Tuesday, April 03, 2012

On Learning To Love Crimestop

This post by Santi Tafarella at Prometheus Unbound gets to the heart of the big problem posed by the doctrine of "Hard Determinism" that, as we've been discussing, tries to establish that the fact we live in a deterministic world (where every effect has a cause) forces us to consider human beings as puppets or automatons both physically (they can't choose other than they choose) and morally (they aren't accountable for the choices they make.)

I've written on this before and don't want to unduly repeat myself, so here's Santi making the essential point. First he notes that Jerry Coyne puts half his money where his mouth is, quoting him thus:
I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative [...]
(Of course, if our behaviors are predetermined by prior causes, then no amount of "trying" is likely to prevent Coyne from fretting. Indeed, the whole concept of personal effort cannot really survive under the new paradigm of the automatonic human.)

What we immediately notice is that Coyne is conveniently applies the principle here to expiate his own guilt and shame over past "bad" events. Can he, however, take the next logical step and refrain from blaming others? Can he in fact refrain from judgement entirely? This is what the doctrine would suggest as a logical approach (if it in fact permitted us to be logical, which it doesn't). As Santi writes:
On deterministic terms, for example, it makes no more sense to call a president or senator “just” or “unjust” than it does to call a volcano’s eruption “just” or “unjust.” There is simply no place for praise or shame in a deterministic universe.
If every object in the universe is merely obeying the laws of physics and cannot conduct itself other than it does, then the entire concept of judgment is rendered meaningless. (Here we may recall Dawkins' example of Basil Fawlty beating his car for breaking down, as though the car was to blame.)

But as Santi observes, however successful Coyne may have been at releasing himself from blame for past transgressions, he has so far not chosen to extend this courtesy to the other poor automatons who share the universe with him. For example, President of the National Academy of Sciences Ralph Cicerone, about whom says Coyne:
It is shameful that the president of the premier science organisation in America has endorsed a prize for conflating science with religion. (my emphasis)
Or Ken Miller, of whom he writes:
I give Miller plaudits for his continuing fight against creationism, not only in his Dover trial, but in his book and many public presentations of why evolution is a scientific fact.  But he gets no plaudits for deliberately refusing to identify why Americans dislike evolution. (my emphasis)
Speaking of plaudits, now that Coyne has released himself from the burden of blame, we might inquire if he is as likewise eager to relieve himself of praise or credit for his accomplishments. This apologia from 2009 may be instructive here, consisting as it does of a lengthy defense of his argumentative style, including the claim that he is "infinitely more polite" than his disputants, and that he has "never criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner." (By "never" he must mean, with Captain Corcoran of the HMS Pinafore, Well, hardly ever!, overlooking such lapses as calling Mary Midgley "dumb" and "superannuated," Elaine Ecklund a "disingenuous" "Templeton-funded automaton," Rob Knop "mushbrained," Michael Zimmerman lacking in "intellectual courage," Stanley Fish "dumb" and "preening," Robert Wright "annoying," Alain de Botton is "cringe-making".... You get the picture.)

Hypocrisy aside, Santi is going for a larger point here, and it's a good one: if you truly believe that human beings are automatons, then there is just one way to alter their undesirable behavior, and that's coercion and violence. An automaton cannot self-regulate, after all. Since, in our culture the state has a monopoly on violence by rule of law, what of the rest of us, when we come into conflict with each other?
There’s a problem here. What if you don’t have access to the violence of the state to settle disputes and force people’s thoughts and behavior in the direction that you want? What do you do then?

Enter Aristotle. He provided the famous (and best) answer: if you’re not going to use violence to settle disputes, your recourse is to rhetoric, the art of persuasion. But this is precisely what an intellectually consistent determinist cannot resort to, for persuasion is premised on the idea that people are self-determined. (my emphasis)


[P]ersuasion calls attention to actors—those who initiate actions—and it does so for purposes of getting audiences to evaluate, appreciate, or mock them. Persuasion seeks from audiences moral judgments and asks them to bestow or withhold such things as justice, forgiveness, and mercy.

All these imply free will: that things can be other than what they are; that one really can choose the better over the worse and exercise will over a matter.
The vision of the sort of world that might be built by a people who don't believe in free will* is, we begin to see, somewhat orthogonal to the one we say we want, where concepts like justice, reason, democracy, dialogue--all the humanistic virtues--assume pride of place. Indeed we might begin to fear a not-so-subtle creeping totalitarianism. As Santi writes in a related post, to declare that the language of accountability has lost its meaning, and yet to continue to use it, is nothing short of Orwellian. And indeed, as in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, (or in PK Dick's "Minority Report,") if our thoughts are "determined" by prior causes, the way is now open for criminalizing them.

*Let's be clear it is the disposition toward or against agency that will influence our culture, not the objective "fact" of whether volition is real or illusory.


Ben Schwartz said...

  Chris, I greatly appreciate your ongoing critique of Coyne, Churchland, Harris, and other hardline determinists.  Your posts have provoked a number of thoughts over the last few years, with the materialist vs humanist arguments being the most influential.  This particular take on Tafarella's argument reminded me of a comment I made over on 3quarksdaily last summer with a post accompanying the publication of Harris' Free Will: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/06/morality-without-free-will.html

"Harris’ argument against free-will suffers the same incoherence of motivation as all arguments against free-will. That is, why would you mount any argument if no one can be convinced of anything? Since being convinced of an argument’s strength seems to be the type of thing that only a (at least semi-free) rational agent can do. Neither can Harris take responsibility for creating a compelling argument nor can the listener have rationally subscribed to it. All has occured because of the playing out of physical law, no agency involved. It would seem that following the consequences of his claims leaves Harris with no further explanation as to why he goes to such great lengths to write and speak about these issues other than “it’s what I find myself doing”. I doubt he thinks that satisfactory."

underverse said...

Harris and Coyne would really like to have it both ways. It seems clear enough that they want to simultaeous set aside some basis for moral prescriptions, while denying the ability of anyone to accept or reject them, a logical impossibility. In Coyne's case he makes it quite clear that what he wants is to deny Christians the ability to choose to be saved (as he as stated on numerous occasions.) Of course it follows from this that atheist heretics cannot, by the same logic, choose not to be saved (that is, reject Christian doctrine.) Whoops.