Forty-five years in jail is too long: Leslie Van Houten, the Manson murders, free will, and retributive justice

July 24, 2016 • 10:00 am

On August 8, 1969, five people, including actress Sharon Tate, were murdered at a record producer’s house in Los Angeles. This was the second killing by Charles Manson’s “Family”; Manson wasn’t there but had ordered the killings. On the next night, with Manson in attendance, his gang murdered grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. One of the participants was Leslie Van Houten, only a few months older than I. She reportedly stabbed Rosemary LaBianca simply because Manson had ordered everyone to participate in the killings. (An earlier revenge killing, ordered by Manson, was the murder of Gary Hinman by Family member Bobby Beausoleil on July 27, 1969).

After a long investigation, several members of the Family, including Van Houten, were arrested; their trial began in the summer of 1970. All four were convicted, including Manson, who, at age 81, is still imprisoned in California. He appears as demented as he was when arrested, and it’s clear that he’ll die in jail.

Van Houten went through three trials. The first guilty verdict (guilty with sentence of dath) was thrown out on a technicality, the second trial led to a hung jury, and the third to a final conviction.  Two other women in the Family, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, were also convicted and sentenced to death. All the death sentences, including Manson’s, were commuted to life imprisonment after California rescinded the death penalty in 1972. Van Houten’s final life sentence was levied allowing the possibility of parole.

Van Houten, December, 1969

Van Houten maintained at her first trial that her crimes were not committed when she was under the influence of Charles Manson, which was certainly untrue. She and the other Manson acolytes were rabid followers of the unstable but charismatic Manson. For instance, when he carved an “X” on his forehead in prison (supposedly to “X” himself out of society), three of the “Manson Girls” did likewise:

Manson with his “X”
Left to right: “Manson Girls” Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in custody, 1970. Note the X’s on their foreheads.

Van Houten also showed no remorse for her crimes during the trial, though that has apparently changed. She’s now been in prison for 45 years, which makes her, along with Patricia Krenwinkel, the female inmate who has been behind bars the longest in California. Atkins died in prison of brain cancer in 2009; the state refused to give her a compassionate release even though she was terminally ill.

By all accounts, Van Houten has turned around.  She’s admitted remorse and takes full responsibility for what she did. So, apparently,  has another “Manson Girl” who languishes in jail. In 2014, New York Times reporter Olivia Klaus did a video interview of Patricia Krenwinkel (see it by clicking the screenshot below), and said this:

Over the years, I had gotten to know this woman — and our many conversations about life, love and politics had revealed slivers of a dark past. But not until her on-camera interview, featured in this Op-Doc, did I fully comprehend her journey of self-discovery. In prison, she has struggled mightily to reconcile two parts of her life: the 21-year-old girl who committed crimes to win the approval of the man she loved; and the 66-year-old woman who lives each day haunted by the unending suffering she has caused.

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 8.44.52 AM
Click to go to video interview and article on Krenwinkel

Over the years, Van Houten was denied parole 19 times. As the Los Angeles Times reported, she went up for parole again in April, at age 65 (she was 20 when arrested). This time the parole board recommended release:

In recent years, Van Houten’s attorneys characterized her as a model inmate, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from prison while running self-help groups for incarcerated women.

At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.”

According to comments carried by the Associated Press, she told the board Thursday: “I don’t let myself off the hook. I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”

Source: Associated Press

Nevertheless, her appeal was turned down on Friday—by governor Jerry Brown, a liberal (or so I believed). The reasons, I think are bizarre. As NBC News reports (my emphasis),

The Democratic governor acknowledged her success in prison and her youth at the time of the murders, but he wrote in his decision that she failed to explain how she transformed from an upstanding teen to a killer.

Both her role in these extraordinarily brutal crimes and her inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence cannot be overlooked and lead me to believe she remains an unacceptable risk to society if released,” Brown wrote.

. . . Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey and relatives of the victims last month turned in signatures of 140,000 people opposing Van Houten’s release.

“These people need to remain in jail until their passing day, for justice to be served,” said Debra Tate, Sharon Tate’s sister who delivered the signatures to Brown’s office last month and has organized opposition to the release of Manson family members.

I’m a determinist about human behavior, which I think is the only rational stance to take if you accept science. Like all of us, Van Houten was a product of her genes and her environment. That does not mean, of course, that she shouldn’t have been incarcerated for her crime. There are three reasons why even determinists favor incarceration: protection of society from an unreformed criminal, deterrence for others who see what will happen if they transgress, and reformation of the inmate so that they can be released. The U.S. prison system is notoriously bad at reformation, but so be it. (See below on a prison system that is much better.) But how long does it take for “justice” to be served? Van Houten has been in prison for over 45 years, and is a model inmate. She appears reformed, even to a parole board that is notoriously skeptical.  Is there any more deterrence to be absorbed by keeping her in jail any longer? I doubt it. And she’s clearly no longer a danger to society.

In my view, Van Houten should be released to live out the rest of her life in society. There is no further reason to keep her in jail. What is most bizarre is Jerry Brown’s claim that she can’t be released because she has “an inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence.”

Think about that. She has to stay in prison until she concocts a convincing story of why she killed.

But any attempt to do that will produce just that—a story. The real reason why Van Houten killed is because her genes and her environment left her no alternative. She could not have done otherwise, and I think all of us admit it, even if we believe in some kind of free will that’s compatible with determinism. It’s madness to keep Van Houten locked up because, until she comes up with a good story, she’s still a risk to society. That’s a terrible reason. As the New York Times reported Van Houten appears to be confused, not understanding how she could do what she did, and I can understand that. All of us strive to confect narratives that explain our lives, but these are at best approximations to the truth, and all suffer from the notion that we could have chosen another life.

What’s important is whether Van Houten will engage in another killing spree if she’s freed. Does anybody believe that?

The only reason to keep her in prison now is the misguided view of retribution—that Van Houten did have a choice and deserves to be punished for making the wrong choice. This is what people think, and this is one of the horrible byproducts of believing in libertarian, you-could-have-done otherwise free will. As Alice LaBianca, Leno’s first wife, wrote in 1998 when Van Houten was coming up for parole:

“Leslie Van Houten chose her own path. She chose to follow the instructions of Charles Manson. She chose drug-crazed killers as her family and she became one of them. But what about my family? When do we get our parole? When does Leno get his parole?”

But Van Houten did not “choose,” her own path—not in any meaningful, punishment-worthy way.  Maybe Alice LaBianca believes that, but she’s wrong. None of us “choose” our own path, and none of us could have lived a life different from the one we did. LaBianca combines that misguided view with a retributive motive as well: “When do we get our parole?”  That is, Van Houten should die in prison because the relatives of her victims are still in pain.

This is the downside of the libertarian view of free will that most people hold. So long as people think that we could have made choices other than those we did, then so long will people languish in jail long after they’ve reformed, no longer pose a danger to society, and whose incarcerations no longer act as deterrents. The death penalty, which is also retributive, is not a deterrent, and serves to reform nobody (nor does it allow those later found innocent to be freed, is also a byproduct of a retributive vision.

This is why I rail against philosophers who, instead of pointing out the way we should reform our prison system in light of the determinism they accept, spend their time making up definitions of free will that comport with determinism. That effort is useless, a purely academic exercise—though sometimes conducted with the misguided excuse that unless we think we have some form of free will, society will disintegrate. (That’s what nonbelieving “faitheists” say about religion as well.)

It’s time to let Van Houten go, as well as Patricia Krenwinkel, who also is repentant and has been a model inmate. As for Manson, there is an airtight case for keeping him in jail, as he’s severely mentally ill and could not be trusted as a free man in society. He may well be incurably ill. But we should at least treat those like him humanely—something that, we know, is not really  happening in American prisons.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, the Norwegian prison system, which is run on a model of reformation, deterrence, and protection of society—a deterministic model, in which nobody can initially be sentenced to more than 21 years—is much better than ours. As I wrote:

In Norway, fewer than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014.

That makes Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US.

On top of that, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.

(For more on this comparison, read “Incarceration within American and Nordic Prisons: Comparison of National and International Policies”, by Katie Ward et al.; it’s free online). Here’s a short video comparing the U.S. and Norwegian systems:

There’s little doubt that both Krenwinkel and Van Houten would have been released twenty years ago had they been in Norway.  The U.S. prison system is odious—an embarrassment for a country supposedly civilized and enlightened. Our philosophers could lend a hand by writing about the effect of determinism on human behavior and how, in light of determinism, we should adjust our system of punishments and rewards. I implore them to help.

It is admittedly a hard task to overcome people’s notion of free will, and their view that we could always have chosen otherwise. But the payoff for so doing is great—much greater than writing arcane arguments about semantics for other philosophers. Van Houten languishes in jail largely because people don’t understand determinism.

211 thoughts on “Forty-five years in jail is too long: Leslie Van Houten, the Manson murders, free will, and retributive justice

  1. I generally agree with the thrust of this article but there is also a fourth reason for punishment – retribution.

    The idea of ‘state’ retribution’ is that because the state has carried out retribution against the convicted criminal then people who were affected by the crime (victims, survivors, family members) feel reduced need to carry out their own retribution once the criminal has been released. Thus cutting off vendetta before it takes root. And also reinforcing the deterrence of crime.

  2. Related: This morning I came across this account of Inquisition testimony in 14th-century France:

    Bernard Franca believed that everything that happened to anyone was bound to happen to him from all eternity. Human beings were not free, and consequently could not sin. Conversely, so-called good works were of no merit. Bernard Franca had professed his heterodox opinions for forty years. He had derived them simply from the local peasant philosophy of Sabarthes.
    ‘Was it some learned doctor who inspired these errors in you.’ asked Jacque Fournier in 1320 of Franca, now in his sixties.
    ‘No,’ replied Franca. ‘But it is commonly said in Sabarthes, when some good or some ill happens to someone, that “it was promised him” and that “it could not have happened otherwise” . . . Moreover, when I was taken prisoner I said: “What has to be will be.” And then I added: “It will be as God wishes.”‘

    He was probably burned at the stake.

  3. Jerry Brown has never been what liberals call a “liberal.” He’s a pragmatic centrist, a Catholic trained in a Jesuit seminary, and no more capable of doing anything other than what he’s doing now than Van Houten was then.

    1. It may be very significant that he was trained in Catholicism. While Christianity is know for it’s sense of mercy toward the downtrodden, at the same time it holds to libertarian free will and has a deep respect for God’s retribution for human sin. I think this plays on our worst instincts when it comes to prison policy. Norway is one of the least religious societies. The US one of the most religious.

      1. I agree with the Catholic thing but can’t help thinking that getting re-elected might have a lot to do with it as well.

  4. Thomas: “Yeah. And they’ll never get it. They’ll never get it now, they never got it then, and they sure as hell won’t get fucking circumstance!”

  5. It takes more than a belief in free will to want to impose a punishment that goes way beyond what is necessary to protect society. It takes, how can I put this nicely, a vindictive jerk. The problem is the vindictiveness, not the belief.

  6. I’m a firm believer in retributive justice, and I couldn’t care less about academic arguments for or against “free will”. I would much prefer to see killers like Van Houten executed, but if we’re too squeamish to do that, then they should rot behind bars for the rest of their lives.

    And if 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years, to me that says that their original sentences weren’t long enough.

    Sorry, but sympathy is a limited resource in this world, and it’s far too valuable to waste on brutal murderers like the Manson cultists.

    1. A textbook example of what a former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, John Voelker, once wrote, the American system of justice is based on the mad dog principle, lock ’em up like a mad dog and keep ’em locked up.

      By the way, as an advocate for capital punishment, how do you feel about the possibility that someone falsely convicted might be executed? The Innocence Project has allowed more then 100 people on death row to be exonerated and released based on DNA evidence not available at the time of their conviction.

    2. She deserves empathy because she had no choice about what she did. Your view, that she should “rot in jail,” has no rational justification; it’s based purely on your emotions. If she’s reformed, if she’s no danger to society, and if staying in jail as an old woman doesn’t deter anyone, what other reason could there be for keeping someone in jail.

      Purely a destructive emotion of “retribution,” the same emotion that leads us to let the poor go unhelped because, after all, they deserve to be poor: they didn’t help themselves.

      And no, sympathy is not limited to some people. What sympathy does it take away from others to have some for Van Houten?

    3. Dave, you may as well have just declared “I’m part of the problem.”

      It is impulses like retribution that cause violence and conflict to go on and on. “He did this to me, he deserves retribution, so I’ll make him suffer.” That goes back to the other party, they think the same thing, and back and forth we go. The problem for any peace-making has always been BREAKING this chain of “retribution” and here you are happy to endorse the sentiment.

      How good do you really think it is for a society if it accepts that we should return
      a bad act with similarly bad feelings about the act. To promote that if someone has done something horrible, then we should relish something horrible happening to that person? One of the many problems with this is that those same feelings of delighting in the suffering of someone and retribution can often enough be aimed not simply at obvious murderers, but at whoever one thinks is a “horrible person” or “doing things I disprove of.” If someone thinks homosexuality is wrong, and retribution and “people doing wrong should suffer for it” are
      encouraged in a society, then you get “retributory” acts against gay people. Or just people on different sides of a religions, political or social side. It’s a pernicious genie that does not stay in it’s bottle until you call it out; people will call it for countless reasons of their own.

      And if we are talking about making a society in which we reduce the death toll and fear of being killed by one another, which path would seem to make the most sense?

      1. Killing is wrong, and if you kill someone we will kill you.


      1. We hate killing so much that we will not even kill murderers once we have caught them and stopped them from killing again.

      Which set of desires, if promoted in a society, is more likely to end in less desire for killing? It sure as hell doesn’t seem the first one – that keeps alive the desire to kill, and killing as a strategy of retribution. Not to mention, it just seems flat out contradictory of it’s goal.
      The second, reducing the desire to kill even as a form of retribution, would seem to be a much safer desire to promote in society, if we want to live with less fear of being killed. And thus far, empirical studies of
      societies who declare killing is so wrong they won’t use the death penalty, to societies that use killing as retribution, seems to support a better outcome for the latter.

    4. Dave,

      Two summers ago, I worked with a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist (I’m a genetic epidemiologist interested in gene x environment interactions) in Seattle & King County’s Jail to better understand recidivism. Millions and millions of tax dollars are spent jailing and re-jailing the same people over and over. So, we sought to understand what was going on. I took both a quantitative and qualitative approach to the problem. I spent time observing the jail itself, its built environment and how inmates were treated. I also performed a regression (survival) analysis that gave me some insight as to impact of certain conditions on how frequently inmates were re-arrested. Here’s what I found:

      The jail itself, which looks from the outside like most any other concrete, downtown building, on the inside is a place of horror. There was scarcely any natural light, windows as small as possible. Straightjackets and feces were common sights, inmates smearing the walls and themselves before being restrained.

      The statistical analysis. I looked at the set of the severely mentally ill (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression) who had already been arrested at least 4 times and the impact of temporary housing on the time until re-jailing. I found that there was no difference between those who received temporary housing and those who didn’t, that is, if inmates were mentally ill and previously arrested, they did get rearrested despite temporary housing.

      What does this mean? Much of the jail and prison populations are mentally ill (and those who aren’t suffer from forces of poverty and poor education). The jail and prison systems aren’t helping the mentally ill, nor are they helping the poor. They aren’t providing the conditions that make them better, healthy, and less likely to urinate on windows and get picked up by police, for instance. Providing the mentally ill with temporary housing is a step in the right direction, but absent the full resources (social and environmental conditions) to treat them for the long term, treat them until they are healthy and steadily employed in realistic long-term situations, they will be rejailed. It’s a devastatingly sad social injustice. Placing them in jail is like being sent to hell over and over. It doesn’t help reform or heal.

      1. It looks like we have a long way to go to meaningfully improve the way we deal with these people. I wonder if the old system, before Ronald Reagan closed the mental facilities, was at least somewhat better.

        Another thought…it must be hard on cops who have to rearrest mentally ill and poor people. I’m sure they are aware of the big picture. Nobody seems to care.

        1. “Nobody seems to care.”

          Yes, we have a massive bystander effect going on with this matter of human dignity.

          Imploring our philosophers, Jerry has written, “Our philosophers could lend a hand by writing about the effect of determinism on human behavior.”

          His suggestion is part of the answer. In order to address this problem, we need (as much as I cringe at the word) INTERDISCIPLINARY scholarship, including philosophers, public health scientists, economists, and psychologists, to cross publish their joint papers on this in their respective fields. These would be normative and applied journals. We need to signal the determinism problem to seduce us to think seriously about this and then get a consortium of specialists talking together. It would take an investment of time, and each specialist area contributes something *special.* This is how to get past the bystander inertia.

          1. I certainly agree. One reservation is that conducting academic studies can be the basis for political policy change, but it’s no guarantee. Thousands of climate studies spanning 50 years lead to little action on global warming. Now that Islands are disappearing we’ve begun to notice.

    5. I agree with Dave entirely that the issue of free will, or no free will, has no bearing on the validity of having incarceration based partly on an element of retribution.

      There is a social calculus in effect here – one based on a value of perceived “fairness”. There was a crime carried out by X upon Y. It caused victim Y great pain (perhaps even death) and also a significant quantity of pain for Y’s relatives and friends . There is also society at large who, in empathy with Y’s kin and friends suffering, and expect a fairness in the punishment. Suppose a very very short sentence affords rehabilitation and deterrence….. is that really enough? In this case, having only a short sentence causes ADDITIONAL pain to Y’s kin/friends exists and also a “pain of seeing unfairness” exists for others in society. It is quite unfair to have additional hurt added to the existing hurt already caused by X’s crime. This level of “unfairness” should be eliminated – and this is the function of retribution – a healthy and equitable process indeed. Punishment always includes an element of retribution. Some choose not to see it, or pretend it is not there, but it really is always there- and nothing is wrong in it’s existance.

      1. I contest the idea that a reduction in retribution necessarily causes family members to suffer. If the crime was murder, the most that can be done is stopping the guilty from murdering again. But once a person has demonstrated that they are no longer a risk to society, and they’ve served a reasonably long term (20 years seems enough to me), their release is NOT an injury to the aggrieved. The sense of trauma about that is confected and misplaced. The murderer can do nothing to bring back the dead, and the murderer is NOT defined solely by their heinous past action. To insist that they are is to strip them of their humanity. It would be like wanting NASA to stop shuttle rockets because some of the missions have failed. While NASA must get to the bottom of the errors, stopping all space launching does nothing for anyone. Needless confinement of anyone’s humanity does nothing for anyone. Since the probability of van Houten murdering again is minute, there is no benefit in continuing to keep her from flourishing and punishing her further likewise does nothing for the family.

        1. I find your argument strange, to be honest.
          I’m perfectly fine with the victims and their families having no legitimate interest (in the sense that it should be legally taken into account) in keeping the criminal in jail, but it’s obvious to me that subjectively, they are interested in it, and often wish those who harmed them to suffer.

          1. Let us apply the standards of ethical value to the requirement for retribution – in particular the prevalent Utilitarian approach to ethics. In this calculus, the most ethical action is that which minimises the suffering of “all involved”. This of course includes society at large.
            Now- a sense of fairness exists in all these interchanges. Indeed, there is an innate need for fairness, which psychological studies and even Game Theory mathematics highlight. To produce an output penalty which is apparently unfair causes widespread suffering (relatives/friends/wide-spread public) – to prolong a sentence for the sake of fair retribution causes suffering only to the original perpetrator of the crime. So ethically speaking, retribution is appropriate.
            I can not help but suspect that there may be an element of virtue signalling in some who preach against retribution – they are not directly affected by the crime, and virtue signalling provides its own pleasures for them.

            1. What you’re arguing for here is the Right Not To Be Offended. By your logic, if enough people can muster enough outrage over action X, that in itself is sufficient reason to punish the perpetrator of X — even if X is as trivial as, say, the publication of cartoon images of Mohammad.

              Counting such outrage as “suffering” that must be mitigated “for the good of society” creates a perverse incentive for manufactured outrage that is ultimately detrimental to the larger social good.

              1. No, what I’m arguing is that in any society there are common norms of what is considered “just punishment” for specific crimes… a “fairness zeitgeist” of punishment. Violating these norms is what creates a sense of injustice, and further suffering for victims, victims families and society at large. I am arguing for Utilitarianism as practised in Western society. The norms do evolve, but what drives this evolution is moral sentiment – not specifically theories on free will.

              2. You’re still equating “a sense of injustice” with “suffering” and thereby elevating it to the status of a social wrong that must be corrected. My point is that anybody can feel a sense of injustice about anything; if enough people’s sense of justice includes the idea that infidels must be put to death, does that make it an actionable part of the “fairness zeitgeist” in your utilitarian calculus?

              3. “”You’re still equating “a sense of injustice” with “suffering” and thereby elevating it to the status of a social wrong””
                Psychological pain is suffering indeed, and I invite you, for example, to read of the present state of Reeva Steenkamp’s family and friends.
                I am also talking about our own societies mainstream sense of justice and value, not that of some jihadist locality.

              4. So the psychological pain of jihadists counts for less than that of educated Westerners?

                If your brand of utilitarianism is valid, it ought to apply to everyone, not just those whose retributive impulses agree with yours.

            2. I’m not sure your approach is a good example of utilitarian ethics. I’d never set up such a scheme from behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance because I would not want to be punished, were I to commit a crime, commensurate with an emotionally driven argumentum ad populum. That is no recipe for fairness.

              1. The Utilitarianism I draw upon is the basic ideas of Bentham and Mills which creates a calculus of pleasure and suffering of ALL. Rawls political ethics are not part of my thinking in this, however if you really wanted to design a Rawisian system you must consider that under the veil of ignorance you must consider that you are the murder/rape victim, her mother, father, friend or any of the people who feel empathy for the suffering of them, and those feeling a need for a just penalty… as well, of course, of the rapist murder who committed the crime and their wishes to escape punishment. It’s not as bad a test as you think.

        2. “”(20 years seems enough to me)”

          Why 20 years Charleen? I’d say you’ve come up with this number because your own sense of justice is partly based on a feeling that retribution is necessary.

          Let’s try a little thought experiment. Suppose there was a pill that could have been given to Van Houten right away – that would have insured that she could never again commit such a crime. Suppose also that there was an associated “brain analysis” process that would look into Van Houten’s brainstate and produce an extract that could be put in drinking water that would deter everyone else from ever committing that exact and particular kind of offence. So… within 2 days of Van Houten’s conviction it is perfectly ok to release her then, from the aspect of both rehabilitation and deterrence. Her sentence is therefore 2 days, not 20 years,
          The questions … is this just? is this ethical?

          1. I’ve got some miscellaneous thoughts here, and then I have to stop replying to direct my thoughts elsewhere, but here you go:

            20 years was an arbitrary choice to represent a “long time”, and it’s midway between 15 to life and 25 to life.

            At present, there is a plausible deterrence benefit of knowing that you’d get locked up for ~20 years for murder. Getting locked up for 2 years? Meh. 5 years? Meh. 10 years, maybe. But this is just my subjective appreciation of time. We could study how much time is optimal as a population crime deterrent. Maybe its 25 years for murder?

            There are ethical concerns regarding giving the “de-crime” pill to the offender and to the population at large. It smacks of psychiatric force fixing of the mentally ill and attendant unintended consequences. And the social determinants of behavior are unlikely to be fixable with a “pill” without imposing other restrictions on personality.

            Primary prevention is better than medical treatment after the fact. If we can reduce the probability of crime to begin with, that is far better than any “pill” later. Improving social conditions by decreasing poverty, social disparity, and violence is the best way to proceed.

            As for sociopaths who may never be treatable, I’ll leave the decision-making about that to the pro’s, though the dangerous ones should remain confined. As for detecting them in the population, that has been the obsession of Scotland Yard, the FBI, and others for many years. And many people are easily duped by the charms of sociopaths. I don’t think there’s a “pill” to treat the phenomena of being fooled.

            1. If you have to go Charleen I’ll leave you with one just question to muse over… if as you say “There are ethical concerns regarding giving the “de-crime” pill to the offender and to the population at large” I ask you how can you say this and be an incompatibilist? What is the issue in giving pills to robots?

              1. I do have to go, Howie:

                Though I will say two more things before I check out (turn off email), which by the way isn’t my independent choice: I, in fact, received emails which are demanding my attention…

                The Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) is about to collect blood and questionnaire data from a million US citizens. If they do collect psychological profiling data among their questions, it seems that they will be able to run associations between genetic variants and the scores for self-assessed psychological traits. And while the data will be de-identified, I’m be surprised if forensic teams were completely restricted from linking what is known of criminal datasets to the repository of information that PMI will generate. We should know more about the genetic predisposition and the environmental determinants of behavior in the next 10 years.

                As for your question:

                “‘There are ethical concerns regarding giving the “de-crime” pill to the offender and to the population at large’ I ask you how can you say this and be an incompatibilist? What is the issue in giving pills to robots?”

                The fact that we don’t have free will doesn’t mean that MORALITY disappears; it obligates us to operate with as much compassion (and reason) as can be mustered.

                Must go.

    6. It seems to me that this woman fell under the influence of a cult 45 years ago and she did what she did because she was in thrall to the cult’s charismatic leader (there’s an explanation for the governor).

      I don’t doubt your statistic, but we are not talking about the general case here, we are talking about a 65 year old woman who has demonstrated that she is reformed through her actions. I do not think there is any danger of her being re-arrested.

      As for the statement that sympathy is a limited resource, that is manifestly and obviously false.

      1. I share JC’s view of strong determinism. But Gov. Brown made a reasonable request in asking Van Houten to examine her childhood and adolescence and describe the process by which she changed from and “upstanding teen” to a mindless murderer. To engage in such a self examination,Van Houten might do something more valuable than concocting “a convincing story.” That examination shld not be dismissed peremptorily, as JC does when he writes, “any attempt to do that will produce just that—a story.”

    7. Yes, I’m totally with Dave on this one. If anything, determinism solidifies my advocacy of capital punishment, and I’d like to see more of it.

      A lot of empathy for killers among others here, whose comments do nothing to persuade me. Have any of you been victims of serious crime, I wonder. I’ll save my empathy for the victims and families – that amounts to many more people who deserve it. It pains me see these killers given a voice, appearing in videos, receiving support, and taking up the valuable time of others.

      Retribution is one factor but I don’t feel overly emotional about it. I’d just like to see killers erased from the planet and no further resources spent on them. In some cases, I’d like to see it done retroactively regardless of how long they’ve been inside. Many might be aghast at that. Sorry, I couldn’t help it….

      1. How about the hundreds of death-row inmates who’ve been exonerated, Stephen — just the cost of doing retribution? No empathy to spare for them?

        BTW, how do you execute someone “retroactively”?

    8. The rock-ribbed vox conservative has spoken. And that’s that.

      None of that silly “milk of human kindness” noise for you, huh Dave?

      1. There’s not much that gets me down more than feeling like an appeal to human decency isn’t justification enough for a given action. Which happens pretty frequently when talking to theists and conservatives.

  7. Not surprising that Brown is a product of the jesuit education system where rigid conformity and obedience is a must and compassion an afterthought. Shouldn’t the purpose of incarceration be rehabilitation? If not why not just execute all criminals? whether petty or not? whether guilty or not? doesn’t make much sense to me. But neither does “…deterrence for others who see what will happen if they transgress..”. If people have no free will and the deterministic universe unfolds as it must how can anybody be deterred from anything? Or is it that the Universe is not deterministic (a very 19th century idea BTW) but probabilistic?

    1. I don’t think you can judge the governor based on this one example. He has actually been pushing for early release of non-violent lifers for some time now. He has also set new records for releasing lifers. Some would say that he is turning prisons into a revolving door. But maybe his motives are what is in question? He’s a pragmatist, as you say, and the prisons are overcrowded with people serving life sentences, so he lets them out. Problem partially solved. Pragmatic.

      1. There’s a difference in the public mind between early release for drug related “crimes” and release of any kind for mass murderers. It’s an election year.

    2. Seeing other people go to jail for committing crime becomes part of your experience and influences your future behaviour. It is not incompatible with determinism at all. What you are describing is the religious idea that everything about our life is predetermined – i.e. predestination.

      1. I just don’t see any logical difference between predestination and determinism. To me the universe is a mix of probabilities and laws – and so is biology and so is human behaviour – genes interact in incredibly complex ways. We are a species that survives by problem solving and social interaction as well as instinct; moreover interactions with other biota, environmental great systems and other humans is often beyond our control genes or not – and is so complex as to be ultimately a matter of chance. Our decision making capacities interact with that and can push the chances to our interest or survival. Some of this is character, some of this is education, some of this is very real social pressure.

        Moreover much of our behaviour is actually learned to survive in society and our particular circumstances though our overall genetic make up gives us particular inclinations.

        We do have responsibility for our actions – but there are many things we can effectively control. Regarding the judicial system and punishment. Justice needs to be sensitive to this. Retribution is never helpful as it rewards spite. However a social message that bad behaviours incur a penalty does deter some people from bad actions and encourage good values and behaviours – as status conferring. However cruelty is not good – opportunity for reform needs to be offered and reasonable conditions provided. If the person has nothing to lose when th y come out and no skills in jail, and it is so bad they have lost their social skills and maybe their mind – they will go back to prison where at least they are fed and maybe safer. However this is brutal. The other factor is if a person is likely to still be dangerous there is an obligation to protect broader society and/or the victim from harm.

        1. what Im saying is there are many laws and natural factors at play here and in human societies lots of human interests that we compete with or cooperate with that mean things to my mind can not be binary determinist. To me Biology is a different level from isolated chemical elements or nuclear particles and human societies and minds different again. IT can’t just be expressed in maths theres too many probabilities on probabilities – and Goeder showed maths principles can’t explain something completely and be consistent in infinite cases. There may be factors in physics that our senses (including spatial senses of mathematics) can’t perceive or some mathematical elements that we can understand but which are usually explainable as part of a mathematical framework but not always.

        2. I don’t think I disagree with anything you said, but I don’t think that means predestination and probabilistic determinism are the same thing. I’m also not sure that I can articulate why not effectively. I just haven’t argued the topic enough, or read enough about it, to have my ducks properly lined up yet. Perhaps I’ll be there next time Jerry writes about it?

          I’ve abandoned Free Will, but I haven’t yet been fully rehabilitated! 🙂

    3. Oh, I think the political calculus weighed heavier on Hizzoner than did any Jesuit training.

      “Rigid conformity” isn’t the first thing to come to mind when one contemplates Governor Moonbeam.

  8. I’ve a question about determinism. Undoubtedly this has been explained before but please be patient as I am unfamiliar with the concept.

    Dr Coyne said; “The real reason why Van Houten killed is because her genes and her environment left her no alternative.” Since our environment (taken to mean influences external to ourselves) sometimes plays a big role in our actions, it seems to me that in this regard determinism is just old fashioned fate. We cannot control external influences and since we are powerless to behave any differently than how our genes have determined we will behave under those influences what becomes of us is therefore pre-set. Sounds like fate to me.

    Is that determinism? Fate without gods? If not, what am I missing?

      1. Yes. That is what I said – if I had marbles in my mouth ;-D. So determinism is a version of fate? I am fated to be an underpaid scientist facing penurious retirement and there is nothing I can actually do as it is fated to be. How depressing.

            1. I mean from a deterministic perspective it’s obvious.

              Of course human intuition doesn’t agree with determinism that nothing is deserved and nothing is earned.

        1. Determinism is the 19th century idea that if you knew the exact state of the universe at a given point then you could predict everything that would happen in the future because the interactions of matter were all completely defined by the laws of nature – all of which were then understood. Everything is preordained and is just the universe unfolding as it must.
          This notion was challenged in the early twentieth century by quantum theory which showed the universe to be probabilistic not deterministic. The results of any particular action can only be probably, not definitively, predicted.
          Of course there’s another problem ie: how do you define the exact state of the universe at any point anyway?

          1. I wonder just as there is room in the laws of physics for certain local violations (the 2nd law of Thermo springs to mind) if there isn’t room for “local” violations as regards choice. That is, the deterministic nature of physics is not challenged by the ability to make certain choices so long as in the end those laws are not violated.

            I must confess I have thought this through yet (it sprung from this convo) so may have missed something.

            1. I do not understand why people compare quantum mechanics to macro physical phenomena like neurological patterns. Isn’t it clear that the behavior of quanta and the behavior of large objects are different?

              But I’m not a physicist. Far from it. I know almost nothing about this.

              1. Because determinism is conceived of only at the atomic level. The idea was you would know what would happen to every atom forever into the future. Quantum physics blew that idea away by showing that the universe was probabilistic rather than deterministic. Neither idea says much, if anything, about macro physical phenomena especially neurological ones. But to base the idea that there is no free will on determinism is not correct. Just as to base the idea that there is free will on probabilism is not justified. There’s just too large a gap in knowledge at present.

    1. For me at least, yes — physical determinism and the concept of “fate” are one and the same. I believe the entire history of the Cosmos was written in the initial conditions of the Big Bang. I believe that the past unfolded the only way it could have, that the future is set, and that free will is an illusion.

      I also believe that the vagaries of quantum physics, e.g. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger’s Cat, have no bearing on the overall macroscopic behavior of atoms. Our inability to observe quantum events in a deterministic way is our problem, not Nature’s. Consequently, I do not take seriously the multiverse theory that has grown up under the aegis of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics; I regard talk of other universes the same way I regard talk of the supernatural — that is, as fantastical speculation.

      But that’s just me.

      1. You may want to consider revising your beliefs about QM since they seem to contain a number of points of confusion.

        Quantum events can and do have observable macroscopic consequences, from the audible clicks of a Geiger counter to the detection of the Higgs boson to fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and the large-scale distribution of galaxies.

        Bell’s Theorem unequivocally shows that our naïve intuitions about determinism are wrong. The probabilistic nature of measurement is a fundamental feature of reality, not a reflection of our ignorance.

        And Everettian (or Many-Worlds) QM is not a variant of the Copenhagen interpretation; it explicitly repudiates Copenhagen. Nor is it some wild speculation; it’s simply standard QM, taken at face value and shorn of Copenhagen’s problematic collapse postulate.

        If you’re interested in educating yourself further, there are a number of accessible treatments by Sean Caroll, David Deutsch, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and David Wallace among others.

        1. Quantum events can and do have observable macroscopic consequences, from the audible clicks of a Geiger counter to the detection of the Higgs boson to fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and the large-scale distribution of galaxies.

          No kidding. That’s why I said “the vagaries of quantum physics.”

          Bell’s Theorem unequivocally shows that our naïve intuitions about determinism are wrong. The probabilistic nature of measurement is a fundamental feature of reality, not a reflection of our ignorance.

          “Unequivocally,” huh? I got the impression from its Wikipedia article that the relevance of his theorem is still contested among physicists.

          And Everettian (or Many-Worlds) QM is not a variant of the Copenhagen interpretation; it explicitly repudiates Copenhagen. Nor is it some wild speculation; it’s simply standard QM, taken at face value and shorn of Copenhagen’s problematic collapse postulate.

          Yes, I phrased that poorly. Many-Worlds QM is a hopeful alternative to solve the problems of Copenhagen. Like Copenhagen though, it seems to have taken the measurement problem at face value and is trying to tunnel deeper into the math in order to reach the light. Whether it will succeed…

          Anyway, while I’m reading some Caroll, maybe you’d like to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on this subject.

          Money phrase: “Ironically, quantum mechanics is one of the best prospects for a genuinely deterministic theory in modern times! Everything hinges on what interpretational and philosophical decisions one adopts.”

          1. OK, maybe “unequivocally” was a bit strong, if you consider Bohmian mechanics and superdeterminism to be naïve intuitions.

            But my understanding of EQM (as articulated by Wallace, for instance) is that it explicitly denies that there’s a measurement problem; the probabilistic nature of measurement is exactly what we should expect from the deterministic evolution of the wave function.

            1. Hmm… I’ll try to get to the crux of the matter.

              Does it matter that the universe is fundamentally probabilistic if certain probabilities regularly approach 1 in a deterministic way? I’m thinking specifically about electrons, and how they never fail to act like electrons during chemical reactions, no matter how strange their quantum properties may seem.

              1. Sorry, I’m just not getting what you’re driving at. Yes, electrons act like electrons, but how do you get from there to the idea that there’s only one possible future? One of the things that electrons do, in acting like electrons, is to produce probabilistic outcomes when measured.

  9. Manson studied methods of persuasion and mind control and used the techniques on his followers in order to get them to do whatever he wanted. When he was in prison earlier in his life he listened to pimps and anyone else who he thought could teach him how to manipulate people, especially women. He learned how and used the methods very effectively on the broken women he found. Those that weren’t broken enough he broke.

    Essentially, that is why the women killed for Manson. Religions and especially cults show us how this is done. Perhaps not usually murder, but the control of human minds and getting them to act against their best interests.

    1. like manipulating people into voting republican or democrat on the basis of a bunch of empty promises and slogans? And getting them to believe there is substance there?

  10. A Dr Chesler – buttressing of very often i) why a Ms Van Houton, especially at a youthful age, and of ii) the jihadis who are female (as of my statement in yesterday’s Kabul attack – post) primarily exist:

    Religions and / or the local ideologies (however crazed and destructive) thus spawned therefrom within these women’s relationships with such beliefs – espousing men.


  11. I’m really confused about Determinism. Last Friday, as I was working, I had an urge to get something sweet. I thought about getting some cookies from the vending machine. Then I thought about how I’m trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I spent five minutes thinking about the pros and cons of getting the cookies.

    In the end, I did get the cookies. But you’re saying that I did not make a decision? That I had no choice but to get the cookies? Weighing the pros and cons was just an illusion? I’m finding this really hard to understand.

    1. Weighing the pros and cons is not an illusion. The illusion is in thinking that the final outcome was in some way independent of your genes operating in your environment and that the actual consumption of the cookies might have been avoided.

      1. This is simply ex post facto reasoning. If Publius had declined the cookies, that too would have been determined. Don’t think you can have it either way. I’m still considering this whole argument. Ultimately, we’d have to conclude that Jerry Coyne deserves no praise for the (to me) evocative and informative WEIT, and, of course, we poor commenters have had no choice but weigh in.

        1. Careful, Martin. You take to thinking about this stuff too hard, you’re like to run into yourself comin’ round the next corner. 🙂

    2. No, you really didn’t have a choice. Left with a dichotomy, you simply succumbed to the strongest urge.

    3. “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.”

      Is the ability to take something “very seriously” (enough to refrain from killing in the first place?) solely deterministic? I wonder if she herself has ever specifically defined and stated for the record what (she thinks) that “what” was that made herself “available” to Manson. Would she say that she “just couldn’t help myself”?

      My recent visit to the Dr. resulted in his writing a prescription for a statin for high cholesterol. (I’m already taking blood pressure medication.) That’s what it has taken to tip the scale for me to “get mean” (in a Clint Eastwood Western character-way) about mustering the resolve to make some changes, including implacably resisting the siren temptation of “rich” food, forgo the sausage and egg biscuit and bear up under the oatmeal regimen (which I did some years ago, but it’s not “fun”) and in combination with exercise get back down to that optimum weight of a dozen or so years ago when I felt lithe and great and had to punch a hole in my belt.

      As I currently proceed (again) on this self-improvement project I contemplate determinism and free will. I’ve known the last few years I needed to exercise and lose weight, but did nothing meaningful. On the other hand, I quite meaningfully did something about it a dozen years ago. In either cases was it simply and solely determinism? Did I somehow change (genetically or otherwise) in the intervening twelve years? If it’s simply and solely determinism, then whither “motivation” and “self-discipline” and “perseverance,” whether it’s, e.g., losing weight/exercising or obtaining a Ph.D. in science or engineering?

      1. I’m thinking of the remarkable determination of people like Diana Nyad and Olympic athletes. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have determination pill you could take when you get up in the morning. Maybe down a couple of Powdermilk Biscuits to get up and do what has to be done?

        1. “Maybe down a couple of Powdermilk Biscuits to get up and do what has to be done?”

          Concur and, no doubt, on those shining days I will surely feel like a “mostly pure Norwegian bachelor farmer.”

          1. You guys gonna start in on the Ketchup Advisor Board and the Professional Organization of English Majors next?

    4. Yes, you made a decision. However, “you” are simply the product of the configuration of your brain.

      At the moment you made your decision, your brain was in a certain configuration determined by your genes and your environment including your entire life history. Everything that happened to your brain after the moment of conception happened because of deterministic laws of nature. When you make a decision, various neurones fire in different ways but these are again all according to deterministic laws of nature.

      It feels like you made a decision, and, in a sense, you did but all the processes that led up to you deciding to eat the cookies were entirely deterministic. If you could rewind history to the point just before you made the decision and then started playing it forward again, you would make exactly the same decision every time.

      It should be pointed out that asserting the laws of nature are non deterministic i.e. random does not make room for free will. Essentially, you wouldn’t argue that a machine that makes decisions based on the equivalent of rolling dice (e.g. by harnessing random quantum events) was displaying any kind of free will.

    5. I recommend you read Freewill by Sam Harris. I think he does a great job at explaining this idea that really every thought or impulse just appears in your conscience. Just like you cannot decide when to have a heart beat, you cannot decide when to have a thought…The difference is with the thought you are generally unaware of this, you live the illusion that you somehow created the thought.

  12. In my mind, a general lack of free will and thus an acceptance of genetic determinism is not congruent with liberalism. Liberalism relies on the notion of egalitarianism, environmental intervention and free will. Evolution and genetic/behavioral science seems to support innate inequality and thus a more conservative and cynical view of environmental intervention. Where am I going wrong?

    1. Physical determinism and genetic determinism are not the same thing (although loose talk of “genes and environment” often blurs the distinction).

      Our behavior is physically determined in the sense that brain states are physical states of matter subject to physical law.

      But it does not follow that genes must therefore be the dominant influence on our behavior, which is what genetic determinism asserts; that’s an empirical question that must be answered with actual data, not armchair reasoning.

      Just as neurochemistry is largely independent of quantum physics, cognition can be largely independent of genetics. For instance, our genes may endow us with differential aptitude for mathematical reasoning, but the conclusions reached by such reasoning are independent of genetics.

      Much of our behavior is driven by similar reasoning processes that are largely independent of genes. Exactly how much is, again, an empirical question. So the fact that physics may be deterministic in some sense says very little about the truth of genetic determinism.

    2. We are determined by both our biological and environmental substrates: our genes and the conditions of our lives. We can intervene to some extend on the conditions of our lives—or others can intervene on them for us or for our children.

      1. But when it comes to formal reasoning, we’re much more constrained by the rules of the formal system than by either genes or environment. So “genes and environment” isn’t the whole story — unless you define “environment” trivially to mean “everything that’s not a gene”. But that, in my opinion, robs the phrase “genes and environment” of any useful meaning. You might as well just say “everything”.

        1. I study molecular endotypes, markers of gene-environment interaction. Yes, anything that is not a gene can be construed as environment, even molecular phenotypes within our own bodies.

          Genes are not that special either. They are just sequences of nucleotides that mostly (with some margin of error)resulting in proteins.

          There are proximal and distal causes to behavior. So, in a relativistic universe, some aspects of our environments have stronger, more direct influences than others for certain behaviors.

          We don’t have to consider *everything* in every equation to have a meaningful understanding of cause.

          1. Fair enough, but my question is why do incompatibilists seem to focus so much on distal causes (genes, the laws of physics, the Big Bang) and so little on proximal causes, such as what actually goes on in people’s heads?

            1. Genes aren’t as distal as one might think, certainly not as distal as the Big Bang 🙂

              In fact, every nucleus-containing cell of the body has (mostly) the same genes, though they are not all expressed at the same time.

              The set of genes expressing in the neurons in your brain are proximal causes to your thoughts, as are previous experiences that have cemented neurological patterns.

              1. As I sit here reading your comment, the proximal causes of my thoughts are the words appearing on the screen in front of me. The genes expressed in my neurons enable those neurons to process words into thoughts, but they don’t cause the thoughts, which consist of information, not proteins.

                Jellyfish have neurons, but they don’t have thoughts. What makes human brains different is their capacity for processing information. So that — not gene expression — is where we ought to be looking for explanations of complex human behavior.

              2. Gregory, while I could squabble with you on the specifics here, I won’t disagree that language is a window to thought, thought is a reflection of brain activity, and brain activity is made possible by genes and environment.

      2. Actually, discussing these issues in terms of biology is far less productive than discussing them in terms of digital logic.

        Let me explain….
        There are two types of digital logical configurations – “Combinatorial Logic” and “State Machines”. With combinatorial logic all inputs act at one time t, to produce an output O at time t. That’s it! The logic can be expressed in And, Or and Not gates.

        Now… in State Machines we have feedback – some of the outputs feed back into the inputs. The feedback sets Memory elements – which then feed into the logic at time t to produce the next output at t+1. Different outputs are produced at different times in a State Machine.

        THE MIND IS A STATE MACHINE. The logic is vastly complex. The memory elements are Associative Memory, the logic abstracted into complex forms – language, models, pattern processors etc. The SELF is “contained” in this State Machine. But the key consideration is that over time the Self modifies the Self at each iteration in time. We, in OUR state machine, “Self Form” as Kane would define it.

        Decisions are made by the “Self” in the brain. Although inputs are part of the equation it is quite proper to assign moral responsibility and “ultimate responsibility” to decisions normally made. After all -the Self made the Self (that’s what growing up is)

        It is nonsensical to treat this mind state machine as having no self determinism – that incompatibilism holds sway. Mathematically, decisions (the output) are the effect of the Self.

        1. Incompatibilists seem to talk as if the logic of the human brain is Combinational … that everything that matters in a decision exists in the here and now – that the Self doesn’t matter (or doesn’t even exist), that the Self had no part in making ITSELF, that the advanced capabilities of the self are simply AND gates and not the very complex abstract processing capabilities that they really are; and that from such complexity other advanced capabilities can emerge. In other words incompatibilists try to trivialise human capacities.. indeed, to really make us mere robots.

  13. She had no choice about the choices she made. So where does it make sense to focus? The Big picture — or the smaller one, the level where we decide whether or not there’s any relevance at all to pictures which are so big they level the landscape?

    Imo the entire Free Will debate is moot. Even people who believe in magical libertarian free will recognize the importance of biology, genes, environment, circumstances, and so forth. And even hard determinists have to deal with distinguishing between killings by accident, with intent, and with malice.

    … but he wrote in his decision that she failed to explain how she transformed from an upstanding teen to a killer.

    Wtf? Such meta-explanations are the job of experts, not the poor sap who thought it all made sense at the time. Brown is essentially demanding that Van Houte herself become a combination psychologist-philosopher with clear recall and perfect insight. This is wrong even if we ignore meta-red herrings.

    Bottom line, people who get caught up in a grand ideological narrative will do things which make no sense outside the narrative. A Mormon friend and I once read a book written by a young girl who had become persuaded that a man was Jesus Christ. As a result, she did some things which seemed inconsistent with her previous character. Then she got better.

    When my friend wondered HOW the writer could have possibly believed someone was Jesus and obeyed his bizarre orders, I asked her to read the book again and change one thing. Pretend that the man really IS Jesus Christ and it’s a story about someone whose faith in Jesus would not waver. Watch an underlying harmony emerge.

    1. “So where does it make sense to focus?”

      It doesn’t make sense to focus on anything, anywhere, What will happen will happen. What won’t, won’t. Nothing you or anybody can do about it. Waste of time and energy to worry about it but you will waste that time and energy anyway because the universe unfolds as it must and so do you. No choices anywhere about anything. It cannot be otherwise – it’s so simple. Too simple perhaps?

  14. But Van Houten did not “choose,” her own path—not in any meaningful, punishment-worthy way. […] Our philosophers could lend a hand by writing about the effect of determinism on human behavior and how, in light of determinism, we should adjust our system of punishments and rewards.

    I’d be interested in hearing from Norwegian or other Scandinavian readers. Is their prison system predicated on or was it preceded by a move to an incompatibilist way of thinking, rejecting notions of “choice”? Or is there a prevalence of compatibilist ways of thinking about choice and free will? Or is that debate largely irrelevant to how their prison system has evolved?

    1. Seems to me to be irrelevant. I don’t see why our attempts to be humane have special need of taking the free will issue into account. We work our way toward proper behavior in all sorts of other contexts without invoking the free will debate.

      1. That’s what I would have guessed. The UK is inbetween the US and Scandinavia, much more in the direction that PCC-E wants than the US, but the discussion isn’t in terms of “free will” and incompatibilism.

        I do think that the much lower levels of religiosity in the UK (and presumably Scandinavia) are relevant.

        1. It seems likely that religiosity promotes a strong kind of moral responsibility – to god, ultimately – an objective arbiter who cannot be questioned. This kind of absolutism goes comfortably with pronouncing someone unequivocally guilty. Throw away the key. Free will is the accomplice to the sin, otherwise, guilt is not fully, absolutely assignable. Let’s not spread it around to the environment or the DNA. This certainty must give some people comfort. Ambiguity is harder to live with.

          1. Remember that Abrahamic religions depend heavily on belief in libertarian free will, and those feed heavily into the idea of retributive punishment. After all, Heaven and Hell are predicated on the notion that you get punished or rewarded for having chosen right or chosen wrong (unless you’re a Calvinist!).

        2. Here in Bulgaria, prisons are miserable but sentences are lenient, and many perpetrators of grave crimes never see a jail from inside. Most of us attribute this to corruption and contempt for crime victims.

    2. I have no firsthand knowledge, but (as I’ve said before) I’d bet good money that the advice given by Norwegian parole officers to parolees is essentially compatibilist in nature: avoid bad habits, exercise self-control, make smart choices, etc.

      1. Except they put them in a position where the good choices are the ones they’re more likely to make through education and rehabilitation. They do things that make the good choice a habit.

        A little thing to provide an example. When I was a kid, if I ever said, “must of” my mother always corrected me. As a result I always say, “must have.” My brain was thus affected by the training of earliest childhood.

        We all know that creating good habits and breaking bad ones is extremely difficult. Just telling someone the right thing to do isn’t enough. You have to help them live it, which is the difference in a good rehabilitation programme.

        1. I don’t dispute any of that, but I don’t see how that entails an incompatibilist stance. However hard it may be to change our habits, the fact remains that it is within our power. Self-control is not a dualist fantasy, but a real human capability that we can cultivate, and it seems to me that has to be the message of any effective rehabilitation program.

          1. Yeah, but self-control in particular circumstances is a learned behaviour. It’s like telling someone to relax – often the people who need to do that the most have absolutely no idea how. They have to be taught. It’s why mindfulness is being taught in so many different environments now. The skills you develop from that help in other areas too.

        2. In my neighborhood, kids who said “must have” musta got their lunch money taken away, ’cause they never showed face in the school cafeteria. 🙂

  15. The concept of philosophical free will is orthogonal to and therefore completely irellevant for the discussion of how to design an effective penal system. Penal system is all about how the punishment affects the probability of future actions, not only by the convict but also by others. Those probabilities are the same regardless of the solution to the free will problem. The philosophical free will applies equally to everybody, and it is just as pointless to use it for lenience toward the perpetrators of the crime as it would be to use them for lenience towards those who are responsible for the current state of the US penal system.

    1. That’s YOUR view of what the penal system is all about. We already know, and even from others on this thread, that “probability of future actions” is not the only thing taken into account. Other things are whether the perpetrator could have done otherwise, which is why people who commit crimes while mentally ill get a break. You are telling us your view of how it should work, not how it does work.

      The rest of your statement seems incoherent to me. We’re trying to persuade people, not lock up those who “are responsible for the current state of the U.S. penal system.”

      1. If we are talking about philosophical free will, the question “could the perpetrator have done otherwise” is no different than “could those who have designed US or Norwegian penal system have done otherwise”. And the answer to the latter from your opinion is clearly yes. And that is why this is not about philosophical free will. The past cannot be influenced, the probabilities of future events clearly can – both those involving legislators and those involving perpetrators.

        1. I don’t think you get the point. No, I don’t think the prison designers could have done otherwise. BUT THEY, LIKE ALL OF US, can change their behavior through praise or blame from others. I am talking about changing the future, not the past–changing the way we treat prisoners. And the prisoners might often be changed, too, through rehabilitative efforts like those in Nordic prisons. One way to change the future is to design prisons in view of what we know about determinism in human behavior. You seem to realize this at the end of your comments, but what you don’t seem to realize is that one way to get people to change is to show them that nobody has libertarian free will.

          End of discussion here.

          1. +1

            In the field of public health, we look for the upstream DETERMINANTS of disease and behavior. The entire point is to intervene on these such that population conditions (determiners) are shifted more favorably. Want to reduce lung cancer? Find out what causes it and then institute population-level policy such that future generations are exposed to fewer cigarettes. (It’s absolutely ineffective to rely on some misguided sense of personal choice regarding smoking. The more cigarettes are available and favorably marketed, the more smoking. Same with guns.) It’s the same with our prisons. We have an SES, race, and mental illness DISPARITY and justice issue in the US. We hide this by imprisoning those who are most hit by these factors. The way to deal with it is to understand systemic DETERMINERS. And first getting a grasp on the notion that libertarian free will is a myth helps. We can then take our environmental and social factors more seriously and work towards getting policies in place that make us healthier and more stable societally.

            1. “Find out what causes it and then institute population-level policy such that future generations are exposed to fewer cigarettes. (It’s absolutely ineffective to rely on some misguided sense of personal choice regarding smoking)”

              Maybe I’m not reading you right but ISTM the parenthetical bit invalidates the part just preceding. So anti-smoking campaigns that rely on personal warnings about the dangers of smoking are “absolutely ineffective” as they hinge on personal choice? If they are ineffective, then why do them? But aren’t they often a form of “population-level policy such that future generations are exposed to fewer cigarettes”?

              1. Anti-smoking campaigns are much more extensive than mere messaging to influence “choice.” In fact, these campaigns are situated in a package of policies that work to change the CULTURE.

  16. I agree wholeheartedly with Jerry here.

    What I don’t understand though why some of us don’t extend similar sympathies to say apologists like Karen Armstrong?

    We understand that the universe is unfolding and that we cannot do otherwise. So the question becomes what is the most effective method for overcoming an apologist’s rhetoric? I can’t help thinking our own rhetoric is not it.

    Armstrong said (more or less)of believers it is that actions that matter not our beliefs. I would also include lack of beliefs. Though I readily admit belief and “lack of” are not independent of our actions. And vice versa.

      1. Conversation.
        I think it would be interesting to meet her and discuss her sophisticated theology with her.

    1. I believe it’s still good to criticize bad ideas and explain why they are wrong. Some will meet occasionally some resistance, so what?

      Traditional religion is still in decline and even religious people are mostly very liberal these days.

      1. Absolutely; there’s no way to influence people’s thinking on an issue without speaking to them or writing stuff for them to read. I, for instance, have written stuff criticizing Karen Armstrong. No she couldn’t have done other than what she did, and I doubt that I’ll ever influence her thinking at all (she’s far too invested in it), but I’m hoping to influence those who read her and are susceptible to persuasion.

        1. And I understand, you and I cannot do otherwise as well. I get it.

          Criticism is fine … but then it comes in various shades. I can’t help thinking ‘sophisticated’ theologies should be encouraged especially for those of an evangelical or fundamental nature.

          Of course the standard riposte is that ‘sophisticated’ theology enables less desirable ones. Possibly, but then the success of science allowed if not caused the creation of the Discovery Institute and similar organizations. ‘Sophisticated’ theology provides an escape path for those trapped in fundamentalism. Of course there is an equilibrium here … some will go the other way.

        2. I can not understand how incompatibilists can make so much of the point that “agents can influence each other” yet they reject the possibility that agents can influence themselves.

  17. “This is why I rail against philosophers who, instead of pointing out the way we should reform our prison system in light of the determinism they accept, spend their time making up definitions of free will that comport with determinism.”

    I think it’s debatable whether what compatibilists are doing is “making up definitions”, but putting that aside, I think this is a false choice. I’m sure there are compatibilists who have argued for justice reform. I don’t see it as an either/or.

  18. “All of us strive to confect narratives that explain our lives, but these are at best approximations to the truth, and all suffer from the notion that we could have chosen another life.”

    Yes, I can’t emphasize enough how much I agree with this.

  19. Prof Coyne wrote, under comment 6, regarding Van Houten:

    “She deserves empathy because she had no choice about what she did.”

    This is the type of talk from incompatibilists that I believe to sew more confusion rather than bring clarity.

    We make choices all the time, so the idea “we have no choice” doesn’t ring true at all and sounds very confusing. And it also comes off as fatalistic. (Even if on another hand you deny fatalism).

    If we let Van Houten off the hook because, like everyone else, she “had ho choice” then why bemoan governor Jerry Brown for his decision to turn down her parole? He had no choice either.

    Would you be saying Brown should have done otherwise? If Brown should have done otherwise, then it makes no sense to special plead for Van Houten not being able to do otherwise. But if you NOT saying Brown should have done otherwise, NOT saying Brown “should have instead” set her free…what is the lesson here? Decrying Brown’s decision seems to make no sense. And if we “can’t choose otherwise” then recommending a different path of action seems to make no sense either.

    To me, true things, real powers of choice we have, become terribly downplayed by this type of language that goes under the guise of “dispelling illusions,”

    We need to be able to say, not just as a practical social-influence matter, but as a matter of recognizing real capabilities we have, that “he could have done otherwise.”

    It may seem compassionate to say of a poor, inner-city kid who robbed a store that all things considered “we shouldn’t think he could have done otherwise.” But then…what do you say to the other inner city kids who are facing such choices?
    When police men, community figures, or ex-cons etc go to inner city schools to provide a better blue-print of choices and behavior for those kids…how will it serve this project if we maintain that “we really can’t do otherwise?” The whole point of talking to these kids is to point out there ARE alternatives that they CAN choose. If that isn’t a “truth” then the whole project is a meaningless delusion.

    But the thing is, it is true in just the way we would need it to be true. Incompatibilists leave the impression that we are not “really” in control and part of this being because our choices are determined. The impression is that everything “out of our control” has determined our decisions. But that’s just wrong and downplays the fact that outside factors don’t simply determine our decisions: WE do. That is, my decision is due to my own desires, by my contemplation of those desires, by my reasoning between which courses of action are best to achieve that desire…all my deliberations are necessary for determining the outcome. It’s not all due to a fatalistic-like “external causes.”

    And this truth about how we operate, our powers, is what justifies and grounds (for instance an ex-con) telling inner-city kids “I made a bad choice but SHOULD have chosen otherwise for these reasons, and you HAVE a choice and can learn from my mistake.
    You can do otherwise.” Those kids can take in what he says and their deliberations can determine their own behaviors. They aren’t purely puppets dangled by their external causes; they are causes themselves.
    And none of that violates determinism, nor raises the type of internal incoherence IMO of incompatibilist talk on these issues.

    And it still leaves open all sorts of reasons to feel compassionate about people making bad choices in bad situations, for bad reasons. And it is still compatible, I believe, with being able to take a deeper stance against Ultimate Moral Responsibility or the type of “buck stops here” “deserving of blame” that Jerry would want to deny as well. And I think all the type of reform Jerry would like in approaches to criminality can be grounded in a compatibilist stance.

    1. “She deserves empathy because she had no choice about what she did.”

      This is the type of talk from incompatibilists that I believe to sew more confusion rather than bring clarity.

      Regarding empathy – I find either I have empathy or I don’t. But a lack of free will allows me to understand that there are circumstances that bring people to where they are in their lives.

      Regarding ‘no choice’ … this I think is careless semantic short hand by hard determinists. My computer makes choices all the time depending on its configuration and inputs. The only difference between and computers are the complexity and number of inputs. The fundamental physics is the same for both cases.

        1. Oops, sorry, too quick on the draw.


          Vaal’s comment is the kind if compatibilist talk that sows more confusion than clarity.

    2. I don’t want to argue much about what “should have done otherwise” means. All I can say is that yes, if you strive hard enough you can ground prison reform in a compatibilist stance, but for some curious reason compatibilists aren’t working on that issue. I wonder why THAT is?

      You do admit, don’t you, that in a given situation someone can do only one thing, right? And that people cannot affect the course of their lives in some dualistic way?

      Agreed, I presume.

      Why, then, do we NEED compatibilism given that determinists and compatibilists agree that that a. nobody could do anything other than what they did at a given moment, and b. people’s behavior can be altered by environmental influences? The logical consequence is to find out what changes people’s behavior, not waste your time confecting new ways of convincing people they have free will.

      As for your implication that I don’t think that people are susceptible to outside influence, you know that’s untrue; I say that all the time–ALL the time! You clearly know that I perceive a difference between “should” and “could.”

      I would claim that it is the compatibilists who are sowing confusion, by telling people that they have free will but not emphasizing that that isn’t exactly the kind of free will that most people think they have. Most people think they have agency and could have chosen otherwise. They don’t–that’s the end of the story.

      Seriously, you are using a lot of words here (and, I think, distorting my own views), to wind up agreeing with me about a difference between “could” and “should.”

      Finally, I still think that compatibilist philosophers should stop writing unconvincing defenses of new types of “free will” (all their definitions of “free will,” by the way, are incompatible: yours differs from many others. Which one is right?) and get off their butts to start writing about the consequences of determinism. Regardless of your claim that you can fix prisons via compatibilism, I don’t see compatibilist philosophers working on that important problem.

      Oh, and you’re wrong about “decrying Brown’s decision makes no sense.” Of course it does, and you know it. It’s said to educate people about what needs to be done in a parole situation like this. I am saying what COULD be done, not implying that Brown could have done otherwise. And you know that.

      1. The logical consequence is to find out what changes people’s behavior, not waste your time confecting new ways of convincing people they have free will.

        But suppose it turns out (as seems likely) that the most effective way to change people’s behavior involves convincing them that change is possible, that they can take control of their lives if they want to. Surely it’s not a waste of time to develop a theory of agency that allows us to say that honestly and straightforwardly, without having to throw scare-quotes around every use of “choice” and “control”.

          1. I get it. But much of behavior is determined apart from the sense of libertarian free will and choice. Changing the conditions that affect the options for decision-making can reach more people faster. That is, we are conditioned by our social and environmental waters. Our sense of choice and agency is dependent on these other conditions.

        1. Perfectly put, Gregory.

          I don’t buy this assumption that to maintain a concept of free will is most confusing whereas incompatibilism is clear and cogent and will lead to the best consequences. I find it the other way around.

          I mean, we could promote ideas that aren’t necessarily coherent, that involve using words and concept with our fingers crossed behind our backs (“I imply you can do otherwise, but if you look closer I don’t think that’s possible, I used words like choice, but if you look closer I don’t really believe we have options…etc)…
          but are in some ways compelling. The preponderance of religious belief shows that many accept such things. But don’t we want to promote a theory that is most careful
          in tying things together without contradictions to be uncovered? A theory where, when people pay attention they won’t be saying “hold on, this doesn’t fit?”

          That’s why compatibilist-speak makes more sense to me.

      2. Jerry,

        Sorry for any confusion. I would never want to imply you don’t think people are susceptible to influence. What I wrote took as an assumption that you DO think we can influence people and I asked back-to-basics questions of how to talk about choice, authorship and control of actions within the determinist paradigm, that I don’t believe have good answers from incompatibilism.

        You clearly know that I perceive a difference between “should” and “could.”

        I’m not clear on that. It’s one of the issues I’ve been trying to understand
        about your position. That is in what sense you actually use the words “could” and “should” given your incompatibilist position. You appear to me to write in ways that imply we “could” do differently when it serves as an admonition for future behavior, but then seem to deny one “could” do differently when absolving people of responsibility for past actions. This seems to crop up again here:

        “Oh, and you’re wrong about “decrying Brown’s decision makes no sense.” Of course it does, and you know it. It’s said to educate people about what needs to be done in a parole situation like this. I am saying what COULD be done, not implying that Brown could have done otherwise. And you know that.”

        But “COULD” is doing all the work there, everything is stuffed into it, so we have to know what you mean by “could.” The normal use of the word implies alternatives are possible, so when you say something “could” be done followed by “Brown could not have done otherwise” it is really, truly very confusing because it seems a flat contradiction. It seems as if to influence our behavior, you will write as if we could do otherwise – “what COULD be done” – and then after any choice is made declare, nope, you couldn’t have done otherwise!

        And I think until you have a way of making clear sense about your use of “could” and “should” and “choice” and all the other options-related talk, this will provide a sticking point for anyone you are trying to convince about anything from an incompatibilist stance – criminal punishment or otherwise. Replies like”What I write can influence your behavior ” are neither here nor there; it doesn’t solve whether what you are arguing is consistent or makes sense. This is one reason why I’ve kept saying that the incompatibilist doesn’t have some win-by-default position that to stop talking about “free will” is going to reduce confusion.

        I would claim that it is the compatibilists who are sowing confusion, by telling people that they have free will but not emphasizing that that isn’t exactly the kind of free will that most people think they have. Most people think they have agency and could have chosen otherwise. They don’t–that’s the end of the story.

        But I don’t agree that people don’t have agency. So I don’t see why I am to accept a declaration that they don’t. We both agree there is no dualism or magic, but it seems to me a mistake to therefore deny “agency.” I think the way incompatibilists speak, saying things like “people don’t have agency” confuses matters, because it implies one is also throwing out non-magic, agent qualities we actually do have. Your desires, and reasons, and choice-making play a necessary role in your actions and it is a mistake IMO to downplay this so much that it will imply that external causes are sufficient causes – or that there is no real difference in import between external and internal causes – and hence “we” aren’t in control at all. (This is one of the points I agree on when Dennett was pointing this out to Harris).

        1. “I think the way incompatibilists speak, saying things like “people don’t have agency” confuses matters, because it implies one is also throwing out non-magic, agent qualities we actually do have.”

          I agree. Incompatibilists want to throw out, or reduce out of existence, the differences between conscious beings and (as I often say) rocks.

      3. We DO HAVE CHOICE! If we think passing of time dynamically. At any moment we do one thing that is final because is already past. But the next moment we can even reverse previous choice (which dynamically created a new situation), before acting on or even when starting acting on, or after completing an action.

        Our guide in passing time is always the question if future (or… just human behavior?) is predetermined or not. To me it is obvious that our brain has evolved to adapt to a not predetermined future/world (call it “free will”, empirically, if you wish). So the real question is the reverse: What makes the future not predetermined? How the “choice system” (and not only of humans), works in a not predetermined world?

      4. Why, then, do we NEED compatibilism

        To quote a famous philosopher(*), “Stick with the truth – it’s easier to remember.” Compatibilism makes many important facts easier to remember: that “you” and “your brain and body” are the same thing, that the past cannot cause the future without going through the present (including the part of the present that is you), the fact that a person genuinely causes their actions, and more.

        If you’re willing to read ~2700 words, Yudkowsky has a good (compatibilist) explanation of what “could” actually means.

        (*) Matlock, played by Andy Griffith

  20. This [the Tate murders] was the first killing by Charles Manson’s “Family” …

    Actually, Charley and company dropped a few bodies around LA before that, including Gary Hinman, who had sold the Family some bad peyote buttons, and an African-American drug-dealer going by the handle “Lotsapoppa” (real name Bernard Crowe). There have also been persistent rumors about additional victims who were buried at the Spahn ranch, but never found by authorities.

    Also, although the California Supreme Court ruled the CA death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 (and, in so doing, converted all extant death sentences, including those of the Manson crew, to life imprisonment), California voters reinstated the DP later that year by passing Proposition 17. The state began performing executions again (for the first time since 1967) in 1992. Since then, it has put 13 prisoners to death (although none in the last decade). As of last year, there were 708 inmates on its death row in San Quentin.

    FWIW, I think you’ve limned the arguments in favor of the release of your coeval, Ms. Van Houten, very well. When she comes up for hearing again, the California Parole Board should make the 20th time the charm.

  21. Brown denied her application for parole because of the notoriety of her crime, which made him fear that releasing her would become a political issue. I doubt that any Catholic commitment to the notion of free will played a role in his decision. There are a few criminals — Sirhan Sirhan and David Berkowitz come to mind – who may never be released because the outcry would be too great.

  22. Prof Coyne: I have such trust in you and your wisdom that I was completely floored by reading about determinism in connection with the young man who bombed the Boston Marathon – It kind of bummed me out that I just couldn’t understand your position on this (a lot of things you say are beyond me but always before simply because I am no scientist). As time has gone by, I think I am finally beginning to understand. I am grateful to you for the lesson. However, I can imagine the response I would get if I tried to explain this to others – I will be kicked all around the room. Might be fun, who knows?

    1. I have found that arguments about determinism are fun. They’re not nearly as stressful as arguments about religion. One reason is, I think, that people are so wedded to their free-will dualism that they haven’t encountered the truth about determinism, and, as you say, get “floored.” And they can change their minds. I’ve convinced far more people about the truth of determinism in one-on-one discussions than I’ve persuaded people to give up their faith.

      1. Hell, you convinced me, and all it took
        was this website. It came with the recognition that there’s no escape hatch from the laws of physics. There are deterministic process, and there are stochastic process — and neither allows for the exercise of libertarian free will.

        Sure, there’s a lot of fine filigree left to hash through from there, but that alone renders dualism as dead as Dillinger.

  23. There is no further reason to keep her in jail.

    I can think of a reason: Donald Trump. And I bet Jerry Brown has thought of it too.

    Freeing one of the Manson gang during the run-up to the November election would hand Trump a priceless propaganda tool. He’d find a way to blame Hillary for it, and it would be Willie Horton all over again. This has to have been a factor in Brown’s thinking, whether or not he admits it publicly.

    Of course bargaining with Van Houten’s freedom in this way does her a serious injustice. But if we’re consequentialists, we have to look at the bigger picture. Which does more long-term harm, playing into Trump’s campaign rhetoric by releasing Van Houten now, or keeping her in prison for a few more months?

      1. Perhaps you could clarify your stance on deterrence then. You listed it as one of three valid reasons to incarcerate people. But if a prisoner has reformed and no longer poses a threat, is deterrence by itself a sufficient reason to keep them locked up?

        If so, then I’m not seeing a clear ethical distinction between that and what I suggested. Both subordinate the freedom of the reformed offender to a larger social good.

        On the question of whether freeing Van Houten would tip the electoral scales in favor of Trump, I would not want to hazard a guess. But in Brown’s shoes (or really anybody’s) I would much rather overestimate Trump’s chances and be proved wrong than underestimate them and be proved wrong.

        1. As far as deterrence goes, I don’t know what Jerry would say, but there’s likely not much benefit gained in deterrence when someone has already served a formidable amount of time (say over 20 years). A 20-year sentence is deterrent enough. Who can really envision their lives out that far anyway? And when it comes to crime, who is thinking of the consequences quantitatively? Knowing you’ll be locked up a long time is likely sufficient. 45 years is overkill.

          Regarding consequentialism, b*ll*cks to that. While I know that the greater good is getting anyone but Tr*mp in office, individual lives matter. And so does Leslie Van Houten’s. Her life matters. Her quality of life matters. We should take care of our prisoners.

          1. “Individual lives matter” is a respectable position, but it still seems to me it applies equally to deterrence. If deterrence is a good reason to keep people locked up only if you’re already locking them up for some other reason, then it’s not really a very good reason after all.

            1. Yep. I question whether there is any deterrent benefit (on other people) for locking someone up for more than a “long time.” That is, I suspect that knowing you’d be locked up for a similar action to someone currently sentenced would be similar if the sentence were 20 or 30 years of prison (for instance), for most crimes.

  24. Norway has the best prison system, and I just read that likewise secular states Sweden and Denmark rank as #1 and #2 in the nations that “do most for other people” according to UN. Religionists should be ashamed for themselves.

    Which brings me to this:

    That effort is useless, a purely academic exercise—though sometimes conducted with the misguided excuse that unless we think we have some form of free will, society will disintegrate.

    Apparently the “free will” illusion was invented by Aristotle, to be picked up and solidified by the Catholic sect later. [ ]

    That makes it suspect at the outset, naturally. Aristotle was a student under the mystic Plato, and a lot of those philosophical inventions have solid religious use to peddle similar magic.

    However, to claim that compatibilist theory is “useless” may be to go too far.

    It is useless if all you worry about is its social consequences.

    But an emergent “free will” theory helps understand why people have evolved to sustain the illusion. In my opinion of course, until someone comes up with a theory why or why not it would be fixated. (It could be a cultural meme, I guess.)

    1. If Brown could not have made a different decision, can we attach such severe motives to his actions?

      I’m concerned that Ms. Van Houten is being portrayed here as a kind, gentle soul who wouldn’t harm a butterfly and the person who won’t let her out of her punishment is an evil asshole.

  25. I don’t understand what compatibilism is.

    Is it the stance that we are determined and have agency?

    If so, that doesn’t make sense because the sense of agency is also determined.

    Is there something I’m missing?

    1. If you have a free month, search this website for free will threads. They go back several years. Some of them gathered many hundreds of comments. There is a lot of food for thought in them.

      1. + 1

        I’ve read most of what Jerry has posted, but not all the comments on all the threads. And having done so, I don’t see how people think compatibilism has any logical coherence. My question here was intended to elicit something I might have missed.

        1. In fact, have a gander at Gregory’s 8:43pm reply to Jerry just up thread a bit. People behave very differently from rocks. The compatibilist project is about being able to think and talk about those differences.

      1. Thanks for the link. It was helpful.

        Having given it a gander, I remain unpersuaded that agency is anything but conditional. I’ll look back on it again when I’m not so tired.

  26. The woman has been in jail for ages – perhaps too long- and seems to have a total change of heart (though it would require mutiple specialist agreements she is not violently inclined). Jerry Brown’s justification for keeping Van Houten in prison seems utterly arbitrary to me. There seems to be no weight given to net avoidance or reduction of human suffering re all parties involved – it doesnt matter to them other than the supposed human benefit of vengeance for those strange enough to really enjoy unending vengeance.

  27. Another important thing arguing in favour of Van Houtens release according to your article she has repeatedly shown contrition – that she understands what she did was wrong and would never want to repeat it again.
    In the early 90s there was a documentary about Australian violent crime inmates and parole assessments. One inmate had murdered a young woman – he never ever in the interviews expressed even regret about her killing – but his development of skills – such as music making and corny crooning songs – was seen as evidence of socialisation. The man always appeared unfeeling and self centred to me in the interviews – to a narcissistic degree. He murdered another woman during the program on a day he was allowed out temporarily whilst still on parole. He had had a happy secure childhood and been much loved by his family

    Another inmate had thrown a child off the top of some steps in a fit of rage and so killed the child. However in the interviews he always expressed deep sorrow, regret and shame for having done this and he wanted to do something positive in society. He was being supported by a social outreach program (Religious but still sympathetic and supportive)
    He was raised in an intensely abusive and violent foster home and at the time of the killing was experiencing serious relationship and financial difficulties. This guy to my knowledge they never had any problems with on release. The man had changed. But also I agree he probably had a different genetic makeup to the other guy – their behaviours were just that different and yet they were both released.

  28. On a strict determinist account, the question arises of why bother with courts or prisons at all? If the perpetrator of a murder had no choice in the matter then they are no more responsible for the death of the victim than a driver whose car runs out of control and kills a pedestrian. In both cases, the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you believe the perpetrators pose a continuing risk to other members of society and there is no prospect of rehabilitating them then you could detain them indefinitely but otherwise there is no justification in taking any further action against them.

    Of course, the other side of the coin is that if people cannot be blamed for the bad things they do then neither can they claim credit for all the good things they do. So, on strict determinist account, how about all those Nobel Laureates handing back their prizes? After all, they just did what it was determined they should do.

  29. 1) Determinism is true, or at least it’s a very good assumption
    2) I have Free Will

    I sincerely, sincerely have never understood why determinism should be any kind of threat to my own sense of agency. Maybe the population at large would find it devastating if they really grasped it. More likely ‘Free Will’ is just a bad concept to begin with. But why should we reform our justice system because of determinism? That’s like reforming our sewage system because of quantum mechanics.

    It is trivially easy to be an incompatibilist determinist. All you have to do is say “everything that is, is”. Our actions are, by definition, part of that-which-is, and are therefore determined by whatever determines that-which is. We didn’t need the wonders of modern science for that!

    Consider that the abrahamic religions have generally believed in predestination. It stands to reason, after all, that if God is omniscient, he knows everything that will happen before it happens, and everything you’re going to do before you do. At the same time they generally believed in Free Will, although it is sometimes hard to be sure what they precisely meant by that, given that the conceptual landscape was often very different to our own. And obviously there has always been disagreement on this subject, which was hashed out both in violent conflict and in the exquisite nuances of theological debate.


    But rather it suggests to me that our sense of agency and moral responsibility, need not and should not derive from the very nature of the universe, and so there is nothing particularly mind-blowing about saying that God/ Laplace’s demon/ the wave function of the universe, “knows”/ “determines” our future actions.

    People have believed that our actions are constrained by determinism, of some sort or other, for thousands of years, and this doesn’t seem to have bothered the legal system or our notions of moral responsibility.

      1. Maybe we don’t and can’t. My point is that, per the incompatibilist position, Free Will is a logical impossibility from the get go. Suppose we really were a ghost in the machine. Our actions were still be ‘determined’ by whatever determined the workings of that ghost in that machine: everything that is, is.

        This version of “no Free Will” is 100% true and 100% trivial. To say that we should reconstruct all our everyday human notions because of it is totally ridiculous.

        1. Umm. . . . I didn’t say we had to reconstruct all our everyday human notions because of this, so that “totally ridiculous” characterization is a strawman. And I’m sorry, but your dead wrong that it’s 100% trivial. In a survey, many people say that in a deterministic world without libertarian free will, people aren’t morally responsible for their actions. To them that is not trivial.

          If you’re charactierizing my words as “totally ridiculous,” you’ll have to apologize.

          1. 1) Apology
            I am sorry for casually hurling “totally ridiculous”. I don’t know you work and thought in enough detail to make such an absolute pronouncement.
            I find scientific determinism to be a red herring in matters of justice, retribution, and agency. We should treat people with generosity rather than vengeance regardless of whether their genes/ wave function/ circumstances/ Cartesian souls/ God/ Cthulhu “left them no alternative”.

            And correspondingly: I am responsible for my own actions,(e.g. posting a comment) and I hope to be treated that way.

  30. Professor Coyne’s description of the reason for his distaste for the posturing by certain philosophers reminded me exactly of what Dan Dennett was sounding like yet again in his latest encounter revisiting the topic on Sam Harris’ recent podcast:

    Ironically, over a year prior, here we have Sam humorously explaining exactly what Dan does and apparently is still doing:

    1. The same critique could be made of Harris.

      Harris will talk to you in regular terms, about what “you” should or could do, what choices we can make, and on the other hand claim there isn’t really a “you” and “you” aren’t in control and “you” couldn’t do otherwise etc.

      This is equivocating between terms as people normally understand them, vs how Sam understands them, on at least as confusing a scale as he charges Dan.

  31. I’m so old, I go back to the “nature vs. nurture” debate, which was never completely resolved. And, I don’t see this debate, as resolvable. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think a gathering of philosophers could/would come up with workable solutions to our justice and penal systems. Maybe, just copying Norway’s system.

    If all in life is “determined”, what is the point of suggesting that education, achievement, advancement, progression is desirable or possible? Many of us arrive in the world with severe disabilities, or later develop them, yet some achieve great levels of attainment. Think of Stephen Hawkings. Some do not or cannot. Many were not cared for, were starved, mistreated, and abused as children and/or adults. Some overcame it. Some did not. Many people came from what might be considered good homes with loving parents. Some got into major trouble despite it. Some did not. What is it in our genetic materials and cultures that supposedly makes this so? And, why the differences?

    When the components of the brain are being formed and connected, are they “determined”? Are the “yes”, “no” switches already decided? When patterns are formed in the brain, strengthened by reiteration and connections with other parts of the brain, is that “determined”? When certain memories are overwritten or erased from our brains, is that “determined”? When we change our “memories”, (which we all do) is that “determined”?

    How is evolution possible? Must we assume that all life forms were “determined” to become whatever they were at every stage of development? What about the forms that didn’t survive? Was it a foregone conclusion that they wouldn’t? How do we view the many changes from single-celled life forms to multi-celled life forms? Was that “determined”? Some single-celled life forms changed. Some didn’t. Are the symbiotic entities human beings are (in combination with their essential microbes and bacteria)”determined”?

    I don’t think the issues are as clear cut as
    some of us suggest or state. I still question notions of morality and good and evil in that some “bad” things can turn into “good”, or promote “good”, and some “good” things become “bad”. Is all that “determined”?

    Now all we have to do is learn how and when certain individuals are going to commit something “bad” in order to prevent it and, therefore, not have to worry about punishment or incarceration. I don’t think this is likely to happen. However, I can say that our policing, judicial and prison systems need much change (if they are not also “determined”).

    Maybe I just don’t know enough to understand the real parameters of the problem.

    1. The discussion needs to proceed to the issue of how change is created, but first we must move beyond the current terminology that frames the question of change and how it occurs. I hold that determinism, mechanistic determinism and reductionist contact mechanics are all forms of Cartesian dualism and its legacy/residual impact on science. Thus we have several forms of dualism that are vying for dominance in framing the question of change. As a monist and materialist, I would suggest that there is plenty of knowledge and understanding from various disciplines to keep focused on change and how it is brought about. There is also then the challenge of how change can be trusted.

      1. If it is given that each of us have determined
        thought patterns, behaviors, knowledge, how are discretely composed philosophers and other experts to arrive at rational conclusions and consensus for a plan of action? How did Norway do it? So far, determination by the majority, supposedly is the best we can do. And that method is deeply flawed. I would not trust a jury of my “peers” (how can any of us be peers when we are all determined differently?)

  32. Serious question.

    I agree with Jerry about van Houten. I’m pretty much convinced by his and Harris’s arguments about compatibilism, determinism, and free will. I agree with banning capital punishment for ethical reasons but primarily because execution can’t be undone and innocents have been executed because of wrongful conviction. Except there’s one little problem: recidivism. If expert lawyers, judges, jurys, and corrections personnel can fail by jailing and executing innocent people, might they (and psychiatrists) not also be susceptible to inaccurately assessing risk of repeat murder? I wonder: is the risk of wrongful capital punishment > the risk of low-probability repeat offenders murdering new innocents? If not, that’s no argument for capital punishment but it might speak to the justification of life imprisonment.

  33. I agree with the argument you make here and I really believed that LVH had a real shot at release. I believe that Debra Tate is largely responsible for her continued incarceration – she made enough of a stink and gathered enough signatures with her petition to be given voice. Although for the life of me I cannot figure out why the CA Parole system allows Debra to be involved at all, since Leslie was not involved in the killings at the Tate/Polanski home, only those at the LaBianca home the following night.

    I do have to point out that you have several errors in your reporting, however. The August 9th killings at 10050 Cielo were not the first Manson Family killings (Gary Hinman the previous month was), Leslie’s 3rd trial returned a sentence of Life in Prison (not death) and you have a photograph or video of Patricia Krenwinkel captioned as Leslie.

  34. [That’s what nonbelieving “faitheists” say about religion as well.]

    I thought that the above (nonbelieving “faitheists”) describes a “determinist” more that anyone else. Even when is not realizing it! A person that has to make concessions with reality, with the obvious, all the time. A divided mind. Actually a “determinist” admits incarceration because has no choice. Not as a “determinist”. He will never admit clearly that the future is predetermined in his “scientific logic”. He has to keep himself in safe distance from whatever invalidates him/her.

    But wait, a new thing: Another concession in a comment. Future can be changed! So that’s why I put the word “determinist” in… quotes!

    By the way the following “I’m a determinist about human behavior, which I think is the only rational stance to take if you accept science.”, read in more than one occasion, looks to me completely sentimental. A kind of sentimental extortion of others. Like “if you are not with me, you are against me (or… science!). Such tactics better to be avoided from a conscious scientific mind!

  35. This isn’t about the ‘free will’ debate, this is about justice. I’m in Dennett’s camp, and this is about a narcissistic governor who is playing king. Closest I can understand is that he is a Catholic, and is behaving like a bully boy. This is about crime and punishment, and even tho Brown is a lawyer, he is not sounding like one, as the punishment has already more than fitted the crime. This is personal/political for him and I hope someone can show him a way to not have to be ‘tough on crime’ to win some points, rather with some mercy. What a heartbreaking story.

  36. 45 yrs is way to long for what she did, the only reason to keep her in Gaol is revenge nothing less, as for Brown, he’s just playing to the Gallery. He,s no more a Liberal than our present (unelected) Prime Minister

  37. I cannot fathom why any incompatibilist can argue that there is a value whatsoever in the ability of one robot to influence the behaviour of other robots. This facility of “influence” supposedly leads to a “greater good”. But why should it? There is no real separation of function or outcome in such a collection of robots. It is a totally causal system. There is only a physical separation…. (brain cells themselves are separate but so what, does this amount to “influence” also?) Causality is not changed by separateness, the overall robotic machine is instead a continuum of causality. Where does morality arise in such a complex. Now I agree there is no OBJECTIVE morality in any case, but at least in compatibilist free-will there is the opportunity for separate agents to progress an overall moral zeitgeist and bear moral responsibility for it!

  38. Some interesting discussion here. The compatibilists won this debate hands down, IMHO.

    Oh, and van Houten? For strictly practical reasons, let her go for goodness sake. She poses no danger to society and keeping her longer will be no deterrent to others.

    1. Hah! I don’t think they *won*. I think the determinists got quieter. Ran out of steam. I certainly had to shift gears and think about other stuff!

      No one has come close to convincing me that agency is not determined.

        1. Okay, then tell me nicely and in plain speak, hopefully with just a few sentences, what compatibilism is.

          What’s the distinction between determinism and compatibilism if compatibilism includes determinism?

          If you are determined (have no free will) what are you compatible with?

          1. In a sentence, compatibilism holds that determinism is consistent with our ability to choose among alternatives without (necessarily) being constrained by genetic disposition or prior operant conditioning, but of course constrained by the laws of physics.

            1. +1

              Love your sentence.

              (I remain a diehard incompatibalist then (or a deterministic purist or whatever the lingo is), as genetic predisposition and prior conditioning are themselves constraints of the laws of nature. My sense of choice is conditioned like everything else in my existence. It doesn’t mean there isn’t the perception of choice. But “I” am a product of my conditions and so are my choices.)

              And to spring some poetry on us:

              “Spring and everything outside is growing, even the tall cypress tree. We must not leave this place. Around the lip of the cup we share, these words: my life is not mine” (Rumi).

              The “my life is not mine” is the connection to this conversation.

            1. Thanks for the link; it was well-written. Thanks, too, to the others who described compatibilism in this thread.

              In my head, determinism boils down to, “we are conditioned.” I don’t think we need to imbue thoughts and intention as having special significance apart from neurology. If we knew all the conditions, we would be able to predict human behavior. To do that, we’d need to understand all the biological determinants of neurology (including but not limited to genes) and the social and physical conditions of a given person’s life. While grossly simplifying it, for instance, how would being born into a family that knows it carries a mutation for cystic fibrosis impact a person’s choice to have their DNA sequenced and also request that their future mate be sequenced? That’s a specific question (don’t ask how I concocted it…). But we’d have to know a lot about family history (social environment) and also a ton about the person’s individual history and demographical forces (age, gender, SES, race, health history). We can probably see that the probability of requesting to be sequenced for mutations in the CFTR gene drops precipitously for someone past childbearing age. And if they have lived past childbearing age, they likely don’t have the disease unless it is a very mild form or being well treated, in which case they may already have had genetic testing.

              But if a person is 23 and had a close family member with cystic fibrosis, they may suspect they are a carrier. But maybe they are a Christian fundamentalist who only believes in divine intervention and miracles and disdains medical intervention? They may not want to know if they are a carrier. They might even have another serious disease which makes cystic fibrosis sound trivial.

              But as you see, the more we know about the social and environmental conditions, the better chance we’d have of predicting behavior. And this is without even getting into the neurological predispositions and the impact they’d have.

              1. Your last line is telling: we can say quite a lot about the causes of behavior at the cognitive level without even getting into the neurology. But the converse is not true: we can’t say much about specific instances of behavior by ignoring cognition and talking only in terms of neurons, because looking only at neurons doesn’t tell us what all that neuronal activity is about.

                It’s like trying to explain how Watson wins at Jeopardy in terms of circuits and electron flows, while ignoring the algorithms and information flows that actually embody the winning strategy. Focusing on the wrong level obscures what’s really going on and makes explanation more difficult. Compatibilism is about finding the right level of explanation and avoiding the pitfalls of eliminative reductionism.

              2. There’s no need to dualize genetic and environmental determinants, making genetic or neurological determinants reductive. Thoughts are “afterthoughts” of brain activity. I don’t know how we are aware of some of them or what being aware of them is, but the being aware is also an after-product and conditioned. We can’t escape this. We aren’t transcendent of our biology. There is no supra-conscious soul. It’s all biology.

                Haha. Okay, you guys can eat me alive now for putting it so frankly.

  39. Recently, I found a CD of Paul Simon’s 1998 musical “The Capeman” which was produced in 1998. “The Capeman” was about a 16 year old Puerto Rican kid named Salvador Agron living in New York City in the 50s. He committed a couple of murders with a friend, “The Umbrella Man”. They were members of the Mau Maus. The 1959 murders were of two boys in Central Park who were mistaken for being members of another gang called “The Norseman” who were supposed to meet there to fight.

    Salvador was sentenced to the death penalty at age 16, the youngest ever in New York. The sentence was commuted to life in 1962 and he was released after 16 years. While in prison, he learned to read and write, got his GED, and a college education. He wrote poetry.
    He died of pneumonia in 1986.

    “The Capeman” musical didn’t last long and lost $11 million. As you might expect, there were major reactions to the subject of the play which many found totally inappropriate as a Broadway production.

    When I heard this music, it reminded me of my life in the very early 60s when my husband was tutoring teen aged Hispanic boys from East LA,
    all of whom had been in the CYA (California Youth Authority)juvenile justice system (which had a very high recidivism rate). From our contact with these boys and learning about their lives in an urban ghetto, we learned first hand about racism. As Paul Simon says: “It wasn’t “Happy Days”.

    If any of this sounds interesting to you, the music from “The Capeman” is on the internet in full (probably youtube). You might find some of the language bad, but I found the music and the story fascinating. Peripherally, it connected in my mind with the topic discussed here.

  40. Emile Weaver, the sorority girl who killed her newborn after many failed efforts to abort the pregnancy, received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. As despicable as Emile is, how does her sentence best serve society? Surely, the chance of her repeating this would at least evaporate after menopause, no? Are we really so certain that there is no way she can be rehabilitated? That she can never eschew the immature, unthinking, party-girl mindset that led to this killing, no matter how old she gets? Do we really believe that girls in a parallel situation, and at risk of repeating what Emile did, are clear-headed enough to be dissuaded knowing of Emile’s punishment?

  41. they will never be able to fully explain why they did it and youth, drugs, brainwashing aside, I’m not convinced they all didn’t have some kind of sociopath mentality. I don’t know if the majority of society wants them to walk among them but perhaps part of that is the revulsion we feel that women were able to engage in these barbaric murders- another example was Karla Homulka and the deal with the devil that got her out of prison. It’s a difficult case.

    1. I’m reminded of the sheriff in “Blazing Saddles” (Cleavon Little) holding a gun to his own head, and his (two, maybe more?) personalities arguing with each other.

Leave a Reply