I’m with Massimo

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.15.18 AMMassimo Pigliucci has taken a lot of heat for his criticisms of “new Atheists.” Pigliucci accuses NAs of being overconfident scientists who tread naively onto philosophical turf. I’m inclined to agree with him: NA’s are sometimes loudly making basic errors, inappropriately associating their views with “science,” and are sometimes making sophisticated excuses to rationalize their lack of rigor. For those who hope to have correct beliefs, a more cautious approach is warranted.

A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne published a critique on his blog directed at an essay that Pigliucci published last September, titled “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.” Among the various blogs I read, I’ve generally found Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be one of the most intellectually satisfying. But Coyne disagrees, saying:

I’ve been put off by [Massimo’s] arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy. (If you substituted “Theology” for “Philosophy” there, you’d pretty much have Terry Eagleton).

The parenthetical phrase made me wince, since it alludes to the Courtier’s Reply argument that can be used as a sophistic excuse for lack of rigor. It is also pretty rude to equate the professional discipline of philosophy with that of theology, which Coyne believes is utterly vacuous. Later in the same post, Coyne made another alarming remark:

Note to readers: when you see the word “nuanced” used in criticism of atheism, run!

This sounds juvenile to me. All mature fields have nuances — “minor distinctions; subtlety or fine detail” — and you can’t just barge into an established field without carefully navigating those nuances. But that’s exactly how NA scientists sometimes sound when they make overreaching philosophical pronouncements.

Since I’m subscribed to Coyne’s blog, I’ve been casually following his arguments on free will. I don’t necessarily disagree with his metaphysical position (he’s a hard determinist), but I also think his treatment of the subject is superficial. Consider, for an example, Coyne’s argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The term “free will” has so many diverse connotations that I’m obliged to define it before I explain why we don’t have it. I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Coyne’s definition seems instantly naive because it rests on another problematic undefined term, “choice,” and because it seems to conflate free will with stochasticity (i.e. indeterministic random processes constitute “free will” under Coyne’s definition). This is a rookie mistake, but Coyne makes it again in the next paragraph:

Your brain and body, the vehicles that make “choices,” are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment.

No, the arrangement of molecules is not “entirely determined” by anything. It is a stochastic process influenced by genes and environments, but not uniquely determined by them. These nuances matter as much to the science of biochemical reaction networks as to the philosophy of free will, and Coyne should be more careful. But what’s more disturbing is the broad set of conclusions that Coyne wants to draw from his metaphysical stance:

So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.

I agree we should discard retributive notions of justice, but this issue is logically separable from the metaphysics of free will. The remaining logic of Coyne’s argument is reckless. What does it really mean to discard “moral responsibility” if “nihilism is not an option”? If I am “so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that [I] can choose,” then why shouldn’t I similarly believe myself to be morally responsible? If this position “shouldn’t seriously change the way we punish or reward people,” then what is the consequence of abandoning the idea of punishment as retribution?

Upon further reflection, we might conclude that our first-person sense of moral responsibility (the sense that accompanies our illusion of choice) — and the values that shape our approach to punishments and rewards — are governed by a separate system of logic that is not reducible to one’s metaphysical stance. If we think this way, then we might want to define “free will” in a way that has more relevance for our day to day existence and our relationships to each other. This is precisely the approach taken by compatibilists. I don’t know what “free will” is supposed to be in a metaphysical sense, but there still seems to be a substantive moral difference between an action one chooses freely, versus an accident or an action one is forced to take.

In many instances I think it’s pretty easy to shred the philosophical positions taken by some prominent NAs, and Massimo does a reasonably good job of it. But Massimo’s targets don’t seem to appreciate his criticisms, and they’ve said some bitter things in response. The bitter counter-strikes are not persuasive. Those incautious NAs who overstep into philosophical territory and ignore warnings of more experienced philosophers run a very grave risk: the risk of being wrong about things they think are important, and never knowing it.

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One thought on “I’m with Massimo

  1. Pingback: The Noble Jerry Coyne | Fair Coin Toss

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