The Argument from Theology … again.

So, Jerry Coyne posted a post from Dilbert on free will, and again retreated to the argument that those who accept free will in any sense — be they compatibilist or libertarian — are acting like theologians, presumably in that they don’t simply accept his arguments and evidence as being compelling (which, of course, isn’t under their control if Coyne is right) and thus don’t just accept his position.

Leaving out the comic, here’s pretty much all of Coyne’s post:

Dilbert tells Dogbert that doesn’t think we have any—at least of the contracausal, “libertarian” sort.

I like the last panel, which goes along with brain-scanning experiments that give the surprising result that you can predict (with 60-70% accuracy) the results of a binary decision up to ten seconds before the person who “makes” that decision is conscious of having made it. Of course, compatibilists and libertarian free-will advocates have found reasons to dismiss these experiments as evidence for free will. This is one of many ways that such people resemble theologians (another is that they think that belief in free will—even of the compatibilist sort—is, like belief in God, essential to keep society moral and harmonious.)

So, the first point thus says that Dilbert is either a hard determinist or a compatibilist, since compatibilists reject libertarian free will. Thus, what he says in theory can apply to them as well. Of course, he then goes on to strongly imply if not outright state that compatibilists and libertarians reject the Libet experiments simply because they want to dismiss them and don’t like the results, not because there are serious problems with them. He then goes on to add in the other argument about how some might argue that people believing that we don’t have free will might have a negative outcome, in line with his other arguments about how they only reject the positions because of those consequences … the “We all know that this is true, but let’s not let the rubes know because they’ll act badly” argument. All of which many people — including his commenters — have disabused him of repeatedly.

But if we want to go down that route, Coyne’s own behaviour doesn’t flatter him. First, he talks repeatedly about the importance of accepting hard determinism because of the impact he thinks that thinking that we are morally responsible for our actions has on society, especially with regards to punishment of offenders, including but not limited to reasons for the death penalty. While others have pointed out that you don’t need to be a hard determinist to come to the same conclusions about punishment and the death penalty, the big issue here is that if Coyne doesn’t think that his strong stance on those social consequences means that we ought to say that he is only accepting it for the consequences — rather than him, you know, really thinking it true and wanting people to accept that truth because knowing that truth will happen to lead to better results — then there’s no real reason for him to claim that about compatibilists either. If we ought not examine his psychology in order to determine if free will exists or not, there is no reason for him to examine the psychology of compatibilists or libertarians either.

But, even worse for Coyne, it would be quite easy to claim that Coyne’s behaviour is like that of a lot of creationists: come up with something that they think is evidence for their case, and then when people point out that the evidence doesn’t support their position the way they think it does retreat to claiming that they are dismissing that legitimate evidence. Add in a claim that the only reason they disregard the evidence is because it actually proves their view false and they don’t want it to be false, and we can see that this is exactly what Coyne does to compatibilists.

Now, I don’t claim that Coyne really is acting like a creationist. But I do claim that these sorts of arguments are counter-productive and useless. Either the evidence supports the conclusion or it doesn’t. Coyne is either right or he isn’t. Coyne reacts rather badly to people trying to dismiss his arguments on the basis of psychology, but insists on doing it to others, and then — intentionally or no — tries to win through an argument ad hominem by saying “You’re just like those really bad people that you don’t want to be like! Stop being like that! Accept my view!”. Coyne has not established his position strongly enough to insist that everyone must accept it or they just don’t want it to be true, and so are rejecting it irrationally. Some probably are, but Coyne dismisses all who reject his idea. He doesn’t have the evidence to support that strong a claim … which is a bad thing for someone so insistent that we should follow the evidence and come to our beliefs rationally.

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