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Jerry Coyne Just Can’t Give Up Denying Free Will

Coyne’s denial of free will, based on determinism, is science denial and junk metaphysics

Someday, I predict, there will be a considerable psychiatric literature on the denial of free will. It’s essentially a delusion dressed up as science. To insist that your neurotransmitters completely control your choices is no different than insisting that your television or your iphone control your thoughts. It’s crazy.

To deny free will is to assert that we are chemistry sets and nothing more, that our thoughts, opinions, and actions are wholly determined by our current mix of neurotransmitters. But the denial (or affirmation) of free will is a proposition. That is, it is an assertion that has a truth value—it can be true or false. But concentrations of neurotransmitters aren’t propositions and have no truth values. Dopamine isn’t “truer” than serotonin. Thus, the denial of free will, when predicated on determinism, is self-refuting. You may be just chemicals and flesh but if you are, there’s no point in paying any attention to your “opinions.” I don’t take advice from meat.

Darwinist Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, (2010) is among the most fervent deniers of free will. He returns to this delusion in a recent post at the blog named after his book and gets everything—the science, philosophy and logic—wrong.

Here’s Coyne, with my commentary appended:

…Libet’s experiments [show] that one could, using brain scans, predict with some accuracy when a subject was going to press a button before the subject became conscious of having made that decision. Since then, a host of other studies have shown that you can predict things that don’t involve physical actions, like deciding whether to add or subtract two numbers, up to ten seconds before the subject records having made a decision. All the experiments show that brain scans can predict—not perfectly, mind you—what a subject will do before she has become conscious of that decision. And they cast severe doubt on the notion of libertarian free will: that at a given moment we could have decided to take any number of alternative decisions.

Jerry Coyne, “A very short story on (the absence of) free will” at Why Evolution Is True

Coyne gets neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet’s experiments completely wrong. Libet (1916–2007) pointed out that his experiments confirmed the reality of free will. Libet did find that simple decisions, such as the choice to press a button, were preceded by a preconscious readiness potential (a spike in brain waves). But he also found that the decision could be vetoed without any corresponding spike in brain activity.

Libet called this veto “free won’t.” His research suggested that we are beset by a series of preconscious motives—temptations is a good term for them—but we have the libertarian free choice to comply with them or to refuse them—and that that choice is free of physical determinism. We are tempted without our will, but we remain free to choose how we respond to temptations.

Libet was a passionate advocate of the reality of free will, and he noted that his science confirmed it. The mendacity of materialists like Coyne is illustrated by the fact that he (and many others) misrepresent Libet’s work in the way they do.

Having gotten the neuroscience wrong, Coyne goes on to flub physics:

But to someone who’s science minded, determinism is the only game in town. Setting aside pure indeterminism—which would obtain if quantum processes affected our decisions—our choices and behaviors are the results of the laws of physics, and at any one time (leaving aside quantum factors) we could have made only one decision.

Jerry Coyne, “A very short story on (the absence of) free will” at Why Evolution Is True

No. The laws of physics are indeterminate. This has been confirmed experimentally by the work of Aspect and others, based on Bell’s Theorem. Nature, at its most basic level, is indeterminate—the outcomes of quantum possibilities are not determined (at least not locally). Therefore, any theory of free will based on determinism is false to start with—the premise of determinism is false. Coyne, of course, knows this—it’s been pointed out to him repeatedly, and it is a basic insight in modern physics. But materialism doesn’t let science or facts get in the way of ideology.

Coyne again:

If you doubt [that determinism is true and that there is no free will], then you’ve bought into either the numinous, the supernatural, and mind/body dualism.

Jerry Coyne, “A very short story on (the absence of) free will” at Why Evolution Is True

The truth is the opposite. If you believe in free will, you accept science and reason. Coyne’s denial of free will, based on determinism, is science denial and junk metaphysics.

Coyne then takes a shot at religious believers:

Religious people, of course, are the most ardent believers in libertarian free will, because, at least in the Abrahamic faiths, you have a free choice about embracing God, Jesus, or Allah, and if you don’t you’re doomed.

Jerry Coyne, “A very short story on (the absence of) free will” at Why Evolution Is True

It’s noteworthy that Libet pointed out that his scientific confirmation of “free won’t” confirmed the basic Jewish and Christian idea of sin—that we are best by temptations that we do not choose but that we can choose to act or not act on these temptations. So, from his research, it is the religious view of free will that is supported by science and reason.

Coyne goes on to claim that we need to restructure our society and justice system on the “fact” that we have no free will, and thus no moral responsibility for our acts: “I’ve harped about the hegemony of naturalism and determinism before, and emphasized its importance in structuring society and the judicial system.” This is chilling. The consequence of denial of free will in the justice system is not the denial of guilt but the denial of innocence. If we have no free will, we are essentially cattle who have no responsibility and rule of law becomes livestock management. If free will is denied, the only purpose of law is to control behavior, not to dispense justice. That is a fundamentally totalitarian system.

Free will is the cornerstone of human dignity and human rights. And it is a theological, philosophical, and scientific fact.


More on free will by Michael Egnor:

How Libet’s free will research Is misrepresented Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective.

Can physics prove there is no free will?

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


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.

Jerry Coyne Just Can’t Give Up Denying Free Will