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Condoning Criminality: Sam Harris’ Warped Determinism

Are we all but hapless pawns of Fate, or can humans exert some measure of creative control over the course of their lives? Beginning with Laplace, hard determinists have claimed that they can literally explain every event that has ever transpired in the long history of the cosmos–from the formation of galaxies to the itch on my nose–as a predetermined outcome of an unbroken chain of causality. However, Popper (1959) points out that, in explaining everything, unfalsifiable theories succeed in explaining nothing.

Given its unfalsifiability, determinism is not a legitimate scientific perspective. Rather, determinism can be better understood as a dangerous type of superstition. The intrinsic danger in determinism is that it explicitly absolves thinking, acting agents of any responsibility for their actions. For example, Sam Harris (2012) details a series of gruesome crimes–including rape, torture and murder–that a pair of morally-bankrupt burglars, named Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, inflict on an innocent family. Outraged as any right-minded person might be by Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s monstrous crimes, Harris insists that neither man is truly responsible for the atrocities that he has committed:

As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people…There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this (Harris, 2012, p. 4).

While I appreciate the degree to which Harris is willing to stick his neck out to defend his particularly toxic version of hard determinism, I beg to differ. There is no excuse for Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s horrendous behavior. As thinking, acting agents, both men are 100% responsible for their crimes, and any theoretical perspective that presumes to offer them clemency is as demented as the vile malefactors that it labors to acquit.

Psychologically screwed up as Hayes and Komisarjevsky may have been, they were both conscious and intentional as they committed their heinous crimes. Hayes and Komisarjevsky could have chosen to engage in non-criminal activities–as do the vast majority of people in their daily affairs–but, instead, they decided to indulge in an atrocious criminal rampage. Ergo, Hayes and Komisarjevsky are responsible for the crimes that they committed, and they deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law. Thinking, acting agents deserve kudos when they accomplish laudable deeds, and they deserve castigation when they elect to perpetrate misdeeds. Not only does this logic ring true with the social reality that we inhabit–imagine a world where we would employ Harris’ warped brand of determinism to grant amnesty to even the most repugnant criminals–but it also requires that we concede that there is some basis in reality for agency.

…it is impossible to ignore the fact that individuals do matter (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 297).

In his defense of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, Harris commits the rhetorical error of adopting a pompous and prejudiced position (Feynman, 1965, pp. 147-148) by explicitly stating that he denies the validity–or “respectability”–of any views that run contrary to his own. Such bald prejudice is a recipe for perpetuating dogma rather than doing good science. Further, Harris’ defense of Hayes and Komisarjevsky is based upon essentially the same intellectual errors that have confounded the nature vs. nurture debate for the past 100+ years (Dowling, 2011; Kaplan and Rogers, 2003). Harris is a devotee of the “exclusively nature” perspective which asserts that every aspect of the human condition is reducible to its constituent particles, i.e., “…if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently…” (Harris, 2012, p. 4).

Like all “exclusively nature” determinists, Harris attempts to seal his rhetorical victory by doing nothing more than bad-mouthing the flip side of the debate. In doing so, Harris believes that he has scored a solid victory for everyone else who harbors similar anti-nurture prejudices, but that is a hollow victory indeed.

As more nuanced thinkers have asserted for a long time, the elusive solution to the nature-nurture debate lies somewhere in the middle rather than at the rhetorical extremes. Certainly, on a basic level, humans are ambulatory sacks of DNA. However, humans are also much more than that. To use a computing metaphor, in addition to our hardware (i.e., the physiological structures that DNA constructs), humans are also programmed with software (i.e., knowledge, experience, and other intangible or “soft” phenomenological components that cohere to create unique, sentient identities). Thus, when Harris states that there is nothing more to humans than their atoms, he is flatly wrong.

Sure, the phenomenological stuff that makes us human–ideas, emotions, knowledge, anxieties, dreams, ingenuity, etc.–is largely intangible, and the “soft” experiences that comprise the bulk of our humanity are undeniably connected to our hardware (i.e., without a brain we could neither load nor operate our human software), but it is patently false to suggest that humans are composed of atoms and nothing else. It’s essentially the same as saying that the only important part of a computer is its hardware.

It is pointless to argue whether hardware or software is more important to the operation of a computer. Both are essential. Without one or the other, computers would not function properly. Well, just like computers, humans also need hardware and phenomenological software in order to function properly. However, the difference between humans and computers is that human components–social, psychological, and biological–are billions of times more sophisticated than the inanimate technologies that operate computers. As a result, the human “operational experience” represents an extraordinary transformation, and elevation of otherwise inanimate–or “non-adaptive” (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 9)–matter: the “emergent complexity” (Ibid.) of human cognition incorporates a marvelous capacity to aspire toward the sublime.

I think, therefore I am…

Paragons deserve to be celebrated, criminals deserve to be punished, and determinists need to get a clue.

 

References

Dowling, John E. The Great Brain Debate: Nature or Nurture? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Feynman, Richard P. The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1965.

Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994.

Harris, Sam, 2012. Free Will. New York: Free Press.

Kaplan, Gisela T., and Lesley J. Rogers. Gene Worship: Moving beyond the Nature/nurture Debate over Genes, Brain, and Gender. New York: Other, 2003.

McGettigan, Timothy, Evolution at the Speed of Thought: A New Chapter in the History of Evolution. Los Angeles, CA.: WheelMan Press, 2013.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

 

About Timothy McGettigan

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.