Thursday, October 11, 2012

If there is no free will, there is no innocence.

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne claims that we have no free will.

Coyne, with my commentary:


You Don't Have Free Will

By Jerry A. Coyne
The term "free will" has so many diverse connotations that I'm obliged to define it before I explain why we don't have it. I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.
This is a reasonable definition of libertarian free will.

Although we can't really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.
"Laws of physics" are simply regularities, not agents, so 'they' cause nothing. Free will isn't a regularity, so free will is not governed by the laws of physics.

What's hard about that?

Your brain and body, the vehicles that make "choices," are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment.
An utterly fact-free assertion. We know surprisingly little about the molecular basis for thought. So obviously we don't know that "the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment". We don't even have a coherent materialist theory as to how molecules and thoughts relate. 

Admittedly, lack of coherence doesn't stop materialists. 

Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. 
The opposite is more likely: molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances in your brain both influence and result from your decisions. That was the conclusion of Benjamin Libet, the pioneering neurophysiologist in the study of mind-brain interactions (more about Libet below).

These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain—our "choices"—are dictated by those laws. 
"Laws" dictate? Nonsense. Laws are the form we give to regularities in nature. Laws aren't agents. 

E=mc2 didn't "dictate" the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. The scientists and soldiers who built and detonated the bomb "dictated" the explosion. They freely chose to do it.

Headline: "Japanese Furious at E=mc2 For Destroying Hiroshima" 

Laws cause nothing. Laws. aren't. agents.  

(It's possible, though improbable, that the indeterminacy of quantum physics may tweak behavior a bit, but such random effects can't be part of free will.)
If quantum indeterminacy (an ensemble of probability-weighted outcomes) is random, so is natural selection, which, according to Coyne, is manifestly non-random. Oops. 

And deliberating about your choices in advance doesn't help matters, for that deliberation also reflects brain activity that must obey physical laws.
Note to Coyne: applying your materialist error to preceding events doesn't correct the error.
To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. 
Then why, Jerry-the-computer, did you 'decide' to get out of bed this morning? If you had stayed in bed, then it would have been 'the only choice possible', because it was the one you made. You couldn't have gotten out of bed, if you didn't get out of bed. And you couldn't have stayed in bed, if you didn't stay in bed.

Huh?

As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that's a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical "will" that can redirect our own molecules.
Why should sane people have the "burden of proof"? Shouldn't the guy who thinks that he-couldn't-have-gotten-out-of-bed-if-he-didn't-get-out-of-bed have the burden of proof?

My claim that free will as defined above is an illusion leads to a prediction: Our sense of controlling our actions might sometimes be decoupled from those actions themselves.
The vast majority of our actions occur without full consciousness: we don't think of moving each leg muscle when we walk. Pre-conscious activation and coordination is mediated in many areas of the brain-- the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, for example. Yet the decision to walk across the street is freely made, even though the specifics of the act are coordinated without our immediate intent.
Recent experiments in cognitive science show that some deliberate acts occur before they reach our consciousness (typing or driving, for example), while in other cases, brain scans can predict our choices several seconds before we're conscious of having made them. Additionally, stimulation of the brain, or clever psychological experiments, can significantly increase or decrease our sense of control over our choices.
Coyne's reference here is to the line of research that began with Ben Libet, the pioneering neurophysiologist at UCSF in the mid-20th century who studied the link between awareness and brain states. Libet found that many simple voluntary decisions to move were preceded by several hundred milliseconds by activation of a region of the cortex adjacent to the motor area. Libet also found that this activation could be aborted, by the free will of the subject.

Coyne seems unaware that Libet was a property dualist and a strong defender of libertarian free will.
So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely? 

Denial of free will has consequences?

Well, nihilism is not an option: We humans are so constituted, through evolution or otherwise, to believe that we can choose. 
That's a nihilist claim about man. Except that Jerry has broken free of evolution, unlike you. 

What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. 
Pour your coffee on Jerry's laptop, and see if he sticks to his claim that 'moral responsibility' should be discarded.


If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility—only actions that hurt or help others. 
Jerry's arguments are hurting me. It's like a pounding between my temples. 


That realization shouldn't seriously change the way we punish or reward people, because we still need to protect society from criminals, and observing punishment or reward can alter the brains of others, acting as a deterrent or stimulus. What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.
I see. What Jerry proposes, based on his scientific discovery that we have no free will, is that our traditional notions of moral responsibility-- culpability and responsibility, guilt and innocence-- be discarded, and replaced with a rat-gets-cheese-or-electric-shock system of rewards and punishments. Skinner replaces the Decalogue. 

The obvious consequence is this: if there is no culpability, then there is no innocence. If the goal of the justice system in Coyne's dystopia is "protection", there is no need to predicate punishment on conviction for a crime. Pre-crimes become the logical basis for punishment. Why punish errant determinism when you can prevent it? Shock the rat if he 'thinks' about stepping out of the maze. It's a hell of a lot more efficient. 

If there is no free will, there is no culpability, and there is no innocence. There are merely cages and rats and cheese and wires. 

The absence of real choice also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God's gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. 

Coyne finally gets to the real reason he denies free will. He hates Christianity. 

But of course religion won't relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.

Christianity is the basis for all modern science. Modern science arose only in the civilization steeped for a thousand years in Christian theology and Christian philosophy and Christian ethics. Modern science is essentially Christian natural philosophy. Nature is created in accordance with rational laws by a Creator who is not nature itself, but Who has a Mind that has created man in His image with the vocation to understand those created laws. 

Atheism's contribution to science is non-existent, except for gulags and body-bags. 'Everything came from nothing and survivors survived' isn't a scientific programme, but it sure kindled some nasty politics.  

Finally, on the lighter side, knowing that we don't have free will can perhaps temper our sense of regret or self-recrimination, since we never had real choices in our past. No, we couldn't have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn't have taken the other road.

Jerry Coyne had no choice but to write his idiot essay. He feels better about it. 

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn't exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. 

The view that free will doesn't exist is unpopular because it is crazy, and it would lead to a totalitarian nightmare. 

In response, some philosophers—most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained—have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. 

Determinists don't want to look too crazy.

I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy. To eliminate the confusion produced by multiple and contradictory concepts of free will, I propose that we reject the term entirely and adopt the suggestion of the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky: Instead of saying my decision arises from free will, we might say, "My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand."

 The internal force he doesn't understand: his soul.  


If you want a glimpse of the mere craziness of materialism, the denial of free will is a great place to look. When you're done, go ahead and have yourself a piece of cheese. 

5 comments:

  1. I can accept that Jerry Coyne has no free will. That's why he's so easy to ignore. Might as well listen to a parrot.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Why should sane people have the "burden of proof"? Shouldn't the guy who thinks that he-couldn't-have-gotten-out-of-bed-if-he-didn't-get-out-of-bed have the burden of proof?"

    The claim that we do not have "free will" -- or, the more properly phrase it, the claim that we are not free wills -- is a super-extraordinary claim/assertion. Yet, we will never see and of the pea-brain 'atheists' who haunt your blog say of *that* assertion, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

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  3. "Pour your coffee on Jerry's laptop, and see if he sticks to his claim that 'moral responsibility' should be discarded."

    Here is an even easier test -- call him a liar and a scoundrel.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "So what are the consequences of realizing that physical determinism negates our ability to choose freely?"

    I wonder, does he not see, or does he just not care, about the absurd self-contradiction?

    "... If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won't relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances."

    I wonder, does he not see, or does he just not care, about the absurd self-contradiction?

    "Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn't exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices."

    I wonder, does he not see, or does he just not care, about the absurd self-contradiction?

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Atheism's contribution to science is non-existent, except for gulags and body-bags."

    Fuck yourself. You make me sick. Non believing in your stupid deities has NOTHING to do with gulags. Your comparisons with nazis and various dictators are disgusting lies and you know it. There's no point in arguing with you, you are a bigot who clearly lives in a parallel universe.

    ReplyDelete