Should He Be Free? Are Any of Us?

Some news stories generate more than their share of questions. At least in my mind.

Like this one:

Clifford Jacobson, 55, of Franklin, New Jersey, has been arrested for calling the 911 emergency number when there was no emergency. This is the third time he’s been arrested for the same offense:

In the latest incident, Jacobson called 911 at about 5 p.m. Saturday…. When Franklin police arrived at his house, Jacobson “related that he had no emergency to report and that he had a feeling in his heart to call 911″. Police said they have responded to similar calls from Jacobson on more than 30 occasions. Jacobson continues to call 911, even though he has been given the non-emergency police number in numerous instances… Jacobson has been sent to the Somerset County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail.

I’m wondering what Mr. Jacobson says when he calls 911. Does he make up an emergency or say nothing at all? What compels the police to keep going to his house? Has Mr. Jacobson been treated for what appears to be a symptom of mental illness? Or is he just very lonely? Why was Mr. Jacobson able to call 911 twenty-seven times without being arrested? When Mr. Jacobson is arrested, does he get to make a phone call? Does he call 911? If he spends time in jail, will he have access to a pay phone?

I’m not above making a joke or two at Mr. Jacobson’s expense, but unless he simply enjoys annoying the police department, this is a sad story. It sounds like he is an excellent candidate for treatment, not incarceration. I hope his story has a happy ending.

Coincidentally, I read about Mr. Jacobson after watching a YouTube lecture on free will. The philosopher who delivered the lecture, Derk Pereboom, argues that we don’t have free will — everything we do is fixed by the previous state of the universe, by either deterministic or statistical laws. Looking back at our lives, in the circumstances we found ourselves, we could never have done anything other than what we actually did.

Professor Pereboom concludes that we should take our lack of free will into account when we react to other people’s behavior (or our own). For example, it makes no sense for the police to be angry at Mr. Jacobson – even if they can’t help themselves, since they don’t have free will. It’s fine to stop him from interfering with the 911 number, but the only justification for punishing or treating him is to change his behavior (or the behavior of people like him), not to cause him unnecessary pain or to dehumanize him.

Philosophers and theologians in the West have been thinking and arguing about free will for more than 2000 years. I’ve only been thinking about it for 40 years, so it isn’t surprising that I haven’t written the definitive paper on the topic. (Keep an eye on this space, however!)

For now, I’ll merely say that Professor Pereboom, although a respected authority, is in the minority of academic philosophers on this topic. Most of his fellow professors believe that we do have free will, even if our actions are always determined. But I agree with Pereboom. Our actions aren’t free in an important sense. The standard view of personal responsibility is mistaken.

Nevertheless, I find it almost impossible to behave differently based on this apparent fact. For example, it should be easier for me to excuse myself for past mistakes now that I doubt the existence of free will, but that hasn’t been the case so far. And when I need to make a decision, it’s not as if I can sit quietly, waiting for the universe to tell me what to do. How would I even know when the universe had spoken?

Still, maybe that’s what we do when we make a decision. We wait a second, an hour or a year, considering our options, and then discover what we’re going to end up doing. We think we’re choosing among real alternatives, but it’s really the universe doing the “choosing” for us. After all, we’re made of the same stuff that makes up everything else. Everything in us is subject to the universe’s laws – we’re carried along by the course of events, whether we know it or not. 

If Mr. Jacobson thinks about free will, maybe he’ll reach the same conclusion.


The story about Mr. Jacobson:  franklin_twp_man_charged_for_third_time

Professor Pereboom’s 45-minute lecture:

PS — Was the title of the movie Free Willy an intentional pun? 

2 thoughts on “Should He Be Free? Are Any of Us?

  1. I’ve had only one experience with 911 and it involved a young child who dialed the number and then locked herself in bathroom because she was frightened. The mother called 911 back to explain what had happened and cancel the original call only to be told that 911 had to respond; they would not cancel the call. So, I presume that the Franklin caller is under the same constraint.

    Bringing up a philosopher who seriously (I think) talks about alternate universes seems to cloud the issue rather than enlighten it. So, maybe in that light the rest of this is meaningless, but I will go on regardless.

    The article says he called 911 over 30 times but was arrested only thrice. I applaud the restraint of the local police. But, maybe they arrested him with good intentions, i.e., to get him the help he requires, under the law. I believe that attempted suicide is illegal and will result in arrest. It is my understanding that this is the proper and legal way to restrain the party from additional attempts. Makes sense to me. The courts can mandate therapy or even institutionalization (for better or worse.)

    Free will. I suppose one either does or doesn’t believe in it and often differently at different times. Perhaps it is a convenience. If you can’t help it because of your lack of free will and the cops arrest you because of their lack of free will why complain? Seems like nothing can be done. But, perhaps free will can be judged by voting! Peer review; peer pressure. If too many people think that your actions are wrong e.g. you call 911 for no real reason, then it seems more free to just chuck the person in jail and let him figure it out for himself; or rot. The altruism gene says otherwise but let’s not go into what drives that one.

    Anyway, I have made arrangements with the Franklin authorities to have the perp delivered to your home for caring remediation on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until further notice. The Court was quite willing to take your original post as evidence that you would ultimately approve of this solution and thanks you for your civic involvement.

    PS A closing thought which may pertain to free will, or incarceration, or fault, or punishment, etc. Having visited and inmate at a prison once, I found a posting on the bulletin board which outlined the duties of the prison staff. The first line said that their purpose was to incarcerate not cure. I think most prison guards are basically honest but also uneducated in basic human psychology. Nor do I think that the rest of us particularly savvy in this regard.

  2. Prof. Pereboom (Cornell Univ.) doesn’t actually discuss other universes, at least not in this lecture. He’s speaking in Alabama, however, which some of us think is in a universe different from our own.

    In the lecture, he mentions another philosopher who wrote a book saying we don’t have free will but should keep this fact a secret, because society would suffer if doubt in free will became common. This other professor apparently doesn’t even teach the topic, for fear that it will turn his students toward selfish or other bad behavior. On the other hand, Prof. Pereboom thinks doubting free will can make us more charitable toward people’s bad behavior (and less approving of their good behavior). If the “no free will” belief catches on, we’ll see what happens.

    I didn’t think the free will issue would do much to clarify Mr. Jacobson’s situation. Remember the quote from Betrand Russell: “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

    Regarding how Mr. Jacobson should be dealt with, however, the article does say they put him in a special program to avoid jail time. Too bad it didn’t work (so far). Without knowing the details, being locked up may be the best solution, but on the face of it, he definitely sounds like someone with a medical problem. I look forward to meeting him and doing what I can. Thanks in advance for letting him call you instead of 911 when the urge strikes.

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