What is important to me is whether our decisions are predetermined (with perhaps a dollop of quantum indeterminacy), and therefore we lose our freedom to really make different choices when given alternatives. The old notion of true freedom — the ability to do otherwise — has been killed dead by science. Why are people trying to save the notion of free will by confecting other definitions? Why aren’t they, instead, telling the faithful that they can’t really choose whether to be saved or make Jesus their personal saviour? The faithful are dualists, and religion is our enemy.This is ridiculous. He likes to lecture us on what science is all about, but he gets it badly wrong. His rant was triggered by atheist-physicist Victor Stenger, who writes:
Research in neuroscience has revealed a startling fact that revolutionizes much of what we humans have previously taken for granted about our interactions with the world outside our heads: Our consciousness is really not in charge of our behavior.I have criticized Coyne and others on free will here, here, and here. I say that free will is not a scientific issue.
If science really proved these things, ask yourself: Where is the published paper? Who got the Nobel Prize? These scientists are an embarrassment to science.
The "dollop of quantum indeterminacy" is especially strange. Stenger argues:
The moving parts of the brain are heavy by microscopic standards and move around at relatively high speeds because the brain is hot. Furthermore, the distances involved are large by these same microscopic standards. It is easy to demonstrate quantitatively that quantum effects in the brain are not significant. So, even though libertarians are correct that determinism is false at the microphysical, quantum level, the brain is for all practical purposes a deterministic Newtonian machine, so we don't have free will as they define it.This argument is frequently made, but I do not believe it. There are chemical reactions in the brain, and quantum effects are essential for all such reactions. So I do not know how anyone can say that quantum effects are insignificant. And even if that were true, it does not follow that the brain is a deterministic Newtonian machine. No one has succeeded in predicting brain behavior, except in trivial ways.
Update: I agree with this podcast today by Pigliucci and Churchland (at about 50:00) that it is stupid to say that "free speech is an illusion", as Coyne, Stenger, and Sam Harris say. Yes, it is an illusion in the trivial sense that a table is an illusion. If "illusion" means that there is a materialist explanation in terms of smaller components, then it is an illusion. But if it is an attempt to deny that we can evaluate consequences and make decisions, then they are manifestly wrong. They are denying the facts and presenting an anti-science view of the world.
Massimo Pigliucci responds:
Roger, your comment reflects the attitude of people like Harris, Coyne, Rosenberg et al., but I think is too quick. First, science cannot disprove an incoherent concept like contra-causal free will. Indeed, philosophy can do that (because it's a matter of logic). Second, this whole thing has very little to do with religion, because religionists believe in contra-causal free will, which is not the target of this research. Third, there is a danger in uncritically accepting Harris-like sweeping statements about human volition, and that danger is that we throw out human agency, ethics, and pretty much everything that makes us human, quickly leading nihilism (which in fact Rosenberg at least openly embraces).