You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.He also brags that his fellow atheists agree with him. He says that atheist materialist philosophy requires physical determinism, and neuroscience research says we sometimes start making a decision a couple of seconds before we are consciously aware of it. (He says that brain scans show mental activity as much as seven seconds before a decision is completed.)
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.
If this is depressing, Coyne assures us that there are two advantages to believing that we are mindless automatons; we have an increased appreciation for evolution and we gain empathy for all the other mindless automatons:
There's not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It's impossible, anyway, to act as though we don't have it: you'll pretend to choose your New Year's resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of "me" are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, 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.No thanks. Those are not advantages to me. But ignoring the moral, religious, and psychological issues, my concern here is whether there is really proof of physical determination. It is a strange assumption considering that the overwhelming consensus among physicists is that the world is not deterministic. They say that probabilities are essential to quantum mechanics. Those probabilities do not necessarily settle the free will question; see the Free will theorem for a discussion.
Einstein did not believe in either quantum mechanics or free will. He was a determinist. Most physicists say that he was proved wrong.
I accept quantum mechanics, but I deny that it requires either a probabilistic or determinist view. It says nothing about free will. I think that it disproves Coyne's argument that a scientific worldview requires denying free will. Quantum mechanics is our most fundamental physical theory, and it does not require the sort of determinism that Coyne describes.
Update: Coyne now complains about new proposed laws about the teaching of evolution, because he sees them as a threat to his view of evolutionary science.