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Self-refutation and the New Atheists: The Case of Jerry Coyne

Michael Egnor


One of the more bizarre ideological tics of the New Atheists is their indifference to self-refutation.

Their ideology is a morass of bizarre self-refuting claim. They assert that science is the only way to truth, yet take no note that scientism itself isn’t a scientific assertion. They assert a "skeptical" view that thoughts are only constructed artifacts of our neurological processing and have no sure contact with truth, ignoring the obvious inference that their skeptical assertion is thereby reduced to a constructed artifact with no sure contact with truth. They assert that Christianity has brought much immorality to the world, yet they deny the existence of objective morality. They assert that intelligent design is not testable, and that it is wrong.

And they assert that we are determined entirely by our natural history and physical law and thereby have no free will, yet they assert this freely, claiming truth and personal exemption from determinism. Here is a case in point.

As I’ve indicated earlier (here and here), Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True will have none of this "free will" stuff. He wrote a while back in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

You Don’t Have Free Will

I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different. 

Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics. Your brain and body, the vehicles that make "choices," are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment. Your decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another. These molecules must obey the laws of physics, so the outputs of our brain — our "choices" — are dictated by those laws. (It’s possible, though improbable, that the indeterminacy of quantum physics may tweak behavior a bit, but such random effects can’t be part of free will.) And deliberating about your choices in advance doesn’t help matters, for that deliberation also reflects brain activity that must obey physical laws.

Why, then, did Jerry get up in the morning and write his essay? Here’s what I mean.

Coyne’s denial of free will is deterministic: he believes that our acts are determined wholly by genes and environment — physics and biological history. He leaves no room for libertarian free choices. 

But what exactly is determinism? What does it mean to say our acts and thoughts are determined? The philosophical literature on determinism and free will is massive. But the definition of determinism is agreed upon by all: determinism is the metaphysical view that given our history and physics, at the moment of decision only one outcome is possible. The future is, with respect to the present moment of decision, a single line, not many possible lines. We may not be able to predict with certainty what each decision will be, but at every moment, only one decision is possible. 

Jerry is, as best I can glean from his less-than-rigorous assertions, in the "no-free-will-incompatilist" camp. He is a determinist and believes that free will and determinism are incompatible. I (and most people probably) are free-will incompatibilists — we believe that determinism and free will are incompatible, but that determinism is wrong, and free will is true. Sometimes this view is called "libertarian free will." Other views exist — that both determinism and free will are true, or that neither determinism nor free will is true, and countless permutations. It’s safe to say that I’ve characterized Jerry’s view accurately — determinism is true and free will does not exist. 

Here’s the problem with that view. If determinism is true, then all that Jerry does — having opinions, writing blog posts, getting out of bed this morning — is determined by two and only two things: his biological history (evolution, childhood learning, what he had for dinner last night… etc.) and physics (the current state of his neurotransmitters). In Jerry’s free-will free world, his decision to get out of bed this morning had only one possible outcome — the outcome determined by his history and physics. So if Jerry did get out of bed, he could say "Of course I got out of bed. There was no other possible outcome." But if Jerry didn’t get out of bed, he could say "Of course I didn’t out of bed. There was no other possible outcome."

So why should Jerry get out of bed?

Surely he is capable of staying in bed, and if he did stay in bed, he could console himself (and his employers and students) with the assurance that it couldn’t have been otherwise. To the complaint from his dean "Why didn’t you show up for your class this morning?!" Jerry could answer "It couldn’t have been otherwise. I’m determined." 

So let’s take Jerry’s determinism a step further. Jerry writes his essays and blog posts denying free will. But of course, he couldn’t have done otherwise. His free-will denial was determined by his biological history and the laws of physics and neuroscience. Perhaps his free-will denial was determined by a base pair substitution on the short arm of his 17th chromosome, or by that bit of toast he had before bed. His denial of free will was not determined by consideration of truth. One does not ascribe truth to chemicals — "13.7 picograms of dopamine in the cingulate cortex is true, but 17.4 picograms of serotonin in the pre-Rolandic gyrus is false." Chemicals and biological histories don’t have truth values. They’re chemicals, not propositions. 

So Jerry’s assertion that determinism is true and that we don’t have free will is, simultaneously, an assertion that Jerry’s opinions have no truth values, only chemical constituents. 

If we have no free will because determinism is true, we can’t ascribe any truth to our assertion that we have no free will. We can’t claim access to any kind of truth. It’s just chemicals — base pairs and toast — talkin’.

It’s actually funny, if you don’t take logic or truth too seriously. 

Image credit: Head of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome/Wikipedia.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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