Egnorance of free will

October 2, 2013 • 5:34 am

It wasn’t I who used the term “Egnorance” to refer to the lucubrations of Michael Egnor, a neurosurgeon and an ardent proponent of intelligent design who regularly contributes to the Discovery Institute’s shriveled organ, “Evolution News and Views.” Egnor often goes after me on that site (I’m proud to say that my opinion of him is prominently displayed on his Wikipedia page), but I don’t pay him much attention. The DI has nothing more to do than attack atheists, evolutionary biologists, and tout its Jesus-soaked books; and I don’t feel like giving them hits.

But Egnor’s latest column, “Jerry Coyne endorses free will (inadvertently as you might expect),” has a fundamental error of comprehension that’s worth pointing out.

Now of course I don’t endorse free will, at least of the libertarian or dualistic type, so why does Egnor accuse me of this? Because I argue that humans can counteract the tendencies built into them (that’s a metaphor!) by evolution. If you think about it for a second, which Egnor apparently hasn’t, you’ll see that this kind of “counteracting” is no argument for dualism.

Egnor’s claim comes from a piece I recently wrote defending Dawkins against the accusations of Mary Midgley and Andrew Brown that the metaphor of “the selfish gene” has been deeply misleading.  In fact, I said nothing in my piece about our inability to countermand genetically-based behaviors, so Egnor is reduced to arguing that because I endorse Dawkins, I also endorse his views on this issue. Here’s what Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, and is quoted by Egnor:

We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world…. We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

In fact I do agree with those views. And hence Egnor’s beef:

If we lumbering robot survival machines are to upset the design of our genes, we cannot be deterministic survival machines. As Midgely cogently observes, only free will — in fact, very strong libertarian free will — could permit us liberation from our selfish genes.

Coyne defends Dawkins’s theory of selfish genes. If Coyne believes, as Dawkins does, that we can upset the design of our selfish genes and practice genuine generosity and altruism, then Coyne presupposes strong free will — an idea he has repeatedly rejected up until now.

What nonsense! Egnor doesn’t understand determinism.

Although some genetically-based behaviors are very hard to overcome by volition (breathing and urinating are two), others are easier. Every time someone adopts a child, or uses birth control, he or she is deliberately overcoming genetic propensities. Masturbation also obviates our genetic drive to reproduce, and you can think of a million other ways that we overcome, on a daily basis, what evolution instilled in our ancestors.

Well, Engor might say, that just shows that we have free will: that we can make deliberate choices that go against what supposedly evolved (he doesn’t accept evolution.) And presumably that free will was a gift of God.

But Egnor’s argument for free will is flatly wrong.  For one thing, “choice” can be apparent choice, and determinists like me would argue that donning a condom is dictated by your neurons, which have previously absorbed the lesson that if you don’t do so, you could have an unwanted child.

Clearly, environmental intervention, like the thoughts that you derive from learning and observation, can change your brain.  We had to learn that ejaculation was connected with reproduction, something that kids learn every generation, and once we did we could go to the drugstore and counteract our evolutionary drive to reproduce.

But Egnor certainly doesn’t accept determinism, and would argue that those “choices” reflect libertarian free will. In that case, we can show that the use of chemicals, which certainly have nothing to do with such free will, can also overcome the tyranny of those selfish replicators.  You can take drugs that completely eliminate your desire to reproduce. You can take drugs that eliminate your desire to eat. You can take drugs that make you agitated or placid. All manner of drugs can change behaviors that reflect the ancient actions of natural selection, and every one of these drugs acts by changing something in your brain. As a neurosurgeon, Egnor should know this. But he’s blinkered by his faith.

Finally, diseases like depression or schizophrenia, which often strike in late teens or early twenties, can lead you to the ultimate non-evolutionary act: suicide.

Genetics is not destiny, and what was built into us by selection can be dismantled by rationality—or disease. What’s so hard about realizing that?

So many critics of incompatibilism—the view that free will is incompatible with determinism—simply don’t understand what determinism entails. And the most common misunderstanding—the one committed by Egnor—is to suppose that, under determinism, the environment cannot play a huge role in our “choices”, as it supposedly cannot affect the structure of our brain. But it can.

68 thoughts on “Egnorance of free will

    1. So what? Egnor’s still wrong. IMHO JAC’s point (briefly, ““counteracting” is no argument for dualism”) is clear and obvious: we may have evolved current deterministically programing that overrides earlier deterministic programming. Accepting that we can override some urges does not require someone to believe in dualism, it merely requires someone to believe that the overrides are just as physicochemically determined as the original urges.

  1. The point is that many people naivily think “free will equals indeterminism”, and too often they also conflate determinism with fatalism. The latter position entails that whatever you do or do not, does not matter since the future will not be changed by your actions. Though fatalism subscribes to some kind of determinism, it’s not synomynous. The most popular form of determinism, causal determinism, argues that the future is determined as result of a “causal chain”, i.e. A causes B, B causes C, etc. Therefore your actions do in fact matter under this type of determinism.

  2. If depression is a disease, how is differential diagnosis achieved? In other words, how do we separate the evolutionary necessity for depression, even severe, chronic, long-term depression (a mental signal that something is seriously wrong with how we engage the world) from the supposed disease of depression? Sure, we can point to the neural substrate underlying a severe state of depression, but it seems to me that these substrates are not the cause of depression; they are an expression of depression — which means that the real action is found elsewhere: grappling with the person’s thinking and their beliefs. Ultimately, or so it seems to me, we get depressed, even severely depressed, for reasons. Do pills provide help for those who are chronically depressed? You bet. But if a drug such as Prozac can “jump-start someone out of a depression,” as Jonathan Lear has asked (in his book, Love and its Place in Nature), “does the person use the relief from crippling pain as an opportunity to work through the meanings and conflicts inherent in his life; or is he ‘relieved’ of that opportunity?” It’s a good question.

    1. I think you are conflating feeling down with clinical depression. There is an evolutionary advantage to having feelings, even bad ones. Things go wrong when these feelings arrive for no outside reason or they are prolonged. This is clinical depression which is a chemical problem in the brain and sometimes damage to the brain. This malfunction is no different than a malfunctioning pancreas not producing insulin.

      Taking medication does not “relieve” the person of the opportunity to working through “meanings and conflicts” in his/her life no more than denying a person with diabetes their insulin robs them the opportunity of figuring out how to stop being diabetic.

      1. +1.

        There is an element of the mind vs. the brain confusion in the original post.

        To try to draw a distinction between having a disease or disorder, or merely “grappling with the person’s thinking and beliefs,” seems a false and meaningless distinction.

        The way a person thinks and believes is a result of how the brain is structured, and how neurons are connected. So to change that requires work and time to reconfigure the brain’s structure in order to weaken negative or undesirable patterns, and to reinforce positive or desired patterns or habits of thought. In other words it requires what we usually call healing for other parts of the body.

        I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that the distinction between organic and inorganic psychological disorders has become entirely obsolete in psychology and psychiatry.

      2. I’ve known about this argument, otherwise known as “chemical imbalances in the brain”, for a long time now and I still don’t believe it — because there is no evidence for such chemical imbalances. Take a look at this video (from a 2006 documentary) where psychiatrists, one after another, admit to this fact. Or in the words of one of them, “there is no test, there is no biopsy that you can do” to determine ANY so-called mental illness.

        I still argue that there is an evolutionary reason for depression, even prolonged massive depression. In the meantime, my differential diagnosis question has never been answered by anybody. That’s principally why my skepticism remains. Do you have a cold or an allergy? Differential diagnosis will determine the answer. Is your rash from poison ivy or is it a reaction from food or medication? Differential diagnosis will determine the answer. Are you massively depressed for deep-seated reasons or are you depressed because of chemical imbalances in the brain? Psychiatrists cannot answer this question.

        And that comment from that first doctor in that video is correct: psychiatry is a field in which the practitioners vote for the existence of diseases. No, that is’nt an exaggeration. After all, in 1973 it was discovered — excuse me, voted on — that homosexuality is not a mental illness. In what other branch of medicine is voting — voting! — used to determine the existence of an ailment? This is crazy, and it’s standard practice for psychiatry right up until this day.

        And while I’m here, how about that wacky psychiatric “bible” otherwise known as the DSM? I love L.J. Davis’s hilarious smack down of the previous edition:

        1. Sorry I don’t know why that Sam Harris video showed up. I grabbed the URL for the psychiatry video as it was playing and yet the Harris video got posted. Very strange.

          Anyway, here’s the video:

          (Too bad there’s no editing function available for comments here; otherwise, I just would have made the correction above.)

          1. Barry, that is one of the most offensive, dreck filled videos I’ve ever watched. Before I opened it, I jokingly wondered if it had something to do with scientology since scientology firmly denies psychiatry and especially has spoken out against depression (remember Tom Cruise’s public denunciation of Brooke Shields when she sought treatment for postpartum depression? Mr Cruise felt vitamins would cure her depression).

            I looked up CCHR and Thomas Szasz and the first hit off Wikipedia gave me this:

            The Citizens Commission on Human Rights International (CCHR) is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “eradicate abuses committed under the guise of mental health and enact patient and consumer protections.” It has been described by critics as a Scientology front group that campaigns against psychiatry and psychiatrists.It was established in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz,and is headquartered in Los Angeles, California.

            The entire piece is edited in the style of Ray Comfort’s Evolution vs. God with questions like: “Have you cured anyone?” asked – yeah there is no cure for schizophrenia (yet!) and “Is there a biological test?” with the implication that symptoms are not enough to diagnose a patient. It’s also clearly edited to make the answerer’s look like doofuses, just like Ray Comfort’s video.

            Worst of all Szasz has the audacity to quote the best orator of all time, Cicero, to manipulate people into thinking that psychiatry is some sort of mass conspiracy. Well to Scientology & Szasz I say, qui bono!

            Now, I’m going to add a link here to Wikipedia and before you kvetch that it’s just Wikipedia, the reason I’m adding it is I invite you to check out the 309 footnotes at the bottom of the article before posting such an atrocity like this video again. Here is the Wikipedia link to information about Major Depressive Disorder.

            1. Diane,

              I loathe Ray Comfort (as you might imagine) and I loathe Scientology. I had no idea that those folks were involved with the video, and I find the Szasz/Scientology connection disturbing. I’ve never known about this pairing, and I will investigate this further (Szasz was an atheist, and so his association with Scientology is doubly odd).

              But the question posed to those psychiatrists is not unreasonable: are there biological markers/tests for what you do? That’s a perfectly reasonable question — and the answer is no, as those psychiatrists demonstrated. I disagree with you: they are not made to look like fools at all. There are no cutaway shots or fancy editing. A direct question is asked, the camera stays on them, and they answer the question. What’s weird to me is that most of them seem eager or cheery about answering the question! No hemming or hawing from them. Very strange.

              How about Peter Breggin? He’s also a psychiatrist and a skeptic. You may want to look him up. I only know “Toxic Psychiatry” but I’m not familiar with anything else he’s written.

              And the L.J. Davis piece is still a bull’s eye (and very funny: I wish I had written it). I mean, your crap detector had to light up when Davis discussed some of those alleged “diseases”, right? From his piece: “According to the DSM-IV, something called frotteurism (302.89) is the irresistible desire to sexually touch and rub against one’s fellow passengers on mass transit.”

              Really, people. This is a disease? But I have another question: is there a biological test for that? Umm… no.

              Such is the hilarity of psychiatry.


              PS: Here’s the link again for the Davis piece:

              PS PS: Yes, I recall seeing that Wikipedia piece. It’s a good summary. I still would like to know how differential diagnosis is achieved. I wish someone somewhere could answer my question.

              1. I’m glad that you did not know about the scientology link – I was afraid at the possibility that you were one of them!

                There is a lot of editing to that video. I’m sure the psychiatrists went on to describe how a patient is diagnosed but they were never given the chance to comment. Moreover, that question about curing a person was clearly manipulative. Many psychological illnesses are not yet curable but that doesn’t mean they won’t be some day. Jerry posted the schizophrenia piece a few days back – there is a lot of research being done into illnesses, including depression. It’s like implying that doctors who treat immune system issues like diabetes, crohns disease or arthritis are somehow deceptive because they haven’t cured their patients.

                Just because there is not yet a blood test, etc. to diagnose a patient does not mean that it is not an illness. Read through that wikipedia article about how patients are diagnosed, how they are treated and how they are working on differentical diagnoses. There is not conspiracy from psychiatry. If there were, those 309 references would not exist.

  3. Egnor wrongly assumes the effects of external priming are generated by an unmitigated self. He apparently micromanages the electrochemical reactions in his brain and is solely in charge of sculpting his neurophysiology.

  4. I don’t understand why so many people think medical doctors are scientists.

    Yes, they go through a long period of learning and training but a small percentage of it is scientific activity.

    Few medical doctors are good diagnosticians, from my experience.

    Taken a bit to the extreme, surgeons are primarily plumbers of the body, doing the same few things over and over again. A neurosurgeon can be considered a combination plumber and electrician.

    Few medical doctors actually do scientific research. Biochemists and several other specialists are far better fit to be called scientist.

    /end of rant

    1. I long ago decided that it was more useful to think of MDs as technicians than scientists. They are very much akin to the guys who fix your car when it breaks down.

      1. But the car mechanic will give you a quote and you can easily go to another one. It is almost impossible to find out what medical care will cost beforehand.

        1. That’s true. But you point out a difference in the economic environments in which they work. They are both still mechanics.

      2. Agreed. And that’s not being insulting, either.

        However I think that if you’re in that field you should be at least aware of how the scientific process behind it works in principle. This is the same for all technicians, and I speak as an IT professional with a Computer Science degree who is very much the “technician” as opposed to “scientist”!

        1. Most computing professionals are technicians and technologists, in the terminology I promote. Some academics are scientists in either pure or applied science. Chemists and psychologists are often in the same ambiguous position; whereas the physics-people in technology are usually engineers.

    2. Good point about people thinking medical doctors are scientists. One of my orthopedists jokingly admitted he’s just a glorified carpenter. However, his ego was still quite large, which made him difficult to deal with when I needed his help.

      BTW, here’s a good one:
      What is the difference between a surgeon and God?

      God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

    3. Not being one on TV but in actual practice, it is perhaps better to remember that ‘MD’ is a pretty large catch-all much like the word cancer. Experience, training and specialty all contribute to the individual competence and range of services that might be expected from a given physician.

      There are physician scientists, there are those who practice scientifically, and there are those who keep on practicing.

      As a group, physicians are well educated (if at times narrowly), and extensively trained. Unfortunately, the field of study they are involved in is vast, complex, ever-changing, and the expectations of those they serve are very diverse. Most of the men and women in the profession with whom I have served however have a dedication to their craft that is not all that common today.

      But, as many of the arguments amongst philosophers and scientists witnessed in these blogs demonstrate, being educated is not the same as being right. Some philosophers rant about scientism and some physicians rant about determinism. All of us no doubt have dumb ideas about something.

      Oh well, back to the research on why people make bad decisions…

  5. Urban Dictionary actually contains an entry from “egnorance”: electronically transmitted ignorance.

    Perhaps a second definition in which the e is capitalized is in order.

  6. I don’t see how the ability to use contraception can be adaptive. If your neutrons dictate condom use then such behaviour should result in fewer offspring.

    1. Evolution does not pre engineer behaviors. It plays with behaviors, and those that tend to produce success will be preserved and reinforced.

      Take for example adoption and the protection of young. When a human male (for example) is exposed to a young child in a primary care role, instincts encourage a deep parental bond. Nature (being NOT intelligent design) did not build a paternity test into that mechanism because it was not really necessary. In our evolutionary past, if there is that close contact, it is a strong statistical likelihood that the child is related, which is good enough of a match as far as natural selection is concerned. That is why a parent can care for an adopted child every bit as much as one’s own genetic offspring.

      Our behaviors are not really matched to their associated circumstances in a way that a machine designer would consciously create a machine to respond to very specific situations. Instead they are ‘rules of thumb’ that worked with sufficient accuracy in our evolutionary history to get the job done more often than not.

      I’ve used the example of the ‘spam filter’ on email programs. If each time you get a spam, you create a rule that covers it, eventually you get a collection of rules that works pretty well, but these rules probably fail occasionally in both directions, and the rules themselves may be logically inconsistent with one another. But the job gets done. Our behaviors are like those ad hoc rules that got embedded in our makeup because they worked, not because they were perfect.

      1. I would have thought evolution could have given us both culture and the desire for perpetuating our genes. It’s not a question of unrestrained breeding, but breeding up to our capacity. Given that people nowadays deliberately produce less offspring than they can easily support then this aspect of culture has failed the imperative to reproduce that we see in non-human nature.

        1. But (some of) our big brains can see that we exceeding (or have exceeded) our, the Earth’s, capacity. It is in our best interest not to overpopulate. This is why some people choose to have few or no children.

          Another reason some people choose to use contraception is to be able to continue satisfying the sexual urge without incurring too great a demand on family resources.

          Our big brains can look into the future and make models of the likely consequences acting on more visceral urges. This is not contra evolution.

          1. It seems to me that you’re suggesting that group selection is valid: I give up my chance to breed for the benefit of unrelated individuals. I might consider that I should produce at least some offspring myself and let others show restraint. Given, also, that in many Western countries breeding isn’t even at replacement level I don’t accept the ecological argument.

            1. You might indeed let others show restraint. The point is that some people choose to act based on mental modeling of consequences they think are likely. And this is what our brains are for, evolutionarily speaking. I don’t think group selection enters it. If I choose not to have a second child so that I can devote more resources to the first child, that’s not group selection. If I choose not to have children at all and focus resources on nieces or nephews, or adopted children, how does that have anything to do with what is meant by the term “group selection”? I thought group selection had to do with specific traits shared by members of a group that confer some advantage or disadvantage to the group as a whole.

              All I’m saying is that evolution also provided us with big brains that can figure out that sometimes, our visceral urges are not in our long-term best interest.

              Our big brains can also see that the entire Earth is our habitat. We are taxing it beyond its ability to sustain. 3rd world horrors more than make up for what appears to be stability in 1st world countries. Sooner or later even the 1st world will have to face the music. My brain tells me I’d rather it be later.

  7. What strikes me about the quotes from Egnor is that he appears to equate selfish genes with selfish individuals carrying those genes, the same tired mistake as made by Midgely. Reading comprehension: F. Sit down please.

    But as a compatibilist, this once again bothers me:

    But Egnor’s argument for free will is flatly wrong. For one thing, “choice” can be apparent choice, and determinists like me would argue that donning a condom is dictated by your neurons, which have previously absorbed the lesson that if you don’t do so, you could have an unwanted child.

    My neurons are me. And therefore it is me who has learned that lesson, and thus me who makes the choice. As mentioned before when these things come up, the conceptual separation of me and the parts I am made of that is necessitated by incompatibilism could be interpreted as a different form of dualism and is akin to claiming that I only “appear” to eat my lunch because in reality it is only the digestive system that eats.

    1. Subjectivity is an epiphenomenon of the factors that bring consciousness into being. Although it’s true that volition emanates from self-contained organization, this does not infer contra-causality.

      1. Okay, after pondering for a few hours whether it would be needlessly inflammatory, I’ll bite, merely out of curiosity:

        In what sentence did I so much as imply “contra-causality”?

    2. I don’t see any contradiction between Jerry crediting neurons with causality, and the observation that “my neurons are me”.

      This observation was just a prelude to an equivocation on the word “me”, what it means and how people use it and think of it.

      Your observation makes sense as long as by “me” we mean my body. But if by “me” you mean my subjective experience of an ego identity, of an independent self that seems as if it can think and act independently of the body, then we are getting into the territory of what most people think of when they think of “me”, and it becomes highly dubious that this “me” actually is the ultimate cause of our choices, even though it is a component of the whole “me” that makes the choices.

      I don’t see how you arrive at the idea that incompatibilism necessitates a conceptual separation between “me” and the parts I am made of. I think the opposite is true. Incompatibilism rejects dualism.

      1. Would that were so. The problem is precisely that a sentence such as “it is not me who decides, it is my neurons who have decided for me” only makes sense if I am envisioned to be some immaterial captive of the body who has to watch helplessly as the body shambles around following the dictates of genes and environmental influences.

        Under the assumption that dualism is wrong, I would be my genes, I would be what environmental influences made me, I would be my neurons, in short, I would be my body, and thus such a sentence would be nonsensical. In other words, if incompatibilists were not unwitting dualists, why would they write such sentences as the one above?

  8. Meh, Egnor. I saw this article and didn’t read past the headline because it sounded ludicrous from the onset. He’s really performing a lot of twisty acrobatics to try pull a “a ha! J’accuse” on Jerry!

  9. “Every time someone adopts a child, or uses birth control, he or she is deliberately overcoming genetic propensities. Masturbation also obviates our genetic drive to reproduce, and you can think of a million other ways that we overcome, on a daily basis, what evolution instilled in our ancestors.”

    But if you take a few steps back can’t things like this still be “gene-approved” behaviors? We adopt children because of a general desire to see young “gene-hives” survive and a desire to be parents. We masturbate because of a general desire to achieve orgasm. Both of these are lower-level methods for achieving gene-propagation, and they can be applied outside their “intended” context.

    Same goes for the seemingly perverse (from evolution’s perspective) behavior Dawkins claims we can achieve despite genetic drives. Altruism can be explained genetically.

    It seems to me.

  10. “Genetics is not destiny, and what was built into us by selection can be dismantled by rationality—or disease.”

    Who, or what, “decides” to employ rationality in the face of the demands of the evolved nature? For example, I should deny my hunger pangs in order to reduce my weight and, hopefully, live a bit longer or better. Sometimes I actually do! It sure feels like it takes an act of my will.

  11. While Egnor’s engaging in rather shoddy thinking, I can’t help but think Dawkins and Coyne are at the very least expressing themselves poorly. Particularly the phrases counteract, turn against our creators and overcoming genetic propensities are problematic. I really don’t want to nominate myself as metaphor police, but I think the language could be a lot more precise and less fertile grounds for confusion.

    Fundamentally, any system, be it organism or computer, responds algorithmically and deterministically, or even probabilistically, to its environment, generally altering itself or its state and its environment in the process. The system is not a rag doll at the mercy of outside forces – its design determines its immediate responses and thus alters its future state and environment to some degree.

    The only sense in which humans can rebel against their selfish genes is by the interaction of genetic makeup and environmental conditions (culture, education, et al included) causing behavior other than that for which the genes were naturally selected. None of this is very well defined, of course, but there must be some sort of intention for there to be any sort of rebellion.

    In this sense, a tigress nursing piglets and a bird ‘adopting’ a cuckoo both in some sense rebel against their selfish genes, and a computer program crashing rebels against its source code – rebels, again in the sense of slavishly carrying out their designed responses though in contradiction to those responses’ supposed intentions as interpreted by us.

    What really happens in these supposed human counteractions, overcomings and rebellions, is that other genetic, environmental, …, factors supersede the behaviors we consider more natural, though these other behaviors necessarily must have the exact same sort of causes. The sort of agency needed to make sense of the phrases I have pointed to do indeed smack of some sort of dualism. Choice is indeed a useful metaphor, and not one we should discard altogether, but mixing this sort of metaphorical agency into the pot while simultaneously talking about selfish genes on a wholly different level of metaphor is incredibly confusing.

    1. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “incredibly confusing”. Did anyone actually read TSG for the first time and think that Dawkins was attributing minds or souls to genes? And if they did, as soon as Dawkins says, “no, no – I meant they act /as though/ they are selfish; it’s just a useful model for the behavior”, the matter should be cleared up. People usually don’t have such a hard time with metaphors in other areas of their lives.

      I do agree that the literary language favored by Dawkins (and Jerry, for that matter) can often give people who are approaching the material with a bunch of dualistic and/or teleological baggage in tow an opportunity to fall prey to their own confirmation bias. In other words, all they remember is “selfish genes, lumbering robots!” and not… all the actual biology. People like to cling to language like this (either consciously or sub-consciously), and while I still think such metaphors are useful and necessary, I also maintain that evolutionary biologists simply can’t repeat often enough things like, “it’s just differential reproduction of genes”, or “individuals don’t evolve; populations evolve”.

      1. I thought TSG was a great book and felt Dawkins communicated well. I generally don’t have any problem with Coyne’s writing either.

        However, I do stand by the claim of incredibly confusing, and not merely on behalf of imagined people who might misunderstand. I really have trouble finding a good interpretation for the TSG quote from the original post, which I can reproduce with confusing formatting here:

        — We can even discuss ways of cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world…. We have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. —

        Reading it as-presented, I can’t help but feel it suggests a taming of natural, genetic instincts by a dualistic, reasoning mind which is not itself the product of selfish replicators. In context, I can’t make sense of it, because Dawkins’ explanation of organisms as factories for producing copies of their own DNA seems to be very much on point. This leaves me rather confused – what does he really mean by the paragraph, if anything at all?

        1. I think it just means humans have culture. Or rather, humans display a different range of behaviors from other organisms that are not as easily predicted based on what we know about natural selection. Humans are the only animals smart enough to look at the world, understand the “laws” of natural selection, and then act “against” them. I’m sure we can all agree that the seeing, the understanding, and the acting are just as determined as a billiards shot, but nonetheless, it’s a unique set of behaviors that simply isn’t observed in other species.

          My only quibble with the quote is the line, “no place in nature”. But, again, presumably, he’s just being overly poetic and means to say “not well accounted for by the ‘rules’ that govern the rest of nature”. By “rules” I of course mean the sloppier generalizations used as models in biology, not the apparently stricter more fundamental laws of physics that are (metaphorically) pushing my neurons about.

          I see the whole thing as highlighting homo sapiens’ uniqueness as well as a way to close the book on an optimistic note and guard against the false conclusion that “genes determine everything”. Yes, strictly speaking, genes + environment really do determine everything, but in the case of our species, there is an unusually complex feedback loop between the organism and it’s environment that sets us apart in an interesting way from other animals.

          1. I agree with your understanding of how stuff works, though I’m not entirely happy with -unique set of behaviors-, -homo sapiens’ uniqueness- and -sets us apart from other animals-.

            I can’t help but think, though, that you have added so much of your own thinking that hardly any of the original paragraph remains. With this sort of liberal interpretation, you could get anywhere from that snippet – including where Egnor has gone.

            Lastly, if Dawkins’ is simply talking about culture – which is something selfish genes make just like how they create body tissue – and about the rich spectrum of possible human behaviors, then I think the harm he does by contrasting high level cognition and evolved behavior isn’t worth the point he is making.

            (Does anybody know if there is something in the ellipsis (…) that clears this all up?)

            1. Here’s the whole quote with the elipsis bolded (I think – I don’t have the book itself handy, but I googled my way to this):

              “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

              And I don’t really have a problem with “rebel” as used here. In a sense it is true. The “selfish” replicators have given rise to brains that are able to act against the “interests” of the things that created them. There’s nothing contra-causal in that. It makes sense insofar as we can distinguish between the interests of the organism (positive subjective experience) and the interests of the genes (getting copied). Of course, you might prefer to suggest that it’s really just the genes rebelling against themselves, which is also true in a sense.

              As far as the uniqueness of human behavior goes… I’m not sure what to say. There was no value judgment intended in any of my statements. But our capacity for higher cognition, along with the behavior it leads to (language, math, discussions on determinism) is almost certainly unmatched on earth (though probably not in the universe). “Unique” meaning not repeated… on this planet, at least.

              1. I am still processing everything in your comment, OR, and I can say nothing specific jars me … with one slight exception:

                ‘… (though probably not in the universe) …’ is a phrase I would perhaps change from ‘probably not’ to “(though it is reasonable to conjecture perhaps matched, if not exceeded, elsewhere in the universe)”

              2. It’s worth pointing out that there really shouldn’t be all that much to process. Darkwhite and I don’t appear to actually disagree about anything, except perhaps whether or not Dawkins’ use of such colorful language does more harm than good. I do agree that metaphoric language (especially in this area where people are often already confused) can leave the door open for misunderstanding, but without seeing some sort of particularly damning poll that shows a large percentage of people thinking Dawkins was trying to invoke some form of dualism, I hesitate to be overly critical of his stylistic choices.

                I also took issue with Darkwhite’s having taken issue with my usage (*whew*) of “unique”, which I thought was trivially true, and was never intended to be anything more profound than that (perhaps he/she simply read more into my language than I intended).

                As for your clarification on “probably”, yes, I think yours is a better, more careful choice of words. Perhaps I am unwarrentedly sympathetic to Drake-equation-style arguments from big numbers? But my writing tends to be clunky and too wordy as it is, so in the interest word count, I occasionally sacrifice clarity. I need to read Pinker’s forthcoming book.

        2. To me that paragraph is clear enough.

          Evolution produced in humans a brain with sufficient complexity to support self reflection and the ability to understand the processes that got us here. Since we can recognize the processes, we can alter them, block them, enhance them, etc.

          1. This interpretation is very understandable, but doesn’t in introduce some false dualism? There is no meaningful distinction between us and the processes that got us here.

            Understanding and responding to our environments, altering our environments, learning from our experiences and each other and making codes for social interaction is -not- to rebel against our selfish replicators, but merely one of the many sorts of behaviors they have equipped us with.

  12. “ultimate non-evolutionary act: suicide.”

    I think that is a bit of rhetorical hyperbole. If the act of suicide can result in the further dissemination of your genes then wouldn’t it then be an “evolutionary act”? In fact, doesn’t the act of reproduction actively leads to death in certain species(salmon for example)?

    1. Humans aren’t salmon, and you don’t seem to understand my point. Drugs or brain disease can lead one to override one’s evolutionary dictates. People kill themselves ALL THE TIME when it doesn’t facilitate their reproduction.

      Please take back your characterization of “rhetorical hyperbole.” You are invoking an extremely improbable scenario as the norm.

      1. I was thinking not of just human evolution but of evolution of life in general. The use of “suicide” as a reproductive strategy for some species is part of evolution – so, I had a qualm with the word “ultimate”. I think, that I did understand your point, and I don’t disagree with you – loosely speaking. Your term, “ultimate non-evolutionary act” is forceful, direct and in almost all cases true but not all.

      2. Also, I didn’t mean the term “a bit of a rhetorical hyperbole” as an insult but as a technical description.

  13. This kind of thing has led me to “operationalize,” or define, the terms “moron,” “idiot,” “stupid,” etc., in such contexts. here’s what I mean, and I think what we all mean. A moron is a person who writes, speaks or otherwise bloviates on some topic, in this case free will, without having shown any sign of having read or studied the rudiments of the topic. A moron doesn’t seem to know that certain objections have been countered, and engaging the argument should start AFTER having read and absorbed that. Notice my definition doesn’t presuppose I, or we, are right–the objections might not work, but rationality requires the argument to be engaged there. I use this in critical thinking and philosophy classes. We were studying Hume on miracles, adn I then had them read Josh McDowell, a moron fundamentalist apologist. We had been very clear that Hume was giving an argument, not that there couldn’t BE miracles, but that it is never rational to believe in them. So McDowell starts out, Hume says there can’t BE any miracles. WTF? No, McDowell showed that he had not even tried understand the basics of Hume. Idiot, moron. Btw, this kind of clear thinking goes over really well with students of all kinds. I can say, the reason we are not reading any creationists/fundamentalists/conservative xians is NOT becuase of the content of what they ahve to say. It’s because they are, by our definition, idiots.

  14. I’m getting quite tired of the free will debates. It seems we endlessly go in circles because failure to have properly defined word meanings (which isn’t easy to do).

    The key problem, as I see it, is that some people refer to “free will” as a description of a set of human behaviors (predominantly the compatibilists) while others (predominantly the incompatibilists) think of “free will” as a mechanism operative in the brain or mind that is responsible for the set of behaviors people generally describe as “free will”.

    In the former case, any child can see we have it, and in the latter case anyone who has abandoned mind/brain duality and accepts physical determinism of the mind by the brain ought to be able to admit we don’t have it.

    Understanding this distinction well should clarify why incompatibilists think “free will” is an illusion produced by the extraordinary complexity of the deterministic brain. It should also explain why compatibilists think this idea is nonsense.

    1. Yes, your tiredness is duly noted. I suggest that you don’t read these posts, then, much less comment on them.

      It’s clear what kind of free will Egnor is referring to here; it’s the dualistic free will espoused by the Christians at DI.

      Do you not understand that that’s the topic of this post?

      And I really don’t appreciate people writing in just to say that they’re tired of a topic. You have the option to read other websites, or ignore the ones on this site that you don’t like.

    2. It is easy for me to comprehend that the brain is enormously complex, and that there is nothing external to that mass of matter (not including components of its host organism, or experiential interaction with external stimuli) that causes it to do anything. No dualism, be it an endowment at conception by a deity nor any other thing.

      The process by which I came to the conclusion as a teen in the ’60’s that there is no god; that there is only a single race of humans, albeit one with gender and ethnic distinctions; that sexuality is determined by biology/chemistry, but not a matter of choice — nor anything to be judgemental about; when to make a stand which I knew risked significant negative social or professional consequences; what to eat yesterday for lunch:

      I am unable to discern what people who advocate there is no such thing as free will are saying when they talk about the human brain and the decisions that emanate solely from it, whether those decisions are made individually, or when a large group swings one-eighty virtually instantly (e.g. aspects of non-hetero public attitudes). I can’t even figure out if this is a definition of terms issue, or some personal internal brain clog I can learn to recognize and perhaps remove.

  15. Jerry, your link in the first para labelled “on his Wikipedia page” actually links to his page on you.

  16. So many critics of incompatibilism—the view that free will is incompatible with determinism—simply don’t understand what determinism entails.

    But Egnor isn’t a critic of incompatibilism. He accepts it, wholeheartedly. That’s why he says that to make the claims you are making — that we can override what he’d claim are physically determined behaviours — we need a contracausal free will. He is a incompatibilist libertarian, arguing that free will and determinism are incompatible and, therefore, that determinism is false because we clearly have free will. The position you might be aiming for is incompatibilist determinist: free will and determinism are incompatible, determinism is clearly true, so we don’t have free will (in the contracausal sense).

    However, you actually seem to be leaning towards a compatibilist interpretation:

    Although some genetically-based behaviors are very hard to overcome by volition (breathing and urinating are two), others are easier.

    Once you start talking about overcoming even genetically-based behaviours by “volition”, you start at least leaning towards talking about processes we have — and that other things and even at least some other animals don’t have — that are set-up to, in fact, do volitional or conscious things. This is, essentially, the main thrust of compatibilism: that we can have fully determined process or mechanisms whose job it is to do “free will” thing, like making meaningful choices or overriding genetically-based behaviours or instincts or habits volitionally. If you’re going to concede volitional mechanisms, and you’re going to hold that determinism is true, it’s hard to see what you and compatibilists are arguing about.

    Note that the libertarian counter to this is that the mechanisms that you allow for simply aren’t enough to get any meaningful notion of choice or volition at all, and so you can’t use those mechanisms to get to, say, pure altruism, without redefining it to something so radically different that you might as well just say that we don’t have it at all.

Leave a Reply