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No Free Will Means No Justice

Materialist biologist Jerry Coyne doesn’t seem to understand what denying free will would mean for the criminal justice system

Materialist biologist Jerry Coyne has published a long series of posts reiterating his denial of free will. In one of them, he quote mines Agatha Christie’s novel Murder at the Vicarage (1930). The emphasis added to the dialogue below between a doctor (who speaks first) and a vicar, is Coyne’s:

… [law enforcement] deals very largely with what we call right and wrong—and I’m not at all sure that there’s any such thing. Suppose it’s all a question of glandular secretion. Too much of one gland, too little of another—and you get your murderer, your thief, your habitual criminal. Clement, I believe the time will come when we’ll be horrified to think of the long centuries in which we’ve punished people for disease—which they can’t help, poor devils. You don’t hang a man for having tuberculosis.”

“He isn’t dangerous to the community.”

“In a sense he is. He infects other people. Or take a man who fancies he’s the Emperor of China. You don’t say how wicked of him. I take your point about the community. The community must be protected. Shut up these people where they can’t do any harm—even put them peacefully out of the way—yes, I’d go as far as that. But don’t call it punishment. Don’t bring shame on them and their innocent families.”

I looked at him curiously. “I’ve never heard you speak like this before.”

“I don’t usually air my theories abroad. Today I’m riding my hobby. You’re an intelligent man, Clement, which is more than some parsons are. You won’t admit, I dare say, that there’s no such thing as what is technically termed, ‘Sin,’ but you’re broadminded enough to consider the possibility of such a thing.”

“It strikes at the root of all accepted ideas,” I said.

“Yes, we’re a narrow-minded, self-righteous lot, only too keen to judge matters we know nothing about. I honestly believe crime is a case for the doctor, not the policeman and not the parson. In the future, perhaps, there won’t be any such thing.”

Coyne endorses the assertion that “crime is a case for the doctor.”

I can’t imagine anything more frightening than making criminal justice “a case for the doctor.”

That is just the approach the Soviet Union took to political dissidents. Instead of dealing with political dissent as a legitimate expression of different viewpoints or even as a violation of criminal law, Soviet authorities medicalized deviance. Dissenters—who were criminals in the Soviet system—we treated as if insane and were institutionalized involuntarily in Soviet psychiatric hospitals until they were “cured.” It is well known among defense lawyers in the United States that successful insanity defences often result in a longer period of institutionalization than the defendant would have received in prison because they can’t be released until they’re “cured.”

Coyne is completely wrong about free will. Physical determinism, on which he bases his denial, is known scientifically to be untrue. Furthermore, if we were not free and our thoughts and actions were wholly the result of the chemistry and physics in our brains, then our opinions would have no truth value—chemical reactions are neither true nor false. Denial of free will based on physical determinism is bad science and self-refuting to boot.

The worst aspect of Coyne’s bizarre denial of human freedom is not his assault on mankind’s universal experience of free will and his assault on science and logic (egregious as they are). The most frightening thing is just what Coyne champions—the remaking of the justice system into a system of “health care” (i.e. disease control) in which our actions are labeled diseases rather than choices. It’s Orwellian: with the denial of free will, the Justice Department would become the Center for Disease Control.

Free will is the cornerstone of all human rights and the cornerstone of our Constitutional rights. The denial of free will is, literally, the denial of human freedom. Without free will, we are livestock, without the presumption of innocence, without actual innocence, and without rights. A justice system that has no respect for free will—a justice system in which human choices are diseases— is a system of livestock management applied to homo sapiens.

The analogy of crime to tuberculosis in Coyne’s citation of Christie’s novel is particularly chilling, given our ongoing experience with the coronavirus pandemic. If criminal behavior is just another disease involuntarily acquired—like tuberculosis—we should note that authorities have long used coercion by executive fiat and pre-emptive isolation to suppress epidemics. No one is “innocent” or “guilty” of coronavirus. We are coerced by fiat, rightly or wrongly, to prevent the spread of the disease. We have no option to prove our innocence, take off our mask, and go to a restaurant or to church.

The continuous thread that runs through the abuse of citizens by law enforcement and the criminal justice system is not, when you look at it carefully, the inappropriate assignation of guilt. The real problem is the systematic denial of the full humanity of some of our fellow citizens. They are treated as if they were part of a pandemic or a societal disease. Abused citizens are assumed to be “one of them,” “perps,”or “deviants,” and are treated as a class apart, without regard for their rights, for their individual humanity or for their potential innocence.

Denial of free will would exacerbate this abuse. It provides a scientific imprimatur for treating some of our neighbors as carriers of diseases and less than fully human. Accused citizens would, under Coyne’s inherently totalitarian system, be denied the plea “I’m innocent.”

If you have no free will, you are neither guilty nor innocent. You are merely part of a pandemic, which must be controlled at all costs.

Denial of free will is a catastrophically bad predicate for our justice system. The real horror is not that it will impede justice for the guilty—although it will undoubtedly do that (“my neurons made me do it!”). The real horror—the horror that should keep us awake at night—is that denial of free will makes innocence irrelevant. Without free will, criminal justice becomes a system of “crime as disease prevention.” There is no moral reason not to arrest and incarcerate people who are believed to be statistically likely to commit crime, even if they have in fact done nothing wrong.

Without free will, no one is innocent. Without free will, we are mere diseased livestock. Who asks cattle on the way to the abattoir if they are guilty or innocent?

More by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor on free will:

Jerry Coyne just can’t give up denying free will. Coyne’s denial of free will, based on determinism, is science denial and junk metaphysics

How Libet’s free will research is misrepresented: Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective.

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it?


Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

No Free Will Means No Justice