Lack of free will is a trope that is growing in importance in scientific circles. Men like Sam Harris travel to lectures and announce, “I have no choice but to tell you that you have no choice. If you don’t believe this, you’re foolish.” Grinbank identifies what he sees are flaws in arguments like this.
Skeptics of free will are welcome to submit rebuttals (if they choose to do so).
In March of 2012 AD Sam Harris will publish a new book titled, Free Will. He and Jerry Coyne have been stoking the fires of polemics in anticipation.
Sam Harris is known for his Atheist activism and is also a biased neuroscientist1. Jerry Coyne is also an Atheist activist and professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. These gentlemen represent the deleterious effects of turning Darwinism, and science in general, into world-views. Darwinism is supposed to be a theory about biology and science is a tool with which we explore the material realm. However, some turn these into world-views and thereby construct blinders.
The effect of these blinders is a restriction of thought: the opposite of freethinking. This is because anything that goes against, or is outside of the world-view parameters, is simply a priori ruled out. Thus, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne take an Atheistic, materialistic, mechanistic, reductionist (by any other name) view of life, the universe and everything. On their collective views we and our brains can do none but blindly follow the dictates of the laws of thermodynamics.
Jerry Coyne refers to our brains as “meat computers” and in this case, you do not get a choice as to whether you get yours rare, well done, or anything in between. Now, there is a notable distinction between Coyne and Harris. They both claim that we do not have free will but Coyne claims that we do not make choices whilst Harris claims that we do.
Coyne emphasizes that even though we do not make free will choices, we are still morally culpable and judiciously accountable. He notes that we already make provision for personages who commit crimes whilst being categorized as temporarily insane or having some such mental incapacity (or, as per a Seinfeld episode, “differently advantaged”). Yet, the most interesting, and potentially troubling, conclusion is that while we, ourselves, cannot change our minds, as it where, outside influences can change them.
Jerry Coyne claims that we cannot “step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works” because “‘we’ are simply constructs of our brain” and that “We can’t impose a nebulous ‘will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions.”
However, environment can accomplish it. The incarceration of criminals, for instance, “makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future.” So, we cannot change ourselves but environment, other people a.k.a. society and/or the government, can change us. How other meat computers can change our meat computers when we cannot change our own meat computer is something which does not compute.
How does incarceration make it “less likely you’ll behave badly in the future”? It would still come down to the individual as they would instigate or otherwise elicit some change in the meat computer that resides within its cranium—perhaps a touch of “Mrs. Dash” would do the trick.
Sam Harris concludes that our subconscious brain merely spits out “determined” data (determined, or predetermined, by the laws of thermodynamics) about which we then make choices via our conscious brain. But how is making conscious choices about unconscious data not free will?
We may experience an instinct to do this or that but we then chose the course of action. But what about instincts, in and of themselves, and/or reflexes? Well, some of these are learned such as when you burned yourself and seek to not do it again. Others appear to be more foisted upon us such recoiling from a hot object. Just where is the line between the rapid reaction of a reflex and a forced action? After all, you can keep your hand over a flame—if you so choose.
There seems to be a vast difference between a reaction such as a reflex, on the one hand, and purposing to ponder a course of action, on the other hand. We may sift through options but we have the experience of choosing between them. The Coyne/Harris retort of claiming that this perceived choice is a mere illusion is merely begging the question. As Sam Harris puts it when referring to the idea of lacking free will, “Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices.”
This is tantamount to asking someone whether they have ever been abducted by aliens. If they respond that they have not, you then tell them that of course they have but the aliens erased their memory.
The concept of lacking free will is certainly not new nor is it exclusive to the Atheists who hold to it. However, Harris and Coyne are appealing to “science”; particularly, neuroscience. Not surprisingly, they conclude that what we think of as free will is brain stuff because we can see how segments of the brain light up in MRIs when we engage in what we think of as making decisions.
Well, neuroscience is a soft enough science so as to allow for malleable interpretations such as:
- Portion X of the brain lights up when…
- Portion X pertains to…
- Therefore, the lighting up of portion X means that…
As William Briggs rightly noted whilst reviewing Sam Harris’ research “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief”:
Ignore religion and answer this: do the brains of the affronted and angry operate differently in those heightened states of emotion than in those who are placid, smug, or contented?
Could it not be that the “emotion centers” of the brain light up for Christians in this experiment not because they are Christians but because they have just been repeatedly poked by a sharp rhetorical stick?
The “sharp rhetorical stick” refers to the questions posed during Harris’ pseudo-experiment.
Now, of course, Harris’ and Coyne’s neuroscientific conclusions are tantamount to concluding that color and shape are merely brain stuff that does not exist out there in the real world because segments of our brains light up when we view color and shape.
What reason, really, is there to deny our common knowledge, our common experience and well, our common sense conclusion that we have free will? In this case, it is that some Atheists are interpreting lights flashing on a screen. Moreover, their interpretations are based upon materialism, mechanism, reductionism in short: based upon their particular, and peculiar, Atheistic world-views. But why should we believe that their world-view is accurate? After all, they claim that it cannot be proven and since they are making extraordinary claims they must provide evidence that is more extraordinary than expecting us to believe their personal interpretations of “data.”
1He is referred to as biased because before becoming a neuroscientist he was asked “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” by Edge – The World Question Center and his response was:
What I believe, though cannot yet prove, is that belief is a content-independent process. Which is to say that beliefs about God—to the degree that they are really believed—are the same as beliefs about numbers, penguins, tofu, or anything else…
What I do believe, however, is that the neural processes that govern the final acceptance of a statement as ‘true’ rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobesâ€”probably the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors…
Once the neurology of belief becomes clear, and it stands revealed as an all-purpose emotion arising in a wide variety of contexts (often without warrant), religious faith will be exposed for what it is: a humble species of terrestrial credulity. We will then have additional, scientific reasons to declare that mere feelings of conviction are not enough when it comes time to talk about the way the world is.
The only thing that guarantees that (sufficiently complex) beliefs actually represent the world, are chains of evidence and argument linking them to the world…Understanding belief at the level of the brain may hold the key to new insights into the nature of our minds, to new rules of discourse, and to new frontiers of human cooperation.
Thus, he comes into science already believing that which he seeks to prove, “What I believe, though cannot yet prove.”