Thursday, May 16, 2013

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is inadvertently hoist on his own petard as he seeks to persuade us that there really is no such thing as free will and that we shouldn't believe that we have it. This is a very strange argument for a determinist to make, but first let's look at Coyne's lede:
Perhaps you've chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you're in a hotel, maybe you've decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you'll wear today.

You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.
Coyne goes on to define free will and to explain why he thinks it's all an illusion. He then discusses the consequences for religion and morality if, in fact, we do not make free choices. As you might expect the consequences are not good:
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.

But the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can't really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren't freely chosen?
We should use reward and punishment, Coyne argues, but not because anyone deserves them. We should use them as environmental factors that assist in determining behavior - promoting what we want and discouraging what we don't.

He then closes with what he believes to be the upsides of accepting determinism:
The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection.
So far from prompting wonder, this sounds positively dehumanizing, but his second upside is amusingly ironic:
Further, 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.
The irony is in this: Coyne is a very nasty man, particularly toward Christian theists and more particularly still toward anyone who doubts Darwinism. But if all he has said in this essay is true why should he be? People who believe in God and don't believe in molecules to man evolution are not responsible for those beliefs anymore than Coyne is responsible for his. Our beliefs are not something we freely choose, Coyne has taught us, rather, they're the inevitable product of forces that have been in play since the beginning of the cosmos. We're no more responsible, and thus no more blameworthy or praiseworthy, for holding the beliefs we do than we are for being the height we are.

Coyne's treatment of those with whom he disagrees causes his talk of empathy and kindness to ring hollow. His behavior toward his intellectual opponents reveals that at bottom he really does believe people are culpable for making wrong choices which in turn means that he believes, perhaps without realizing it, that we can indeed make free choices.