For those of you who haven’t been following Canadian politics lately, Justin Trudeau was recently called a bunch of mean names for his comments following the Boston Marathon Bombings on April 15. He said “ there is no question that [the bombings] happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?” The general message of his comment was that to prevent terrorist attacks, one must look for the root causes and address them.
The conservative criticism to this comment has been that by suggesting that societal factors could lead to terrorist tendencies is blaming innocent people for terrorism. As such, the only appropriate response to terrorism is condemnation and increased security. In other words: explanation = justification. Pierre Poilievre later crystalized this view stating that “terrorism is caused by terrorists!”
I love this debate because for once it’s actually about something important and the answer is worth discussing. Most political debates have incredibly obvious answers that never come out because everyone talks around it and is afraid of offending someone. This debate is about the ago old question, and age old paradox, of free will.
INTRO TO FREE WILL
Free will means you have control over your own destiny. People are the source of their actions and are responsible for their outcomes.
Free will contrasts the idea of destiny which proposes that there is a plan that your life will follow regardless of your actions.
Christopher Hitchens put the paradox most elequently:
When the believer is asked “Is there free will” he will say “Yes because we’ve been given it. Of course there’s free will. The big guy says so.” Who am I to disagree? That seems to be to me absolute self-cancelling nonsense. My answer when I’m asked “Is there free will?” is “Yeah I think there’s free will. We have no choice but to have it.” At least I know I’m being ironic.
Today, science and philosophy have largely erased this paradox. The answer is no, we have no free will. Hook your brain up to a computer and a neuroscientist can predict the decisions you’re brain makes before your mind has made them. Almost all of your thoughts are automated and can be manipulated by pushing the right buttons. You just feel like you’re making conscious decisions.
Here’s a simple illustration. Choose a movie, any movie. Really stop and think of one. Now think of the process that led you to choose that movie. Maybe you thought of two and picked your favourite? Did you choose for those two movies to come into your mind or did they just appear there? Did you choose to think of a movie at all or did it just happen because I suggested it to you a moment ago? Are you starting to see what I mean?
There are philosophers who still believe in free will but it’s either because they haven’t thought about it that much or because it really does feel like we’re making conscious decisions right now. If you want to know more about the free will debate, google it. It’s not hard to find. Daniel Dennett is one of my favourite speakers on the subject.
Anyways, free will is an illusion and in practical terms, we all know it. It’s why we don’t put psychopaths in jail, we treat them for mental illness. We understand the source of their deviant behavior. And back to the case at hand, if we found that terrorism were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, we would treat it the same way. It’s a deviant behavior with a real world cause that we don’t fully understand. The reason people don’t like this fact is that it undermines the theoretical basis of our criminal justice system and our social code. If no person is the cause of their own actions then punishing them is kind of evil. Well, the truth hurts.
Admittedly, designing a just society without the concept of blame is a daunting task, however Justin Trudeau, in proposing a search for the societal causes of societal tension, proposed the only possible way to move towards preventing further suffering and his critics proposed that anything further than blaming the terrorists is inappropriate. This response is not only stupid and superficial, it’s destructive. Luckily, anyone whose job it is to actually prevent these things knows that the terrorist club doesn’t have a uniform and that looking for societal factors is the only way to prevent it.