Jerry Coyne is once again mocking other atheist leaders for not being vocal enough in support of determinism. He is befuddled as to why Dawkins and others won’t come out and champion his old school determinism, mocking them as Scholars of Repute, Big Thinkers, and Brainy Ones. Okay, so we’re starting to see splinters among the Gnus just as we’re seeing them among the social justice crowd. But I’d rather focus on his naive arguments.
To his credit, Coyne brings up some recent news that illustrates the absurdity of the determinist position:
For instance, suppose someone said—discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”
Indeed. The parents tortured and harmed their children for decades, and their genes and environment made them do it each and every day. And then when they concocted ways to hide their abuse from the world, their genes and environment made them do that too. And when the 17 year old escaped to call 911, no one should credit her for bravery because, well, her genes and environment made her do that too. You see, it’s nothing but shear LUCK that prevents the rest of us from chaining our starving kids to a bed, right?
If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true!
Yes, Coyne does come across as someone trying to excuse their behavior. He casts them as the victims, being more concerned about how they are treated by the legal system than what they did to their children. Yes, Coyne objects to this perception, but his objections are weak and mealy-mouthed. And yes, we know Coyne thinks that statement about the Turpins is true, but that is merely his opinion rooted firmly in his materialistic worldview.
But let’s turn to the more interesting part:
Now how the Turpins are treated by the law is different from saying that they had no choice in their behavior: causes and social consequences are not the same issue. As I’ve argued many times, saying that people had no choice in committing a crime is a statement about “is”s, not “oughts”, and there are very good reasons to incarcerate criminals, though in a way different from what we do now. But grasping determinism, as I, Sam, and people like Robert Sapolsky believe, would lead to recommending a complete overhaul of our justice system.
Okay, so let’s think through the deterministic overhaul of the legal system and how determinists would react to the Turpin crimes.
In the determinist mindset, there are only three reason to incarcerate someone: 1) To deter others from doing the same crime; 2) To protect society from the criminal; and 3) to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation.
So in the determinist world, the prosecutor would have to make the case for at least one of these in order to lock the Turpins up.
So let’s all play the role of the Defense in the determinist world. How might Turpins’ lawyers argue?
First, is there any evidence that locking up the Turpins would deter others from doing the same crime? Here the lawyers could pull out the statistics, arguing the incarceration has a minimal effect on deterrence. They could even get more specific – the vast majority of people don’t chain their kids to beds and starve , neglect, and torture them. They don’t need some courtroom “message” about deterrence. It’s unnecessary. They are naturally repulsed and appalled by such parenting. As for the minority that are not, they are already so screwed up that any message about deterrence is unlikely to get through. So it would seem any prosecutor would have a hard time making the case that the Turpins need to be locked up because it would help deter such behavior in the future. That’s quite the leap of faith.
Second, the defense could easily argue that the Turpins pose no threat to society. Yes, they harmed their own children, but there is no evidence they ever harmed anyone outside their immediate family. Locking up the Turpins to keep people like you and me safe is silly nonsense.
Third, the defense could argue that rehabilitation is required, but there is no need for it to occur in jail. That is, since the Turpins don’t pose a threat to others, and there is no evidence to indicate jail time would act as a deterrence, why not simply put them on parole and mandate that they receive therapy?
You could even go for it all and argue there is no evidence that the type of long term behavior displayed by the Turpins can be rehabilitated. It’s too late; the brain is deeply hardwired. So why not simply release them with the instructions they are not to contact their children again?
It would seem to me that in a deterministic legal system, the Judge would have to give in to the defense’s request. Being a hardliner, the Judge is unwilling to waive rehab, and the Turpins are released, instructed to have no contact with their children, and attend mandatory rehab sessions.
So let’s add a plausible twist. Given the Turpin’s polyamorous ways, they might actually view this sentence favorably, being freed of their children so they can go out and explore the thrills of the polyamorous lifestyle. However, they leave the state and drop out of rehab. They couldn’t do otherwise, as their genes and environment made them do it.
So what do we do now? Put them in jail for not attending rehab? On what basis? Should they now be required to attend rehab designed to teach them the importance of rehab? And what if they then skip out on that rehab? One might argue that they should be jailed to send the message that that if you skip out on rehab, you go to jail. But what if that message is already very widely known?
Okay, so let’s put them in jail in the first place to force them to receive therapy. But how would you ever know if the rehab was a success? After all, we would not want to keep rehabilitated people locked up, would we? I suppose you could bring back some of the children and have them stay with their parents for a few months to observe if they are good parents now, but since the Turpins would know they are being observed, we couldn’t rule out they were just play acting to get out of jail.
What a mess! What rational, sane person could possibly believe this convoluted, bizzaro deterministic legal system is supposed to be significantly better than what we have?
Look, if you are a determinist, practice what you preach. Human beings lock other human beings up because of the genes and environment make them do it. Live with it.