Believe it or not, shock-jock talk show host Howard Stern agrees with Greg Abbott, the conservative Republican governor of Texas. Both feel individuals should be held accountable for their actions. Stern is cranky about anti-vaxxers who spread both Covid-19 and its Delta variant to others, both of which have killed over 600,000 people and are strangling the economy. Says Stern, claims of personal freedom amount to a license to kill.
Abbott doesn’t mind that 57,000 of his constituents have died from the viruses and continue to die at the current rate of 5,000 a month. Instead, he worries about the rights of fertilized human embryos and has signed an abortion ban into law that begins during a female’s sixth week of pregnancy. To protect a woman from having to carry her rapist’s child, he proposes to eliminate rape–something he should have done long ago if it were in his power. It isn’t, of course, and for many reasons as India has discovered.
Stern and Abbott share a common belief in free will, the idea that people chose their behavior and should be responsible for it But is free will a fact? Neurologists and psychologists aren’t sure. Even so, our system of justice depends upon it. If free will exists, then rapists can be punished. If it doesn’t, who do we blame for the brutal assaults? Mother Nature?
Few among us would wish to argue against free will. Most of us assume we have it. If I choose a scoop of chocolate ice cream over vanilla, that’s an exercise in free will, isn’t it? It is until we question what created the preference? As I’ve said, some scientists insist free will is an illusion. Our choices, they explain, are in accord with the laws of physics in the same way we “choose” to obey gravity rather than fall off the planet.
Social scientist Oliver Genschow and his colleagues reviewed over one hundred studies on free will to discover whether believing or disbelieving in it affects people’s morality.” (“Does It Matter If We Have Free Will?” by Jim Davies, Nautilus, Issue 38, pg. 14) The research found no conclusive evidence. “…belief, or disbelief [in free will] doesn’t seem to affect individual behavior in any way we might care about.” (Ibid, pg. 15)
If free will’s existence doesn’t affect behavior, what does? Science has concluded what matters is our belief system. “People think they experience it [free will].” And, because they do, that belief informs their judgments. (Ibid, pg. 15.)
Accountability is a human value created to give logic to our made-up world. Imagine life without it. If acts are random, there can be no crime and no punishment. That’s not satisfying. We want to believe crime is the result of bad people behaving badly, just as many of us want to believe people are poor because they are lazy. Or that the current virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people is a governmental lie.
Debating free will may be counter-productive in the human world. But that it might not exist raises a question. Does our species take itself too seriously? What is “accountability” to the universe or death? Omar Khyam could be right. Life is “nothing but a Magic Shadow-show…Round which we phantom figures come and go.”
If the poet is right, we face another question. Why should unimportant creatures like ourselves exist? For many years, I’ve given this matter much thought and believe I have an answer. We exist to fill the universe with cosmic laughter.