Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, the 22-year-old Pakistani who was involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack, was sentenced to death earlier this year. But what if he never had a chance to act differently? What if there is no freedom of will and every deed we do is an imperative of space and time? Would we not be allowed to judge other people in this case?
Every decision we take, every word we utter and every single move we make, assumes that we are free, at least to a certain extent. Immanuel Kant even argues that we would cease to exist as soon as we stop presuming to be free. Since then we would stop to decide and without decisions, we cannot act.
Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants.” He came to this conclusion after arguing that humans are determined by the way they react to stimuli and causes. That means that every action Kasab has ever done was a reaction to the stimuli given to him. Maybe unfair treatment in his youth, doctrines he heard and so on.
Neuroscience and Psychology
Just last year neurologist reconfirmed what the neurologist Benjamin Libet concluded from his experiments in the 1980’s: free will does not exist – at least not in the way we think. The brains of the probands he examined made their decision before they were even aware of having made a decision at all.
Nevertheless, 300 milliseconds remain between the subconscious decision and the actual action. Therefore a time for a veto is left. This would leave room for negative freedom, where we, in fact, do not decide freely but at least have the option not to follow the decision.
This is due to the fact that our subconscious deciding much more than we are aware of. For example: When we are falling in love it is predominantly because of subliminal evaluation whether our DNA and the DNA of the partner would create a good immune system for the offspring.
In addition, our character with its subconscious as well as conscience has prenatal characteristics, develops 30-40% in the first five years of our life and 20-30% in our adolescence. After that major changes in our character are difficult to evoke, unless through incidents of extreme gravity. Again, we are the product of the stimuli that surround us.
Causality and Quantum Theory
Uncontrollable stimuli play an important role in the physical argument as well. Hinduism and Buddhism, which Schopenhauer found big interest in, are strong advocates of the theory of causality. Karma is a perfect example of the causal theory. In the theory of causality, every effect is depending and resulting from a previous cause, which is again depending on a former cause.
This leads us either back to an uncaused, first creator (see: Aristotle) or to an infinite chain of interconnected actions and results, which in turn become actions again. If we accept this theory, then there would be no freedom since we would be the result of everything that has ever been. Yet, Hinduism and Buddhism assume the human to be able to make free decisions and rarely see difficulties in combining the theory of freedom and causality.
Because the theory of causality is largely replaced by the quantum theory, it has less relevance nowadays. The quantum theory does not assert rigid causality but works in a framework of probabilities, where outcomes can be different to what the causes might suggest. Interestingly, about 2300 years earlier the Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that freedom is nothing but the divergence of atoms. (But can the exception become a rule?)
This would leave at least a small possibility for freedom. Still, some philosophers argue that quantum mechanics do not make freedom of choice more likely. Others argue you that causality never endangers freedom in the first place. (The inchoate String Theory could yet again change our idea of freedom.)
Are we free to punish?
There might be other theories, like Leibniz distinction between necessity and certainly, arguing for the existence of freedom, but in my opinion, freedom as we perceive it is highly unlikely. So was it wrong to prosecute Kasab? Although I despise capital punishment, I believe verdicts, in general, are still justifiable.
Even if Kasab had no choice to veto his abhorrent deeds, we still need to pretend to be free, if we do not want our society to be ruled by chaos. Also, Schopenhauer opined that we need laws in order to warn the potentially next delinquent – and thus alter the chain of causality.
Lastly, this does not negate the possibility of spiritual freedom, because most Indian religions and philosophies agree that true freedom can merely be achieved after overcoming causality or karma. Immanuel Kant wrote that freedom cannot be disproved nor proved with thought, since every time we use our intelligence to decipher the world we cannot help but think in terms of the cause-and-effect relationships which governs the sensible world. You are free to agree – or are you not?