Michael Egnor gives a religionist’s view of free will and its implications for criminal justice

I really don’t like linking to Michael Egnor’s posts—or anybody’s posts—on Evolution News, the flaccid organ of the Discovery Institute. This is because, in the absence of evidence for intelligent design, the site has taken to ad hominem argumentation, ignoring evolution and simply attacking the evolutionary messengers. Egnor in particular has it in for me, and misses no opportunity to show that my non-evolutionary views are reprehensible, especially to believers. (He’s a Catholic.)

Further, I hate giving publicity to the Discovery Institute, for they lie about evolution for Jesus or Yahweh, and they do crave the views they get from this site, so I’ve archived Egnor’s lucubrations and you can see them by clicking on the headline below:

But the main reason I’m responding to Egnor is to remind readers of the importance for religionists of contracausal free will (the kind of free will which claims, that at any moment of your life, you could have made a choice different from the one you did); and to show that, contrary to some readers’ claims, a belief in free will does have an influence on people’s views on how justice should be dispensed and how the courts should be run.

Since surveys show that most people conceive of free will as contracausal free will, I suspect that most folks would go along with Egnor, even if they aren’t religious. In the following discussion, I’ve indented stuff I’ve posted previously and excerpts from Egnor’s new post; my take on Egnor is flush left.

First, Egnor quotes from a recent post I wrote on free will (this, of course, has nothing to do with “Evolution News”). In that post I said this.

There are ramifications for the justice system. I firmly believe that if we grasped that nobody, including criminals, has a “choice” in whether or not to do something, like mugging someone, we would structure the justice system differently, concentrating less on retribution and more on keeping baddies out of society, trying to reform them, and using punishment as a deterrent to improve society.

Egnor’s response:

He’s [i.e., me] right — the consequences of free will denial for our justice system are profound. But he needs to consider the ramifications on a deeper level.

Our current justice system is dependent on the acknowledgement that man can choose good or evil, in a real sense.

JAC: note Egnor’s strong claim that our justice system is based on contracausal free will. That’s largely true, for when some factors are supposed to derail our ability to choose “freely”, such as mental illness or childhood abuse, punishments are altered or mitigated. That’s a tacit judicial admission that punishment is based on the assumption that people can freely choose whether to commit a crime.

Egnor continues:

We may be influenced by our neurotransmitters, genes, etc., but in most situations we have the genuine ability to choose good or evil. The law then is not merely or even primarily a deterrent. It is first and foremost retribution. Retribution in law is not bad. In fact, it is the cornerstone of a legal system that respects the full humanity — the genuine freedom — of citizens. If we freely choose evil, in the sense that we could have chosen otherwise, we deserve retributive punishment. A murderer deserves to be incarcerated, because he has chosen to do evil. We can choose good and evil, and are held responsible for the choice. Retributive justice is a system fit for free and responsible people.

Note here the flat assertion that we do have contracausal free will, a key belief of Abrahamic religions. Note further that, according to Egnor, this justifies retributive justice, presumably including the death penalty, which most people see as retributive. Now Coyneian justice may coincide with some mandates or retribution, such as keeping malefactors out of society, but the former is based on what works to keep criminals from hurting other people, while the latter depends not on consequences but on “deontological” adherence to rules. More from Egnor:

If we deny free will, there is no justice in retribution. There is no justice in punishing a man for an act he could not elide. There is no justice in sanctioning a meat robot for being a meat robot, any more than we apply “justice” in the eradication of mosquitoes or rats.

Here Egnor comes close to saying that we shouldn’t punish anyone if determinism be true. If that’s not what he means, what does he mean?

I believe Egnor’s view of “justice” is one of “divine justice,” but it doesn’t matter. I see punishment as consequentialist: it’s meted out for the good of society and its members. As I’ve written so often, the functions of punishment should be threefold: sequestering a malefactor from society so he doesn’t offend again; allowing society to try to reform the criminal in prison (something that the U.S. is really bad at); and deterrence of others who, tempted to commit a crime, might refrain when they see that there’s possible punishment. When these sanctions are dispensed in a rational and effective way, that’s what I consider “justice”. (Of course, it’s an empirical question exactly how to punish people to achieve the ends of sequestration, reformation, and deterrence).

And if these three things be our goals, we don’t have to worry about any other notion of “justice”, especially those based on God’s rules.

But wait! Egnor has more!

The Danger to Humanity

In a justice system that denies free will, the only justification for punishment is deterrence, as Coyne appropriately notes. But he seems not to understand the danger a justice system based wholly on deterrence poses to humanity. Such a system is no longer a “justice” system at all; there is nothing just about punishing men for doing what they could not choose or avoid.The sole purpose of a criminal justice system in a society that denies free will is management of behavior. And management need not be merely reactive. In fact, efficient management is proactive. Management of deterministic behavior is most effective if it is preemptive.

In Coyne’s deterministic justice system, identification and interdiction of miscreants is the most effective, and if fact, the most sensible approach. Incarceration for “pre-crimes” is not unjust in a system without justice. Interdiction is efficient, in fact. Why wait for a murderer to murder before you lock him up? And a free will denier like Coyne can’t plausibly argue that such preemptive incarceration would be “unjust,” if there is no such thing as guilt or innocence anyway.

Egnor makes two errors here. First, deterrence is not the only justification for punishment that I’ve given, and he’d know that if he’d ever read what I wrote about free will.

Second, Egnor is signing on to the Minority Report View of Justice, in which we should punish, reform, or intercede beforehand if we know someone is predisposed to commit a crime.

I won’t go into the complicated issues of how we “know” somebody is going to do that, except to say that we’re nowhere near that point and, for some crimes like pedophilia, you know someone is “{predisposed” only after they’ve committed a type of crime with a high rate of recurrence. That doesn’t mean you should punish them for future crimes, but they should be monitored after release since crimes like pedophilia have a very high rate of recidivism. That’s why these kinds of sex offenders have to register and be monitored, which I consider justifiable.

Further, what kind of society would we have if we incarcerated those likely to commit crimes, but who haven’t yet done anything? It would be a draconian society in which people’s brains and personalities are constantly monitored by the state to test their “criminal propensity.” People would walk around in a state of terror, worried that their dark thoughts—and yes, we all have them—could lead to their incarceration. We don’t have “precogs” who can predict the future without any intercession by the state, and we never will. So, for the good of society, we don’t lock people up simply because they’re “predisposed” to be criminals.

Finally, Egnor says this

Without free will, there is no guilt and there is no innocence. There are merely animals to be managed, behavior to be modified. A society without free will is a society without responsibility or human dignity. A society without recognition of free will is a totalitarian hell predicated on behavioral interdiction. Where there is no guilt, there can be no innocence.

He’s wrong again. “Guilt” or “innocence”, as I’ve written before, simply means, “You did the crime” or “You didn’t do the crime” according to the standards of justice. You are responsible for the crime and for that you are responsible (but in my view not morally responsible, since you couldn’t choose), and so you must suffer the consequences.

If you think that belief or disbelief in free will has no ramifications for the justice system, just consider Egnor’s view that contracausal free will justifies retributive punishment.

h/t: Blue


  1. GBJames
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 10:52 am | Permalink


  2. Randy Bessinger
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    To me, all Egnor is really saying is that without free will, religion suffers a lethal blow.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      You may notice that when religionists speak on this topic they often compare humans to animals. This reflects their core belief that although god created all life, we are special to him in that we can choose between good and evil. It was his “gift” to us and because we don’t always choose what he wants, there is sin. Losing free will doesn’t mean no god as one can easily imagine a religion where god is imagined quite differently, but without free will Egnor’s god disappears in a puff of irrelevancy.

      So yeah, he’s not going to give up on the contracausal.

      • Posted January 18, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Well, I do believe that humans are different from other animals in that we can predict and understand the consequences of our actions. Not a gift from God, of course, but the outcome of our evolved mental apparatus.

        • mikeyc
          Posted January 18, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Is it true that we are the only animals who can do that? I wonder.

          • Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps not. But I’m sure no other animal can do it as well as we do, with our advanced theory of mind.

          • Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

            An interesting thing to consider. In all other areas we find examples where smarter animals seem to have the same abilities as ours, only ours are presumably more elaborate. Insight learning, a sense of morality, theory of mind, and so on. We differ only in degree, not in kind. But can any other species weigh for an extended time the consequences of the crimes they may commit? I am not sure.

            • Posted January 18, 2019 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

              I doubt it. But we often take retribution as if animals were criminals. It saddens and maddens me when wildlife officials hunt down and kill a bear or cougar that has harmed, or even just scared, someone walking in the woods, as if the animal did it with malicious intent and foresight.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted January 19, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

            Is it true that we are the only animals who can do that [we can predict and understand the consequences of our actions]?

            Counter examples : birds designing tools for extracting rewards from jars ; apes (possibly some monkeys too) cooperating to attain rewards which one ape working independently could not attain.

    • Posted January 18, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.


    • Posted January 19, 2019 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      And they need the “contracausal” part, as Mikeyc points out. With “mere” compatibilist free will, God would be co-responsible for all human crimes.

  3. Evan Plommer
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Although he dresses it up a bit, Egnor like so many chipping in on this equates free will with people having choices. I heard a panel on BBC’s Arts and Ideas podcast a couple of years ago discussing free will, Several of the participants stated that they were in a favour of a society where we “had choices”. There wasn’t even a base level understanding about what the topic was about: they seemed to see it as a component of the political realm.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Many of the conditions listed – e.g. mental illness- are entirely dependent on _knowng_ of such a condition. Usually it’s unknown what is below the surface of any person’s mind.

    So in the court of law, they might bring a doctor to take the stand, because it serves as evidence, for a _known_ condition. But what if an individual has undiagnosed conditions? I know that can be a mess in the courtroom but I think such notions do not help the case for free will.

  5. Andrew
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    The religious must fight for the idea of Free Will or they lose the Problem of Evil debate. You can’t blame God for evil because man has been given the free will to choose and he chooses evil. It’s not God’s responsibility or fault that millions of kids die each year, it’s mans sinful use of his free will.
    After all, God can’t be an evil a-hole (right?) or he might as well not exist.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Just as they have to fight for the idea of Original Sin. Without Adam and Eve and talking snakes and forbidden fruit, sin would have never came to be. And if A&E didn’t “fall” there would be no need for Jesus to save all the hapless, evil humans.

      Wasn’t there some advice in the Bible about not building on weak foundations like sand?

    • Zetopan
      Posted January 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      The ancient Hebrew god was recognized as both good and evil, as the biblical old testament clearly shows. The Christian new testament tried to alter that into two separate gods, after exposure to Persian dualism. Of course it is all fables built on top of other fables, something about which believers *must* always remain oblivious to maintain their “faith”*.

      *An irrational conviction that some moronic absurdity is actually “true”, even though it most often requires redefining “true”.

  6. Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I absolutely agree! His definition gives a free rein for anyone to commit a crime and then deny any responsibility!

  7. Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    “Vengeance is mine, saith the lord.”

  8. rom
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Funnily enough without guilt and innocence … we are back in the Garden of Eden, metaphorically speaking. The original sin was to start thinking in terms of good and evil. The Abrahamic religions have been doing this [committing the original sin] ever since. Egnor seems to think this is somehow a sensible thing? Sad really.

    There is something strange about the connotation of the word ‘punishment’ in all this. It seems to imply the word hurt. I think ‘consequence’ while not perfect is a better description of what we should be chasing after.

  9. Posted January 18, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Egnor is wrong, if not narrow-minded, short sighted, and ignorant about what is going on with our criminal system. It extends now far more than it ever has into prevention.

    Education systems align themselves with increasing success to prevent future crimes, particularly violent ones.

    The criminal justice system will eventually evolve completely into a deterministic, socially and culturally engineered controlled system that prevents crime from happening. That’s using determinism for good.

    Egnor is stuck on the provincial: what about the criminals of today? Determinism that works asks what about the criminals tomorrow.

    Determinism presents crime. Believing in free will makes people slaves to retributivism.

  10. Posted January 18, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Most people believe in contra causal freewill because, with all due respect, they haven’t thought through the issues.
    Most people who have thought through the issues are compatibilists, and believe that will is as free as it needs to be by having actions caused in the right way (but they usually also believe that the concpet of “will” is a hangover from dualism which falls apart under scrutiny too).
    Some folk who have studied some biology/neuroscience (Prof Ceiling Cat, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Bob Sapolsky) believe in ridding the world of the concept of free will, but (once again, with all due respect) are somewhat sketchy about what they are going to replace it with.
    And they need to offer the rest of us something.
    Here’s why:
    1) Imagine I hurl Andy into the path of Bill and Bill ends up under a truck. Lets call this level of responsibility for Bills death (at Andy’s door) level 1. He’s a helpless missile–but a link in the causal chain nonetheless.
    2) Now imagine Andy has a brain tumor that seriously damages his inhibitory centres. He commits horrible crimes on Bill. When we remove the tumor the stops (and feels horrible remorse–fat lot of good that does Bill). Let’s call this level 2
    3) Andy feels the tumor coming back and decides he likes the carefree lifestyle free of moral emotions this affords. He declines to get it removed. Bill suffers again. Let’s call this level 3 responsiblity
    4) Andy has no known brain abnormaility but he enjoys sitting down of an evening to sadistically plans murders which he then executes (on poor Bill again) with glee. Lets call this level 4
    The determinists–who ex hypothesi don’t care what the cause of the actions is–just so long as it’s caused–are willing to collapse all these levels into one another. The onus, it seems to me, is on them to argue what the benefit is of doing this. Remember–its the compatibilists who care how its caused, the determinsists only care (and can only care) about the fact of its being caused. Which it is.
    The compatibilitists have a ready story for what constitutes moral responsbility, and its not all or nothing–it has gradations, and nuances. Things have to be caused in the right way to invoke moralist, law, etc. There is room for history, character, diminished responsiblity, even moral luck.
    It’s not clear that the incompatibilists can do the same, or what they are offering that is worth dispensing with these (admittedly messy–but useful) concepts?

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Well put. I hope this brings some illuminating responses.

    • rom
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Treat the different Andrews according to the likelihood of rehabilitation.

      Stuff moral responsibility … if you’ll excuse my French.

      Morality and free will are unnecessary concepts. Lazy shorthand perhaps.

    • rom
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Andy 1
      You are the proximate cause. It is you that needs rehabilitation.
      Andy 2
      The tumour is the proximate cause, it needs removing.
      Andy 3
      Probably needs the tumour coming back. Probably needs removing, but if he does not want to, psychiatric care seems appropriate. This of course is reminiscent of the Virginia pedophile in the early 2000s.
      Andy 4
      Could be a socio/psychopath … psychiatric care is indicated.

      See no need for discussion regarding morality or free will.

      • rom
        Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Andy 3
        Probably the tumour is coming back

      • Posted January 21, 2019 at 4:57 am | Permalink

        But the tumor isn’t the proximate cause. Tumors can’t have desires. They can only suppress inhibitions. Incidentally, this is not conceptual–this actually happens
        The problem for incompatibiltists isn’t that the actions are determined. We all (at least, the non-religious) knew that.
        The problem is that actionst they are OVER-determined. There is a morass of causation in there and by excluding certain ways of thinking about it (moral responsibility ones) they have tied one hand behind their backs.
        Just to be clear–there is absolutely no reason for a compatibilist to be forced to believe in hideous punishments, to be anti-rehabilitation or any of these other charges. The onus is on the incompatibilitst to say “Our new streamlined ontology does all the work of your previous ones, and is shinier too!”
        Chance and necessity are fine slogans for biology but I challenge anyone to provide evidence that they conduct their day to day affairs with other humans under those descriptions and no others
        I maintain that incompatibilism does not do the work of the earlier accounts of human interaction. At present its a series of promisory notes. We have sophisticated accounts of moral reasoning, the differences between deep and surface ways of thinking about ehtics, about the way that people can seek reform, wish for redemption, decry their earlier behavior, have meanignful and meaningless lives, and so on. We call these things art, literature, philosophy (or, we did, until post-modernisms came along and muddied everything).
        Once again–I am totally unclear on what an incompatibilist is offering that can replace any of these things.

  11. Linda Calhoun
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Several commenters above have alluded to this, but no one has addressed it directly.

    The religious are ENJOYING their retribution/revenge. It’s like a drug, and they’re not going to give it up easily or willingly.

    A good deal of their argument is rationalization for that enjoyment.

    Also, some of what’s going on with them is that Christianity in particular gives them an excuse to not have to face how much they enjoy their violence. It’s LOVE, donchaknow, when we beat our kids. 28 states in our country have religious exemptions for child abuse. Why on earth would they need an exemption if they weren’t violent?


    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted January 19, 2019 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      Wasn’t it Thomas Aquinas (I’m not 100% sure) that stated that one of the great pleasures for those in Heaven would be seeing the sinners suffer in Hell?

      • Posted January 21, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        There’s a Simpsons cartoon where that sentiment is more or less given to Reverend Lovejoy.

    • another fred
      Posted January 19, 2019 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      “The religious are ENJOYING their retribution/revenge. It’s like a drug, and they’re not going to give it up easily or willingly.”

      True enough. Now consider that the “enjoyment” (probably a dopamine reward, but also probably more complex than that) that humans get from punishing others is part of our evolutionary heritage and serves a purpose*. It is one thing to recognize when aspects of our evolved psychology gets distorted (by what rule is this measured?), but quite another to believe that society can function without it.

      We are in the midst of a great experiment to see if we can dispense with conformity – one should not speak too soon for the wheel is still in spin.

      *There is an excellent exposition of this purpose in a chapter “The Conformity Police” in the Book THE GLOBAL BRAIN by Howard Bloom, unfortunately not available online, but the gist of it is that enforcers of conformity are the glue that holds human societies together.

    • phil
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      Funny thing is that when a religious person is caught doing something wrong they sometimes cite their faith as a reason why the judge should go easy on them. Remember the case when Mrs Tony Blair reduced the sentence of a Muslim man for breaking another man’s jaw?

      I was once the subject of an unflattering comparison. A manager came around to hose me down and said, in the miscreant’s defence, “He’s a good Christian lad.”

      I submit Your Honour that the evidence is otherwise, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  12. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    What makes me more and more wary about this no-free-will-because-of-strict-determinsim issue in relation to the justice system is the obvious fact that the acceptance of determinism here is required f o r a certain goal. “Acceptance of the dogma is necessary in order to function in a certain desirable way”. This is structurally not different from a religious stance. Is it?
    It is quite possible, as evident, to build a humane – in every reasonable sense of this word – justice system without ever alluding to determinism.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    … the flaccid organ of the Discovery Institute.

    We all see what you did there.

    If the Good Lord wanted it to be otherwise, He’d’ve grown Viagra on a tree in the Garden of Eden.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      In a way, the fruit could be metaphorical Viagra. I think if they lived in Eden, and never ate the fruit, presumably they would die virgins. The fruit gave them knowledge, they became sexual and bam, the prude Lord sayeth: “You disgust me! Get the hell out!” And what is it called when you have sex with one of your ribs anyway? Intracostalcoitus?

      • phil
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        Well that all hinges on which version of the Genesis stories you accept. In the other both Adam and Eve were made from dust IIRC (probably butt dust). And remember what happened to Onan when he spilt his seed on the ground.

  14. Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    If you think that belief or disbelief in free will has no ramifications for the justice system, just consider Egnor’s view that contracausal free will justifies retributive punishment.

    It certainly changes the *commentary* about the justice system by such as Egnor.

    But let’s get down to actual changes. Suppose a man kidnaps, rapes and murders a woman. Currently he gets locked up for a large number of years for retribution, deterrence, removal of a danger from society, and with some hope of rehabilitation.

    After acceptance of determinism he gets locked up for a large number of years for deterrence, removal of a danger from society, and with some hope of rehabilitation.

    What other changes are people suggesting?

    • Posted January 18, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      The incarceration system of Norway. Where during imprisonment the persons are put into a significantly more robust program of rehab and skill training. They have an real chance of making good once they get out and most of them do.
      Also such a society will treat its poor much better, since there is the general understanding that their lot is not their fault. Unlike how it is here.
      Finally, a significantly lighter response to drug crimes, which is an enormous burden since so many are imprisoned for really no crime at all except for smoking or injecting junk into their body.
      Lest anyone think that is a bad thing – being nicer to criminals and to the poor – remember that their crime rate and rate of recidivism is significantly low. This sounds like a good system to me.

      • Posted January 18, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        None of that requires a big philosophical argument over the realities of “free will” (and didn’t evolve in Norway as a result of a philosophical argument over free will).

        • Posted January 21, 2019 at 5:00 am | Permalink

          Quite. Although it could be reasonably argued that punishment and rehabilitation pull in somewhat orthogonal directions. But a compatibilist ontology is perfectly fine with that. Indeed–can see it as a moral AND an empirical necessity. Wheras an incompatibilist (because they have morally hamstrung themselves) has to rely on empirical claims alone. And, lets face it–they are shaky. Lots of rehab doesnt work and lots of people re-offend

    • Posted January 18, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Lots, and you know it.

      1. No capital punishment
      2. No putting prisoners in inhumane,cruel,and non-deterrent things like “shoe” prisons and solitary confinement.
      3. More money spent on rehabilitation.

      And there are more. Yes, people can suggest all these things without having them emanate from determinism, but for some reason it’s the hard determinists rather than the compatibilists who tend to emphasize this issue.

      • Diane G
        Posted January 18, 2019 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

        I think Coel covered that by eliminating retribution from his second scenario.

      • Posted January 19, 2019 at 3:16 am | Permalink

        The rest of the English-speaking world has already abolished capital punishment, and yet I suspect (guessing a bit) that they would give similar answers to Americans on philosophical questions about free will.

        They would, on the whole, be much less religious than the Americans, and so fewer would think like Egnor, and more would take a pragmatic, compatibilist approach to the issues.

      • Posted January 21, 2019 at 5:06 am | Permalink

        If the idea is that retribution is some evolutionary holdout from the days when reputation for vengeance was your only protection (and thats a perfectly sound idea), then isn’t this covered by the fact that the state has already taken over this function? There is some evidence for this already (for example, a lot of people feel psychologically and emotionaly let down by a jystice system that marginalises victims). So–we are already (imperfectly) doing this.
        We could equally well run the argument the other way. Let’s say I buy the incompatibilist line and furthermore, as a neurologist, I have a pretty good sense of who will commit crimes, who can actually benefit from rehabilitation, etc. I can envisiage a much more draconian (incompatibilist) system of pre-crime or life without possibility of parole (or redemption) based on my determinsitic predictions of liekly behavior.
        “Lock them up for pre-crime” could be a much much harsher system than even the one we have now. Its hard to see what moral objections could be raised to it. For an incompatibilist, at any rate.

    • phil
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      A powerful change would be to reduce the reasons some people are caught up in crime, such as a reduction in poverty, and systemic racism (Australia suffers from that too).

      Also, I read recently (probably Bernie “Pinko” Sanders) that some people in the US commit crime to get gaoled so they can get health care that they can’t afford on the outside. That is just perverse.

  15. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    This is just another reason why religion is so bad for human reason and understanding. The dogma of religion just smothers out all thought. Can’t have evolution. Can’t have anything but free will. It was all written down by some stone age people 2000 years ago, how could they be wrong.

  16. Posted January 18, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry, good to have this documented for future reference.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Egnor is correct that our current justice system presupposes the existence of contra-causal free will. But it does not follow, as Egnor seems to think it does, that our sentencing system is based on a retribution model.

    Retribution (or, as it is known in its more temperate form, “just deserts”) is but one model among many — including rehabilitation, specific deterrence, general deterrence, and incapacitation — that informs our penological system. That system has accreted over centuries and is as much a product of experience and trial-and-error as it is of logic and theory. Some of the factors considered are more efficacious than others, and some would likely survive for use in a criminal justice system modeled on determinism.

    In any event, our extant justice system works as a whole better than most of its alternatives. To play off a metaphor employed in a different context by Justice Robert Jackson (undoubtedly the most literate and articulate autodidact ever to sit on our highest court), sometimes you can build a sturdy wall out of misshapen stones.

    • Posted January 23, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Our justice system presupposes the existence of mens rea, not contra-causal free will.
      Once identity has been legally established (are you the perp?) then the questions the court are interested in are
      1) Did you know that what you did was wrong (mens rea)?
      2) Are you likely to do it again? (Remorse etc when looking for parole)
      If you fail at (1) you are not guilty (by reason of insanity or dimished responsibility perhaps) but you are stil considered dangerous–but needing treatment. The cause of your action was taken ot be a unsound mind. It causes things–just badly and in ways that wont respond to remorse or punishment because you cant admit of guilt.
      Now–theres lots mixed up in here. Not least, that the whole idea of mental illness does not overlap with insanity and, in any case, is a much shakier set of constructs thna physical illness. But it has nothing to say about whether your will was contra-causal.

  18. Roo
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Random thoughts, in no particular order:

    – At at a totally pragmatic level, I am agnostic regarding Egnor’s views on the *outcomes of simply doing away with the concept of free will. It has had a substantial role in shaping liberal democracies, historically.

    – Having said that, the more I reflect on it, the more I think the idea of contracausal free will has *already shifted dramatically, not necessarily because people frame it in those terms, but because there is more understanding of and sympathy for ‘why people do the things they do’. If a person is a juvenile or has a diagnosis that means they need to live in a group home or residential treatment center, there are *very strict rules regarding how they are to be treated (which, let me be clear, I am in agreement with and very much support), and it doesn’t matter if they kick, bite, punch you in the face, etc. The idea of seeking ‘retribution’ in such a setting would rightfully be seen as horrific. Behavior plans, yes, to the degree that data shows they are really helping to *change a harmful behavior (I find Egnor’s stance on retributive justice here a bit odd, considering he’s a Christian – after all, no good parent says they punish their child because they want them to suffer for what they did. Perhaps he’s picturing the other side, i.e., a good parent doesn’t simply tell a child “don’t worry, it’s not your fault!” in response to every misdeed either – but I think both sides of that picture are worth remembering. Or, alternately, maybe he is thinking of the rule of law [i.e., you hold even your brother or your best friend to the same standard as everyone else when you respect a nation’s laws,] which is very much admirable – but this topic encompasses rule of law for *everyone, not exemptions for a few. I can see how the idea of ‘they couldn’t help it’ invokes images of excuse-making and favoritism, though.)

    – I don’t the the topic of ‘pre-crime’ has much to do with free will. Unless Catholicism teaches something different, Christians I have heard very much *do say that the future has been predictable to God (In cases such as Judas, for example, it’s generally presented that God 100% knew what was going to happen. A Story B ‘that could have happened, given Judas’s free will’ for the Resurrection is never mentioned or proposed, one wherein Judas saw the error of his ways in time. It is pretty much presumed that once Christ was born everything else would happen as planned. The same thinking is invoked in the case of Mary – a sort of “she could have said no to God because of her free will but in reality she was *never going to say no to God because of her perfect understanding” paradoxical thinking.) Physicists, on the other hand, say the future may be impossible to predict. So it’s not as if the free will crowd and the ‘predictability’ crowd actually line up all that much. I think topics like pre-crime get into no less important but somewhat different philosophical discussions of “What we mean by morality” (I gather Jerry takes it as axiomatic that we should *not take a utilitarian stance in meting out punishment if retribution provides some level of subjective happiness to the victims, for example. I agree, but this is an example of how the underpinnings of moral philosophy go well beyond free will, to my mind.)

    • Posted January 23, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Well, if we take deterimism seriously then the trend has to be towards pre-cime does it not? Bob Sapolsky pretty much says as much. At the moment we can certainly predict recidivism way better than chance (by looking at frontal lobe activity mainly) but thats a long way from pre-crime. But thats an empirical slope we are on, and one th eincompatibilists are happy (presumably?) for us to be on as its the logical conclusion. And its not inherently a daft idea–if I know to a moral certainty that if I release a particualr criminal they are going to rape again (and we can be dang sure in some cases) then am I not being grossly irresponsible to let them out?
      I would agree that the criminal justice system is being pulled in a lot of contradictory directions–retirbution, reform, confinmement and social work being only some of its roles. But–if thats a mess then our science of predicting behavior wont help us solve it. Not yet, anyway

  19. Posted January 18, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Adherents to the Christian religion can never accept that we lack free will. They will always argue against this view. One might as well have them accept that there is no Original Sin, Immaculate Conception, or Resurrection.

    • Serendipitydawg
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      It pretty much goes with the territory, otherwise why would people be consigned to hell? Because they chose to do whatever bad thing the church decided deserves it.

      Without this type of free will the blame would fall on… but it can’t, he’s… wait, I know this one…

      • phil
        Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        As has been said before, the original sin was in planting the tree and allowing temptation.

        And can we clear up this point: is there free will in heaven, but no evil? How did that happen? Did god create heaven and earth, but just stuffed up with earth? Is earth an experiment that went wrong, and if that’s the case why isn’t god to blame? Oh that’s right, he tried to hide his blunder by washing the slate clean.

    • Roo
      Posted January 18, 2019 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      My interpretation is that Western religions are often presented dualistically, and so traditionally you get what appear to be two poles – ‘natural will’ and ‘divine will’. (I’m curious as to the historical development of the ‘free’ part to the ‘natural’ side. A part of me wonders if it was originally meant simply to convey a lack of outside coercion or an angry, tribal god who literally forced people to do things, vs. proposing a metaphysical concept that worked beyond the furthest bounds of determinism. How much were people even thinking much about determinism 2,000 years ago? But I digress.) So it’s all ego on the one side and all ‘God who is something other than the ego’ on the other. The goal, in a sense, is actually to use free will to give *up free will, though, so that other element is there.

      Another example – Christianity has hellfire on the one hand and divine forgiveness – essentially a break between the usual chain of cause-and-effect – on the other. I applaud the latter – we wouldn’t even be discussing the idea of shielding criminals from additional suffering, at our own collective time and expense, if such an impulse were not strongly present – and think the former may be a representation of life as it usually works (if you step on a rake expect a whack in the head, no matter how innocent you are). In some ways Christianity is far *more forgiving than what determinism could ever allow for (the whole ‘deathbed conversion’ thing after a horrible life and all that.)

      Whether that sort of presentation was / is simply the necessary one for Western minds, I don’t know – but I will say that Christianity does feature both free will and 100% ‘doing God’s will’ (presumably the opposite); and both hellfire and total forgiveness without any recompense at all.

    • another fred
      Posted January 19, 2019 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      “Adherents to the Christian religion can never accept that we lack free will.”

      And then there is the Dutch Reformed Church.

      Maybe look up TULIP.

    • Posted January 21, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Calvinists (traditionally – there have been variations) deny it.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 18, 2019 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I could not care less for philosophical religious “free will”, especially of Egnor adheres to it – he is responsible for his superstitions. Of course I agree on the legal system anyway.

    But this is inhumane:

    The law then is not merely or even primarily a deterrent. It is first and foremost retribution. Retribution in law is not bad. In fact, it is the cornerstone of a legal system that respects the full humanity — the genuine freedom — of citizens.

    This is Egnor in full Bronze Age mode, not caring for the modern justice system.

    Or to paraphrase the Egnorant one: ‘A society without recognition of sequestration, reformation, and deterrence is a totalitarian hell predicated on fulfillment of other’s emotions underlying retribution. Where there are no individual rights and responsibilities, there can be no Human Rights.’

  21. Posted January 18, 2019 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t that whole article an argument from the consequent? What one prefers has no bearing on what’s true.


  22. Posted January 18, 2019 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    This still makes no sense, I’m afraid.

    “If you think that belief or disbelief in free will has no ramifications for the justice system, just consider Egnor’s view that contracausal free will justifies retributive punishment.”

    It is irrelevant, because everything is already factored into the grand clockwork. You cannot stop arguing about it, because that’s determined, Dennett cannot agree, because that’s determined, and when someone changes their mind, then that’s determined, too.

    Suppose that in the future, we know that “Archie” was the last person killed due to a death penalty. That makes “Bob” the first person who is spared. Since it would always come out that way, determinism!, no oughts, no kvetching, no wishing, wanting changes anything beyond the trivial notion that we, as inmates of reality don’t know what will be, and will argue and debate, “change” minds in the banal sense.

    But no matter what we do, however we argue, however “fatalism” spreads because of misunderstood free will, no matter whether libertarian free will becomes fashionable, there is no scenario where where Bob dies or Archie lives. This is why there are no ramifications beyond the trivially true sense that we have to go through the motions first so that a bill is signed that makes Archie the last person who is executed by a state.

    Which leads to a form of compatibilism, in my view, since from inside reality, things haven’t happened yet and our minds still compute the path we will take.

  23. Posted January 19, 2019 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I’m sure that if you dug into Roman history, you could find religionists forecasting all kinds of bad consequences from loss of faith. “Without Eros, there can be no such thing as Erotic love! Without Eros, there is only sex!” And thus, they’d predict that lovers would no longer care for each other, partners would simply use each other, after the loss of the Roman gods.

    And yet, we still have erotic love, and recognize it, even when nobody believes in Eros. And when nobody believes in contra-causality, we’ll still have and recognize free will.

    People *say* their religion is the foundation of all sorts of things. Most of them probably believe it too. But that doesn’t make them right.

    • phil
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      > …nobody believes in Eros.

      Speak for yourself. 😉

      > People *say* their religion is the foundation of all sorts of things. Most of them probably believe it too. But that doesn’t make them right.

      A very good point.

  24. FB
    Posted January 19, 2019 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Retribution and deterrance look very similar. In the Roman Empire, for example, crucifixion was mainly deterrance, and it wasn’t always effective.

    • phil
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely. I am reminded of reports from British SOE operatives in France who were assisted by the French. Some would point out the very real danger of retribution from the Nazis, and the French would reply “Don’t worry about us, just go and stick it to them.”

      Mind you, I suppose rehabilitation might not always work, but I don’t think that is a good enough reason on its own not to try. Sometimes it does work and productive citizens are returned to society.

      I think it is also instructive to see what happened to convicts sent from Britain to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many were guilty of stealing stuff to feed their families. Upon emancipation they built productive, successful lives and helped build a new nation.

  25. another fred
    Posted January 19, 2019 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    This whole discussion has something of an angels dancing on the head of a pin feeling to me.

    Since this is a blog about evolution shouldn’t natural selection and human self domestication be considered? After all, that is what is going on, and has been for at least a million years (H. erectus). We make all kinds of fancy filigreed rationalizations for our actions and institutions, but that is what is going on.

    Civilization is not an unalloyed good. The proposition that there is some “gold standard” to which we should be held is a religious one that is quite at odds with science.

    I’ve known five murderers in my life, one of whom is serving life in a prison not too far from where I sit. That individual very likely has some organic defect in his brain that “causes” or lets him act impulsively, but there are at least three graves (possibly more) of his victims back home. How many of you have dealt at close range with the real world where people kill and die?

    We do not get choices between perfect good and perfect evil in this world, but there are consequences to our choices.

  26. Posted January 19, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    The cost of criminal acts is borne by society as a whole, we all pay in some form or another.
    Taxes for maintaining a police force comes to mind.
    On one point, Agnor has a paying for retribution whereas Prof(E) would have us pay for rehabilitation.
    Which of these seems more in line with cultural enlightenment?
    One is inherently ‘baying for blood’ justice and the other, more the understanding of human ontology.
    No perfect outcomes (if it’s not perfect to start with, how could you expect it) just progress to better (co-existence) outcomes.

  27. Posted January 20, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    ” You are responsible for the crime and that you are responsible (but in my opinion not morally responsible because you could not decide), and so you must bear the consequences.”

    Not morally responsible can be equated with acting without guilt.

    Guilt means reproachability, guilt implies in any legal system the possibility of “he could have acted differently”.

    The punishment depends on the severity of the guilt: intention, conditional intent, negligence, the perpetrator thus receives 1 year, 5 years in prison or even life.
    If the offender had a serious childhood that traumatized him or if he suffers from a recognized mental illness (psychosis), the punishment can be alleviated, the accusation of guilt is lower, since the legal system assumes in these cases that the offender could not decide as easily against the offence as a healthy person, his free will is understood as restricted.

    The extent, the severity of the guilt is the yardstick for the punishment nowadays.

    If it is recognized that there is no freedom of will, then there is no more guilt, but only causal causation. Just like a falling branch that leads to the death of a human being, or a rabid dog that bites a man and causes his death are only causal causes. In a figurative sense one could say that the tree, the dog, was to blame for man’s death, but no one still means this in the sense of: accusably guilty,
    This means that one needs a completely new system of standards by which punishment has to orient itself; if this can no longer be found in individual guilt, then it will have to orient itself by other standards, and this will then be primarily the dangerousness attributed to the perpetrator, or it will be the mere presumption of his further dangerousness. And of course there is still the concept of deterrence, but with this all arbitrariness is opened door and gate, one should be aware of this.

    • Roo
      Posted January 20, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      I think the role of personal responsibility becomes a bit more nuanced and interesting when considering much lesser crimes. The most violent, hardened criminals are sort of an extreme end of the spectrum – in that case, keeping other people safe and having the societal resources to do so humanely may well be the biggest issue.

      I think examples of lesser, more everyday issues that most of us can relate to at least somewhat bring up more generally applicable questions and intuitions. For example, spending. I think that is a more universal impulse control struggle, like dieting. So consider the question – why couldn’t we have a “Well you didn’t have free will so instant forgiveness” policy on maxed out credit cards? I think from that a picture of our moral intuitions begins to follow and take shape, i.e.:

      – Well of course instant debt forgiveness would actually *cause people who otherwise would have shown restraint to max out their cards as well.

      – But then, for that small group for whom deterrents didn’t work, you still can’t really blame them, without free will, so why force them to ‘suffer’ by paying the money back for something that wasn’t their fault? (By way of contrasting example, if someone was bankrupt after an unforeseen illness that meant they couldn’t work and were hit with huge hospital bills, our attitude would be instantly forgiving – but really, if you fully don’t believe in free will, your intuitions would be the same in both cases [I must admit that while philosophically I don’t believe in free will, I still have the felt intuition that the former person is culpable and the latter is not])

      – But if you forgive the small ‘non-deterred group’ of all debt, you’re back to square one. Also, there’s a strong intuition that they are the ‘responsible party’, and if you did away with responsible agents who make commitments and are held accountable for those commitments then you would have anarchy – a world where contracts, oaths, and so on mean nothing, as anyone can claim an “I couldn’t help it” defense.

      – That said, clearly some part of our psychology leans towards what I think is philosophically true (no free will), when you look at how we’ve done things such as eliminate debtor’s prison, restructured bankruptcy laws, added mandatory financial education classes in some places, called on credit card companies to end practices that contribute to problems, and so on. It’s sort of a double sided coin where on the one side we have to have individual agents who are accountable for their words, commitments, and actions – and if we didn’t have those chains of personal accountability, society couldn’t function. On the other, I think there is an understanding that nobody chooses their role in that web of relationships in the most ultimate way, and generally if we want to improve it we look to causal chains – either within individual people (via psychology, counseling, education, etc.), or in society at large. It makes little sense to change nothing all around and simply tell people to ‘will harder’ (now that I think of it even telling them *that, if you do, however, is a deterministic step, an attempt to influence via causality, thus sort of further affirming it.)

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