“Free will” is an ethical concept, not physics

Academic philosophers (or the physicists who like to chime in) like to debate whether we have free will, because our brains are physical things, subject to the laws of physics. A fun puzzle, but there is a deeper, more important question to answer.
Free will is not just a philosophical puzzle, it is an important real-life issue, with serious consequences. We base decisions on whether to reward or punish people, depending on whether or not their actions were performed of their own free will.
The everyday issue of free will is a question as to when we should hold people accountable or relieve people of accountability for their actions; it has a real impact, possibly leading to people being punished or rewarded.
If someone says “I can’t do that today, I don’t have enough energy”, we don’t invoke E=MC2 and explain that with their body mass, they have plenty of energy. At least in the energy case, there is a rigorous scientific analog of the everyday concept. If free will doesn’t work for physics, fine, but philosophy does need to help with the everyday concept, so let’s see how that works instead.
We answer the question of whether a person acted of their own free will by asking whether they may have been compelled to act by external forces or if their brain was acting abnormally (for example, because of a tumour or a more subtle mental illness).
We do this because some of our current theories on how to change the behaviour of people for the better suggest that we can change the states of their brains in such a way that more desired outcomes will be achieved. One way we do that is through systems of reward and punishment, that we expect will either change the behaviour of the person in question or, by example, deter or encourage others.
We know this is futile if the more subtle changes in brains brought about by reward and punishment will be overwhelmed by more obvious brain damage or physical force. So we don’t fine people, throw them in jail or express moral disapproval, if their action was compelled.
It is time we focused more on this aspect of free will than on spurious questions about whether, given the initial state of the universe and the laws of physics, the actions of a person are pre-determined. It is equally irrelevant to know whether there are macro-level effects of quantum indeterminacy on human actions.
What does matter is to find out how our current laws and attitudes can be improved and, if so, should we update the short-hand phrase “free will” to better fit those improvements.
For example, the current number of people with mental illness who are being “treated” by our justice system is a scandal. Many of the people directly involved, such as judges, police, probation officers and jailers, realize that people with mental health problems who commit crimes are not well-served by the justice system, nor does criminalizing the mentally ill reduce any harm done to the public.
Of course,the majority of mentally ill people do not commit crimes, but many of them are punished for their “deviance” by means of more subtle social tools of disapprobation, from frowns to exclusion.
People with addictions have a lower measure of free will than if they did not, which is to say they are more constrained and more likely to do things they would otherwise not. So free will is not “all or nothing”; there are degrees of free will. This applies to being possessed of some ideology as well.
I suggest that philosophers should join the rest of us and spend more of their time investigating the whole complex of ideas involved in our ability to make decisions, including “free will” as a network of related concepts.

The Biology of Giant Starships

Extracted from a popular science article by Jamie Ka, a human field biologist on board the Giant Starship HMS Beagle en route to Messier 4.


The giant starships are a species of interstellar beings that evolved from vessels constructed by Primary beings from a variety of planets. Convergent evolution, with considerable exchange of genetic material, makes it convenient to describe them as a single species. The Starships generally have 35-50% of their own genetic material, 35-40% from others of their species and the rest from other Secondaria.

One common feature is the presence of a microbiota of both Primary beings and small Secondaria. The microbiota benefit from having many of their environmental needs met, as well as interstellar transportation, although some never disembark and have co-evolved with their ships over generations.

Although some microbiota perform minor maintenance for their ships, the ships appear to receive little benefit in return. Some ships say they get considerable entertainment value from their microbiota.

Most giant starships are roughly cylindrical, with main engines at each end, often with a ring of secondary engines midships, for manoeuvering and additional defense.


Giant Starships are autotrophs, scooping materials from the interstellar medium and from the Oort clouds and gas giants of solar systems they visit. Energy is mainly generated by the black holes in their primary engines.

Few beings risk attacking mature Giant Starships. Their large size (100×10 km) and formidable armour and armaments make attack difficult and risky. Their only predator is the Predatory Starship and even these rarely attack a Giant Starship, especially as other Giant Starships are likely to collaborate to pursue a Predatory Starship if they receive a distress call from one of their fellows. Although the pursuit may take centuries, this helps deter future attacks. However, in the last few million years, Predators have begun to hunt in packs and the attacks are escalating to the scale of warfare, especially in denser star clusters.

Although the microbiota occasionally become parasitic, the starships usually clear these infections quickly. Occasional viruses are found in genetic material (see “Reproduction” below), but starship immune systems clear most of these before activation. However, the few that are activated can be extremely virulent.

Estimates of the population size for the Milky Way vary from 5 to 50 billion. A more precise estimate is difficult because of the light speed limitation and highly variable birth rate. The death rate is considerably lower.


Giant Starships bear their own young live, and also act as surrogate mothers for smaller vessels such as fast transports, both interplanetary and interstellar.

When gestating their own species, the mother provides the highest proportion of genetic material together with material from a few other Giants, including many independent collections for subsystems, somewhat analogous to that in eukaryotic organelles. The development process takes place inside the mother, incorporating processes similar to Primalia development with others similar to mechanical construction. This takes place in a structure analogous to both a uterus and a dry dock. Live birth takes place by having the membrane surrounding the baby merge with the outer skin of the mother so that a large hole is formed, much like endocytosis in Earth organisms.