The boys over at the Discovery Institute (DI) spend a lot of time mocking me online, but I rarely pay attention. And when I do, I’m sort of flattered, and for two reasons: they think that what I write here is important enough to attack, and because when those creationist mushbrains go after me, I know I’m doing something right. I despise their ignorant brand of creationism, “Intelligent Design”, whose advocates claim that some unspecified designer, rather than evolution, is responsible for living creatures. It’s an open secret, though, that for them the designer is the Judeo-Christian God (not Allah!), and so they can’t help going after me when I criticize religion.
You’d think that they’d keep their religious motivations secret, for, after all, Intelligent Design was rejected by the courts because it was descried for what it is: a gussied-up form of traditional creationism “designed” to get religion snuck into public school biology classes—like a Trojan Horse with Jesus inside. But they’re so bursting to tell us the Good News that they can’t properly conceal their motives.
The two people who seem obsessed with going after me (if I were PuffHo I’d call them “haters”) are Michael Egnor, a creationist Catholic neurosurgeon whose name allows many puns, and David Klinghoffer, the only Orthodox Jew in the DI.
Egnor’s new post, “Without free will there is no justice“, excoriates me for my determinism, using as an example my recent post on Manson “girl” Leslie Van Houten. (In that post, I argued that after 45 years in jail, and every sign that she’s reformed, Van Houten should be released. Keeping her in jail is not good for either her or society). And Egnor’s piece reminds us that there are still many people who accept libertarian free will.
Egno piece is a good example of how many people misunderstand—deliberately or out of ignorance—how “agency” works. In the case of Abrahamic religionists, most (except for Calvinists) have to believe in libertarian free will, the kind where, if you could rewind history at a “decision point”, with everything absolutely identical to before, you still could have done something differently from what you did. Without that ability to choose between “right” and “wrong,” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam collapse, for what kind of God would reward or punish you in the afterlife if you couldn’t have “chosen otherwise”? And, of course, in Islam and Christianity you’re also rewarded for accepting Jesus as your savior or Mohammed as your prophet.
Therefore, Egnor must argue that determinism must be wrong as an explanation of human behavior, for it not only fails to explain true libertarian free will, which for some reason he thinks we have, but also nullifies the possibility of “justice.” To Egnor, “justice” absolutely requires us to have libertarian free will, which allows us to assign moral responsibility to people. As many believe, true moral responsibility requires the libertarian you-could-have-done-otherwise form of free will. But I’ve argued that can still have responsibility without libertarian free will, and can still have good reasons for punishing and rewarding people. What’s not justified is retributive punishment—punishment based on the assumption that you could have done other than what you did, and therefore should be punished for having chosen wrong. My own view is that we’re responsible for our acts, but not morally responsible.
Egnor, of course, has no evidence for libertarian free will, and we have lots of evidence against it (neuroscience, psychology experiments, and, most important, the laws of nature). So Egnor simply asserts that what his faith teaches him is also scientifically true:
We are free agents, influenced by our genes and our environment, but are free to choose the course of action we take. Determinism is not true, denial of free will is self-refuting (If we are not free to choose, why assume Coyne’s opinion has any truth value? It’s just a chemical reaction, determined by genes and environment), and our intellect and will are immaterial powers of the soul and are inherently free in the libertarian sense of not being determined by matter.
We are not meat robots. If we were meat robots, why would anyone listen to Jerry Coyne?
Well, Dr. Egnor, maybe they should listen because the two pounds of meat in my skull is better programmed than are the two pounds of Egnorian head-meat. That is, my meat emits statements that comport better with what rational people observe in the Universe than does Egnor’s faith-ridden meat.
But wait! There’s more!
Justice, which is a principle appropriate to man, presupposes moral culpability, and thus presupposes libertarian free will. Coyne’s system of human livestock management is not a criminal justice system at all.
This is called begging the question: assuming what you need to prove.
Egnor even tries to reject determinism of human behavior by citing quantum mechanics, which shows how desperate he is:
If you “accept science,” you don’t accept determinism, which has been ruled out in physics by an ingenious series of experiments over the past several decades. It is the consensus of physicists that nature is non-deterministic, in the sense that there are no local hidden variables. Coyne’s rejection of the overwhelming evidence that nature is non-deterministic is a rejection of science, just as his denial of free will is a rejection of common sense and reason.
This presupposes either that quantum-mechanical uncertainty gives us free will, which can’t be true (I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining that again), or that the “Bell’s inequality” experiments showing the lack of local realism on the level of particles show that all forms of natural law determining human behavior are out the window.
You can read the rest of Egnor’s article if you wish, and find out how my view of determinism’s implications for punishment is “totalitarian” and “offensive tripe.”
The problem, as I said, is that Egnor has no evidence for libertarian free will except his faith in a God who gave us the ability to override physical law. The funny part is that he admits that yes, determinism can sometimes play a role in justice; but he just won’t go one neuron further and admit that it is completely behind all human behavior.
Of course Van Houten chose to kill, just as millions of law-abiding people choose not to kill. Our choices are always influenced by genes, environment, etc., but that does not mean that we don’t choose. A bad upbringing, bad genetics, brain disease, immaturity, ideological dispositions, and a host of other factors can make it easier or harder to choose a certain course of action, but that course of action is still chosen.
That’s a great example of question-begging. But wait—there’s still more!
In some situations the influences on our choices are so strong that the law declares us not legally responsible for our choices — for example, if we have a psychiatric or neurological disorder that renders us incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. But that does not mean that we did not choose. It means that the law does not hold us accountable for our choice in circumstances in which we cannot understand or comply with the moral standard on which the law is based.
Remember, Egnor isn’t espousing compatibilism here, but pure dualism. He’s immune to reason, for he’s marinated in his Catholicism, but other people may be susceptible to ideas that come from your own meat.It’s those people who compatibilist philosophers should be addressing instead of just sitting in their philosophy-department offices, devising ingenious arguments about how you can have determinism and free will too. What they should be arguing is that we can’t have both determinism and traditional religion.