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A Materialist Gives Up on Determinism

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne undercuts his own argument against free will by admitting that quantum phenomena are real

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has denied free will for years. But most recently, he has said something that puts the whole matter in doubt.

A bit of background: Free will simply cannot be real if determinism is true, that is, if everything in nature falls like dominoes after the first one is pushed:

If nature is truly like that, our acts, like those of the dominoes, are wholly determined by natural history and physical laws that we do not control. Nearly all arguments against free will depend critically on determinism.

But there is a central problem with determinism: It is clear from physics that determinism in nature is not true. In 1964, theoretical physicist John Bell (1928–1990) proposed relatively simple and ingenious experiments to test whether nature determines each event beforehand. The physicists asked, are there “hidden variables”—hypothetical states of nature that exist before unpredictable quantum events that completely determine the outcomes? These experiments have been done—at least seventeen times—and have conclusively shown that there are no local hidden variables that determine outcomes.

Rather, nature is full of quantum events that take place at the level of subatomic particles like electrons. They are not determined by the state of the system prior to the event. For example, if a quantum event (a collapse of a quantum waveform) yields an electron with a specific spin, there was nothing about the state of the system prior to the event that determined that specific spin. The experiments based on Bell’s theory have been conclusive: Nature is not deterministic. Whatever determined the spin, it was not anything in the system prior to the event.

Coyne (pictured), a convinced materialist, now seems to be facing the central cognitive dissonance of materialism: He wants to be both a materialist (nature is all there is) and a determinist. But if nature is not determinist, he can’t be both. So he is now, apparently, a former determinist.

Recently, he wrote:

Yes, we have that feeling of freedom, and that feeling is certainly real, but the illusion is that, as even compatibilists admit, we could not have done other than what we did at any moment in time. And, except for the action of any quantum events, the future is completely determined by the past. [emphasis mine]

Jerry Coyne, “A PBS Space Time video does an unconvincing job of discussing free will” at Why Evolution Is True

“Except for action of any quantum events”? I challenge Coyne: What in nature isn’t the action of quantum events? Certainly, every event in the brain is quantum in nature—every brain state, every action potential, every secretion of a neurotransmitter, every bit of protein synthesis or ion flow—is the consequence of quantum events. Because all quantum events are non-deterministic, then all brain states are non-deterministic, and the free will deniers’ claim that nature is deterministic falls to pieces.

Coyne will insist (materialists, unlike nature, are completely predictable) that, while quantum events are non-deterministic, quantum events are almost deterministic. That is, various outcomes can be predicted using statistical methods. Thus, we can assign probabilities to the outcomes of quantum processes even if we cannot predict those outcomes with certainty and even though the states are not determined by previous states.

Of course, another word for “almost determined” is “undetermined.” And the ability to predict behavior with reasonable confidence in no way refutes free will. You can predict with certainty that Jerry Coyne will defend Darwinism in a blog post. That doesn’t mean that Coyne doesn’t freely choose to do so—he’s not a robot. If I offer my neighbor a million dollars with no strings attached, I can assure you he will take it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t freely take it.

In short, predictability is unrelated to freedom: We can be free and highly predictable (ask a teen if he wants to be liked) or unfree and quite unpredictable (I can’t predict whether or not I’ll get cancer next year but I’m not free to choose cancer). Unpredictability and freedom are different things. Predictability depends on prior knowledge of causes and outcomes whereas freedom depends on independence from absolute compulsion.

Without determinism, free will deniers have no justification for their bizarre delusion. We are free to choose based on moral considerations, even though our material processes—our brain states—are often, to a substantial extent, involuntary and they influence us strongly. We are tempted but we can still choose right or wrong.

Because nature has been shown by modern physics to be non-deterministic, Coyne is now consigned to deny free will on the basis of something other than determinism. He will need some other basis for his claim that we are meat robots.

And, ironically, to the extent that he admits the fact of quantum processes, Coyne will have to choose a new rationale for his delusion that free will isn’t real.

Note: This video offers a look at the way nature is not deterministic at the quantum level:

Mind Matters News offers a number of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Michael Egnor including

Why I, as a neurosurgeon, believe in free will. The spiritual aspect of the human soul, sadly, leaves its signature in epilepsy.


Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.

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.

A Materialist Gives Up on Determinism