Tag Archives: Jerry Coyne

Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading

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Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps

FreeWill Along with cats and cowboy boots a long-running theme of Jerry Coyne’s website has been Jerry’s arguments against any form of “free will”. This usually leads to long comment-thread arguments between the incompatibilists (or “hard determinists”) and the compatibilists amongst Jerry’s readers.

I get the impression that sometimes the incompatibilists don’t properly understand a compatibilist view. They often accuse compatibilists of disliking determinism, of hankering after dualism, hoping that something will turn up that will overturn current science, or of just equivocating. Here I want to explain compatibilism to those determinists who take an incompatibilist stance (“hard determinism”). It is not aimed at libertarian dualists!

First, let’s be clear on the two stances. Compatibilism asks whether, given a deterministic universe, one can arrive at sensible and coherent meanings of terms such as “choice”, “freedom” and indeed “free will”. The compatibilist says yes; the incompatibilist says no, regarding such terms as too tainted by the dualistic idea that humans have a non-material “soul” that can make “choices” that are independent of the physical state of the brain and which thus violate the laws of physics.

Second, we should also be clear that the compatibilist is not disagreeing with the incompatibilist over any aspect of science. The compatibilist is only disagreeing over the meaning of concepts such as “choice” and “freedom”. Thus: Continue reading

Why Jerry Coyne is barking up the wrong tree on moral responsibility and free will

Professor Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True is one of my favourites and generally his views align well with mine. I part company with him, though, in his long-running campaign to get rid of notions of “moral responsibility” and “free will”.

“Moral responsibility”, as often defined and as Coyne uses it, is the notion that morality is an absolute, such that a “morally bad” act should be met with punishment regardless of what any human might think and regardless of any consequences for humans. This is often coupled with the notion that humans have dualistic “free will” and that “moral” choices are those made by this non-material, dualist “will” (in opposition to the idea that human decisions are determined by the physical state of the brain).

Coyne (writing in America) sees these ideas as harmful, first in bolstering religion, and second in leading to a justice system that is based on retribution; he considers that justice should instead be based on deterrence and crime mitigation, coupled with sympathy for criminals through recognition that they are largely the products of their environment.

I agree with Coyne’s rejection of deontological morality and with his rejection of dualistic free will, and I also agree with Coyne’s ideas about the justice system. Yet it seems to me that Europe has already progressed down the lines Coyne wishes to see, and it has done so, not by removing motions of morality and free will from society, but by becoming less religious. Continue reading

Science can deal with the supernatural

Debate over scientism often consists of critics arguing that certain areas of knowledge are beyond the domain of science. The realm of morals is a common example, as are ‘why’ questions and the supernatural. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci can be relied upon to play the role of critic, for example writing:

[Richard] Dawkins and [Jerry] Coyne … insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes [Sam] Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

This claim, that science cannot deal with the supernatural, is widely accepted, even among scientists. For example, the website “Understanding Science” says in its introductory “What is science?” account:

Science cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities. It deals only with natural phenomena and explanations.

The claim is particularly widespread in America, partly as a political tactic to avoid science appearing to contradict religion. By intentionally limiting science, the hope is to avoid a clash that might imperil support for science amongst a highly religiose populace. Any attempt by science to talk about the supernatural or gods is deemed ‘bad science’, and any attempt by religion to contradict factual scientific findings is labeled ‘bad religion’. Thus the American National Academy of Sciences declares:

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.

It also produces a religion-friendly booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism that says:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.

In contrast, biologist Jerry Coyne has argued several times that science can test the supernatural; physicist Sean Carroll tends to agree, as does philosopher Russell Blackford, while skeptic Michael Shermer disagrees, saying that “Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural”.

So how can intellectuals of similar world view (everyone named above is an atheist) reach opposite conclusions on this point? The answer is that ‘supernatural’ is an ill-defined, colloquial word, and thus the disagreements amount to different interpretations of what the claim “science can/cannot deal with the supernatural” amounts to. Continue reading

Lacking “free will” does not negate moral responsibility

A long-running feature of Jerry Coyne’s popular website has been his discussion of “free will”. Jerry sensibly rejects all notions of mind/body dualism or any notions of a supernatural “soul” which can over-ride the laws of physics.

However, Jerry is at odds with many of his readers in rejecting any notion of “free will” that is compatible with a deterministic universe. Such “compatibilist” stances have been advocated, for example, by Dan Dennett in his 2003 book “Freedom Evolves”, and recently by Sean Carroll.

In essence that dispute is simply about semantics, with both sides agreeing on the physical reality. To illustrate this, consider a laptop computer which looks at the type of a computer file and “chooses” the most appropriate program to open it with.

One could justly declare that, in such uses, the word “chooses” is purely metaphorical, since the computer’s actions are entirely determined by its programming. However, for everyone except those arguing for a supernatural soul which over-rides physics, all other “choices”, by humans or other intelligent animals, must be equally metaphorical, since they are also determined by the prior state of the system.

Thus we have two possibilities, either drop the words “choice” and “decision” from the English language, along with a whole slew of similar words and phrases (“control”, “attempt”, “option”, “plan”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, “coerce” for starters), or accept that “metaphorical” choices are all there is in this universe, and thus that the word “choice” is quite properly used about deterministic machines when they make a selection from a range of options.

Dennett’s argument is that humans have evolved a sufficiently complex range of responses to any situation that it is sensible to regard them as autonomous agents making “choices” of their own “will”. The word “will” here indicates that it is their own internal properties that are making the “choice”, even though that choice is entirely determined by those internal properties combined with the laws of physics. The word “freedom” in Dennett’s title “Freedom Evolves” indicates that mammals have evolved the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose, going beyond the very narrow responses of a simpler or more primitive entity. Continue reading