No Ability to do Otherwise?

Clearly Jerry Coyne is a philosophical naturalist, atheist, and also, in my mind, a fundamentalist.  I’m just wondering what anyone out there might make of this recent essay of his.  Do you agree, disagree, partially agree or disagree?  And why.  And as you make your argument, which means you are making choices, could you do otherwise?  And what might that mean toward the validity of your argument?

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4 Responses to No Ability to do Otherwise?

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I'd agree with you that Coyne is fatally confused here. But first, let me mention that neither he nor this argument have anything to do with fundamentalism. The wiki site describing this topic indicates an opposition to modernist theology (not an issue) and strict adherence to some scripture, which is also not the issue. Coyne always reasons through his cases, from empirical evidence as well as theories that have excellent provenance. He is groping his way through reality with the best sources available, typically.

    In this case, he seems to take physical determinism as equivalent to moral determinism, indeed the absence of any moral culpability for anything at all. This is not to mention his assumption that revenge and justice are for some reason inadmissable reasons for a society to kill someone, which I think is also false, given that societies kill for far less momentous reasons- in the military setting, for instance, or the corporate corruption and pollution setting.

    Anyhow, Coyne is right that moral responsibility implies the ability to have done otherwise. But this should not be taken as some counter-physical theory that one must be able to countermand one's brain cells from firing as they have just done. No, the ability to do otherwise lies in our ability to learn. Mr. Tsarnaev clearly was well-educated and learned a great deal in his social setting. He was not an automaton or vegetable with no moral responsibility, but rather had a well-formed model of reality and responded to messages from society about what was right and wrong, valuable and not valuable. His activities clearly demonstrated this extensive learning, even while directed in a negative, terroristic, way.

    The fact that he was taught in some respects badly by his brother and the wider Islamic movement indicts all of them- Islamism, and both Tsarnaevs- in a moral sense that they all could have chosen other paths, given the rich resources of cultural formation available to them, and their own intelligence and humanity. All of them need to be held to moral account, which means providing whatever punishment we as a society deem reasonble to accomplish the various ends of… teaching the perpetrator directly in more effective or forceful ways than have to date been applied, (if this is thought to have any chance of success), of sequestering the perpetrator from doing more harm, and of extending the whole moral lesson and instruction to society at large, which is a much larger issue than mere “deterrence”. Note that these main points (1 and 3) are learning issues. Morality is a matter of being positively responsive to others.

    While the last point (3) does quite a bit to justify execution, my personal view is that execution is rather barbaric, and not worth the effort. And it is almost completely undermined by the many cases of biassed and wrongful prosecution/conviction, so it should just be ended entirely. Additionally, the eventual true rehabilitation of many prisoners, while hardly routine, does happen and provides one more argument to end the death penalty.


  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    My assertion that Coyne is a fundamentalist was an aside and not the point of the post. I meant it in the sense noted here:

    And here:

    “The term usually has a religious connotation indicating unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs,[3] but fundamentalism has come to be applied to a broad tendency among certain groups, mainly, although not exclusively, in religion.”

    Putting that aside, I’m happy to see you think him ‘fatally confused’ on this issue; I couldn't agree more.

    Additionally, I too am against the death penalty but for different reasons. Thanks for the input.


  3. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    It seems as though you are using “fundamentalism” as a way to say strongly held, and to you frustratingly unshakable. I certainly understand the impulse, but fundamentalism really means more than that, especially the reference back to fundamental scripture or tradition which justifies radical policies of reshaping society in some way. It is what we see in several strains of Islam today, and in Luther's reformation. He was rejecting the various and corrupt innovations of the Catholic church, with a mantra of Sola scriptura. The Puritans are another example, perhaps.

    Atheists may be frustratingly unshakable, but not due to pure dogmatism, let alone fixation on some golden scripture of the past. While we hold some documents in high regard, like the constitution, origin of species, Lucretius, etc.., there is universal dedication to new research and new thinking that builds continually. Nor is critique of religion a program for reshaping society, in any radical way. The template for religion-less societies is well underway and highly successful in Europe, as non-radical as could be imagined.

    Really, it just amounts to empty name-calling and “other”-ing, without doing justice to the history or the etymology.


  4. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    Going back many, many posts, I have asserted that secular fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists are the two sides of the same coin of modernity. I still believe that for the many reasons noted in those posts. I don't think that amounts to name calling or “other”-ing. We all tend toward fundamentalism–the trick is to recognize it but the ones in it rarely can do this–they are sure only the “other” side is fundamentalist. I am the first to call it out in my own group, those who call themselves Christians. I was once one myself.

    People like Jerry Coyne, Bill Maher, Jeffrey Taylor are experts at “empty name calling and “other”-ing. Why not call it out wherever it arises? Do you think only religious people can be fundamentalists? Such would definitely be “other”-ing.

    Fundamentalism, regardless its etymology and history, is now seen to be a sensibility, an attitude, a way of looking at the world, a type of person. Coyne fits the bill and so did Jerry Falwell.


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