(ORDO NEWS) — Are we free or are our actions determined by the laws of physics? And how much freedom do we really want? These questions have troubled philosophers for millennia, and there are still no perfect answers to them.
But it turns out that a character from a children’s TV series can give a clue. Thomas the Tank Engine, despite being a locomotive, behaves like a human. He makes decisions and makes choices. And he has a moral responsibility: when he does something wrong, he is punished.
But look deeper and things get more complicated. He is the engine. His movements are determined by the shape of the tracks, the work of his locomotive and the employees of the railway. So his free will is just an illusion?
The laws of physics explain how a past event leads to the future. For example, if I put a kettle on the stove, according to the laws of thermodynamics, it will boil in the near future. If I don’t disturb the kettle or the stove, there is only one possible outcome: the water will boil.
A powerful philosophical argument against free will is that since we cannot change the past and the laws of physics, we cannot change the future.
This is because the future is just a consequence of the past, and the laws of physics dictate that the past will lead to the future. The future is not open to alternatives.
This applies to us too: our bodies are physical objects made up of atoms and molecules, subject to the laws of physics. But every decision and action we take can ultimately be traced back to some initial conditions at the beginning of the universe.
We may think that we have free will, but this is just an illusion. It’s the same with Thomas: he may feel like he’s free, but his actions are determined by the location of the tracks and the timetable of the railroad.
What he does is not open to alternatives. He is, after all, a steam engine operating according to the laws of thermodynamics.
But if Thomas’s actions are not open to alternatives, why is he scolded when he does something wrong? If he were nothing more than a machine, would it make sense to think that he was morally responsible?
After all, it would be strange to say that my kettle deserves praise for boiling water, if he really could not do otherwise.
The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt developed an ingenious thought experiment to show that the future does not have to be open to alternatives in order for us to be morally responsible.
Imagine two agents, let’s call them Killer and Controller. The controller has electrodes connected to Killer’s brain. If Killer doesn’t do what the Controller wants, he turns on the electrodes, forcing Killer into submission.
The Controller really wants someone, let’s call him the Victim, to die. So he thinks about sending the Killer to kill the Victim.
But it turns out that the Killer actually wants the Victim to die too, so she kills the Victim without the intervention of the Controller. The electrodes remain off.
What is the moral of the story? Although Keeler’s actions were not open to alternatives (if she chose not to kill, the Controller would still force her to do so), she is still held accountable and punished as a murderer.
It seems that Thomas is in the same situation: when he does something within the rules of the railroad, he is left to do it of his own free will. When he doesn’t, someone intervenes: the driver, the conductor, or the sinister Fat Controller.
But he still gets reprimanded when something goes wrong. The fact that his actions are not open to alternatives doesn’t change anything.
How desirable is free will?
So what about a universe where Thomas’ future is uncertain? Will he be free there?
While we’re not happy with the fact that our actions can be predetermined, the alternative isn’t much better. A universe where the future is completely undefined, where it is too open to alternatives, is simply too chaotic.
I need to know that when I put the kettle on the stove, it will boil. A universe in which water spontaneously turns into frozen orange juice is not the universe most of us would like to live in.
And the same is true for Thomas. If Thomas were allowed to derail, fly into the air, or if his steam engine did not obey the laws of thermodynamics, his universe would not function.
His character reflects our intuitions about free will. We need choice and moral responsibility, but we don’t want our actions to be completely indeterminate. We want our free will to lie somewhere between complete determinism and complete randomness.
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