On the way home: discussion with Dawkins

May 25, 2017 • 10:15 am

I’m cooling my heels at R*agan Airport in DC, which I’d prefer to call National Airport, its old name. I’ll be home about noon Chicago time.

You may remember the first bit of this post’s title as a Beatles song; if you also remember the album it was on, you get extra credit.

The event last night with Richard Dawkins at Lisner Auditorium (George Washington University) went well, or so I thought. There was a crowd of 900, the VIP pre-event sold out, and I think our conversation was pretty informative, though it’s always hard to tell when you’re onstage and can’t see the audience (the spotlights were fierce). I tried to concentrate on evolution, though I did pin Richard down to saying something about free will (in the dualistic sense), as in his upcoming book of essays, Science in the Soul (recommended), he’d written this:

“After my public speeches I have come to dread the inevitable ‘do you believe in free will’ question and sometimes resort to quoting Christopher Hitchens’s characteristically witty answer, “I have no choice”.

Well, that’s glib, but also a non-answer, so I wanted to ask him if he accepted that all our actions are predetermined except for possible quantum events in the brain. And he did admit that, but added that he doesn’t really understand compatibilism and other attempts to give us free will. I didn’t get into those issues, and we briefly discussed the implications of pure determinism for society and the justice system.

Here are a few other questions I asked Richard (from my notes):

  • How did your life as a scientist and immersion in science affect your personality and attitudes (towards truth, religion, etc.), and are such effects a general phenomenon among scientists?
  •  Let’s begin with Darwin: if he hadn’t existed, how would things be different? Would progress have slowed, and would we be where we are now? Would there be things that people wouldn’t have studied? (A: Wallace would have filled the gap, perhaps delaying a big book by 20 years.)
  • If you could get Darwin back and ask him one question, what would it be? (A: Why did you wait so long to publish The Origin?
  • If you could tell him one thing, what would it be?  (A: About genetics. I then asked Richard what he would say if he were limited to one sentence.)
  • If you had a device that let you peek back in time, but only for one day during a specified period, and could observe what you wanted, bringing a notebook but not a camera, what would you peek at? Origin of life? Beginning of multicellularity? Dinosaurs? Origin of our own species? Beginnings of civilization? Would you want to answer a question or just see something? (He answered that he would like to hear the beginnings of hominin speech.)
  • What one misunderstanding about evolution you would like to correct? (A: It’s all accidental)
  • *Do you think studying or using philosophy is of value to a scientist? How? (A: Yes, as philosophers often teach us to think more clearly about questions, even scientific ones.)

I won’t recount all the other questions and answers; there were many. I also moderated the audience questions at the end, and, as I ended them, I saw a little girl in line with her mother. I couldn’t resist calling on her, too, for, as the Bible says, “a little child will lead them” (she was about five, I think). She said that other children at her school call kids like her, who are interested in science, “nerds.” How, she asked, would Richard respond to that? His sweet and touching answer began with this: “I rather like nerds.”

Here’s a photo of the discussion courtesy of Brian Engler.  Notice that Richard has mismatched socks, and one of the audience asked him, “What’s with the socks?” If a reader doesn’t know (put your answer below), I’ll tell you later.

I’m wearing my stingray cowboy boots.

Many thanks to Robyn Blumner and Stephanie Guttormson for their hospitality and organization.

168 thoughts on “On the way home: discussion with Dawkins

    1. “Two of Us” was the Beatles tune. First track on side one on the vinyl “Let It Be,” if memory serves.

      1. Or the last track on side two, for those of you who played it backwards to find out if Paul was dead. 🙂

    2. Beatles did not sing “On the way home”. From “Two of Us”:
      On our way back home
      We’re on our way home
      We’re on our way home
      We’re going home

      Although they may have used the lyric “discussion with Dawkins.” Not sure about that.

      1. Dawkins has a twitter from May 2013

        “Viewed purely as melody, the Beatles’ “Here, There & Everywhere”, with its soaring shape & subtle key modulations, could be Mozart. Discuss.”

        so there IS a discussion BY Dawkins.

        The first four lines of “Within You, Without You” could be part of a discussion WITH Dawkins, but then it veers off into decidedly non-Dawkinsian territory.

          1. What Dr Dawkins’ initially recounted to the kiddo / to her querying of him = ’twas darling !


      1. I was in attendance, and as I stood in line for the book signing, I considered what great scientific question I could ask Richard upon meeting him for the first time. I settled on (or perhaps had no choice but to ask, given our lack of free will) “Are you able to sing in tune in the shower yet?”. His answer was “I’m getting there”, which is good news. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, see Richard’s BBC interview following his stroke: http://www.bbc.com/news/av/science-environment-36363676/professor-dawkins-on-recovering-from-a-mild-stroke

    1. He should wear a green and purple polka-dotted sock on one foot and neon pink and orange on the other.

      Wearing western boots has liberated me from sock tyranny.

      And “to boot,” more power to those who press on with their AOL email addresses.

      1. I’ve had my AOL address since 1996. People laugh, but it’s still possible for someone I met over 20 years and many moves ago to reach out to me and get a response.

        1. I’ve had my email address (with a different ISP) since about the same time–don’t remember the exact year…and hope to keep it for the very same reason. Until the internet comes up with something akin to the USPS’s forwarding of mail, I hate the idea of ever having to change. How on earth would I remember all those whom I’d wish to have my edress?

      2. Wearing western boots has liberated me from sock tyranny.

        Having all socks of the same kind and colour also helps with that. I play it safe by wearing only black tennis socks under my black biker boots, in case I have to un-boot indoors, at the gym, or at the doctor’s office.

        It doesn’t help with the search for socks in a dark room, laundry basket, or boot leg, though.

        1. Argh … misquoted agan. 😛

          Wearing western boots has liberated me from sock tyranny.

          Having all socks of the same kind and colour also helps with that. I play it safe by wearing only black tennis socks under my black biker boots, in case I have to un-boot indoors, at the gym, or at the doctor’s office.

          It doesn’t help with the search for socks in a dark room, laundry basket, or boot leg, though.

    1. I’ve never understood how its even possible to have odd socks.

      All socks are black, and no other colour of socks can possibly exist, so how can they ever be odd?

      1. All the socks I have bought myself are black. But well-meaning others have occasionally purchased a variety of mutant shades and designs, and I have occasionally felt impelled to wear them.

        1. Black Ughh, mine are all white, little short ones 6 months of the year and ankle the rest. I’m not even sure they would let you off the plane in Hawaii. 🙂

      2. I have three daughters and they always buy the most colorful socks and every pack they buy has matching pairs in at least 6 different colors. Folding and organizing this mess has nearly brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I have, therefore, openly advocated the trend of mismatching socks. Unfortunately, while the oldest is more than happy to mismatch her socks even if matches are available, another is fiercely opinionated and refuses to even consider socks that don’t match, or, for that matter, any other pair of socks that is not the pair she had in mind when she woke up for the day. I only hope the youngest, not yet able to talk and therefore argue, will end up a little more like the oldest than like the other sister, or, as I often bemoan, the reincarnation of my mother.

        1. I know exactly what you mean. I found a way to preserve my sanity. I no longer fold their damn socks. They just get dumped in a pile in a drawer.

          The little bastards always turn their socks inside out too. I can’t count the number of times I have futilely demonstrated how easy it is to take a sock off without turning it inside out, but it just hasn’t stuck.

          1. No kids here, but I gave up folding my own socks when the cat realized she could jump up into the sock drawer while I was folding them. Now the sorting happens on the output end of the pipeline.

          2. Now that my daughter has a one-year-old daughter of her own she has become a veritable princess of neatness and matchedness. It only took 30 years…

      3. Readers of this site know that I’m fond of mentioning how universal conservation laws. I have a confession to make: there’s an exception, for washing machines and dryers!


        1. Conservation still holds; for every sock lost in the laundry, a sock randomly materializes in a parking lot or by the side of a freeway somewhere.

      4. Aliens with a sock fetish and technology so far beyond ours that it seems like magic to us. Like technology that can make two identical black socks not match.

    2. “Fight the tyranny of the matching socks. Sock it to conformity. Be an individualist, not a slavish sock puppet”

      But if I know take the essay to heart and start mismatching socks is that being an individual or just conforming with this essay?

          1. BRIAN: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say.

            FOLLOWERS: Tell us. Tell us both of them.

            BRIAN: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

            FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!

            BRIAN: You’re all different!

            FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!

            DENNIS: I’m not.

            ARTHUR: Shhhh.

            FOLLOWERS: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.

            h/t M. Python

    3. Re the chirality or non-chilarity of socks, many Japanese socks do have toes, either a big toe (like mittens) or all five toes (like gloves). So one has to at least chose a left and a right sock, but they don’t have to match. And they are a real b*gger to put on!

      1. But yet, people do, I assume. Something about being new or avant garde or some such, I imagine, which always reminds me of the old saw, “always remember that you are unique; just like everyone else.”

  1. You both did a wonderful job. I think it went very well. I saw Richard Dawkins in Rochester, MN a couple years back and their were protesters and some ugly sentiments from the Q&A crowd. The little child was awesome. Hey, kid, remember “smart is the new sexy”. The socks issue: I call BS. I’ve seen multiple pics with the same red and green socks and I submit that they are like ship nav lights. They are set up in a red/port, green/starboard configuration. A) he wants to make sure we know if he is coming or going. B) he’s a nautical lover! My 2¢.

  2. As I am sitting here wearing compression socks for my health, I would rather be able to wear what I whimsy instead (no socks).

      1. Speaking of The Beatles and other iconic 60’s bands, as we sorta were–what a drag it is getting old.

    1. In the navy I learned “Red, Right, Returning [to port]” to remember which color (red or green) was on which side.

      1. Aeronautically if flying at night it is important to remember the green/right and the red left so you know if the airplane ahead is coming at you or going away. Also true for those ships at night.

          1. To clarify, my “Red, Right, Returning” was with reference to red and green channel buoys, between which a ship must stay to avoid running aground when transiting in and out of port. Of course, when a ship departs, the red buoys are on the left.

            Regarding a ship’s night-time “running” lights, if one simultaneously sees another ship’s red and green lights, and between and above them two white lights one directly above the other, the “pucker factor” increases the closer the ships approach each other. If they are going to predictably get within a certain minimum distance of one another, one ship is obligated by the international “Rules of the Road” to turn right and pass astern of the other ship at a safe distance, while the other ship is required to maintain course and speed, certainly a comparatively disadvantaged position to be in in that, if my more nautically-experienced navy confreres were to be believed, some penny-pinching shipping companies are loath to incur any increase in costs by so turning.

              1. “Are you factoring in the Doppler Effect?”

                Do you mean as it applies to the repeated horn-blowing of the two closing ships just before they collide? 😉

            1. I know almost nothing about the ships at sea and all that but I know all aircraft have the red light on the left wing tip and the green light on the right and at least partly for the reason I stated. They would also apply those rules of the road that you say – turn right when approaching that other plane coming at you. It really helps to avoid those mid-air collisions.

              1. A yuge amount of the terminology we use regarding all transportation was originally nautical. So planes kept the same starboard/port lighting conventions as the ships. They also carry cargo, arrive and depart from airports,/i>, the chief pilot is the captain, the cockpit was originally nautical as well. Fore and aft, bulkhead, flight crew…the list goes on and on.

            2. Two mnemonics i remember:

              “Is there any red port left?”

              to remind one of that red and port refer to left.

              When both lights you see ahead,
              Starboard turn and show your red.

              If to your starboard red appears,
              It is your duty to keep clear.
              To act as judgment says is proper,
              To port or starboard, back or stop her.

              But if upon your port side is seen
              a vessel’s starboard light of green,
              There’s not so much for you to do,
              For green to port keeps clear of you.

  3. From a New Mexico perspective, he is obviously wearing socks in honor of our Official State Question: Red or Green?

    As in which flavor of chile on your order. New Mexican atheists don’t even mind saying “Christmas” when the answer is “both”.

      1. Thanks for the regionalism–I love those!

        For others wondering: https://www.newmexico.org/nmmagazine/articles/post/one-of-our-50-is-missing-2-87394/

        I’m reminded of the time I was going home to Oregon from Cornell and intended to capture some butterflies there (Pieris rapae) to bring back to add to our isozyme database on the species; and one of my colleagues asked me how I was going to get the butterflies through customs…

        It’s true what they say about (some) New Yawkers…

  4. If you limit Dawkins to one sentence you have to put a word limit on it. Maybe ask him what he’d tweet to Darwin. 🙂

  5. Since you brought up The Beatles and Star Wars on the same day you need to know about this inexplicably wonderful set of fan videos. The entire Sgt. Pepper’s album with new Star Wars-themed lyrics!

  6. The presentation was marvelous! I particularly appreciated the brief discussion of free will, as that is a subject with which I struggle from time to time. Many thanks to both of you for taking the time and effort to chat with your followers for an evening. Also wish to acknowledge the gracious way that PCC(E) and Prof. Dawkins braved the longest book-signing line I’ve ever seen!

  7. Terrific questions. I’d love to listen in its entirety. Please let us know when/where/if it gets posted.

      1. Why haven’t many of Dawkins’ public appearances been recorded lately and uploaded? It’s weird and a bit sad, I love seeing those, one event with Sam Harris was uploaded behind a paywall, but I think there again not the whole two part event. Youtube could use more quality intelligent content. There used to be a lot of recordings of every event, no matter how obscure, but around two or three years ago they started to rapidly dry up even though Dawkins and a few others still have done plenty of public appearances.

        1. I know. I’ve spent probably days-worth of hours at this point watching Hitchens debates and talks. I don’t know what I would do without them, as I still come back to the best ones often.

          1. It should be even easier and cheaper these days to record and upload videos onto youtube or vimeo than ever before, so that can’t be the reason why we see a drop in even attempts to record events.

            I have noticed a general shift in the health of the youtube community though.

            Back in 2010-2012 you could just put in your bookmarks a link with search parameters filtering and sorting by the latest over 20min videos uploaded by search words like Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, Coyne etc, and it would usually show simply the latest new uploads, sometimes in a week you could find two or three new events someone held and talked at.
            But starting around 2013, more and more spambot channels started to show up that simply reuploaded by the dozens every day the same videos, slapping advertisements onto them, meaning a dozen new spambot channels cropped up each and every day, which were uploading dozens of videos onto youtube every day, meaning your search results became flooded with the same content, making it much harder to find novel uploads, as the spambots were algorithmically churning away to scrape up pennies and dollars off of the few people who’d click on a video every once in a while without adblock enabled.

            That pisses me off to no end.
            The spambots obviously go by popularity of some sorts, and ever since novel uploads slowed down around 2013-15, so too did the spambots slightly slow down and move onto other content to upload. Not by much though.

            I don’t know if this is tied to why we see so little recordings online of all the events going on, could also be the polarizing shift in the community and a wariness to put out recordings if everyone is so on edge these days and sensitive about everything that could possibly be a point of contention, always lashing out in a loud manner if something is brought up even about the most trivial of subject matters.

  8. Red port, green starboard. It’s so people can tell which direction he’s headed if they can only see his feet.

  9. It’s not Socksmas, the day our sockly savior entered the world from the dimension of lost left socks? I heard we honored the socklord by wearing mismatched socks in remembrance of the right sock left behind as the left escaped this mortal coil.

  10. I once had a mentor/friend/business competitor who would occasionally wear mismatched shoes. When questioned, he would point to his feet and say,”Well, that one is comfortable on that foot, and that one is comfortable on that foot.”

    1. I’ve come across that before, in one of the books of the Belgariad by David Eddings. It was in regards to a 7000 year old sorcerer.

    2. I could have used that when I groggily headed off to one of my undergraduate 8 AM classes in one brown flat and one red loafer…

  11. One day seems insufficient to hear the beginnings of hominin speech. If what you hear during that one day is sufficiently distinctive to identify it as speech, then you’ve already missed the beginning.

  12. My first thought, too, was “Port & Starboard socks! How cool.”

    Sounds like a great discussion and I’m so happy to hear Dr D is in good shape. Looking forward to hearing/watching the whole thing.

  13. Philosophy is useful. It works on any problem and is more likely to expose problems than science. Ultimately science arrives at truth, but philosophy is much more flexible at knowing what truth to discover.

  14. There is a museum in Kansas City, MO containing a steamship that sank (in the Mississippi River, I think) with cargo in the 1800s. It was found buried in a farmer’s field 1/2 mile or so from the river (rivers move and silt builds up where they used to be) more recently and dug up. One of the products on the ship were shoes. I didn’t know until I saw these that pairs of shoes used to be made with no right vs. left; both were constructed the same. They developed their leftness or rightness by being worn. Seems painful to me. Even now, shoes that are specifically made for left or right feet, if not properly designed, can be painful to “break in”. As we know, what’s broken in are the feet.

    1. The British Army’s method of breaking boots in (and mine, back when I was an Army cadet) was to wear the boots, soak them thoroughly in water (I spent a summer’s morning dangling my feet in the local river) and then walk around in them til they were dry.

      Worked a treat. My old hobnailed Size 9L Ammo Boots were, and are still, the comfiest leather shoes I’ve ever worn, though they’ve long since gone to the parade ground in the sky.

      I bought a pair of high-end brogues from a posh country gents’ outfitter some years ago and though I didn’t have the nerve to use the same method – the shoes being ten times the price of the boots – I discovered the shop had a steam-stretching rig for the same purpose, on which they custom-fitted the shoes for me. Not quite the Ammo boots, but much comfier than they came out of the box.

      Apparently the Paras fill their boots with pee to the same end. Whether it’s because they’re as hard as nails (the Paras, not the boots) or it’s more effective, I have no idea.

  15. Curious, Ms Kitchen ? Is this of which museum / steamboat you write ? the Bertrand at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge arena near Missouri Valley, Iowa ? of
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertrand_(steamboat) ?

    If so, it is smashingly intriguing as hell. I would encourage Any to take it in ! Some 400 steamboats on .that. River … … went down / sunk ! on their watery passageways up to and to settle Montana ! A fascinating day’s lesson of history.


  16. Glad the event went well. Also thanks for asking about free will and good to know Dawkins agrees. I also just can’t see what the compatibilists are on about. It seems they want to hide what they can’t escape is true. We need to be talking about this topic much more than occurs at present.

    1. I also just can’t see what the compatibilists are on about.

      The only reason why people can’t understand compatibilists is that they refuse to make the straightforward and simple interpretation of what compatibilists are saying. Instead they suspect it of being a cover story for something else that they’re not owning up to. That’s not the case.

      1. If it’s so simple, why don’t you just explain it in a way even someone as dim and obstinate as I can understand.

        1. I think Coel has done so only about twenty times in previous discussions on this website, to no avail.

          For what it is worth, in my eyes the problem starts with framing compatibilism as an “attempt to give us free will”, which is about as useful as asking why evolutionary biology is trying to destroy morality.

          Words like free will (or life, or consciousness, or choice, or responsibility) were not invented by our ancestors because they wanted to trick others into being religious. Instead, people at first created words to describe things, processes and differences that were empirically observable and that they needed words to describe.

          In the most relevant case here, they created the term free will to describe the difference between doing something while drugged, drunk, insane, or blackmailed, and doing it while in full possession of one’s rational capacities and free from coercion. And that difference is real and empirically observable; determinism has as much relevance to it as it has to the question whether we need a word for calculation, or one for digesting food. (And the conceptual situation is entirely the same: just as people say “I make no choices because my brain chemistry makes them for me”, so they could say “I do not digest food, my stomach does it for me”. It is confused body-soul dualism in both cases.)

          You can try to outlaw the use of free will and choice because you think they have been contaminated by theologians, but the difference still exists, and one will simply have to invent new words to fill the same niche. Or you can do what we did with “life” when we learned that it wasn’t magic and simply continue to use it to describe the real difference between a moss and the rock it grows on. Those who think the former is unnecessarily complicated and pointless are compatibilists.

          1. Thanks, I’m reasonably new here and haven’t seen the other discussions you refer to.

            I agree the terminology doesn’t help the discussion at all. I agree with Sam Harris and I think Jerry that the important question is, “could I have chosen differently than I did”? If what you say is true, I’d be happy to say that compatibilists agree the answer is “no” and that’s that. But my main knowledge of this topic comes from what Sam has written and from his debate with Dan Dennett, and my reading of it is that Dan does not view things so simply. While he agrees (I think) that the answer to “could I have done differently” is no, he also argues that it is not the important question regarding free will. But it seems a terribly important question, one because the answer has huge ramifications on things like moral responsibility, and two because most people, theologians or not, would give the intuitive, but wrong answer. Dan also seems not to want to discuss the ramifications of a “no” answer. Maybe Dan is not typical of compatibilists, but I find his take on this adds to the confusion.

            1. I am sorry if my first sentence came across as too cranky, it just goes round and round all the time!

              Surely there are compatibilist philosophers who cling to some notion of free will only because not having it would disturb them, or because they worry that the Little People will behave poorly if they learn about determinism. But then there are surely incompatibilists who worry that the Little People will believe in gods if they are told that there is free will. Making blanket statements about supposed motivations seems less important than figuring out the merits of the case itself.

              I think Dennett is right that “could I have done differently” is not the important question, see what I wrote above. Again, believing in magical non-determinism is not why people came up with words like out of my own free will (which is pretty much the Germanic translation of Latin voluntary), decision, or choice; perhaps more importantly, dualist, magical free will is incoherent anyway; and many religious thinkers completely agree with determinism anyway, as they have to when they postulate an omniscient god.

              The really interesting questions are probably around teasing out responsibility, reward and punishment, social contract and laws, given the reality of determinism. Everybody, I think, is agreed that “we shouldn’t lock up the mass murderer because the laws of physics pre-determined him to slaughter all those innocents” is not going to work, and that there is a difference between bumping into you by accident and shoving you over with the intention to hurt you. Given those considerations I am not sure how I can find it helpful to say, “it is all the same because it is all pre-determined”. It isn’t all the same, and we need words to label the differences.

              1. No offence taken.

                I agree entirely that “Making blanket statements about supposed motivations seems less important than figuring out the merits of the case itself”. It is only that this is difficult when motivations seem to be playing an important role in the debate, possibly more so than the merits of the case itself. But perhaps it appears that way to me (and Sam and Jerry) because I can’t see how “could I have done differently” is not the key question. When I first read and realised why I could not have, I was shocked. Nothing else I’ve read in science has disturbed me more than that my feelings of free will, in this sense, were wrong. I’ve lost sleep processing the implications. Maybe that’s just me, but it seems the key question for many others too, for I don’t think we can yet debate the “really interesting questions” you mention in our society, because the large majority really doesn’t agree that “dualist, magical free will is incoherent”; they accept it without thinking, whether due to religious belief or not.

                Also I would never argue that “it is all the same because it is all pre-determined”. I’m not sure what I said that came across as such. All I’m saying is that the rationale for locking up the murderer will be very different in a society that accepted pre-determinism, than in the hugely moralistic society we live in now. Coming full circle, Dan doesn’t seem to think that discussion is worth having and his reasons for why are very unconvincing to me.

              2. That is indeed a difference in perspective. From my perspective the question of could I have done different cannot be the big one, first because it was trivially answered every time some ancient Greek philosopher or early Christian theologian tried to think stuff through and realised that the magical soul also would only have the options of following some cause-and-effect or behaving randomly. And second because in the way it is commonly considered it is completely irrelevant to anything that matters to us.

                Anything we discuss ever, for example in interpreting the results of an experiment, assumes “could have come out different if this circumstance would only have been different”, whereas “would not have come out different if all circumstances would have been exactly the same” is trivially true but doesn’t help us understand the system.

                Whether the Little People all believe in magical free will is another question that is going round in circles all the time. My impression is that how somebody answers that question depends strongly on how they are primed and how the question is worded. From my perspective the clincher is that everybody behaves as if they assume determinism in practice: everybody deduces other people’s behaviour from their character traits and past experience instead of assuming that they would suddenly do something truly unexpected.

                I am not sure I live in a hugely moralistic society. There is a strong sense that many people who behave poorly do not have full responsibility, be it because they are four years old, because they were drunk, or because they have mental health issues.

              3. Ok, I guess I just don’t at all relate to your world, then, as my experience is so different. I suggest you are far from the norm in feeling the question has a trivial answer, to be accepted without question. Likewise, “everybody behaves as if they assume determinism in practice” seems bizarre to me. While it’s true that people partly credit character traits, etc, for actions, most also believe those factors can be overcome, that the murderer most definitely could have chosen not to murder, despite his experience and character, or anything else, accepting in rare cases a brain tumor. That these positions are not consistent doesn’t seem to matter. We even have heaps of people saying that the poor deserve their lot because they made poor choices, etc. The question seems very far from being resolved in general society.

            2. Whether people agree that the answer to “could I have chosen differently” is “no” depends on what they understand words like “could” and “chosen” to mean. There are ordinary, everyday usages of these words that permit a “yes” answer without implying any claim to magical powers.

              Even at the level of pure physics, it’s not at all clear that that the answer to “could this physical system have produced a different output” is an unequivocal “no” in all cases. (Notice that even Jerry hedged his bets in his question to Dawkins.)

              So making social policy contingent on getting a “no” answer seems like bad strategy. Better to try to understand what real-world phenomena people are referring to when they talk about “choice” and “free will”, and use that empirical understanding as the foundation for policy decisions.

              1. When I met Jerry recently, I asked him point blank if he thought we were automatons and he unhesitatingly said yes. He did also say that he and Sam Harris seemed to be in the minority on that position, though it seems Dawkins has joined them. Maybe I haven’t read widely enough, but so far I accept Sam’s arguments that it’s the only thing that makes sense. Jerry’s hedge was only to introduce randomness at the quantum level, which as others have pointed out, doesn’t change anything as to whether we could have chosen differently. I don’t know what usages of “could” and “chosen” there are that change any of this either.

              2. Like Alex, I encourage you to catch up on past discussions of these issues. But briefly, if we can be said to make choices at all, then any indeterminism at the physical level implies that the choice could have turned out differently.

                If your position is that we don’t make choices, and that the very concept of choice is meaningless, then talk of whether we could have chosen differently is incoherent.

                As for “could”, in many (perhaps most) instances, it’s a claim of behavioral competence, not a metaphysical statement about the nature of causality. “I could order a pizza” means simply that it’s within my skill set, one option among the repertoire of dinner options available to my decision process. “I could have ordered a pizza” says the same thing in the past tense. No magic implied.

              3. Again the problem surfaces with terminology, in this case: what is automata supposed mean as an analogy? If the implication is that automata follow cause-and-effect, then everything is an automaton, but that is automatically a very trivial thing to say, akin to “we are all made from atoms”.

                I understand the word to mean “something with many complex parts that was created by an intelligent being for a purpose”; in that sense, we are definitely not automata.

              4. Alex, it is the former sense of automata that I mean. It just isn’t my experience that most people find it trivial. Those I’ve talked to among, work, family, etc, usually react with the same shock and disbelief as I first did.

                Gregory, surely that indeterminism could have made the choice turn out differently, doesn’t imply that the choice was up to the person who acted. I agree with your second para, but most people do think they could have chosen differently, so the discussion can’t be avoided. Re types of “could”, I agree, but again, that’s not what people mean when they say a person has a moral responsibility for their action, because they could have chosen a different action.

              5. I would think the analogy of automata tries to isolate that aspect of human behavior that follows the laws of physics from behavior that emanates from a detached soul. A philosophical zombie is a soulless creature that operates like a complex state machine. So, in that sense humans can be said to be philosophical zombies even though there is no way we could sense subjectively any difference.

            3. Ken,

              To be more precise, Dennett, like most compatibilists, wouldn’t simply agree that we answer “could I have done otherwise” with “no.”

              Thecompatibilist/incompatibilist debate tends to boil down to arguing over what it even MEANS to say “I could have done otherwise” in the context of determinism.

              The incompatibilist will tend to say that to answer “yes” means you could have done otherwise given PRECISELY the same conditions. And since that’s impossible, they say the answer must be “no.”

              The compatibilist will tend to say that placing such a demand on the question makes no sense, and that to answer “yes” means “being able to do otherwise in similar situations” our appraisal of “what we can do” when deliberating our options is never drawn never from precisely the same conditions, but always from similar conditions. That is similar experiences over time from which to draw a reasonable inference about what we are capable of, and what a likely outcome of an action will be.

              So if you for instance just missed a basketball shot and say “I could have made that shot” this isn’t based on some abstract philosophical notion of “given all causal antecedents being the same.” It’s simply an appraisal of your skill in similar situations to the shot you just missed.

              Or if you stay inside the house reading and someone asks if you did so of your free will, by saying “yes” it simply means you weren’t forced to be there, or coerced, that you simply had the will/desire to stay in and read but if you had the desire to go outside, you were capable of doing so. This is based on the same appraisal of your capabilities in such situations…NOT on some idea of a genie being able to roll back the cosmic clock.

              Compatibilism starts with this basic acknowledgement of how we use the term “free” and generally how we use the terms “could have done X or Y” legitimately and usefully every day.

              But of course, since Free Will is a philosophical issue, the questions will inevitably keep coming “but given THIS what could you mean by THAT…” and so of course one will want to have answers as far down as possible to maintain the coherency of the position. But the very fact compatibilists have done this work seems to be held against them by many incompatibilists as some sort of “splitting hairs” or sophistry.

              Yet incompatibilists have to do the same work. If you answer “no” to “I could have done otherwise” then you have to answer questions like “Then what do you mean when you use the word ‘choice?'” Because as it stands, the incompatibilist is no longer using that term the normal way, which implies being able to do otherwise. So the incompatibilist either re-defines “choice” and is into the “re-defining” of terms he accuses the compatibilist of, or he abandons the notion of “choice” as an “illusion.” But then if you go that route (or even if you re-define ‘choice’), you have further questions to answer. What will you actually mean when you want to recommend some action over another? If we “can not do otherwise” then it seems you’ve rendered prescriptive language nonsensical.

              At this point most incompatibilists seem to get squirmy even trying to do that conceptual work because, it seems, they start worrying they are acting like compatibilists getting all hair-splitting. So, some seem to just throw up their hands, say they were determined to use the word ‘choice’ and think they don’t really need an answer beyond that, leaving their position incoherent.

              Remember that given determinism (which, again, the compatibilist can grant), the consequences for how you answer “can we do otherwise” go for the FUTURE as well as the past. So to say “I could not have done otherwise” is the same as saying “I can not do otherwise.” Now, own that logic and try to make it work. You have a son who is watching TV instead of studying for his exam, and you tell him he ought to study for his exam. He objects, replying: “But dad, I’m watching TV. You are suggesting I can do otherwise, but clearly given determinism I can not do otherwise.”

              Is your son right, and you just throw up your hands saying “I don’t know what I was thinking!”? Of course not. Surely your son is capable of studying instead of watching TV. But what does it mean to say your son is capable of, or could study, instead of watch TV? Surely determinism doesn’t render this untruthful. If it does, then all our reasoning about possible options for actions is rendered incoherent.

              But if you realize that to say you son “could study instead of watching TV” isn’t dependent upon being able to choose divergent actions given precisely the same circumstances, but rather presumes some alteration – e.g. “IF you desire to pass the test” – then your recommendation to your son makes total sense, even given determinism. And this is the normal sense in which we usually speak of choices and deliberations.

              1. Thanks for taking the time to respond so fully. I will have to take time to process all this, which I won’t be able to do fully today. For now, I’ll just try again to make my main concern clear.

                ‘The incompatibilist will tend to say that to answer “yes” means you could have done otherwise given PRECISELY the same conditions. And since that’s impossible, they say the answer must be “no.” The compatibilist will tend to say that placing such a demand on the question makes no sense,…’

                I don’t see why it makes no sense when the issue regards a past action. The determination of whether the murderer has moral responsibility for their actions rests on this answer. It is the question I’m most interested in, and which I’ve argued society is generally interested in, as society currently sets policy with the strong assumption that the answer is yes, which, as you say, seems impossible.

              2. I love the way you always take the time to answer so patiently and cogently the same objections incompatibilists continually raise. Thank you, Vaal.

      2. “I also just can’t see what the compatibilists are on about.”

        I’ve no doubt most compatibilists are sincere about their beliefs.

        But just as with religion there are multiple versions of compatibilist-freewill. Sometimes I get the impression every compatibilist has his own version.

        For instance a question that divides compatibilists:

        Do you believe in (strong) moral responsibility?

        For a believer in dualistic-freewill the answer is yes, for hard-(in)-determinists the answer is no. But some compatibilists would answer yes, some no and some would not be sure.

        The thing is : (in)-Determinism is not compatible with (strong) moral responsibility.

        1. “But just as with religion there are multiple versions of compatibilist-freewill.”

          Would compatibilism be less like religion if compatibilists stopped thinking for themselves and all lined up in ideological lockstep behind some supreme authority?

          1. No, but thinking for yourself is indeed the problem.

            When 1000 humans think for themselves you get 1000 opinions. Some of these opinions may be more coherent and consistent with science than others but often not compatible with each other.

            The result is confusion.

  17. One question you also asked Richard was (more or less) are humans really evolving anymore? His answer was a rather humorous “perhaps humans are being selected for poor use of contraceptives”. But on a serious note, I’ve always wondered about this. I’m amazed at the idea that a species has evolved to the point that it can effectively remove the selective pressures from its environment (via medicine, science, and technology). I see this as a sort of asymptotic relationship, where humans are approaching a point where there are no inhibitors to sexual reproduction. I’m curious to get Dr. Coyne’s thoughts here, and what it means for human evolution. Does it mean we are approaching a point where we will control our own evolution?

  18. Re the socks – this does violence to any onlookers who happen to have a ‘tidiness’ OCD. Typical of the thoughtless arrogance of leading atheists. As is the violence inflicted on any viewers who have red/green ‘color blindness’, who will be potentially unable to understand why those around them are seeing something unusual; they will become more ‘othered’ and isolated. They might even be exposed to ridicule if they fail to notice anything ‘wrong’ about Prof. Dawkins’ appearance.

    And both men are flaunting their luxuriant hair, which is an affront to those millions who are follically impaired. This is unacceptable .. (oh I can’t keep this up. I wish I had the nerve to wear odd socks like Prof Dawkins)


  19. “If you had a device that let you peek back in time….”
    The only problem with this is that most natural phenomenon aren’t observable in a single day….except for events like disasters.
    I’d like to observe the day the Chicxulub crater was created to see if it actually did wipe out the dinosaurs. Though it still might have taken some time to complete the job, seeing the immediate aftermath would have been interesting.

    1. That was exactly my reaction to most of the phenomena suggested in that question. One day to witness the “[o]rigin of our own species?” How could you tell?

      (Which of course Jerry knows better than any of us.)

  20. At the end of the day, I don’t think we know enough about either physics or the human brain (the function of which we still know almost nothing at all, at least comparatively to what could be known) to make absolute statements on whether or not determinism, free will, or something in between is *the truth*.

    BTW, congratulations on getting to have another sit-down with the great Dawkins! What a dream of mine…

  21. Here’s how I would have answered differently a few of the questions that Jerry posed to Dawkins.
    Second question: If Darwin had not come along, we would have been screwed for a long, long time. Wallace was a surveyor and amateur naturalist, not a respected public figure like Darwin. Wallace’s ideas were much less perfected than Darwin’s and would have had about as much impact as those of Patrick Matthew or Lamarck. [Remember the reception to the 1858 Darwin-Wallace joint paper.]
    My question for Darwin: “Excepting the question of adequate time brought up by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), what was the argument against evolution, or evolution by natural selection, that seemed to carry the greatest weight.”
    What discovery to tell Darwin: DNA and the Mendelian genetics it implies, and how they explain the evolution of both selfishness and kin altruism.
    What I’d most like to see in a peek back in time: the origin of the universe — space, matter, and time — at a level at which the mere human mind could comprehend what was happening.

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