61. The Execution of Cecil Clayton: 1. Or How I Unintentionally Pissed Jerry Coyne Off

  • Restrictions and freedom are basically two sides of the same thing. Ai Weiwei

I follow a few blogs.  One of which is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True.  Coyne is a prolific blogger who typically writes about atheism, religion, evolutionary biology, and a whole lot about cats. I don’t always see eye to eye with his perspective but I do enjoy his writing.  And I also find it valuable to try and read things I don’t agree with. In doing so, I learn much more than I ever would by reading opinions identical to my own.

I rarely post comments. Writing a blog is often a labor of love and can be time-consuming. Comments are sometimes throw away statements that are written quickly and not always with great thought.

Case in point:  The other day, I commented on one of Jerry Coyne’s posts regarding the execution of Cecil Clayton.  His post was loosely focused on capital punishment and the fact that Clayton had suffered a significant brain injury several years prior to Clayton committing murder.  The key theme, however, centered on human behavior being determined (by our complex genetic and environmental history and conditioning) and the error of believing in the presence of free will.  To Coyne, Cecil Clayton had no choice in acting the way he did and, therefore, executing Clayton under the presumed assumption of free will is not defensible. Yet it was not just Clayton who had no choice in his action.  All of us, according to Coyne, have no choice — our behavior is completely and wholly determined.  Coyne ended his post by arguing that those who executed Clayton could have acted differently if they had exercised their rationality and had not fallen prey to their primitive need for retribution.

The logic of Coyne’s argument, however, escaped me.  So I decided to comment thusly:

Your argument makes no sense when extended to the actions of all parties involved.  If the condemned had no free will over his actions then, by definition, those who executed him also had no free will over their responses. To argue that the executors should have exercised their free will by acknowledging that none of us have free will is confusing.

And, somewhat surprising, Coyne almost immediately responded:

I’m sorry, but you don’t understand determinism, I suspect.  People can CHANGE their responses based on input. And so people who formerly favored capital punishment can oppose it if they listen to arguments against it and those arguments are “convincing” (i.e. Makes them change their minds).  Trying thinking harder about free will, and being a bit more polite when you make a first comment.


And he was right.  I could have been more courteous and for that I did apologize. Coyne suggested that I think a bit harder about free will.  Actually I was not thinking about free will at all.  Instead I was pondering the logic of determinism and its place within the criminal justice system.  I was thinking about Cecil Clayton and the man he murdered, Deputy Christopher Castetter.

Coyne’s post was using the execution of Clayton to emphasize a broader point — that we have no choice and our behavior contains no agent.  Agent-less behavior implies that there is no you or no self to modifying your decisions. This form of strict determinism (or incompatibilism) tends to be mechanistic and argues that organic beings are hard-wired and programmed to operate toward some preset and optimal outcome.

This model of understanding human behavior often relies on the metaphor of a black box.  Here, it is imagined that some event or piece of information is digested by a box containing a form of hidden mechanism.  That mechanism then churns out a result. The mechanism is thought to be flawless in that we always see the same output no matter how many times we feed the mechanism the specific input.

That metaphor can be also be extended to explain individual differences in behavior.  If we imagine two distinct black boxes (formerly called people) being fed the same input but outputting different results then we understand that the mechanisms in these boxes are most likely not identical.  We do not assume that dissimilar outputs is the result of one box choosing to be different on this occasion and then reverting back on future occasions.  The box has no say in how its mechanism runs. When one box’s output is incorrect or contravenes a larger rule, then we envision that box to be flawed. This is the logic behind the title and theme of Coyne’s post:  that all criminals are “brain damaged.”  Either the box’s hardware or software — or both — are corrupted.

Just as choice plays no part in a black box input-output algorithm, Coyne (and others) argue that Clayton had no choice in his actions.

Other less extreme perspectives allow for determinism and free will to coexist. Soft determinism sees events as largely determined by current and historical factors but allows for limited freedom of action by ourselves as agent.  The idea that we possess constrained choice fits most closely with our subjective experiences and our sense of psychological self.

Beyond the negation of my personal freedom, I am hesitant to accept a deterministic perspective based on practical reasons.  A strict deterministic theory on how creative organic beings navigate their universe may be cumbersome and most likely unworkable. To assume that we possess all necessary information and skills to automatically drive a specific behavior under complex conditions also assumes the presence of vast cognitive resources to store such information and enough time to exclude all possibilities.  Whereas computer storage and processing can increase exponentially, brains must operate within strict fixed limits.

A completely deterministic system may also have less flexibility under novel circumstances and could become locked in a repetitive loop with no method of escape.  Such a system may not have enough noise or error-handling built into its algorithm.

I am not completely convinced that those who argue in favor of hard determinism are doing so for reasons of logical purity.  Determinism offers a useful counterpoint to the idea of free will and free will is an important component of Christian theology. Not surprisingly, those who reject theism often (but not always) promote determinism.  If there is no agent, be it natural or supernatural, then it becomes difficult to argue for the presence of soul or God.

I suspect that those who strongly promote determinism do so because they enjoy being contrarian and probably like driving those with strong or modest religious beliefs a little bit crazy. However, questions regarding whether we possess any free will or agency do feel inauthentic and one-dimensional.

If free will is an illusion, then why do organic beings react so strongly when their freedom of movement or ability to choose is restricted?  Within a strictly deterministic world it should not matter to us whether we are free or not.  Yet, any extreme restriction on our freedom creates a very predictable behavioral response. We chafe and protest and try to struggle to regain what we have lost.  If that fails we may adopt a position of resignation and paralysis.  This deterministic pattern requires the presumption of an initial state of freedom.  No freedom: no deterministic response.

Although it is amusing to imagine placing someone who strongly believes in strict determinism in a box for one hour and then — upon release — asking them again about their thoughts on free will, I suppose that would be cruel.

Perhaps Jerry Coyne was right after all:  I am a little rude.

61. Coyne