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.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of WorkShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was utterly taken with this book, first to last. The philosophical portions were elegantly written, insightful, and persuasive. The anecdotal interludes about car and motorcycle repair gave just enough breathing space (and entertainment) to make for a good reading pace. What a remarkable author; I will be reading anything by him I can get my hands on. On to “The World Outside Your Head.”

A friend commented that he found the philosophical portions difficult, and that his father, with an MA in carpentry and a life as a practitioner, actually found the book off-putting. I don’t think this book was written for most tradesmen; they know intuitively that they engage in their practices for their intrinsic goods. They don’t need a convoluted philosophical justification for what they discovered long ago was in their blood.

But I, the office worker, recognized immediately the truth of Crawford’s comment that

those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.

I needed to think through whether what I’m doing is valuable or not, and I needed the philosophical meanderings. After my very intelligent friend said he found difficulty in the philosophy stuff, I realized that it was laboring through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—an immensely rewarding experience—that made it easy for me to process Crawford. Crawford mentions MacIntyre particularly in the acknowledgments, and MacIntyre’s recovery of the Aristotelian idea of virtue being tided to practices was everywhere in Crawford’s book.

I happen to have a job with most of the ideals Crawford praises: I get to do something I love (writing, and writing about the Bible), to produce something concrete (blog posts) for a specific community (Christians interested in Bible study, mostly evangelicals), with fairly objective measures for success (social shares and comments). My job and my personal life bleed into one another because I have a vocation, a calling. I feel very blessed.

But reading Crawford revealed to me what I sort of felt guilty for acknowledging before, lest it cloud my ideal vision of myself: I enjoy putzing around the garage, doing yard work, and fixing ice makers and other household stuff. My heart slows down; my stress ebbs; my brain is nonetheless challenged; I have the satisfaction of a job begun and finished; my wife gives me an admiring kiss when I’m done. I do believe I will go at this kind of work with more gusto in years to come; I won’t disdain it as I once did—thinking, “I’m a knowledge worker, a creative; I make money to pay other people to do this menial stuff.” (What a foolish vision, and an impracticable one. The money I don’t make is what forces me to fix my own stuff in the first place.)

I was convinced to read this book by Crawford’s presence on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Otherwise I would have guessed it to be sentimentalized pop psychology. But Myers took it seriously, and it became apparent quickly upon reading that I needed to as well. The stamps of Hunter’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture were clear in the book; I need to read more material coming out of that group.

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New Article in Modern Reformation

I have a new article out in the November-December issue of Modern Reformation. It’s entitled “American Idol, American Culture, the Christian Church, and Your Bible Study.” I explore the impact on the church of the Western cultural forces of “authenticity and disintermediation”—forces you can see in places from reality TV to YouTube.