I was listening to Reasonable Doubts on the way to work this morning. Reasonable Doubts is a strictly atheistic blog with an associated weekly podcast it, and this episode was to have Tom Clark, of the Center for Naturalism, as a special guest. Tom and I have our strong disagreements, yet I would regard him as a kind of Internet friend in view of the cordial way we’ve been able to exchange opinions.
I’ve only heard about 25 minutes of the show so far (find the mp3 link for “Judgement Day” here). Tom has not appeared yet, so nothing I have to say reflects on him (not that would hesitate to respond to him if he says something that I think calls for it). The topic was determinism, which the show’s three hosts all strongly endorse. It is their joint opinion that no person has free will with respect to anything we do whatsoever; we have only the illusion of free will. We don’t choose anything we do; we only think we do.
Confusions and straw men pop up frequently in those first 25 minutes, but my favorite was this one, right at the ten-minute mark. The topic was moral responsibility: if we don’t have the slightest ability to choose what we do or don’t do, then can we be held morally responsible for anything at all? The discussion at that point went like this:
[First speaker] Steven Pinker … distinguishes between a type of justice that’s punitive in a free will system, like “That’ll teach you! I’m gonna give you five lashes for everything,” versus a justice system that simply is protective of people, like, “Yes if somebody kills somebody, let’s lock them up and remove them so they don’t do it again;” or that there’s a punishment, almost like a Skinnerian system, like, “If I kill somebody they’re going to lock me up.” But that’s distinct from saying, “You bad person! You’re to blame for that. Shame on you!” which is, from a deterministic system, meaningless. [Second speaker] Yeah, but corrective imprisonment, corrective punishment makes perfect sense, right? If someone commits a crime, rather than being shoved into jail where they learn how to do better crime, which is usually the case, if it’s actually a correctional facility, and they help them learn different things that they can do to get money, and learn new skills, and learn “why this is wrong,” that sort of thing–if we’re actually correcting the behavior, then we’re adding these deterministic influences to them, so that when they’re released back out into the world they’ve gotten this corrective work.
It was when that second person spoke that I began to chuckle to myself, and I continued to do so through the rest of that section. What about you? Considering the context, do you find anything ironic in what he said? What do you think he said that a person like me might have found amusing?