67. The Execution of Cecil Clayton: 2. Change But Not Choice

“Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion, my good youth?”
“Largely of my own free will, and twice as much by compulsion!”

Alexander Afanasyev The Maiden Tsar

I have been discussing [61] the execution of Cecil Clayton and an opinion made about that execution by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True.  Coyne’s perspective is that none of us can exercise any free will and that all of us are, at best, organic machines running software programmed by our genetic makeup and environment.

Coyne states:

  • “This execution is a prime example [of the] tragic results that come from people’s failure to understand determinism and its consequences for justice, reward, and punishment. What happened to Clayton is a direct and unavoidable consequence of his background and genes, but also of the public’s erroneous notion that people have “free will”—that in many situations we (and Clayton) can freely choose to act other than the way they did. In fact, science tells us that Clayton had no such choice, whatever the prosecutors say. Our brains are computers made of meat, and run programs based on their wiring, which comes from the genes we inherited and the environments we experienced. There is no ghostly “we” that can override the output of those programs.”

That’s fine. I don’t totally agree with that theory but I do try to keep an open mind. It is also important to note that Coyne was not arguing that Cecil Clayton could not override his program because of Clayton’s well-documented brain injury (as did Clayton’s defense attorney) but that none of us can override our programs.

However, what did puzzle me was Coyne’s ultimate conclusion that those who executed Clayton could have acted differently if they had practiced their rationality and tempered their more base need for retribution.  Specifically:

  • “[Outrage is] not a useful emotion to feel towards any crime, although such emotions, and the desire for retribution, may have evolved as a way to protect society from offenders. But rationality has taken us beyond these primitive feelings: we understand determinism, we understand that people’s actions are completely determined by factors over which they have no control, and we can put aside our childish emotions and adopt a truly humane approach to justice. When we realize that criminals never had a choice, we can then let science rather than knee-jerk reactions guide our actions.”

I was a little confused by Coyne’s logic. If Cecil Clayton had no ghostly “we” to override the output of his program to murder, how can his executioners use their ghostly “we” to override the output of their programs — that is, to seek lethal retribution?  How can we exercise our rationality, if we have no say in the matter?

Because Coyne’s solution to capital punishment sounded similar to one that assumes a capacity to freely exercise choice, I commented on Coyne’s blog with words to that effect (I also note that there are a number of other comments on Coyne’s blog that make the same point).  Coyne responded that I did not understand determinism and that:

  • “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.”

Fair enough, I could have been less blunt in my comment.

(And, not to worry, I learned my lesson and I won’t be making any comments in the foreseeable future, insha’Allah.)

But I did follow his advice and did ponder free will and mused a bit on that in my last post in this series. Yet, I still remained unclear on the logic of Coyne’s position.

Clearly the word “change” is important. Hence, the capitals in his response. Specifically, it is not that people choose to change their behavior or opinion but, instead, that change is determined by an environmental event or some compelling rational argument.  In a sense, if the input is strong enough to trip or activate some switch within your biochemical cognitive machine (formally called your brain) then a certain output is assured.

What Coyne is arguing is that if you show people the “right” way they will make the “right” change.  The right way, I assume, is that science and logic should supersede passion and emotion.  Coyne’s assumption is that people must, or would be compelled, to change based on the irrefutable logic of a specific argument. They become “convinced” and, therefore, experience a fundamental change of state.  They move from ignorance to enlightenment.

As per a strict deterministic perspective, and within the current context, the agent of change rests not inside the system but outside of the system.  You, without external input, must rely on either your existing default rational program or, in the case of Cecil Clayton and his executioners (according to Coyne), revert to a more primitive and childish set of emotions.

Just as a machine or computer cannot reconfigure its internal mechanism without outside influence, you, by yourself, cannot choose to alter your program.  Even though you possess consciousness and introspection, those processes are viewed as mere evolutionary by-products and not of great meaning by themselves. They are viewed as no more than a passive monitor.

Behavior, in a completely deterministic universe, is essentially reflexive.  And conscious thought — at the end of a long chain of biochemical events — emerges like cognitive excrement.

Despite his impolitic and sensationalist choices of topic such as homicide and terrorism (not yet genocide that I am aware of), Coyne is not presenting a totally unreasonable argument.

His perspective is consistent with the general deterministic (and linear) model of the natural world:   That the universe is predictable and that effects cannot precede causes.

As such, arguments against free will typically focus on logical and quantitative evidence, such as the deterministic underpinning of the material world, the irreversible flow of time, and the role stochastic or random variables may play in natural events and our personal history.  (For a sophomoric view of the current zeitgeist of arguments supporting determinism see this video.)

I do see the considerable allure in a strictly deterministic perspective. It is the heart of the scientific method and it does offer a pure model from which to understand organic behavior — that existence is the byproduct of biochemical forces with growth and change driven by pre-encoded blueprints and external conditions.

And there is no doubt that the substrate of human life is biochemical activity and that much of that activity proceeds without conscious intent or direction.  Much of what we do operates below our awareness.

Although these arguments suggest that our ability to freely choose is circumscribed by a number of factors, they do not preclude free will or demand that it be discounted.  Instead, they merely constrain free will.

I think that some of the arguments for determinism and against free will confuse existence with relevance. I certainly can accept that free will or choice, under many circumstances, is highly restricted and of little consequence.  We are very small and the universe is very big.  Whether I choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla will have no impact on the universe (perhaps).

Just because my choice is trivial and of little importance, it does not follow that it cannot exist.  It may seem unnecessary.  It may feel meaningless.  And it may be futile.  Yet, there it is — the capacity to override or suppress a deterministic urge.

Does Cecil Clayton (or any one of us) have the right to life in a deterministic universe?  The suggestion that Cecil Clayton should not be executed because he had no choice is not a logical or rational argument — despite what Coyne believes — it is a moral argument.

Even if we grant that free will is an illusion, I still remain puzzled by the problem of change of one’s personal belief or attitude within a deterministic universe.  As argued by Coyne, change emerges through input (or the external force of logic and empirical evidence) imposed on another’s cognitive apparatus. Because I have no say in this matter due to my lack choice or free will, that input can alter my beliefs — or my output — independent of what I think about the quality of the input.

Now here’s the problem. If that input does not alter my cognition or belief structure, then how should we consider the value of that input?  (Remember:  My consciousness is essentially meaningless in a deterministic structure and does not steer my cognition.)

Does this, by definition, make it null or false?  No, according to Coyne.  This input — that behavior is wholly determined by factors over which we have no control — is supported by science and one’s failure to accept this premise is most likely driven by primitive or child-like emotions.

Yet the statement that science shows determinism to be true is not completely accurate.  The jury still remains out on that.

As well, the perspective that those who disagree with determinism are, by definition, relying on somewhat lesser (emotional, primitive, or under-developed) cognitive processes troubles me somewhat.

Enough so, that I will expand on that in my next post in this series.

67. Free Will