In my post yesterday about Steve Pinker’s new interview, I made a few critical remarks about his views on identity politics, though by and large I agreed with him. I was more critical about his views on free will.
As usual, because he’s a friend, I alerted him in advance to the post, and asked him about his views about affirmative action (his interview didn’t say anything about that, but one might get the idea he opposed it), as well as about free will. I didn’t get a response from him until after my post went up, and in that response he gave me permission to post the views he set out in his email (of course I always ask in advance). I overlooked that permission and so didn’t say anything. Now that I see it, I’m posting our exchange for the record. Steve does favor affirmative action, but defends a compatibilist view of free will. (I’ve answered his email, but that’s irrelevant for this addendum.)
Anyway, our public exchange:
From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Thursday, January 09, 2020 8:01 AM
To: Pinker, Steven
Hi Steve [irrelevant material redacted about getting together for drinks]:
. . . . Also, I’m going to put up a short post about your “Thoughts of an Intellectual” interview today (I bet you hate that title!), and I agree with you about identity politics and will say so. I wanted to ask, though, since you aver that people shouldn’t be treated as groups, whether that means you don’t favor affirmative action. If you have an answer, let me know if it’s off the record or not. This is a touchy topic and I could understand if you don’t want to publicly qualify or criticize affirmative action.
And I will go after your free will views a bit, since you claim that “randomness or thermal noise” could affect the workings of the brain and thus our decisions. We’ve discussed this before, but this would only affect decisions in a physically indeterminate way if those phenomena were due to quantum mechanical randomness. Otherwise, as you sort of admit, decisions aren’t “miracles”. But neither is randomness or Brownian motion, insofar as they adhere to classical mechanics, something that are sensibly a part of free will. As you know, predictability does not mean volition, and lack of predictability does not mean free will, at least in the classical libertarian sense. But we’ve talked about this before. I just remembered that I never sent you a follow-up email about this, but never mind.
From: Pinker, Steven
Thu 1/9/2020 10:32 AM
Thanks for posting about the interview. I’m in favor, on the record, of some degree of affirmative action — no policy is absolute, and this is a case in which a compelling social interest, namely inclusion of under-represented minorities in prominent institutions, legitimately trades off against the principle of treating every person as an individual.
Yes, the effects of Brownian motion are strictly deterministic, assuming infinite precision in measurement (or the absence of nonlinearties), so it depends on whether our Laplacian demon himself is subject to physical constraints such as thermal noise in his sensory or measuring apparatus; if so, then nonlinear dynamics could introduce non-determinism in practice. And yes, “determinism” in the mathematical sense of perfect predictability (which is the sense in which noise is relevant) is separate from “determinism” as the opposite of “free will,” conceived of as something that defies the laws of physics, although the latter notion is so obscure that it’s hard to argue against. I simply equate the common-sense conception of free will with a complex neurobiological process, which may not be deterministic in the strict mathematical sense (again, depending on the existence of quantum effects in the brain, or on finite precision in measurement plus nonlinear dynamics).
The rest will be hashed out next week in Cambridge over libations.