Free Will, Criminal Justice, and the Tennis Ball

Despite the fact that I never took physics, I have a theory about how physics works. Just like I also never went to medical school, but that doesn’t stop me from performing complex thoracic surgery.

My theory is this: If you throw a tennis ball, as hard as you can off of the observation deck of the Empire State Building, that ball will ricochet off of buildings, bounce off of cars, roll down a sidewalk and come to rest in a gutter three blocks away. Then, while you could never actually duplicate every condition exactly as it was, if you could take the same tennis ball, throw it a second time in exactly the same direction with the same force, into the same wind, the ball will come to land at exactly the same spot in the gutter three blocks away.

This seems obvious to me. But others, some who have taken physics, disagree with me. Just like some who went to medical school think that my use of bandsaws in heart-valve surgery is “ill advised”.

Those who disagree with me about the tennis ball say that I don’t account for random and unexplainable movements of the ball that would happen even if we accounted for all of the knowable variables of each throw. But let’s assume I’m right, at least about the tennis ball. We’ll debate the bandsaw later.

This theory has direct implications for our personalities and our daily actions. In my metaphor, our every action and decision is the tennis ball. And our genetics and history are the gravity, wind resistance, force and thrust acting upon the tennis ball of our personas. If you know the exact measure of each of the forces acting upon our minds, you can predict our behaviors with close to 100% accuracy. We may think that we are in control of our free will, but in reality, our actions are a function of the sum of our fears, appetites, impulsiveness, training, experiences and drives. It’s like a mathematical formula. You put a series of numbers in, and you get the same result, every time.

I am not the first person to make this argument (although I will claim credit for bringing the truly revolutionary “allegory of the tennis ball” into this discussion). The philosophical debate surrounding free-will vs. destiny has been around since the ancient Greeks were poisoning each other for not believing in the correct imaginary God.

However, I am not arguing for destiny in the sense that our actions are predetermined by some deity or fate. To the extent our actions are predetermined it is by who we are, and what we have been molded into.

If this is true, it obviously has huge implications for public policy. Take criminal justice for example. What is the appropriate role of punishment if the offender did not truly choose to offend? Is it fair? And even if it’s not, is it important to punish anyway so that the example of that punishment might serve to become part of the brain-stew that governs the actions of others in the future, and keeps them from committing similar offenses.

Even with the specific offender, while fear of punishment was clearly not enough to stop the bad behavior this time, will punishment, once experienced, prevent a repeat of that bad behavior, even if it’s not entirely just to punish someone for the current offense over which they had little control?

The bigger question of course is how to use this theory to change society for the better. Rather than just yelling at the tennis ball for where it lands, can we change how hard the ball is thrown, or how strong the wind is?

Going back to criminal justice, our theory in America is that if someone offends, we should punish them severely. But the statistics show that this approach clearly isn’t working. The tennis ball has already landed, and we aren’t changing how it’s thrown in the future. But I urge you to take a look at Bastoy Prison in Norway. There, they have a totally different view. They treat their prisoners really well. Inmates live in nice apartments and are fed well. They are given meaningful, productive jobs. In their leisure time they go horseback riding, swim or play tennis.

At first blush, it looks like they are coddling criminals. But the results are impressive. There has been only one attempted escape ever. And more importantly, upon their release, only about 15% of Bastoy’s inmates commit new crimes. For those released from our prisons it’s closer to 60%. Thus, their streets are safer, the costs of re-incarceration are saved, and people’s lives are turned around.

The theory behind this is that many people commit crimes because the things that went into the trajectory of their tennis balls, i.e. their upbringing, education, nutrition, environment, were all bad. If we just curse the lay of the tennis ball and do nothing to alter how the ball flies in the future, we’ll change nothing. Prisoners at Bastoy see what their lives could be when they are respected, cared for and someone actually makes an effort to help them improve. In most cases, the tennis ball never lands in the same place again.

Long-time state House and Senate member, author of PA’s Medical Marijuana law, also creator of “shit-gibbon!” Comedian, professor, father of 2 awesome children!

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