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.


This entry was posted in free will, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 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.

  4. Dhay says:

    Spotted at the beginning of Jerry Coyne’s 16 May 2019 blog post entitled “Oy! : A completely incoherent defense of free will”:

    I almost never listen to podcasts or podcast-style videos simply because I can read faster than I can listen to people talk, and because podcasts are invariably about 1.5 hours long, which is TL:DL for me. But I didn’t listen to nearly all of the following video (the beginning isn’t relevant) as Michael Shermer sent it to me touting it as a pretty convincing argument for free will.

    Intriguing, that: if I understand Coyne right, he himself thinks Christian List (with whom Shermer discusses free will) makes a completely incoherent defense of free will; and Shermer considers List makes a pretty convincing argument for free will.

    The rest of Coyne’s post is uninteresting, being the usual mix of assertion and incomprehension; for example Coyne pooh-poohs:

    List gives three criteria for true free will: intentional agency; causal control over one’s actions, so that you have alternative possibilities to choose from and could have chosen otherwise; and there are higher-level aspects of human behavior, including “choice”, that are not reducible to physics and chemistry.

    Funny how Coyne is unable to understand this. I note that Yuval Noah Harari (in his book, Sapiens) points out that Peugeot is one of those higher-level aspects of human behavior — like choice — that are not reducible to physics-and-chemistry. But Coyne, locked into physics-and-chemistry determinism, cannot conceive of anything that isn’t reducible to physics-and-chemistry.

    What else isn’t reducible to physics-and-chemistry? Ah yes, that ‘free speech’ which Coyne so obsesses over. He’s not very reflective, is he.

  5. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne’s 04 May 2019 blog post entitled “Saturday: Hili dialogue” includes not just the usual inanity of a talking cat …:

    Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is exploring leisurely:
    Cyrus: Come on, we have to see the other part of the orchard.
    Hili: There is no hurry.

    … but also gives a pointer to Coyne’s mentality:

    Puttering around in my empty lab yesterday, I found … the first research paper in genetics, the identification of an unknown white-eye mutant … in Drosophila melanogaster. This was a project for my genetics class in my second year in college. …

    50/50: a perfect score! It was actually this paper, and my amazement at being able to map the mutations cleanly, and identify how they acted, that made me want to go into genetics. Many thanks to my professor, Bruce Grant at the College of William and Mary.

    It is to Coyne’s credit that he got 100%. That 100% started him on his lifelong academic career working with mutations in fruit flies (vinegar flies.) It’s a very specialised career, and it’s evidently one in which there are wholly determined answers — get your data, apply the algorithm, the answer you get is 100% correct. No greys, no colours, just black-and-white — which I’m sure suits his mentality very well.

    What else could Coyne have taken up as a career? In the Social Sciences every damn thing is correlated with every other damn thing, causation multi-faceted and blurred; in Economics and Business Studies, the same, and knowledge of how the system works feeds back to change how it works; Politics is … don’t mention politics; Philosophy is … well Coyne plainly cannot cope with the subtleties and complications of philosophy (let alone sophisticated™ theology or unsophisticated theology); Accounting seems to be whatever result the client would like and the boundary-pushing will bear; Mathematics looks at first sight like a 100% deterministic subject, until you realise there are lies, damn lies and statistics, and that mathematical discoveries require considerable creativity and novel approaches rather than schoolchild level algorithms or formula-plugging; Engineering is precise calculations based on simplifications and a safety factor of … oh let’s use two; Physics and Cosmology use measurements at high precision and high (five alpha) certainty, but nobody knows which theoretical model to use, whether string theory, loop quantum gravity, or whatever they can dream up; staying within Biology, Coyne could have chosen Ecology, but would studying complex interactions have suited him? No, Coyne chose a subject with no greys, no colours, just black-and-white with 100% correct answers; and I’m sure that indicates he has a black-and-white mentality.

    This was foreshadowed by his adolescent conversion to atheism while listening to the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album while lying on his parents’ couch in Arlington, Virginia: there were no years nor even days or mere hours of intellectual inquiry leading up to it, it just “dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died.” Yep, 100% certainty, so for Coyne evidently Sgt. Pepper’s a good enough authority for his 100% certainty — or something was (what? LSD?) that 100% good enough, 100% certain authority — no need to question that mysterious source of authority or think the issue and circumstances through once you have your 100% black-and-white certainty.


    Faith is believing on insufficient evidence, Coyne tells us. That’s rich from him.

  6. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne’s 11 June 2019 blog post entitled “Tuesday: Hili dialog” includes the information that the TED Talks people have published their last book, and that Coyne’s contribution is:

    Jerry A. Coyne asks his Final Question in “The Last Unknowns:

    ” if science does in fact confirm that we lack free will, what are the implications for our notions of blame, punishment, reward and moral responsibility? ”

    I’ve been saying all along that although Coyne repeatedly hand-waves the benefits of everybody acknowledging we have no free will, he doesn’t actually have a clue what those benefits are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.