Luisa Rodriguez: OK, so I’ve got someone [in mind], and I feel angry at them. I’m feeling it now. But I guess I pretty quickly can be like, “They couldn’t have done otherwise.” They did this thing that was hurtful to me. I think probably it’s because of their genes and their upbringing. And I can even feel some compassion for them, because it wasn’t a nice thing to do. It’s not great to be a person who can’t help but do things that are cruel. I still feel anger. I feel angry that I’m in this world where I got hurt. But I don’t feel angry at them.
Keiran Harris: Yes, exactly. That’s the shift I’d want you to do, because I feel that too. I feel angry sometimes about the world, but it is a very different experience to be angry at the universe rather than angry at this specific person. So yeah, it sucks to be in a world where this person hurt you. That really sucks. It makes sense to be upset about finding yourself in that world. But the really corrosive thing is holding on to this anger, or even hatred, towards this person.
Keiran Harris: One way of thinking about this that I find fun: If we had total information, we might figure out that this person you’re talking about, they have a neurological condition called “jerk syndrome.” They have this, and it sucks to have jerk syndrome. It’s just a problem. It affects millions of Americans. It’s this horrible thing.
You say to me, “But they were a jerk. They really were a jerk.” I say, “Yeah, I know. But they have jerk syndrome, right?” You go, “Yeah, but they shouldn’t have been a jerk.” I go, “Yeah, but they’ve got the syndrome.” And you go, “Oh, OK.” I say to you, “Hey, it turns out they’ve got a pill to cure jerk syndrome. So if we give them that pill and they no longer are a jerk anymore, and they’re completely apologetic for what they’ve done to you, would you still be mad at them?” The thing I’m trying to get at is saying you are mad at this person for their biology, for just the lottery of their biology, that’s the thing you’re mad at. Obviously, when you get into this, it feels like that’s untenable.
Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It reminds me of another thing I do pretty naturally, and it’s very similar to the tumour thing. I’m much less likely to ever feel angry or frustrated or even disappointed with someone when they have mental health issues. If the person cancelled on me because they’re struggling with depression, I’m just like, “Oh, yeah, completely forgivable. They couldn’t have come because their brain chemistry makes it impossible for them to leave the house most times.” That feels fine. It just feels actually totally fine. It is just kind of funny that we really need a label for it. I need the thing called jerk syndrome.
Keiran Harris: Yeah. But maybe you should think of it this way, actually. Maybe you should actually say, when someone’s a jerk, just be like, “They’ve got jerk syndrome. That sucks for them.” Because, again, you were totally right: it would suck to have jerk syndrome. That is not their best life. If you woke up tomorrow with jerk syndrome, and you were just mean to people or doing these really thoughtless things…
Luisa Rodriguez: That would be sad.
Keiran Harris: That would be sad. Right. Actually, again, turning it back on feeling fortunate: we — I think — don’t currently have jerk syndrome. We’re fortunate for that. We’re lucky. This person’s unlucky, and we could easily have been in their shoes. There’s no sense in which they deserve to have our anger and we deserve praise for not having it. That’s just the luck of the draw.
The basic case for free will being an illusion
Keiran Harris: The example that [Sam Harris] gives is of Charles Whitman, who was known as the Clock Tower Killer (or the Texas Tower Sniper). Charles Whitman ended up killing, I think, 14 people. He killed his wife and his mother, and then he killed himself too. And he left what was basically a suicide note saying, “I have no idea why I did this. I loved my family. I have no idea what was going on. I had just been flying into irrational rage lately. I don’t recognise myself at all. I think that you should perform an autopsy on me to see what happened.” So that’s what they did. They found that he had a tumour that was pressing into his amygdala — which was exactly the kind of tumour in exactly the kind of place that you would expect someone to have done this sort of thing.
When we hear about that case, we think that is exculpatory for most people. It’s like, well, it wasn’t Charles Whitman doing this — it was Charles Whitman plus this tumour, and maybe even mostly the tumour.
Basically what Sam Harris and I are saying is that this case of the tumour is not importantly different to every case — really, that it is effectively it’s tumours all the way down: that humans are biological machines, we’re just biological robots, basically.
The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky makes this analogy with a car where its brakes have broken down: if a car’s brakes just stop working, you don’t get mad at the car for this. You just accept that the car is breaking down. Maybe you have to take it off the road. In an example of someone who’s dangerous, all those things still apply — but you don’t get mad at it. Basically, it is this realisation that with perfect information, you could always have this explanation, like with Charles Whitman. It would be like, “This bit in a different part of his brain was the reason that he did X.”
But it doesn’t have to be as extreme as the murdering case. It can be something like a husband forgetting his anniversary. Why did he do that? Well, with total information, we could tell you exactly why he did that. Maybe it was something to do with his genetics, maybe something to do with what he had for lunch that day. But there’s going to be some explanation. And I believe that all actions are the result of prior causes, and there’s nothing else left.
If you pause the universe just before you make a decision, whatever that decision you make is what would have happened a trillion times in a row. And if that’s true, then you have to ask yourself this question — which I will ask constantly during this conversation, and I do throughout my life: Could someone have done otherwise? Whether it is murdering someone, to just leaving the butter out: Could they have done otherwise? If the answer is no, then I feel like that has big implications.
Feeling bad about not being a different person
Luisa Rodriguez: I do believe it would be better for me to feel less guilt. Because we’re making this assumption that I do think is totally plausible — and probably even likely — that me feeling less guilt about this would just be better in the long run. And I believe that I’m just kind of along for the ride of how much my brain and body want to work.
So what would it be like to, on the day to day, try to conjure those ideas up when feeling guilty? I’m just trying to remember a time last week, for example. There was a day when I felt stressed and sad. I could tell I was getting really distracted when trying to work, and that it wasn’t working, and that I should go for a walk instead. But I felt a bit guilty about that walk, because it was in the middle of a workday and probably people would have expected me to be at my computer.
I guess that’s kind of an easy case, because upon reflection, I really think it was just good for me to take the walk. If it gets a bit more ambiguous, and I just really want to go for a walk. Which sometimes happens if it’s like a really gorgeous day. I live in Oxford, and so if it’s good weather, I’m really drawn to it.
Keiran Harris: So with a lot of these ones, to me, whenever you talk about stuff like this, I think what you are feeling guilty about is not being a different person. That’s what you’re saying. You’re saying, “I should be a different person.”
I think that makes about as much sense as me saying, “I wish I was really tall and amazing at basketball, because then I could join the NBA and I would make millions of people happy and they would watch me and they would buy my jerseys.” We both agree that is ludicrous. That’s what it reads to me when you’re saying, “I wish I was the type of person who didn’t want to go for walks during the day.” But you are.
Luisa Rodriguez: Right.
Keiran Harris: I also independently think that’s like a totally fine and good and healthy thing to do.
Luisa Rodriguez: Sure.
Keiran Harris: But even if it wasn’t, it’s like, well, that’s the world we’re in. We’re in the world where you like to take walks. What is there to feel shame about? I mean, that’s just who you are. You can’t do anything about it.
Implications for the criminal justice system
Keiran Harris: If I was designing the criminal justice system, maybe I would still be putting the same people behind bars, but it would all be forward thinking. It would all be like, “OK, no one decided to be criminals. This sucks for everyone who’s going to go to jail. I’m so sorry about this, but we just can’t have you out because you’re violent. That is really horrible.” But that is a totally different way of thinking about it.
Luisa Rodriguez: So it wouldn’t be a criminal system that had punishment, like a punitive “You did something bad and you deserve to suffer.” It’s purely just to protect society from people who can’t help but do bad things.
Keiran Harris: That’s it. It is like what we were talking about at the top of the conversation: it is just real compassion for everyone. By the way, because, again, if they’ve done something really bad, they might have to be in jail for the rest of their lives. That sucks to be that person. That’s terrible.
Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, in your world, maybe prisons deprive you of your freedom, and that’s terrible, but maybe they’re not even like bad places to be.
Keiran Harris: Yeah, absolutely. You can make the argument that they should be bad places as a disincentive, if you think that if they’re bad places, maybe people would avoid doing these crimes. Though I’m very sceptical of that for very violent crimes. I don’t think that it’s like someone’s about to murder a family and is like, “Hmm, prison seems a little bad? I don’t think so. I might not do that today.”
Anyway, you can make the case [for deliberately awful prisons], but again, it would still be with this compassion, being like, “I am sorry we have to make this prison so unpleasant, but we’ve run the numbers and we actually think that the world would be better off in this way.” You would still be like, “We’re sorry about this.”
But that is not the vibe. In fact, a huge amount of what’s going on in the criminal justice system is this retributive stuff, this punitive stuff, like, “You deserve to be punished” — even if it has no benefit on society, even if you really are very confident this person is not going to reoffend.