Jerry Coyne Vs. C.S. Lewis

Reductive materialist Jerry Coyne doesn’t believe human choices are real. They are, he says, just matter and energy doing what they’ve always done. He thinks, however, that we should still “punish criminals,” that we should, in fact,

remove them from society when they’re dangerous, reform them so they can rejoin us, and deter others from apeing bad behavior. But we shouldn’t imprison people as retribution—for making a ‘bad choice.’

One must in this case point out that C.S. Lewis was arguing against this point long before Coyne was born. He pointed out that while retributive justice is concrete—an eye for an eye, a six-month sentence for a robbery, a fine for a traffic infraction—“reform” lasts until the powers that be proclaim it complete. Such a view puts the criminal under a despotic power to which no human has a right. Here’s Lewis:

Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of ‘retribution’. And what can be more outrageous than to catch me and submit me to a disagreeable process of moral improvement without my consent, unless (once more) I deserve it? (91–92)

There is an infinite regress in Coyne’s reasoning:

Understanding that we have no choices should create more empathy and less hostility towards others when we grasp that everyone is the victim of circumstances over which they had no control.

That “should” sounds like a moral “should.” But what if I don’t wanna have more empathy for those jerks and blockheads in the other political party? Aren’t I only the victim of a circumstances beyond which I have no control? Shouldn’t they start having some empathy for my physics-based inability to have empathy for them? As Coyne himself goes on to say, “Jerks had no choice about becoming jerks.” But that sword cuts both ways. Over and over. Till what Christians call “morality” is left in tatters on the floor.

I’ll stick with Lewis’ view—the Bible’s view: that human choices are real even if they have constraints on them (Rom 7:15–18). I’ve got a post coming out on Logos Talk with more detail.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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