The Hypocrisy of Harris and Coyne

We have seen that both Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have condemned Lawrence Krauss for his sexual harassment of women.  Harris said that he believes the women, that Krauss needs to apologize, and that he is in a position to “know enough to want to step away from this whole business.”   Coyne wrote ,  “In my view, then, Krauss had a propensity to engage in sexual misconduct. I therefore disassociate myself from the man.”  He also wrote, “All I can do, and which I do here, is publicly disassociate myself from Krauss, declare that the behaviors I know of are reprehensible, and hope that he owns up to his behavior.”

Apart from being the two leading New Atheist activists who have publicly condemned Krauss, Harris and Coyne have something else in common – they are both the two leading advocates for determinism.

According to Coyne and Harris’s determinism, Krauss could not help but do what he did.  His genes and environment made him do it.  So we can’t hold him morally responsible for his actions.  He is a victim here.   And it is nothing but shear luck that keeps Coyne and Harris from putting their hands all over women they don’t know.

We’ve now seen with our own eyes that those deterministic postures are empty bluster.  When the time came for both Coyne and Harris to live their determinism, they both failed.  Gloriously.  We have Harris wanting an apology for actions that could not have been otherwise. We have Coyne expecting Krauss to “own up” to actions he is not responsible for.  But let’s make the hypocrisy even more clear than this.

Both Harris and Coyne like to use the brain tumor example.  The idea is that we would not hold people personally responsible for misdeeds that were caused by a brain tumor and determinism is just a modest extension of this point – brain chemistry is deterministic whether caused by a tumorous growth influencing neuronal behavior or by some other factors (genes and environment) influencing neuronal behavior.

Well, what if Krauss has a brain tumor that made him sexually aggressive around women?  Would Harris be wanting an apology for what the brain tumor did and promising he would be stepping away from Krauss because of it?  Would Coyne be dissociating himself and demanding Krauss “own up” to what his brain tumor made him do?

Coyne and Harris love to talk about determinism in a purely abstract, almost platonic, manner.  Not surprising, because that is all it is – mental masturbation.  We can all see this because when it came time for them to  implement it in the real world, when they had a chance to walk the walk instead of merely talking the talk, the brain tumor logic, along with all the other deterministic posturing, was easily thrown overboard.  Instead, Coyne and Harris clearly come across as people who think Krauss was morally responsible for his actions, so much so that they have cut him off.  They didn’t even think to defend Krauss with their determinism because they knew it become too obvious that determinism was just a word game.

So we end up with two guys preaching about how the rest of us need to radically change the legal system so it recognizes that murderers and rapists are not responsible for their actions which they couldn’t help but do, but when it came to their own friend and accusations of creepy sexual conduct, they were quick to hold him responsible and acted accordingly.  Determinists expect us to live a philosophy that they themselves are incapable of living.  So why would any rational person take them seriously?

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15 Responses to The Hypocrisy of Harris and Coyne

  1. Regual Llegna says:

    There is no rationality without models, examples and comparisons.

  2. Tinky Smuff says:

    Coyne and Harris could argue that their responses are determined as is this comment.

  3. Catalan says:

    At root, your thesis appears to be that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility. For millennia, philosophers have been discussing the relationship between determinism and moral responsibility. There are many ways to understand the issue, as well as many possible resolutions. Note that theological determinism is also a problem for theists which demands a resolution.

    My suggestion would be to read a bit of history of these arguments and decide exactly what form of determinism you wish to assail, and exactly why the resolutions offered over the centuries have been so inadequate in your view. In other words, what novel arguments do you bring that haven’t been imagined by any philosopher, living or dead?

    A good starting place would be the SEP on moral responsibility (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-responsibility/). From there, read the SEP entries on Fatalism, Foreknowledge and Free Will, and Causal Determinism.

  4. Dhay says:

    Catalan > At root, your thesis appears to be that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.

    The thread OP is about “The Hypocrisy of Harris and Coyne”, it says so quite clearly; the bottom line is “Determinists expect us to live a philosophy that they themselves are incapable of living. So why would any rational person take them seriously?”

    The thesis of the OP is that Harris and Coyne are hypocritical, espousing “a philosophy that they themselves are incapable of living.”

    That “determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility” seems to be the thesis of Harris and Coyne.

  5. Michael says:

    At root, your thesis appears to be that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility. For millennia, philosophers have been discussing the relationship between determinism and moral responsibility. There are many ways to understand the issue, as well as many possible resolutions. Note that theological determinism is also a problem for theists which demands a resolution.

    At root, my “thesis” is that determinism is unlivable. My blog entry simply illustrates this with yet one more example. When it comes to moral responsibility, I have only known and/or encountered two types of people.

    1. There are people who don’t think they should be held morally responsible for the actions and words they made. Such people have always either been shady or suffered from some independently detectable mental issue.

    2. Everyone, including group one – we all hold others morally responsible for their actions and words when we think they have wronged us (or someone connected to us) in some major or minor way.

    I have yet to meet someone who actually lives as if determinism is true.

    In some ways, it’s like Marxism. You can write lots of words to make it sound true and wonderful. But every time people try to bring it out of the conceptual and move it into the actual, it ends up a bloody mess. Great on paper; cluster fark in real life.

    Except with determinism, despite the millennia of words, I can’t think of any society that has even tried to move it from the conceptual to the actual (of course, I am not a historian). It’s almost as if it is unfalsifiable. Which makes sense given that hardcore, chest-thumping advocates like Coyne and Harris can’t even bring it into the actual when it comes to defending their own friend from allegations of……creepy behavior.

    So I would classify determinism as mental masturbation. It’s not relevant, except to those who like digest and cook up word salads about this issue (a mind virus?). And these days, activists with a sneaky agenda.

    My suggestion would be to read a bit of history of these arguments and decide exactly what form of determinism you wish to assail, and exactly why the resolutions offered over the centuries have been so inadequate in your view. In other words, what novel arguments do you bring that haven’t been imagined by any philosopher, living or dead?
    A good starting place would be the SEP on moral responsibility (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-responsibility/). From there, read the SEP entries on Fatalism, Foreknowledge and Free Will, and Causal Determinism.

    More words? It sounds to me like you think I have some type of moral responsibility to read some things and then come up with my own novel argument. But those would involve choices on my part. Time is limited. So I have to choose between spending time reading and reflecting on SEP articles, which would be quite a bit since I am not a philosopher, or doing a dozen or so other things that need to get done in the real world.

    If you are a determinist, the choice I make is not my choice. Whether I read those SEP articles is not up to me. Whether I agree that I need to come up with some novel argument is not up to me. Furthermore, you suggested I read them simply because something in your genes or environment made you do it. Perhaps it was something you had for breakfast. So, that’s not exactly a powerful motivator to alter my brain activity for the day.

    Yet if you are a determinist, I can predict, based on life long experience, that you will hold me responsible for not reading the articles. As if there was something more than your genes and environment that beckoned me. Somehow, someway, my position will become invalid because I didn’t make the right choice to begin with.

    And once again – determinism is unlivable. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. That’s what I’m looking for.

    Here’s how you can truly create a powerful stimulus to alter my neuronal activity. First, find the best determinist out there. Someone who is smart. Someone devoted to this topic. Someone who can write word salads considered absolutely delicious by fellow determinists. Chances are that this person would be a university professor. Great. What I would want to see is not his word salads (I’ll happily assume they are delicious). I’d like to see his syllabus. For starters, how does this great determinist deal with students who cheat on exams and/or plagiarize?

  6. Michael says:

    Coyne and Harris could argue that their responses are determined as is this comment.

    Turtles all the way down.

  7. Regual Llegna says:

    Catalan:
    “My suggestion would be to read a bit of history of these arguments and decide exactly what form of determinism you wish to assail, and exactly why the resolutions offered over the centuries have been so inadequate in your view. In other words, what novel arguments do you bring that haven’t been imagined by any philosopher, living or dead?”

    Good joke, “my”, “you” and “Centuries”(Time) about determinism. Under a determinsm world view nothing really martes and nothing truly change, there’s nothing nota even chance.

  8. Catalan says:

    You appear to be articulating a form of determinism that few determinists hold. Most determinists are compatibilists, which gives room for decision-making and (hence) moral responsibility. What you are saying amounts to, “Compatibilism is bunk, so there.” You haven’t specified which form of compatibilism you mean—perhaps you mean all forms—or why exactly they are bunk. Without that, there is nothing to address here.

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

  9. Michael says:

    You appear to be articulating a form of determinism that few determinists hold. Most determinists are compatibilists, which gives room for decision-making and (hence) moral responsibility.

    Then I don’t have a problem with that. The blog post was addressing Coyne and Harris’s position, which is not compatibilism.

  10. TFBW says:

    Coyne feels much the same way about compatibilism as he does about “accommodationism”, if I recall correctly. That is, he rejects it as a fatally bad compromise.

  11. Catalan says:

    Well then, in the future I would recommend being careful not to conflate hard or incompatibilist determinism with compatibilism. It seems you are espousing something akin to fatalism or the “lazy argument”, which is not necessitated by determinism (far from it), even the incompatibilist flavor of it. Though you seem unwilling to learn basic philosophical concepts (“more words”), yet have great confidence that you have knock-down criticisms of these things you don’t care to understand (part of an exciting new philosophy called Trumpism), perhaps you could at least trouble yourself to read a short blog post about the so-called “lazy argument”. https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/the-lazy-argument-determinism-and-the-concept-of-fate/

  12. TFBW says:

    @Catalan, that would all be very relevant and interesting if we were discussing the various shades of determinism. As it happens, however, the subject of the article is the hard determinism of Harris and Coyne, and how they do not live in accordance with their professed beliefs. The hint is in the heading. You’re not in the right room for this particular argument, and your tut-tutting that everyone else is a bit uninformed comes across as supercilious.

  13. Kevin says:

    Catalan: “yet have great confidence that you have knock-down criticisms of these things you don’t care to understand (part of an exciting new philosophy called Trumpism)”

    If by “exciting new philosophy” you mean “a phenomenon that has existed for as long as humans have exchanged ideas but will be named after Trump for some unfathomable reason”, then I fully agree with you. On a related note, perhaps you should try to understand the point of the OP before continuing to exemplify Trumpism.

  14. Michael says:

    Well then, in the future I would recommend being careful not to conflate hard or incompatibilist determinism with compatibilism.

    In the future. I would recommend you actually read (not just skim) the post you are commenting on. There was no conflation in the article, as it was focused on Harris and Coyne (see the title). Even the first sentence of the third paragraph reads, “According to Coyne and Harris’s determinism,”. According to their version of determinism, there is no such thing as moral responsibility – the core point my blog posting addresses.

    In the future, I would recommend you initially comment more along the lines of this – “I agree that Coyne and Harris are wrong about the incompatibility of moral responsibility and determinism, but keep in mind that they advocate a fringe view among determinists.”

    It seems you are espousing something akin to fatalism or the “lazy argument”, which is not necessitated by determinism (far from it), even the incompatibilist flavor of it.

    No, what I was doing was pointing out that Coyne and Harris’s determinism was rooted in hypocrisy.

    Concerning two murderes and rapists, Harris once wrote:

    “Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

    But he couldn’t bring himself to act on this argument when it came to his own friend doing something much less harmful than rape and murder.

    And since you raised it, we could liken it to a lazy argument. For them, it’s all words, because when it comes to actually standing up and going out to live their argument, they are too lazy to do it. But, of course, it’s probably worse than mere laziness. They are probably both smart enough to recognize it cannot be lived, so why try to do that which cannot be done? Instead, they try to “live” their determinism through nothing more political posturing, advocating for political changes – which is, in the end, the lazy man’s version of morality.

    Though you seem unwilling to learn basic philosophical concepts (“more words”),

    See? You missed the point. The point was that actions speak louder than words. I need evidence, in the form of actions, not more words, if I am to take Coyne and Harris’s position seriously.

    yet have great confidence that you have knock-down criticisms of these things you don’t care to understand (part of an exciting new philosophy called Trumpism),

    Wow. For someone who postures as a lover of philosophy, you sure would rather spin. So me pointing out the hypocritical essence of Coyne and Harris’s determinism is me claiming to have a knock-down criticism of something I don’t understand. It’s me engaging in “Trumpism.” Thanks for dropping the mask, Catalan.

    perhaps you could at least trouble yourself to read a short blog post about the so-called “lazy argument”. https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/the-lazy-argument-determinism-and-the-concept-of-fate/

    Ah yes, keep it about me, right?

    After your second reply, I thought you were a sensitive compatibilist. But such a person should have been completely satisfied with my reply. You weren’t. You had to come back for more. Your third comment uncovers an obsession to spin things to make it about me.

    Step back and look at this whole thread. I point out the hypocrisy of Coyne and Harris, and Catalan shows up to sidestep the blog posting and make it about me. Looks like classic deflection to me. This was a common tactic of New Atheists. Come to think about it, if you were a New Atheist, your responses make sense. Being unable to defend Harris and Coyne, and their version of determinism, throw up a smokescreen to distract from the topic and turn me into the topic (as if that was relevant to the point I was making).

    So I went back and reread your comments. Nowhere do you claim to disagree with Coyne and Harris. Nor do you claim to embrace some form of compatibilism. In fact, you never once share what you think or believe. There’s just all this stuff out there that we need to be talking about instead of Coyne and Harris’s hypocrisy.

    I smell a troll.

  15. Dhay says:

    > So we end up with two guys preaching about how the rest of us need to radically change the legal system so it recognizes that murderers and rapists are not responsible for their actions which they couldn’t help but do, but …

    That’s truly bizarre. No punishment? In this case, Thomas was shot because he was threatening police; he would not have been shot had he dropped his iron bar. And “punishment” is necessary for good reasons: keep dangerous people out of society, deter others from committing similar acts, and so on. If Thomas is truly mentally ill, the proper response would be treatment, not incarceration. But he’s still responsible for paying for the damage he caused.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/university-of-chicago-student-wounded-by-cops-after-vandalism-spree-and-attack-on-police-students-blame-the-cops/

    … but can anybody make any sense of what Jerry Coyne believes, and identify what it might be that Coyne advocates for that is specifically and specially hard determinist instead of, well, just like everybody who’s not a hard determinist would advocate for.

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