jerry_a_coyne's picture
Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago; Author, Why Evolution is True; Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.
Free Will

Among virtually all scientists, dualism is dead. Our thoughts and actions are the outputs of a computer made of meat—our brain—a computer that must obey the laws of physics. Our choices, therefore, must also obey those laws. This puts paid to the traditional idea of dualistic or "libertarian" free will: that our lives comprise a series of decisions in which we could have chosen otherwise. We know now that we can never do otherwise, and we know it in two ways.

The first is from scientific experience, which shows no evidence for a mind separate from the physical brain. This means that "I"—whatever "I" means—may have the illusion of choosing, but my choices are in principle predictable by the laws of physics, excepting any quantum indeterminacy that acts in my neurons. In short, the traditional notion of free will—defined by Anthony Cashmore as "a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature"—is dead on arrival.

Second, recent experiments support the idea that our "decisions" often precede our consciousness of having made them. Increasingly sophisticated studies using brain scanning show that those scans can often predict the choices one will make several seconds before the subject is conscious of having chosen! Indeed, our feeling of "making a choice" may itself be a post hoc confabulation, perhaps an evolved one.

When pressed, nearly all scientists and most philosophers admit this. Determinism and materialism, they agree, win the day. But they're remarkably quiet about it. Instead of spreading the important scientific message that our behaviors are the deterministic results of a physical process, they'd rather invent new "compatibilist" versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism. "Well, when we order strawberry ice cream we really couldn't have ordered vanilla", they say, "but we still have free will in another sense. And it's the only sense that's important."

Unfortunately, what's "important" differs among philosophers. Some say that what's important is that our complex brain evolved to absorb many inputs and run them through complex programs ("ruminations") before giving an output ("decision"). Others say that what's important is that it's our own brain and nobody else's that makes our decisions, even if those decisions are predetermined. Some even argue that we have free will because most of us choose without duress: nobody holds a gun to our head and says "order the strawberry." But of course that's not true: the guns are the electrical signals in our brain.

In the end, there's nothing "free" about compatibilist free will. It's a semantic game in which choice becomes an illusion: something that isn't what it seems. Whether or not we can "choose" is a matter for science, not philosophy, and science tells us that we're complex marionettes dancing to the strings of our genes and environments. Philosophy, watching the show, says, "pay attention to me, for I've changed the game."

So why does the term "free will" still hang around when science has destroyed its conventional meaning? Some compatibilists, perhaps, are impressed by their feeling that they can choose, and must comport this with science. Others have said explicitly that characterizing "free will" as an illusion will hurt society. If people believe they're puppets, well, then maybe they'll be crippled by nihilism, lacking the will to leave their beds. This attitude reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester's wife when she heard about Darwin's theory: "My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known."

What puzzles me is why compatibilists spend so much time trying to harmonize determinism with a historically non-deterministic concept instead of tackling the harder but more important task of selling the public on the scientific notions of materialism, naturalism, and their consequence: the mind is produced by the brain.

These consequences of "incompatibilism" mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people. When we realize that the person who kills because of a mental disorder had precisely as much "choice" as someone who murders from childhood abuse or a bad environment, we'll see that everyone deserves the mitigation now given only to those deemed unable to choose between right and wrong. For if our actions are predetermined, none of us can make that choice. Punishment for crimes will still be needed, of course, to deter others, rehabilitate offenders, and remove criminals from society. But now this can be put on a more scientific footing: what interventions can best help both society and the offender? And we lose the useless idea of justice as retribution.

Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility. Yes, we are responsible for our actions, but only in the sense that they are committed by an identifiable individual. But if you can't really choose to be good or bad—to punch someone or save a drowning child—what do we mean by moral responsibility? Some may argue that getting rid of that idea also jettisons an important social good. I claim the opposite: by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society.

Finally, rejecting free will means rejecting the fundamental tenets of the many religions that depend on freely choosing a god or a savior.

The fears motivating some compatibilists—that a version of free will must be maintained lest society collapse—won't be realized. The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don't. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.