Another Tippling Philosopher defends free will… Part 1

Another Tippling Philosopher defends free will… Part 1 December 22, 2013

There has been a new member of the Tippling Philosophers group to which I attend and I have been involved in some long disputes over the existence or not of free will. This is why my posts have recently been top heavy on the subject. This was the piece he sent to me by way of riposte. This post is about being properly skeptical over such claims of free will.

Now, it is important to note that he is not philosophically trained. I say this by way of explanation, and it goes some way towards explaining why he thinks he has solved the problem which thousands upon thousands of the best philosophers have failed to solve over the history of the debate. Now, that is not to say he is wrong, of course. But that perhaps he should be wary of his position, or at least ready and willing to delve into the philosophers with whom he so fervently disagrees.

Here is his piece, after which I will critique it.

An Essay on Free Will

It is an inescapable fact that man behaves as though he has Free Will. Indeed, he has a fierce instinct that he has this faculty to the extent that most of what he does is predicated on this assumption. He bases his civil society on this assumption, founding moral, legal, judicial and penal systems on the basis of it for millennia in more or less sophisticated forms.

How does one respond to this bare historical fact?

Some will say, as do I, that the above points to the facts that Free Will is the case in the human condition. They will then seek to explain the mechanism of how this works. More of this later.

Some will fly in the face of the above and style it as a delusion from which mankind has been suffering for millennia. These are generally, the determinists/naturalists/physicalists/materialists. They will often style humans as being locked inside chains of causality and the evolutionary process for instance. (Please note – I do not disbelieve in the fact that evolution occurs. I am not a creationist).

Some will feel that they find it impossible to ignore the fierce instinct I mentioned above, whilst, at the same time, embracing the theories of the delusionists. They will say that having your cake is compatible with eating it and will call themselves compatibilists.

This last breed are curious. They will not honestly and comprehensively embrace the idea that we are deluded in our sense of having free will. This is because they have noticed that, in order to debate they have to accord themselves a degree of freedom. Otherwise, everything they have to say can simply be written off as something they have been programmed to say by their genetics etc. Somewhere in their agenda, they have to find a niche where freedom can be secreted. This can result in the most extraordinary examples of mental contortionism. Here are some examples:

Daniel Dennett is a ‘compatibilist’. He wrote a book called ‘Freedom evolves’ and allows ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ to exist in place of Free Will. In the book’s title we see the extraordinary balancing act he is undergoing in his need to accommodate free will within a determinist agenda. In ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ we see Will substituted with ‘volition’ which means exactly the same thing (a latinate word substituted for a teutonic word) and we see reference to moral accountability which must imply Free Will.

Richard Dawkins is a notable anti-super-naturalist. In spite of this he urges us to ‘rebel against the self- replicators’ meaning our genetic predispositions, and manufactures a place where he can be free by talking about our ability and need ‘to transcend ourselves’.

Then there is an experimental psychologist called Steven Pinker who famously stated that ‘my genes can go jump in a lake’. Again, in spite of determinist views, he finds it impossible to exclude the ‘illusion’ that he is free.

And so we see these notable figures finding it imperative to find a location for free will to operate in spite of their main agendas. Now I will offer my explanation of how Free Will operates.

Firstly I will refute the assertion that modal logic makes it a literal impossibility. I have, previously, attacked the syllogism that proposes this at the second link in its chain – ‘There can be no event that does not have an antecedent cause’. In doing this I asked ‘Who says?’ effectively, and, strangely, found myself in the company of Freddie Ayer, who would normally be my opponent. He said ‘Why should every event have an antecedent cause?’ The whole point of the argument, indeed, is that there are events in the human psyche which are ‘free’ in not being subject to an antecedent cause and by being true choices. How can this be?

This is where I bring in super naturalism, super physicalism, super materialism, super evolutionism, super determinism. To explain free will one must posit that a part of who we are inhabits a realm which is super(meaning above or outside) the natural, physical world. In this sense we are, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, ‘amphibious’. We inhabit the physical world and are part of it, but part of us overlaps or protrudes into a realm outside the chains of causality in the physical world. In some manner our person supervenes (I am sure I am misusing that term in modern philosophical parlance but I will coin it for myself using its latin roots which mean ‘comes from above’) onto our physical brain and body. This may sound far-fetched but Dennett, Hawkins and Pinker all feel an imperative to accommodate something of the same shape as this.

Let’s imagine that this kind of idea is true. If it is the Free Will thing falls into place. Gone is the painful contortionism of Dennett, Hawkins and Pinker. We stride about happily making real, morally accountable choices which have significance and are not at odds with ourselves or constantly haunted by the possibility that everything we base our action on is a delusion. Of course, if someone of a scientific, naturalist bent comes along demanding scientific naturalist proof of something which is super (above or outside nature) we can’t give it to him. This isn’t because we are mystifiers or religious obscurantists or something of the kind. It is because the nature of what he is demanding is impossible. We can’t apply callipers to the supernatural but this does not mean its not there. We can deduce its presence even though we can’t touch it or measure it because it makes sense of the otherwise inexplicable experience of the human condition.

We can then say, along with Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio’. We can say this because the philosophical orthodoxies of our day are inadequate to explain our experience. They always end by diminishing that experience or by trying to force it into a restrictive imprisonment.

PS C.S.Lewis and other religious apologists would go further. They would say that God has afforded the privilege and dignity to his creatures of being able to exercise free will along with him and that is what his creation is all about. He has created circumstances I which humans initiate chains of causality and participate in the drama of responsibility. I would not go this far (although I would not go out of my way to refute it). The terminus on my philosophical rail journey is the existence of the super natural.

PPS Quantum Physics certainly does not exclude the possibility of something super natural. When we reach the borders of the physical world we find ourselves in the midst of uncertainty (cf Heisenberg) and scientific measurement seems to break down. It does not prove that the super natural exists but neither does it disprove it.

Having only read the the first paragraph so far, I can see that there might be just a few issues ahead. Watch out, this is a long piece on the first paragraph alone!

“It is an inescapable fact that man behaves as though he has Free Will. Indeed, he has a fierce instinct that he has this faculty to the extent that most of what he does is predicated on this assumption. He bases his civil society on this assumption, founding moral, legal, judicial and penal systems on the basis of it for millennia in more or less sophisticated forms.

How does one respond to this bare historical fact?”

Although I wonder whether one can continually found something for a millennia, if this is a claim that our judicial system is still totally dependent on the idea of free will, I take it you didn’t read one of my posts on that, or have looked at already existent ideas and changes within said system. We already take into account mental disposition, abrogating responsibility in cases mental health issues, accepting that people are driven by certain neural states. But we also look at environmental issues – different understandings and sentences are given for crimes of passion etc.As the Times reported:

Some believe that the link between antisocial behaviour and genes is so strong that genetic information should be accorded the same status as mental illness or an abusive childhood in deciding punishment. In a 2002 report, for example, the influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded that the use of genetic information to help determine custodial sentences (along with other information such as previous convictions) should not be ruled out.[1]


[1] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/genetics/article6919130.ece (01/2010)

The question of the relationship between determinism and free will has long been the subject of major debates within philosophy, psychology and law (McGuire, 2004) with the free will view challenged by psychology’s arguments about voluntary behaviour and control (Carson et al., 2007). The notion that offenders weigh the efforts, rewards and costs of crime denies any role for environment and internal genetic forces in human action (McGuire, 2004). Evidence from twin, adoption and intergenerational criminality studies question the capacity for individuals to freely choose whether or not to engage in criminal behaviour (Carson et al., 2007). While some theorists assert an individual is not a passive reflection of external influences and causal factors (van Duijn & Bem, 2005 cited in Gnomes, 2007), this view overlooks the extent of an individual’s personal constructs through which they interpret and control their world (Gross, 2003). All human behaviour is a result of an interaction between a large number of factors, some of which reside within the individual and some which are found in the external environment (Ainsworth, 2001). Children begin life with certain inherent biological capabilities and predispositions that interact with specific familial, social and cultural circumstances (Andrews & Bonta, 2006). Personal capabilities and predispositions affect how the environment influences the shaping of behaviour and reciprocally the behaviour can modify biological tendencies (Andrews & Bonta, 2006). For example achievements may nourish further biological growth (Beckman, 2004 cited in Andrews & Bonta, 2006). While the scientific community agrees that both heredity and the environment play significant roles in the development of criminal behaviour (Bartol & Bartol, 1986), it is the proposition that behaviour is fully determined by the combination of genetic predisposition, personality and social learning experiences that is the subject of continued debate (Ainsworth, 2001). Scientific analysis of behaviour continues to challenge the legal systems’ assumption of free will (Carson et al., 2007) with the proposition that behaviour is determined becoming more plausible as facts accumulate (Gross, 2003). It seems we cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.

We can only change the controlling conditions, thus; freedom is never absolute (Gross, 2003).

From Willard Wallace’s 1929 essay (A Deterministic View of Criminal Responsibility):

The determinists are recruited in the main from the social scientists, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, economists, political scientists, scientific philosophers, and others whose professional habit or natural bent inclines them to apply the scientific method in their thought about mankind. The determinists proceed about their work of collecting, classifying, and interpreting facts about human beings, while the world continues to be administered, for the most part, by the libertarians. But soon or late social practice must come to grips with social theory.

As Part II of this Article demonstrates, despite having endorsed free will, courts and legislatures actually moved to accommodate determinism when it began making incursions into the criminal law in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, by the century’s third quarter, the criminal law had accepted a significant amount of deterministic thinking in virtually every one of the areas in which the issue had arisen: the insanity defense, related and analogous defenses, expert witness testimony on mental state, juvenile justice, and sentence mitigation.

Although it claims that recently it has (in the US) tried to reclaim free will, it advises that the law adopt deterministic ideals.

Basically, there are so many journals, essays, criminal laws and what have you which flatly contest your opening paragraph alone, that I relish getting stuck in!

Just a simple search on Google Scholar turns up 43,400 results for determinism and criminal law!

http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&q=determinism+criminal+law&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=

Look, for most philosophers, the free will question is no longer up for grabs. What IS fascinating, and what people now debate, is neuroethics (which is a discipline with its own journals) and what do we do with criminality and moral responsibility under determinism. This is where philosophers are at.

This next quote is part of a fascinating essay. This compatibilist essay on the growing determinism in law (warning, most of essay posted!) shows that determinism IS a growing consideration of lawmakers. What is also vital to understand is that psychologists are themselves implicitly deterministic. This means they look for causal drivers within our psyche to explain our behaviours. This is crucial. Psychologists are integral to the legal system, and to courts. I have a fascinating book called Are We Free?, a collection of essays on free will by psychologists. It opens up by saying that free will is the elephant in the room for psychologists – they just don’t talk about it, because it plays no pragmatic role, one presumes, in their discipline. Anyway, this part of the essay is useful:

 It seems that the criminal justice system has adjusted accordingly in introducing deterministic defences, ranging from ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ (NGRI), to the more recent ‘extreme emotional disturbance’ (EED) defence… It appears, therefore, that the criminal justice system is built on compatibility and can maintain this compatibility in what is officially becoming a deterministic universe.

Morse (2007) distinguishes between an internal and external critique in considering the relation of any variable to an institution, practice or set of doctrines.  In the case of free will, psychology and the law, an external argument, for example, uses free will to demonstrate that the concept of criminal responsibility is incoherent or unjustifiable and thus it should be abandoned (Morse, 2007)… Morse (2007) also suggests that compatibilism, provides a secure foundation for current practice and renders it immune to the potentially devastating challenge of the external critique.

Although the presupposition of free will is a functional requirement of this trade, the law has in fact acknowledged causal determination, including environmental determinism, for decades.  Being judged to have lost control that is perceived as a major feature of normality (‘being of sound mind’) either temporarily or permanently, is a legally acceptable defence in cases of criminal offences (Gross, 2009).  This was initiated by The McNaughton Rules (named after Daniel McNaughton 1843, who, having suffered delusions for years, shot and killed Edward Drummond, private secretary to the then Prime minister) which produced the familiar verdict ‘Not guilty by reason of insanity’.  This was largely replaced, however, by the defence of diminished responsibility (for murder) as the McNaughton rules were considered to present far too narrow a concept of insanity (Gross, 2009).  Since this was introduced in 1957, the ‘deterministic’ defences in the criminal justice system have evolved considerably, to include the ‘heat of passion’ defence (namely, provocation) and the extreme emotional disturbance defence, which allows the defendant to show that his actions were caused by a mental infirmity not arising to the level of insanity, and that he is less blameworthy for having committed them.  It is worth noting that the extreme emotional disturbance defence was formulated by the Model Penal Code in 1980, in response to some problems that were being perceived with both provocation and diminished responsibility.  This is significant as it shows that even though the judicial system has always assumed free will, it does not relinquish faith in causal determinism and is adjusting accordingly.

It is worth elaborating on the defence of extreme emotional disturbance (EED), as it is a prime example of how the criminal justice system is adapting in a deterministic universe.  Galperin, Kirschner, and Litwack (2004) analyzed cases of all defendants pleading the partial, mitigating defense of EED to charges of intentional murder or attemped intentional murder in New York County over a 10-year period (1988-1997).  The cases were analyzed to determine what factors distinguished the cases that resulted in a verdict or accepted plea of manslaughter or attempted manslaughter from those cases in which the defendant was found guilty, or ultimately pleaded guilty to, the ultimate charge of murder or attempted murder.  The authors found that jurors, judges, and prosecutors were much more likely to accept a defence of EED when the defendant’s homicidal behaviour was motivated significantly by an understandable fear that he or a loved one would be physically harmed by the victim than when the defendant acted out of anger without fear of physical harm (Galperin et al., 2004).  Similarly, Finkel (1995, as cited in Galperin et al., 2004) found that when mock jurors were confronted with a wide array of scenarios related to the defence of EED or both, jurors were more likely to impose lighter sentences on defendants who killed because of fear, rather than anger.  It is evident that an EED claim was not accepted simply due to the defendant acting under strong emotions (such as anger), rather the reasonableness of the emotions were evaluated according to the circumstances (Kirschner et al., 2004).  These findings are reassuring in that they defy the threat that determinism will exonerate all wrong-doers in society.  In reference to Bargh and Chartrand’s (1999, as cited in Smith)  theory of environmental determinism previously mentioned, the evolution of the EED defence is again somewhat of a reassurance.  As pointed out by Smith (2006) , it was feared that such theories of environmental determinism, which claim rage as being determined by the environment, would exonerate offending behaviour.  Again, these data suggests that juries would evaluate the reasonableness of the emotions according to the circumstances.

Morse (2007) on the other hand, admits that there is a problem of free will, but it is not present in forensic psychology as the law’s general criteria for responsibility or excuse does not refer to free will or its absence. The emphasis is placed, rather, on a person’s capability of exercising a general capacity of rationality and a lack of that capacity being the primary excusing condition.  Despite the prevalent belief amongst practising lawyers and forensic psychologists that lack of free will is what justifies application of mental health laws generally and in specific cases, Morse (2007) insists that they are wrong, that lack of free will is not a mental health law criterion.  A ‘hard’ determinist’s interpretation in relation to a mentally ill offender would be that the offending behaviour was caused by the mental disorder.  However, Morse (2007) maintains that, in the legal realm, the causal criterion does not imply that the offending behaviour is simply a mechanical product of the mental disorder.  Essentially, it means that the mental disorder undermined the agent’s capacity for rationality in that particular context or, much less frequently, that it placed the agent in a perceived hard choice situation. Although Morse (2007) emphasises the ‘non-problem of free will’ in the courts and in forensic psychology, he is an obvious advocate of compatibilism, maintaining that our positive doctrines of responsibility are fully consistent with determinism. For example, it is indisputable that human beings have different capacities for rationality in both general and specific situations.  This is precisely why a small child would not be condemned in the same sense as an adult if they committed the same crime.  The argument continues is stating that even if determinism is true, differences in rational capacity and its effects are real.  Morse (2007) contends that all forensic psychologists should avoid all mention of free will in their reports, testimony and scholarship as it is the capacity for rationality that is the general responsibility criterion and free will ‘never clarify any legal issue or help resolve any legal case’ (pp. 220).  However, it appears that the link between rationality and free will was noted by Searle (2001, as cited in Baumeister, 2008) who stated that theories of rationality almost inevitably presuppose some degree of free will.  This point is not intended to contradict Morse’s argument of the ‘non-problem’ of free will in forensic psychology. Rather, it lends weight to the argument of compatibility.  If rationality and determinism are so compatible in the criminal justice system, free will and determinism must also be compatible to some degree.

The fear that psychology’s somewhat new emphasis on biological determinism may threaten our criminal justice system is voiced by Pinker (2008) who maintains that advances in biology would seem to admit more and more people into blamelessness.  If psychology as a science continues in its claim that there is no ghost in the machine, than something in a criminal’s hardware must set him apart from the majority of people, those who would not kill or hurt in the same circumstances (Pinker, 2008). This is reflected in the occasional tendency of cognitive neuroscientists being approached by criminal defence lawyers, hoping that an unruly pixel on a brain scan might exonerate their client.  If this trend continues, biological determinism may excuse murders from criminal punishment, just as we excuse the insane and small children. This fear is reiterated by Cashmore (2010), who maintains that it will become increasingly difficult to entertain the fallacy of free will, now that we have made a significant advance in our understanding of the molecular basis of human behaviour, and Greene and Cohen (2004), who warn that our emerging understanding of the physical causes of human (mis) behaviour will have a transformative effect on the law.

Indeed, it is predicted that the criminal justice system will become more and more susceptible to the onslaught of biological determinism.  Greene and Cohen (2004) maintain however, that neuroscience changes nothing.  This leads back to Morse’s (2007) point that the law assumes people have a general capacity for rational choice.  Another paper of Stephen Morse (2004) ‘New neuroscience, old problems’ argues that the law does not care if people have ‘free will’ in any deep metaphysical sense.  It is based on an assumption that people in general are minimally rational.  As long as this appears to be the case, it can continue in regarding people as free (compatibilism) while holding ordinary people responsible for their offending behaviours and making exceptions for those who fail to comply with the requirements of general rationality.  Thus the revelations of Libet’s (as cited in Gross, 2009) and others experiments that elucidates the ‘when’. ‘where’ and ‘how’ of the mechanisms that govern human behaviour will not change the law’s approach to human behaviour unless it shows that the offender in question failed to meet the law’s very minimal requirements for rationality.

Cashmore (2010) maintains that as the concept of free will is increasingly seen as an illusion, the fallacy of a basic premise of the criminal justice system will become more apparent.  The author proposes that now is an opportune time for society to re-evaluate our thinking concerning the policies of the criminal justice system. Yet, as discussed, it seems that the policies of the criminal justice system have been and are being re-evaluated in order to allow for deterministic defences, while maintaining a pre-supposition of the freedom of will.  In other words, the criminal justice system epitomises compatibilism.  Philosophically and psychologically speaking, the criminal justice system is somewhat microcosmic of the universe.  Both are vast, complex systems revolving around the behaviours, emotions, relations and general lives of individuals.  The fact that the criminal justice system has been thus far successful in adapting to determinism lends weight to the argument that free will is coherent in a deterministic world.

So, the TPer continues:

Some will say, as do I, that the above points to the facts that Free Will is the case in the human condition. They will then seek to explain the mechanism of how this works. More of this later.

Er, facts of free will based on the above points? Hardly, the above points were erroneous assertions which amount to “I feel like I have free will, and it is useful to society, therefore it exists”. No.

Some will fly in the face of the above and style it as a delusion from which mankind has been suffering for millennia. These are generally, the determinists/naturalists/physicalists/materialists. They will often style humans as being locked inside chains of causality and the evolutionary process for instance. (Please note – I do not disbelieve in the fact that evolution occurs. I am not a creationist).

Now here comes a big problem. He states that he believes in evolution and then states, later, that he believes in supernaturalism and this supernaturalism-of-the-gaps gets him free will. However, this is acceptance that we share common ancestors with, well, all other animals. This means that, given that they do not have this supernaturalist consciousness, it must have evolved from physical parts at some point in hominid history. By believing in evolution, one is adhering to the notion that we are physical entities which have physically evolved from other physical beings. Now, I would say there is a range of simple to complex consciousnesses which come out of a range of simple to complex brains and brain states. These other less free beings, situation-action machines, if you will, who adhere to input-output behaviour, gave rise to us. But somehow, due to supernaturalism, we bypass the input-output scenario. This metaphysical ideal is suddenly smashed to pieces. But how and on what basis can this be claimed? We are merely more complex versions of other primates, if you will. Unless his supernaturalism is actually a naive understanding of emergent properties, then I think the account is incoherent.

Some will feel that they find it impossible to ignore the fierce instinct I mentioned above, whilst, at the same time, embracing the theories of the delusionists. They will say that having your cake is compatible with eating it and will call themselves compatibilists.

This last breed are curious. They will not honestly and comprehensively embrace the idea that we are deluded in our sense of having free will. This is because they have noticed that, in order to debate they have to accord themselves a degree of freedom. Otherwise, everything they have to say can simply be written off as something they have been programmed to say by their genetics etc. Somewhere in their agenda, they have to find a niche where freedom can be secreted. This can result in the most extraordinary examples of mental contortionism.

I think this is again naive. Although there can sometimes be a case that compatibilists, as I claimed in Free Will? (available form the sidebar), set out to defend their moral philosophy, which they see as holding primacy, and massage their free will/determinism ideals around that.

But what seems to be the case much of the time is that compatibilists accept determinism (hence it being called soft determinism) and then redefine free will to fit around that, in the same way that the second law of thermodynamics was redefined to fit new knowledge. What takes primacy here is the idea of determinism. Thus most philosophers are beyond bothering whether we could have done otherwise in a given situation, and are more concerned with what this then entails. Do we have moral responsibility and agency? How about crime and punishment?

Daniel Dennett is a ‘compatibilist’. He wrote a book called ‘Freedom evolves’ and allows ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ to exist in place of Free Will. In the book’s title we see the extraordinary balancing act he is undergoing in his need to accommodate free will within a determinist agenda. In ‘volition of a morally competent entity’ we see Will substituted with ‘volition’ which means exactly the same thing (a latinate word substituted for a teutonic word) and we see reference to moral accountability which must imply Free Will.

I am not sure he has read the book. Might be an idea. And in philosophy free will does not mean the same as volition. There is definitely equivocation of terms going on here. Who cares what the Latin states. Meaning and representation are not defined by what ancient peoples understood of the word. Most of our scientific words came from Greek and Latin, but are clearly millennia of knowledge away from their original cognates! The TPer here simply starts equivocating on the term free will since he drops the free part, building up a kind of straw man. As this commentator states:

In philosophy and theology, the terms free will and volition are often NOT used synonymously, but do convey related ideas.  Unless misused, the term free will communicates a sense of absolute, autonomous, ‘libertarian’ or unbounded freedom, whereas volition simply implies power of choice.

And:

It is necessary to form a distinct notion of what is meant by the word “volition” in order to understand the import of the word will, for this last word expresses the power of mind of which “volition” is the act. –Dugald Stewart.

And:

Will is an ambiguous word, being sometimes put for the faculty of willing; sometimes for the act of that faculty, besides [having] other meanings. But “volition” always signifies the act of willing, and nothing else. –Thomas Reid.

So even the basic terms will and volition, without the free, can be defined differently. Although it is a common mistake to conflate the two. The claim from the TPer that “moral accountability… must imply free will” is entirely dubious. This is exactly the battleground of philosophers in the discipline. To just assert that offhand is problematic to say the least. There is so much assertion going on here, it hurts.

Then there is an experimental psychologist called Steven Pinker who famously stated that ‘my genes can go jump in a lake’. Again, in spite of determinist views, he finds it impossible to exclude the ‘illusion’ that he is free.

Pinker is a determinist. So is Dawkins. I think the TPer here needs to understand the difference between hardwired behaviour and softwired behaviour (gene-environment interaction).

Not sure what he is really saying about the truth or falsity of free will by stating these points.

And so we see these notable figures finding it imperative to find a location for free will to operate in spite of their main agendas. Now I will offer my explanation of how Free Will operates.

Eh? Do they? Has he read Pinker’s How The Mind Works? Let’s let Pinker talk for himself:

“Why is the notion of free will so closely tied to the notion of responsibility, and why is biology thought to threaten both? Here is the logic. We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise. We don’t convict a hunter who shoots a friend he has mistaken for a deer, or the chauffeur who drove John F. Kennedy into the line of fire, because they could not foresee and did not intend the outcome of their actions. We show mercy to the victim of torture who betrays a comrade, to a delirious patient who lashes out at a nurse, or to a madman who strikes someone he believes to be a ferocious animal. We don’t put a small child on trial if he causes a death, nor do we try an animal or an inanimate object, because we believe them to be constitutionally incapable of making an informed choice.

“A biology of human nature would seem to admit more and more people into the ranks of the blameless. A murderer [might have] a shrunken amygdala or a hypo-metabolism in his frontal lobes. . . . Even worse, biology may show that we are all blameless. Evolutionary theory says that the ultimate rationale for our motives is that they perpetuated our ancestors’ genes in the environment in which they evolved. Since none of us are aware of that rationale, none of us can be blamed for pursuing it, any more than we blame the mental patient who thinks he is subduing a mad dog but really is attacking a nurse. . . . Should we go even farther than the National Rifle Association bumper sticker–GUNS DON’T KILL; PEOPLE KILL–and say that not even people kill, because people are just as mechanical as guns? . . . .

“People who hope that a ban on biological explanations might restore personal responsibility are in for the biggest disappointment of all. The most risible pretexts for bad behavior in recent decades have come not from biological determinism, but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics. . . .

“Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanationwith exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behavior, to explain behavior is not to exonerate the behaver. . . . The difference betweenexplaining behavior and excusing it is captured in the saying “To understand is not to forgive,” and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull. . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘ I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. . . . the law must keep its promises’. ” (Steven Pinker,”The Fear of Determinism,” in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Nature. NY: Vintage, 2002.)

This will do for now. I will return to this in the second post, where I will continue to critique his position and claims.


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