Attack of the Lilliputians: Casey Luskin and Michael Egnor put misleading words and sentiments about free will in my mouth

July 14, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Why would two members of the ID creationist Discovery Institute keep attacking me for rejecting libertarian free will? After all, that issue has very little to do with evolution.  But they keep on trying to land blows, for the real object of the Discovery Institute goes way beyond the promotion of ID creationism in schools. Their goal is the elimination of materialism and naturalism as the basis of Enlightenment Now. (Read about the Wedge Strategy.) They’re upset at me because I adhere to views that don’t require or are associated with a God—and determinism (I’d call it “naturalism”) does just that. If we don’t have spooky free will, and, as I claim, all our behaviors and decisions occur according to the laws of physics, then you can’t “choose” whether to be good or evil, and choice of that sort is essential for the Abrahamic religions to function.

I’m not going to waste my time rebutting these clowns at length, as I’d simply have to reiterate what I’ve said before many times on this site, and since they clearly either don’t know, don’t understand, or deliberately ignore what I’ve said many times over, I just want to point out their article (one of several) to underscore a.) the mental thickness of the protagonists, b.) the religiosity of the protagonists, c.) the real reason why the Discovery Institute operates, and d.) to satisfy Egnor’s eternal desire to get attention by engaging in a dialogue with me. But they’re not going to get their wish on the last one, as I’m just going to show you what they say and let you, the reader here, figure out how I’ve already rebutted it.

Click to read—or hear, as there’s a link to a podcast.:

Here are some of their assertions. Now imagine that you were Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus). How would you respond?

Quotes are indented; I may be forced by the laws of physics in making a few remarks:


. . . These arguments have, of course, popped up in the legal system where the famous Darwin-defending lawyer, Clarence Darrow, the famous case back in the 1920s of the two boys who killed somebody just for fun. He argued in court that, “Hey, you can’t blame these boys for this sport killing that they undertook. They were just acting upon what their genes, and maybe their environment, forced them to do.” And he really argued that there is no free will. … Does Jerry Coyne have the right to condemn the Nazis if he denies free will?

Michael Egnor: The fact that Coyne’s denial of free will leaves him incapable of coherently accusing the Nazis of moral evil is enough to discard his denial of free will. That is, it is such a bizarre viewpoint that the Holocaust was not a moral evil — because there are no moral evils — that it really puts the denial of free will almost into a category of delusion.

Darrow wasn’t trying to free Leopold and Loeb: they had already pleaded guilty. He was trying to spare them the death penalty. But yes, Darrow was a “determinist”. But there are a gazillion reasons why a determinist like me would condemn the Nazis. And of course I do.

Michael Egnor: The fact is, we all know that it was horrendously evil. We all know that evil things really happen and that they really are evil. And if there is real evil, just as if there’s real good, then free will must exist. Because if we’re all just determined chemical bags, meat robots, there is no good or evil — we’re simply acting out our chemistry.

And of course, Coyne’s response to this has been that, although he believes that things such as the Holocaust were not morally evil — because there is no such thing as moral evil — he certainly believes that they weren’t… salubrious, is the term he uses. Which means that they didn’t work for the common good and should be condemned on that basis.

If you consider “morality” to be a subjective set of guidelines about what things are good and bad for society or individuals, as I do, then yes, the Nazis were immoral. However, I prefer to avoid the term “moral responsibility”, which presumes, as Luskin and Egnor believe, that people always have a choice between acting morally or immorally at any given moment. They don’t. I prefer the word “responsibility,” which means “the person did it; caused it to happen.” And you can be responsible in ways that mandate punishment, including imprisonment. “Moral responsibility” adds nothing to “responsibility” construed in this way.

Casey Luskin: I think that the Nazis probably believed that what they were doing was for the “common good.” So how do you define common good? On what basis do you condemn something if somebody believes what they’re doing is for the common good?

Of course, Dr. Egnor, all of this flows out of Jerry Coyne’s scientism. If you can’t scientifically prove that something is good or evil, then scientism dictates he can’t condemn it as good or evil. Obviously we have ways of determining whether things are good or evil that go beyond science. Jerry Coyne has to reject those ways of knowing because of his scientism.

Well, morality is a rather subjective set of beliefs, but one can use empirical evidence to bear on some questions of morality, depending on which version you adhere to. If you’re a consequentialist, as I am, then one might argue that the death penalty is “immoral” because it has net bad consequences compared to good ones. And I’m pretty sure that one could show that society (and its constituents) would be better off if murder remained illegal and was considered immoral (there are plenty of downsides and almost no upsides). But of course some people use other criteria besides utilitarian ones, like the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” or even the Divine Command theory. In most cases, it is preference that dictates what people see as moral or immoral, and preferences differ. And these preferences—your basis for morality—cannot be subject to scientific test.

Egnor and Luskin, of course, think that good and evil are things that comport with what God wants or does not want. And if they cannot prove there’s a God, which they can’t, then they’re on even shakier ground than I!

One more before I grow ill:

Michael Egnor: Well, one of the points about Coyne’s denial of free will that I find in some ways the most frightening is that Coyne has suggested in several of his posts that, because he believes that there is no actual free will, we should change our approach to criminal justice — so that the approach to criminal justice does not entail retribution, but instead entails correction. That basically sort of like training animals. You’d want to train people to do better.
Of course, how one could define “better” in a world with no moral good or evil is a question Coyne doesn’t address.

But what is genuinely frightening about applying Coyne’s determinism and denial of free will to our society is that the most important consequence of the denial of free will is not that there therefore is no guilt. The most important consequence is that there is no innocence. It encourages, an approach to law enforcement that deals with people based on predictions of what they might do.

We ARE animals, and can be influenced by environmental circumstances—like jail. Sadly, our criminal justice system is, by and large, not set up to reform people, but to punish them. It’s also set up to deter others and to keep bad people out of circulation. And yes, there is “guilt”: it means “you did something deemed a crime.”

What a pair of morons! It’s even worse, though, if they knew how I’d respond to these things but have distorted my views to convince people that a secular Jewish evolutionist is, yes, EVIL.

I see I’ve offered some rebuttal after all!  But I couldn’t help it: it’s those damn laws of physics!


28 thoughts on “Attack of the Lilliputians: Casey Luskin and Michael Egnor put misleading words and sentiments about free will in my mouth

  1. Yeah. As if any of us here writing think it’s good that these atrocities happen because there’s no free will.


  2. This is timely insight from a 1959 interview with the philosopher Bertrand Russell about what he would say to a distant future generation of humans:

    “I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

    The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

          1. Yes Face to Face was a famous BBC show running from 1959 to 1962, with many notable interviewees, all in the same style. The Evelyn Waugh and Tony Hancock ones are particularly well known to me from clips of the shows.

  3. Sorry to post so much, but the Sam Harris-Ricky Gervais discussion about bears comes to mind.

    I can’t do it justice – gotta find it in the Making Sense area.

  4. Speaking as a compatibilist:

    If you consider “morality” to be a subjective set of guidelines about what things are good and bad for society or individuals, as I do, […] “Moral responsibility” adds nothing to “responsibility” construed in this way.

    “Moral” responsibility adds to “responsibility” exactly what the above says it does, that it concerns behaviour that is good or bad for society, and thus is something about which others can legitimately take an interest.

    Thus, you are “responsible” for what shirt you are wearing or what dish you order for dinner, but are “morally” responsible if you drink-drive or mistreat your children.

    If one is going to naturalise the concept of morality (which we indeed should) why not go the whole hog and naturalise it?

  5. “Sadly, our criminal justice system is, by and large, not set up to reform people, but to punish them.”

    My personal thought: the concept of “justice”, while it may be a fiction, is a necessary fiction. The principle that punishment should fit the crime, as determined by the amount of harm committed and actually intended (mens rea is a standard of criminal justice), along with other fictions such as equality and the intrinsic worth of individuals, are necessary correctives / preventatives against, among other things, self-considered scientists who would view humanity as something to be manipulated for the “greater good” rather than respected as individuals. An idea may be useful, even necessary, even though it is based on a fiction. My favorite go-to example is the square root of -1. 🙂

    I personally have no difficulty reconciling the idea that people make choices which play a causal role in their actions, choices informed by the moral teachings of the ages and the likelihood of being justly punished if wrong choices are made, and the idea that choices themselves have their own causal history, and that ultimately, when the universe winds down, there was only ever just one way that everything, from bosons to choices and consequences, could have turned out.

  6. I think these persons are damn rude, not least in presuming what PCC(E) considers to be the case, and in distorting his views so that they can turn them into strawmen. If they believe they have such a strong argument, why haven’t they got the cojones to come over here and put it to our host direct? I think we know the answer to that.

    1. How *would* someone come here and engage with the host? AFAIK the only way is to voice their stupidity elsewhere, then if the host thinks it worthwhile, he brings their comments here for further (*ahem*) analysis…

      1. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional posts in the “A creationist writes in…” series.
        Utterly hilarious, most of them. but I don’t think that was their author’s intention.

  7. *If* there is a God who allows Free Will, then if someone does evil things to good people God is an accessory to evil acts.

    So an accused murderer could argue that ‘God allowed me to do it’.

    1. Precisely

      Consider also, the case of sacrifice we read in the Hili every year : the three church leaders on the boat who perished at sea in order that others in their charge could live. (What is that story? I can’t find it yet)

      If god did that, but not the two thrill killers’ actions, how can it make sense? It does not.

      It does make sense when we posit no free will but laws of physics. None of them had a choice.

      We have no need of the hypothesis which is free will.

    2. I think you’re getting close to why they keep attacking Jerry on this issue. You see the Christian God they don’t believe in – not at all: it’s intelligent design, don’t you know? – is reputed to have granted free will to his creations, and thus it exists and is Good. And Thou Shalt Not Argue With Gods In Whom You Have No Belief!

  8. If libertarian freewill is true (in accord with reality) people choose their character and we can easily justify punishing wrongdoers simply because they deserved to be punished.

    However, we (at least I did) observe that evil is in the eye of the beholder; this means there is no sign of objective good or bad. Nobody has ever observed it.

    When we say that humans are moral animals we mean they have the believe that good and bad are real and that these beliefs justify us to punish people even if it *cannot be justified* with forward looking utilitarian or consequentialist considerations.

    There are also people that believe that it’s good to let other humans believe that good and bad exists, or that we should act as if good and bad exist. This is quite an dishonest position.

    I personally do not take any of these positions because it doesn’t matter; at decision-time we always act the way we want and there is no escape from that. If we don’t like something at a particular moment it is bad, but if we like it, it is good. And that’s exactly what we objectively observe.

  9. ” Now imagine that you were Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus). How would you respond?”

    What really frustrates Egnor is that you are a materialist: he can’t accept materialism but neither can he refute it. So instead the goes after what is in fact a logical necessity of materialism—namely, denial of free will. I don’t happen to be a materialist, but even I find his line of argument both disingenuous and rude.

  10. And yes, there is “guilt”: it means “you did something deemed a crime.”

    We also think of “guilt” in the sense of “responsibility” for doing something wrong, even in transgressions that aren’t strictly crimes, but which we feel were wrong actions. For instance if we realize we’ve been responsible for treating someone badly.

    Most people think it makes sense to feel that way: to feel guilty, in the sense of bad about and responsible for any misdeed we’ve done.

    In the deterministic/anti-free will context, I’m wondering, does this make sense?

    Should we *feel* guilty, that is feel bad about being *responsible* for having done that wrong?

    Or do we absolve ourselves of self recrimination or of feeling bad about our wrong actions on the grounds “we couldn’t have done otherwise?”

    Any answer of course, given determinism, has implications for our attitude for any action we are currently contemplating, good or bad.

    1. Yes, you can certainly make up reasons why a sense of guilt for transgressing ancient social norms might have been instilled by natural selection, or at least urged upon the guilty culturally. For the former you might gain by not repeating bad acts, for the latter people observe that people who feel guilty tend to improve the quality of the social group.

      So it makes sense, but it’s still just a story. It certainly does not contradict determinism or the evolution of guilt feelings as an important aspect of human behavior.

  11. Thanks Jerry. I can see that point of view.

    To be clear, I was interested mostly in the normative aspect, being careful that I avoid a naturalistic fallacy.

    Not so much “does it makes sense that I would feel bad for having done wrong” (Descriptive: We can tell a story about how that might have evolved).


    Does it makes sense THAT I SHOULD feel bad if I’ve done something wrong. (Prescriptive, what we ought to do in terms of having good reasons to do it).

    If I read you correctly, there could be something of a consequentialist, normative case to feeling bad about our transgressions, based on the good consequences it would have for the social group.

    Which is interesting: I had recently listened to Sam Harris explaining why accepting that we don’t have Free Will has various salutary effects, one of which is absolving oneself of self recrimination and feeling guilty/bad for making past bad choices (presumably including mistreating someone we love etc). On the basis of realizing “we couldn’t really have done otherwise.”

    I don’t know how, from Sam’s position above, this might fit with the reasons we in fact have (e.g. ones you just suggested) for feeling guilty/bad about such past choices. After all, if accepting “I couldn’t have done otherwise” is a reason to have more equanimity and less self recrimination about previous transgressions, it would apply to the next determined choice we are about to make. “Sure what I’m about to do may hurt the person I love, but I can’t do otherwise (and that’s what I’m going to tell myself afterward), so at least I don’t have to feel bad or guilty when contemplating making this choice.”

  12. [ can’t resist – must comment again ]

    A problem-solving view helps see this clearly, I think :

    Which problem is solved by the justice system? Harm caused by dangerous individuals. We identify and isolate harmful members of society so they do not cause more harm. Our modern society attempts to commensurately assist those who were harmed.

    Which problem is being attempted to be solved by the specimens on display above?

    The problem of evil.

    It is a major feature of the ancient mythology which is the Abrahamic religions, Christianity at least. We all know the stories which twist snd contort the thought of the victims of that religion.

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