Thinking Christian

Thinking Christianity for church, home, and community

Coyne Responds on Free Will

Posted on Jan 3, 2012 by Tom Gilson

Jerry Coyne has responded to my piece (and others’) yesterday on his Free Will article in USAToday. He begins,

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.)

I’m disappointed that he didn’t notice what I wrote about that. I’ll try again. First, in a paragraph beginning “Now, certainly those laws,” I dispensed with the obvious. No one would claim that they have universal and exhaustive experience to support the claim that natural laws are absolutely determinative.

From there I moved on to conclude that he drew his conclusion by induction, and then I asked two questions, probing whether that inductive inference was justifiable. Coyne wrote today, “Nope, it’s a conclusion based on experience.” That’s exactly what I said it was: and then I said it was a conclusion that was not adequately supported by experience, which is to say (for this is virtually synonymous in this case) it’s not supported by science itself, to borrow Coyne’s terminology.

Coyne has no answer to that in today’s response, other than “Nope.” I find that, shall we say, somewhat lacking in cogency.

I did not use the terminology of “unjustified a priori conclusion.” The combination of terms there is oxymoronic: properly speaking, an a priori conclusion is one that is necessarily true. What I said instead was that Coyne had jumped to a conclusion based on something other than science and experience generally speaking, for science and experience generally speaking do not support the conclusion that natural law must be inviolable.

From there Coyne jumped to the end of my blog article, passing right by the the several fallacies in reasoning that I had identified in his USAToday column (not to mention others mentioned by commenters on that thread). I’m surprised that part didn’t bother him more. He’s an advisory board member at Project Reason. It seems to me that a project with that name ought to involve a commitment to sound reason. I didn’t see Coyne demonstrating that commitment in his USAToday piece, and I don’t see it in his answer today, either.

This is not the first time I’ve wondered whether Project Reason is more about PR than it is about reality. I would say the same about the New Atheists generally speaking: they talk about reason a lot, but they don’t pay much attention to how one moves validly through a rational argument from start to finish.

Dr. Coyne objects to my charge that he gives up humanness on the way to his denial of free will:

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.

Of course we have existence, feelings, actions, effects. Nothing Coyne said puts that in doubt. Still, he denies free will, which goes straight to the heart of what I wrote yesterday, and which he seems not to have wanted to address today:

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.

He closes his response to me with this:

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.

I categorically do not consider Jerry Coyne less than human. No belief of his, whether right or wrong, could change the essence of what and who he is. That wasn’t my point. My point was that his convictions are anti-human.

But he cannot live that way. He tells us he is convinced humans cannot make free choices, while insisting (correctly) that in his actions he is not “less than human.” All this means is that he remains incorrigibly, intractably human, even though actually being human in that way contradicts his convictions about humanness.

Thus Coyne demonstrates one consequence of deterministic naturalism as an ideology: one cannot live consistently with what one says one believes. The naturalists say that’s okay: we just need to accept that our apparent humanness, expressed in freedom to make decisions, is an illusion. I think it makes more sense to accept our humanness as real instead. That solves an awful lot of problems for us. There’s one major problem it doesn’t solve, however: humanness of that sort entails that deterministic naturalism be false. If deterministic naturalism is false, then theism might be true. For some people, that’s a problem. If only they understood how good God is.

19 Responses to “ Coyne Responds on Free Will ”

  1. Steve Martin says:

    We have “free-will” with respect to choosing our spouses, our carrer path, what color socks to wear, etc. (even though many of those choices are shaped by forces that we cannot control)

    But when it comes to choosing God…our wills are not free, but bound.
    Our sin nature has determined that we are born rejecting God. God has to breathe life into us. He chooses us, we don’t choose Him (as Jesus told us).

    As the Gospel of John tells us, “we are not of the flesh, nor of blood, NOR of the will of man…but of God.”

    Jesus’ conversation with Niccodemus also shows us the fultility of trying to be reborn by our own doing. It has to come from above, because our wills have determined that we be our own little gods.

    Thanks.

  2. Crude says:

    I notice Coyne is backpedaling. Now it’s not that he denies free will, but “just the contracausal form”.

    By the way, I love how Coyne makes an appeal to ‘experience’ to back up his claim. What is ‘experience’ on materialism again? Or, for that matter, an experiencer?

    I repeat what I said in the previous thread: Coyne and guys like Coyne should have Alex Rosenberg’s take on all these things rubbed in their noses.

  3. Justin Topp says:

    I just learned of this blog last week and am very happy to have found it. I love this and the previous free will post. Well done.

  4. d says:

    Putting aside all this stuff about determinism being “dehumanizing”, just how does libertarianism FW or contra-causal FW (L/CC) rise to the task of “humanizing” us.

    What accounts for choices under these systems, and how are they made morally blameworthy/praiseworthy or rational?

    The popular answer is, “the agent” (a thing presumably residing in some realm beyond, unbound by material causality). But by what laws do these “agents” operate? How are their choices produced? What makes these choices morally blameworthy or praiseworthy? What are the reasons for an agents choices, or for the preferences or dispositions of the agent itself? How does this account for rational deliberation?

    It’s so often taken for granted that L/CC has easy answers to all these problems, yet I haven’t seen any that really satisfy.

    In fact, most of the answers I have encountered either end up becoming some kind of compatibalism in disguise (with extra universes invented and thrown in the mix), or they reduce choices to mere arbitrary blips in the ether, thereby destroying any hope of moral responsibility or rational deliberation.

  5. Holopupenko says:

    The popular answer is, “the agent” (a thing presumably residing in some realm beyond, unbound by material causality).

    Dumb assertion manifesting ignorance buoyed by an intentional refusal to understand… for fear of having his cute little presuppositions challenged. No need to waste time on responding to d.

  6. d says:

    Dumb assertion manifesting ignorance buoyed by an intentional refusal to understand… for fear of having his cute little presuppositions challenged. No need to waste time on responding to d.

    Meh – your boisterous, ad-hominem insults aren’t the least bit impressive. I’m intentionally trying to understand.

    For all the bluster, I’ve seen few L/CC’s who ever see fit to really pose (and answer) the same probing questions with respect to their own views, that they demand the compatibalists/determinists answer. More often than not, its just taken for granted that they have answers – even guys like Coyne seem to operate under that assumption.

    The few that do, usually seem to actually be, as I said earlier, compatibalists in disguise.

  7. Holopupenko says:

    It’s your straw man characterization, unscientific/pseudo-philosophical presupposition of material-only causality, not understanding the full import of what “agent” means, and your scientistic arrogance that makes your assertion so foolish.

    Oh, and you’re “intentionally trying to understand”? Really? How do you do “intentionality” (which implies a real choice above other options) without the capacity for free will? Answer: obstinate ignorance and arrogance… and a concerted will to power.

  8. SteveK says:

    d,
    I would say the answers to all your questions can be found in Christianity. I’ve certainly found that to be true. Not that I know the answer to all the inner workings and details of God’s creation (or God), but that who we are is fully explained and captured by him because we are grounded in him. Hope I’m not using too much Christian lingo.

  9. d says:

    Well, if I went Calvanist, for example, I wouldn’t have to change my compatibalist views much. So, at least according to some, Christianity doesn’t imply or require L/CC FW or a rejection of determinism. So whose Christianity has the right answers?

  10. d says:

    It’s your straw man characterization, unscientific/pseudo-philosophical presupposition of material-only causality, not understanding the full import of what “agent” means, and your scientistic arrogance that makes your assertion so foolish.

    Deep breath, Holo… calm thyself. I asked honest questions, and made few, if any, strong assertions. I honestly don’t know what the heck your even talking about.

    Oh, and you’re “intentionally trying to understand”? Really? How do you do “intentionality” (which implies a real choice above other options) without the capacity for free will?

    The word “intention” has a meaning under compatibalism that doesnt presuppose any sort of contra-causal forces or reality. Same with “choice”, same with “will”. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand compatibalism.

  11. Holopupenko says:

    I honestly don’t know what the heck your even talking about.

    Precisely… and yet you permit yourself to critique that which you don’t understand… foolishly twisting our position (through your reductionist scientistic filter) into something (an alleged “popular answer”) at which you can then easily poke fun? Yeah, right… so much for your “honest questions”.

    The word “intention” can also be twisted to support an a priori personal opinion like your own. I understand very well what compatibalism is; you hardly understand what a human person is.

    The “whose version of Christianity has the right answers” is a worn-out and fallacious way of avoiding its central claims–fixating on the “version” instead of upon Christ Himself… as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

  12. G. Rodrigues says:

    @d:

    It’s so often taken for granted that L/CC has easy answers to all these problems, yet I haven’t seen any that really satisfy.

    If you had found a *satisfactory* answer, you would not be here advocating compatibilism would you?

    But by what laws do these “agents” operate?

    What do you mean by laws?

    How are their choices produced?

    I can understand what it is to have a choice, but for the life of me I do not know what you mean by “producing a choice”. Maybe you mean action? In that case what are you asking, a description of the mechanism by which actions are chosen?

    What makes these choices morally blameworthy or praiseworthy?

    This is a question that belongs to moral theory not to the account of Free Will.

    What are the reasons for an agents choices, or for the preferences or dispositions of the agent itself?

    What exactly are you seeking with this question? I mean, just ask yourself why you are asking this question and you should have a gleaning of the answer.

    How does this account for rational deliberation?

    Free Will alone cannot account for rational deliberation, it is a *precondition* for to even coherently speak of rational deliberation at all. In the same vein, rational deliberation is essential for Free Will, for one cannot choose what one does not know.

    For all the bluster, I’ve seen few L/CC’s who ever see fit to really pose (and answer) the same probing questions with respect to their own views, that they demand the compatibalists/determinists answer. More often than not, its just taken for granted that they have answers – even guys like Coyne seem to operate under that assumption.

    Aquinas deals with the issue of Free Will here (he tackles the issue in other places as well, especially in, and if my memory is not betraying me, Quaestiones disputatae de malo). Explanations of this passage (almost verse by verse) can be found here and here. I found these by quick googling so I will not vouch for their quality, but a quick perusal leads me to believe that they are just fine.

    A book-length treatment of Aquinas’ understanding of Free Will can be found in Eleonore Stump’s “Aquinas”, chapter 9.

  13. SteveK says:

    d,

    So whose Christianity has the right answers?

    Christ’s

  14. JAD says:

    As a system I think that the universe can be metaphysically described in one of two basic ways: (1) as a causally closed system, or (2) a causally open system, where mind and consciousness are seen as being ontologically nonreducible to matter-energy. Materialists and naturalists assume #1 to be the case; while theists (as well as certain kinds of pantheists, panpsychists etc.) assume #2. If #1 is true then I agree determinism holds. However, where has Coyne provided the scientific experimental proof that #1 is true? Or, where has he demonstrated that #2 is logically impossible? If he hasn’t then he has to fall back on philosophy or theology for his arguments. If that is the case then it’s an apples and oranges comparison where the best explanation wins.

    It appears to me that Coyne’s so called argument from science is mainly pretension and posturing. If he denies that he is making a metaphysical assumption he is either being dishonest or he is just plain ignorant. Neither one of theose options is very good, or excusable for someone holding a Phd. (He does have a Phd., doesn’t he?)

  15. Victoria says:

    @JAD
    In fact, we have good reasons to believe that your option #2, in the form of Biblical Christian Theism, is the inference to the best explanation. The most important of these reasons is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and specifically His death and subsequent resurrection.

    I think it is pretty clear from Biblical revelation that God holds us morally accountable for our actions and even our thoughts; would that make sense only if we have the ability to choose those actions?

  16. d says:

    SteveK and Holo:

    But whose version of Christianity is Christ’s (or the closest to it)? Most hear seem to prefer Aquinas’ Christianity – its debatable as to how close that is to Christ’s.

    The reason I mentioned Calvanism is to gently point out that the compatibalism vs L/CC isnt necessarily a Christian vs Atheist debate. It seems, at least, some Christians find compatibalism MORE congruent with scriptures, theology, rationality, moral responsibility, etc.

    It certainly makes it easier to reconcile some thorny issues, like omniscience and free will.

  17. SteveK says:

    d,

    But whose version of Christianity is Christ’s

    Stick to the core and you can’t go wrong. God won’t give you a test on the subject of free will, the age of the earth or the mind/body problem when you die, but he will be interested in your faith and who you say he is.

  18. […] Thinking Christian responded with a great post. Then, since it’s the web, it went back and forth. I enjoy reading these posts but it’s clear that no real conversation is occurring. My […]

  19. Stephen Lawrence says:

    I agree that Jerry Coyne doesn’t argue against Libertarian free will very well.

    Still, we don’t have it and if we get it right it’s good to believe we don’t have it.

    At the heart of belief in Libertarian free will is just a simple mistake over what could means. Could always means could if… and because of that it doesn’t matter whether determinism is true or false because we are not interested in what else a person could have done in the actual situation.

    My reasons for believing this are from observations of the way we use language re: could, able to and the power to.

    And because the following is nonsense:

    ” You have numerous futures you can get to from your actual past, therefore you are responsible for which path you choose.”

    Stephen

  20.    
Comments RSS Feed
Real Time Analytics