Coyne v. Haidt

I thought it was not so nice of Jerry Coyne to dismiss Jonathan Haidt as "a bit of a woo-ish self-help guru". In fact, both unnice and not reality-based. Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis is extremely interesting and well-written, and no less valuable because it does have a self-help element (I use it in a course I teach). And that's saying nothing about his extensive and influential research on morality and disgust.  Haidt is a mere "faitheist" (he is an atheist) in Coyne's eyes because he's not a religion-hater.  Outrageous! But Haidt turns out to be above the fray.  He responds to the substance of Coyne's post in this long and interesting comment.  (My extra-curricular reading list is getting horribly long.  Mooney and Haidt and E. O. Wilson's new book.)


Alan Cooper said...

I didn't find the word "faitheist" anywhere in that Coyne post or its comments. Is there somewhere else where he has applied that epithet to Haidt?

Jean Kazez said...

I could have sworn I saw it, but apparently you're right--I can't find it now. He does tag the post with "accommmodationism" and he often pairs "accommodationist" with "faitheist", like here--


But I guess he didn't use the word in this post.

Faust said...

Coyne being not so nice? I'm shocked, SHOCKED I tell you.

I do think that Haidt's talk is shot through with romanticism about transcendence but I don't think that's particularly problematic as it's a TED talk. Most TED talks are totally incapable of withstanding sustained criticism, because they are quick "tastes" of ideas: not sustained defenses of controversial points.

In any case we can split the discussion into two pieces: one is the technical question of group selection, and the other is the conceptual question "how should we define and interrelate the concepts "religion," "spirituality," and "the sacred."

The contentious comes from disagreement BOTH about how these two areas relate (i.e. did we "evolve" "religion" because it's "adaptive" and did we do it through group selection?) AND the VALUE of "religion" generally speaking.

You have to be careful when watching the discussion to see how the claims being made slide back and forth between these two areas. Beyond the technical question of group selection (which I have no comment on) there is the idea that IF "religion" is adaptive, that it is more "legitimate" or "natural" than if it is not.

Thus Haidt concludes “We evolved to be religious . . We evolved to see sacredness all around us, and to join with others in teams that circle around objects, people, and ideas.”

Here Haidt is deploying "sacredness" in a Durkheimian way where "religion" and "sacredness" are social organizing principles that allow the formation of groups but with the bonus imprimatur of evolution as the "guiding" force which, through a variation of the IS/OUGHT conceit/fallacy, gives us the sense that this state of affairs is "blessed" by nature.

Coyne, I think, does not like ANY line of thought that gives "religion" positive value, and he REALLY doesn't like it when it's done by couching it in evolutionary terms.

To be clear, I think there are a lot of interesting bits to this discussion other than what I describe above, but that appears to me the central source of Coyne's disparagement (beyond his distaste for the group selection as a theory).

Jean Kazez said...

Interesting video -- I hadn't watched it (to be honest). It's certainly super-slick, warm fuzzy stuff, and none too clear and precise. There's one reason Coyne doesn't like Haidt that you left out. Haidt has directly criticized "new atheism." That seems to be an unforgivable sin. The rest of your explanation sounds right ....

I find Haidt's presentation very persuasive. There's this phenomenon of self-transcendence and hivishness, and we see it all over the place -- in sports, war, religion, dancing, etc. etc. It needs to be explained why humans have these hivish states of mind. Haidt says: group selection. Groups in which people had these states of mind did better than groups in which they didn't.

I don't really see what the competing explanation is. How are these hivish states of mind going to be explained in terms of reciprocal altruism or kin altruism? The person feeling hivish ecstasy is not doing anything altruistic. They're not making a sacrifice for others.

Maybe it's Haidt's fault there is this confusion, as his talk does appear to be explaining everything under the sun, all in 18 minutes. Great visuals, though. TED has really figured out how to make academics seem like rock stars.

Jean Kazez said...

That wasn't very clear (typing on laptop--always a challenge!). The confusion is whether he's trying to explain self-transcendence and hivishness, or more narrowly trying to explain altruism. Those strike me as two different explananda. People can be hivish without being altruistic, and vice versa. For example, people at a rock concert are being hivish, but certainly not altruistic. I thought Haidt was (mostly) trying to explain hivishness, not altruism. Then again, he talks about free riders, etc.....so it's not 100% clear what his main explanandum is.

Faust said...

Agree on all counts.

I often talk about "tribalism" as an explanation for all sorts of phenomena--including the roving online packs of internet comment warriors so wedded to this or that idea. In college I wrote a nutty little paper called "The Self: A Symbolic Lifeform." Interestingly, I used the same mitochondria example that Haidt uses in his lecture. My thought was (and this was before "meme" was as popular as it is now, I don't recall even using the term), that "selves" have a different and separate "life" that exists over and above the organism. The idea that this additional layer hooks up in interesting ways with evolution is very intriguing to me.

Guess I'll have to read the book now. I think maybe this is a good time to go on an evolution binge as any...

Too many interesting subjects!!!!!

Jean Kazez said...

Sounds like an A++++ paper--hope it was loved! Mitochondria are 100% amazing...

I might read EO Wilson's book first. My extracurricular reading has to be enjoyable, and that looks really enjoyable.