Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
rib-eye steaks cooking on flaming grill panorama
rib-eye steaks cooking on flaming grill panorama

Meat has no opinions

Why you can't actually deny free will

When the history of modern materialism is written, it will be a catalogue of almost incomprehensible folly. The striking irony is that many of the most strident claims by materialists are not merely empirical and logical nonsense; much of materialism is self-refuting.

That is because the assertion that materialism is true is the implicit denial that materialism, or anything else, can be true.

Consider evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne ’s recent assertion at a talk at Williams University in Maryland that free will doesn’t exist and that all human actions are fully determined by material processes—biochemistry, neurophysiology, evolution, and such:

His talk, “You Don’t Have Free Will,” explores a contentious and timely topic that sits at the juncture of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. Contending that human behavior is governed completely by the laws of physics, Coyne will discuss various definitions of free will, describe experiments that demonstrate that there is no such thing as “will” independent of physical law, dispel some of the misconceptions about free will and determinism, and discuss the important implications that a purely naturalistic view of human behavior has for reforming society and our own behavior.

Williams University, “You Don’t Have Free Will, Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago” at Williams Events (October 3rd, 2019)

Coyne is, of course, wrong about determinism—recent evidence from quantum mechanics shows clearly that nature is not deterministic. But it gets worse: His denial of free will, based on his assertion of determinism, is self-refuting. Here’s how.

Coyne’s assertion—determinism is true and free will is an illusion–is a proposition. That is, he has made a statement that can be true or false. If Coyne is right, then his own denial of free will is wholly the product of physical and chemical processes—action potentials, neurotransmitters, and the like. But physical processes are not propositions. The secretion of dopamine at a synapse is neither true or false. It is merely a secretion of dopamine.

Thus, Coyne’s claim that his own ideas are wholly determined by physical and chemical processes is inherently a claim that his ideas have no truth value—they are neither true nor false. Coyne himself, and his (material) “ideas,” are just chemicals in motion. Meat-sacks may secrete chemicals, but they can’t advance propositions. In short, the reason you can’t deny free will is that free will is necessary for making propositions that have truth value.

So when Coyne denies free will based on his belief in determinism, he is telling us that his claim (correction, his secretion) lacks truth value. And in that, and that only, he is right.

The widespread assertion by educated public “intellectuals” like Coyne that we are meat-sacks without free will is self-refuting gibberish. Again, meat can metabolize and secrete and drip and rot, but it can’t argue. Meat is neither right or wrong. The denial of free will is the denial of the capacity to deny. Meat has no opinions.

When the history of modern materialism is written, it will be published in the psychiatry literature.


Further reading: Dr. Egnor has written a number of pieces on free will. Here are a few for your reading pleasure:

Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will?

How can mere products of nature have free will?

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will?

Is free will a dangerous myth?

and

But is determinism true?


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Meat has no opinions