Confused Determinism

New Atheist Jerry Coyne continued to rationalize New Atheism’s fascination with free will denialism.:

No, I don’t believe in “moral accountability,” which to me implies that one can choose freely. (Indeed, the survey of Sarkissian et al. shows that many people connect a belief in determinism with an absence of moral responsibility.)

Given the problem atheism has long had with morality, it is not surprising that a leading New Atheist activist would so proudly divorce morality from responsibility and accountability.

But I do believe in responsibility or accountability, by which I mean that a person who did a good or bad act is the entity who performed that act, and should be treated accordingly, especially for punishment.

And here we have a distinction without a difference. Coyne does believe in responsibility and accountability, by which he means a person who did a good or bad act is the entity who performed that act. But if the person was forced to commit that act because of his/her genes and environment, is that person truly responsible? It would seem what is responsible for the act are the genes and the environment. The person is no more than the vehicle through which the causal factors worked.

Imagine, for example, that the family of Mr. Jones has been kidnapped. The kidnappers contact Jones and have one simple ransom demand – he is to steal something from his workplace within 24 hours and hand it over to the kidnappers. If he does so, his family will be freed. If he refuses, his family will be murdered gruesomely. If Jones complies and does steal something from his workplace, is he the one who is truly responsible for the theft? I don’t think so. In such a situation, Jones has been forced to commit the crime, a crime he would have never committed had his family not been kidnapped. The responsible and accountable parties in this scenario are the kidnappers, not Jones. And I don’t see how the situation differs from the determinism of Coyne. If someone’s genes and environment force them to act in a certain way, how can we say that person is responsible or accountable?

It would seem to me that Coyne is simply engaged in semantic tap-dancing. When it comes to how we respond to human behavior, he claims he believes in responsibility and accountability, but not moral responsibility and moral accountability. Yet the entire concept of responsibility and accountability is soaked with morality and the sense of “ought”.

It becomes even more interesting when Coyne demands “punishment.”

If the genes and environment make someone commit a crime, Coyne insists on punishing that person even though the person is not at fault. Yet he boasts of how he will have nothing to do with retribution and vengeance, as if punishment is some completely distinct phenomenon:

As I said, there are of course good reasons to punish people like Tsarnaev, even if one is a determinist. Punishment keeps someone who is liable to do further damage away from society (sequestration); it serves as a deterrent to others (even though execution isn’t a deterrent, being caught and imprisoned is, as we can see from what happened during the famous Montreal Police strike of 1969); and in some cases (but probably not Tsarnaev’s), it’s possible to rehabilitate offenders when they’re confined, so that they pose no danger to society when they’re released. The effects of each of these rationales can in principle be judged by science, though the “experiments” will be hard and expensive. But a good society must surely try.

What I don’t see as a valid reason for execution is vengeance or retribution, for both of those involve the notion of moral culpability—the idea that the guilty party had a choice and made the wrong one.

The incoherence of such a position is stunning. What we have here is a rationalization that consists of little more than loosely linking three talking points.

First, the painfully obvious. Vengeance and retribution are not alone in involving the notion of moral culpability. Punishment itself involves this concept. To punish someone entails the idea that the guilty party had a choice and made the wrong one. That’s why they are being punished. In fact, the dictionary defines ‘punishment’ as follows: suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution. A synonym of punishment is retribution. It is silly to think one can embrace “punishment” while rejecting “retribution.”

And Coyne has no problem “punishing” the faultless criminals:

As I said, there are of course good reasons to punish people like Tsarnaev, even if one is a determinist. Punishment keeps someone who is liable to do further damage away from society (sequestration)….

That Coyne wants to punish people for actions they are not morally responsible for, for actions that were not the result of free choice, tells us that Coyne has completely failed to outline a rational, deterministic case for dealing with criminals. He is either still trying to sneak in the notion that people had a real choice when it came to their crime. Or he is advocating that we harm individuals for doing something that was not their fault. If Coyne wants to thump his chest and inform everyone just how enlightened his views are, he needs to completely drop the whole concept of punishment from his rationale. Otherwise, he has nothing more here than incoherent babble.

So let’s look at his three talking points (“good reasons” to punish the faultless):

1. Sequestration. Coyne links sequestration to punishment, which means it is also linked to the notion that people have free will. And it’s difficult to envision how it could be otherwise, for it’s not clear that forced sequestration could be completely divorced from punishment. Locking up humans in cages because of a previous action is punishment, given that is precisely how the criminal and society will perceive it. Free will denialists can try to reframe and spin it merely as society protecting themselves from the criminal, but that will not work until all the harmful elements are divorced from the sequestration. Free will denialists need to come up with a system of sequestration that does not punish/harm the criminal before they can be taken seriously.

2. Deterrent to others. If we completely strip away the punishing dimension of sequestration, then it is difficult to envision how such sequestration can act as a deterrence. Yet if we retain the punishment aspect, simply and only to deter others from committing the same crime, then the legal system will have been reduced to “making examples” out of people who had no choice when it came to committing the crime. It doesn’t sound very enlightened to me to punish faultless people simply to send a message to society. This, afterall, is the rationale of totalitarian regimes. Punish/harm one person to send a message to the rest in order to control them. What’s more, if we are simply to “make examples” of people to deter certain behavior solely for the “good of society,” then is it really all that important that the person have had committed the crime?

3. Rehabilitate offenders. In a deterministic world, rehabilitation seems like a pipedream. If, as the determinists claim, a person’s genes and upbringing made that person commit murder, such that he could not have done otherwise, then we would need to erase and/or significantly alter the genes and the effects of the upbringing to “rehabilitate” the person. Good luck with that.

In addition, if someone’s genes and upbringing forced them to commit murder in one instance, it would seem that person would be at a higher risk of committing murder in a second instance given the same causal forces are in existence. This puts rehabilitation at odds with sequestration. So which of the two will be given priority?

All in all, I find the whole idea that we can socially engineer a “better world” by embracing determinism to be rooted in confused thinking.

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6 Responses to Confused Determinism

  1. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    I think it’s frightening the way people want to claim with absolute certainty that there is not one shred of personal agency. It seems quite premature and interestingly, has been demonstrated to actually have a bad impact on people’s behaviors. It’s funny, because you hear this denial based on two factors (1) neuroscience and (2) physical causation. A determined materialist friend of mine tried to explain away free will based on biology. When I pointed out to him that logical materialism would deny free will long before the accidental creation of organisms and put it at the moment of the creation of all physical laws and matter and energy he agreed. There’s no need to invoke neuroscience to deny free will if there’s a purely mechanical closed loop system. Every C can be accounted for with a B and every B from A, etc all the way back to that moment when all matter and energy began to occur. One of the things that gives me pause about materialism is the fact that there’s no reason to assume – unless the stars aligned perfectly – that there is any reason for us to trust any intuition or theory or any means of grasping any perfectly mechanical universe could throw at us. The perpetual motion machine of matter and energy wouldn’t be fixed towards ultimate truth except by accident. Any notion of truth is accidental. You picking up your car keys is accidental and no intention is needed to explain it because it just works out that way. This isn’t an argument against materialism necessarily but an acknowledgement that a materialist can’t even come close to really knowing if he is right about it. Alas, I don’t think people should give up the idea of agency, not simply because it has bad consequences, but because there’s no reason to definitively give it up.

  2. Crude says:

    This isn’t an argument against materialism necessarily but an acknowledgement that a materialist can’t even come close to really knowing if he is right about it

    Actually, I think that is an argument against materialism – it’s self-refuting. It’s attributing blind physical causation rather than intention, reflection and reason to all acts, including the act of performing and interpreting science. If anyone is correct in their thoughts, they are correct entirely by accident – and there’s no way to reliably ‘check’ for correctness. In fact, there’s nothing to be correct about, because thoughts (with all their intentionality and aboutness) can’t really be said to enter the picture either. There’s no truth, no science, no reason on this picture.

  3. Dhay says:

    If the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is any sort of authority — and I had rather supposed it is — Jerry Coyne’s determinism, both as regards physical determinism and as regards free will, looks dodgy: “there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false)”:

    Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. The idea is ancient, but first became subject to clarification and mathematical analysis in the eighteenth century. Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions, on the one hand, and with our views about human free action on the other. In both of these general areas there is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false), and what the import for human agency would be in either case.

  4. Dhay says:

    In his blog entry dated August 20, 2015 and entitled “Dilbert and free will”, Jerry Coyne reproduces a Dilbert comic strip :

    Here’s today’s Dilbert strip by Scott Adams. It’s a rare comic that has such a good take on “free will”—at least the contracausal or “ghost in the machine” version:

    From which we can deduce that Coyne thoroughly approves of Dilbert’s words in the last frame which equate belief in free will to belief in magic.

    Several thoughts on this:

    * Dilbert is a satirical comic strip. Take your pick on whether the strip here satirises free will or perhaps satirises people like Dilbert (and Coyne) who believe in no free will.

    * The characters depicted in the Dilbert comic strip are all of them — and that includes Dilbert himself — all of them hugely dysfunctional, weird, abnormal, socially inept, idiosyncratic, and worth holding up to ridicule. So what is being satirised here: free will, or Dilbert’s (and Coyne’s) free will denialism?

    * I see that in an earlier strip Dilbert, in ‘totally honest’ mode (and in this case evidently totally honestly so — satire creeps into most places!) says that:

    “I like technology more than I like people”;
    “I don’t believe in free will, soul-mates or following my passion”;
    “I think life is a brief, meaningless event in a random universe that doesn’t care”;
    “I only associate with other people because I have biological and economical needs”;
    “I think all human actions are driven by selfishness.”
    And he’s totally uninterested in finding out anything about the women he briefly dates.

    In the earlier strip Dilbert and what he says are clearly being satirised, he’s a figure of fun, a caricature set up for ridicule.

    And one really must assume the same about the strip Coyne parades, that again Dilbert and what he says about free will being ‘magic’ are clearly being satirised, it’s something to laugh at, he’s a caricature set up for ridicule.

    “It’s a rare comic that has such a good take on “free will””, says Coyne. Except the protagonist giving that “good take” is a figure of fun, of ridicule. Um, no, it’s more likely a piss take.

  5. Dhay says:

    > “It’s a rare comic that has such a good take on “free will.””

    And on meditation, likewise? Does Sam Harris know of Jerry Coyne’s admiration for the pin-point philosophical excellence of the Dilbert comic strip?

    As regards the Dilbert character’s self-awareness, hence his ability to judge whether he has free will or not, I rather think this strip sums it up nicely:

  6. Dhay says:

    > “It’s a rare comic that has such a good take on “free will.””

    I’d say the Dilbert strip’s attitude to free will is ambiguous, but always good for a laugh:

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