Last week, the journal Science published a paper that considers the age-old question: If our actions are the preordained result of a deterministic universe, should we hold those who commit crimes morally responsible for their actions? The answer given by the nascent discipline of “experimental philosophy” is ambivalent: when respondents were asked to consider the problem in the abstract, most said “no,” they should not be morally responsible; but when given concrete examples of heinous crimes, the answer became “yes,” with most saying they are still responsible. Experimental philosophers grapple with the apparent inconsistency, trying to understand the psychological reasons for the different responses.
I cannot help but think of Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman, who openly scorned philosophy as a discipline and who broke step with many who latched onto the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as a way to explain unpredictability in the universe. Feynman intuitively understood the nature of chaos before it was mathematically developed: even in a completely deterministic world, we cannot predict everything accurately. So is it really much of a surprise that we, as products of the universe, innately sense that moral culpability for crimes should exist even if we are told such crimes were inevitable?
A copy of the paper can be found here (subscription required).