The leftist-atheist-evolutionist writes:
One thing that’s struck me while interacting with various Scholars of Repute is how uncomfortable many get when they have to discuss free will. ...A comment disagreed, saying that quantum uncertainty in the brain implies that Turpin could have done otherwise. Coyne first accused a commenter of denying the laws of physics, and then qualified his post to say that he "could not CONSCIOUSLY have done otherwise. ... Randomness does not give us any “freedom”, ...".
No, I’m talking about other prominent thinkers, and I’ll use Richard Dawkins as an example. When I told him in Washington D.C. that, in our onstage conversation, that I would ask him about free will, he became visibly uncomfortable. ...
Why this avoidance of determinism? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the only conclusion I can arrive at is this: espousing the notion of determinism, and emphasizing its consequences, makes people uncomfortable, and they take that out on the determinist. For instance, suppose someone said — discussing the recent case of David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who held their 13 children captive under horrendous circumstances in their California home (chaining them to beds, starving them, etc.—”Yes, the Turpins people did a bad thing, but they had no choice. They were simply acting on the behavioral imperatives dictated by their genes and environment, and they couldn’t have done otherwise.”
If you said that, most people would think you a monster—a person without morals who was intent on excusing their behavior. But that statement about the Turpins is true! ...
But grasping determinism, as I, Sam [Harris], and people like Robert Sapolsky believe, would lead to recommending a complete overhaul of our justice system. ...
I assume that most readers here accept determinism of human behavior, with the possible exception of truly indeterminate quantum-mechanical phenomena that may affect our behavior but still don’t give us agency. What I want to know is why many intellectuals avoid discussing determinism, which I see as one of the most important issues of our time.
There are several problems here. First, the laws of physics are not all deterministic. So one can say that Turpin had some free choice without denying any laws of physics.
Second, it is very difficult to say what is conscious behavior, and what is not, as we have no good scientific definition of consciousness. Does a dog make a conscious decision to chew on a bone? Can a computer possibly make a conscious decision? There is no consensus on how to answer questions like these.
Third, Coyne's put-down of randomness is nonsense. If you do have freedom to make arbitrary choices, then such choices look exactly like randomness. If you complain that my decisions are unpredictable, then you are complaining about my freedom to make decisions. There is no observable difference.
A week before, Coyne attacked E.O. Wilson:
Note in the second paragraph that Wilson cites “chance” in support of free will. If by “chance” he means “things that are determined but we can’t predict”, then that’s no support for the classic notion of free will: the “you could have chosen otherwise” sort. If he’s referring instead to pure quantum indeterminacy, well, that just confers unpredictability on our decisions, not agency. We don’t choose to make an electron jump in our brain.Wilson did not even express an opinion on free will, but merely expressed skepticism about understanding the brain.
From what I make of the third paragraph, his message is that because we are a long way from figuring out how we make behavioral decisions, we might as well act as if we have free will, especially because “confidence in free will is biologically adaptive.”
Coyne also comments:
I’ve explained it many times; if you don’t understand the difference between somebody committing a good or bad act that was predetermined, and somebody freely choosing to perform a good or bad act for which they are praised or damned for supposedly making a good or bad choice, I can’t help you. They are different and the former isn’t empty.But Coyne believes that the latter is empty, because no one can really choose anything.
My guess is that Dawkins is a believer in free will, but doesn't like to talk about it because he doesn't know how to square it with his widely-professed atheist beliefs. That could be true about other intellectuals as well.
While it may be baffling that some intellectuals are afraid to endorse determinism, I think that it is even more baffling that Coyne and Sam Harris are so eager to trying to convince people that no one has any choice about their thought processes.
I agree with this criticism of Sam Harris:
If there is no free will, why write books or try to convince anyone of anything? People will believe whatever they believe. They have no choice! Your position on free will is, therefore, self-refuting. The fact that you are trying to convince people of the truth of your argument proves that you think they have the very freedom that you deny them.And yet many intellectuals deny free will, including physicists from Einstein to Max Tegmark.