Coyne On Sapolsky on Free Will

Jerry Coyne is deeply involved in discussions of free will. He is, in fact, a hard determinist, and as seems usual for him as time has gone on he seems to have ended up disliking compatibilists even more than libertarians. Or, at least, he seems to gripe more about them than he does libertarians, as we can see in this post where he talks about a take on free will by Robert Sapolsky that aligns with Coyne’s view:

(He doesn’t address compatibilism in his entire interview, which I suspect reflects his view—and mine—that compatibilism is just a semantic game that distracts from the real issue: the hegemony of determinism.)

The thing is, though, Coyne doesn’t actually understand the compatibilist view, as has been demonstrated on many occasions. He has accused them of not accepting determinism — in the sense that all events, including intentional actions, are determined by impersonal causes — when in fact compatibilists have to accept that by definition. He’s accused them of playing semantics with notions of free will and choice despite them generally believing that removing all notions of choice cause greater issues. He’s jumped on a comment from Dan Dennett saying that if people accepted Coyne’s notion of free will it would leave to them acting in bad ways to insist that that’s all Dennett cares about, despite there being much evidence that Dennett is also concerned with creating a notion of choice because, well, he thinks that there still is one.

The point of compatibilism is this: Compatiblists accept that everything is determined, but still think that if we throw out all notion of choice then we will run into many problems, from it changing our behaviour in improper ways to it causing us to be unable to explain many common behaviours that we can readily observe. If we try to introduce a different term to cover these things, it will act so much like the old concept of choice that it will hardly seem to be worth the bother, and will reintroduce a number of the issues that hard determinists are having. They also end up convinced that they can do that, and introduce a notion of choice that is compatible with determinism and yet is still meaningful and captures what we seem to need the concept of choice for. It’s not a semantic game.

What Coyne has never really grasped are all of the cases where his own view would either need a notion of choice or imports it in order to seem reasonable at all. His big concern is prison reform, and he chides compatibilists for ignoring that:

One can see Sapolsky’s whole interview as the logical consequence of his determinism, which leads to an immediate consideration of how screwed up our penal system is. You don’t see many compatibilists, even though they’re determinists, worrying much about penal reform. But such reform is far more important and consequential than trying to redefine “free will” so people won’t get freaked out if they don’t think they have it.

Yes, I know some readers say that you can still favor penal reform if you’re a compatibilist, and that’s true. But then why do you see hard determinists like me, Sapolsky, and others being the determinists most concerned with penal reform, compared to compatibilist/determinist philosophers, who argue semantics ad infinitum and claim, falsely that their efforts aren’t directed toward keeping the Little People convinced that they have free will?

It is, of course, absolutely inconceivable why a group of philosophers in a philosophical discussion would focus far more on the overall philosophical issues rather than one specific potential consequence of that discussion. Especially since many of them might indeed feel that penal reform actually follows from and is justified by far better arguments than determinism, and so they are separate issues. After all, even for Coyne one of the strongest reasons to ditch a retributive approach is that it simply doesn’t work. Even if we all accepted Coyne’s version of hard determinism, if taking retribution actually reduced criminal behaviour then Coyne, to be consistent with his other views (like that we can use punishment for deterrence, which he mentions earlier in the post) then under this view determinism would justify retribution. Those compatibilists that Coyne derides might, thus, feel it better to go after retribution not from the argument that criminals cannot be responsible — or morally responsible, as Coyne likes to split the proverbial hair — for their actions and so retribution is not justified, but on the grounds that retribution itself is morally wrong, even if they can be held responsible. They can easily say that the only proper purposes for the penal system are rehabilitation and the protection of society, and while punishment might fit into that if it does work as deterrence, retribution clearly doesn’t. And many of them argue just that.

The argument that Coyne consistently misses is that many of the concepts that we would need to do rehabilitation and determine how to rehabilitate people rely on consider whether someone made a choice or made a decision to take the action or not. We can see this when we expand on his own notion of responsibility:

I would disagree in the sense that someone who commits a crime is the responsible person—the person who has to be reformed, treated, or “punished”. All that means is “this is the person who did the act.”

Coyne tends to argue, to align with hard determinism, that criminals have as much choice in the matter as things like rocks. So to say “this is the person who did the act” clearly can’t mean “this is the person who chose to do the act”. So we can argue that a rock that hits a window and breaks it is the thing that did the act of breaking the window. And so, from that, we’d want to figure out how to prevent that from happening again. But there’s a huge difference between the window breaking because a windstorm picked up a loose rock and pushed it through the window versus an angry neighbour picking it up and throwing it through the window. While both may be prevented by ensuring that there aren’t any loose rocks in the backyard, in the latter case we would definitely want to prevent that neighbour from choosing to break the window. And in so doing, we’d want to get at the intentions behind that neighbour doing that in the first place. This leads to another key difference, between the case where the neighbour was just trying to clear loose rocks and tossed it in a way where a freak ricochet hit the window and the case where the neighbour deliberately aimed that throw at the window. Which leads to another difference between the accidental ricochet case and a case where the neighbour deliberately aims at the window and misses. We’d still want to address the latter case as the same sort of event as where the neighbour throws it and hits it, but then all we have are the intentions to appeal to … things which aren’t relevant in Coyne’s strongly hard deterministic viewpoint, since intentions are internal, and only act through choices, which are the things that Coyne says we don’t have.

I’ve also traced in the past a chain of there being a difference in how a kleptomaniac should be treated vs someone who steals to survive vs someone who steals because they find it fun. If we are going to rehabilitate them, we need to take their differences into account, or else we will fail. But the only thing that is different between them is the degree of choice that they have and the reason they made the choices they made. The kleptomaniac clearly has no choice, as they will often steal despite the fact that if they had been given the choice in those circumstances but without the kleptomania they wouldn’t have done it. The person who needs to steal to survive has unfortunately circumstances but their choice-determining faculties are properly engaged and working. And the person who steals for fun is making a deliberate but dangerous choice, where it is difficult to see how merely changing the environment will help.

This is why many compatiblists are clear that their notion of choice involves engaging the choice-producing faculties of our brains. This allows them to preserve determinism while still accepting that part of our mental make-up involves things that can be reasonably called choices. Coyne can rail against this view all he wants, but it is difficult for him to refute it while still maintaining the idea of rehabilitation, because working out how to rehabilitate people will involve talking about those choice producing mechanisms and noting when they are working properly and when they aren’t.

I also think it possible that Coyne rails so much and so often against that minor point about people acting as if they have no responsibility if they became convinced that we have no free will is because it’s another point that he can’t actually refute. Coyne needs it to be the case that what we hear and are told can impact our behaviour, in order to push for changed to the penal system and for argument. But then under that Dennett’s point that telling people we have no free will will lead them to act in ways we don’t want them to does count. Coyne can try to argue that we should never tell people things that aren’t true, but it is clear that Dennett and most compatibilists believe that it isn’t actually true that we don’t have free will, but that we have free will in a certain sense, and as per Dennett that would be “the only sense that matters”. So they’d be debating between risking people misinterpreting free will to be the libertarian version vs people misinterpreting having no free will to meaning that there is no notion of choice at all anymore, and it’s perfectly valid, then, for them to claim that since both can be misinterpreted maintain the term “free will” is the least dangerous misinterpretation. And even if that worked Coyne would then have to ensure that he himself never “lies” to people to get them to do the right thing, despite it being entirely consistent with his own view. So he needs to completely dismiss the argument because it is one argument that he, himself, can never safely refute.

Anyway, let me turn my attention to things from Saplosky in the post, noting that Coyne is summarizing them which can actually be misleading:

Most of Sapolsky’s eloquent take on free will relates to the concept of humans as “broken cars.” When your car is broken, you don’t say it deserves to be punished. You either “rehabilitate” it by taking it to a mechanic, or if it’s a car that won’t ever work well again, you “sequester” it by putting it in the junkyard or letting it rust in your front yard. And since Sapolsky, like me, sees criminals as “broken humans” who simply reflect in their criminality the influence of their genes and environments, he sees no sense in putting people away because they made the “wrong choice” or “deserve” retribution. (Some readers here think these two ideas are not part of our penal system, but I would disagree strongly.)

The problem is this: those that we would actually consider to be “broken humans” are those that we have the most sympathy for, and the ones that are less “broken” are the ones that we most want to punish (whether we should or not). Someone who steals because they are a kleptomaniac is quite broken, but we generally want to rehabilitate them or “fix” them because we know that they are really not choosing that at all; their compulsion drives them even as their choice faculties scream at them to stop. The person who steals because they can is arguably not as broken, but is much less sympathetic. It’s hard not to see Saplosky’s view here as treating the kleptomaniac like the junk car and the unrepentant thief as someone to take to the mechanic. He can argue that we can fix the kleptomaniac — at least limit them so that they aren’t a threat — but this still places them in the same category which seems absurd. Sure, Saplosky and Coyne will argue that we really should do that and that them seeming absurd is exactly why we need to drop the notion of free will, but this runs up against the problem that sometimes people really can properly be said to have “made the wrong choice”. If they made a mistake of reasoning that leads to an action that causes harm, all we’d want to do to “fix” them is point out the mistake in reasoning. So, yes, they just made the wrong choice and have to be taught why it’s the wrong choice so that they don’t do it again. How do you do that without having a notion of choice?

Coyne includes a specific quote from Saplosky on this:

“I am of the stance that the entire criminal justice system, top to bottom, makes no sense whatsoever because it is predicated on 200-year-old biology. We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do. When we say ‘I’ve changed my mind’ about doing this or that, we are in fact saying ‘circumstances have changed my mind.’ We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”

The problem is that often those “circumstances” really are “my choice-producing mechanisms have changed that decision”. For example, if someone is intoxicated we know that their choice-producing mechanisms are impaired (alcohol reduces inhibitions). Someone many make a choice while intoxicated but not be able to act on it, but then “change their mind” the next day when sober. But the only circumstances that have changed are that the choice-producing mechanism is no longer impaired. How does Saplosky propose to explain that with his notion of “circumstances have changed my mind”?

Another analogy used by Sapolsky is epilepsy. In the Middle Ages and even later, epileptics were thought to be possessed by demons, and were often punished or burned at the stake. But now we’ve discovered that epilepsy is a disease that one has no control over: a screw-up in the brain’s potassium channels. Now that epilepsy is medicalized, we don’t punish people for being epileptics, but instead try to alleviate their disease. And so should we do with criminals.

Did we ever think that people possessed by demons were acting under their own volition? My immediate thought is that we killed them or punished them because we thought that the original person was gone and that we were doing it to the demons (and don’t that just seem sad and wrong). So hardly the same sort of situation here, as it was predicated on them not being responsible and there not being a cure. In short, in that case wasn’t that us simply sending them to “the junkyard”?

At the end, Sapolsky answers two of Mirsky’s questions. First, does he think that neuroscientists will drive philosophers out of business? That is, will empirical studies of volition make philosophical lucubrations about free will obsolete? Sapolsky says “no”, that we should simply “force dead white male neurobiologists and philosophers to talk to each other more.” I mostly agree, for we need philosophers to clarify the concepts of “will” and “agency.”

They’ve been talking to each other for decades now (I studied neuroscientific theories in my undergrad Philosophy degree and in my Cognitive Science degree, where philosophy is a participating discipline). I think him overly optimistic about the impact his stuff will have on it. Philosophers are already paying attention those those fields; if they have anything interesting to say, philosophers will be interested in it.

Likewise, how we view “rewarding” people will change, he argues. Praising someone for their beautiful cheekbones, he says, is ludicrous: they have no “responsibility” for their cheekbones.

And yet, we do, so it seems that praise isn’t based on our notions of responsibility. As Coyne notes, doing so can impact behaviour, which is probably why we do it in the first place.

Anyway, that’s my discussion of free will for today. Remember, as a staunch libertarian I can indeed decide whether or not to talk about it, but as a hard determinist Coyne simply cannot help himself when it comes to talking about free will.


2 Responses to “Coyne On Sapolsky on Free Will”

  1. Andrew Says:

    From your presentation, I think Coyne ultimately wants to argue that a punishment / vengeance based model of justice is immoral. But I don’t think the argument from determinism gets him anywhere near where he wants to go.

    An argument that “determinism removes moral agency” proves way too much. It doesn’t just remove moral agency from people in prison, but from everyone. Just as the people in prison ultimately had no choice about their so-called crimes, the people who reacted by punishing them had no choice either. No-one has moral agency; things just happen.

    Any argument on these lines ends up with a scorched earth that leaves him no-where to argue from.

    In contrast, if we say that “reactions” are real, then we can meaningfully talk about goal states and what inputs we can provide to produce certain goal states. But we’re no longer talking about right or wrong; we’re talking about what inputs we want to provide to human decision/action machines to produce particular outcomes.

    But at this point we’ve also removed morality. We’re not talking about whether particular punishments are good / bad or just / unjust, we’re talking about whether they are more or less effective at achieving our goal states. The decision becomes a purely pragmatic one – “do I retrain a criminal or execute him?” becomes the same consideration as “do I pay to repair my car or just send it to the wrecker and buy a new one?”.

    Pragmatically, there are two questions:

    * what consequences may legitimately be applied due to a particular action?

    I say “be applied” because there are inherent and artificial consequences. If you punch a wall and hurt your hand, the consequence was contained in the action itself – no outside interaction was required for it to happen. On the other hand, being asked to pay to repair the wall (or your hand, for that matter) is an artificial consequence – it is only one of many possible ways that others may respond. (Unless you are a hard determinist, in which case you are forced to say that the consequence is an inherent effect of the action in that environment. Coyne is trying to have his cake and eat it too on this one.)

    * how will altering the predicted consequences modify whether the action is taken?

    Side point: if predicted punishment works as a deterrent, then to fail to punish undermines the deterrent value as it says the deterrent will not actually be applied. To argue that punishment for a past action is pointless as it did not deter that particular action is to miss the point.

    However, there’s a bigger question on what morality / justice even looks like in this context. Am I unjust in deciding to trash my old phone rather than repair it when it stops working? Most people will find the question on, because we don’t consider ourselves having a moral obligation towards an object.

    But if we say people are functionally objects – merely reacting to circumstances as biological machines – then where does moral obligation toward them come from? Moreover, do they have moral obligations towards others? What would moral obligation look like if we have no choice and no responsibility for our actions?

    As expressed here, the hard determinist position dehumanises people and then complains about treating them inhumanely.

    As an aside – it is popular to talk about morality as being about choice – can I choose my actions? I prefer to view it as being about responsibility – can I be held responsible for my actions? Choice factors into this, but there is more to the discussion.

    Despite a complete absence of choice, we apply consequences to objects all the time. If the chair breaks we throw it out. The chair didn’t choose to break, nor is it in any way morally complicit, but the action still garners consequences. If we want to treat humans differently we need to think very carefully about what morality means.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Coyne is pretty clear that he wants to do away with the idea of morality and moral responsibility. He argues explicitly that what determinism eliminates in moral responsibility is the moral part, and not the responsibility part. He just tends to rail more about reforming prisons than about eliminating morality. And, yes, there is a bit of an inconsistency as he seems to be relying on us thinking it morally wrong to punish people for things they weren’t responsible for, but that’s likely just the result of him not really thinking the consequences of his positions through. The worst one is how he treats theists, though. It doesn’t make sense to call them stupid or deluded or irrational for believing in God and not being convinced by his arguments, since they have no choice in the matter, and yet he still wants to. But then again, he has no choice in how he responds either. A few have raised these issues to him, but his responses haven’t been very satisfactory.

      As for the last part, I find that follows from the maxim “Ought implies can”. If I couldn’t do anything other than what I did, you can’t say that I ought to have done something else. That covers both choice and responsibility, and differentiates us from chairs and even most animals.

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