The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”


Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.


  1. peepuk
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Sabine does a great job at explaining why we don’t have freewill.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    … Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne” …

    A blatant instance of anti-Irish bias. 🙂

  3. rickflick
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I only got a few minutes into his rant and had to bail. He’s not engaging the argument but rather surfing over it. Pretty shady.
    He says the laws of physics are assumed by determinists without justification. But he then goes on to say our intuitive sense of free will is all we need to prove it. Well, it’s just the opposite. The laws of physics are well established and the idea that human minds escape from them needs to be justified.

  4. Posted October 24, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    A small but continual irritant is how C/ID folks leap to making arguments a matter of semantics, since (big surprise) words have different meanings in different contexts. So ‘achieve’ being one example here.
    In debates that I’ve had, one learns to try to avoid saying ‘design’, or ‘purpose’. It’s like saying an incantation that summons a lot of distracting babbling noise.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Jeez, let’s start a GoFundMe account to buy C. Hunter a pocket protector for all those loose writing implements.

    Sure hope for this poor schlepper‘s sake that the students at Biola U aren’t into stuffing their adjunct professors into lockers and taking away their lunch money.

  6. Timothy Bagley
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Merci Jerry pour cette réponse intelligente et amusante à l’argument pseudo-scientifique de C. Hunter contre le déterminisme. Puissiez-vous et le professeur Hossenfelder demeurer en bonne santé!

  7. Posted October 24, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    This guy just gives the common argument that scientists have so much confidence that they don’t explain everything. Of course, the reason they don’t explain everything every time is because they are building on a large common body of knowledge. His argument is simply silly.

  8. Pim Wiersinga
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I am an atheist and have no truck with the religious ‘free will’ argument. Also, I have no problem with the notion that choices a person feel she makes have been preceded by neuronal interactions in the brain.

    Even so, how does one square the science with reflecting or backtracking on one’s views, or correct those, once you discover they’re wrong?

    • Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      It’s just your brain working according to the laws of physics and affected by your environment, including other people. You’re not really “freely” backtracking, any more than you’re “freely” deciding anything. I don’t understand why “changing your mind”, or negating a previous view, is somehow different from any other thought or action you have.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      It’s physics all the way down.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted October 24, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Physics explains turtles.

  9. A C Harper
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    So… Hunter would rather rely upon a 400 year old English edited translation of an edited Latin translation of an edited collection of nearly 2,000 year of mostly Greek scraps of correspondence, gossip and hearsay?

    • jezgrove
      Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Very nicely put.

    • Timothy Bagley
      Posted October 24, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink


    • kraeuterbutter
      Posted October 24, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget the Old Testament, which was written partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic, before it was translated into Koine Greek.

  10. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Hard to suppress a snigger when he criticizes the “total certainty” of people like Hossenfelder and Coyne! You won’t find any total certainty amongst the ranks of creationists, no siree!

    And on a rather trivial note I would nominate this talk for about the worst use of visual aids I have seen in a long time. What exactly is the point of scrawling all of his supposedly killer points in scrawly writing that’s too small to see?

    • Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Not at all defending his arguments but I had no trouble reading his little white board. He used it as a sort of poor man’s slide presentation. A bit more intimate and also an attempt to make his argument appear to be rational and scientific.

  11. Mike
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I teach the ctenophores-and-neurons story to my students. Hunter misses an important part of the story.

    First, it is not a slam dunk that ctenophores (which have neurons) are the sister group to all the other animals, including sponges and placozoans (sorry you have to look it up) that do not have neurons. Only for that phylogeny is it plausible that neurons evolved twice (or three times): in ctenophores, and in the cnidarians and the bilaterians (everything else). Lots of data (genome sequences) support that phylogeny, but some analyses of the same or other data support sponges as the sister group to the rest of the animals.

    Second, the Moroz & Kohn (2016) article says that it’s unlikely that neurons evolved just once because sponges and placozoans are not expected to lose all traces of a nervous system (if they were descended from that same common ancestor shared with ctenophores, in which neurons evolved just one time). But that history is only unlikely, it’s not impossible. There is evidence that sponges have genes for making many of the neurotransmitters used in ctenophore and bilateral neurons, and that’s consistent with (but again not slam-dunk evidence for) neurons evolving once in the common ancestor of all animals, and secondarily lost in sponges. That kind of secondary loss or simplification is common among parasitic species that evolve very small bodies, but total loss of neurons in large-bodied sponges is shocking.

    So I teach my students that both possibilities are gob-smacking: parallel evolution of neurons and synaptic signalling; or total loss of nervous systems in large-bodied sponges descended from the animal common ancestor. I guess it is a kind of teach-the-controversy approach. I’m holding out for a conclusive phylogenetic analysis, or some very convincing developmental genetic analysis that shows neurons of ctenophores are not homologous with the neurons of other animals. Moroz & Kohn allude to this kind of focus on understanding the embryological (rather than phylogenetic) origins of neurons from specific cell lineages in ctenophore embryos compared to other animal embryos. I haven’t looked to see whether such cell lineage studies have been done in the last 4 years. Maybe there is an answer already.

  12. Charles Jones
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this!

    • Posted October 24, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, thank you. I did not know all that stuff. And clearly Hunter didn’t, either!

      • Mike
        Posted October 24, 2020 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        If that was aimed at me the thank you! I go on at length sometimes. I used to lurk but not comment much here, but I comment often since the pandemic. I think it’s because I lack direct contact with students and don’t have opportunities to think about ideas and then talk with students about them. It’s not the same in zoom meetings. I wonder if lots of commenters here are experiencing something similar (is overall commenting up or down since March?).

  13. Charles Jones
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The Discovery Institute seems like such an utterly irrelevant and spent effort. It amazes me that it still attracts people who are still fired up enough to make hollow arguments that tangentially mention actual facts.

    Instead, I’d expect them to get with the conservative program and simply lie! This is where the real ferment is, isn’t it?

  14. Posted October 24, 2020 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Jerry, on how natural selection favors organisms that have reliable cognitive and perceptual systems. As an engineer, I have to add that intelligent human designers generally prefer deterministic behavior in our components. Because it makes our designs more reliable! Reliability and determinism are friends.

    Compatibilists typically think that determinism as physicists define it is a characteristic of some of the best-supported theories. But it’s important not to confuse determinism-as-physicists-define-it with determinism as conceived by the general public. In physics, determinism applies at all size scales, but causality does not, according to WEIT official website physicist Sean Carroll. The actual physics matters here – not that I have much hope for IDers to learn about entropy and relativity, when they can’t even grasp the outlines of how evolution works.

  15. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such a great demolition!

    I wonder if Hunter’s assertion that ‘there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth’ is a laboured reference to Plantinga’s absurd argument that evolution equipped us only well enough to be able to escape predators, not to discern the truth about anything. I seem to recall that PCC(E) demolished this nonsense many years ago.

    As for that strange couple of verses in Corinthians, surely they prefigure the much later comment in ‘Mark’ that: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4, 11-12). Evidence that Christianity was originally an esoteric religion, designed for the lucky initiates.

  16. grasshopper
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I think Coyne rhymes better with coigne than coin. And it scans as more pretentious 😉

  17. elevenyx
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    So, for example, is the “noise” in gene expression real(e.g. Or they are still all determined from the beginning of the universe, and all the stochasticity stuff are just backward illusions?

    And, both being highly-regarded physicists on this site, how does Sabine Hossenfelder’s claim that there are no multiple possible futures jibe with Sean Carroll’s enthusiasm in many-worlds theory? Maybe because all these worlds are still described by a single wave function, so as a whole it’s still single future? BTW, can anyone write down such a wave function for an E. coli, or even a carbon atom?

    I have no interest in God or any “transcendent agent”, as they don’t seem to be needed to explain the world (at least for me, so far). I am just curious what people really mean by “determinism”. There may be a (semantic?) conflation between everything is determined by physics (which I buy) and everything is determined in advance.

    • Mike
      Posted October 24, 2020 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      I am not a physicist, but I think the distinction you’re looking for is not “everything is determined by physics [versus] everything is determined in advance”, because those two things are the same. I think the distinction you want is “everything is determined by physics” versus “everything can be predicted in advance.” “Determined” is a theory about the system, whereas “predicted” is a model of the system that is fitted to data and then the fitted parameters are compared to real observations of the future state.

      We can’t predict the states of most complex biological systems very far into the future because most are too complex to model in a way that would lead to reliable predictions that could be tested. Noisy gene expression is a good example. We can predict the state of a single chemical reaction to equilibrium in a closed system like a test tube, but not the combined states of thousands of chemical reactions that interact with each other in a live cell. The best that systems biologists can do is predict the state of smaller systems of interacting genes and molecules over short periods of time, like gene regulatory networks that affect the expression of the genes that determine the number and arrangement of cells in a developing tissue in an embryo (small numbers of genes, small numbers of cells, small spatial scale in embryos, over brief periods of time).

      But that doesn’t mean the state of the larger organism is not determined in advance by the physical chemistry of the molecules and forces. It just means our predictive models are limited, especially to prediction only a short time into the future.

      Or maybe that’s not how you were thinking of this. Sorry for the long reply.

  18. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    “And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University”.
    Biola, that brings back memories! When I was at Caltech, our football team was so bad that they played Biola. Academically we were a tad better.

  19. grasshopper
    Posted October 24, 2020 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Imagine it’s the year 2020 and there is not a single reference to Jesus extant in the world, and that there never has been a New Testament nor has there ever been a single Christian.

    But in the real year of 2020, the Bible is the best book ever, Jesus is the best person ever, and God is the best God ever. How did this all come to pass?

    God made it all happen. It was inevitable. All the actors who had a hand in the creation of the Bible were compelled to do what they did, else no Christianity, no Bible, no Judas, no parables or teachings to show us true morality.

    I can’t see free will at work anywhere in the Bible, just the opposite.

  20. Posted October 25, 2020 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    HA! Be flattered “Prof Cohen” (sounds more Jewy maybe?) this cross worshipping honkey donk bunko salesman spent so much time getting his panties in a twist, getting all sand up in his vag., about you. I’d take it as a compliment especially considering he’s wrong. Hilariously wrong.

    And c’mon…who doesn’t believe in evolution, really?

    D.A., J.D. NYC
    -even my dog, pictured, believes in evolution. And bacon.

  21. busterggi
    Posted October 25, 2020 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    So believers say everything is god’s plan and nothing can can god’s plan except for free will which would cancel god out – this is called sophisticated theology.

  22. Hempenstein
    Posted October 25, 2020 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Amazing! One of those things I’ve long meant to track down is what the basis of the pain that stinging nettles inflict is. I think I may have done that once, tho, because I had a vague sense that silica needles were involved, but nothing beyond that. Now, from from the Discussion section of that first Science paper, I learn that some toxic peptides are involved,and further that they fall into one of the families (knottins) of certain of the cone snail toxins, which fascinate me.

    All obliquely on account of the DI. Go figure.

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