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Evolutionist Jerry Coyne Has a Puzzling View on Hamas

Photo credit: rainwiz, via Flickr (cropped).

The recent atrocities committed by the terrorist group Hamas against Israeli non-combatants give us a moment of clarity on matters of moral law, atheism, and free will. Apropos of that, Jerry Coyne is an emeritus professor of evolutionary biology who is an atheist, a determinist, and who denies free will. At Why Evolution Is True, he has recently written passionately about the Hamas atrocities, and I agree with much that he has written. 

But the moral atrocity committed by Hamas seems not to have diminished Coyne’s passion for atheism, determinism, and free will denial. He flips directly from commenting critically on media cover of the war to lauding a recently published book by Robert Sapolsky, a hirsute neuroendocrinology researcher and professor at Stanford. Sapolsky comes at anthropology from a distinctly materialist perspective. Each year he spends time with wild baboons in Kenya studying their physiological reactions to stress, and he attributes human emotions to purely materialistic physiological causes — neurotransmitters, endogenous steroids, and the like. Sapolsky leaves no room for a spiritual human soul — we are just meat on the hoof in his view. Like Coyne, Sapolsky embraces determinism and denies libertarian free will. Like Coyne, he presumably does so involuntarily. 

Perplexed by Coyne

Which brings me to the Hamas atrocity.  I am perplexed by Coyne’s view that Hamas culpably violated objective moral law, considering Coyne’s metaphysical commitment to atheism, determinism, and free will denial. After all, if there is no God, there is no source for objective moral law at all. Nature is a collection of facts; without God nature has no overarching values, and the only values on tap are the separate values of individual human beings. Without God, value judgments are merely individual human opinions, akin to individual preferences for flavors of ice cream. There is no factual basis to prefer Coyne’s value judgments to Hamas’ value judgments — values like “don’t kill innocent people” are not facts of nature. But Coyne clearly (and rightly) holds Hamas to the moral responsibility not to kill innocents. If there is no God, from where does Coyne get this objective moral law that he invokes? Who is Coyne to judge? 

From the Beginning of Time

If determinism is true, then everything that happens was determined at the beginning of time and Hamas’s slaughter of innocents was baked into the cake from the Big Bang onward. If Coyne is right about determinism, Hamas’s genocide and Raoul Wallenberg’s heroism are both mere outcomes of the original physical state of the universe at the time of the Big Bang. We humans are only acting out the script handed to us, without the freedom to change it. In Coyne’s view, Hamas and Wallenberg are moral equals — they must be moral equals, if determinism is true. How can Hamas be held morally culpable, and Wallenberg lauded, when both lack free will and both are just involuntarily running the primordial determinist program of the universe?

I can’t see how Coyne as a determinist, an atheist, and a free will denier can hold Hamas morally responsible for their atrocities, any more than he could hold the wind morally responsible for deaths in a tornado. Perhaps Coyne will comment on the glaring cognitive dissonance in his condemnation of the murder of innocents and his embrace of a metaphysical perspective that reduces such murder to a value-free maelstrom of atoms.