Our current justice system is based on superstition. I don't say that as a criticism; the system works fairly well, give or take some warts. The superstition that underpins the justice system is called free will, as in the magical ability to make choices independent of your brain's wiring. Society needs to believe criminals have the supernatural ability to ignore their own brain architecture. Otherwise it would be difficult for any jury to convict a perpetrator who, from a scientific perspective, had no choice in the matter.

Science has long understood that a specific brain in a specific environment will always act the same way. Cause and effect are not random beyond the quantum world. Science is the realm of facts, whereas the justice system is more like theater.  Society collectively pretends that free will exists so we can feel right about dispensing legal punishments. And while the system is absurd on some level, it still works quite well. The fear of jail presumably causes some criminal brains to commit fewer crimes. And law-abiding citizens are comfortable with the superstition that jailed criminals have chosen their own bad luck. "Serves ‘em right" is the common view.

But what will happen in the future when our brains are being controlled by third parties, such as machines or doctors? Will we still put criminals in jail? Or will we have sufficient knowledge by then to tinker with the brains of perpetrators and "fix" their criminal tendencies?

Consider the fact that young males commit most of the violent crimes in this world. That tells you that body chemistry, and probably testosterone levels in particular, are part of the cause. We already have the ability - but not the legal right - to chemically transform a violent personality into a non-violent one. We can literally rewrite entire personalities through prescription meds. At the moment, science isn't advanced enough to give an individual criminal a chemical "fix" that is reliable, lasting, and without serious side-effects. But there is no doubt in my mind that science will get to that point.

As science learns more about the architecture of the brain, and portable brain sensors keep improving, I would expect someday we will have digital "hats" that will literally keep our brains tuned and running smoothly by applying stimulation to parts of the brain that need a boost.

For example, I can imagine my digital hat stimulating the creative part of my mind during my morning work hours and stimulating another part of my brain when I exercise.

I could also imagine my digital hat modifying my food preferences so I eat healthier. When I look at cake, my digital hat will stimulate a part of my brain associated with revulsion. When I see leafy vegetables my digital hat stimulates my pleasure centers. Your hat could make you love your spouse more, spend more time with the kids, get more sleep, and so on. In other words, the hat could make you a better version of yourself. Who wouldn't want that?

At some point in your future, the programmer of your digital hat will be more responsible for your actions than you are. Left to your own choice you would have decided to take a nap on the couch. But your digital hat knows you need some cardio, so it stimulates your brain in just the right way to make you want exercise more than a nap. When technology reaches that level of capability, and I think it will, no one will cling to the superstition of free will. We will understand our brains to be the moist part of a programmed system that includes our digital hat, the Internet, and probably some tech support in another country.

You might be thinking you would never wear a digital hat that manipulates your desires and therefore takes away your illusion of free will. But I'll bet the digital hat would make you feel so great that it would be physically addictive. The moment you put it on, it starts stimulating your pleasure centers. Before long you won't be willing to take it off.

Eventually humans will all become mindless slaves to whoever owns the patents for the digital hats. And that's not a bad thing because each of us will be delighted with our lives every minute. We might come to understand that in the past we were mindless zombies to the randomness of our brain chemistry and environment. In the future we will be improved versions of mindless zombies, programmed to be productive citizens who enjoy every minute of life. Being a mindless zombie won't be such a bad thing.

My prediction is that smartphone technology will migrate into hats, and at that point we will start to see technology that allows your phone to communicate directly with your brain. For example, you might have seen reports that scientists can produce grainy pictures of your dreams by reading your brain with external sensors. When that technology becomes portable and built into your hat, all you need to do is think about calling someone and your phone will start dialing. At some point I predict the hat will be able to apply small electrical stimulation to different parts of the brain to create different effects. That's when the hat becomes responsible for your actions more than whatever is left of "you."

Would you trade your illusion of free will for a life of continuous satisfaction?

You say you won't.

But you will.

Your choice in the matter is an illusion.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +30
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 22, 2013
There are a lot of science fiction stories like that.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 22, 2013
You know, I think this was the storyline of a "Superman" comic. His enemy, Mongul, has a plant that, when attached to a person, renders their body in a suspended animation state, but in their brain, they are living the life they desire. The story is called "For The Man Who Has Everything", written by Alan Moore.
Jan 21, 2013
I think reducing criminality will be a good step for humankind; a first step that seems perhaps more important right now (not disagreeing with the mindless zombie thing) is lead control:

There is reasonable evidence on this one for instance there are plenty of references from:

Jan 21, 2013
This is the model of the future for the elites.

cyborgs ruled by statists, achieved thru coercive implants.

Its also the dystopian future christians believe in.

I wonder if it makes futurists pissed off that many of the technology gains they get excited about play into the hands of religion. Gotta love a healthcare implant that would save obamacare by monitoring your every heartbeat and sent to big brother. Would you like that mark in your hand or forehead?

I watched a tv special a few months back about this guy who was so excited about having electronic implants to monitor bio signs. He was in full propaganda mode when it came to privacy. Basically he diminishes how much we have and overstates the inevitability of its eradication. Pretty obvious what he wants. Forced implantation and social acceptance of end of privacy.
Jan 19, 2013
I would hazard a guess you, Scott, accidentally slept through the movie "Meet the Robinson's" that your children (against your free will) forced you to watch. Either that or you've been playing the old Electonic Arts game "Syndicate."

I keep my illusion of free will. The human body is, and will continue to always be, an engine that will always require more fuel to maintain any form of continuous level of any emotion. The dystopia you have conjured will never be cost effective at our current population level.

History is rife with people who tried to conquer the world, only to be felled by a venereal disease. The masters of your prediction might not even be that lucky.
Jan 18, 2013
I'm trying to figure out which box would be a better fit for you. I have it down to two: B.F. Skinner's behavioralist box, or the box in which Schrödinger wanted to put a cat. I am actually leaning toward the latter, because then I'd have at least a 50% chance of never having to read this kind of drivel again.

You treat free will as though it was a horoscope. One size fits all. There are only twelve possible outcomes for today's fate, and only one of them applies to you and everyone else with the misfortune to be born in the same time period. Meat robots, hard-wired brains, blah blah blah.

Don't you ever get tired of beating the same dead horse? It's still dead, Scott, and beating it isn't going to make it rear up and kick the <censored> out of you. You can't possibly be serious in forgiving all bad actions by saying the perp didn't have a choice.

Of course they did. They looked at the alternatives, and chose the one that fit their needs. If they chose to perform a criminal act, then society has the right to choose to impose punishment on them, at the very least to keep them from doing it again.

Just saying that you have no choice doesn't make it so. Your free will has allowed you to choose to say that there's no free will. Sounds like a great way to remove any semblance of discipline or altruism from your world view. It isn't the devil who made you do it; it's just that you never had a choice. How easy to allow yourself to do anything you want, without consequence.

This post is just pseudo-hedonistic philoso-babble that leads to nothing. You really could do better than this.
Jan 18, 2013
Gotta wonder about all of you. This was the basic theme/climax of the movie, The President's Analyst (1966?) - the largest business at the time (TPC or 'The Phone Company') wanted to implant a minaturized phone into everyone's brain. There was one of those psuedo-scientific animations (like the old Bell Telephone Science Series) which the hero was made to watch showing how it worked and what was supposed to transpire. Supposedly he got out and 'destroyed' this true villain (which was represented by an animatronic human), but in the end, everyone had them implanted anyway, and they were all quite happy. And everyone's activity from then on was monitored by TPC and a roomful of animatronics. Oh, and they all still thought they had 'free will'. That to me was the important part. Don't mess with our illusions.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
If criminals can't help committing crimes because there's no free will, then police can't help arresting criminals either, prosecutors can't help but prosecute them, judges and juries have no free will and are programmed to convict or acquit as the case may be, and jailers can't help but keep criminals in jail. So why worry about it?
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
Judges, not juries, would have the problem.

The job of the jury is to determine the fact of the crime. It's the judge that determines the outcome from that point on.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
The justice system is not as absurd as you make it look, even taking into account that free will does not exist. You said so yourself, you just didn't make the connection (on purpose?):

[a specific brain in a specific environment will always act the same way]

Now take one person with a criminal disposition, and put him in two different environments:
The first environment is the world as it is today.
The second environment is a place with no judicial punishments.
What do you think the difference will be? I'll tell you: in the second environment, the person will commit more crimes, because his brain, which is wired exactly the same way as in environment 1, now knows that it will not be punished.

And of course a person who is in jail cannot commit any more crimes WHILE he is in jail, but I stole that one from one your books.
Jan 18, 2013
@hidesy - I had meant to include the term "rooted hat."
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
Of course, the big problem is when people figure out how to jailbreak the hats, so that they don't have to do positive things to get the buzz. Then you'll get mindless zombies that aren't being controlled by anyone. That could be fairly unpretty.
Jan 18, 2013
[As far as I can see, the issue is already taken care of by Apple. At least that's how people react whenever a new product comes out, no matter how buggy or incompatible it is, people swarm to buy it. They must have found a way to tap into the pleasure centres of the brain.]

workerant, I think Scott covered this pretty thoroughly with his censored "magic apple lust dust" strip: http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/lust_dust/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed: typepad/ihdT (Dilbert Blog)
Jan 18, 2013
Hey, can I get me one of them hats that stimulates my pleasure centers the minute I put it on, but that DOESN'T make me do a bunch of other responsible stuff that's not me, or at least stuff I wouldn't do had I never heard of the hat?

If so, count me in!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
"Do you think the 'free will' part of the brain is attached or does it just float nearby?"

I've had that 1993(?) strip posted somewhere in every dwelling I've inhabited for almost 10 years now. I had a boyfriend who hated it, though -- it made him angry. I think he just wasn't comfortable with the truth he knew it contained.
+15 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2013
[The superstition that underpins the justice system is called free will, as in the magical ability to make choices independent of your brain's wiring.]

I've never understood this argument. Laws are totally compatible with non-free-will-having criminals. They (laws) just change the reward landscape that the criminal's brain takes as input. It's called deterrence. If the expected outcome of committing a crime is jail-time, then the brain's (deterministic) utility-maximizing algorithm will steer the individual away from criminal activity. QED.

Seriously, what's the argument that deterrence is incompatible with determinism?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
Even if free will still does not exist it is ok to screw the prewired criminals justice as that curbs or predetermines the crimalness of would be criminals.
Jan 17, 2013
As far as I can see, the issue is already taken care of by Apple. At least that's how people react whenever a new product comes out, no matter how buggy or incompatible it is, people swarm to buy it. They must have found a way to tap into the pleasure centres of the brain.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2013
A lot of people are weighing in with movies/books that follow similar lines. This immediately reminded me of Son-mi's story in Cloud Atlas.
Jan 17, 2013
The digital hat will be the fastest selling consumer product in history. But of course, the government will step in. "Free will is an absolute necessity on election day," they'll say. So they'll turn off our hats on election day. And for the debates.

Industries hit hard by digital hats will lobby the government for relief. As a temporary measure until workers can be redeployed, the liquor, tobacco, gaming, coffee, chocolate, and !$%* industries will not suffer hat-stimulation of our "revulsion centers". This temporary measure will be renewed every January.

Churches will be successful in getting a turn-off switch on their digital hats so that worshippers can feel the presence of the Lord. But the FBI will eventually demand a backdoor on all hats after the infamous "De Moines Church Nursery Incident". From then on for the safety of the children, hats must always be "on", and anyone not wearing a hat will be shot on sight. This makes the previously fashionable "hat that looks like hair" instantly obsolete. Hats start to become more and more extravagant, and most Congressmen start wearing tall Pope-type hats.

Most shockingly, four consecutive bald Presidents are eventually elected.

Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog