Muddled thinking about determinism at the Discovery Institute

For some reason the Discovery Institute has a bit of an obsession with me, as they monitor this site and kvetch whenever I say something they can kvetch about at the no-comments-allowed Evolution News site. Usually it’s either Michael Egnor or David Klinghoffer doing the hatchet job, but this time we have Andrew Jones, someone new to me, going after my views on free will. Because the Discovery Institute has totally failed to advance the acceptance of Intelligent Design (the Wedge Document from 1998 said that by 2018 they expected “to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science” LOL!), they spend their time carping about other stuff.

In this case, Jones is carping about my view of free will, which is that we don’t have it in any libertarian sense. I’m a hard determinist, and thus feel that criminals don’t have a choice about committing crimes. This makes the concept of “moral responsibility” problematic, and, I’ve argued, should be taken into account when reforming the criminal justice system.

Jones disagrees, but it’s not clear what he disagrees with. Click on the screenshot to read the article:

Their initial kvetch is with my claim that criminals don’t have a “choice”, though Jones never really says what he means by “choice”.  Here’s my statement that they don’t like:

Jerry Coyne recently said a very silly thing, and Michael Egnor and Granville Sewell have both called him out for it already. Here it is:

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.

Jerry Coyne thinks that criminals don’t have a “choice.” (What are those quotation marks doing there?)

Those quotation marks are clearly there because, as anybody with more than one neuron would know from my writing, the idea of “choice” as “libertarian, you-could-have-done-otherwise” choice, which is most people’s notion of free will, is an illusion. Thus the quotes.

Then Jones gets really muddled. He admits that there are quasi-deterministic causes of crime, and even admits that he’s a determinist like me. But then his head goes up his fundament as he claims that there can be some kind of “free choice” on top of determinism. To wit:

Coyne is quite right that we should acknowledge that there are systematic causes of crime, that we should address them. There are many factors that not only correlate with but really do contribute causally to crime. Poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of family stability, lack of a place within a society (and sometimes merely the perception of these things in a noxious subculture) objectively make a person more likely to commit crime.

. . . But why should this lead to a denial of free will? Why should the existence of one prior kind of causation exclude the existence of another later kind of causation? Who said there is a unit sum of blame to be assigned, and that you can get away with murder just because someone else is also to blame? Even if the influence of poverty (for example) was so strong that statistically, every poor person became a mugger, it is still true that no one will actually commit a mugging unless they choose to. No matter what evil influences there may be on a person, the moment he chooses to do evil (Oops did I say “he”? How sexist!), a line has been crossed.

The line that has been crossed is that somebody has committed a crime. That person didn’t freely choose to commit a crime, and could not have not committed that crime. So what is the “later kind of causation”? Jones implies that this may be some kind of libertarian choice. If he doesn’t mean that, what does he mean by saying “no one will actually commit a mugging unless they choose to.” If he’s a determinist, what the means is “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless they commit a mugging.” (Alternatively: “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless the laws of physics have determined that they’ll commit a mugging.”)

But—get this—Jones says he’s a determinist! In fact, a compatibilist, who accepts determinism but thinks that there’s some construal of “free will” that allows determinism. The sad bit is that he doesn’t say what that construal is. And so he gets muddled up:

Let me own up: I am a determinist like [Coyne], but that does not mean I have to deny the self-evident fact of free will: I know (truly) that I make free choices all the time. I know that if I don’t make them, they will not be made, and I know that I am responsible for them. If determinism is also true, that does not mean that free will is false. It could be simply that there is a problem with the philosophical abstraction called “libertarian free will” (which seems to assert indeterminism as a fundamentalist tenet). I won’t even attempt to explain here what the problem might be, but I will say that I call myself a compatibilist, as do most of the mainstream academy, many ID proponents, and many religious people. 

He doesn’t explain what the possible problem with libertarian free will is, but note that by professing determinism—and I’m not sure Jones even grasps what determinism is—he puts himself at odds not just with his compatriots at the Discovery Institute, but with most religious people—indeed, most people in general. You know what they call a religious person who’s a determinist? A Calvinist!

Jones is talking nonsense here, failing to define his terms, including “free will.” With that failure, his argument becomes incoherent. If he agrees with me on determinism, then why does he think that “free choice” can be laid atop determinism? What does he mean by that?

It’s best not to parse Jones too much, as he doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. The point of his screed, however, it to indict me however he can, and he also does that by adding that I must have a big skeleton in my closet:

This leaves me wondering why people like Jerry Coyne make these arguments. Is he trying to evade responsibility for something? Does he have a guilty conscience? Does he want to convince himself that the feeling of badness is an unfortunate biological or cultural leftover, and not the voice of reason itself?

Let me be clear. I am not trying to evade responsibility for something bad, nor do not have a guilty conscience. What I’ll add is that Jones’s essay is equivalent to what comes out of the south end of a cow facing north.

71 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    “intelligent design theory”

    They must mean – at best – “intelligent design hypothesis”, because theories incorporate observations of nature.

  2. Mark
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Jones asked “Do you think we are all monkeys or something?”

    No. Aren’t we great apes?

    • darrelle
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      From the Wikipedia entry on Catarrhini.

      “The distinction between apes and monkeys is complicated by the traditional paraphyly of monkeys: Apes emerged as a sister group of Old World Monkeys in the catarrhines, which are a sister group of New World Monkeys. Therefore, cladistically, apes, catarrhines and related contemporary extinct groups such as Parapithecidaea are monkeys as well, for any consistent definition of “monkey”.”

      To quote Lord John Whorfin, “Laugh-a-while-a-you can a-monkey boy!!11!”

      • Mark
        Posted January 31, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        So, you’re saying we are monkeys…

        • Posted February 1, 2019 at 12:50 am | Permalink

          We’re monophyletic monkeys, which, coincidentally, wouldn’t be a bad name for a band.

          -Ryan

          • darrelle
            Posted February 1, 2019 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            Very nice!

          • Mark
            Posted February 1, 2019 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            Hey Hey we’re The Monophyletic Monkees…!

      • Filippo
        Posted February 1, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        On my long “To Do” list has been looking up the definition of “catarrh”: “excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane.”

        I reasonably gather that catarrhines are somehow classified on account of their nasal discharges.

  3. Mike Anderson
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    From the article in question:

    <blockquote?To deny this is not only to deny the reality and dignity of human agents, it is to deny common sense itself.

    Appealing to common sense – what could go wrong?

  4. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Andrew Jones Linkedin page

    WORK

    Discovery Institute
    Research Scientist aha ahhahaha
    Jan 2018 – Present
    Greater Seattle Area

    Google
    Software Engineer
    Sep 2015 – Feb 2017
    United States

    The University of Edinburgh
    Postdoctoral Researcher
    University of Edinburgh
    Jan 2011 – Dec 2014
    United Kingdom

    EDUCATION
    The University of Edinburgh

    Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
    Computational Molecular Physics
    2006 – 2010

    Master of Science (M.Sc.)
    Theoretical and Mathematical Physics
    First class honours
    2002 – 2006

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      13 years in academia, and he still doesn’t seem to have learned how to structure an argument!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Not good with natural language at all.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted January 31, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        But, but, but…common sense!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      P.S. I’m always suspicious of creationists – they often lie about their backgrounds or twist their experience [at NASA in charge of the mail room becomes “rocket scientist”].

      So in that spirit of distrust: 🙂

      His Linkedin has no connections to anybody which is unusual & his photo isn’t used anywhere else. One would struggle to get a more common a name in the Anglo world than “Andrew Jones”. I can’t find any mark he has made on the world before the Discovery Institute.

      andrew jones

      I am guessing the Discotute pays him by the article [no need for more salaried staff when they are producing nothing] & he’s smart enough to use a made up name so that he doesn’t ruin his career/earning potential elsewhere. His 13 months of Discotute essays are of an abysmal standard – he continues the DI strategy of picking semantic holes in the arguments of evolutionists. He doesn’t work hard. Nothing to be seen here.

      • Mark
        Posted February 1, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Because most religious people are dishonest in their beliefs, why would we expect them to be honest in anything???

        There is no lie so big, so small, so obvious, or so inept that it is beyond an xian to say it.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Ah. He looks real Andrew P. Jones but has led a quiet, nerd life I guess.

    • Posted February 1, 2019 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      I don’t think doxxing someone is a good idea.

      -Ryan

  5. Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I think what is driving him is the free that sentences and punishment will be reduced for criminals. This raised his emotions and caused him lose the ability to construct logical and sensible arguments. Making clear that no one favors reducing prison time might reduce some of the south end emissions .

    I thought it was amusing that he thinks you are guilty of some past crime or criminal desire. Of course if those comments were directed at me I would not be so amused.

    There are studies that show how to reduce crime. Those show among other things an increased chance of being arrested for a crime based on community arrest rates, and shorted sentences. Longer times in confinement hardens criminals and they learn more about how to commit crimes. Additional police visibility also reduces crime rates.

    • Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      free should be fear

    • Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Change in my argument that he thinks punishments and prison time will be eliminated. He says he fears murderers will go unpunished. No one is making that argument.

      I made the argument in the third paragraph for reduced prison time.

      I need my second cup of copy do I can keep my own comments consistent.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      I think what’s bothering him is that determinism blows most of western religion out of the water.

  6. Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    This leaves me wondering why people like Jerry Coyne make these arguments. Is he trying to evade responsibility for something? Does he have a guilty conscience?

    I forget — is this poisoning the well? Or an ad hominem?

    Either way, Jones should know better! What difference does it make whether Jerry is trying to assuage a guilty conscience? Is his logic sound? Turns out: it is.

    [I write as someone whose hobby is physical anthropology, and who sees nothing wrong with keeping a skeleton in a closet.]

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    If nothing else he is confusing the hell out of me. Apparently you can be right and wrong at the same time.

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Schlesinger’s Determinism?

  8. Posted January 31, 2019 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Andrew Jones is not clear about anything.
    I enjoy our esteemed host’s turn of phrase: “But then his head goes up his fundament”. Neatly put.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Very expressive- I can see someone extending their head – Alice in Wonderland style – way up in the sky, inferring truths from the air and clouds.

  9. Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I imagine getting a well trained philosopher to work for the DI is hard.

  10. Geoff Toscano
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I can’t get my irrational head round the concept of determinism. Of course everything I do and think is influenced by external factors, but ultimately I’m the one who makes choices, end of story.

    Then my rational side kicks in. When I say that ‘I’ make choices, what on earth does that mean? Who am ‘I’? I’m a complex, multicellular, structure that works in accordance with physical, chemical, and biological laws. My brain is manipulated by blood flow and neurons, compelling me both to make ‘decisions’ but in accordance with that neurological stimulus, whilst at the same time persuading me that somehow I’m making those decisions via an external agency. There is, however, no external agency so if I have genuine, independent, free will, where exactly does it come from?

    • Posted January 31, 2019 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      If it is there, it is undetectable by science and it’s source is completely unknown. Sounds like consciousness. Where does that come from. No answer to that either.

    • Posted February 1, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      I don’t find a human making a choice to be at all mysterious. Computer programs make decisions based on their inputs all the time. Those are decisions. Humans do the same but using different “technology”.

      Most computer programs are predictable, meaning that if we know the input and the program’s current state, we know what it will do. This ability is due to the nature of what is being computed and not the implementation. If we hook a computer program up to an analog input, such a photocell that produces a voltage, and have the program decide whether its brightness is greater than some value, then there are possible inputs for which we can’t predict its decision. Same for humans but in spades.

      • Posted February 2, 2019 at 2:28 am | Permalink

        Paul, I think much of what you say is true. Choice in your terms is not all that mysterious. I guess this is what Coynes calls brain as “meat computer”.

        The trickier stuff is who/what programmed them? And this especially when we get creative. Who/what programmed Newton, Beethoven, Monet? They did things never done before.

        We need a computer that learns or a computer with an abstract enough, multi-layered decision hierarchy that then has the incentive to review it own programming.
        I think that is more like the kind of computer we humans are. (if that makes any sense)

        The unpredictability of that computer would surely be based on more than the grey areas between the information of an analog signal.

        • Posted February 2, 2019 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Sure, we don’t know how the brain works yet but I am sure we will. Perhaps where you and I differ is that I see the brain as just a computer with different hardware and software. I can see no reason to invoke some kind of mysterious computational (or non-computational) mechanism underlying it. Also no reason to think we can’t do the same thing on an electronic computer if our computers are big enough and fast enough.

          Many computer programs “review their own programming”. The brain is just a bigger, more complicated, program. As to what created it, evolution of course. Newton, Beethoven, Monet created something unique but we have computer programs that produce unexpected output all the time. We even have programs that compose music. Perhaps they aren’t that interesting to us but it is important to recognize that evolution produced the listeners’ brains, not just the composers’. They evolved together. It is not a mystery we find their music so compelling. We were designed by evolution for that purpose, among others.

  11. Roger
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    (the Wedge Document from 1998 said that by 2018 they expected “to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science” LOL!)

    One must admire their enthusiasm, naive though it may be. (Not.)

  12. W.T. Effingham
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    It is quite sad that there is still so much dark money chasing so many inept propagandists. “Dominant by 2018” (paraphrasing here) indeed! I wonder where the goalposts are now?

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Jones’s gotcha clocked, man. Determinism’s a dodge, ’cause you got a guilty conscience over somethin’.

    So dumb, it’s kinda funny.

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      True, but then did Jones have any choice about writing something that is equivalent to “what comes out of the south end of a cow facing north”?

  14. Posted January 31, 2019 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    If he’s a determinist, what the means is “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless they commit a mugging.” (Alternatively: “Nobody will actually commit a mugging unless the laws of physics have determined that they’ll commit a mugging.”)

    Jerry and folks, I’m no Creationist but I do have issues with your “hard Determinism”.

    To the above quote, I would contend that Physics has nothing directly to do with choosing to mug someone. The hard physics laws of the universe are Way In The Background at that point.

    Choosing to mug someone is NOT like falling down an elevator shaft. When you make it seem that it is, you commit a category mistake. Criminals can be Responsible for their acts because “Persons” are exactly the kind of complex thing that has Evolved to be able to look at things from different perspectives, including themselves.

    At the point in the present when the mugging was being chosen, the mugger was Not Purely A Mugger, but also a Person that had many other influences and opportunities to possibly choose. We, other Persons, hold him/her responsible for not choosing them, if indeed they did significantly exist in her life.

    From the point of view of the past– your ‘no mugger unless commit mugging’– yes, the winning choice always was to be. Hard Determinism is always hindsight! Like in history, its always written from the point of view of the victor.

    • Posted January 31, 2019 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Physics has nothing to do with choosing to mug someone? Surely you jest. Our brains are meat computers that obey the laws of physics, period. What comes out of our brains reflects, at bottom, the laws of physics.

      I am not committing a category mistake, and you sound like a libertarian who believes that someone could, at any given moment, have chosen to behave otherwise. In that case you think that humans can somehow defy the laws of physics.

      • Posted January 31, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Sorry Jerry to argue Evolution with you, of all people; but Natural Selection has put a lot of layers of complexity between the decisions of persons and billiard balls bumping around on a table.

        Persons are very complex objects and Mother Nature slowly built up a lot of abilities by the time we evolved. In the proper settings, we can use them — and wiggle the outcomes to decide whether we are a mugger or not. Yes, we do have some ability to shift away form some causal chains that determine our behavior to look at them more objectively while still being connected to all the others.

        So, Persons don’t exist at the level of physics, just a bunch of molecules (or electromagnetism) exists and its being pushed a bout by the entirety of the universe. Here on earth we are lucky enough to have evolved some real particular abilities that let us forestall the inevitable causes of physics if only for a while.

        If we are falling down an elevator shaft, no defying the laws; but becoming a mugger is more complicated than that.

        Your foil at the Discovery Institute should not have argued that even if 100% of impoverished people became muggers they still ‘choose’. If 100% mug, then poverty is an elevator shaft that they had nothing to do but fall.

        • Posted January 31, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

          Either you don’t understand determinism and physics, or you’re a dualist, viz. your statement:

          “In the proper settings, we can use them — and wiggle the outcomes to decide whether we are a mugger or not. Yes, we do have some ability to shift away form some causal chains that determine our behavior to look at them more objectively while still being connected to all the others.”

          Your claim here is a libertarian claim: that we can “wiggle the outcomes”, that is, we can Choose otherwise. I’d ask you how we manage to defy the laws of physics like this, or if you are somehow religious and think we have an immaterial spirit that can “wiggle the outcomes”, but I’m done. There is not a shred of evidence for a nonmaterial influence on our behavior, as Sean Carroll notes when he says that the laws of physics completely describe everyday behavior.

          As for your arguing evolution with me, you aren’t. You’re just saying that we are complex beings, as are all creatures. That doesn’t say ANYTHING about whether we can “wiggle the outcomes.”

          You’re a dualist and that’s clear, and I have nothing to say about that nonscientific, wooey attitude. We’re done.

          • Posted February 1, 2019 at 6:35 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the consideration, Mr C.

            I’m trying not to be a dualist but I guess the laws of the entire universe are pushing me there, as they are pushing you to disagree with me. I honestly don’t see how your hard Determinism allows for either of us to be right or wrong. That’s a problem.

            I know that “wiggle the outcomes” is a difficult phrase, but it SEEMS that we can do it, in fact we hold other responsible persons to do it also. How do we think of ourselves without it?

            You raise very good points; Maybe its in the present tense that we have choices and looking at it in the past tense—the choice made—we understand it as determined.

            Your position takes the past tense view and makes it all that exists.

            I need to look at Carroll’s article: Free Will is as Real as Baseball. Thanks.

            • Posted February 1, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

              I found Carroll’s article very interesting and well-written.

              • rom
                Posted February 1, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Could you have done otherwise?.

              • Posted February 1, 2019 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

                Yes, but only if something in my input is/was different. Each decision, like all events in the universe, is not repeatable.

              • Posted February 2, 2019 at 3:05 am | Permalink

                I reread it. And in addition to the above (it is short and clear) found Carroll to be a Compatiblist.

                Dr C, he says that you are right to think that Choice and Free Will have no role to play in the world as described in physics, BUT that is not then good criteria for saying they don’t exist.

                He says they exist in a more confined realm, at a more “emergent” level. That is what I meant when I said “Physics has nothing directly to do with choosing to mug someone. The hard physics laws of the universe are Way In The Background at that point.”

                In the end he “chooses” to believe that the best theory for understanding and predicting human behavior is that we are “rational agents capable of making choices”.

              • Posted February 2, 2019 at 10:30 am | Permalink

                Yes, Carroll (and I) believe that we are talking about two different levels, one emerging from the other but informationally independent. The free will that we think we have is not the free will being discussed by those worried about determinism. Incompatibilism is a misnomer as, in this view, everyday free will exists regardless of whether determinism is true or false.

                I can imagine the counterargument to this point of view is that the two levels aren’t independent. Everything we do depends directly on the rules of physics. So what do I mean by “informationally independent”? It means that, in general, knowing the state at one level doesn’t tell you the state at the other level, In the free will discussion, knowing the physics state doesn’t let you predict what a human will do. Without the ability to predict, it simply doesn’t matter that it is all physics underneath. In fact, maybe the physics we understand is running on yet another computer. Although it is a common science fiction theme, the possibility that the reality we know is a simulation is taken seriously by some theorists. The problem is that we just can’t tell.

              • Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                Paul, I think we are finally getting somewhere.

                SORRY FOR BEING SO LONG! But here goes…..

                There are emergent levels, I call them “more complex levels” and I think that makes sense because they are Not Totally Informationally Independent of that level they Evolved From. They are, as I said, just further In The Background to Personal behavior.

                Not simple human behavior because Persons are Socialized and Held Responsible for their behavior—that’s one of the new levels. And that means we are Responsible to Review our own inclinations (programs, software). We review them In Light Of Standards Set in other parts (sub-routines?) of our lives and our Society.

                DR C IS RIGHT IN THE END, but he just gets there too quickly. In the final ‘decision’ it is the hard core structure of the universe pushing up through us. But all the fun is in the ride up through the various levels.

                In the end humans have to eat, but unlike cows we don’t just wake up each day and start to eat the grass that is nearest to us.

                We are fortunate to live in a Universe that is sufficiently aligned to have allowed Mother Nature to mine, to have stumbled upon, and Developed enough cyclical regularities to have living things (mini-agents), and then more complex living things and their coinciding environment (more adept agents), etc.

                We, Persons, now live in a very “personal” environment (its significantly made for us) that now includes various restaurants and when I stop to Rationally Contemplate which one I want to go to, I run through a series of intellectual filters that are totally appropriate to this setting and come up with my choice. And its cool how that choice so often turns out to be ‘my favorite’ !

                In the end, when I Contemplated, that was the universe finally pushing up through all the layers of emergence, and it came out as ‘my choice’. BUT ALL THE FUN IS IN THE RIDE UP, AND IT SURE BEATS JUST EATING GRASS.

                Sorry for being so long! Maybe this makes some sense.?

                I think it is Dennett’s position so far as I can understand it.

            • Roo
              Posted February 1, 2019 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

              I honestly don’t see how your hard Determinism allows for either of us to be right or wrong. That’s a problem.

              I have thought about this as well, but ultimately think it means that truth exists in layers, not that ‘there is no truth’.

              For example, if someone thinks that 2+2=7, it is entirely true to say that they believe this. That is a factual statement. It is also entirely true to say that they are wrong. (It’s even funny when you think of the phrasing – we can say “You ARE wrong”, as if it’s a fundamental attribute of the person, and yet we in no way shape or form understand this to mean “Obviously you don’t exist because only true things exist”.)

              That said, if more universal truth exists then it will always act as the endpoint towards which people converge over time (That may seem like a controversial statement, but I think when you include emotional, subjective truths along with more impersonal, objective truths, it’s more common sense. If there are right and wrong ways to find happiness then that is a truth that people will stumble upon.) I like the descriptions form Eastern Christianity (obviously you can replace “God” with “Truth” if you are an atheist,) that delineates Divine Will from human’s Natural Will. Natural will, in this framing, always exists in a state of ignorance and thus hesitates, debates, and contemplates, trying to see its way to truth (again, be that a subjective truth – what would be the best choice here – or a scientific one). Divine will is presented more as the absolute realization and manifestation of truth, so that there is no pause or deliberation – if one hypothetically knew how to make everything go exactly as it should go, I suppose, from sinking that golf putt to solving a calculus problem (‘knew’ in the sense of motor movement, emotional intelligence, academic knowledge, and so on,) then there would be nothing but perfect execution and manifestation of the truth. Until then, all humans are framed as living in some degree of ignorance, stumbling around searching for this more complete truth.

        • steve oberski
          Posted January 31, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          As a thought experiment, at what level of complexity does a machine start to “wiggle the outcomes” ?

          Presumably any machine less complex can not “wiggle the outcomes”.

          The only “cause of physics” that “we are lucky enough to have evolved some real particular abilities” to “forestall the inevitable” would be entropy, which is hardly unique to human beings and is strictly temporary and very well explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

          • Posted February 1, 2019 at 6:10 am | Permalink

            Well, its a snow day and I’m off work, so I will give it a a shot.

            “Wiggle the outcomes” in the end might just mean random trial and error based on some abstract standard for success.

            So, some computers now write original good music after given several paradigms of good music to work from. Also, play chess well enough to beat grand master.

            Actually, our abilities are not just to “forestall” entropy. We, and other living things, use physical laws to do a lot of things ‘better’ than ever done before.

            • steve
              Posted February 1, 2019 at 8:10 am | Permalink

              We don’t “use” physical laws, we “are” a manifestation of physical laws.

              • Posted February 1, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                Well, I would think that NASA and Boeing do a pretty good job of using natural laws.
                And that is just the problem that is being discussed: Do people actually DO anything or is it all just stuff that happens to ‘us’.

        • Posted February 1, 2019 at 12:54 am | Permalink

          Natural selection can’t give us magic.

          -Ryan

  15. Roo
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Weird. I get the sense he’s not familiar with the free will debate from a philosophical perspective at all and is approaching it from the “Well that just sounds crazy, doesn’t it?!” perspective of someone who has never come across the topic before. Maybe with a quick Google of determinism thrown in. That wouldn’t be surprising if he was commenting on an article about free will but it’s a bit jarring given that he was the one who wrote it.

  16. steve
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Even if said cow was situated on the north pole ?

    Me thinks the Jones product would be the same, a foregone conclusion desparatly searching for valid arguments and failing badly.

  17. Ray Little
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    ‘I’m not a criminal or a creature of impulse. When there’s a decision to be made, I sit down with a notepad and tot up all the pros and cons, consider what weight and priority each should have (sometimes assigning numerical values to each). Then after due consideration I MAKE my DECISION.’

    ‘Yes, but consider this: what conditions and events beyond your control MADE YOU the kind of person who sits down, etc., etc.?’

    And so it goes. This has the air of an infinite regress… ‘Who made the Universe?’ ‘God.’ ‘Who made God?’ And it never ends.

    The thing is, it matters remarkably little. I’m with you on penal reform, whether it’s based on a rational appeal (to the little man in the criminal’s Cartesian control-room?) or it’s simply some kind of operant conditioning. If it works, let’s do it.

  18. Posted January 31, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Although I agree with Jones in that some kind of free will is “common sense” and valid, his article is a mess and mostly seems to exist solely to lash out at our host. He’s the silly one here.

  19. ubernez
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm – I am still struggling with determinism vs free will.
    I don’t come down hard on either side – because I am still unsure.
    I was indocrinated with the ‘free will’ ethos (as were we were), but am becoming conversant with determinism and the physics and philosphy within both. And there is much merit in this view.

    But I am scared to say that here, because anyone who is unsure, or thinks free will still exists, does seem to get a serve.
    It’s not that clear cut. These are HARD questions. We SHOULD struggle with them.

    I struggle with hard determinism – but I know that just because it seems to hurt my intuition, it must not be rejected. In fact, that is the best reason to engage and try and understand and challenge my preconceptions.

    I guess I’m just saying that the free will vs determinism discussions here always involve a bit of ‘you don’t agree because you don’t understand’.
    And I’m not robust enough to counter that – I am really trying in good faith (satre’s ‘faith’!!!) to enagage the ideas.

    But then, I could not have done otherwise…

    • Roo
      Posted January 31, 2019 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      I think the difficult thing with ‘free will’ is that it’s more or less a semantically incoherent concept. Even if such a thing existed, it would largely be impossible for us to comprehend outside of a vague sense that ‘we have it’ (If you think otherwise, attempt coming up with a full explanation of exactly what free will is and how it works and how it could be observed and tested for, including a description of how this ‘will’ appears in a way that is not related to cause-and-effect or sheer chance. If something causes this ‘will’, it is related to cause and effect. If this will just appears, then it appeared out of nowhere and humans more or less just observe it, they don’t create it. If there’s a third option, it’s not one that I can put to words. Even if we decide to sit down and think about something, did we decide to decide to sit down and think about something? Or at some point do we have to acknowledge that the idea just bubbled up in consciousness?)

      So I think the golden middle on this one is not to be found between free will and no free will, rather, it’s to be found between agents (as in, individual self-conscious units, egos, etc.) having emergent, self-contained properties vs. agents having no emergent, self-contained properties. I think this is what Compatibilism speaks to but this school of thought insist on retaining the term ‘free will’, which is no more ultimately ‘free’ in the Compatibilist framing than it is anywhere else. That said, whether or not agents have emergent properties that sort of self-cultivate in the absence of external influence is an interesting question. It doesn’t make those properties free, but if they exist, they would certainly be consequential in how we think about the world and the best way to structure it and which actions are effective and which are not.

      • Posted January 31, 2019 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

        Experiments show that our brain decides to sit and sends signals to our muscles to start sitting down before we are conscious of even thinking about sitting down. The decision has been made and it is being down before we even know it.

        • Posted January 31, 2019 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

          It is being done not down

        • Roo
          Posted February 1, 2019 at 12:30 am | Permalink

          I’ve seen references to those experiments and think they’re interesting, although this seems like something of a different topic than what I’m discussing. Agency does not have to be free to be emergent or self perpetuating.

    • rom
      Posted February 1, 2019 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      About 11 years ago I lost my belief in free will. Since that time I have been slowly loosing my belief in morality. I agree with the theists who argue, in the absence of free will, morality is a non sequitur.

      Unless we go through the machinations of a compatibilist to hold onto the word. Today I am amoral as much as I can be, I try not to think in terms of good versus evil (bad). Just whether an action will likely meet my desires and whether my desires are compatible with one another.

      • Posted February 2, 2019 at 3:13 am | Permalink

        Ouch! Sounds creepy. Try Compatiblism, there is some hope there. See Dan Dennett’s work.

  20. ubernez
    Posted January 31, 2019 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    BTW, Jones’ characterisiation: “Who said there is a unit sum of blame to be assigned, and that you can get away with murder just because someone else is also to blame?” is unconscionable.

    To equate determinism with Mr Coyne saying that therefore people can get away with murder is so willfully mendacious and false…it gets me all het up!

    (Still, we should let him get away with saying that, because – determinism. Oh wait, in Jones’ world view, he HAD some agency in this, so he purposefully mischaracterised Jerry, and should be punished. I’m off to whack him with a wet fish…)

    • Posted January 31, 2019 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      In either case he should be whacked with a wet fish.
      But concepts respect and support punishment to change future behavior.

  21. Filippo
    Posted February 1, 2019 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    (I attempted to post the below once before. It didn’t appear to “take.” A thousand apologies if it in fact did.)

    My current teaching gig is K-5 music. The other day a first grade girl kept getting up and moving, standing behind the group sitting on the floor. They do that sometimes, generally being simply fidgety. I did not recall her being so inclined. A model student. Then a boy joined her. I asked them to come back to join the group. In a few minutes she got up again and moved back. He joined her in a minute. I expressed my bewilderment that they insisted on doing that.

    Of course, I was dense as lead. Duh! For I finally noticed that he was touching her wrist. I asked her to come up and I whispered out of earshot of other students, asking her if she had gotten up and moved back to get away from him because he was touching her. She affirmed that. I thought it was a remarkable show of restraint on her part. Not a few students would loudly yowl, “Quit it!” I perceived that she was trying to not disrupt the class and to get away from him at the same time. I was infuriated, but in a reasonably-controlled manner (I like to think that I made a free-will choice to do so, even though I thought he deserved to be similarly bothered so as to get a taste of his own medicine, eh?) I told him to stay away from her, leave her alone, to not touch her.

    Reading this post, I got to thinking, did he have no free will and personal responsibility here? He couldn’t help but keep touching her? Shall he be perfunctorily excused on account of his youth? (An excuse not available to those reaching their adulthood, I gather.) Yet there’s little doubt that he would take umbrage at anyone invading his “personal space.” Was he free-unwilling – or deterministically unable? – to respect her personal space? (I bet he wouldn’t have touched her had his mother been there watching him like a hawk. She definitely would have “deterministically” determined his course of action for him, eh?) Yet there are not a few students who apparently do not have the least difficulty in resisting the temptation/desire to so bother other students. Did she of her own free will decide to try to get away from him, or was it strictly deterministic – she (like him) couldn’t help but respond as she did?

  22. Posted February 1, 2019 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    If humans lack free will, should criminals be incarcerated? If so, is it adverse conditioning? If so, should we continue to speak the familiar language of crime & punishment, which presupposes free will? How does punishment for crime differ from treatment for mental illness? If one believes in free will, perhaps feeling one must, that no viable choice exists, is God next? Does one sometimes believe what he cannot understand–least objectionable choice?

  23. Posted February 2, 2019 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why everyone has such a hard time seeing what Jones is saying. It seems pretty clear to me:

    Why should the existence of one prior kind of causation exclude the existence of another later kind of causation? Who said there is a unit sum of blame to be assigned, and that you can get away with murder just because someone else is also to blame?

    Sentence 1 (rhetorical question 1) just points out that there can be lots of causes for a single event, stretching back in time and out across space. Poverty, and a conscious decision by a person, can both cause a criminal act. Sentence 2 points out that responsibility multiplies. So, if politicians are responsible for bad policy that increases poverty, they can be partly responsible for crime, but that doesn’t necessarily diminish the responsibility of the criminal.

    It’s not like Jones is inventing some weird doctrine about responsibility. The law already recognizes that, for example, if a Mob boss orders a hit, and a wiseguy carries it out, they are both guilty of murder.

  24. Zetopan
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    “Muddled thinking about determinism at the Discovery Institute”

    If you remove “about determinism” from that title you would have a perpetually correct title for anything posted by the weirdly misnamed “Discovery Institute”*.

    And changing “thinking” to “excuses” would further clarify the title for that Deadbeat Institute.

    *They only seem to “discover” bad arguments against science.


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