Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Girl before a doors
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

Michael Egnor: If Evil Exists, So Must Good — and Real Choices!

In the podcast, he explains, denial of free will doesn’t mean that there is no guilt but rather that there is no innocence

In a podcast aired July 8, 2022, geoscientist Casey Luskin and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor explore “Evolution and the disturbing consequences of denying free will.” One consequence they look at is pre-crime, that is, treating people who are thought likely to commit an offence as if they had already done so.

A partial transcript and notes follows. The podcast is here.

Casey Luskin: In the previous podcast, Dr. Egnor, you mentioned how, once somebody denies free will, they really lose the ability to condemn any action that a human takes as morally evil. Everything we did in their view is determined by the forces of nature, and really nobody ought to be at fault for having done anything.

These arguments have, of course, popped up in the legal system where the famous Darwin-defending lawyer, Clarence Darrow, the famous case back in the 1920s of the two boys who killed somebody just for fun. He argued in court that, “Hey, you can’t blame these boys for this sport killing that they undertook. They were just acting upon what their genes, and maybe their environment, forced them to do.” And he really argued that there is no free will. … Does Jerry Coyne have the right to condemn the Nazis if he denies free will?

Michael Egnor: The fact that Coyne’s denial of free will leaves him incapable of coherently accusing the Nazis of moral evil is enough to discard his denial of free will. That is, it is such a bizarre viewpoint that the Holocaust was not a moral evil — because there are no moral evils — that it really puts the denial of free will almost into a category of delusion.

If there is real evil, then there is real good — and free will must exist

Michael Egnor: The fact is, we all know that it was horrendously evil. We all know that evil things really happen and that they really are evil. And if there is real evil, just as if there’s real good, then free will must exist. Because if we’re all just determined chemical bags, meat robots, there is no good or evil — we’re simply acting out our chemistry.

And of course, Coyne’s response to this has been that, although he believes that things such as the Holocaust were not morally evil — because there is no such thing as moral evil — he certainly believes that they weren’t… salubrious, is the term he uses. Which means that they didn’t work for the common good and should be condemned on that basis.

Michael Egnor

And of course the response to that is, if there is no moral evil, then there is no common good. That is, all he is doing is changing the concept of moral evil from individual acts to broader understandings of society. But if there is no free will, and there is no moral evil, then you really can’t condemn even something as horrible as the Holocaust.

I should point out that the argument that free will does not exist, and that we are all sort of following instructions, perhaps our chemical instructions, was actually very much an argument used by defense counsel at Nuremberg [the trials of Nazi war criminals]. That is, that when the Nazis themselves were asked, “Why did you do this?” The answer was, “Well, we were compelled to. We were following instructions. We weren’t really morally accountable.” So when you find that your metaphysics was shared by the defense counsel at the Nazi war crime trials, you ought to reconsider your metaphysics. And I think Coyne should reconsider.

Casey Luskin: I think that the Nazis probably believed that what they were doing was for the “common good.” So how do you define common good? On what basis do you condemn something if somebody believes what they’re doing is for the common good?

Of course, Dr. Egnor, all of this flows out of Jerry Coyne’s scientism. If you can’t scientifically prove that something is good or evil, then scientism dictates he can’t condemn it as good or evil. Obviously we have ways of determining whether things are good or evil that go beyond science. Jerry Coyne has to reject those ways of knowing because of his scientism.

But there’s another way that I think Jerry Coyne’s scientism leads him astray. You wrote in a post “If Jerry Coyne believes, as Dawkins does, that we can upset the design of our selfish genes and practice genuine generosity and altruism, then Coyne presupposes strong free will, an idea he has repeatedly rejected up until now. Cognitive dissonance is inherent to materialism.”

So it sounds like what you’re saying there is that, even though he denies it, Jerry Coyne really does have free will. And therefore he realizes that free will is a part of our experience. And sometimes he unwittingly starts to defend it. Materialism really cannot account for the fact that we know that we can “transcend” our selfish genes sometimes and rise above and practice these higher moral virtues. So does Jerry Coyne’s worldview prevent him not only from condemning the evil that humans can do, but also from understanding the good that we can do?

Free will and the criminal justice system

Michael Egnor: Well, one of the points about Coyne’s denial of free will that I find in some ways the most frightening is that Coyne has suggested in several of his posts that, because he believes that there is no actual free will, we should change our approach to criminal justice — so that the approach to criminal justice does not entail retribution, but instead entails correction. That basically sort of like training animals. You’d want to train people to do better.
Of course, how one could define “better” in a world with no moral good or evil is a question Coyne doesn’t address.

But what is genuinely frightening about applying Coyne’s determinism and denial of free will to our society is that the most important consequence of the denial of free will is not that there therefore is no guilt. The most important consequence is that there is no innocence. It encourages, an approach to law enforcement that deals with people based on predictions of what they might do.

Note: If free will is denied, criminal justice focuses on predicting who is “probably” going to commit a crime. The idea gained currency through the writings of science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928–1982), whose 1956 novella The Minority Report was adapted as the film Minority Report (2002) It’s not just science fiction; some today use computer algorithms to guess who will commit a crime. That second meaning has raised concerns among the editors at CyberNews: “Big data and algorithms are paving the way for so-called PreCrime divisions and thought police. But once again, it’s humans, not technology, that are to blame. Humans misinterpreted the warnings from dystopian fiction and chose to use it as an instruction manual rather than a warning.”

Last week here at Mind Matters News, Gary Smith quoted a University of Pennsylvania criminology prof who admits that “The approach is ‘black box’, for which no apologies are made.” Smith notes that “intelligent, well-meaning people think that bail, sentencing, and parole decisions should be based on what may well be statistical coincidences.” If there is no free will anyway, condemning people based on statistical averages may not seem to be a serious problem.

Michael Egnor: Retribution, in many ways, gives sort of an honor to the criminal, because it recognizes that the criminal had a choice, chose wrongly, and should reconsider that choice. Whereas if you deny free will, you deny that anyone could really even be innocent. And what you’re really asking for there is a very frightening totalitarian world where people are simply treated as chess pieces, who are manipulated on a chessboard, to get the result the people in power want to achieve.

So the denial of free will is not inconsequential and is not merely an academic debate. It has enormous consequences for politics, for the way we run our society, and we are in big trouble if a lot of people begin to accept Jerry Coyne’s bizarre denial of free will.

Casey Luskin: Not only does it demean the prisoner by treating him like just a meat machine, but it also, in some cases, can harm the person who’s been convicted of a crime. And what if we just say, “Look, the best way to treat violent criminals is to give them a lobotomy.” Or to medicate them up so that they won’t have those tendencies. Rather than giving them the opportunity to learn and grow and rise above some of their own tendencies, which we all have. And we all have this same common struggle. Why do we deny that opportunity to grow and mature and rise above to the criminal, instead just treat them like a machine that has to be fixed? …

Michael Egnor: What Coyne’s philosophy does away with is the concept of justice. What justice becomes, and what civil society becomes, is livestock management. So the denial of free will is, frankly, a very effective basis for a totalitarian state.

Here’s a writeup of an earlier podcast with Casey Luskin as Dr. Egnor’s host: Why free will is philosophically and scientifically sound. It has been nearly a century since determinism ruled unchallenged in physics. Though free will may be unpopular with atheist thinkers, science doesn’t refute it.

You may also wish to read: Can AI really predict crime a week in advance? That’s the claim. University of Chicago data scientists claims 90% accuracy for their algorithm using past data — but it’s hard to evaluate. The scary part: Intelligent, well-meaning people think that bail, sentencing, and parole decisions should be based on what may well be statistical coincidences. (Gary Smith)

Mind Matters News

Breaking and noteworthy news from the exciting world of natural and artificial intelligence at MindMatters.ai.

Michael Egnor: If Evil Exists, So Must Good — and Real Choices!