Metaphysicians of causation have been known to ponder the possibility of causal action-at-a-distance: that is, whether or not it is possible for one event to causally influence another over a spatio-temporal gap. It was common among Early Modern philosophers to insist that causation requires a ‘nexus’ – roughly, a point of contact between cause and effect. (This thought under-wrote many of the objections of principle contemporary critics to Cartesian Interactionism.) Such a view, indeed, is not unreasonable: the idea of causal influence crossing a spatio-temporal gap ‘unmediated’ by some force or other is, to put it bluntly, spooky. On the other hand, however, potential cases of action-at-a-distance have been postulated in certain Quantum Mechanical experiments, most notably the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen/Bohm experiment. Naturally, the interpretation of the observations in such experiments are debated, but nevertheless a prima facie case for spooky action-at-a-distance exists.
Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.
If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.
A few seconds after being shown an image, an amnesiac is asked to find a match for it within a group of new images. She fails to do it. What is wrong with her? Is it just her memory? Does she also have a perceptual problem? How should we distinguish a purely mnemonic from a deficit that is also perceptual?
“Simple,” you might say. “Do a new experiment. Present the amnesiac simultaneously with the sample and the group of images, and ask her to find the match. If she finds it, the deficit is mnemonic. If she doesn’t, it might also be perceptual.”