Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – Master of My Fate: Making Moral Choices in a Determined Universe

105-06 – Does punishment make sense if our behavior is, at least in large part, determined? [If interested in a view different than the one that prevails in America, see Menninger’s classic The Crime of Punishment. With what horror will our descendents look back upon our criminal justice system.]

107-111 Similar to the problem of evil, there is a paradox of how we can be free if the gods are omniscient, omnipotent, or both? (If the gods can stop us from freely choosing, then we aren’t free; if they can’t stop us from freely choosing, they aren’t omnipotent. And, if the gods know beforehand what we’ll do, then we can’t choose freely; if they gods don’t know what we’ll do beforehand, they aren’t omniscient.) But even without considering the gods, how can we be free when there is a cause for all of our thoughts and behaviors?

[And what besides our genomes and our environments makes us what we are? Is there no cause to our thoughts and actions? Do we create our thoughts and behaviors, ex nihilo? And quantum indeterminacy doesn’t seem to help us because indeterminism or randomness isn’t free will. In fact, one wonders whether free will is even a coherent concept.]

111-120 – The John Hinkley case, which led to the virtual elimination of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. S details the history of the conditions that needed to be met for a successful insanity plea in English law. Today, in the US, it is virtually certain that even severe mental illness will not protect defendants.

120-134 – S himself accepts that: “free will is a useful fiction.” He then looks at some scientific attempts to justify free will. 1) Indeterminism doesn’t work because this isn’t freedom. 2) Sanity and insanity are better explained by fuzzy logic, which leads us to fuzzy freedom. 3) It is easy to induce out of body experiences, religious experiences, and the like by stimulating parts of the brain. In short, “all experience is mediated by the brain.” So the experience of free will reflects the brain’s wiring. Our brains make us feel free, whether we are or not. 4) Genes explain part, but not all, of our behaviors.

134- “Human freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes.” This is S’s solution. There is contingency—randomness, things that just as easily could not have been—and necessity—predictable, things that had to be. History [including our personal history] is moved by both contingencies and necessities. This compels or constrains things, but doesn’t determine them. In his analogy, contingency leads to collisions between atoms while necessity governs the atoms speed and direction. A specific collision was caused, as in compelled or constrained, by prior considerations. The contingencies of history—what might have been—represent a type of freedom. [This seems to beg the question of whether things could have turned out differently.] But in the end, S’s model is of free will as our ignorance of the “causes within a conjuncture that compels and is compelled to a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions.” In short, we feel free even though our actions are really determined. We might as well act as if we’re free.

Food for Thought

Closing Argument
The State of Illinois v. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb
Delivered by Clarence Darrow
Chicago, Illinois, August 22, 1924
This can be found at:

Here is a brief excerpt:

Is Dickey Loeb to blame because out of the infinite forces that conspired to form him, the infinite forces that were at work producing him ages before he was born, that because out of these infinite combinations he was born with out it? If he is, then there should be a new definition for justice. Is he to blame for what he did not have and never had? Is he to blame that his machine is imperfect? Who is to blame? I do not know. I have never in my life been interested so much in fixing blame as I have in relieving people from blame. I am not wise enough to fix it. I know that somewhere in the past that entered into him something missed. It may be defective nerves. It may be a defective heart or liver. It may be defective endocrine glands. I know it is something. I know that nothing happens in this world without a cause. ~ Clarence Darrow

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