Yes, I’ve been forced to de-avuncularize Eric MacDonald—not on the grounds that he goes after me hard in his latest post, but because his criticisms seem to me manifestly false and even a bit unfair.
It’s sad to lose an uncle: first it was Karl Giberson, and now Eric. And there are no candidates waiting in the wings.
But on to business. Eric’s post, called “A bit more on Jerry Coyne,” is basically a critique of my views on free will and of the consequences of seeing it as an illusion. His subject is a short post I made recently called “A bit more on free will.“
In that post, I affirmed my opposition to libertarian free will and decried the tendency of philosophers to forge a form of “compatibilist” free will which, though keeping those philosophers off the streets, accomplished almost nothing. Indeed, I saw compatibilism as a huge distraction from an important topic: physical determinism of human actions and its dissolution of the “ghost in the machine” view of human behavior. That determinism has enormous implications for how we reward and punish people. In particular, it should be a view that is incorporated into the justice system (it already is in some respects), and, when it is fully appreciated, we’ll have a system of justice that is better for society.
Eric has two objections to my piece:
1. We don’t really know that there’s no libertarian free will because physics is “incomplete.”
2. My form of determinism guts a large portion of what humanity sees as important: poetry, music, emotion, and the whole nexus of social interactions in which we’re embedded.
I see both of these objections as wrongheaded.
While I think most of us reject the notion of contracausal free will (although many of us accept other forms of “free will”), Eric refuses to do so. Because we don’t fully understand physics, he sees the acceptance of determinism as unscientific—indeed, metaphysical:
There is not a shred of evidence for the claim that physics is complete, so that we can simply say that the whole of reality is tied up in a causal nexus such that all our “actions” are determined. Indeed, as John Dupré points out in his book Human Nature and the Limits of Science, science, and therefore, empirical demonstration, only works on very carefully isolated phenomena, where the effects of each underlying particle or force are known, and all extraneous (and therefore incalculable) causes are excluded. Science works by means of models and abstraction, and does not provide a unified theory of reality.
But physics does not have to be complete for us to accept determinism on a macro level. Although I don’t know many physicists, the two I’ve spoken to about this at length (Sean Carroll and Steve Weinberg) agree that we know enough about the physics of “everyday life” to provisionally accept that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of physics. Even if quantum mechanics produces some fundamental unpredictability in our neurons and hence in our behavior, that gives no leeway for “free choice”. Such choice would be equivalent to tossing a coin, and nobody wants to think of free will as anything like that.
What Eric is doing here is opposing not just physics, but also materialism. In that respect, then, he’s converging with theologians and intelligent-design advocates. If our minds can exert and be affected by something that’s not physical at all, there’s no evidence supporting such a claim. One might as well say that there are hamsters living in our head that control our behavior, and we can’t rule this out because “physics is not complete.” Maybe those hamsters are invisible, like Carl Sagan’s dragons.
The part that upset me the most was Eric’s claim that I know nothing about how societies function, and so even determinism on an individual level could somehow be overridden when a lot of people are deterministic en masse. That puzzles me:
However, Jerry Coyne’s determinism depends upon precisely this unified science. Nor, to be truthful, does he seem to have any idea of how societies function, so that he thinks we can think in terms of a strict mechanistic determinism when it comes to human behaviour, and yet retain the substance of a human society. He claims, on no empirical basis whatever, that “if we truly grasp determinism, then the consequences are profound—and largely good.” Yet he gives us not one single piece of evidence to suppose this true. This is certainly a piece of metaphysical assertion, but it has no relation whatever to science, nor to anything that can be substantiated by science. It is as theological an assertion as the claim that God was incarnate in Jesus.
. . . Jerry Coyne’s position is no more securely grounded in empirical observation and confirmation. It is a philosophical-metaphysical claim for which he has no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, though he says he wrote his post because “physics made him do it,” that is an implausible reason to give for making such bold pronouncements without an empirical leg to stand on. He wrote the post because he believes he knows the truth, and the truth, as he points out, would have valuable social consequences. But the truth that he knows is not scientific. How did he come to know it? (if, that is, it is something known).
Well, I wasn’t an Anglican priest like Eric, so I may have missed something about how societies (including religion) function, but determinism writ small, in one human, equals determinism writ large, in a society of humans. Unless there is some numinous force that makes human interaction qualitatively different than the interaction among billiard balls on a table, then determinism must reign in society.
As for “lack of evidence”, he’s wrong, too. The evidence for macro determinism is the observed determinism of physical objects in everyday life (a staple of physics), and the new evidence from the neurosciences that our “decisions” are made before we become aware of them. It is no more a metaphysical claim than asserting that if you give testosterone supplements to a female, she will become masculinized in behavior and morphology.
The last card Eric plays really stings: he lumps me together with Dawkins as people who simply don’t understand art, emotionality, and poetry, for crying out loud! That is, he implies there is something to these phenomena that defies understanding by physics.
Well, yes, of course physics can’t understand why people make poetry, what kind of poetry they make, and how that poetry affects us emotionally. In principle it could, but I doubt we’ll ever have the knowledge—at least within the next few centuries—to explain the genesis and effect of poetry by invoking molecular interactions. And until then—and even after then—I’m happy to enjoy the arts as everyone else does, on an emotional level, a subjective level, and in great awe of those who can produce great art. I know why flowers evolved, and often why they look like they do, but that doesn’t detract at all from my appreciation of their beauty. It enhances it, but the emotionality is still there.
Referring to C.P. Snow’s ignorance on why the humanities are important in a science-dominated culture, Eric says this:
Some of that ignorance, I regret to say, I sense in some of the things that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, and other new atheists say. For example, sorting through some video downloads the other day, I came upon one by Dawkins, in which he says, rather grandly, if inconsequently, that “science is the poetry of reality.”
. . . The point to be made is that the collection of scientific facts, interesting and important as this may be to an understanding of our world, does not even begin to describe the importance of the more rounded humane understanding of the human world that can be derived from the humanities, and, for Leavis, in particular, from English literature. And it is precisely this that is missing in Dawkins’ suggestion that “science is the poetry of reality.” For reality includes so much more, and at so much greater depth of human engagement, than can be provided by science.
The irony here is that both Richard and I are huge fans of poetry (Richard knows more than I, but I’m no slouch for a scientist) and, more important, although we do see science as a form of beauty, we also appreciate poetry qua poetry. Of course we see great value in the humanities, and are moved by the emotions aroused in us by poetry, music, art, and literature. They may not be profound “ways of knowing,” but they engage our emotions by helping us see things in new ways, tugging on our heartstrings, affirming our common humanity, and allowing ourselves to be immersed in situations that are new and engaging. They exercise our imagination in ways that science doesn’t.
I’ve recently been reading two of my favorite poets, Yeats and Dylan Thomas, and so I find it almost humorous when Eric says stuff like this:
The problem is that [Dawkins] does not seem to understand what poetry does or is for. Does he understand why, say, Blake, wrote about “dark Satanic mills”? Or why Lawrence made fun of figures like Lady Ottoline Morell and Bertrand Russell in Women in Love?
. . . Dawkins himself is, of course, a poetic writer, but is what he writes about reality? Certainly, he is a master at describing, almost transparently, the nature of the world discovered by science. This, for him, seems to be the only reality that there is. However, does he not recognise that science creates problems as well as solves them? Does he not recognise that science is a part of the human world to which so many other discourses belong?
I proudly count myself lumped with Dawkins in that critique and, in fact, I’ve read nearly everything written by Blake and Lawrence. And yes, I understand why Lawrence made fun of Ottoline Morell and Russell in Women in Love. I would claim, in fact, that I know more about the machinations and philosophies of the Bloomsbury Group than 98% of scientists. I’m not trying to brag here, but simply making the point that a love of science, and a form of principled reductionism that does not claim (yet) to include the humanities in its ambit, does not preclude our seeing the value of, and benefiting from, the humanities.
Note, too, that Eric is allying himself even closer to theology in emphasizing the “problems” caused by science. Would he rather live in a world without science? Sure, we wouldn’t have those “problems”, but most of us would have died years ago from tooth problems, infections, or other maladies. The dissing of science is simply gratuitous.
In the end, I simply don’t understand what Eric is on about here. His piece, it seems, boils down to the claim that “there’s got to be something more than molecules out there”, and that that “something” verges on the numinous. The criticism that people like Dawkins and I don’t appreciate the humanities, or understand what they’re trying to accomplish, is simply wrong, and Eric should know that.
A while back Eric was on the front lines of atheism, dissecting the follies of faith with an ardor possible only in former pastors. Now, it seems, he’s slowly lurching his way back to—well, not religion, but something close to it. It’s the view that “there’s more than materialism” out there. Well, we have no evidence for those invisible dragons, and for now I’ll do my science during the day and read my Yeats at night.