ID advocates mock determinism, insist on libertarian free will and human exceptionalism

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.


  1. Historian
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    At a few places in your post, you refer to Klinghoffer. I think you meant Egnor.

    • Posted July 30, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes indeed; my mistake–I was conflating them. I’ve fixed it, thanks. I think the URL of the piece changed, too, and have fixed that.

  2. colnago80
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    It is my information that Egnor is a Roman Catholic.

    • jimroberts
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      You and Historian at #1 are right, Egnor is Catholic, Klinghoffer is the Orthodox Jew. An example of PCC’s carelessness is in the last para, ” Egnor …’s marinated in his Judaism”. It doesn’t significantly affect the point of the post.

      • Posted July 30, 2016 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for using the gratuitous slur to point out my “carelessness,” which of course came from my somehow mentally conflating Egnor and Klinghoffer in my jet-lagedness. And no, it doesn’t affect the significance of what I said, but you couldn’t resist the “carelessness” remark, of which this is “one example.”

        All I can say is this: you try writing a piece like that when you’re horribly jet-lagged, falling asleep every five minutes but know you should post something substantive.

        It’s all been corrected, but some people can point out errors civilly, while others can’t.

        • jimroberts
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:54 am | Permalink

          I apologise for my poor choice of word. No incivility was intended.

    • Posted July 30, 2016 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      Yep, right again. I plead jet lag (true), but I’ve corrected the text. Thanks.

    • John Hamill
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      As an aside, the dualism required by Catholicism is pretty explicit in Catechism 365.

  3. reasonshark
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    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

    The notable thing about this piece of reasoning is that it relies on not actually knowing how decision-making works, with the obvious consequence that he can assume what he sets out to prove. I don’t think he’s ever really analyzed how decision-making works in the real world; he’s just going by an intuition-borne dogma that it is its own thing, ontologically separate from normal cause-and-effect. Hence the non-sequitur.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      it relies on not actually knowing how decision-making works

      Perhaps it works by elan choix?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 30, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        The way trains run on the force locomotif?

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:56 am | Permalink

          Exactly.😉 And how life runs on elan vital.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    “Without free will there is no justice“

    Without atheism there is no justice, since the Torturous One likes suffering. Who died and made him “god”?

    • Kevin
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, with free will, anything is permissible, especially any unalterable justification for punishment.

  5. Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    One day they’ll “discover” the Allegory of the Cave and its implications for their desperation-infused teleology. Meanwhile, the Klinging and Egnoring will continue unabated.

  6. Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    “I despise their ignorant brand of creationism…”

    Is there a non-ignorant brand?

    • steve oberski
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      In my opinion the options are either ignorance or malevolence.

      If you have ever had the “pleasure” of fishing through the sewage outfall that is Egnor’s verbalized thought processes, malevolence is the only explanation.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Well said.

  7. jeffery
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “Intelligent Design”: Creationism dressed in a lab coat, carrying a clip board….

    “… Our choices are always influenced by genes, environment, etc.”- the definition of “free” being, “Not influenced by any outside condition or circumstance”, I’d say he’s demolished his own stance right there. If truly “free” will (or the ability to exercise it be blocked or constrained) can be affected by ANYTHING, how can it be “free”?

  8. Albert Habichdobinge
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    German playwright Bertold Brecht got it right when he said: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”, translated as first grub, then ethics.

  9. Vaal
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Religious people arguing about a subject backwards, from their assumptions to the conclusion they want?

    What a surprise!

  10. Posted July 30, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    PCC writes:

    a gussied-up form of traditional creationism “designed” to get religion snuck into public school biology classes

    Nice pun. And yes, it’s a Trojan Horse, and with very transparent walls.

    when those creationist mushbrains go after me, I know I’m doing something right.

    I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. I’d compare the case of political junk mail, which always quotes the most extreme statements from an extreme person on the other side. I won’t receive any quotes from, say, David Brooks, when the Democrats are asking for money. No, it will be quotes from Ben Carson. Or maybe, just maybe, a smart but still right-wing person like Justice Scalia. So by analogy, creationists deem you a convenient target, and a good way to rally their troops.

    I don’t see the attraction. I’d rather they didn’t have any good way to rally their troops, only a choice of mediocre ones – if that’s possible – and I suspect it is, if atheists would learn the proper mental ju jitsu.

    Egnor writes:

    why assume Coyne’s opinion has any truth value? It’s just a chemical reaction, determined by genes and environment

    I answer Egnor with Richard Feynman:

    Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere”. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?

    Nothing is “mere”. Thoughts are chemical reactions, but not “just” chemical reactions.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Paultorek, nice post.

      Such a common fallacy when theists argue against materialism or atheism. I sometimes think of it as “the argument from reductive language.”

      Put the words “only,” “mere,” “just” in front of a description, and pretend that has shorn the phenomenon of any other characteristics.

      To the Christian: Why think of the Bible any differently from a plumbing manual or a cell phone bill? They are all “just words printed on a page.”

      *Poof* all relevant differences are gone!

      (Except the Christian wouldn’t for a moment think this reductive language game had any force whatsoever, when aimed his way).

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        This applies to arguments across a wide range of topics. It’s often a convenient way to wrap non sequiturs and red herrings into one tiny word. I’ve seen it used in arguments about living wages-“just a ditch digger,” or arguments about not preparing for hurricanes-“it’s just a little storm.” There’s almost nothing that can’t be diminished by saying “just X.” Oh, and in the case of the arguments in this post, they’ve smuggled a third fallacy in, arguing from consequences. If it is true that without free will there is no justice, it doesn’t necessitate that free will exists. It could imply that justice doesn’t exist.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    From Egnor’s Evolution News and Views piece:

    Notice that Coyne’s three reasons are principles of animal training — punish and intimidate the animals, and train the miscreant animal to behave differently. Coyne’s system is appropriate to dogs and cattle.

    I would never urge that humans be subjected to the same treatment as animals, and I’m sure Jerry wouldn’t either. But humans exist within the exact same laws of nature as dogs and cattle and all other manner of animal or vegetable or mineral.

    Those laws entail deterministic processes and stochastic process — and neither allows for libertarian free will. Egnor offers nothing to rebut this except the cashed-out argument for dualism.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I would never urge that humans be subjected to the same treatment as animals

      On the train today my wife asked me about an advert which stated that “Humane milk is a lie” ; she didn’t get the cultural references. So I explained them.
      I too hope that humans not be subjected to the same treatment as animals. Or to be more precise, that animals be subjected to the same treatment as humans.
      Whazzat? God gave humans dominion over animals? Well gosh darn, how convenient. It’s almost as if God were created in Man’s image (not an accusation that can be levelled against the FSM, thank her multiple meaty balls of goodness), for the convenience of Bronze age goatherds.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        While I do not believe that G*d has given humans dominion over animals, I wish humans to regard their fellow humans as incomparably more valuable than animals. I am sick of modern EU legislation that regards lab mice and stray dogs as equally important to humans, or even more important than them.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          Plenty of people do regard humans as incomparably more valuable, and we know where that attitude leads: to wholesale destruction of ecosystems for parochial human advantage, and the hunting of species to extinction for trophies or dubious folk-medicine remedies.

          • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            This is not regarding humans as incomparably more valuable than animals. This is short-sighted regarding today’s humans as incomparably more valuable than their descendants.

          • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

            I think that endangered species and their ecosystems only lose from the preoccupation with the welfare of farm, lab and stray animals.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:27 pm | Permalink


              • Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink

                First, because the goodwill and material resources that the society is ready to devote to non-humans are limited, and allocating them to non-endangered species will leave the endangered species out. Second, because the animal welfare cause with its extreme stupidity and anti-humanity tarnishes the conservation cause. In my country, defenders of stray dogs who have actually reduced taxpayers and their children to the status of dog prey are routinely called “conservationists”.

    • Pali
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      It’s an appeal to ego – you’re not just an animal, you’re a superior being that isn’t subject to the same rules.

  12. Posted July 30, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    hmmm, how do Christians work being “yoked” with a damned fellow like Klinghoffer?

  13. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    “My own view is that we’re responsible for our acts, but not morally responsible.”

    And what exactly is the difference between these two? I cannot find any. The “rule of law” is enforced either way, at least in not theocratic states. Is it certain that you are not simply playing with words? Seams to me that you have invested too much in what you call “determinism” which I find full of contradictions and I think you have already doubts. A problem arises when we grab something too much and identify ourselves too much with it, so replacing it with something better feels like a serious blow or as a personal defeat.

    • leonkrier
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this does seem to be a bit of a word-game! What is the difference between holding someone “morally responsible” and just “responsible.” I think Jerry’s point is to eliminate “retributive justice” which definitely does have merit for dealing with criminality. However, to say that one is still “responsible” is paradoxical if not incomprehensible. How can one be held responsible if they could not have done otherwise which strong determinism holds. I’ve said this before and will keep saying it: from a monistic and materialist viewpoint, determinism, mechanistic determinism and reductionist contact mechanics are dualistic anachronisms and significant holdovers from the legacy and influence of Cartesian dualism. This is not to argue for the dualism of “libertarian free will” but to acknowledge the language problem in dealing with the issue of why we do what we do. One suggestion would be to focus on the nature of change and how change is a constant dynamic. Change must likewise be coordinated with “potentiality” – the possibility of change…given that ex nihilo, nihil fit. There is a need to develop terminology that is more responsive to the reality that science is pointing us towards and reject the language of an irrelevant philosophy like Cartesianism.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted July 30, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        ‘responsible’ simply means ‘answerable’, that is to say ‘I dunnit’ (or s/he, it, you, we, they dunnit); ‘moral responsibility’ suggests the Kantian, and originally Xtian view, that there is an objectively existing moral law, within us or without us, that we choose to obey or disobey: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        On that note, I just saw a (somewhat dated) TED talk on Jerry’s favorite example of the Norwegian prison system.

        [ xeYkyjBbbNM ; remove the space to get the URL, WordPresss default is to embed].

        To map the facts described in the video to Jerry’s analysis:

        – “Responsibility” means to answer for what you did as Tim notes, in this case to do s minimum of rehabilitation time as it works best (lowest recidivism).

        – This is not automatic, since there *is* a minimum threshold for the time period to work (against lowest recidivism). Thus responsibility taking is environmentally controlled, no “free will” involved.

    • Posted July 30, 2016 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      Tim is right here. I’ve explained the difference between “responsible” and “morally responsible” several times on this website, and I assume those who are discussing the issue are familiar with how I’ve explained distinction. I suggest going back and looking at those posts.

      Responsible means simply the entity who committed the act, and the one that has to be disciplined/rehabilitated, etc. as a way to fix that individual, and to protect and improve society.

      It’s not a word game because it has real world consequences. First, as the Sarkissian et al study shows, most people who were surveyed think that in a determinstic world, people can’t be held morally responsible for their acts (but most people also don’t think we live in a determinstic world). Second, the adding of “moral” to the word “responsible” opens up the possibility of libertarian choice and hence retributive punishment.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        I cannot understand how there can be MORALITY if agents can not themselves have moral responsibility. Dennett describes it well – being moral is like belonging to a club where certain rules are expected to be followed. We “sign up” to the club to get the attendant benefits. Obeying the club rules is akin to having “moral responsibility”. If we don’t join the club the rules don’t apply to us. If everyone doesn’t join there is no club – there is no morality.

        • Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:59 am | Permalink

          … a further point- how can someone be said to be “responsible” for not abiding by the club rules if he/she did not “join the club” and thus become “morally responsible”? That non-joiner individuals actions can not incur “responsibility” as such … “responsibilty” in this case becomes mere chance non-adherence where the agent has no “ownership”. Punishment then becomes only an arbitrary compulsion on autonomous agents.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:48 am | Permalink

        Sorry, Dr. Coyne, but I think your jet lag has you in a bit of an obfuscatory mode. I suspect that a plain statement of your view is that no “moral code” exists per se as a universal truth, a set of facts. I agree fully with that view. Acts deemed immoral in culture A can be deemed perfectly moral in culture B– I think of “honor killings” as a perfect example.

        Thus, when you wrote “My own view is that we’re responsible for our acts, but not morally responsible….”, the “but not” clause serves no useful purpose in advancing your argument.

        If it might be granted that there is no universally accepted moral code, criminal justice practices (enactment and enforcement of laws) are determined by local consensus regarding what is or is not acceptable behavior (yelling “boo” in a crowded movie theater is ok, “FIRE!”… not so much). Those local mores condition our prior experience and thereby set the stage for “decisions” made later in the course of a life. Put this way, I can accommodate both determinism and “morals” in my personal philosophy. Your mileage/agreement may vary, but I’m guessing not by much.

        • Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:07 am | Permalink

          Your first sentence is snarky and unnecessary; have you read the Roolz. I suspect that your failure to have read my past posts has put you into a bit of an ignorant mode. In fact, I’m sure if it, because you are unfamiliar with what I’ve said about morality. No, I don’t believe there’s a universal moral code, nor a way to objectively discern morality. At bottom, I think that morality is subjective, a matter of what you prefer to think of as “moral”. And I don’t even like to use the word “moral” or “morality”.

          Why do I avoid using that word? Because to many people (viz. the Sarkissian paper), the concept of “moral responsibility” carries with it the notion of being able to choose between “moral” and “immoral” acts. And they also believe (this is from a survey) that in a deterministic world we DO NOT have moral responsibility. Since that is the most common way to construe the phrase, I prefer to avoid it. Yes, you can accommodate determinism and “morality”, but only by flouting the common use of the word. You would know this if you’d read my previous posts on the subject.

          The only read you think the post was obfuscatory is that you jumped into the discussion without knowing my previous history of posts on the subject. So go back and read them, and apologize for the snark before you post again.

          Why is it that people can write a perfectly rational post that takes issue with my views, but then throw in some gratuitous snark like that? It always beffles me, except that people tend to be ruder on the internet. If I gave that post as a talk, would you preface your question with a statement about my probably being jetlagged? I doubt it

      • Dimitris Klaras
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:07 am | Permalink

        “Responsible means simply the entity who committed the act, and the one that has to be disciplined/rehabilitated, etc. as a way to fix that individual, and to protect and improve society.”

        So “responsible” is just a convention “as a way… etc”. The same way, practically, law makers will use “free will”. “Moral” makes a difference only on how the “correction” is practiced. Better not to be “retributive punishment”. OK, I agree too.

        About whatever people believe: Those people (in the study) had real opinion about “determinism”, “morality” etc or just picked something superficial from a list of things read/hear here or there in their lives without caring much about? What you think in general and what you practice to solve real problems could be different. Self-awareness is surely imperfect.

        Whatever you call the world, “deterministic” (or as a consequence, predetermined!) or not you have to admit to the necessity of a law system. People react because something tells them that you are questioning that necessity. Probably the rest are completely indifferent to them.

        When you say to people that is not their “free will” but their “brain”, probably they think you are joking.

  14. Flint
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I didn’t come in at the beginning. I grant that my choices are restricted by both physical limits of possibility and by the nature of my personality (and all that has gone into influencing it).

    But still, it’s hard to convince myself that I haven’t made real choices, or that I couldn’t have made different choices, or that responsibility is an illusion. I have my own notions of right and wrong, and attempt (not always successfully) to live accordingly. I can’t believe I’m wasting my time.

    We teach children to behave. It works most of the time. I think this is important.

    • Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Maybe some sort of paradox comes into play when an organ capable of understanding things tries to understand itself.

      “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” — Ian Stewart

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 30, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Here I will try to summarize what were highlights for me on this subject. I hope I do this right!
      1. Brain scans of subjects that are making a choice show that we irreversibly commit to make a choice before our consciousness is aware of it. So we physically cannot change our minds about an action we are about to take just before we take it. If I recall, the lag here can be more than a second (!)
      2. So why have punishment at all for our actions? Why jail criminals, or take away a kids’ Nintendo? We live in an environment where our actions are indeed influenced by an understanding of the possible consequences of our actions. Our environment includes knowledge that others have been punished. Or we have been punished ourselves. This knowledge can be a deterrent to steer us away from wrongful actions before we are irreversibly committed to them.
      3. But once someone has committed an action that we consider wrong, they are not morally responsible for them. They were, at a point, committed to the action before they were conscious that they were about to do it.
      4. Still, having committed a wrongful act, the perpetrator must now be punished to serve as part of the environmental milieu of those who may yet be deterred. Or perhaps having had our Nintendo taken away once we won’t do something that could result in it being taken away again.

      • leonkrier
        Posted July 30, 2016 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        Many, many claims made by neuroscientists based upon their research have not held up upon further review. One significant example is “mirror neurons.” See The Myth of Mirror Neurons by Gregory Hickok. Also, Brainwashed by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld is worthwhile.

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:37 am | Permalink

          Well that is interesting, but we should wait to see evidence that the findings I referred to are wrong. There are plenty of experiments from neuroscientists that have (so far) stood the test of time.

          • leonkrier
            Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

            Agreed. However, there are significant limits/issues with fMRI imaging techniques impacting neuroscience research which Brainwashed points out in Chapter 1; these limits provide a cautionary note for neuroscience claims.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:31 am | Permalink

        Points 1 and 3 seem dubious. We can easily design an experiment in which subjects are told to decide which button to push, wait five seconds, and then push it. Detecting some brain event six seconds before the button push clearly does not make it physically impossible for subjects to push the other button.

        What such experiments show is not that we’re powerless to change our minds, but that decision-making recruits unconscious processes as well as conscious ones. This should really come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever said “Let me sleep on it.”

        The way such experiments factor into the free-will debate is that they supposedly show that if “I” am the conscious entity receiving the report that a decision has been made, then “I” cannot be the maker of decisions.

        But this is problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that defining “me” to be something distinct from the decision-making parts of my brain seems like a poor way to persuade people to abandon dualism.

        Another is that this view of consciousness as a purely passive receiver of reports is empirically false. We know that conscious experience feeds back into the causal chain of behavior, as demonstrated by the fact that we can talk about it.

    • Posted July 30, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      It may be hard to convince yourself that you don’t have libertarian free will, but you don’t THe issue, as Sam Harris emphasizes, is that we FEEL as if we have free will, and that’s the difficulty we must overcome when promulgating naturalism.

      But what we “feel” to be true isn’t necessarily true, and if you really believe in libertarian free will, explain how it works to me. Do you have some spirit in your head that is able to somehow override the laws of physics? Why is the action of your cranial neurons free from the laws of physics?

      The notion of libertarian free will really does invoke some kind of soul, or dualistic “ghost in the machine.” You don’t have that, regardless of whether you feel like you do.

      • Dimitris Klaras
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:35 am | Permalink

        “But what we “feel” to be true isn’t necessarily true…”

        And this feeling comes from ghosts in our minds? We can be confused with the interpretation we give to our feelings and the possible response or action according to them but either way represent a reality. Play a role. We cannot simply deny it.

        I think the same error is repeated indefinitely in a loop. Faith vs Fact, religion against science, etc. You are missing the point. This division is an… illusion! Faith, religion, believe in God and all the rest the yours… the “scientific”, are all MATTER EQUALLY. Without realizing it you accept the dualism you want to fight.

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          When everything else fails, appeal to mysticism?

          I must confess I am not sure what you are implying.

          But FWIW that our brain-bodies are biochemical machines doesn’t mean that there isn’t a layer of emergent feelings on top. They aren’t “free will” roles however, you can manipulate them chemically. (Same way you show that the brain-body is a chemical machine by anesthetics.)

          There is no mystery here.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        As I’ve argued, while making decisions we “feel” it is true that we could choose one action over another because we tend to be thinking true thoughts – inferring from real past experience to our abilities to the current choice, and thinking true things about what we are capable of. We aren’t thinking “I’m a magical, dualist being.”
        That’s only a bad theory some people come up with when trying to *explain* why it feels they had a choice.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      Flint, your intuition is correct: you are not wasting your time. If you want good answers to tricky moral conundrums, you have to put in the work of chewing them over and bringing your moral reasoning skills to bear. The fact that the physical brain processes underlying that chewing-over may be deterministic doesn’t render the chewing-over redundant or meaningless. It’s still your decision, made by your brain according to your standards of right and wrong.

      Choice and responsibility are as real as baseball, or money, or natural selection, none of which are mentioned in the fundamental laws of deterministic physics.

  15. Christopher Bonds
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Question-begging indeed. Choosing is an act. Acts are either willed or caused. But what is will, when you take it apart to see how it works? Today I bought an overpriced chocolate bar at a famous-name coffee franchise (you know the one). I didn’t know how much it cost until I paid for it. Should I complete the purchase and rationalize the expense, or put it back and get something at the supermarket for half the price? This bar had ground-up potato chips in it, and I really wanted to know what that combination tasted like. There was only one way to find out. It was curiosity that drove me to buy it (plus a touch of hypoglycemia from exercising on an empty stomach.) But also my prior knowledge of potato chips and chocolate as separate foods was also in play. And hundreds of other contributing factors.

    The interesting thing is that, either way I decided to go, afterward I would have rationalized my choice. One way, and I could say that was the best chocolate bar I ever ate. The other, and I am a smart, thrifty shopper who won’t let his appetites override his sense of a bargain.

    A lot of the confusion about free will might disappear if everyone is clear about the difference between “free will” and freedom of choice. We don’t get to choose what we think about, but it’s our thinking (combined with wanting and feeling) that determines our choices.

  16. kelskye
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m really not sure what proponents of libertarian free will expect. How do decisions get made?

    I think the appeal of libertarian free will is that it is deliberately mysterian as to how it works. If you don’t have to get into details, then you can dismiss others as inadequate without providing an answer of your own.

  17. Flint
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    I have sometimes struggled with indecision, and who hasn’t? As lawyers say, hard cases (with much to be said for both sides) make bad law, because legal decisions, like most that we make, are binary when reality is not binary. Legal decisions decide that one side is 100% right and the other is 100% wrong, and reality isn’t like that.

    And sometimes I have literally flipped a coin (I find quarters flip well) when I’ve narrowed the options down to two and can’t decide. If Jerry Coyne is saying my coin flip result is predetermined, I can’t agree.

    If “libertarian free will” is something that ignores or dismisses all biases and influences, then it’s a delusion. But if the alternative is to say that genuine choices cannot be made at all, that’s also a delusion.

    • Michiel
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink

      Well, but technically why wouldn’t the result of a coin flip be pre-determined? After all, both the coin and the entity doing the flipping are subject to the same laws of physics. You didn’t really have a choice on whether you were going to flip a coin or not. Your upbringing, genes and environment
      etc. determined that at that point in time you were going to flip a coin. Then you flipped it with a certain physical force also determined in the same way, and the coin flipped through the air under the influence of laws of physics. There is only one way that particular coin flip at that particular time could have landed and however much you rewound time and all the atoms in the universe to the exact moment before the coinflip, the coin would land the same (save some freak quantum event perhaps ;))

      Determinism (as far as I understand it, and I feel like the way mr Coyne explains is makes sense, even though it doesn’t “feel” like it should) does not mean you cannot doubt, or change your mind, or base your decision on a coin flip. It just means that the doubt and the change of mind and the decision to flip a coin were also the product of the atoms in your brain working under the laws of physics.

  18. eric
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Therefore, Klinghoffer 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.”

    I think the Christian and Islamic concepts of heaven for believers and an eternal hell for nonbelievers nullifies the possibility of justice quite effectively, without any debate over free will vs. determinism being needed.

  19. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Given the American cultural predeliction for thinking of life from a horse-powered world (with some horse shit being concentrated into bullet propellant), has anyone there tried fitting the DI’s push-harness to a real horse and cart to see how they work?
    From what they say, they’re extraordinarily good at getting the cart before the horse.

  20. Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Creationist: We are free agents, influenced by our genes and our environment, but are free to choose the course of action we take.

    We have the sensation, and it is true in the sense that our brain determines a course of action we take, from a larger set of actions that were theoretically possible, but not taken. We could not have done anything differently, because — all else being equal — the “computation” would always have the same outcome. But we can easily imagine these other courses not taken, because the decision-making procress is partially within our conciousness. Why this so is unknown, and it may even be the wrong question.

    Creationist: 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.

    This is false. If we view it as mere “chemical reaction”, assuming one model (for a model-dependent realist), there is also no assuming. But only some sort of chemical computation going on. We cannot comprehend it well from that vantage point.

    You cannot mix and match at will, either we look at things from our “everyday” vantage point, of we assume some other vantage point. If we go by psychology, we can easily say that as social animals, we can be influenced by others. But under the hood, we know that this influences comes down to cascades of neurons firing in some pattern.

    We also know that we are “meat robots” by multiple other ways. We have a very good map of the ramp up to “Mt. Improbable” leading to conciousness, and we know that at the beginning are robot-like forms, and ever more complex lifeforms along the way. We also know what happens when the wetware is damaged, and how it affects the mind in sometimes bizarre ways, e.g. being able to see perfectly well, yet being unable to recognize faces at all.

    We know from the development of humans that development of the brain result in the development of the mind, and behaviors, and can see stages through errors in reasoning, speech patterns, analogy-making etc and development in faculties, including irrational teenage rebellion. We also know that deterioriation of structures in the brain, alas, have their effects on the mind, personality and behaviours in old age.

    We also know that changing the chemical cocktail of the brain has an effect on our minds, both subjectively and objectively. We can see comparable effects on other species, too, e.g. spider webs created when drugged.

    We can observe activity in the brain, and we know that this activity produces the sensations of the test subject, not the other way around.

    If we flipped our model upside down (that is, from bottom-up continuous Naturalism, to top-down discrete Creationism) and a ghostly thing controls matter, what’s the purpose of these brain patterns? If, say, Libertarian free will is a mysterious “first mover” electron/pattern that somehow needs a brain for the rest, how does the supernatural electron/pattern differ from the other ones? (this the analogue question as when souls enter children, or when souls enter hominids, and also analogue to a first mover magic entity God that acts-creates on a universe). We also know that all these things are really continuous, but are seen by people as discrete, due to their folk intuitions (which we also know to be false).

    In other words, we have some idea by now how minds work, and even what mistakes they tend to make, which are, yet another time, best explained by naturalism (as “meat robots”), because here again, we don’t find perfect “intelligent design”.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      I see, I produced some garbled writing. The gist: creationist’s major flaw is that they treat what we know like a buffett, where they can mix and match what they like. And even mix and match what is accepted per circumstance. If it makes planes fly, the science is acceptable, but it selectively ceases to be true for that one special area, the very moment is would contradict their cherished beliefs.

  21. Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Well it’s finally happened. The Discovery Institute has latched onto what I consider the one great vulnerability in the message of the overall atheist community, the trashing of any form of free will- even compatibilist free will. If atheism/rationalism existed as a “political party” it would certainly be my advice to not even touch the subject of free will in front of people who do not understand our controversy on the subject, or who want to misrepresent it. Think of the general message we ALREADY deliver to the religious person who begins to doubt his beliefs and who we hope will see reason…..yes, there is no god that loves and desires to care for you… yes, there is no rewards in an afterlife …and yes, when you or your loved ones die-that’s it”. And to this the incompatibilist adds ” and you are actually a robot-your sense of having your own will is nothing but an an illusion”. Imagine the believers reaction to this “I may not be sure about god, but one thing I’m sure of is that it is ME that makes my decisions… those atheist people just want reject EVERYTHING for no bloody good reason – forget it!”
    The Discovery Institute must be overjoyed to characterise this argument against any form of free will as representative of our overall community. Of course it is not, as witnessed for example by the many strong compatibilist voices on this website who are utterly unconvinced by incompatibilist argument.

    Not presenting atheist ideas because they are politically inconvenient to present, is certainly NOT our style, but I do sometimes wonder what exactly incompatibilists are trying to achieve in our overall war for rationality by dwelling on this unresolved debate on free will.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but what I, at least, am trying to achieve, is a to make people realize that we do not make dualistic free choices, with the end of reforming the way we go about punishing and rewarding people. I’m trying to avoid the idea that people are responsible for their own situations because they made the “wrong” choices: that is is the conservative Republican “just world” idea that is often applied to, say, people on welfare. “They got what they deserve because they didn’t choose to do the right thing,” so they say.

      So you’re saying we should just shut up about determinism because it alienates people? That we should keep quiet about the pervasiveness of natural laws, and new experiments in neuroscience, because it’s better to leave people with their illusions of dualism? Sorry, but I’m not having it. In point of fact, determinism is true, and it has profound implications for both society and religion. I don’t give a rat’s patootie whether the Discovery Institute is jubilant over my determinism, just as they are jubilant over my promotion of evolution and attempts to keep creationism from being taught in public schools. Should I shut up about evolution and religion, too? At what point do I have to censor myself to satisfy your notion of what is politically useful or not?

      In point of fact, I’ve found my discussions about free will with people far more effective at changing their minds than my discussions about religion. If you’re a Christian, you’re resistant to abandoning your faith, but if you accept science, then eventually you may come around to determinism and then think about its consequences. That, at least, has been my experience. People like Egnor are no more likely to abandon his religion than he is to abandon his belief in free will. And, by the way, there are some faiths that don’t accept libertarian free will.

      When I bring up the subject, as I did in my Vancouver INR talk, I am careful not to just assert “we don’t have free will,” but I explain it in as detailed and nuanced a way as I can, giving the misconceptions about it and, of course, criticizing compatibilism. I am not going to sign on to compatibilism just because you tell me it’s politically expedient. We should stifle these semantic/philosophical discussion because they might confuse or alienate the Little People? I find that condescending.

      So no, I’m not having it. I’m not going to censor my views just because you think they will alienate people. As I said, my opinions on free will take people aback, but have alienated far fewer people than my views on religion.

      You should already know what I’m trying to achieve: forging a society that’s better because it’s founded on an accurate view of reality. You can disagree with my tactics, but don’t imply that I should change what I say to placate dualists or religionists. My belief is that it’s always better to first accept what’s true, and then deal with it. You cannot argue that I bluntly assert that people are robots without explaining exactly what I mean.

      Have you not read the equally excoriating remarks that have been made (by the DI and many others0 about my promotion of evolution or attempts to keep kids from believing lies? I was the DI’s “censor of the year” in 2014. They loved awarding me that. Well, I don’t want adults to believe lies, either, and dualism is one of the most pervasive of those lies. And, as I said, it has inimical effects on society, or so I think.

      I’ve been told too often to shut up about religion because it hurts my promotion of evolution. That is profoundly misguided advice. Finally, you MIGHT consider that if people abandon dualism, as they should if they are science friendly, then they might abandon faith as well.

      Finally, I echo this back: i often wonder what COMPATIBILISTS are trying to achieve. As far as I can see, it’s to make people think they have some sort of free will, because if they don’t we’ll either alienate them or society will fall apart. The debate about determinism is resolved; the debate about compatibilism versus incompatibilism is semantic. I’d rather argue about truth than definitions.

      • Dimitris Klaras
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        “And, by the way, there are some faiths that don’t accept libertarian free will.”

        Yes, they believe in predetermination (protestants). It appears, from a TV show, that Viking’s pagan culture had a similar notion. But at the same time everyone has to do his best to fulfill his destiny. But this destiny is nowhere written. Only God knows. So in practice is the result of everyone’s will, ability and effort and so indirectly a trick to bypass… God. So indeterminism returns from the back door in the service of the secular lords against… Vatican.

        When someone speaks for a deterministic view of the world is more honest to speak about predetermination so others can check his/her actual contradictions.

        To think that the world is predetermined it goes nowhere. To my view the world is something else, I would say “in progress”, at least the world we immediately know. In a Harris podcast “Complexity & Stupidity” David Krakauer spoke about negative entropy, that could be “intelligence” (I would better say life itself). That negative entropy could bring physical attributes that make a world to fit the characterization “in progress”. To me this is open and I predict it will be proven as the reality. If world is “in progress” we have many to say and do and fight. If it is predetermined, so against nature as we evidently experience it, we have nothing more to say. With this predetermination idea we do the magic that eliminates all the problems. This magic can be real but only in our imagination. Our practical lives cannot afford it and will not. Of EVERYBODY.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        I do believe we are involved in a vital contest to move others away from religion and into reason, if only to mitigate against the pernicious effects of religious faith by those who terrorize us by taking their religion too literally and those who inadvertently support such people by validating the irrational thought systems that can justify such behaviour. We hope to see a more widespread adoption of a scientific method of thinking as a hopeful cure for such dangers. Science certainly demands recognition of determinism. But as for free-will, isn’t it far more a philosophical issue than a scientific one anyway? Here at WEIT our arguments always end up cycling on conflicts of definition, issues of morality and of metaphysics. Why then I ask, make incompatibilism an issue in our war of ideas, when we ourselves cannot agree in this philosophic debate? Compatibilism encompasses determinism without getting into any of the incoherencies that plague disccussions of free will. And even if ordinary people cling to misconceived dualist free will, how bad is this in comparison to the evils they cling to in religion itself. In any case compatibilism fully endorses determinism, and counters dualist tendencies without exposing us to counterattack from the likes of the DI.

    • jimroberts
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      “… but I do sometimes wonder what exactly incompatibilists are trying to achieve in our overall war for rationality by dwelling on this unresolved debate on free will.”

      When I follow or take part in discussions such as this, I am not trying to persuade people in general to become more rational, I am trying to understand, for myself, what are often very difficult subjects. The outcome may help me to better defend rationality when the necessity arises, but I suspect that, for many people here, directly arguing against, for example, religion is not a major part of our lives.

  22. jay
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    ” 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. ”

    This is a point, but it’s FAR from being limited to Abrahamic religions. Retribution is substantially cross cultural from local hunter gatherer groups to large religions and nation states. For better or worse, it appears to be embedded in human psychology not just a few religions.

  23. Steven Carr
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    What Michael Egnor says is not determined by rational thought.

    Surely all people who have libertarian free will must suffer from locked-in syndrome.

    They can decide what they want to do, but their bodies will still obey the deterministic laws of physics.

    Notice that Egnor has to use weasel words like ‘influence’, because his religion forbids him to say that his actions are caused by something.

    No, they are just ‘influenced’, not caused.

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