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Jerry Coyne Is Determined to Deny Free Will


Jerry Coyne denies the reality of free will. He asserts that we are completely determined by our chemistry and our natural history.

I recently pointed out that Coyne’s view that we can overcome our "selfish genes" and be altruistic is an implicit assertion that we have free will. If we have no free will, we are a slave to our genes, and could not overcome them.


… Egnor’s latest column, "Jerry Coyne Endorses Free Will (Inadvertently as You Might Expect)," has a fundamental error of comprehension that’s worth pointing out. 

Now of course I don’t endorse free will, at least of the libertarian or dualistic type, so why does Egnor accuse me of this? Because I argue that humans can counteract the tendencies built into them (that’s a metaphor!) by evolution. If you think about it for a second, which Egnor apparently hasn’t, you’ll see that this kind of "counteracting" is no argument for dualism… Egnor doesn’t understand determinism.

Coyne rambles on about breathing, urination, and masturbation, then he asserts:

… Egnor’s argument for free will is flatly wrong. For one thing, "choice" can be apparent choice, and determinists like me would argue that donning a condom is dictated by your neurons, which have previously absorbed the lesson that if you don’t do so, you could have an unwanted child. 

Clearly, environmental intervention, like the thoughts that you derive from learning and observation, can change your brain. We had to learn that ejaculation was connected with reproduction, something that kids learn every generation, and once we did we could go to the drugstore and counteract our evolutionary drive to reproduce.

Coyne’s argument seems to be that experiences can change our brains and influence our behavior. No argument from me there. All participants in the free will debate agree that choice can be influenced. The disagreement, among incompatibilists at least, is whether choice is determined, or is to some degree free. 

Determinism is the view that, at the moment of decision, only one choice is possible. From the incompatibilist view (Coyne and I are both incompatibilists — we both believe that determinism and free will are incompatible), libertarian free will is the assertion that at the moment of decision, more than one choice is possible. 

Coyne and I agree that choices can be influenced by material factors, such as drugs, neurotransmitters, etc. I assert that despite these influences, there is a very real component of free will in many human choices. Coyne denies all free will. 


  1. Coyne is a determinist. He believes that at the moment of decision, only one choice is possible. There is no free will of any kind. 
  2. I am not a determinist. I believe that at the moment of decision, more than one choice is usually possible. The choice actually made is the result of the interplay between extrinsic factors (experiences, neurochemistry, drugs, etc.) and free will.

But Egnor certainly doesn’t accept determinism, and would argue that those "choices" reflect libertarian free will. 

I assert two points:

  1. If we have no libertarian free will, and we are determined entirely by neurochemistry and natural history, then Coyne’s "argument" is itself an evolved neurochemical reaction, without remainder. Assertions that can take on true or false values are called propositions, and evolved neurochemical reactions aren’t propositions. Therefore his argument has no claim on truth. Coyne’s argument is merely a bit of neurochemistry, dressed up like an argument.
  2. If we have no libertarian free will, then it is nonsense to assert that we can rise above our selfish genes. If we are determined by our genes, "rising above our genes" is just determined by our genes, like everything else. Invocation of "the environment" doesn’t free us from our genes. Our adaption to our environment is manifested in, and determined by, our genes. We cannot rise above our genetic adaptations, if determinism is true, because in the determinist view we are the sum of our genetic adaptations.

Coyne’s assertion that we can rise above our selfish genes is, ironically, a strong assertion of libertarian free will.


In that case, we can show that the use of chemicals, which certainly have nothing to do with such free will, can also overcome the tyranny of those selfish replicators. You can take drugs that completely eliminate your desire to reproduce. You can take drugs that eliminate your desire to eat. You can take drugs that make you agitated or placid. All manner of drugs can change behaviors that reflect the ancient actions of natural selection, and every one of these drugs acts by changing something in your brain. As a neurosurgeon, Egnor should know this. But he’s blinkered by his faith.

Coyne seems to be under the misapprehension that I don’t realize that drugs can affect the brain and the mind. 

Finally, diseases like depression or schizophrenia, which often strike in late teens or early twenties, can lead you to the ultimate non-evolutionary act: suicide. 

Suicide would seem to suggest that evolution is not a comprehensive explanation of the human mind.

Genetics is not destiny, and what was built into us by selection can be dismantled by rationality — or disease. What’s so hard about realizing that?

In Coyne’s blinkered materialist universe, we are evolved lumbering selfish-gene meat robots, without remainder, so rationality and disease are merely features of the robots.

So many critics of incompatibilism — the view that free will is incompatible with determinism — simply don’t understand what determinism entails.

I’m not a critic of incompatibilism. Incompatibilism is the assertion that determinism and free will are incompatible. Both Coyne and I assert that determinism and free will can’t both be true. Coyne asserts that determinism is true and free will is untrue. I assert that determinism is untrue and free will is true. 

Both Coyne and I are incompatibilists. Coyne doesn’t even understand the terminology of the free will debate.

And the most common misunderstanding — the one committed by Egnor — is to suppose that, under determinism, the environment cannot play a huge role in our "choices," as it supposedly cannot affect the structure of our brain. But it can.

Again Coyne gets the debate completely wrong. I understand the implications of determinism quite well. The deterministic view is that our choices are entirely determined by two and only two things: our current physical state (neurochemistry, gene expression, etc.) and our natural history (our environment, our evolutionary history, etc.).

I strongly agree that, under determinism, environment plays a huge role. Along with neurochemistry, it plays the entire role in making a choice, if determinism is true.

But if determinism is true and free will is false, the very assertion that determinism is true and free will is false is determined by our chemistry and natural history. Yet neither chemistry nor natural history is a proposition — neither chemistry nor natural history has truth-value. So Coyne’s assertion that determinism is true and free will is false is self-refuting.

If Coyne’s view on free will is determined, it has no claim to truth.

Coyne is a materialist, so he is beholden to materialist metaphysics, which presupposes determinism and precludes free will. It can be said of a theory that the wisdom imparted by the theory can be measured not merely by what the theory explains, but even more importantly by what it denies.

Materialism makes Coyne deny free will. He can do no other, and remain a materialist. Yet human beings obviously have free will. It’s self-refuting to deny it. Coyne would rather spew self-refuting gibberish — that he is determined to say that we have absolutely no free will — than question his materialist presumptions.

Image credit: shadowfax the second/Flickr.

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.