessarily equate to free will. Whilst it is true that we make conscious decisions every day, we are often unaware of the forces that negate our freedom to act alternatively, thus producing alternative results.

To properly explain this distinction an analogy would be appropriate; if Tim makes a conscious choice to walk right rather than left, he may initially seem like a free being. Imagine, however, that unbeknownst to Tim, a stealthy sniper stalked him from a rooftop with strict orders to shoot on sight as he began to walk left. In this scenario, whilst it is true that Tim does possess the capacity to choose, he is in no way free. The sniper’s presence relegates alternative actions strictly within the abstract realm – although Tim theoretically bore the ability to choose to walk left instead of right, concretely he was never truly free to do so, only to choose to try and do so. Freedom, therefore, equates to not only the presence of choice but simultaneously the concrete possibility of an alternative result being possible.

Dominoes waiting to fall… by Enoch Lai at the English language Wikipedia, free to share under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This smoothly brings us back to the first objection to the deterministic world view, that the aforementioned factors (culture, family, knowledge, neuromodulators and so on) influence rather than determine our choices. Choice and freedom do not, however, equate to one another; whilst it is therefore true that one’s capacity to make choices is not eliminated, said factors do nonetheless serve to inhibit alternative results strictly within the realm of the abstract in the same manner (albeit less overt) as the sniper. The choices one makes are ultimately attributable to an intricate causal chain consisting of factors which, in their singularity, serve simply as influencers but in their aggregate bare a similar deterministic effect to that of a domino push.

The result of a domino-effect is fully attributable to circumstance – the positioning of the dominoes, the velocity of the push, the angle of contact and so on. Said factors alone only influence the push’s result but when added together form a causal pattern which absolutely and infinitely determines its results. Identically, an action is equally as causally determined by context, this context being the sum total of one’s circumstance – culture, family, life experience, neuromodulators and so on which together form the same type of deterministic chain of causality as that of the domino push. Whilst it was therefore theoretically possible for Paul to have gone on a peaceful stroll rather than a mass murder spree, said possibility is a strictly abstract one. No less relevant than the abstract possibility of an alternative domino push result. If one were to somehow accurately replicate Paul’s circumstances it would, like the domino push, produce the identical determined results in infinitum.

The two remaining masochistically-inclined readers may at this point be wondering what the point of this article is. Is it to claim that terrorists, murderers, and the like should be left to roam the streets uninterrupted, spreading their destruction in any manner they see fit? To any concerned citizen, I assure you that this is not the case. The rejection of freedom does not equate to the rejection of consequence. Take the multiple faces of Paul as an example – regardless of the determining factors behind the violent outbreak, Paul’s consequential physical detainment serves an obvious and practical function, whether that be to prevent further harm upon others or to deter similar actions. Though the rejection of freedom does not equate to a consequence-free world it should equate to a judgment-free one.

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, what I refer to as a judgement-free world does not translate to a nihilistic one in which everybody is trapped in a prison of meaninglessness, unable to judge something as good, or bad or anything else for that matter. Indeed judging the world around us is as natural as breathing, impossible not to do. The ability to judge murder as bad and charity as good is, for example, an integral facet of a healthy outlook which should be maintained for the benefit of society as a whole. Whilst determinism does not render judging the action of murder as fruitless it does render the judgment of the person performing the action to be.

If we are to adopt a deterministic worldview – postulating that actions are determined by a context outside of one’s scope of control, the line of difference that we draw between the rabid version of Paul and its alternatives is a false one. Due to the aforementioned factors which determine one’s choices, the sociopathic or gangster versions of Paul are no less victims of circumstance than the rabid one or anybody else for that matter. Whilst it is therefore proper to condemn the act of killing, one holds no basis for judging the person performing the action (or any other action for that matter). If there is one effect that I hope this article has upon the readers it would be to compel them to think twice before passing judgment upon others, as all other factors being equal they themselves would be determined to act identically. In many ways, everybody is simply a victim of circumstance, determined by context. Who knows perhaps this shift in mentality may even produce some positive effects – forming a more accepting and just society in which one is not defined by their mistakes or punished for them eternally.

– Sean Agius

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Encourage a More Progressive Islam: The Peaceful Muslim Majority Should Dominate the Conversation

The debates around the Charlie Hebdo shooting have been raging hot and fast: should there be a stronger military response to militant Islamists? Does the Quran promote or at least allow violence, and if so, is Islam really a religion of peace? Are principles of the right to free speech and basic respect for the feelings of religious people compatible?
We’ve tried, and mostly failed, the military response tactic. Even where gains appear to have been made in the short term, a new crop of fanatics soon rise up to strike, as they feel their country’s honor has been violated by invaders who have no right to dictate what they should believe, what laws they should make, or what form of government they should create. It’s a fact of history that invasion, real or perceived, by foreign armies invariably provokes those disposed to violence to take up arms; these, in turn, convince the young, the aimless, and the self-righteous to join them in their ‘sacred’ cause. Even if the intention of the ‘invaders’ is to liberate or to protect (though I’m not convinced that’s entirely or even usually the case on the part of governments), these military interventions usually turn out worse for everyone in the long run. Consider the domino effect from our early intervention in Afghanistan against the Russians to our seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East. While each intervention on its own seemed justified to many in the short term, the deeper all parties dig themselves in with more fighting, the more the bodies pile up and the deeper the tensions run, generating yet more conflict.
So how about the religion itself, and its holy book? The Quran indeed contains violent passages, allowing and even commanding its readers to kill those who violate certain commandments or who don’t believe. The Bible is also chock-full of both divinely tolerated and divinely commanded violence, including rape, murder, mutilation, and lots of genocide. Christians, for centuries, invaded other countries, overthrew rulers, tortured and killed heretics and ‘witches‘ (including little girls), and harshly oppressed the Jews, from baptizing and kidnapping their babies to murderous pogroms. All this with consent, by silence or by instruction, of religious authority figures, including the Pope.

So why does the western world widely consider Christianity a religion of peace, and Islam a religion of genocide? Well, Christianity has undergone a pretty thorough reformation through the influence of better philosophical and evidence-based ideas, starting with the Protestants, continuing with the Enlightenment, and up to the Age of Science and Human Rights. With widespread literacy and open trade came the awareness that the old dogmatic, sin-obsessed, holy-war-glorifying ways are actually quite awful for human well-being, and that hey, if God loves us, maybe he doesn’t actually want us to live that way. Now, except for abortion clinic bombers, the odd Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik, and certain pundits, fundamentalists, and warmongers who seem to long for the days of the Crusades, Christianity is now, in comparison, mostly a benign family of religions of tolerance, peace, and good works. Even if, as I believe, they get a lot of stuff wrong (mostly the metaphysical stuff; otherwise, many of the ethical systems they promote are not half bad), Christian religions bear little resemblance to their forebears who enacted Old Testament values with gusto. Same goes for (most of) the Jewish family of religions.

This takes to our modern Age of Human Rights, in which the rights and interests of individual persons are of primary concern, so that any and all human institutions, be it religion, corporation, community, or government, is judged by how well it serves to protect and expand human rights. Is Islam compatible with this new understanding of the importance of human rights, in that they are at least on equal footing with religion, if not taking precedence over it? (From the religious viewpoint, of course: most modern, reformed, and mainstream religions seem to promote a robust conception of the centrality of human rights in their moral systems, and see no real conflict. The most progressive believers, as well as atheists and secularists, think that too many religions are still retrograde and unjust in their beliefs regarding gay, women’s, and children’s rights.) Should the threat of offending religious people be sufficient to limit that most sacred of human rights to the western world, free speech? We’re still figuring that one out when it comes to extreme cases, such as those that specifically incite violence, or ‘hate speech’. But for the most part, I think the general attitude of the western world towards free speech is the correct one: it should rarely be constrained, except when’s demonstrable that severe and direct harm will almost surely result from it. Even the speech of people with the most disgusting views must be tolerated in the interests of being an informed person, since it’s important to know who they are and what the bad ideas are that influence them. Most religions in the western world have become pretty comfortable with the idea of free speech and have come to value it highly, including the more moderate forms of Islam.

So how to stop the seeming spiral of parts of the Muslim world into an orgy of violence and the ideological dominance of its most extreme and retrograde forms? Encourage and promote those who stand against those violent ideologues. Most Muslims belong to this category of believers, and number among the most humane, thoughtful, and decent people you may care to meet. These are the Muslims who feel most, and most justifiably, beleaguered. They are as horrified as anyone else at all the atrocities committed in the name of the religion they identify with, perhaps more so since it’s other Muslims committing these crime, and like most Christians today, emphasize the nice parts of their holy book and interpret away the rest. And I’m sure they feel, as this thoughtful piece successfully argues, that it’s as ridiculous to blame Muslims as a group for the actions of Muslim killers, as it is to blame all Catholics for child-raping clerics, all Jews for the ultra-Orthodox few slinging feces at schoolgirls, or all atheists for Stalin’s genocide. It’s as ridiculous to expect all Catholics, Jews, and atheists to apologize and justify themselves following such atrocities, as it is to expect all Muslims to.

While there are still large parts of the Muslim world living under the rule of governments whose laws still carry out a retrograde understanding of justice, it’s just not true that most Muslims condone terrorist acts. Indeed, while doing research for this piece, I had a far harder time finding Muslim leaders who justify any kind of violence, even physical punishment for ‘apostates’ and criminals, than those that do. Outside of the rantings of pundits, who jump on the relatively rare examples of communities where a significant demographic believe violence is justified, it’s just not the case that Islam necessitates violence any more than Christianity does. Both revere holy books rife with passages promoting violence, but few Muslims and Christians are guided more by those passages than the peace-promoting ones. Yet it seems the pundits’ rantings dominate the major media outlets, while the voices of the peaceful majority of Muslims are all too often drowned out.

So if you’re one of those screaming and pointing fingers at ‘The Muslims’, let’s all stop being so damned self-righteous and smug in our own ‘enlightened’ point of view (yes, you too, my fellow atheists). Those of us who are interested in living in a more just, peaceful, tolerant, and free world should encourage such progress wherever it’s found, by praising it and trumpeting it from the rooftops. While I, too, feel that the world will be a better place when religion has lost its still too widespread dominance over the human heart and mind, I also know that many religious people feel a deep sense of identity with whatever faith they were brought up in, and this rarely changes quickly.

Who, then, will change the minds of those Muslims who hold beliefs contrary to principles of human rights and personal liberty? Will it be vitriolic Christians who point out the speck in their eye while ignoring the historical plank in their own? Will it be atheists who shout ‘Look, I told you so, that’s what happens when you consider ancient tribal texts the source of your morals’? I don’t think so, if history and a large body of research into why and how humans form their beliefs are any indication. The people who will change the mind of Muslims will generally be other Muslims.

So share widely every story of Muslims who hate violence and love tolerance, knowledge, and freedom, and let it it drown out the fundamentalists; I, for one, am rooting for their side in the fight over what broadly defines their religion. After all, they have the credentials and the inside knowledge of how it is to be a Muslim, to demonstrate to their fellow believers that the best way to be Muslim is to believe in a God of peace, tolerance, and justice. If you support these good people, you will become a help, and not a hindrance, on the journey of the human race, religious and secular alike, towards a more peaceful, tolerant, just, and wise world.

Here are prominent and influential Muslims and Muslim groups who stand against violence, to which I’ll keep adding as I discover them… and there are plenty to discover. Please share as widely as you can!

The Arab League and Al-Azhar condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

The Council on American-Muslim Relations condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
The Grand Mosque of Paris condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Imtiaz Ahmed condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting: 
The Union of Islamic Organizations of France condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting: