Thomas is a locomotive and his movements are determined by the shape of the track, his operation as a locomotive and the railway workers. So is his free will just an illusion? And what does this mean about humans in reality?
By Matyáš Moravec Gifford Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews
Are we free or are our actions determined by the laws of physics? And how much free will do we really want? These questions bothered you the philosophers For thousands of years - and they still don't have perfect answers.
But it turns out that a character from a children's TV series can provide a clue. Thomas the tank engine, despite being a locomotive, behaves like a human being. He makes decisions and choices. And he is morally responsible: when he does something wrong, he is punished.
But when you look deeper things get complicated. He is a locomotive. Its movements are determined by the shape of the track, its operation as a locomotive and the railway workers. So is his free will just an illusion?
The laws of physics explain how a past event leads to a future event. For example, if I put a kettle on the stove, the laws of thermodynamics state that it will boil at some point in the near future. If I don't disturb the kettle or stove, there is only one possible outcome: the water will start to boil.
A powerful philosophical argument Against free will states that since we cannot change the past and since we cannot change the laws of physics, we cannot change the future either. This is because the future is only a result of the past, and the laws of physics dictate that the past will lead to the future. The future is not open to alternatives.
This also applies to us: our bodies are physical objects made of atoms and molecules governed by the laws of physics. But every decision and action we take can ultimately be related to some initial conditions at the beginning of the universe.
We may feel that we have free will, but this Just an illusion. And the same is true for Thomas: it may seem to him that he is free, but his actions are determined by the track layout and the train schedule. What he does is not open to alternatives. It is, after all, a steam engine governed by the laws of thermodynamics.
But if Thomas' actions are not open to alternatives, why is he dismissed when he is wrong? If he was nothing more than a machine, would it make sense to think he was morally responsible? After all, it would be strange to say that my kettle deserves praise for boiling the water, if it really could not do otherwise.
American philosopher Harry Frankfurt Developed A genius thought experiment To show that the future does not have to be open to alternatives for us to be morally responsible. Imagine two agents, let's call them the killer and the visitor. The visitor has electrodes attached to the killer's brain. If the killer does not do as the visitor wants, he activates the electrodes - which forces the killer to obey.
Now, the reviewer really wants someone, let's call him a victim, to die. So he thinks to direct the killer to kill the victim. But it turns out that the killer also actually wants the victim to die, so she kills the victim without the visitor having to intervene at all. The electrodes remain off.
What is the moral of the story? Although the killer's actions were not open to alternatives (if he had decided not to kill, the visitor would have forced her to do so anyway), he is still responsible and punished as a murderer.
Thomas seems to be in the same situation: when he does things within the railway rules, he is left to do them of his own free will. When he doesn't, someone intervenes: the driver, the ticket taker or theThe threatening visitor. But he still gets scolded when things go wrong. The fact that his actions are not open to alternatives does not change anything in this matter.
How much free will is desirable?
So how about a universe where Thomas' future is undecided? Will he be free there?
Although we feel uncomfortable with the fact that our actions may be determined, the alternative is not much better. A universe where the future is is not defined Absolutely, where it's too open to alternatives, it's just too chaotic. I need to know that when I put the kettle on the stove, it will boil. A universe where water spontaneously turns into frozen orange juice is not one most of us would want to live in.
And the same goes for Thomas. If Thomas were allowed to leave the tracks, fly into the air, or if his steam engine did not obey the laws of thermodynamics, his universe would not function.
His character captures our intuitions about free will. We need choice and moral responsibility, but we don't want our actions to be completely undetermined. We want our free will to be somewhere between complete determinism and complete randomness.
"Everything is predictable and permission is impossible" On the reading stag website
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