Persisting in Error: Jerry Coyne Stumbles on Compatibilism

Coyne on Compatibilism

Jerry Coyne, a biologist who has been previously criticized on Debunking Denialism for promoting anti-psychiatry, recently wrote a commentary on a book review written by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately, like a lot of hard determinists, Coyne misunderstands nearly everything: contra-causal freedom is incoherent and so miserable that no sane person would want to have it in the first place and it is possible for some freedoms to be possible on determinism because humans can model reality, predict likely consequences of their behavior and act to avoid negative outcomes. Compatibilists are not guilty of semantics trickery since there is no problem with revising definitions for intellectual clarity or due to evidence. Finally, compatibilists are not anti-science for pointing out that many studies purporting to show that human decisions occur after the brain makes the decision make the false assumptions that there is a specific time and place in the brain when and where a single, unitary decision is made (Cartesian materialism).

Few discussions are so contentious and unconstructive as the debate on to what extent humans have freedom. There are essentially three positions: (1) contra-causal freedom: the religious notion of a supernatural soul that can act in violating of physical laws (contra-causal freedom), (2) hard determinism: the notion that physical causality completely eliminates all forms of human freedom and (3) compatibilism: the notion that relevant forms of human freedoms are compatible, and even requires, physical causality.

Let us see if we cannot bring some light and order into this unproductive maelstrom.

Why contra-causal freedom is incoherent and useless

Coyne posts the following definition of contra-causal freedom:

Free will is defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

Imagine that this was true. That means that you can think of two different hypothetical universes, one in which a father slaughters his children and one in which the father does not. The physical properties of both universes and the antecedent conditions could be exactly identical and it would not determine his actions. So that means that none of his beliefs, emotions, knowledge or thoughts could ever have a determining influence on his behavior. They are exactly the same in both universes, since they are the products of a physical brain. So in a universe where contra-causal freedom is true, human behavior is not determined by beliefs, emotions, thoughts and so on, but by something else that is entirely mysterious and unrelated. In such a universe, moral responsibility cannot exist and human behavior would be essentially arbitrary and causally unrelated to any human cognition. This would be a horrible universe to live in. If we are serious about trying to understand human behavior and to what extent humans have freedom, contra-causal freedom is an incoherent and miserable dead-end.

Why determinism does not preclude relevant distinctions on freedom

Consider the following two scenarios:

(1) a doctor saves thousands of lives by shooting a group of terrorists to death before they can plant and detonate explosions in an office building.

(2) a big rock is dislodged during a storm and kills a group of terrorists the night before they can plant and detonate explosions in an office building.

Some might praise the heroic doctor who saved thousands of lives by shooting a group of terrorists, but would never praise a big rock that was accidentally dislodged during a storm and killed a group of terrorist by crushing them. On hard determinism, there is no relevant difference between these two situations: the doctor is no more worthy of praise than the rock. After all, the hard determinist say, both events are determined by preceding physical events and the doctor just did what he or she was determined to do, just like the rock.

But there is obviously a relevant difference. Humans have evolved brains that can model reality, predict the likely consequences of their actions and act to avoid what they consider negative outcomes. A rock cannot. This difference is precisely what is meant by compatibilist freedom. For compatibilism to be valid, this is all that is needed. If examined closely, this ability actually require determinism to be true since it is based on predictive accuracy of causal events.

This realization automatically disprove two other arguments championed by Coyne: that compatibilist freedom cannot be non-vacuously defined and that it is not falsifiable. The definition mentioned above is that an entity has (some degree of) compatibilist freedom if it can model reality, predict the likely consequences of their actions and act to avoid what it considers to be negative outcomes. All it takes to show that a person does not have these properties. For instance, if you are too young to accurately and consistently predict the likely consequences of your actions, then you have considerable less compatibilist freedom than an adult that can. This fits well with the legal principle that young children should be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system.

Most of the time, hard determinists have very little to offer besides the unrelenting “but that is still determinism and I do not understand how humans can be free!?”. It is therefore ironic that Coyne compares compatibilists with “sophisticated theologians”, when the real comparison is between some hard determinists and creationists, at least in terms of sheer unwillingness to look beyond their own ignorance and lack of imagination.

Compatibilism is not guilty of arbitrary semantic shenanigans

Imagine that you are at the scene of a large cholera outbreak in the 1850s. Bill, a prominent epidemiologists, announces that he believes the outbreak was caused by something in the environment. More specifically, Bill thinks that cholera is due to miasma (a form of noxious, disease-causing air from rotting material). Suppose that there was another public intellectual at the time, let us call him Cerry Joyne for good measure, who believes that cholera is a punishment for sin and only people with inherent sinful thoughts got cholera. Joyne likes to do experiments, so he removes all rotting organic produce from a village outside the main city and measures the number of new cases of cholera before and after the intervention. Suppose that the number of new cases does not decrease at all, so Joyne announces that he has now disproved the notion that cholera is caused by an environmental factor and that we must purge ourselves of sin in order to stave of the cholera epidemic. Along comes yet another public intellectual by the name of John and argues that cholera is actually caused, not by miasma, but an environmental factor in the water and he makes fairy convincing arguments for why this is the case. Now, Joyne does not like this one bit, and so accuses John of using semantic shenanigans to arbitrarily redefine this environmental factor in order to avoid the (in Joyne’s view) inescapable conclusion that sin causes disease.

We can easily see where Joyne went wrong in the above story: there is nothing wrong with proposing different definitions for concepts if it increases intellectual clarity or is based on an assessment of the science. Coyne makes a similar mistake with respect to compatibilism.

Compatibilism is not specist

Compatibilism does not make an arbitrary qualitative distinction between humans and non-human animals as the difference in freedom is only in degree. Granted, humans have a much better ability to predict the future, but that is not because of some magical property, but because of e. g. education and the use of super computers. The reason we do not put cows on trial for accidentally killing a human by falling over is not because they are missing a supernatural ability to circumvent the laws of physics that humans supposedly have. It is because, like very young children, they are not as good at modelling reality, predicting the likely outcomes of their actions or avoiding negative outcomes. It would also probably not affect the future behavior of other cows.

Whether compatibilism or hard determinism is true has very little practical consequences in terms of criminal punishment. We can still lock up criminals in order to prevent them from harming others and deter others from committing similar crime. So compatibilism is not a desperate rationalization to “sustain our sense of moral responsibility”.

Compatibilism is not anti-science

Compatibilism is also not anti-science for a very obvious reason: it is science that allows us to access when and where compatibilist freedom is sufficient to justify blame or praise. Providing thoughtful methodological criticisms of studies that supposedly disprove “free will” is also not anti-science. In fact, such discussions are the pinnacle of a scientific mindset. Most of the conclusions assume that there is a place and time in the brain when “it all comes together and a decision happens”. But this is just a materialist version of the Cartesian dualist view that there is a central stage where the Cartesian ego (called a homunculus) watches sensory input and pulls levers and presses buttons to control the body. Yet there is no such place or time in the brain since when conscious experience is spatial-temporally smeared. Another version of this fallacy occurs when some studies narrowly considers “I” as the stream of consciousness at a given time-point instead of the overarching patterns of beliefs, experiences, emotions, knowledge and so on. They also rely on subjective reporting of this imaginary event, but how it “seems to us” is not a good measure of what is actually happening. A decision seems to be a single, unitary event in a precise location in the brain at a precise time point. But this is just what it seems to be from a first-person perspective. It is not an accurate description of the way things actually are. Thus, all studies that rely on subjective reporting of this imaginary event are seriously methodologically flawed.


Although some might think that contra-causal freedom is worth having, it really is not. That is because it would mean that your beliefs, thoughts and feelings had no decisive impact on your behavior to do things, even horrible things. It is possible for some forms of freedom to be not only compatible with, but even require, determinism to be true. One such freedom is the ability to model reality, predict likely consequences of their behavior and act to avoid negative outcomes. This is not some kind of semantic trick. There is absolutely no problem improving definitions based on intellectual or scientific progress. Most of the studies on the topic assumes that there is a special place and time in the brain where it all comes together and a decision happens, but this is just the fallacy of Cartesian materialism (there are no such specific place or time in the brain) and thus not a credible conclusion.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

6 thoughts on “Persisting in Error: Jerry Coyne Stumbles on Compatibilism

  • January 14, 2015 at 23:51

    Hi, you implied that hard determinism is about who is more worthy of praise, I can’t quote because I’m on my phone, it seems you implied it right under the 2 examples. But hard determinism has nothing to do with morality or worth, it just states that free will is incompatible with determinism.

    Secondly, your analogy on semantics isn’t very convincing to me because no one is attempting to redefine any definitions, they are just arguing over what the cause(s) are or is.

    • January 16, 2015 at 20:43

      The term “hard determinism” has on its own nothing to do with morality or moral blame, but the standard hard determinist argument is that determinism implies no free will, which implies no possibility to do otherwise, which implies no moral responsibility, which implies that it is irrational to consider humans worthy of praise or blame, just like we would not praise a rock for killing a terrorist by accidentally falling of a cliff. This is all common hard determinist arguments.

      The hard determinist argument Coyne made in regards to redefinition is that compatibilists are trying to salvage free will by sneakingly redefining it. I responded by saying that there is no problem updating definitions based on intellectual clarity and/or evidence

  • January 18, 2015 at 23:59

    Thank you for replying.

    Yes, that makes sense.

    Yes, like the universe used to be defined as the totality of physical reality, but in physics, the definition of universe has to be different because it includes hypotheses that predict other universes. Is that an accurate example?

    • January 19, 2015 at 11:46

      In that case it is a little bit more difficult since there is not much empirical support for universes other than ours. But if it had been, or if it will be in the near future, then it would be a good example.

  • March 18, 2015 at 02:06

    I looked up “free will” in a couple dictionaries and found that each gave two definitions.

    The first definition, which is the preferred or most common definition, is ordinary free will as most people might define it:

    Mirriam-Webster on-line: 1: voluntary choice or decision

    Short Oxford English dictionary: 1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.

    When people have a decision to make, they think about it, and make a choice. That choice is what they “will” at that moment. If they are “free” to make that decision for themselves, and not forced to make a choice against their will, then it is their own decision made of their own “free will”.

    And this is within all both of the definitions above. It is “voluntary” (unforced) “choice”. It is “spontaneous” (authentically from the decider) rather than the “suggestion” of someone else (their will, not the decider’s will).

    The second is a very stupid definition, apparently used by academics.

    Mirriam-Webster on-line: 2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

    Short Oxford English dictionary: 2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate..

    It is an imaginary free will, that cannot possibly exist within a real world of causality and necessity. Therefore, it is a “straw man” definition, one designed to be easily knocked down.

    Ordinary free will is a process that is objectively observed in the real world. And it exist in a physical, deterministic universe.

  • March 18, 2015 at 12:24

    Determinism implies that the current events and current state reliably bring about the next events and the next state. This chain of causation goes on for eternity.

    This interesting fact raises the question “So what?”

    Is the fact that your next choice is inevitable helpful in any way? No. Because you cannot know for certain what you will choose until you go through your mental process of evaluating your options and making the choice yourself. And if you already knew the result you would skip right to the answer. Every deliberate choice begins with uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty then there is no choosing involved.

    Suppose it were possible to see the future, and to know what would inevitably happen? Well, being the rebellious sort we are, we’d probably choose something else just for spite. So knowing the inevitable means it is no longer inevitable.

    The physician knows what will inevitably happen if she fails to treat a fatal disease, the patient will die. So she chooses to treat the disease and the patient lives. The doctor was able to chose what would become inevitable and what would remain merely a possibility.

    Inevitability itself changes nothing. Everything remains precisely as it is. In fact, it was inevitable that everything would be exactly as it is now.

    This includes free will. You are still choosing for yourself what you will do. And what you do will determine what happens next. And, as long as someone else is not forcing you to do something against your will, you are acting of your own free will. And that means you are the final responsible cause of what results from your action.

    If you commit a crime, it is useless to claim that “determinism made me do it”, because the judge can also claim a rich history of causes and effects that resulted in society creating and enforcing laws. Penalties repair the harm, correct the offender, and protect the rest of us. If there are “extenuating circumstances”, like mental incapacity, or contributing factors that were actually outside your knowledge and control, then they may be taken into account. But causality is always an assumed constant, on both sides of the equation, so it is never a “get out of jail free card”.

    If everything is inevitable, can you just sit back and wait for it to happen? Well, you should try doing that when you’ve been tossed into a swimming pool. If you remain still, totally engrossed in observing what was inevitably to happen next, you’ll likely drown. The point is that inevitability requires your active participation. And if the choice is to sink or swim, you had best take control of your own destiny. You’ll find that life often tosses you into a swimming pool.

    There is no separation between you and causality. It is not some foreign agency forcing you to comply. Causality is also you, thinking, choosing, and acting of your own free will. What becomes inevitable is in your hands. All of your reasons, feelings, beliefs, values, experience, and so on, that cause you to choose one thing rather than another, are totally impotent to cause anything without you.

    So there you have it. Determinism is a fact of life. It is a deducible characteristic of the real world we inhabit. Free will is also a fact of life. It is an objectively observable phenomena that occurs in the real world. Therefore there can be no conflict.

    To find conflict, you have to enter an irrational world, like the one proposed by the “anti-causal libertarian free willers” or the equally irrational world of the “anti-choice determinists”. Both of those worlds are trapped in the paradox. Don’t let the silly paradox trap you.

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