Jerry Coyne, who knows a lot about biology, doesn’t know nearly enough about other things on which he claims to be an authority. If what had written were only on his blog I would ignore it, but USAToday published it online: “Why you don’t really have free will.” It includes,
Now there’s no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances. But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion.
The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.
True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.
This is an old and often-discussed issue so I’ll limit my observations this time to just three, beginning with the longest.
1. Natural Law
We are biological creatures, as he said. Are we just biological creatures? Coyne thinks so, because we are “collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics.” So I wonder, how does he know that? Apparently it is because “all the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws.”
Now, certainly those laws are dependably regular. To know without doubt that they are inviolable, however, one would have to know the laws exhaustively and have exhaustive experience to confirm that the laws have been followed in every case. No sane person would suggest that as their reason for belief in the inviolability of natural law; so Coyne is apparently getting this belief from somewhere else.
It comes by induction, I’m sure he would say, based on the totality of his experience: he has never seen a natural law violated, and he doesn’t know of anyone who can credibly claim they have seen it violated, either. Now, if I’m right about that, two questions (at least) proceed from it:
- How does one deal with quantum uncertainty, wherein there’s no telling whether a violation of natural law might be taking place? For all we know, such violations could be going on undetectably all the time. Arguably the same is even true of chaotic systems: they have a basis in natural laws, to be sure, but a violation of law in such a system might well be completely undetectable.
- What standard he would hold to in judging the credibility of some report of a natural law being violated? I can at least guess Coyne’s answer to that. I’m pretty sure he would say, “If they claimed a natural law was violated, they were either deceived, they are deceiving, or they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
As for the success of science, it does not require that natural law be inviolable, just that it be dependably regular. Further, science’s success, while spectacular, is predicated on what John Polkinghorne describes as its “modest ambitions.” Its sphere of interest is limited. Let’s just suppose, for example, that we admit these three how questions into discussion. (I will use “natural-law determinism” to describe the belief that we have no free will. It’s not a perfect term, as it gets slippery around the edges of [quantum] chance, but it will do.)
- Is natural-law determinism a rational conclusion from scientific evidence? If so, then apparently rational conclusions are possibly under natural-law determinism. How does natural-law determinism accomplish that?
- How are morally significant choices possible under natural-law determinism, which says we don’t make choices?
- Our universal experience tells us that we make real choices. How is that possible under natural-law determinism?
The first two of these questions are clear-cut cases where science cannot claim success: it has no answer to these how questions. And these are hardly peripheral: they are at the heart of every single thing every one of us does at every waking moment. When Coyne appealed to sciences’s success, he forgot that there’s a gaping hole in its accomplishments, right in the middle of the very topic he’s talking about.
The third question’s implications are more subtle. Consider what science knows how to investigate with precision. Our internal experience is not one of those things. I’ve studied enough quantitative psychology to know how little we can quantify psychology. So what shall we do with this internal experience? Coyne says we should disbelieve it, regard it as an illusion.
But why? Why can’t we take it as further evidence that science doesn’t tell us all the answers? I think Coyne the reason is because only scientific knowledge is really knowledge.
2. “Science hasn’t shown us any way we can do this…”
And he proves my point as he goes on to say, “Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because ‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain.” If science hasn’t shown us a way, then we don’t have a way. But for science to show us a way, then the way would have to be one within the purview of science; and the purview of science is that of regular natural law.
Coyne is saying that the discipline that knows no explanatory principle but regular natural law is incapable of showing us any explanations outside of regular natural law. Should that be any surprise?
The surprise is that he doesn’t recognize how much this is like my old beagle who used to catch sight of his tail once in a while and chase it around in circles. (Coyne likes cats, and they don’t do that. Maybe that’s why he never caught the similarity.)
What if there were some discipline, some approach to knowledge, that might have access to some explanatory principles outside of natural law? I’ve already (briefly) shown that this is not theoretically impossible. We do know of some such disciplines: psychology, philosophy, anthropology, theology, and even art and literature, to name a few. But no; for Coyne, if science hasn’t shown us, then it doesn’t exist, and only scientific knowledge is really knowledge; regardless of how question-begging that might be.
Why would Coyne care to write about this, anyway? What’s the point, if we’re only “meat computers,” as he said later in the article?
I think he’s flogging (as the Brits would say it) naturalistic atheism here, under the guise of science. Elsewhere and frequently he has demonstrated a strong need to deny God. He is willing to give up humans to do so. 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.
At the end of his article he writes,
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.
There are other, better ways to gain empathy. The Christian way of love and humility gains empathy without sacrificing humanness. There are more believable ways of expressing this ideal of a kinder world, by the way, than for example, “I’ve blacklisted some loonies whose blather was completely outrageous.” (I smiled when I saw that—I’m on his blacklist.)
I hope Jerry Coyne can see himself as a human being, not a victim of circumstance.