Friday, April 20, 2012

You Are Not Free

Evolutionary materialist and biologist Jerry Coyne insists that your belief that you have free will is an illusion. Here's Coyne:
The term "free will" has so many diverse connotations that I'm obliged to define it before I explain why we don't have it. I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Although we can't really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics. Your brain and body, the vehicles that make "choices," are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment. Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our "choices"—are dictated by those laws.
What Coyne has done here is surreptitiously smuggle in the assumption that materialism is true without ever arguing for it. He just assumes that everyone agrees that our physical self is all there is, that human beings are completely reducible to atomic particles. If, however, we possess immaterial minds or souls then everything he says is rendered irrelevant. In order to argue that our choices are determined by physics Coyne has to show that physics can explain everything about us, that we are purely physical machines, and this he doesn't even hint at doing. In his view we're pretty much just flesh and bone computers:
To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that's a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical "will" that can redirect our own molecules.
This is a subtle move. Coyne seeks to shift the burden of proof onto those who believe that genuine alternatives do exist, but this seems to me to be precisely backward. When confronted with an apparent choice everyone, even Coyne, has the overwhelming sense that we're free to decide between options. The burden of proof is thus on the determinist who claims that this powerful sense of freedom is really just an illusion.

It's as silly to demand that those in thrall to this overwhelming conviction that they're free prove they are as it is to demand that someone convinced that he's reading this sentence prove that he's not imagining or dreaming it. If Coyne thinks my strong belief that I can choose to type this post or go take a nap is a delusion then it's incumbent upon him to demonstrate that it is. It's not incumbent upon me to demonstrate that it's not.
So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? ... What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. That realization shouldn't seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.
This is naive. If moral responsibility no longer exists then neither does moral obligation. Actions that hurt or help others may be either approved by society or disapproved, but categories such as right or wrong are as meaningless when applied to us as they are when applied to computers.

Thus, if society approves of slavery, or genocide, or raping children, or infant sacrifice, or torturing animals, or squandering the planet's resources then those things are not wrong and we have no moral obligation to refrain from them. If society adopts a Darwinian view of the weak and the poor then allowing those unfortunates to suffer and perish would be neither right nor wrong and we have no moral obligation to ease their suffering and help them survive. Does Coyne really believe this? Does he really believe that someone who rapes or tortures a child isn't doing something deeply, profoundly wrong? Does he really believe that human beings have no moral obligations?

Coyne thinks we can give up free will and nothing will change, but in fact everything changes. Not only is reward and punishment never deserved, not only can there be no moral obligation, neither is there any ground for human dignity. Our dignity derives from our belief that we're different from other animals in that we can choose our behavior and that we're responsible for the choices we make. Take away choice and we take away the basis for human dignity (and human rights), and once we lose that we open the floodgates to being treated by the powerful as nothing more than cattle to be herded and slaughtered. After all, what would be wrong with that?