Edge is at it again, asking named persons “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” Many interesting things to discuss, so consider this the launching of a new series. (I was directed there, via this site, which linked to me.)
My eye was caught by the never-disappointing Jerry Coyne, author of Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Coyne wrote to tell us that he has no free will. This is terrific news, because we’d hate to think he was responsible for that book. Far better to put it down to the determinism, and poor sense of humor, of genes and the laws of physics.
Coyne is at the bottom of a long line of thinkers who tell us the world would be a better place if we knew we could not make choices, because then we’d make better choices.
Profound, n’est-ce pas?
A concept that everyone should understand and appreciate is the idea of physical determinism: that all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics. The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”: At a given moment, all living creatures, including ourselves, are constrained by their genes and environment to behave in only one way—and could not have behaved differently. We feel like we make choices, but we don’t. In that sense, “dualistic” free will is an illusion.
This must be true from the first principles of physics. Our brain, after all, is simply a collection of molecules that follow the laws of physics; it’s simply a computer made of meat. That in turn means that given the brain’s constitution and inputs, its output—our thoughts, behaviors and “choices”—must obey those laws. There’s no way we can step outside our mind to tinker with those outputs. And even molecular quantum effects, which probably don’t even affect our acts, can’t possibly give us conscious control over our behavior.
One wonders who this “we” is. It appears, according to Coyne, there is a person above and beyond the body or flesh robot whose actions are determined with full rigor by genes, chemistry, and physics. This ghost-in-the-machine, as it were, notices what’s happening, it has desires and wants, but it is powerless to have its way. This ghost can see the “mind” of the robot, but can’t influence it. Meaning, of course, the ghost is a person with free will but who is ever shackled. So there is free will after all, but only for ghosts.
Why is it important that people grasp determinism? Because realizing that we can’t “choose otherwise” has profound implications for how we punish and reward people, especially criminals. It can also have salubrious effects on our thoughts and actions.
First, if we can’t choose freely, but are puppets manipulated by the laws of physics, then all criminals or transgressors should be treated as products of genes and environments that made them behave badly. The armed robber had no choice about whether to get a gun and pull the trigger. In that sense, every criminal is impaired. All of them, whether or not they know the difference between right and wrong, have the same excuse as those deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
The armed robber had no choice but to pull the trigger, yet somehow—more mysterious ghosts?—the person who punishes the robber does have free will in choosing to punish! Thus the punisher is the real bad guy.
But wait a moment, wait just a moment or two. Let’s read that passage again at a more sedate pace. What’s this about robbers behaving “badly”? Did Coyne say badly? As in not goodly?
No, Jerry, it won’t do. If people are machines responding by fixed rules to external stimuli, in the same was as the photocopier or electric mixer does, then there is no bad, there is no good, there is nothing. There is no possibility of right or wrong. No morality, no ethics. No nothing. Somebody can only act badly when they had the possibility of acting goodly, and vice versa. Under determinism, as Coyne-the-meat-machine envisions, there are no possibilities, only unbreakable rules.
When the mixer fails to break up a chunk of butter and flour we do not say it “sinned.” In the absence of free will, we cannot even say it “malfunctioned”, because that would be to assign purpose to the machine, and purpose implies intellect and will.
I choose to let Coyne have the last (explanatory) word, and will leave it as homework for the reader to analyze.
Beyond crime and punishment, how should the idea of determinism transform us? Well, understanding that we have no choices should create more empathy and less hostility towards others when we grasp that everyone is the victim of circumstances over which they had no control. Welfare recipients couldn’t have gotten jobs, and jerks had no choice about becoming jerks.