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Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 5

December 20, 2015     Time: 24:06
Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 5


This series concludes with a discussion of free will and determinism. Are criminals determined to commit crimes against their will?

Transcript Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 5


KEVIN HARRIS: I’m so glad you stopped by for Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. We are wrapping up a series of podcasts evaluating an interview between Dr. Sam Harris and Dr. Jerry Coyne.[1] We think they brought up some interesting questions. Keep in mind that in the same way that they had a casual conversation in this interview, Dr. Craig and I did the same thing. We casually interacted. In fact, that is what we do in these podcasts. We talk casually about some deep subjects knowing that it can lead to deeper study, research, and reflection on your part. That is the great thing about Dr. Craig’s podcasts and debates and talks. They identify the key features of a given subject so that you can examine them further. You can find resources at to help you do just that. Help us spread the word. Please tell people about Reasonable Faith. Send a link or a message about us to your friends and family or to anyone you think would benefit from what we do. We’ve seen countless lives changed. We want you to be a part of that.

Here is Professor Coyne as the discussion is turning toward free will and determinism.

DR. COYNE: So I am a determinist. I basically believe, and I think you agree with me because I’ve read your book, that at any one point in time it is completely the configuration of molecules in the universe and in particular in your brain that mandates what you do and that you could not have done anything other than what you did. In other words you don’t have any choices. You think you do, and it looks like you do, but you don’t really. And so I am a determinist in that sense. So are people like Dan Dennett who nevertheless maintain there is free will. They do that by a semantic trick; by redefining what free will is. You know those tricks. They are call compatibilists. My view is that it is purely a semantic game. Those people do it largely because for what you said – the notion that we don’t have free will, that we are more or less wet robots, is frightening to people. It is as frightening as the idea that we are going to die. We have to accept death because we see it all around us, but it is harder for people to accept that your brains are reflecting more or less physics.

DR. CRAIG: I think one of the unanswered difficulties for determinism isn’t simply that it is unpalatable, but that it is rationally unaffirmable. I do not understand how a determinist can think that his belief in determinism is a rational belief because he is simply determined to believe it. His believing in determinism is like his having a toothache or a tree growing a branch out of one side. It is just determined by the laws of physics. So it is not a result of rationally reflecting on the issue, weighing the arguments pro and con, and making a decision. You are simply determined by the laws of physics to believe it. It is difficult for me to see how they can think that determinism could ever be rationally justified to believe.

DR. COYNE: It is a lot like theology in several respects. First of all because they redefine something (which is free will) – in the case of theologians, it’s God – so that it is palatable to people. It doesn’t disturb them so much. They are immune to challenges. It’s basically a semantic game. They play the same game. And they do it – like theologians – because they think that society that doesn’t believe in free will is going to run amuck. People have said this explicitly. Dan said it. Eddy Nahmias (I’m not sure if that is how you pronounce his name) has said it. They think that if we realize that our behaviors are really determined we are going to become either nihilists or criminals. It is odd that Dan says this because he criticizes belief in belief – that is, the belief that religion is good for other people if not for you. On the same grounds that without believing in religion people are going to run amuck or be nihilists. There is a sort of asymmetry there. It is not true, of course. I don’t believe in free will, neither do you, and I think we consider ourselves upstanding people.[2] To me the real important issue is not how you define free will. It is the issue of determinism which is the really important one. And every philosopher practically is a determinist. They know you could not behave other than you do at any one time, and yet some people will say, Look, that is still OK, we have a form of free will. I think you say in your book that you could construe that as saying we are puppets that love our strings.

DR. HARRIS: There are some aspects to this that I find surprising when I’ve tried to unpack what I think are the moral implications of believing what we believe about determinism and therefore a person’s ability to do other than what they do. One thing is that I was considering what a person’s actions says about him. The example I use, I think this was in pushing back against Dan Dennett’s review of my book Free Will, the example he gave based on the work of the philosopher Austin was of a missed putt. So you have someone, a golfer, who is three feet from the hole and he tries to make his putt and he misses it. The idea that he could not do otherwise because the universe was in precisely the configuration it was including every charge in his nervous system, that doesn’t tell you anything of interest about what sort of golfer he is. What you want, and this is Dan’s arguing against me now, what you want to know is what he would do in general in that circumstance. That is how you understand his responsibilities as a golfer and his likely future behavior. That is fine as far as I’m concerned. It is true that you want to be able to generalize over many similar instances though different in their microstructure what a golfer is capable of. But one thing I found interesting when I thought about this example is that when you take a golfer like Tiger Woods and he misses a three-foot putt and given the reality of determinism he would miss that putt a trillion times in a row. Whatever went wrong, went wrong, and it would keep going wrong every time you rewind the universe to its exact state. It reveals that there are two things you seem to have to hold in mind at the same time. One is if anyone should have made that putt, it is Tiger Woods. He is more responsible in the conventional sense of responsibility for missing that putt than any other golfer. Certainly he is more responsible than I would be because I am the kind of golfer who misses putts of that length all the time. So we expected him to make it, he missed it, and therefore the opprobrium attached to that error should be highest in his case.

DR. CRAIG: Here Harris is equivocating on the word “should.” He did this in the debate that I had with him[3] as well. This is not a moral “should” when we say “Tiger Woods should have made that putt.” What he is talking about there is “Given the abilities and the skill of Tiger Woods, that putt should have gone in the hole.” But this is not a moral responsibility. It is more like saying, “Given that you had this highly articulated and calculated machine that pushes balls, the ball should have gone in the hole.” But it didn’t. It missed. But that doesn’t make the machine morally responsible. That’s the issue here. If there is no free will – if people are determined to do whatever they do – then how can they be held any more morally responsible than if a machine did it? Because on Coyne’s view, we are machines. We are moist robots, as he puts it, and robots are not moral agents. So I think that their determinism undermines all of these judgments that we have heard throughout this interview – condemning people who have religious beliefs, condemning those who persecute in the name of religion, condemning those who deny Enlightenment values, and so forth. All of these moral judgments are vacuous, it seems to me, given the fact that we are just machines.

KEVIN HARRIS: It gets better.


DR. HARRIS: On the one hand, it is a greater failure for him because he really should have made it. But on the other, his missing it says the least about him because he is going to make that putt 900 times in a row. I don’t actually have a strong conclusion based on that, but it seems kind of a paradox where the closer you get to this notion of responsibility in the micro-instance of something happening the more it seems undeserved.

DR. COYNE: Yes. You have to wonder. What is the use of opprobrium for somebody like Tiger Woods anyway? Criticizing him because he missed the putt. Is that going to make him a better golfer or not? Or is that some instinctive feeling we have? That argument to me just finesses the whole really important issue of moral responsibility. I don’t think we have moral responsibility.[4]

KEVIN HARRIS: Wait a minute. Does he really think that we don’t have moral responsibility?

DR. CRAIG: He is incredibly candid, isn’t he? But I wonder, doesn’t this illustrate the sorts of confirmation bias and inconsistencies that he denounced in religious people who hold to certain views that are incompatible with the way the world really is? Here is a man who thinks that we are moist robots and everything we do is determined and that there is no moral responsibility, and yet who is morally indignant about numerous things throughout the entire universe. He seems to exemplify the sort of incompatibility that he so detests in religious people.

DR. COYNE: I think we have responsibility in a way that has to be adjudicated in society through opprobrium and punishment. This is what bothers me about all these compatibilists and people who talk about free will because they are all determinists. Instead of concentrating on the really important issue for society which is that we could not behave other than we do and one of the implications of that for our system of punishment and reward they play a semantic game. They engage in – maybe you know some Yiddish – engage in . Just endless debate about how these hypotheticals and examples about how we can construe free will or not when the real issue is what do we do about the criminal justice system? How do we deal with people that transgress and endanger society knowing now that that is the only thing they could have done? It seems to me the real problem for society is the problem of determinism which everybody accepts but which people like compatibilists ignore.

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to stop there. He says “everybody accepts” determinism. Not all philosophers accept determinism.

DR. CRAIG: No, of course not. There are plenty of philosophers today who are libertarians and would disagree with compatibilists as well as determinists.

DR. HARRIS: Just to be clear here. To say that we could not do otherwise is not to say that certain punishments don’t deter certain classes of crime or that people can’t learn to behave better than they have in the past or that rehabilitation of certain criminals is possible or not or the cure of certain psychological problems is possible or not. It still matters what a person does or has done to him. People can be discouraged successfully in many cases from misbehaving based on the kinds of laws we enact and the kinds of punishments we lay down for them. But it is not in any specific instance a person does exactly what he in fact does based on a concatenation of causes that precede his agency. His agency is just an expression of everything that has made him what he is in that moment. We recognize that when in specific cases where you find a brain tumor in the brain of some criminal that is in the right place to have influenced his behavior then you think, well, as in the case of Charles Whitman, this person was unlucky whereas you don’t find a brain tumor but you have the bewildering complexity of neurophysiology as yet understood. That is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, just a glorified brain tumor in that case. That is just as causal.

KEVIN HARRIS: Two things there, real quick. First of all, he talks about how we as a society even though everything is determined, even though the person couldn’t have done otherwise, there are certain things that we can do to deter that – behavior modification. We need to engage B. F. Skinner behavior modification.

DR. CRAIG: What we can do is reprogram the robots or we can restring the marionettes so as to make them behave differently. Morality has gone completely out the window here. It is just a matter of making the machines function in a different way.

KEVIN HARRIS: What if somebody, quite insidious, maybe a Hitler or Stalin, got in charge of the system that could behaviorly modify everybody?

DR. CRAIG: I think on their view I don’t see how you could say that he did anything wrong to do that. I don’t see how you could condemn him for doing something like that.

KEVIN HARRIS: Then you have Charles Whitman who climbed up in the University of Texas tower with a rifle and shot people there on campus in the 60s. It was largely thought to be due to a brain tumor. They are saying that he could not have done otherwise. They are bringing up this moral dilemma here.

DR. HARRIS: But that doesn’t mean that if people are responsive to certain punishments we can’t use punishments to get them to respond in certain ways. If a behavior is voluntary the nature of its being voluntary is that it could be discouraged by punishments. If you are going to fine me $1,000 every time I stay five minutes too long at a parking meter, I will change my relationship to parking meters.[5]

DR. COYNE: I don’t understand. This is the greatest misconception we have about determinism amongst the public. If determinism is true you can’t influence people’s behavior by your behavior. That is probably false. I always use the example if you kick a dog every time it comes near you it is going to stop coming near you. The dog learns, and people can learn. I actually say the same thing you do. All criminals in a sense have brain tumors. But you can’t say anything that will piss people off more than saying that. People have a visceral reaction to that because their sense of agency is so great. They can’t believe that they have the mental equivalent of a brain tumor if they do something wrong.

DR. CRAIG: I think it is worth mentioning here that that is the reason, I think, that people do believe in free will. It is because they do have a sense of their own personal agency. I know that more intimately and more immediately than virtually anything else that I know. So it would take overwhelming evidence to make you give up belief in your own personal agency. Harris himself says that the neural system is so complex that we can’t understand it, so how does he know then that determinism is true and that we don’t have this kind of agency? I can see why people would be very skeptical of this determinism not only because of the objections that I mentioned to it but also because of the tremendous warrant that I have for thinking that I have free will, namely my own personal agency.

DR. COYNE: We still can have punishment or deterrents to sequester people from society and for reformation, but now we can investigate scientifically what are the best ways to intercede to do that? And we can do all of that without saying these people are bad, that they are morally responsible (which I don’t think they are). The only thing we get rid of is what we don’t want anyway, which is punishment out of vindictiveness, a punishment for retribution. Nobody likes that. No enlightened person likes that. That is the one thing that automatically goes away when you start believing that free will is an illusion.

DR. CRAIG: If you want to see some of the outworkings of this view – that the laws of physics trump everything – I want to recommend our listeners watch my debate with Alex Rosenberg[6] on “Is there evidence for the existence of God?” because Rosenberg, like Coyne and Harris, is a physicalist who believes that the laws of physics trump everything and determine everything. Watch that debate and look at the conclusions to which he as a naturalist feels forced. I think they will shock you.

DR. COYNE: Yeah. And there is one other thing which just struck me the other day when I was thinking about an old girlfriend I had and feeling regrets and all of a sudden my intellect kicked in and I said, “Well you know, what happened, happened. There was no choice about the matter. Why should I feel any regret? Why should I wish that things had turned out differently? They could not have turned out differently.”

DR. CRAIG: We don’t know what Coyne did in the relationship with the girlfriend, but suppose he was abusive. Suppose he raped her and beat her. Suppose he treated her with violence and so forth? Eh. No regrets. He was determined to do it anyway. This is a view which is not merely unpalatable, this is a view which would require enormous evidence if you are to embrace it over your belief in personal agency and moral responsibility which this view denies. I simply don’t see any reason to think that such a view is true.

KEVIN HARRIS: Even if it were something lesser like you lied to her or something. You mean, you don’t have any regrets? You wish you hadn’t done that?

DR. CRAIG: It is really shocking.

DR. HARRIS: It is not a matter of thinking about the origins of impulses and intentions, it is just noticing that one thing arises or doesn’t in a way that I can’t account for, that I being the conscious witness of my experience can’t account for. On certain occasions a desire for steak will arise, and on others it won’t. I am motivated precisely to the degree that I am and know further to resist it or to indulge in it. There is a fundamental mystery of why anything happens as it does in any instance. But it is not a matter of adding more thinking to the experience. It is just a matter of just noticing that in this instance a desire for one food as opposed to another is arising and if you asked me why that was the case the honest answer is, “I don’t know” in every case.

DR. COYNE: Well, not in every case, right? Just pursue this further. You could actually think about it. When you say, “I want a steak” then you could think, “Why do I want a steak?”[[7] “Because I haven’t had a steak in three days.” Or “I’ve [inaudible].”

DR. HARRIS: You can review the influences on your mind and make in many cases a plausible guess as to why you have been influenced the way you have. I could have just seen a commercial for steak, and when I walked into the restaurant an hour later I can consciously recall that commercial and how much that made me want to eat steak then and now I want to eat it now. The causality seems explicit. But what I still can’t get behind or understand is, “Why did the commercial have that effect on me in this case and not in another case?”

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to say something here about this. This seems to undermine determinism as well because Sam Harris still says, I can review these influences and pick and choose what is going to influence me, or I can observe these influences happening. This sense of I; this sense of agency. And then make a determination why I acted like I did, or why I wanted steak today and things like this.

DR. CRAIG: There does seem to be that so-called transcendental ego that is never fully objectified that stands above the train of experiences and surveys them and judges them.

KEVIN HARRIS: To his credit he said, I don’t understand this sense of consciousness, but he still denies it. But he is still really acknowledging this agency that can observe, that can review the input that is coming in so to speak.

We ran the gamut in this series of podcasts. I have to say that I know that these will be very influential. These two men are very influential, in particular in the Internet Infidel type community, and the atheist community. So we can expect to see repercussions of this interview, I think, for some time.

DR. CRAIG: I would say, summing up, that much of the interview did not discuss the alleged reasons or evidence for which they think that science is incompatible with certain Christian beliefs about the world. They simply assumed that. That wasn’t the subject of the interview. The subject of the interview was by and large a critique of this accommodationist view which we don’t hold to – the view that science and religion don’t overlap. In the course of the interview there were a lot of assumptions and side remarks and insinuations made with which one would disagree. Those were worth highlighting. But the overall point that accommodationism is not a view that a Christian theologian should adopt I think is one with which we would concur.

KEVIN HARRIS: Thank you, Bill.

I’m Kevin Harris. We’ll see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[8]