Re: John Conway, "Free Will Theorem"

From: Russell Standish <>
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 09:22:02 +1000

Since this topic of legal responsibility regularly comes up in
discussions of free, it needs to be squashed from a great height.

The notion of legal responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do with
free will.

Legal responsibility is used for different purposes, depending on
whether the case is civil or criminal. In civil cases, legal
responsibility who pays cost and damages. In criminal cases, it used
to decide whether an agent should be punished. An agent here may be a
person, or a company, or any other legal entitity that that legal
tradition recognises.

The purpose of punishment is to prevent that occurrence from happening
again. Human society depends on punishment to ensure altruism
(reference to recent work by that Swiss guy here...). If the agent is
a learning system, then applying punishment to the agent can cause the
agent to learn - the stick of carrot & a stick. Alternatively, the
punishment is used to deter others from committing the same crime.

The notion of diminished responsibility is an interesting case. Here,
an agent may be found to be under the influence of another agent, so
one can attribute some of the responsibility to another
agent. However, as the Nuernberg trials showed, this is a very shaky
defence. It cannot be applied to the sources of randomness within your
brain - those sources of randomness are still part of the legal entity
that is you.

Pleading the defence of insanity can really only alter the
punishment. Punishing an insane person to make them learn will
probably not work - different sort of treatment, such as medical
intervention might be appropriate.

Religions have a notion of responsibility rather similar to the legal
one, however theological doctrine seems to have more to say about free
will. However, being essentially atheist, and unlikely to ever meet a
god face to face, this line of argumentation doesn't impress me much.

So I leave it at that - responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do
with free will.


On Sun, Apr 10, 2005 at 03:19:19PM +1000, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Norman Samish writes:
> >The answer to Stat[h]is' question seems straightforward. Given quantum
> >indeterminacy, thought processes cannot be predictable. Therefore, genuine
> >free will exists.
> >
> >"...Can someone please explain how I can tell when I am exercising
> >*genuine*
> >free will, as opposed to this pseudo-free variety, which clearly I have no
> >control over?"
> >
> >Norman Samish
> So if, on a whim, I commit murder, I can present the following argument to
> the judge:
> Your Honour, quantum indeterminacy made me do it. If you could have looked
> inside my brain just prior to the moment when I decided to become a
> murderer you would have seen a sodium ion teetering at the edge of a
> protein ion channel embedded in the membrane of a particular neuron. If the
> sodium ion passes through the channel it will raise the voltage across the
> membrane to just past the threshold required to trigger an action
> potential. The neurone will then "fire", setting off a cascade of neuronal
> events which I experience as the decision to kill an innocent stranger -
> which I then proceeded to do. If, on the other hand, that crucial sodium
> ion had not passed through the membrane channel, a different cascade of
> neuronal events would have ensued, causing me to allow the stranger to live.
> I cannot deny that it felt like I was exercising my free will when I
> decided to kill, but clearly this must have been a delusion. Firstly, the
> cause of my "decision" was a random event (to the extent where
> non-classical behaviour applies to the sort of biochemical reactions which
> occur in the brain). Secondly, my "decision" had already been determined at
> the point where the behaviour of that initial sodium ion was determined;
> when I experienced myself "deciding" to kill, in a sense my brain had
> already been programmed to do so. Therefore, I don't think it is fair that
> I should be punished!
> --Stathis Papaioannou
> _________________________________________________________________
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Received on Sun Apr 10 2005 - 18:49:22 PDT

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