Readers’ comments on my free will piece—and my responses

The readers’ comments on my USA Today piece on free will did show the expected religious pushback, but not as much as I expected.  Before we get to them, I’ll deal with two other religious critics.


Predictably, at his own website the Thinking Christian says that the assumption of natural laws that absolutely determine our choices is an unjustified a priori conclusion, not supported by science itself. (Nope, it’s a conclusion based on experience.) The implicit view is that God interferes in these laws from time to time, and this may determine our “free will.” Oh, and I’m accused of denying free will because I’m pushing atheism:

Why would Coyne care to write about this, anyway? What’s the point, if we’re only “meat computers,” as he said later in the article?

I think he’s flogging (as the Brits would say it) naturalistic atheism here, under the guise of science. Elsewhere and frequently he has demonstrated a strong need to deny God. He is willing to give up humans to do so. For a being who cannot choose is not, as Aristotle described us, a rational animal. Such a being bears no resemblance to anything the ages and the sages have considered human.

At the end of his article he writes,

“. . . by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”

There are other, better ways to gain empathy. The Christian way of love and humility gains empathy without sacrificing humanness.

I’m not giving up humans: we exist, we have feelings, we interact with each other, and we act in the world, and those acts have effect. All I deny is that we can, at any moment, behave in any way different from what we did.

And yes, I do deny that there’s any evidence for God or contracausal choice.  If that makes me “sacrifice” humanness, then so be it.  I doubt that anyone who knows me would suggest that I am less than human or treat others that way.  And I deny free will—at least the contracausal form—on the basis of science, not atheism.


At First Things, run by Discovery Institute Fellow Wesley Smith, he has the usual response that denying free will means that “anything goes”:

The attack on free will is an attack on human exceptionalism, religion, and moral accountability–and a way of promoting and justifying relativism.  It is a means of allowing anything and judging nothing because whatever we do, it wasn’t essentially us doing it, anyway.  But somehow the I Robot peddler thinks we will be able to choose to use this information to build a better world! He ends:

“With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”

What?  We can take knowledge and apply it?  That contradicts Coyne’s entire thesis.

We see clearly here how determinism angers and upsets the religious. That much is predictable.  But Smith doesn’t seem to realize that words can affect actions.  And even though my words about free will were something I had no choice about writing, they can still affect peoples’ brains to help them have more empathy toward miscreants and people who are victims of circumstance.  OF COURSE we can apply knowledge in a deterministic world!



What I did find in the USA Today comments was resistance to the idea of contracausal free will, and this I fully expected.  From the answers, I remain convinced that many or most people are dualists—they really do believe in the ghost in the machine.  So before we begin inundating the average person with more “sophisticated” (i.e., compatibilist) notions of free will, shouldn’t we first convince them that their choice are predetermined by scientific laws?  For some reason some compatibilists aren’t too keen about doing that, perhaps become they sense that people will resist the “sophisticated” notions if they’re stripped of the kind of free will they want.  But it’s not our job to sugar-coat the pill by ignoring convenient and widespread fictions.  Our job is to tell the truth.

Here are some readers’ comments, with my brief responses below them.

This is religiously-based resistance, and the idea of dualism is implicit in boththe citation to Lewis and the obeisance to God as the source of morality, kindness, and mystery. And here we also see the reason for resistance: because free will (like the idea of evolution) appears to strip people of all meaning.  The similarity to religious arguments against evolution is striking!

And, by the way, did I ever claim that I said anything new? My article was trying simply to disseminate the idea that many (but not all!) philosophers and neuroscientists agree on

Two other points:  the fact that our thinking processes arose through evolution doesn’t make them faulty; our senses have evolved by and large (but not completely) to detect truth in the world, and our big brains have constructed the epiphenomenon of science to test the conclusions of our senses.  And we’re meaning-making organisms, too.  Natural selection has vouchsafed us brains that require love, that require activity, that require children, and seek pleasure and enjoyment. Those are all sources of meaning.  The only “meaning” we don’t have is the kind that requires a god.

What can I say about that? That’s similar to this comment:


Enough.  One thing I didn’t expect was to be compared to Nazis and Communists, and I’m not sure what the official Party lines were about free will.  I suspect there weren’t any, but perhaps readers can enlighten me.

This is a common and erroneous objection to contracausal free will: why do anything if everything is determined? First, doing nothing at all—being nihilistic—is also pre-determined. And maybe whether you relapse or not is determined, but that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to relapse.  The interventions of friends, or entry into drug programs, are environmental influences that can change one’s brain in a way that can reduce the possibility of relapse.  Of course whether you enroll in a program, or whether your friends help you, are also actions that are predetermined, but that doesn’t mean that our actions don’t have real consequences, and we should realize that. (See my response to Tom Clark below.)

Another fallacy: determinism means we can’t weigh things rationally because our judgments are “pre-wired.” That’s simply not true. Our prewiring is largely a rational one!

Our brains have evolved to weigh inputs in a way that produces the most adaptive output, and that usually (but not always) involves rational judgment.  If I see the tracks of a big felid on the savannah, and then hear rustling in the bushes nearby, I am going to be wary.  That’s determined, and it’s rational. If we want to eat berries, we avoid those that we know have made other people sick. Rational again.  If we want to persuade someone to do our bidding, we take into account the aspects of their personalities that are amenable to appeal.  We not only have brains that evolved to make “reasoned” judgments (though those judgments, or outputs, are determined completely by the inputs), and we are also organisms who learn, and learning often involves learning how to make rational choices.

This comment, which I hear often, is completely irrelevant to my claims. I don’t care whether the brain processes information the same way a computer does. (And, by the way, computers are capable of learning, too!).  What matters is not how the processing is done, but only whether, given a series of inputs, there will always be one predetermined output (absent any non-deterministic quantum effects). I predict that there will be, and I think most philosophers agree with me here.  They are, by and large, physical determinists, though they might also be compatibilists.

Well, what this person “believes” isn’t what I think is true. I “chose” to write the article only in the sense that I did it instead of anything else, and maintain that I couldn’t have done otherwise given my background: my genes and my environment. And yes, I think we are automatons of a sort.  If Mr. Miller thinks I could have chosen otherwise, let him adduce his best evidence and arguments. I can adduce my own arguments, which I claim are more persuasive, that I could not have done otherwise, and that my “choice” was the only choice I could have made. Therefore, in common parlance, it wasn’t a “choice” at all except that it is one of many things that I could have done in principle according to an outside observer.

I find this incoherent.  What is “limited” free will? A little ghost in the machine? Why would big things be determined or predestined and little ones not.  Still, I prefer this view to one claiming that nothing is predestined.

Mr. Clark has been a respected critic of my views on free will on this site and now at USA Today.  He is a determinist and a compatibilist. I agree with him on the former but not on the latter.  I haven’t read all of his many writings on the subject, but I have read many of them, and do think I understand his viewpoint, which is concisely expressed in the above. (I wish, though, that he’d have stated at the outset for the other readers that he agrees that all of our actions are predetermined by scientific laws. He does sort of imply that by saying “we ourselves are fully caused.”)

I guess in the end Tom and I simply differ in what we think of as “free will.”  I use the term (and I do define it) as the form of contracausal free will that I think most people intuitively accept: at any moment could I have made a different choice?  The answer is “no.”  In that sense, yes, I think it’s true that we “pretend” to make choices: we think that we can decide whether to get the soup or salad, but the laws of physics have decided the salad before I order.  Let me clarify further: I don’t maintain that all phenomena are analytically reducible to the laws of physics. Many have their own form of analysis, including Mendelian genetics, history, and archaeology.  I also agree that there are emergent properties that ultimately devolve to the laws of physics but are more profitably analyzed on a macro level (i.e., the behavior of crowds of humans at a football game).

I am still a bit puzzled by Mr. Clark’s stance. His assertion, for example, that “we retain our causal powers, even as we ourselves are fully caused,” confuses me.  If our actions ultimately devolve to physical laws, then what does it mean to say “we have causal powers”? Does it mean that our actions have consequences? If that’s so, then I fully agree. If I hit someone in the nose, he bleeds. All I claim is that those actions (the hitting and bleeding) are predetermined.  In the same way, the actions of a computer programmed to weld cars could be said to reflect that computer’s “retaining its causal powers” even though its program makes it “fully caused.” In what way, except in complexity, do we differ from such a computer?

And yes, the appearance of human choice making is real, but we have to admit that it’s an appearance alone: we could not have done otherwise.  It’s like consciousness, which is a real phenomenon in some sense, because we feel conscious. But it’s also illusory in the sense that there is no little “me” sitting in the brain, being aware and directing our activities.

Free will is the same kind of illusion. What is important to me is to show how science dispels the contracausal notion of free will (which I believe many if not most people still entertain), and to pass that along.  Clark has a different end, and I don’t fault him for using his own definition of free will..

In the end, Clark and I seem to agree largely on the principles and differ mostly in the semantics.  I define “free will” as I did above, and claim that that is how most people think of it.  And I think it’s part of the job of neuroscientists and psychologists to dispel that notion of free will.

How do Clark and I differ?  He defines free will, I think, as the non-coerced actions of people, actions that have real effects on the world and that “cause” things.  (If I’m wrong about this, I ask him to clarify below.)  That’s fine with me; if that’s his definition of free will, then yes, that definition is compatible with determinism.  My concern has been only to deal with the notion of contracausal free will, and to say why compatibilist stances, while palatable to philosophers, may not be palatable to the general public, many of whom desperately need (often for religious reasons) to believe in dualism. So it comes down to a semantic problem, I guess.  The important issue for me is determinism of “choices”, and I guess most of us agree on that.

Finally, I think I did make the point in my article that we shouldn’t confuse determinism with fatalism, so I can’t be faulted for that.

h/t: John S. (for the cartoon)


  1. Posted January 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    CJ, yes!
    Now, let’s go after Plantinga’s argument from reason-the self-refutataion of naturalism! Does he imagine that Satanpossible makes for our errors as he does for him possibly to make for natural disasters-evils?
    He spouts farragoes of peevish,puerile perversity of solecistic, supercilious sophistry of wily, woeful woo! That’s theoglogians at work!
    No matter in abstruse language and symbolic logic, theological woo ranks with that of paranormalists!
    Before Plantinga, F. Ewing and that twit Clive Staaples Lewis used that argument.

  2. Posted January 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the typos. I forget no editing exists here.
    No divine intent exists for us to have contra-causal free will per Lamberth’s teleonomic argument! God to be God would have to manifest intent in the Cosmos, but scientists find none, despite Miller, Haught, McGrath,Reid and all the other superstitious theologians whining that wide creationism is compatible with science and thus allows for divine purpose so that we’ll have what they promise for us.
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate purpose to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inquiring Lynn

    • Posted January 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Click home on the right and then managing spaces to see all my Posterous blogs!

  3. AbnormalWrench
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    A nonsensical correlation. I was trying to explain recently to people that seemed interested in the concept, why Keynesian economic predictions were justified by Americas build up in WW2, and kept being told in no uncertain terms that warmongering is a horrible horrible thing no matter what your rationale.

    Once the moral card was played by the other side, it was like talking to a brick wall. I was supposedly trying to justify war, and therefore my arguments were invalid.

    Extremely frustrating, since all I was point at was, stimulus obviously leads to low unemployment, no matter how you justify the stimulus. They miss the point because they are blinded by (misplaced) moral outrage.

    This is the same thing. They think this argument diminishes moral obligation, so everything you say is irrelevant after that. They aren’t willing to consider their assumptions on moral obligation are false. End of discussion, you’re a bad person. Find Jesus.

  4. Dionigi
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Ireally do not see a method by which these arguments can be tested. We cannot rewind the clock and see if we would make a different decision the second time around.
    but what worries me about all our choices being determined is that we do not always make rational choices, I understand that we can reason that the non rational choice is due to deterining factors but it brings us back to the fact that it cannot be tested and until such time as it can the argument is about how many angels can dance on a pin head.

  5. Posted January 3, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    So what is the upshot, WEIT? Did I choose to come here just now,because I wanted to see newer posts or did my subconscious tell me to do so? I can tell myself to think about something but don’t know exactly what I’ll think.
    Again, all kinds of determinants act upon me so that I have to choose which to follow, but then again maybe some win out over others without my so choosing,eh?
    Jerry, how about a book expatiating on seeing and believing in wide creationism= all theism?
    Ruse belies what I was to think that he was otherwise than an upholder of objective morality like Brink. I use objective as public viewing: the old we disagree on what to do about the facts. I propose that the consequences of actions on humans, other animals and the environment are objective and with our evolved moral sense that we ever refine see that murder,slavery and misogyny are wrong. We transcend tribalism to the planetary ethic of which Paul Kurtz admonishes to have.
    It can’t be absolute due to newer notions of what is ethical or moral; it is certainly situational.
    Our moral sense is a determinant as are parental and other human influences and physical matters.So, the moral sense cannot be due to supernatural causes, and to so aver would be to beg the question as supernaturalists are wont to do.
    ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs
    Their prime logical fallacies are the arguments from personal incredulity and from ignorance. Rationalists on the other hand use the conservation of knowledge to find matters credible or incredible.

    • Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      I accept determinism is the sense that my determinats influence me. I found that my nerve medicine let me use the better ones over the worse or worst ones.I did’nt feel all that free! I’ve more freedom,but my determinants still war anomngst themselves.
      How could we ever act without determinanst? Despite Locke, we aren’t born with a blank state- determinanst ar birth- nature and ones afterwards nature and nurture.
      The quesion is can we change our determinants instead of do we have contra-causal free will. As determinism, sort or hard, isn’t fatalism, how do we make choices? Neiter God nor Nature has a plan for us!
      How does our thought influence us? How do we improve ourselves? How can our thought be valid if blind forces determine them ask supernaturalists, avoiding the evidence that logic kicks in.

      Society and personal responsibility both have to work for us to get ahead.We liberals perforce have to be determinists!
      Yes, Dionigi-rational choice.

  6. Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The problem with understanding free will has always arisen due to misunderstandings on THE SELF. Dr Coyne perpetuates this error.

    Free Will is best understood as the alignment between our definitions of our self, our intentions and our actions. The squishiest one of these to define is actually the self. For example, when I open the refrigerator and see a piece of cake I can identify with my hungry self, or my desire-to-be-thin self. If I eat the cake or do not eat the cake, it can be defined as free will or not based upon which self definition I choose. Indeed I can switch back and forth between definitions. Both are valid interpretations of the same event.

    Harris’ puppets on a string comment implies that the cause and effect goes one way. But, if we are puppets, then we are puppets that are on both ends of the string.

    There is no discrete, permanent object called the self. There is no fixed, absolute, metaphysical border between the puppet and the environment. The universe does determine an action, but we are a part of the universe. Therefore we can determine actions. When our self definition, intentions and actions align, we call it free will. A better term would be self will.

    • piero
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      “The universe does determine an action, but we are a part of the universe. Therefore we can determine actions.”

      Wrong. Absolutely and hopelessly wrong. A ball is a part of the universe. Does that mean that the ball can choose not to follow a parabolic trajectory when thrown (or an elliptical one, if you take into account air resistance)?

      The only way to rescue your argument would be to posit a hitherto unknown physical force arising from consciousness. Good luck with that, and may you become president of the telekinesis association.

      • Steersman
        Posted January 5, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        The only way to rescue your argument would be to posit a hitherto unknown physical force arising from consciousness.

        Not necessarily. That, using your example, pushing a car down the road just with the power of telekinesis has not been demonstrated does not mean that it – or something roughly equivalent to it – is not the operative factor at the beginning of some causal process, some long and intricate sequence of dominoes falling and levers operating, that culminates in the classical process of turning on the car’s ignition and driving it down the road. Or, as Archimedes said, “give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”.

        As for what that “rough equivalent” might be, one might postulate instead a force mediated by an unknown particle:

        Dark matter is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe and 23% of the mass-energy. …. Dark matter is widely believed to be composed primarily of a new, not yet characterized, type of subatomic particle.

        Given that state of affairs I would say, since what physicists don’t know about the universe literally fills, supposedly, some 80% of it, and considering the case of a British physicist, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), who said in 1900 that “physics was over” – except for two clouds on the horizon which turned out to be the tips of the “icebergs” subsequently known as quantum physics and relativity, that it is entirely plausible that consciousness might depend crucially on some unknown particle that would be as central as the electron is to the current Standard Model of physics and as equally unexplainable in terms of any other parameters of that model.

      • Posted January 5, 2012 at 3:28 am | Permalink


        I believe you are misunderstanding my argument. I am not suggesting any unknown physical force. I am suggesting that when our definition of our self, our intentions and our actions align we refer to this alignment as free will. This does not negate determinism.

        With the above definition, I can “choose” in a deterministic universe. How? Because I can (deterministically) flip back and forth between interpretations where it was driven by my will (I wanted to eat cake) and it was something I could not resist (I didn’t want to eat the cake). Both are valid interpretations of the same event.

        Another way of saying it is that I agree common sense interpretations of free will make no sense. I believe we do influence the universe, just as your ball does. The reason is because we are part of the universe.

        • piero
          Posted January 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

          I’m sorry, Cardiffkook.I couldn’t make sense of your post. What kind of “alignment” are you talking about?

          The rest of your post was simple incomprehensible to me. Could you explain it in other words? (not Welsh words, if possible).

          • Posted January 5, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink


            I am sidestepping the issue by suggesting that the confusion around free will can best be understood by focusing on how we define the self.

            I believe people assume there is a fixed, absolute subject called the self. I suggest that it is a VERY fuzzy and constantly changing concept. In my original comment I suggested I can identify my self on either side of the free will debate. If I ID my self with my hunger, eating the extra dessert is an act of free will. If I identify my self with my want-to=stay-thin social self, I can view it as an action that I could not resist.

            How do I align my self with my intentions and actions. By saying I was hungry, I wanted dessert, and I ate it. These align. I do not suggest that this alignment is due to some mysterious force. It is simple cause and effect. However, I can also fail to align my self. I can say I wanted to be thin, I did not want to eat the dessert, but I did it anyways. It was against my will.

            The point I am making is that we can toggle back and forth between both definitions. For the above action, it can be viewed both ways. Free will is the (admittedly poorly named) alignment of self, intention and desire.

            Broadening the example, my final point is that however we identify the self, it is a deterministic part of the universe. When the part of the universe that we identify as self, the part of the universe we call our intentions, and the part of the universe we call our actions align, we can refer to this as free will.

            I hope this helps.

        • Posted January 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          cardiffkcook, I think I agree.

          I post here of my own determined choice!Nature gives the parameters of my choices whlist nurture adds determinants. How then do I choose? Which determinants get the upper hand, WEIIT?
          Determinants change. My shyness and paranoia have lessened considerable from using Citalopram hidrobromide, and where I live influences me and what I read influences me. How then my “choices” come about? Why do certain ones predomniate at one time and others at other times?
          God has no free will due to His omni-attributes as He can putatvily only do the good! Of course, all the evil points to no God anyway.
          How could He be Himself without using intent in the Cosmos? He cannot. To aver otherwise is the sophisticated Omphalos argument that to make for John Hick’s epistemic distance for our free will,by making the evidence ambiguous about Him. No, no such amibuity exists no intent appears, or else ,as with, Gosses’s Omphalos one, He deceives us!
          John L. Schellenberg had the corresponding skeptical argument the one from hiddenness.
          And how could He exercise intent had He it since as a disembodies mind, He’d have no mind anyway as the argument from physical mind so notes. To postulate Him as that being relies on the argument from ignorance. No evidence, not a priori, establshes that point.
          Furthermore, per Reichenbach’s argument from Existence, as Existence is all, He cannot transcend it and thus, He cannot exist.
          Transcendence anyways precludes His omnipresence so again, He cannot exist.
          As nothing exists for Him to do, so much for Him anyway!
          Per Angeles’s infinite regress argument, event,cause and time presuppose previous events,causes and times so that He cannot be that Primary Cause.
          Alexander Smolzyk, German jurnalist, prattles that He is neither a principle nor a persoanl being nor an entiy. Should He not be either of the last two, how can He instantiate Himself as the Ultimate Explanation ?
          Yes, sophisticate theology makes for great mirth!
          Yes, theologians cannot overcome Flew’s presumption of naturalism!
          Read Pter Adams’s ” The Problem of God: a Short Introduction to Philosophy of Religion,” a thoruough work, and to know why His attributes makes the ignostic’s case ,read Michael Martin’s ” Atheism: a Philosphical Justification,” wher Martin notes how HIs attributes just don’t do the job as being incoherent and contradictory. We have weighty tomes and more accessible books to defend atheism and eviscerate theism.

          • Posted January 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

            lessened consideraly Peter Angeles
            disembodied body no such ambiguity exists, Smoltczyk

            • Posted January 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

              God is the cosmic robot! He cannot act other than as He acts,because His omni-qualities won’t permit otherwise.
              This applies to the problem of Heaven: if free will and a guarantee not to do wrong in Heaven is possible, then it would be no hobgoblin of little minds to insist that supernaturalists be here consistent, but they ever rationalize! Faith doth that to people!
              So, no contra-causal free will here, then none there for for the denizens of Heaven.
              And how can per the argument from physical mind could He exercisr His free will had He it as He’d be mindless and ti’s no begged question to maintain that as we know only of embodied minds.
              Contra-causal free mind even for Him cannot exist!
              Note: I combine and permute my arguments!

  7. Steersman
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    This is religiously-based resistance, and the idea of dualism is implicit in both the citation to Lewis and the obeisance to God as the source of morality, kindness, and mystery.

    Seems to me that that qualifies, in general and on the part of the religious, as a false dichotomy in insisting that there are only two choices: either God and morality or immorality and the savagery of animals. Which, of course, studies on the evolution of morality in various animal societies and species adequately disproves.

    So before we begin inundating the average person with more “sophisticated” (i.e., compatibilist) notions of free will, shouldn’t we first convince them that their choice(s) are predetermined by scientific laws?

    That might be a reasonable plan of attack if that was really the case, but that also seems to be very much of an open question. You argued earlier that, paraphrasing, “there are natural laws that absolutely determine our choices”; as if to say that everything is always strictly a case of one domino tipping over another extending back to the beginning of time and forward to the end of it. Parenthetically, it seems that one might reasonably argue that that also is a false dichotomy argument on your part, and on the part of incompatibilists in general, apparently predicated on the apprehension that there may be in fact a ghost in the machine, of some unknown scope, which must, in the words of Richard Lewontin, let the “Divine Foot in the door”: either strict determinism or the “Divine Foot”.

    And it seems that the way off the horns of that dilemma is provided or at least suggested by quantum mechanics. For example, the German mathematician Hermann Weyl – no slouch in the mathematics and physics departments, having made any number of significant contributions in both fields, including quantum mechanics – argued that:

    Modern quantum theory has done away with strict causal determination for the elementary atomic processes. It does not deny strict laws altogether, but the quantities with which they deal regulate the observable phenomena only statistically. Quantum theory is incompatible with the idea that a strictly causal theory of unknown content stands behind it – in the manner in which it may be true that strictly causal motion of individual particles stands behind the statistical-thermodynamical regularities of a gas consisting of many particles. What is thinkable for the laws of a collective is demonstrably impossible for the elementary quantum laws. [Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science; pg 253]

    In which case one might argue that if there is some sort of a quantum random number generator or some other similar “mechanism” that is not “strictly causal” that is a significant part of our neurochemistry that then tips over a bunch of other internal and external dominoes, then it seems rather inconsistent at best to say that “we ourselves are fully caused”. Those individual and unique “generators” or “mechanisms” are presumably part of each of us and nobody else and so, by that token, it seems perfectly reasonable to argue that we ourselves, to a limited degree and with a certain limited degree of freedom, are causal agents. And ones which, being conscious of consequences, have only weighted the odds of that generator but have not thrown it overboard or out with the bathwater.

    But given that Richard Dawkins has characterized consciousness as “the most profound mystery facing modern biology” in which free-will seems part and parcel, it seems a little dogmatic, to be asserting that either A or B is the case, particularly when C or D seem a viable option, rather than accepting that they are all hypotheses which we, dutifully following the scientific method, will endeavor to prove or disprove.

    • Phil Soady
      Posted January 8, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      Nicely stated.

  8. David Duffy
    Posted January 6, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Suppose, given a set of antecedent causes X, I reliably respond with action Y. We now introduce an observer, say JC, who comments that I have no free will, as I always respond to X with Y. If on the next occasion I encounter X, and instead carry out Z, is my behaviour being determined by a new cause JC?

    This kind of contracausal willfulness (I’m afraid I was predetermined to make this joke) or perversity in actually not acting in one’s best rational interests (Y might be the most sensible thing to do) is one feature of our behaviour that gives one the impression of free will. And if Z involves tossing a coin and performing one of two activities, we can further think to ourselves that we may be completely determined in our actions, but not particularly predictable.

  9. Posted January 7, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Am I think I’m right in thinking that christians have to submit there will (free or otherwise) to god anyway. So why does it matter to them if we have free will or not if they give it up anyway?

    • Posted January 7, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Oops, forget the “think I’m” in the first sentence there! :-)

  10. Stephen Barnard
    Posted January 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    The black hole information paradox calls into question the epistemology of strict causality on which the no-free-will position depends. This is unsettled physics.

    Information may be conserved when a black hole evaporates and disappears, or it may not. We have no fucking idea, and the answer is crucial to the meaning of causality, and therefore to the free will question.

    I see the no-free-will advocates as blissfully content with their naive physics. They may be right, or they may be wrong, but they certainly aren’t justified in their conclusions.

    • steve
      Posted January 7, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      But non-free willism does not depend on strict causality. So you’re wrong.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted January 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        Seems to me that it does. It’s actually the whole point — the no-free-will stance rests on causality. The claim, simply put, is that we have no free will because our conscious, intentional mental states are ineffective — we have no choice. Our actions are causally determined, regardless of our will. That’s the argument, as I see it.

    • Phil Soady
      Posted January 8, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Does the no free will argument actually
      Allow for quantum variation at all points on a hugely complex chain. Not to mention blackholes, time direction and the nature of consciousness itself.

      Is it stating there is a deterministic probability drive, I think therefore a might be?
      As an areligious person. the notion of choice from pragmatic almost legal view,
      Seems to play out, if only for the sheer number of input variables.
      if I consider my options long enough or with more information and conclude differently a day later on a journey in making a big Decision. Was that Deterministic? Maybe.
      But even that argument is hard to support.
      The individual view should remain non fatalistic until we are shown otherwise.
      Philosophically speaking, I’m not sure the full implication of determinism is easily described.

  11. Andrew Viceroy
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I think you and Tom Clark are not far from each other really (from what I’ve read of him). He likes to stress the point that we *participate* in causation and since we have epistemic limitations that don’t allow us to be directly aware of each causal link in the chain of motivation, in one sense it isn’t “pretending” to choose freely- that’s just how we experience it. He is a determinist though and I think the only freedom he really proposes is not metaphysical, but local(subjectively perceived)/semantic/metaphorical.

6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Well, Dr. Coyne published a piece on “free will” in USA Today and is now responding to the critics. [...]

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  6. [...] as Tom Clark said, in a response to one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts on free will: Given that choices have [...]

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