The Absurdity of Jerry Coyne on Free Will

In a recent USA today column, New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne explains how the proper (read: atheist) view of our minds renders it impossible for us to have free will; we are in fact “meat computers”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.

As one can imagine, such a view of the mind would modify our vews on a whole host of issues. Of course Coyne atheist that he is, sees this reality as undermining Evangelical Christianity:

But there are two important ways that we must face the absence of free will. One is in religion. Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

Coyne is apparently unaware that a number of Evangelicals are Calvinists (and that Calvinism is Christian theology) but he is right that as much as one’s theology depends on free will it would be undermined by his view of the mind. Obviously all of this is moot if we accept that Coyne’s premise that we are merely ‘meat computers’, so why he bothered to go down this road to begin with is a mystery. Alternatively if we think humans are something more than that, that is we have a spiritual aspect, then we would reject Coyne’s reductionism anyway.

But what Coyne doesn’t seem to be aware of is that the ‘no free will’ argument undermines atheism as well. After all, if what we believe is merely the product of incidental physical inputs that produce “nothing more than structural and chemical changes” than that would also include beliefs about atheism. The atheist idea that our beliefs are the result of either ‘reason’ or ‘faith’ is absurd since if atheism were true all ideas are merely the result of uncontrollable physical inputs. Coyne’s materialism destroys both reason and faith.

This was not always so. Once upon a time atheists and skeptics referred to themselves as ‘free thinkers’ – my own father considered himself one of these, predicated on the notion that he had chosen to embrace reason and reject the authority of religion. The word ‘skeptic’ connotes the same thought process – one is deciding what to believe as a result of skeptically evaluating the options. If what Coyne says about free will is true, then no such thought processes or choices are going on. Religious, irreligious, skeptical, atheistic – all are merely organizations of molecules in the brain resulting from processes far beyond the control of the thinker.

And it is not only atheism and Christianity that are undermined by Coyne’s view of the mind, but the common view of human history as well. Ordinarily we view human history as a set of events driven by the choices of humans in the past. Choices to conduct one war or another, choices to follow one set of beliefs over another. We even designate entire periods after those choices – the Enlightenment or the Reformation for example. If Coyne is right, human history is no different than any other natural phenomena; that is, merely the inevitable interaction of physical events set in motion by the Big Bang. Human history would be no more a product of choice than is the orbit of the moon or the chemical composition of Martian soil. And if past history is merely the result of forces set in motion by the origin of the universe, then so too is all future history – and we would no more be able to change the future by our choices than we can change the motion of a our galaxy. The future of humanity was already determined moments after the Big Bang.

Of course, most people don’t believe any of this. The vast majority of humanity has been and is theistic in one form or another because people don’t like to pretend that the evident design of nature, the innate desire for truth, the hunger for meaning and the sense a choice are all illusory. They prefer to live lives where truth can be known and meaning can be found and choices can be made in internally consistent ways. And the reason people become Christians is because they believe that truth and meaning are best found in the person of Christ Jesus.

It is the great irony in all this that people become atheists in part because they don’t want religious dogmas to control their choices; if atheist Jerry Coyne is right then that is not a choice anyone can make.

*Hat tip to my friend Neil at Eternity Matters  for spotting this first – he makes a number of fine points in his post*


3 Responses to The Absurdity of Jerry Coyne on Free Will

  1. James Betts says:

    I was similarly irked by Coyne’s reductionism and wrote my own response to it (one I had planned to write before I read Coyne’s diatribe, mind).

    I very much like your example of our construction of history. I’ve not seen many take that example and create an argumentative line from it, as it’s so much easier to take the line of future possibilities over historical choices and counterfactuals.

    Well done. 🙂

  2. Mike D says:

    Ugh. I love Coyne’s stuff on epistemology and theology, but his thickheaded stubbornness on this issue annoys me to no end, and Sam Harris has a damn book on it. I think they’re are conceding to much, a false dilemma if there ever was one: either we have a soul, or we don’t have free will. Obviously (and as you point out with regard to Calvinism) there’s nothing about a soul, or a disembodied consciousness, that precludes free will.

    And, by the same token, it simply does not follow that because consciousness arises from physical processes that we cannot make choices. No reasonable person would argue that we can make our choices independently of all manner of subconscious and circumstantial influence, but to suggest that this somehow renders all conscious choices (whatever its constraints) illusory simply does not follow. Yes, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There’s simply no reason at all for consciousness to exist if we aren’t actually making choices. Coyne seems to see consciousness as a fluke of evolution; Dan Dennett sees it as a driving force of it. And after reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, I’m definitely in Dennett’s camp.

    And, on this matter, I think the theists are exactly right: if we have no autonomy at all, we can’t be held responsible for our decisions and morality is meaningless. Sam Harris tries to duck the conundrum by suggesting that it’s our intentions that count. But if he’s right about free will, then our intentions aren’t our own any more than our actions.

    Not to mention that the notion free will is an illusion is completely unfalsifiable, which shouldn’t be the kind of statements that scientists make. I agree that neuroscience undoes a lot of supernatural woo, but on this issue, I think Coyne’s way off base and dare I say Jack that I agree with most of what you’ve written. Well done.

  3. jackhudson says:

    Thanks Mike – it’s good to know not all atheists are on the same page with this.

    I dare say though that your position appears to face a bit of an uphill battle within New Atheism. I think Dawkins, Pinker and Myers share Coyne’s view of the mind. And it is consistent with the sort of biological reductionism that seems to pervade much atheist thinking today.

    I think the greatest challenge really comes down to whether it can be demonstrated that independent consciousness emerges from the sum of the biological components of the brain. Emergent explanations, which are becoming more common as a means of explaining the origin of certain complex phenomena, seem perniciously difficult to test empirically.

    I believe it is important, particularly in this case, to criticize the reductionist view on this. Contrary to Coyne’s claim, it is not ‘impossible’ to give into a ‘despairing nihilism’ – this has certainly been done on a personal level and as a matter of public policy. On one end it leads to cynicism and apathy, on the other end it leads to complete indifference to human life. So the issues here are critical.

    So I for one hope your criticisms becomes more pervasive in atheist circles even if they derive from different beliefs than do my own.

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