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)