Tuesday, January 03, 2012

How His Naked Ears Were Tortured

Shorter Jerry Coyne:
My meticulous reasoning has allowed me to discard the proposition that we have the ability to employ reason to evaluate propositions. It is abundantly clear that it is not within our power to elect to do anything which might have an impact on the physical world, or on the lives of other human beings. Now let's get out there and make the world a better place.
Seriously. After strenuously asserting that we have no capacity whatsoever to choose our behaviors, Coyne concludes thusly: "With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world." Well OK, then!

Arguments like Coyne's that human agency is an illusion and that we are in fact automatons tend to fall into two categories: those that are self-refuting, and those that have no bearing on anything whatsoever. Because Coyne is such a poor reasoner, he splits the difference. On the one hand he writes that the discovery that we are in fact automatons should powerfully influence how we treat other human beings:
[W]e should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you'll behave badly in the future. […] And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.
Who is this "we" that "should" thusly modify our systems of jurisprudence--or advocate that others do so? "Should" is a choice-word; it has no place in discussions of deterministic causality. If humans are really no more than "meat computers," if we can't "change our outputs" any more than a computer can "reach inside itself and change its program," then why would we advocate any proscribed behavior at all? We don't reason with our laptops--or our thermostats. What would be the point of reasoning with autonomous "meat computers"? To be logically consistent, a belief system that avows humans have no volition, no choice, and no agency, must refrain from employing any prescriptive moral language whatsoever. If you can't do this, chances are you don't "really" believe that humans are automatons after all.

Elsewhere in the column (and on his blog, the stated purpose of which is to persuade others of the scientific rectitude of evolutionary theory), Coyne retreats to defense that we can never free ourselves of the sense that our agency is real. "We have no choice but to pretend that we do choose," he writes. If this is true, of course, then the hypothesis that we have no ability to choose can never be more than a speculation, entirely outside our ability to evaluate either logically or scientifically. It's like the persistent but ultimately futile speculation that humans are "actually" brains in vats: If everything we believe to be real is actually a simulation, then the whole concept of "evidence" becomes meaningless. It hardly matters what "reality" is if we have no hope of access to it. Likewise, it hardly matters what the truth is about our own volition, if we cannot be brought to "think" in non-volitional terms.

Whatever that might mean. As John Pieret has argued at Thoughts In A Haystack, it would be impossible, without some faculty to select from among rational propsitions,  to assign any meaning whatsoever to the content of science or reason:
Certainly Coyne cannot “reason” unless he has the choice to accept or reject arguments on the basis of logic. Heck, he can't even recognize what is logical without the choice to accept good arguments and reject bad ones. Nor can he infer anything based on evidence unless he also has the choice to accept relevant and valid evidence and reject irrelevant and invalid “evidence.”
"Incompatiblism" (the doctrine that determinism precludes contra-causal volition) is not entirely unknown in philosophy. There are a handful of "eliminative materialists" like Paul and Patricia Churchland, but these go nowhere near as far as Coyne in announcing determinism as a choice-defeater. Patricia Churchland, for example, suggests that instead of "free will," (a problematic concept, without any doubt--Just how "free" is it?) we focus on the faculty of self-control, using the example of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship. The question then is just who is doing the controlling? Churchland's answer is that there is a construct of the brain we call the "self," having evolved to solve problems. We can take issue with this explanation (noting, for example, that at first blush it seems awfully teleological), but we observe nonetheless that to Churchland this "self" is "every bit as real as the three-dimensional world we see." This is the strange juncture (we also see it in writers like Dennett and Dawkins) where the hardcore physicalist becomes a Deleuzian constructivist: sure, free will is a construct, consciousness is a construct, but so too is the "middle world" of our experience a construct, including space and time, and motion, and physicality. The only thing that is "really real," is evolution. All else is phantasmagoria.

There is a mystical lilt to this doctrine: as we live and die in the world of Maya, so must we play by its rules. Coyne gives lip service to this view when he talks about contemplating selfhood as a "convincing illusion fashioned by natural selection." But he cannot commit to it. To him, the mechanical billiard-ball world of objects, forces and causes is all that is real. As robotic inhabitants of that world, we have no choice but to disavow any semblance of moral responsibility. We are all "victims of circumstance" without even Churchland's proposed faculty of "self-control." Bernie Madoff is no more responsible for his crimes than Nelson Mandela for his trials and triumphs; in each case their actions were predestined. Criminals who calculate their crimes with cost-benefit analysis "don't differ in responsibility" from those whose capacity for moral reflection is diminished by, for example, a brain tumor. Such is the ethical nuance of Coyneian hard determinism.

I would propose that in the end we take such a doctrine about as seriously as he does himself, when death is on the line. In a recent defense of the infamous (and deadly) vices of Christopher Hitchens, Coyne invoked the spectre of "leisure fascists" who
come out of the woodwork, for example, when I put up a post about barbecue. Tough, I say: life is to be enjoyed, and I’d rather have my tenure on Earth be shortened by a few years if I can sometimes eat barbecue instead of only raw vegetables.  Hitch liked his Johnnie Walker and ciggies; he said they helped him think and enjoy his life. (my emphasis)
Note what Coyne did not say in his own (or Hitchens') defense. He did not say "So help me, I just can't stop myself, and I'll be damned if I let anyone hold me responsible for deterministic forces reaching back to the beginning of the universe." He did not say "Leave poor Hitchens alone, he couldn't possibly surmount his biologically determined addictions!" No; perhaps inspired by the example of the magnetic man of action to whom his blog became a temporary shrine after Hitchens' death, Coyne used those magic words "I'd rather." Quality over quantity. Tomorrow Ye May Die. (Etc.) This is Coyne the true philosopher, unburdened by a need to buttress an unsustainable ideology. This is Coyne the Bartlebian Hero. Let these wise words "I'd rather" be the ones we recall, and let's chalk up the others to a failure to lash himself to the mast of True Preference, to stop up his ears against the siren song of reductive scientism.

Postscript: Over at Rationally Speaking, Massimo Pigliucci dives into the Wittgensteinian distinction between reasons and causes. This is the way out of the forest, though Pigliucci takes the wrong fork in the road. (Yes, Wittgenstein wasn't very forthcoming about where reasons "come from," but I think we are too greedy in this day and age for ultimate explanations. We can't presently explain gravity in terms of fundamental physics, but we can feel confident in our right to talk about gravity as a real thing. So too can we talk about the distinction between rational and causal explanations without anyone's head exploding.)

See also Jean Kazez and Russell Blackford.


Chris said...

I am glad to see that Coyne misuses psychology (the stuff about free will being an illusion according to psychologists and neuroscientists). It's always a good sign that someone hasn't the foggiest idea how to handle this issue.

underverse said...

Well, I'm sure one can always find a few hard-line Behaviorists to rally to one's side. But Coyne's hypothesis that consciousness and the illusion of choice are adaptations allowing us to connect unconscious thoughts to unconscious actions makes absolutely no sense. What is the evolutionary advantage of having any thoughts at all if they don't organically influence behavior? This is just third-rate epiphenomonalism (which is, again, self-refuting as soon as it leaves the mind of one theorist and is transmitted to another.)

Nick said...

I am most struck by how profoundly uncreative Coyne's piece is.  It's as though philosophy got stuck in 7th grade and stayed there.

I once again find it interesting that people who love to champion Hume in debates over religion are completely ignorant of his other views... like, say, his version of free will, which is completely compatible with "the tape of your life being rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision" and you making precisely the same decision each time.

Unfortunately, I can only repeat: you are a philosopher, Coyne is not.  The only thing more disturbing than his ignorance are his motivations for splashing it across the internet, and a line from Tolkien always occurs to me, here: "What can men do against such reckless hate?"