Free Will and Naturalism

Jerry Coyne continues to obsess about free will, as he responds to a short book entitled, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will.

What’s clear to me is that Coyne’s version of naturalistic atheism is incompatible with libertarian free will, thus he rejects the latter. You can see the incompatibility at work in Coyne’s mind:

If you are going to promulgate the idea that at a given point in time you can really make “alternative decisions”—decisions that you (rather than an errant electron) decide, then you are suggesting that humans can flout the laws of physics. This is magic.

While some people punt and say that you can have contracausal free will without flouting those laws, I don’t see how that’s possible. Such an attitude is profoundly anti-naturalistic given that are brains are made of molecules.


But Mele’s “ambitious free will” does flout the laws of physics, and in that sense the jury, which is physics, has already decided against it.

Of course, if naturalism/atheism are incompatible with libertarian free will, then that means my life-long, massive, direct experience with libertarian free will is evidence against naturalism/atheism.

Coyne is constantly flustered by the existence of the compatibilists. Yet perhaps our experience with free will is so strong that compatibilists exist mainly to prevent people from reaching the conclusion that naturalism/atheism are incompatible with free will. Take away the compatibilists and people will have to choose between the abstract, cloudy position of naturalism or their concrete experience with free will.

Anyway, Coyne’s response to the book is interesting:

I wasn’t impressed with the book. Mele does point out a few alternative interpretations to experiments like Benjamin Libet’s which apparently show that some decisions can be predicted with accuracy of up to 80% by brain-scanning as far as ten seconds before the actor is conscious of having made a decision. Some of Mele’s criticisms are useful, while others are not. Mele’s main objection is that the real decisions we make are based on rational pondering and consideration, and these decisions are very different from the simple binary choices predicted by brain-scanning studies. To that I reply “so what”?

What a weak reply. So what? It means that such studies don’t measure what they claim to be measuring. A simply binary choice is not the essence of reason. For example, when social justice actvists assert that a hate crime has been committed, I will have to rely on reason to assess the claim and reach a judgment about the liklihood of its veracity. In doing so, my brain behaves differently than when I choose heads or tails during a coin flip.

Take me writing this blog post about this topic instead of something else and posting it when I did using the words that I chose to make the points I chose to highlight. According to determinists like Coyne, if we were to replay the tape of life a million times, in each and every one of those million playbacks, I would choose to write and post the identical thing.   In other words, I would not be responsible for this posting and its claims/words.
Sorry, but that does not strike me as a true or enlightened position.


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3 Responses to Free Will and Naturalism

  1. John Branyan says:

    “I wasn’t impressed with the book.”
    To that I reply, “So what?”

    If we replayed Coyne’s life tape a million times, the result would be the same. Do you suppose he reasons his blog contains any significance whatsoever? If so, I’m impressed by his ability to ignore the staggering weight of a hypocrisy that would crush ordinary men.

  2. RobertM says:

    My electrons don’t believe Coyne’s electrons. Simple physics.

  3. Dhay says:

    The book, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will was published several years ago, and Jerry Coyne is late on the scene. Earlier on the scene, as a genuine philosopher reviewing that philosophy book, was Dan Dennett, whose 2014 review was in Prospect. It’s a long and interesting article, but in the context of Coyne’s simplistic thinking about genes-and-environment-only, this sentence jumped out at me:

    A curious fact about these forays into philosophy is that almost invariably the scientists concentrate on the least scientifically informed, most simplistic conceptions of free will, as if to say they can’t be bothered considering the subtleties of alternative views worked out by mere philosophers.

    Quite. Coyne to a T. (And about this time Dennett was engaging in that well-publicised spat with Sam Harris over free will.)

    Oh, and Libet’s experiments (and some famous others that likewise purported to demonstrate no-free-will) were flawed because fundamentally misconceived:

    Mele provides accurate, jargon-free accounts of the experiments and what they do and don’t show. And in each case he locates what, in my opinion, are the most fundamental flaws in the reasoning by those scientists. The mistakes are so obvious that one sometimes wonders how serious scientists could make them.

    The experimenters didn’t show no-free-will; their experiments were not designed such that they could.

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