“Objective moral law”? Once again Discovery Institute’s Michael Egnor knowingly misrepresents me about determinism and its consequences

October 25, 2023 • 9:45 am

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.

Robert Sapolsky’s new book on determinism

September 25, 2023 • 1:20 pm

Robert Sapolsky, a biological polymath who’s written several best-selling books, pointed out in earlier ones (like Behave) that he was a hard determinist, a view he reinforced on a Sci. Am. podcast—one of their rare positive contributions. Now, as I mentioned in February, his new book, totally about determinism, is about to come out—on October 17. You can order it by clicking on the screenshot below. It ain’t cheap at $31.50 for the hardcover, but I may have to dig down deep to get it–or order it from the library.

Here’s the Amazon summary, which implies that Sapolsky isn’t buying any of the compatibilism bullpucky:

Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together.By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

As I wrote in February based on this summary:

It’s clear from the summary that the “free will” Sapolsky’s attacking is dualistic or libertarian free will (“some separate self telling our biology what to do”). And although some readers think that kind of free will is passé, that everyone already rejects it, that’s wrong. I suspect those who say such things are compatibilists who don’t get out much.  According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility. As I’ve long argued, yes, the concept of “moral” responsibility loses meaning in a naturalistic universe, but the concept of responsibility  (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment—although non-retributive punishment.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)

. . . So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.

The good news is that now when someone wants to understand determinism, I can just shut up and say, “Read Sapolsky’s book,” for I see no divergence between his views and mine (I’d also add Free Will by Sam Harris.) In the end—and I’ll get in trouble for this—I think compatibilists are semantic grifters. They’re really all determinists who want to find some way to convince people that they have a form of free will, even though they couldn’t have behaved other than how they did. This is the “little people’s” argument, not for religion but for philosophy. But in the end it’s the same: “People need religion/the notion of free will because without it, society could not flourish.” That, of course, is bogus. As long as we feel we make choices, even if intellectually we know we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, society will go on.  After all, I’m a hard determinist and yet I’m still alive, getting out of bed each morning. I don’t know what I’ll pick when I go to a restaurant, even though I know it’s determined right before I look at the menu.

Reader Tom Clark wrote a positive review of Sapolsky’s book on the Naturalism site. Click below to read it.

I’ll give just two of Clark’s quotes:

If free will is widely conceived as being opposed to determinism[1], it isn’t surprising that the latter is seen as a threat to responsibility, meaning, creativity, rationality, and other desiderata tied to our core notion of agency. If we’re fully caused to be who we are and do what we do, then it seems we’re merely biological robots, acting out a pre-ordained script; we don’t make real choices for which we might be praised or blamed.

Could you have done otherwise?

This is why Robert Sapolsky’s book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will(link is external), is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers (although it will do so very entertainingly, see below). Following up on his earlier work Behave(link is external), Sapolsky, a behavioral biologist, is intent on making it clear to anyone who will listen that there is no escaping determinism if we’re serious about understanding ourselves: understanding how we got to be the exact persons we are and why our intentions and choices arise as they do. Moreover, as he takes pains to point out, indeterminism or randomness doesn’t help the cause of agency. After all, as deciders we want to determine our choices, not have them be subject to factors we don’t control. Strangely enough, therefore, determinism, construed commonsensically as the existence of reliable causal, and more broadly, explanatory connections between our desires, decisions, actions, and their effects on the world, seems a necessary condition of genuine agenthood. We really make choices, just not undetermined or arbitrary ones.

Well, the last sentence is a bit grifty given that “make choices” means, to most people, “we could have made other choices.” But I won’t quibble too much. The best part is that, according to Clark, Sapolsky has no truck with compatibilism:

The fight with compatibilists isn’t about determinism; compatibilists agree that we and our choices are in principle explicable by various determinants, not the causa sui. It’s rather about the relative importance assigned to determinism and its implications for moral responsibility and other beliefs, attitudes, and social practices informed by our conception of agency. Sapolsky argues that compatibilists tend to ignore the causal story behind an individual in order to fix our attention on agents and their capacities for rationality and reasons-responsiveness, capacities that compatibilists argue justify holding each other morally responsible.[8] Most of us are capable in these respects to varying degrees, but by downplaying determinism and the causal story, what Sapolsky calls taking the ahistorical stance, compatibilists in effect block access to the psychological and practical benefits of putting determinism front and center: increased compassion and more attention paid to the conditions that thwart human flourishing. Due to factors beyond our control too many of us end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to health, education, social skills, and employability. Sapolsky is especially critical of compatibilist Daniel Dennett, who has claimed that “luck averages out in the long run”. He responds in characteristically plain-spoken style:

No it doesn’t. Suppose you’re born a crack baby. In order to counterbalance this bad luck, does society rush in to ensure that you’ll be raised in relative affluence and with various therapies to overcome your neurodevelopmental problems? No, you are overwhelmingly likely to be born into poverty and stay there. Well then, says society, at least let’s make sure your mother is loving, is stable, has lots of free time to nurture you with books and museum visits. Yeah, right; as we know your mother is likely to be drowning in the pathological consequences of her own miserable luck in life, with a good chance of leaving you neglected, abused, shuttled through foster homes. Well, does society at least mobilize then to counterbalance that additional bad luck, ensuring you live in a safe neighborhood with excellent schools? Nope, your neighborhood is likely to be gang-riddled and your school underfunded.

In arguing against compatibilists, Sapolsky engages with the philosophical literature, citing skeptics about free will and moral responsibility such as Neil Levy, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, and Sam Harris (see references below). Such backup suggests he is not completely crazy to think that a robust appreciation of determinism, and therefore the sheer contingency of our formative circumstances, should force reconsideration of our conceptions of credit, blame, reward, and punishment.

Clark’s final sentence:

[Sapolsky’s] persistence in seeing Determined to completion – a prodigious undertaking – is much to be congratulated, although he would disavow deserving any such praise. Even if he’s right about that, we’re still lucky to have him.

YES!  But read the rest for yourself. This is a book we can all benefit from (even those miscreants who accept libertarian free will or compatibilism), and I’m glad I can point to a respected polymath who makes an argument I agree with, but written much better than I’d be able to.

What I’d love to see: a debate about compatibilism between Dennett and Sapolsky.

Once again we’re told we have free will, and once again it makes no sense.

December 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

The fact that articles keep coming out assuring us that we do have free will, yet each assurance is based on a different premise, tells us that the philosophical debate will never end. Yet I consider it already ended by science: we do not have libertarian free will because our thoughts and our actions are decided by the laws of physics and not by some numinous “will” that interacts with matter in ways that physicist Sean Carroll has said are impossible. Ergo the appearance of compatibilists, who admit that yes, determinism rules, and at any one moment we can behave only one way—a way determined by physical law—but nevertheless we have other kinds of free will compatible with determinism.

That, of course, won’t satisfy the majority of people who do believe in libertarian you-can-do-otherwise free will, among these the many religionists whose faith absolutely depends on our being able to choose our path of life and our savior, and your salvation depends on making the right choice (Calvinists and their analogues are an exception). Compatibilists, when they tell us that nobody really believes in libertarian free will, are simply wrong: surveys show otherwise, and there are all those believers . . .

At any rate, Oliver Waters, writing at Medium, assures us that we do have a form of libertarian free will—or so it seems. I say “seems” because he presents an argument based on “critical rationalism” that makes no sense to me. I’ll criticize it a bit, but I can sense some flak coming of this type: “You need to read many volumes about critical rationalism before you can criticize my argument.” Sorry, but I won’t, for if an author can’t give a sensible argument in a reasonably long piece, it’s hopeless.

Click to read:

I can’t find out much about Oliver Waters save his Medium biography, which says this: “Philosophy, psychology, economics and politics. Tweets at @olliewaters.” But that doesn’t matter, for it’s his arguments for free will that are at issue.

Right off the bat Waters defines free will in a wonky way—one I disagree with. It implies—and this is fleshed out in the rest of the article—that he believe that determinism is not mandating our decisions: that there are “real choices” independent of the laws of physics, and not just the fundamentally indeterminate bits like quantum mechanics, either. No, we can really make choices, choices constrained by physics, but not determined by them. But I digress. Here’s how Waters defines “free will”:

Roughly speaking, ‘free will’ denotes our capacity to think in ways that no other known creature can. We alone are capable of considering reasons (as you are doing right now) rather than merely reacting to the world via genetically fixed mechanisms. As philosopher J.T Ismael phrases it, we humans enjoy ‘metacognitive awareness’ and an ‘extended autobiographical self’. We are therefore able to consciously imagine future possibilities and play a role in causing which become our reality.

No, what he means is that humans are the only species that can say and articulate that they have reasons.  In fact, our “reasons” are simply the weights that our neural computer programs give to various environmental and endogenous inputs before they spit out a decision. Animals do the same thing: they take in inputs, run them through the brains, and decide whether to flee, to pursue a prey, to mate with a member of the opposite sex, and so on. They have reasons, though they can’t articulate them. When a crow caching food sees other crows watching, and then digs up the food and reburies it elsewhere, does it not have a “reason”: other crows could steal their food. Does it realize that? Well, we don’t know, but it looks exactly like the reasons we humans adduce for our actions.

Or a mallard hen might take a male as a mate because he has particularly bright feathers. Is that not a “reason” she chose? Maybe she can’t ponder it, but so what? Our ponderings are merely post facto rationales for adaptive brain programs instilled in us by millions of years of natural selection. It’s the program that decides, and we can pretend that we decided independent of our determined outputs.  No, “considering reasons” is, to me, a ludicrous definition of free will, and certainly not one necessarily limited to humans. (Do we really know what goes through the mind of an ape or a fox when it does something?)

In addition, just because we say we have reasons does not mean that those reasons are the real impetus behind what we do, or are reasons that could, at the time, be contradicted by different reasons. We can consider alternatives (or rather, our brains can “weigh” them by letting the dominant pathway “win”), but the one we wind up doing or thinking is not “free” in the sense that one could at the time use different reasons to arrive at a different output.

Enough. Waters then defines “critical rationalism” in a way that comports with his definition of free will, but also in a way that doesn’t at all distinguish it from the weights that an evolved and plastic system of neurons gives to different inputs before spitting out an output: a “decision”, a behavior, a thought, or a statement:

The core of critical rationalism is that all knowledge progresses via a process of ‘conjecture and refutation’. Thinking agents face problems, which are conflicts among their existing ideas, and seek to resolve these problems by detecting and eliminating cognitive errors. Overcoming these errors requires creatively generating new, better ideas.

As such, critical rationalism rejects ‘empiricism’, the notion that we derive our knowledge from sensory information. Empiricism depends on induction, the notion that learning about reality is akin to ‘curve fitting’ from given data points, which we can then extrapolate to predict the future or postdict the past. Popper rejected the principle of induction as logically invalid. We cannot assume the future will be like the past: instead we must conjecture testable explanatory theories about how reality works.

The second paragraph is arrant nonsense, because of course the brain takes in all kinds of sensory information before it executes its programs. When you see a lion coming, you run. When you see it’s raining, you put up an umbrella. Much of evolution, in fact, like bird migration, is based on the assumption that the future will be like the past. But lt us forget the nonsense about not getting information from the environment and concentrate on the first paragraph.

That, too, seems absolutely the same as “running a brain program evolved to increase your fitness” (brain programs can of course be fooled, as with optical illusions, plastic surgery, and so on). The “resolution” is not something that your “will” does independently of the laws of physics; it’s something that your brain does according to the laws of physics and the natural selection—also operating according to the laws of physics—that has molded our brain programs to buttress our survival and reproduction.  While “creatively generating new, better ideas” sounds like we are free to generate those ideas, we’re not. It’s your brain working things out according to the laws of physics.  So far I haven’t seen anything about Waters’s will that is free. What I see is a post facto description of brain programs treated as if they instantiated libertarian free will.

Waters then makes the common mistake of saying that the laws of physics can’t explain everything because it’s not the level of description we use when giving reasons.  We say, “The U.S. and U.K. won World War II because they had bigger populations and better factories—and developed the atomic bomb.” And yes, that’s true, but those underlying reasons themselves are the result of the laws of physics, and must be compatible with the laws of physics. Only a moron would try to explain why we won the war on the basis of molecules. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether it was inevitable that we won the war because the laws of physics interacted to make that result happen.

Here’s Waters’s example in which the “wrong level of explanation” is used to support libertarian free will and refute determinism:

Notice that this conception of explanation is ‘scale-invariant’ in that it doesn’t arbitrarily privilege low-level explanations over high-level ones, or concrete phenomena over abstractions. For instance, explaining Brexit via the movement of atoms according to the physical laws of motion is clearly a bad idea. This is because the best explanations for Brexit must invoke ‘emergent’ phenomena like ‘nationalism’ and ‘democracy’ , which are consistent with many different atomic arrangements.

One way to think about this is to ask whether Brexit would have occurred differently if God went back and messed with the atoms in Nigel Farage’s tea every morning. It turns out that the precise locations and momentums of these atoms didn’t matter at all in influencing the outcome. Indeed, you can say the same thing about the atoms in his brain. After all, our brains only work as they do because the chaotic motion of their constituent atoms are locked into groups of molecules, cells, and circuits. These processes allow for coherent thoughts about the future of Britain to persist long enough to communicate with other brains.

In short, micro-physical fluctuations didn’t cause Brexit. Ideas did. ‘Physical reductionists’ rule out such higher-level causes by fiat, and so must deny this reality, but critical rationalists need not. They can be perfectly comfortable with the notion that many of our actions are truly caused by our consciously held ideas, not by neuronal firings to which we’re completely oblivious.

But what are “ideas” except the output of neurons, which themselves are chemical and physical entities that emit electrical signals. You can say the “cause” is those signals, which gave rise to the ideas, or the “cause” is a misguided campaign by Brexiteers, but the latter comes down to the former. The last sentence about “critical rationalists” is just a flat assertion without evidence. Ideas are patterns of neuronal firings that come to consciousness, and any idea corresponds to one or more patterns of neuronal firings.

This is where Waters goes astray when asserting that determinism isn’t so great because there are many different underlying molecular events that could give rise to the same large-scale outcome—like Brexit. It may indeed be true that changing the molecules in Nigel Farage’s tea doesn’t affect his views on Brexit, but that’s because many different molecular configurations and physical events might map onto the same macro result.  I may drive to the grocery store via Cottage Grove, or perhaps via 59th Street, but the groceries I buy will be the same.

Waters’s closing is completely confusing to me, for he seems to accept determinism and libertarian free will at the same time:

We need not think about the fundamental laws of physics as rails directing reality along a rigid trajectory. Rather, we can think of them as constraints on what kinds of physical transformations are possible and impossible. This richer notion of physical explanation is currently being developed by Deutsch and Chiara Marletto in the project of ‘Constructor Theory’.

Famous ‘free will sceptics’ like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are rightly worried about ditching the concept of physical determinism. In their view, the only alternative is a mysticism allowing for all kinds of silly miracles and supernatural beings. But such concerns are not warranted under the ‘constructor theoretic’ conception. According to this, we still live in a universe governed by timeless, fixed laws — it’s just that these laws do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold.

The physical laws that make it possible for us to be conscious and creative human beings, making real choices about what will happen next, are the very same laws that rule out Jesus spontaneously converting water into wine, or rising from the dead.

Given this alternative way of thinking about fundamental physics, we don’t need to accept the notion that the universe evolves according to some predetermined plan, set in stone from the beginning of time. Our best theories of physics don’t require it, and our best ethical, psychological, and political theories must reject it.

So if the laws of physics are merely constraints, and decisions can stray outside them, what makes those decisions jump the rails of physics? Waters gives us no clue, but it must be something mystical or non-physical, regardless of his claim that he doesn’t think that. If “the laws of physics do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold,” then what must we add to them to understand how the future will unfold? What is the sweating professor trying to say?

Waters doesn’t clarify. And I’m not sure if even he understands. All I know is that I don’t, and that’s not my fault.

h/t: Jiten

The insanity defense: is it sane? Thoughts from the Leopold and Loeb case.

August 17, 2020 • 10:30 am

I’m reading the book below, which I found in a free book box, about the famous Leopold and Loeb murders of 1924.  The murders took place in Hyde Park/Kenwood, just a few blocks from where I sit. Nathan Leopold (left on the cover below) and Richard Loeb, once University of Chicago students, 19 and 18 respectively, decided to commit the perfect crime—a murder. There was no obvious reason for it except for for their hubris, especially Leopold’s, for he was a fan of Nietzsche and thought he was exempt from ordinary moral strictures. That gave rise to the book’s title. (Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site, and I do recommend the book as a historical page-turner.) They planned the murder for six months, confident that they could kill someone (they planned to abduct a random child from a nearby school) and never get caught.

In May of that year, the pair abducted and brutally murdered 14 year old Bobby Franks, Leopold’s second cousin. They drove his body to Indiana and sequestered it in a railroad culvert. The pair then sent a ransom note to Franks’s family, though the child was already dead.  They probably would have pulled off the crime, too, except that Leopold dropped his glasses near the body, and they had a special frame that had been sold to only three people in Chicago. The cops quickly traced the glasses and zeroed in on the pair, who promptly confessed everything in great detail. And they confessed without ever having talked to a lawyer, which of course is a serious mistake.

Leopold and Loeb’s families were wealthy, and engaged three lawyers to defend them, including Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer in America. (The next year he was the major defense attorney in the Scopes “Monkey Trial”.) Darrow, who also lived near me in Hyde Park, is a hero of mine: dedicated to fighting for the underdog, fiercely smart and eloquent, and an outspoken determinist and atheist.

Left to right: Loeb, Darrow, and Leopold. Source.

The boys changed their plea from “not guilty” to “guilty”, therefore giving up a jury trial as well as the possibility of a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity”. The only courtroom proceedings, then, were the lawyers’ arguments before the judge to determine what sentence the boys got (hanging, life without parole, or 14 years or more in prison).

Even Darrow admitted that the boys should be in jail until they died, but argued fiercely before the judge that the boys had no choice but to commit the crime—they were conditioned by their genes and environment to murder Bobby Franks. Darrow considered this mitigation, and was arguing for a prison sentence rather than hanging. Much of the book is devoted to the testimony of neurologists and psychologists who argued whether or not the boys were mentally ill, even though they couldn’t plead insanity. Darrow argued that both had mental disorders, and these played a major role in the crime.

In his summation and plea that the judge impose prison rather than the noose, Darrow made a famous twelve-hour argument, some of which you can read here. It was heavily deterministic, to wit:

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.

. . . Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood. Mr. Savage, with the immaturity of youth and inexperience, says that if we hang them there will be no more killing. This world has been one long slaughterhouse from the beginning until today, and killing goes on and on and on, and will forever. Why not read something, why not study something, why not think instead of blindly shouting for death?

Darrow won. To everyone’s surprise, the judge gave them both life sentences. In 1936, Loeb was murdered in prison with a razor by a fellow inmate who claimed that Loeb made homosexual advances (Leopold and Loeb had a homosexual relationship). Leopold was actually paroled in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, and died in 1971 at the age of 66.

I’ve digressed, but the story is a fascinating one, seen at the time as the crime of the century, with worldwide interest and publicity. Thousands of onlookers tried to rush the Chicago courtroom to hear Darrow’s summation, and finally had to be beaten back by the police.

When reading the book, I discovered that the standard for “insanity” at the time, which if proven by the defense would get you a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict (and likely a shortish stint in an asylum) was that the defendant did not understand that his conduct was criminal. That is, he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong (in the law).

That is in fact still the law in Illinois: here’s from the criminal code of our state in 2012:

Darrow argued that although Leopold and Loeb were not “insane” by these standards (he knew that such a plea wouldn’t fly), they were nevertheless suffering from mental illness, and it is on this issue that his speech centered.

While thinking it over, I realized, as I’ve said here before, that understanding that your crime was against the law is a lousy criterion for “insanity” mitigation in these cases. That’s because, as a determinist, I think that to some extent everyone who commits a crime is “insane” in the sense that they could not help themselves. As for Illinois’s insanity defense,  there may be those, including some serial killers, who know that their deeds are criminal and illegal, but are under such delusions or compulsions that they cannot help themselves, even though they know about conventional and legal morality.

Is “a knowledge of criminality”, then, to be the line that divides a gentler, more rehabilitative punishment from one that throws you into jail with other criminals, a dreadful fate if you’ve committed a capital offense? I can’t see why.  Why is “mental illness that blinds you to criminality” so different from “mental illness that compels you to do murder, even though you know it’s wrong?”  In fact, as a determinist, I don’t think that the criminal, at the moment of the crime (and oftentimes before, as with Leopold and Loeb) could have chosen to behave differently. Regardless of your views on punishment, if you agree with me—and I think all science-minded people must)—then you have to take determinism into account when weighing punishments.

My own view, which I’ve expounded here over and over again, is that even “hard” determinism mandates punishment for three reasons: to keep a dangerous person out of society (sequestration), to rehabilitate them if possible (so that sequestration can end), and to deter others (deterrence). But none of this justifies any punishment, like the prosecutor in the Leopold/Loeb case argued repeatedly, based on the fact that the criminal made the wrong choice. (The State’s Attorney repeatedly argued for the death penalty because Leopold and Loeb, not being insane, could have realized the criminality of their act and refrained from it.)

And although both Darrow and I are determinists, he went even further than I, arguing that prisons were superfluous. But perhaps we do agree on this: “prison” shouldn’t be an exercise in horror, but a removal from society (which is punishment itself and a deterrent), combined with whatever therapy necessary to ensure that the criminal can be returned to society. If there is no such therapy, then sequestration for life is mandated. In Norway, you’re examined for rehabilitation every five years, and if you’re judged un-rehabilitated, you stay in jail for another five years. But Norwegian prisons are far less brutal than American ones.

In other words, I don’t like the insanity defense, which offers true rehabilitation only to those deemed “insane”.  My view of criminal trials is that there should be two phases:

A. Was the criminal “responsible” for the deed? That is, did he do the act, period? That can be decided by a jury.

B. What is the best way to treat a convicted criminal in light of the three rationales for punishment given above? What sequestration is an appropriate deterrent? (That is something that can be decided empirically.) Is there a form or rehabilitation that will allow the criminal to return to society and pose no more danger than that of an ordinary citizen? If there is, that therapy should be given. The sentence, then, should be imposed not by judges or juries, but by a panel of experts, legal, medical and psychiatric.

I know that this mandates an extensive reform of the American penal system, and will be costly and will involve trial and error for a long time to come. And many people who are libertarian free-willers, and who think that criminals could have decided otherwise, will oppose reforms that take determinism into account.  But I can’t see any good argument for keeping the present system, which is cruel, retributive, and yields a high rate of recidivism.



Here are Leopold and Loeb’s mugshots taken when they entered prison (Leopold is at the top


Another ludicrous “Thought of the Day” from the BBC: The Bishop of Manchester assures us that we have libertarian free will

May 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve long known that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a religious homily every day at a bit before 8 a.m. I’ve heard it many times, and grumble loudly at each homily. Yesterday, reader Neil called my attention to a particularly galling homily given yesterday by the Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. It especially irked me because it was about free will—his idea that we have it in the libertarian form.

Click on the screenshot below to hear the three-minute dollop of religious blather (I’m not sure whether the BBC leaves these things up, so listen soon):

As you heard, Walker rejects determinism, claiming that if we have no “choice” whether or not to commit an offense (i.e., the future is preordained), then humans beings “have no moral responsibility for what we do.”  He claims that his own Christian faith accepts a God “who has created a universe that maintains a beautiful balance between the predictability of mathematical laws and the liberty and responsibility which comes with free will.”  Now that’s some god!

And to Walker, as with the bulk of the respondents in the Sarkissian et al. study I’ve mentioned several times, you can’t have moral responsibility in a world without libertarian free will.  Of course, without moral responsibility, you can’t be held accountable by God for your sins, sins that may include choosing the wrong savior, or no savior at all. Those who deny that libertarian free will is prevalent must reckon with the vast number of believers who are true libertarians.

(I’ll mention again that I believe people must be held responsible for their acts, but not  “morally responsible” if you construe that, as I do, as meaning “you could have chosen to do a different thing”. But of course I still believe in reward and punishment, though I won’t reiterate my reasons for the umpteenth time.)

Now you may try to tortuously parse the good Reverend’s words to say what he really means is a compatibilistic free will that, deep down, accept determinism of our actions. But I think you’d be dead wrong, for Walker states at the outset that he clearly rejects the mathematically-based determinism of science. No, he’s talking about pure libertarian free will—the kind that his sheep accept.

I’m surprised that, in a country where—although there’s a state church—Christianity is on a precipitous decline, the BBC still emits a “thought for the day” that is invariably religious. Seriously, my UK friends, why does this persist? Why don’t you write en masse to the Beeb demanding either that it ceases dispensing this goddy pabulum or give nonbelievers a chance to say something not only substantive, but bracing and true? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some words that came from science, for instance?

In fact, this happened once. Richard Dawkins was invited to give the Thought for the Day. He didn’t mince words: goddy explanations were the stuff of toddlers. After that, a humanistic thought was never broadcast again. Neil reported this:

Any mainstream faith may provide the piece, but humanists are excluded, apart from on one occasion when Richard Dawkins was allowed 3 minutes to say his piece, prior to being banned forever for saying we should be more adult in our understanding than accepting simple explanations of the world.  You can read his words here:

And here’s one bit of Richard’s talk that surely irked the BBC:

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

The crybabies are actually at the Beeb, which apparently cannot stand the idea that there may be no God, or at least don’t want to endanger public morals by promulgating such a Dangerous Idea.

Look, I know Britain has a state religion, lacks the equivalent of our First Amendment, and that the BBC is owned and run by the government. But they seem curiously immune to religious freedom and the rising tide of secularism in their land.

If you’re in the UK, have you ever complained about this daily insult to our ears and intellect? If not, why not? If a lot of people objected, would they stop it?

Here: have a libertarian free-willer:

The Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester

Quillette author advocates a new Pascal’s Wager: We should bet on libertarian free will because it makes us behave better

July 7, 2019 • 4:15 pm

I won’t comment much on this new article in Quillette, as I’ll be writing something more substantive about it later. I’ll just summarize its thesis very briefly below (click on screenshot to read):

In brief, the author, William Edwards—described as founder of Bright Tapestry Data, a company pushing back on misinformation and fake news. . . [and] an independent scholar, with a Master’s in Experimental Psychology”—says that there’s not enough evidence to give us confidence in physical determinism, and that, combined with fundamental physical indeterminism, somehow vindicates the notion of our having dualistic (“contracausal”) free will.

He clearly is plumping for dualistic free will rather than compatibilism because he opposes his notion of “free will” to determinism, and concentrates on the notion of real human agency. In the end, he dislikes the idea that determinism seems to absolve us of moral responsibility, and cites evidence (weak, I think) that determinism makes its advocates behave worse.

In the end, Edwards advises us to believe in contracausal free will as a kind of “Pascal’s Wager”. The “win” here is not eternity in heaven, but the good behavior and better societies that Edwards thinks come from believing in free will. The implicit idea is that you can force yourself to accept free will even if you think evidence is against it, or if you’re a diehard determinist.

Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour. There is a not inconsiderable moral dilemma here. As we illuminate the role of DNA and other fixed factors, we will acquire knowledge that should allow us to improve and save countless lives. On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.

Thinkers like Harris and Weinstein are preoccupied with how we build a less risky world, which may be partly why their thinking appeals to conservatives. However, it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.

I’ll have a lot to say about this later, but probably not on this website, and so feel free to discuss the article in the comments below.

Determinism doesn’t mean that you can’t change your behavior, or help others to

January 6, 2019 • 10:45 am

I’m a free-will “incompatibilist”: someone who sees the existence of physical determinism as dispelling the idea of contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise “free will”, which is the notion of free will most common among people. Many people find my view disturbing and fatalistic, and I’m often posed this question: “If everything is determined by the laws of physics mediated through our neurobiology, what’s the point of trying to change somebody’s mind?”

My response is that no, we can’t choose (via contracausal free will) whether we want to change someone’s mind, nor can they freely choose (in the same sense) whether to change it. But human brains are wired by both evolution and experience in a way that alters people’s behaviors when (in general) they would benefit from those changes. So, for example, if you learn that treating people in a certain way makes them treat you better back, your brain circuits for “better treatment” might be activated, and you might begin treating folks better.  And if you see someone treating others badly, your circuits to give them that advice might be activated. You might then advise them, and their own brain circuits may “take” that advice.

None of this is incompatible with determinism. People learn, often in a way that helps them get along better with others, perform better on the job or other aspects of life, and so on. The possibility of such changes might have been produced by evolution since such malleability might correlate with your status and well-being, which in turn might have been connected with your reproductive success. Or, on the cultural side, we avoid pain and seek pleasure, and our brains are capable of taking in advice or experience that would increase our well being and decrease ill being.

Likewise, advice from someone else can act as an environmental stimulus that activates brain circuits that alter behavior. Again, we have no free choice about whether to render advice to others, but that doesn’t mean that the advice can’t effect changes.

Pacific Standard has an interview with Stanford biologist and writer Robert Sapolsky, the author of the acclaimed book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. (Click on screenshot below for the interview.) Sapolsky discusses a lot of things about tribalism, but I’ll reproduce two exchanges about free will. (Sapolsky’s writing have shown him to be, like me, an incompatibilist who thinks that the notion of “you-can-do-otherwise” free will is an illusion.)

Here he expresses the difficulty in explaining to others why determinism doesn’t entail fatalism. Perhaps his answer is better or clearer than mine, and here it is:

TJ [Tom Jacobs]: You write that you don’t really believe in free will, but we nevertheless have an obligation to try to understand our behavior and make things better. Isn’t that something of a contradiction?

RS [Sapolsky]: I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.

Gaining new knowledge, having new experiences, being inspired by someone’s example—these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.

There are all sorts of neuro-pathways that analyze the world in terms of cause and effect. The knowledge that one person—or a bunch of high school students—really can make a difference can be inspiring. That means certain pathways have been facilitated, and, as a result of that, certain behaviors become more likely. Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened if you find out you have no control in a certain domain. Learning to be helpless is also biological.

TJ: So the fact free will is largely illusory does not mean the way we react to the world is static and unchanging.

RS: Absolutely not. There’s a vast difference between a biologically determined universe and fatalism.

h/t: Tom

Why do intellectuals avoid discussing free will and determinism?

January 22, 2018 • 9:30 am

One thing that’s struck me while interacting with various Scholars of Repute is how uncomfortable many get when they have to discuss free will. I’m not talking about Dan Dennett here, as of course he’s a compatibilist and is glad to cross swords with anybody—while admitting sotto voce that yes, we could not have chosen otherwise.  And I’m not talking about Sam Harris, who has spoken out eloquently about about our lack of free will in his eponymous book. (And, of course, Dan had a go at Sam when reviewing that book, to which Sam replied.)

No, I’m talking about other prominent thinkers, and I’ll use Richard Dawkins as an example. When I told him in Washington D.C. that, in our onstage conversation, that I would ask him about free will, he became visibly uncomfortable. But I didn’t back off, and when I reported on our discussion, I said this:

 . . . I did pin Richard down to saying something about free will (in the dualistic sense), as in his upcoming book of essays, Science in the Soul (recommended), he’d written this:

“After my public speeches I have come to dread the inevitable ‘do you believe in free will’ question and sometimes resort to quoting Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically witty answer, “I have no choice”.

Well, that’s glib, but also a non-answer, so I wanted to ask him if he accepted that all our actions are predetermined except for possible quantum events in the brain. And he did admit that, but added that he doesn’t really understand compatibilism and other attempts to give us free will. I didn’t get into those issues, and we briefly discussed the implications of pure determinism for society and the justice system.

As you see, Hitchens also avoided the question. Perhaps Steve Pinker discusses the issue in extenso somewhere in his works, but I don’t know where, and I’ve never directly asked him his opinion.

I’ve seen similar “avoidance behavior” from other scholars, too, but won’t name them here.

It’s my impression, then, that with the exception of vociferous compatibilists like Dennett, people who really are determinists often try to avoid discussing it in public. And by “it”, I don’t mean just free will, but mostly the fact that we are not able after performing a given act, to argue that we could have done otherwise. That is, people don’t like to talk about determinism. This bothers me, because, as I’ve said before, I think fully grasping the determinism of human behavior has enormous practical implications for how we punish and reward people, particularly in our broken judicial system.

Why this avoidance of determinism? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the only conclusion I can arrive at is this: espousing the notion of determinism, and emphasizing its consequences, makes people uncomfortable, and they take that out on the determinist. For instance, suppose someone said—discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”

If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!

Now how the Turpins are treated by the law is different from saying that they had no choice in their behavior: causes and social consequences are not the same issue. As I’ve argued many times, saying that people had no choice in committing a crime is a statement about “is”s, not “oughts”, and there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now. But grasping determinism, as I, Sam, and people like Robert Sapolsky believe, would lead to recommending a complete overhaul of our justice system. Philosophers who spend their time confecting definitions of free will that still accept determinism could better spend their time working on such an overhaul. Their lucubrations on compatibilism are, I contend, a semantic endeavor that’s largely a waste of time. Why bother with semantics when you could fix severe problems in society? As Marx said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Now you could argue that the notion of determinism of human behavior is complicated and hard to understand, and that’s why Big Thinkers avoid it. I don’t believe that. Certainly people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Pinker have the neuronal wherewithal not only to understand determinism, but to work out its ramifications for how we treat people. It’s not rocket science. I am neuronally challenged compared to those people, but the fact is clear to me, and the ramifications seem obvious.

You could also say that some people avoid discussing determinism because they misunderstand its implications. Determinism does not, as I said, imply that criminals should go free. It does not imply that, if we grasp it, we’ll become nihilists who lie abed in an existential stupor. It does not say that we can’t change people’s minds by arguing with them. Yes, many people have such misunderstandings, but I can’t believe that the people I’ve named would share those misunderstandings.

Here’s another possible reason why the Brainy Ones avoid determinism. They may think—as Dennett has said explicitly several times—that if people believe they’re puppets controlled by the strings of their genes and environments (which they are), it will rip society asunder, for our feeling of agency, which we need to somehow confirm as real, is a potent social glue.

But for decades people said the same thing about religion: “We can’t disabuse people of their belief in God, for society would fall apart.” As we know from Scandinavia, that’s simply not true. And I really do believe that if people intellectually grasped determinism, society wouldn’t fall apart, either. For one thing, our feeling of agency is so strong that grasping determinism wouldn’t turn us into do-nothing nihilists. Although it’s an illusion, so is the notion of the “I” in our brain. Life will go on when we believe in determinism but still have our evolved feeling of agency.

That is what I have to say this morning, and I throw this out for readers’ discussion. I really don’t want to engage again in the endless fracas about whether we have “free will” or argue fruitlessly about whether we have a kind of “compatibilist” free will that is “the only type of free will worth wanting.” No, I assume that most readers here accept determinism of human behavior, with the possible exception of truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena that may affect our behavior but still don’t give us agency.  What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.   

Now some readers may say that there are no practical consequences to accepting behavioral determinism. I disagree, as do people like Harris and Sapolsky, and most other determinists who aren’t at the same time compatibilists. Those people who say there are no consequences could argue, “Well, if there are no consequences, why should I bother to discuss it?” If that’s your reason for avoiding determinism, so be it. But I think you’re wrong.