For reasons I don’t fully understand, Michael Egnor—a pediatric surgeon in New York and an advocate of Intelligent Design (he’s a senior fellow at the ID Discovery Institute)—is obsessed with me, combing my posts regularly to find instances of what he thinks is hypocrisy. (Google “Michael Egnor Jerry Coyne” for a panoply of obsessiveness.) Perhaps it’s because in 2009 I went after an article he wrote in Forbes, calling him out for his egnorance of evolution. (His article, replete with ID boilerplate, can be seen here.)
Here are two paragraphs from my critique:
There are no observations in nature that refute Darwinism, but there are plenty that refute Egnor’s creationist alternative. How does he explain the persistence of “dead genes” in species (like our own broken one for making vitamin C)–genes that were functional in our ancestors? What explains those annoying hominin fossils that span the gap from early apelike creatures to modern humans? Why do human fetuses produce a coat of hair after six months in the womb, and then shed it before birth? Why didn’t the creator stock oceanic islands with mammals, reptiles and amphibians? Why did He give us vestigial ear muscles that have no function? Why do whales occasionally sprout hind legs? Did God design all creatures to fool us into thinking that they evolved?
The good news is that Egnor is just one benighted physician. Far more disturbing is Forbes’ ham-handed policy of “balancing” the views of evolutionists by giving a say to Egnor and four other creationists. (Their articles, found here, are at least as misleading as Egnor’s.) Perhaps Forbes sees Darwinism as “controversial.” But it’s not, at least not in a scientific sense. Scientifically, evolution is a settled issue–a fact.
I don’t know if Egnor is holding a grudge after 14 years, or is simply evincing an obsession with someone who opposes his dumb intelligent-design ideas. Regardless, he’s gone after me once again. As is often the case, the subject is my belief in determinism, which he sees at odds with what I write. You can read his lubrications in the new article below on the ID site Evolution News, published by the Discovery Institute. (It does not allow comments.) Click below to read:
Egnor has two complaints about things I’ve said, but in both cases I never said what he claims! In fact, I’ve said the opposite. The topic is my denunciation of Hamas’s butchery of Israelis.
His first wrong claim is that I think morality is objective, and that there can be no “objective moral law” without God, whose existence I reject. Egnor:
Which brings me to the Hamas atrocity. I am perplexed by Coyne’s view that Hamas culpably violated objective moral law, considering Coyne’s metaphysical commitment to atheism, determinism, and free will denial. After all, if there is no God, there is no source for objective moral law at all. Nature is a collection of facts; without God nature has no overarching values, and the only values on tap are the separate values of individual human beings. Without God, value judgments are merely individual human opinions, akin to individual preferences for flavors of ice cream. There is no factual basis to prefer Coyne’s value judgments to Hamas’ value judgments — values like “don’t kill innocent people” are not facts of nature. But Coyne clearly (and rightly) holds Hamas to the moral responsibility not to kill innocents. If there is no God, from where does Coyne get this objective moral law that he invokes? Who is Coyne to judge?
Clearly Dr. Egnor has not done his research, as I’ve repeatedly argued that morality is subjective, not objective. For one example, see my 2013 article on this site, “Why there is no objective morality.” Here’s another of mine from 2021, “The absence of objective morality.” I’m not going to repeat my arguments here, as they’re in these two articles. Suffice it to say that Egnor didn’t even Google “Jerry Coyne objective morality”, which would have yielded those sites in two minutes. The conclusion: Egnor is making up stuff about my beliefs in a failed attempt to show that I’m self-contradictory and hypocritical.
As for morality, yes, I do believe that actions are moral or immoral, but that’s according to one’s preferred code of morality, not to the dictates of a god. “Morality” is a codified view of what one thinks is right and wrong. I happen to be largely a consequentialist, judging things as “right or wrong” based on their overall effect on well being, So yes, I think that, at bottom, morality reflects preference: preference for what kind of society you want and what behaviors are good or bad. (Unlike Sam Harris, though, I don’t think this consequentialism is objective due to different people’s weighing of consequences.) By these lights, Hamas’s butchery is wrong and immoral.
His second false and made-up claim is that I hold people morally responsible for their actions.
In Coyne’s view, Hamas and (Raoul) Wallenberg are moral equals — they must be moral equals, if determinism is true. How can Hamas be held morally culpable, and Wallenberg lauded, when both lack free will and both are just involuntarily running the primordial determinist program of the universe?
I can’t see how Coyne as a determinist, an atheist, and a free will denier can hold Hamas morally responsible for their atrocities, any more than he could hold the wind morally responsible for deaths in a tornado. Perhaps Coyne will comment on the glaring cognitive dissonance in his condemnation of the murder of innocents and his embrace of a metaphysical perspective that reduces such murder to a value-free maelstrom of atoms.
Again, Dr. Egnor hasn’t done his homework. While I do believe that people have “morality” and views that involve morality, I have never maintained that someone can be held “morally responsible” for their actions. Why? Because the phrase “morally responsible” implies that you’ve done something that you could have chosen not to do. And, as a hard determinist (viz. Robert Sapolsky), I don’t believe people can make such choices. I thus feel that people are responsible for their acts, but not morally responsible. All you have to do to see these views is Google “Coyne morally responsible” and you’ll find article like this one and this one. In the second, I say this (bolding is mine):
I responded to Burgis’s post on this site, making four points in my reply (each point is discussed in more detail in my piece):
1.) You are always acting under compulsion.
2.) This does not mean that external circumstances surrounding an action should not be taken into consideration.
3.) The concept of “moral responsibility” is outmoded; we should simply retain the idea of “responsibility” since whether you are irresponsible or morally irresponsible are both results of the laws of physics.
4.) The concept of “moral responsibility” is injurious because it underlies a vindictive and retributive view of punishment.
So you can be responsible for a murder, but never morally responsible, for that implies you could have refrained from murder. I hasten to add that this notion of “responsibility” does not enable us to escape punishment, for determinists like Sapolsky and me think that if a bad actor does an injurious thing, he can be punished for several reasons: to keep a bad actor away from others, to deter that actor and others from doing similar bad acts, and to help reform that bad actor. Determinism does not lead to a world in which nobody gets punished, for even in a deterministic world people do bad things and it’s necessary, for society’s well being, to punish them.
I have to recount a tale from 2018, which I posted about here. In that year, after the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference, Dan Dennett and I drove back from Stockbridge to Boston, just the two of us in his car. We disagreed about moral responsibility, with Dennett, a compatibilist, seeing it as a meaningful concept, while I argued the position I give above. The argument lasted nonstop for nearly three hours, and here’s what I wrote about it:
For me the epic bit [of the conference] was my battle with Daniel Dennett over free will (with the Great Man shamelessly insisting that he go first after we’d agreed otherwise), a battle that continued during the entire three-hour post-meeting drive from Stockbridge to Boston (remember the song with that phrase in it?). Dan, who can be rather forceful, insisted that a). compatibilism was good and b). it gave us true moral responsibility. I’m still proud that I, a puny worm, held out against his stentorian lucubrations, and I remember well the last words Dan said to me when I exited the car in Cambridge: “I’M NOT THROUGH WITH YOU YET!”
And he wasn’t, but he didn’t change my mind.
The upshot: Michael Egnor is a shameless liar who makes up stuff in an obsessive attempt to show that I’m a hypocrite. I hope the evidence above shows that he’s wrong. He’s not just ignorant, in fact, he’s duplicitous. And what’s worse is that he’s duplicitous in the name of his God, a god who surely thinks that Egnor is objectively wrong and morally responsible for lying.
By the way, last night I read the first 30 pages of Robert Sapolsky’s new book on determinism and it’s superb. At the beginning he clearly lays out his position and what he’s opposing (including compatibilism). And his writing style is engaging and at times funny. All readers must read this book, whether or not you’re a determinist or a free-willy.