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My Challenge to Two Atheists Who Deny Free Will

There is too much of this nonsense in the science blogosphere. If Pigliucci or Coyne would like to debate free will, they can consider this a challenge from me

Of all of the materialist cults, free will denial may be the most bizarre. Nothing could be more obvious in everyday life that in a very real sense we generally have the option to choose our acts. We choose mundane things like what to have for breakfast and what clothing to wear and we make moral choices every day. The denial that we have the freedom to choose is essentially the assertion that we are robots, enslaved to our physics and chemistry and incapable of freedom. Obviously this view of humanity is deeply insulting – it’s just a slur – but is also rank nonsense. In fact, it’s self refuting and obviously so.

Jerry Coyne

At his blog, Why Evolution is True, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne offers a post commenting on an essay by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci on free will. Coyne and Pigliucci both deny its existence. They deny it for slightly different reasons and — as cultists are wont to do — attack each other for their slight differences.

Pigliucci argues that belief in free will is incoherent. Coyne isn’t so sure about its coherence — he seems not to understand what Pigliucci means by “incoherent” — but Coyne most assuredly does not believe that free will is real. Pigliucci is a biologist as well as a philosopher and I’ll address his argument here:

“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe… Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Consciousness, decision making, and “free” will” at Medium (February 7, 2022)

For reasons that are difficult to fathom, Pigliucci believes that if the universe is governed wholly by natural law, as he supposes, and there are no miracles, the issue of free will is settled. Of course, Pigliucci is simply stipulating that materialism and atheism are true and therefore that free will cannot exist.

He’s right about that — if you stipulate materialism and atheism, it’s hard to make a case for libertarian free will and for causation outside the materialist framework (e.g. miracles). But there is no good reason to stipulate that materialism and atheism are true. So his claim reflects not on the truth about the universe but on the limitations of his own insight and judgment. He continues,

If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available. If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random. Either way, no free will.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Consciousness, decision making, and “free” will” at Medium (February 7, 2022)
Massimo Pigliucci

But we don’t live in a deterministic universe — at least not a locally deterministic one — and we obviously don’t live in a fundamentally random universe. So his conclusion,“Either way, no free will” is drawn from two false assertions. He goes on:

That said, we obviously do make decisions, sometimes very sophisticated ones. Indeed, biologically speaking we are extremely complex and efficient decision making machines. Or, to put it as psychologists do, we have volition. It is, therefore, a philosophically and scientifically fascinating inquiry to try to understand how we make decisions.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Consciousness, decision making, and “free” will” at Medium (February 7, 2022)

Pigliucci’s assertion doesn’t even make sense. We are not machines of any sort — a machine is an artifact constructed by an intelligent agent from parts that have no natural tendency to act together to a purpose — which clearly doesn’t describe man at all. If Pigliucci actually means that we are machines, then he is an advocate of intelligent design. Because he is not an advocate of intelligent design, it seems that he doesn’t even understand his own argument.

Now it’s quite evident that man is created by an Intelligent Agent — by God — but God doesn’t create in the way that a builder builds a machine. He doesn’t go to Home Depot to pick up needed parts. Creation is not the same thing as building. Pigliucci surely understands this distinction — it dates back to Aristotle — and it is perplexing that he would say something so nonsensical.

Next, he mangles the research of neuroscience pioneer Benjamin Libet: “What Libet’s findings seemed to indicate, rather, is the surprising fact that volition doesn’t require consciousness.”

Of course volition doesn’t require consciousness. We choose to take a walk but, while we are walking, we are unconscious of the innumerable fine and precise movements of our individual muscles. The vast majority of what we do is outside of our immediate awareness but it makes no sense to say that those actions are not volitional. If a man shoots another man, it’s nonsensical for him to argue that he didn’t do it volitionally because he was unconscious of the neurophysiological events going on his cortex, nerves, and muscles at the moment he pulled the trigger. Volitional human action is a composite of free will and biological activity, much of which is outside of our immediate awareness. That doesn’t make it any less volitional.

Pigliucci prattles on about Libet’s work, which really has little to do with the philosophical issues around free will. He then reiterates, “free will, is a non-issue because free will cannot possibly exist in a universe with laws of nature and no miracles. It follows that there is nothing at all that neuroscience can say about it.”

Free will in our daily lives.

Pigliucci gets this wrong too. The existence (or nonexistence) of free will is fundamentally a metaphysical question, although it is undoubtably a difficult question to frame logically. Philosophers have struggled with this challenge for millennia. But, because metaphysics is the study of existence per se and natural science is the study of things that exist, free will can indeed be addressed by the methods of natural science. After all, if you can’t say anything meaningful about existence, how can you say anything meaningful about things that exist?

Natural science presupposes metaphysical truths, so we can use it to evaluate metaphysical assertions. It is certainly true that the capacity of natural science to meaningfully address the question of free will depends upon the ability to frame the question about free will in a way that makes sense. I believe that the most cogent definition of free will was that offered by Thomas Aquinas (1225– 1274), who opined that free will is the capacity to act without either internal or external compulsion.

The question as to whether free will is real turns then on whether there is always compulsion in nature. And that question turns whether every physical event has a physical cause — a cause dictated by the laws of nature, as understood by physicists. The answer to this is clear: it is not true that every physical event has a physical cause. There are at least four categories of physical events that do not have physical causes:

Big Bang
Big Bang cosmology

1) The Big Bang had no physical cause. The Big Bang was the primordial physical event that could not have had a physical cause, because the Big Bang itself was the origin of the “physical.” In other words, the whole universe — i.e., everything that is physical — did not have a physical cause, which would seem to be the ultimate negation of the assertion that “every physical event has a physical cause.” The truth is that no physical event ultimately had a physical cause.

2) The effects of the singularities at the centers of black holes have no physical cause because a singularity is not physical thing. It is undefined in modern physics and thus, whatever it is, it is not a physical cause.

3) All gravitational effects in curved space time have no physical cause, for two reasons. First, space time is not physical. Second, energy is not conserved in curved space time according to general relativity. All materialist understandings of physical cause entail an exchange of energy, so if energy is not conserved then there is no justification for arguing that all physical effects have physical causes.

4) Quantum entanglement is not physical causation. Entangled particles can be billions of light-years apart and yet the waveform collapse of one particle can instantaneously determine the state of the distant particle. According to special relativity, causation of a physical nature cannot exceed the speed of light. Thus quantum entanglement is not an example of a physical cause.

Pigliucci’s argument that physical reality is locked into a materialist framework governed wholly by the laws of nature is junk science even by the (rather low) standards of current mainstream science. The Big Bang, singularities, relativistic spacetime and quantum entanglement are all examples of violation of physical causation. So why does Pigliucci insist that volition needs physical causation?

Vice grip tool squeezing a plank with the word free will

But the most difficult problem that free will deniers like Pigliucci face is not merely their fundamental misunderstanding of 21st-century science and the metaphysical framework in which it is practiced. The most difficult problem is that free will denial is self refuting, and obviously so.

Consider: If Pigliucci is an “extremely complex and efficient decision making machine” (as he confidently asserts), then his decisions are governed by the laws of physical machines. But the laws of physical machines are laws of physics and chemistry, which lack propositional content.

When Pigliucci makes an argument — any argument — he states a proposition, “X is true.” But if Pigliucci is a machine then this “proposition” is the physical result of a wholly materialistic physical process. How can a machine, a physical process, be the source of a proposition?

Propositions are assertions that can be true or false — and there is nothing whatsoever in Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, biochemistry, or physiology that can or does ground any proposition. They aren’t material and there is no intelligible framework in which physical causes can make propositions.

In other words, if Pigliucci is a meat machine (as he claims he is), then he is incapable of generating any proposition. He’s just a chemical reaction that generates reactants and no one pays any attention to claims of truth or falsehood by a chemistry set. If your chemical goo is expressing its opinion to you, your problem isn’t philosophical, it’s psychiatric.

Free will denialism is a bizarre cult. It’s not even wrong — it’s self-refuting nonsense. That a philosopher/biologist with the educational credentials of Massimo Pigliucci would endorse such gibberish is a scandal. It’s evidence for the stranglehold that materialism and atheism have on otherwise able minds.

The science blogosphere is polluted with materialist and atheist rubbish of this sort and free will denial is at the top of the pile. If Massimo Pigliucci or Jerry Coyne would like to debate free will, they can consider this a challenge from me. We can debate it anywhere — in blog posts, on YouTube, or in person. Pick the forum. It would be a delight to have a “conversation” with meat.


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

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t.

But is determinism true? Does science show that we fated to want whatever we want? Modern science—both theoretical and experimental—strongly supports the reality of free will.

How can mere products of nature have free will? Materialists don’t like the outcome of their philosophy but twisting logic won’t change it

Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?

and

Is free will a dangerous myth? The denial of free will is a much more dangerous myth

Also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.

and

Can free will even be an illusion? Michael Egnor reiterates the freeing implications of quantum indeterminacy

Also, by Baylor University’s Robert J. Marks: Quantum randomness gives nature free will Whether or not quantum randomness explains how our brains work, it may help us create unbreakable encryption codes


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.

My Challenge to Two Atheists Who Deny Free Will