Determinism and Social Justice

Jerry Coyne is once again peddling  free will denialism.  Coyne writes:

As I always say, it’s easier to convince a diehard creationist of the truth of evolution than to convince a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.

Yet there are some enlightened folk who not only accept determinism but deny that a version of “free will” can be confected that preserves our notion of that term while accepting determinism. There are some enlightened folk who realize that accepting behavioral determinism mandates a severe reform of the criminal justice system, including adopting the view that criminals, like malfunctioning machines, need to be treated rather than punished.

One of those enlightened people is neurobiologist and author Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford.

Great.  The same enlightened crowd that gave us postmodernism and the social justice movement now wants to mandate a severe reform of the criminal justice system.  What could possibly go wrong?

Before we go to the extreme of adding even more radical changes to our culture, why can’t the enlightened crowd pause, take a breath, and address some basic questions.

  1. If we have no free will, how can we have free speech? It would seem clear to me that without free will, there is no such thing as free speech.  Thus, determinism seems to strengthen the social justice case against free speech.  If speech is simply the deterministic output of one’s culture, environment, and genes, then why not censor it and regulate it in terms of its perceived consequential outcomes?
  2. Before tackling the issue of criminals, why don’t free will denialist professors test out their approach in the classroom? That is, if a student commits plagiarism, or cheats on an exam, shouldn’t that teacher treat the student like malfunctioning machine, needing to be treated rather than punished with a failed grade?
  3. Why the focus on punishment? If there is no free will, rewards are just as nonsensical. Why are these professors rewarding students with high grades when the student did not truly accomplish them?  The student could not help but get high grades because of his/her culture, environment, and genes.

What’s more, don’t you think it time for these enlightened professors to do away with all their awards and honors they give each other?  For example, on the Amazon page for Sapolsky’s book, we find:

 He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

While he may have received the MacArthur Foundation genius grant, he didn’t truly earn it.  He didn’t make any decisions or come up with any arguments other than the decisions/arguments his environment and biology forced upon him.

Hmmm.  If you think about it, points 2 and 3 would also nicely fold into a social justice outlook.  Since everyone’s failure and success is something that was determined to happen by forces apart from the agent, why not just find a way to treat everyone the same?  Afterall, we are all the same give none of us have ever failed or accomplished anything.

There are many, many problems with free will denialism, but it is interesting to me how such a worldview fits so nicely into the social justice mentality that the enlightened atheists have already given us.

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16 Responses to Determinism and Social Justice

  1. Ilíon says:

    You make good points, but I’d like to focus your (and the reader’s) attention on something more basic, namely the incoherency, and self-refutation, of free-will denialism.

    Consider, Coyne wrote: “As I always say, it’s easier to convince a diehard creationist of the truth of evolution than to convince a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.

    Think about this.

    IF it is true that “our behaviors are determined, that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment“, then it is ALSO true that it is utterly impossible “to [“]convince[“] a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment” — my claim that such convincing is utterly impossible is but a re-statement of his claim that “our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.

    If his claim were true, then there could be no such thing as convincing anyone of anything (that’s why I inserted the scare-quotes into the quotation). If his claim were true, then if someone were to make noises that sound like, “You have convinced me that there is no such thing as free-will“, all that has happened is that the mechanically deterministic forces that had previously caused him to make noises like, “You are wrong, there is such a thing as free-will“, have mechanically shifted such that he now makes the new noises he is making. AND, there is no logical connection between the noises Coyne has made and these new noises his “convert” is making.

    Coyne again: “Yet there are some enlightened folk who …

    Enlightened? That word/concept is meaningless absent free-will.

    ====
    Really, Coyne no more believes the bullshit he’s peddling than Dawkins did when he peddled the very same (see a post on my blog, at https://iliocentrism. blogspot. com/2010/04/basils-car-and-justice.html — I’ve inserted two spaces into that URL, because in my experience WordPress suppresses comments containing live links to Blogspot).

  2. Regual Llegna says:

    If there is not free will, then start treating everyone else as machines or worse. This mentality is basic in how the communist rulers see their citizens, because then: no utility for others (goverment/group/nation/etc…) no life worth/value.

    Free will denialism = Preparing yourself for a life of what is basically anti-empathy towards others
    and no freedom of choice. Example: you cannot choice your hate for other
    human beings.

    I predict that he, Jerry Coyne, will go crazy slowly but surely. Especially when seeing that others like him (self-branded atheists) do not follow his same mentality and ideas about life and accountability..

  3. mechanar says:

    @Ilíon Exactly whenever I see someone talking about determinism it is most amusing to me. Not a singel sentence is spoken withouth the person making self refuting noise.

    No one is “rational” no one can “choose” anything no one is “speaking” no one is “listening”. Nobody can reform or do anything outside of his program if it happens it happens if not than the uncaring clockwork that is the universe has decided not to.

  4. TFBW says:

    There’s another aspect of Coyne’s pronouncement which bears scrutiny here.

    There are some enlightened folk who realize that accepting behavioral determinism mandates a severe reform of the criminal justice system, including adopting the view that criminals, like malfunctioning machines, need to be treated rather than punished.

    Criminals are like malfunctioning machines, are they, Jerry? So they have a proper function from which they can deviate? Are you really going to let telos waltz in through a wide-open door like that? If humans, along with the rest of life on Earth, are just the result of ultimately deterministic Darwinian processes, then where does this “proper function” come from? Matter simply does what it does, after all. This “proper function” is either a figment of your imagination, or it is some kind of law above and beyond physics itself, which can tell us that physical objects are doing the wrong thing even when they are doing nothing but obeying the laws of physics.

    Given that the latter option smacks of something supernatural, I’m going to assume that Coyne has simply fallen victim to the same illusion that he points out in everyone else. After all, the whole idea that something “needs to be treated” suggests that we have some way in which we can elect to influence reality. On determinism, this is nonsense: “need to” is not a term that fits anywhere in the deterministic universe, since matter merely does what matter does. Similarly, “reform” and “treat” are every bit as meaningless as “punish”, as they all imply some kind of deviation from an ideal which simply does not exist (except in the imagination of the people using the words).

  5. Paul Armenat says:

    In terms of political strength within the Western/American atheism population, if you were to slice the pie into two halves, what percentage of the pie would the SJWs atheists have and what percentage of the pie would the New Atheists/atheist manosphere have? I wanted to know their relative strengths within atheist faction politics.

    It seems as if the New Atheists/manosphere atheists control YouTube but the SJW atheists have more control in blogs/websites and as far as atheist conferences.

  6. SteveK says:

    TFBW
    You are correct, there can be no “proper function”. Coyne thinks there is, but that thought has been determined by prior events. It’s not his fault that he’s irrational.

  7. Dhay says:

    It’s only a few days since Jerry Coyne was clamouring for a jail sentence for “the vicious killer and maimer of 15 threatened Laysan albatrosses, one Christian Gutierrez”; who, Coyne announced in a subsequent post, did get jailed:

    There was some lively discussion on this site about whether Gutierrez should get jail time; I said “yes” because it would be a deterrent to those who hurt wild animals—something that’s often not even prosecuted.

    The judge rendered his decision yesterday, and it’s the slammer for Christian—but only for 45 days. He also has to pay $1000 for “his share of restitution for the stolen monitoring equipment”, and must serve 200 hours of community service.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/albatross-killer-sentenced-to-jail/

    Actually, he said “YES”.

    *

    Coyne > … accepting behavioral determinism mandates a severe reform of the criminal justice system, including adopting the view that criminals, like malfunctioning machines, need to be treated rather than punished.
    [The link to Coyne’s blog post is at the start of the OP.]

    The example then given by Coyne of a crime which needs to be treated rather than punished is an odd one to choose. It was originally a 24:51 long RadioLab topic on 17 September 2013, then recently repeated with additions to 47:36 length by free will denier Robert Sapolsky.

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/317627-fault-line/ for the original, link in Coyne’s blog post to the update of Fault Line.

    After two operations to cure his epilepsy, ‘Kevin’, the renamed criminal, became fat, sex-obsessed and a child porn downloader and viewer. “Eventually Kevin was caught by the feds, and although he pleaded that he couldn’t help himself because his brain was damaged (indeed, he had Klüver–Bucy Syndrome), the judge rejected that defense and sent Kevin to federal prison for two years, with two additional years of house arrest.”

    And, says Coyne, Sapolsky “was ‘appalled by that judicial decision and the underlying worldview.’ The appalling worldview is one of libertarian free will: the mistaken notion that Kevin had the power to control his behavior.”

    The judge didn’t buy that: Kevin downloaded pornography at home, but not at his workplace, and although Coyne argues that, like Alzheimers patients’ ability to recall facts, Kevin’s condition could well vary in intensity during the day — giving no evidence, it’s an assertion — I see Coyne says Kevin was “demanding sex at all hours and in all places” and deduce from that that a) the condition didn’t vary, and b) Kevin could and did consistently control his urge to download child porn when at work — it was under voluntary control.

    Looks to me like Sapolsky and Coyne reckon Kevin should have got off scott free, indeed both seem to think nobody anywhere at any time can even in principle possibly be guilty of a crime. Seems like nobody ever has a choice in their behaviour, any of it whatsoever.

    Personally I think the judge did the right thing, an intelligent decision: like Gutierrez, Kevin’s had a light sentence, one that’s a deterrent to Kevin repeat-offending, he’s now been under Probation Service scrutiny to check for signs of reformation or otherwise, and he’s been told in no uncertain terms that HE needs to arrange to receive the appropriate treatment (if any) or he’ll probably be back in jail.

    Coyne’s choice of Kevin’s crime as exampling crimes which need to be treated rather than punished seems particularly odd. Coyne’s idea that “criminals, like malfunctioning machines, need to be treated” looks very inappropriate when applied to his own example, Kevin: how do you treat someone who has been brain damaged by surgery? An offer of remedial surgery? Forced remedial surgery? Chemical castration, like Alan Turing? What if Kevin refuses?

  8. FZM says:

    Criminals are like malfunctioning machines, are they, Jerry? So they have a proper function from which they can deviate? Are you really going to let telos waltz in through a wide-open door like that?

    And in so doing having to adopt a kind of Aristotelian philosophy of nature, which in turn puts some of the usual Physicalist/empiricist arguments for determinism into doubt in the first place?

    Otherwise, I don’t understand the way in which, on the one hand criminals are supposed to have no moral responsibility for their actions because they have no control over their choices of behaviour, and this is supposed to apply to everyone else as well, but it still possible/desirable to use morally normative language and concepts to argue for this version of determinism, as if humans were morally responsible agents whose choices can be influenced by this kind of argument.

  9. TFBW says:

    @Paul Armenat:

    In terms of political strength within the Western/American atheism population, if you were to slice the pie into two halves, what percentage of the pie would the SJWs atheists have and what percentage of the pie would the New Atheists/atheist manosphere have?

    That’s very difficult to judge, but I think that your overall impression of the SJWs being the stronger faction is correct. If you look at academia, the bulk of atheist activism is concentrated in biology on the one hand, and the social sciences on the other. The latter faction is larger because it is broader, and it is almost entirely about Social Justice. The biology side is now fragmented, particularly along the axis of feminism, with the net result being that SJW atheism dominates the academy by a long margin. See the recent example of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen as a case in point.

    To complicate matters further, it’s not merely a split between SJW atheists and anti-SJW atheists, but also a category of fence-sitters best described as anti-anti-SJWs. The SJWs are in the business of asserting things about moral behaviour, the anti-SJWs are in the business of exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of the SJWs, and the anti-anti-SJWs are in the business of telling the anti-SJWs that they’re not being very nice.

    And given that this is somewhat tangential to the subject under discussion, that’s as much as I’m going to talk about it for now.

  10. Andrew says:

    Lots of issues covered above, but Coyne and co have some even more fundamental issues – they’ve got bits of fatalism, determinism, and random snippets of moralism and atheism all tangled up in an incoherent mess.

    For their argument to get anywhere, they need some concept of right and wrong, ought and ought not. But in a naturalistic, deterministic universe that can’t come from anywhere – you’ve just got a system.

    At an eschatological level, “just punishment” and “determinism” is a meaningful discussion for Calvinists, Arminians, and Open Theists because they all believe that the entity that is doing the judging is the same one who might or might not be determining (i.e. God). But Coyne’s not engaging with this at all – in his system, the entity that is doing the determinism is mechanistic naturalism, and it’s not judging in any moral sense. Unlike the Christian discussion, Coyne’s discussion is whether how people “ought” to act towards an action determined by the system that all the actors and judgers are within.

    But it gets better (or worse)! The beings actioning judgement are no more free from determination that the beings who acted in the first place. No actor is more or less free than another, which means that whatever actions taken in response have no more moral weight than the original actions. Everyone is just mechanically responding to stimuli, and no-one is more or less liable. Coyne is simultaneously trying to cancel any moral considerations for the past but apply them in the future. He’s demanding certain moral choices over others while simultaneously arguing that there is no such thing as choice.

    Coyne simply hasn’t done any useful thinking about how determinism actually cashes out in practice. The core of determinism is predictability: given sufficient information, can you know how an entity will react? Are the initial preconditions sufficient to completely determine all outcomes, and what moral obligations rest upon the one who creates those preconditions?

    But those within the system do not (and arguably can not) have access to complete information. And if I did, I may decide that the rational thing to do (based on my nature) is to terminate your nature before it can perform acts which I desire to be not performed (and someone with total knowledge could predict this outcome also). This is neither moral nor immoral; it’s our predetermined behaviour interacting with our environment. Even without total information, I may decide that the information available to me (such as your past behaviour) recommends certain actions that restrain (perhaps totally) your ability to act in the future.

    And all of this is just “machines” interacting. It’s not necessarily even “right” or “wrong” – it’s some machines reacting to a perceived threat posed by other machines. It only becomes “moral” if we introduce a transcendent purpose (telos, thanks TMBW) into the mix.

    Moreover, Coyne’s view is not merely deterministic – it’s fatalistic. One rationale for punishment is that applying negative consequences for antisocial actions dissuades people from performing those actions. It’s a necessary consequence of Coyne’s argument that either this is false – that those who theoretically might perform those actions are destined to perform them irrespective of the stimulus applied – or that it’s immoral to apply consequences to actions – which makes a nonsense of many other things, as well as flying in the face of reality.

    Finally, any form of “malfunctioning machine” argument doesn’t go where Coyne wants it to go. If a machine malfunctions, we might fix it, or we might trash it, or we might repurpose it for something else. It’s just a machine. You need something other than naturalism to turn machines into people. One possibility is the ability to make moral choices, but Coyne’s naturalistic determinism cancels that option.

    Coyne’s splashing in the wading pool with his floaties and beach-ball yet thinks he’s actually playing olympic class water polo.

  11. Dhay says:

    I see that Jerry Coyne was probably beaten to the idea of criminals being wholly determined malfunctioning machines by Richard Dawkins, who in 2006 answered the “What is your dangerous idea” Edge Question along those lines, including:

    But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

    Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing?

    https://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_9.html#dawkins

    Hmmm, fixing or replacing faulty units are just two of the options: I reflect that in this modern consumer society the more common approach is to discard and scrap. Would Dawkins really advocate for the human equivalent.

    If we were environmentally friendly, we could, I suppose, following this through to its logical treat-as-defective-meat-machine conclusion recycle criminals as fertiliser.

    The younger Coyne took a quite different tack, railing against the determinism he saw pushed by evolutionary psychologists:

    So, why do I see evolutionary psychology as dangerous? I think it is because I am afraid to see myself and my fellow humans as mere marionettes dancing on genetic strings. I would like to think that we have immense freedom to better ourselves as individuals and to create a just and egalitarian society.

    https://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_9.html#coyne

    Nowadays, Coyne seems to see himself and his fellow humans as mere marionettes dancing on a combination of genetic and environmental strings, with no No NO free will, with no freedom whatsoever to better ourselves as individuals and to create a just and egalitarian society.

    How times and attitudes change.

  12. Ilíon says:

    I see that Jerry Coyne was probably beaten to the idea of criminals being wholly determined malfunctioning machines by Richard Dawkins, who in 2006 answered the “What is your dangerous idea” Edge Question …

    That is the very essay I was addressing in the blog post at “at htt
    ps://iliocentrism.blogspot.com/2010/04/basils-car-and-justice.html” (I’ve inserted spaces into that URL, because in my experience WordPress suppresses comments containing live links to Blogspot).

    If we were environmentally friendly, we could, I suppose, following this through to its logical treat-as-defective-meat-machine conclusion recycle criminals as fertiliser.

    Naaa. In Current Year, if one is “environmentally friendly”, then one’s big concern must be carbon sequestration

    Nowadays, Coyne seems to see himself and his fellow humans as mere marionettes dancing on a combination of genetic and environmental strings, with no No NO free will, with no freedom whatsoever to better ourselves as individuals and to create a just and egalitarian society.

    How times and attitudes change.

    He who says ‘A’ must say ‘B’.

    The denial of agency is implicit in the denial of God. He who denies the reality of God must eventually deny the reality of himself as a person.

  13. Dhay says:

    In his blog post dated 17 July 2017 and entitled “SMBC on dualism and free will” Jerry Coyne reproduces the cartoon and its joke description of the mind-body problem, and how “by induction” monism and dualism can be extended to 10^27-ism (the number of “meaningfully distinct atoms” in the lecturing professor’s body.)

    In the last panel, in response to a student’s complaint that “You’ve taken a difficult philosophy problem and reduced it to a tractable but pointless math problem”, the professor replies “You may also be interested in my work on free will.”

    Coyne, no doubt seeing what he wants to see, says:

    The character is clearly based on Dan Dennett (see photo at bottom), but I’m a bit puzzled about the last panel. Given the rest of the strip, is this a critique of compatibilism?

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/smbc-on-dualism-and-free-will/

    Perhaps it is, but given the rest of the strip and especially the absence of any mention of compatibilism or its alternatives, I opine that it is the free-association of ideas in Coyne’s mind which led him to that idea; looks like wishful thinking and fancy to me.

    The free-association of ideas in my own mind leads me to the interpretation that the cartoon is mocking severe reductionists regarding consciousness (Dennett, famously, one of whose book titles has been lampooned as Consciousness Explained [Away]) and also severe reductionists regarding (no) free will.

    If the strip is mocking severe reductionists regarding theories of mind and (no) free will, then it is by implication mocking Coyne.

    *

    It occurred to me that that joking “by induction” method could be extended in the other direction also, to progress from Dualism to Monism to Noneism. Arguably there has been a Noneism: the Buddhist ‘Heart Sutra’ doesn’t stop at “Form is void and void is form”, but cycles through all of the other Abhidharma categories of world and mind, declaring each is void; and “by induction” it would declare the categories of today’s best theories of reality to be void.

    *

    Has anyone any idea where Sam Harris falls on (or where off) the Monism – Dualism spectrum? Instead of the usual WEIRD approach of taking matter as primary, then successfully or otherwise looking for consciousness, mind or both, Harris instead insists — repeatedly, over a number of years — that “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion” (Meme #4); for Harris matter is not primary, consciousness is, and unlike consciousness Harris allows that matter and the material brain could be an illusion.

    The machine in the ghost?

  14. TFBW says:

    @Dhay: “Has anyone any idea where Sam Harris falls on (or where off) the Monism – Dualism spectrum?” How about non-dualism? I don’t know what it would entail as a theory, but it sounds appropriately Buddhist.

  15. Dhay says:

    Non-dualism is indeed very Buddhist; my reservations include that Sam Harris usually seems about as non-non-dualistic as you can get; even that “Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion” is merely superficially non-dualistic, and that’s as close as he gets.

  16. Dhay says:

    Richard Dawkins has tweeted:

    Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today

    https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/307369895031603200

    Often. And, a force for evil.

    But “evil” is a moral term; and under Dawkins’ “Basil’s car” rule — see my and Ilíon’s responses above — that in our mechanistically determined lives and universe there is no free will, no moral duty, no evil, just things happening — under Dawkins’ “Basil’s car” rule how can there possibly be evil, a force for evil, or Islam being a greatest force for evil.

    The Helian Unbound blog took Dawkins to task for this, from Helian’s extreme materialistic/mechanistic viewpoint, back in 2015:

    Apparently militant New Atheist Richard Dawkins believes there is such a thing as “moral duty.” In a recent tweet he wrote, citing an article in the Washington Post,

    US has as much moral duty to accept Syrian refugees as Europe. If not more.

    It’s too bad Socrates isn’t still around to “learn” the nature of this “moral duty” from Dawkins the same way he did from Euthyphro. I’m sure the resulting dialog would have been most amusing.

    Where on earth does an atheist like Dawkins get the idea that there is such a thing as moral duty? I doubt that he has even thought about it. After all, if moral duty is not just a subjective figment of his imagination and is capable of acquiring the legitimacy to apply not only to himself, but to the entire population of the United States as well, it must somehow exist as an entity in itself. How else could it acquire that legitimacy? There is no logical justification for the claim that mere subjective artifacts of the consciousness of Richard Dawkins, or any other human individual for that matter, are born automatically equipped with the right to dictate “oughts” to other individuals. They cannot possibly acquire the necessary legitimacy simply by virtue of the fact that the physical processes in the brain responsible for their existence have occurred.

    http://helian.net/blog/2015/09/10/morality/richard-dawkins-and-the-chimera-of-moral-duty/

    And I rather think this applies to the idea that there is evil; either Dawkins must drop the “Basil’s car” mechanistic view, or accept Helian’s criticism and drop the idea that there can be moral duty and evil.

    *

    Dawkins’ “Basil’s car” type of determinism (and Helian’s) gets very silly very quickly:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2011-03-26

    Determinists exclude themselves from rational discourse.

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