Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Jerry Coyne's free will stance, part 1

Since Dr. Coyne's article on free will appeared in USA today, I am sure many of people (Christian or otherwise) have written about it.  So naturally, I'll have to throw in my two cents about it.

In this article, Dr. Coyne argues that we do not have free will.  Because we are biological organisms, we are subject to the laws of physics, and thus everything that we do is pre-determined by our molecular make-up and the interactions that we have with the world around us.  We "chose" to eat dessert tonight because of some chemical reaction that occurred in our brain, not because it was really a choice that we made.

Dr. Coyne further grounds his point of view in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, saying that researchers are finding out that "the experience of will itself could be an illusion that evolution has given us". In other words, every time you make a choice, you just think you're making a choice. It is an illusion.

He goes on to talk about what the philosophical repercussions are for us, once we all realize that we do not have free will.  These repercussions include becoming kinder people, since we now know we cannot judge others (eg, criminals really had no choice but to commit those crimes), abandoning our Christian faith (since we really don't put our faith in Jesus Christ; we just had to do it because of our brain chemistry), and "realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains".

The astute reader will, at this point, realize that Dr. Coyne's stance on free will is entirely self-defeating. Meaning, if his position is correct, then it creates a contradiction within itself.  Or, to put it another way, if Dr. Coyne is right, he's right for the wrong reasons; he's only lucky, and he did not arrive at his conclusion based on his scientific or rational approach.

I promise to defend my statement in a later post, but for now let me just rant.  Dr. Coyne is a respected evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.  He has a very popular blog called "why evolution is true" and is a prominent speaker and writer.  This is evident in the fact that one of his opinion articles can get published in the USA today.  So my two big questions are (1) why does such a brilliant, esteemed person not realize how philosophically bankrupt his position is, and (2) why does the USA today and other media outlets swallow (hook, line, and sinker as it were) the opinion of someone like Dr. Coyne in a field outside of his own expertise just because he is a professor at a prestigious university?

In regards to question 1, I find it very interesting that he even claims to be in touch with philosophy.  In his article, he says:
The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.
The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.
That just blows my mind.  In essence, he is saying that no matter what debates or critical thinking has happened in the past in philosophy, the incredibly non-quantitative and soft fields of psychology and neuroscience have proven that we don't have free will?  How in the world does a neuroscience experiment prove that logic doesn't work? What I mean is, if the conclusions of the neuroscientists are correct, then they are completely self-contradictory (as I stated above but have not defended; again, please be patient until next time).  Therefore, to adopt the stance that Dr. Coyne is, based on the results of these soft sciences, you must abandon the laws of logic (the very foundations of philosophy and all of reason for that matter)! Very curious indeed.

In regards to question 2, well, I guess this is just another case of what we've been seeing all over the place from the new atheist movement.  Richard Dawkins, with his non-sequitur arguments, Steven Hawking with his grand pronouncements about metaphysics, etc.  It's really difficult to go up against these giants who have very little argument to stand on, but who can completely change the minds of many just based on their credentials alone.  Credentials, I might add, that do not have anything to do with the subject on which they are speaking.  (Yes, I am a hypocrite.  I am not trained in logic or philosophy either.)

But it really just underscores something that has become more and more clear to me as I take a close look at the new atheist movement.  There is absolutely no substance to their arguments.  It is almost all -- to put it less-than-politely -- drivel.  (And by the way, I am not the only one to realize this.  Take a look here.)  Classical philosophers such as Hume and Kant were the real giants in their fields.  If you really want to argue against Christianity, take a look not at the bold pronouncements that biologists make about philosophy and theology, you need to look at the philosophers themselves!  (Again, a hypocrite am I, since I have not bothered to read these either.)

So, in my next post, I do promise to actually defend my take on Dr. Coyne's free will stance.