Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
boy gears.jpg
boy standing and looking at broken golden gear wheels, digital art style, illustration painting

Trying To Disprove Free Will Shows That Materialism Doesn’t Work

If you have a metaphysical theory and it contradicts science, logic, and everyday experience, then your metaphysics should be abandoned

Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is also an atheist activist, offers another post denying free will. Journalist Oliver Burkeman published an essay at the The Guardian last week, asking, “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?”, quoting Coyne among others. Coyne, who believes that free will is indeed an illusion, offers support at his blog. Read at your leisure but note: He ignores critical science issues around free will, including the following:

1. Nature is not deterministic. The fact that nature is not predetermined in detail has been shown quite convincingly by the experimental confirmation of Bell’s theorem in quantum mechanics. Succinctly, over the past 50 years, at least 17 teams of researchers have asked and answered the question: does the state of a system immediately prior to a quantum change determine the state of the system immediately after the quantum change? The clear answer: it does not.

In more technical terms, there are no hidden variables that determine the outcome of quantum waveform collapse. Coyne is undoubtedly aware of this — I have pointed it out to him repeatedly and he has acknowledged it tangentially — but he continues to misrepresent it in his posts on determinism.

what will you choose? Fresh healthy berries come out from the bowl or junk potato fries from paper box

Obviously, the fact that nature itself has been shown not to be deterministic is a real problem for denying free will via an appeal to science. Coyne and others like him seem to want to misrepresent the science rather than admit that they are wrong about science-based support for determinism.

2. Neuroscience clearly supports the reality of free will. The research of Benjamin Libet and others unequivocally points to freedom of the will. I discuss that in detail here.

3. The claim that “free will isn’t real because we are governed by states of matter” is self-refuting. Suppose nature were determinist: Then states of matter —particular arrangement of molecules, neurotransmitters, or whatever — would govern our thoughts and actions.

However, that claim (“free will isn’t real because … ”) is a proposition—a statement that can be either true or false. But states of matter are not propositions. They can be neither true nor false. Then the very proposition, “Free will is an illusion” is not an argument. It’s just an arrangement of matter that has no truth value. All claims on the subject are meaningless.

4. Everyone believes free will is real. Free will deniers live their lives as if free will is real — they make moral claims, they believe they can convince other people to change their minds by rational arguments, they acknowledge the concepts of justice and injustice, they give credit or blame for good or bad conduct, etc. The least we can ask of materialists is that they live according to their “beliefs” (which they deny they have — it’s just states of matter after all!).

But if you really don’t believe free will is real, you can’t logically praise or blame anyone. You can’t adhere to any moral standard. If free will isn’t real, them murder has the same moral status as saving a life — it’s all determined by states of matter and we have no choice in what we think or do. Hitler and Mother Theresa are morally the same — that is, they are not moral creatures at all. We instinctively know that that isn’t true.

It comes down to this: If you have a metaphysical theory and it contradicts science, logic, and everyday experience, then your metaphysics should be abandoned. It’s noteworthy that materialists miss this point: the logical implication of determinism and materialism — the implication that free will doesn’t exist — isn’t evidence against free will, which is undeniable, but evidence against materialism, which is utterly untenable.

When faced with nonsensical implications of materialism, materialists like Coyne choose the untenable over the undeniable — and then they cling to it.

Egnor and Coyne have often clashed on free will in the past. See, for example,

A materialist gives up on determinism. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne undercuts his own argument against free will by admitting that quantum phenomena are real. (November 16, 2020)

Neuroscience can help us understand why free will is real. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder and biologist Jerry Coyne, who deny free will, don’t seem to understand the neuroscience. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne seems obsessed with denying free will. (October 17, 2020)

Physicist rejects free will — and thus fails logic. If we accepted his argument for materialism, we would have to stop believing in it—a curious, self-refuting result (May 13, 2020)


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 (April 27, 2020)

You may also wish to read: Do we really have free will? Four things to know

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.

Trying To Disprove Free Will Shows That Materialism Doesn’t Work