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?