For some reason the Discovery Institute has a bit of an obsession with me, as they monitor this site and kvetch whenever I say something they can kvetch about at the no-comments-allowed Evolution News site. Usually it’s either Michael Egnor or David Klinghoffer doing the hatchet job, but this time we have Andrew Jones, someone new to me, going after my views on free will. Because the Discovery Institute has totally failed to advance the acceptance of Intelligent Design (the Wedge Document from 1998 said that by 2018 they expected “to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science” LOL!), they spend their time carping about other stuff.
In this case, Jones is carping about my view of free will, which is that we don’t have it in any libertarian sense. I’m a hard determinist, and thus feel that criminals don’t have a choice about committing crimes. This makes the concept of “moral responsibility” problematic, and, I’ve argued, should be taken into account when reforming the criminal justice system.
Jones disagrees, but it’s not clear what he disagrees with. Click on the screenshot to read the article:
Their initial kvetch is with my claim that criminals don’t have a “choice”, though Jones never really says what he means by “choice”. Here’s my statement that they don’t like:
There are ramifications for the justice system. I firmly believe that if we grasped that nobody, including criminals, has a “choice” in whether or not to do something, like mugging someone, we would structure the justice system differently, concentrating less on retribution and more on keeping baddies out of society, trying to reform them, and using punishment as a deterrent to improve society.
Jerry Coyne thinks that criminals don’t have a “choice.” (What are those quotation marks doing there?)
Those quotation marks are clearly there because, as anybody with more than one neuron would know from my writing, the idea of “choice” as “libertarian, you-could-have-done-otherwise” choice, which is most people’s notion of free will, is an illusion. Thus the quotes.
Then Jones gets really muddled. He admits that there are quasi-deterministic causes of crime, and even admits that he’s a determinist like me. But then his head goes up his fundament as he claims that there can be some kind of “free choice” on top of determinism. To wit:
Coyne is quite right that we should acknowledge that there are systematic causes of crime, that we should address them. There are many factors that not only correlate with but really do contribute causally to crime. Poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of family stability, lack of a place within a society (and sometimes merely the perception of these things in a noxious subculture) objectively make a person more likely to commit crime.
. . . But why should this lead to a denial of free will? Why should the existence of one prior kind of causation exclude the existence of another later kind of causation? Who said there is a unit sum of blame to be assigned, and that you can get away with murder just because someone else is also to blame? Even if the influence of poverty (for example) was so strong that statistically, every poor person became a mugger, it is still true that no one will actually commit a mugging unless they choose to. No matter what evil influences there may be on a person, the moment he chooses to do evil (Oops did I say “he”? How sexist!), a line has been crossed.
The line that has been crossed is that somebody has committed a crime. That person didn’t freely choose to commit a crime, and could not have not committed that crime. So what is the “later kind of causation”? Jones implies that this may be some kind of libertarian choice. If he doesn’t mean that, what does he mean by saying “no one will actually commit a mugging unless they choose to.” If he’s a determinist, what the means is “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless they commit a mugging.” (Alternatively: “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless the laws of physics have determined that they’ll commit a mugging.”)
But—get this—Jones says he’s a determinist! In fact, a compatibilist, who accepts determinism but thinks that there’s some construal of “free will” that allows determinism. The sad bit is that he doesn’t say what that construal is. And so he gets muddled up:
Let me own up: I am a determinist like [Coyne], but that does not mean I have to deny the self-evident fact of free will: I know (truly) that I make free choices all the time. I know that if I don’t make them, they will not be made, and I know that I am responsible for them. If determinism is also true, that does not mean that free will is false. It could be simply that there is a problem with the philosophical abstraction called “libertarian free will” (which seems to assert indeterminism as a fundamentalist tenet). I won’t even attempt to explain here what the problem might be, but I will say that I call myself a compatibilist, as do most of the mainstream academy, many ID proponents, and many religious people.
He doesn’t explain what the possible problem with libertarian free will is, but note that by professing determinism—and I’m not sure Jones even grasps what determinism is—he puts himself at odds not just with his compatriots at the Discovery Institute, but with most religious people—indeed, most people in general. You know what they call a religious person who’s a determinist? A Calvinist!
Jones is talking nonsense here, failing to define his terms, including “free will.” With that failure, his argument becomes incoherent. If he agrees with me on determinism, then why does he think that “free choice” can be laid atop determinism? What does he mean by that?
It’s best not to parse Jones too much, as he doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. The point of his screed, however, it to indict me however he can, and he also does that by adding that I must have a big skeleton in my closet:
This leaves me wondering why people like Jerry Coyne make these arguments. Is he trying to evade responsibility for something? Does he have a guilty conscience? Does he want to convince himself that the feeling of badness is an unfortunate biological or cultural leftover, and not the voice of reason itself?
Let me be clear. I am not trying to evade responsibility for something bad, nor do not have a guilty conscience. What I’ll add is that Jones’s essay is equivalent to what comes out of the south end of a cow facing north.