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Can a Determinist Change the World?


G.K. Chesterton told an amusing story of a young man who wrote to him extolling the truth of solipsism. The young man believed it was the only rational viewpoint he could take, and he wondered why it wasn’t a more popular viewpoint.

Witless self-refutation is amusing. Which brings us to a post by determinist and free will-denier Jerry Coyne, who writes:

Our behaviors are solely and uniquely decided by our genes and our environments, and nothing else. [I]f you returned to the “original situation” … you would always decide the same thing. We feel as if we are agents who could have chosen otherwise, but in reality we can’t. Hard determinists like me feel it’s pointless to talk about “free will.”

So why does Coyne prattle on so much about determinism and his denial of free will? After all, he thinks the future’s baked in the cake, so to speak. Why would he write about something he can’t do anything about?

You’ll also know that the reason I bang on about this at length — frustrating compatibilist readers — is because I believe that fully grasping determinism has a huge potential effect on human behavior, including in particular how we treat transgressors or criminals. It also has import in politics in general… Finally, we all surely agree that accepting determinism will sink the libertarian free will inherent in many religions, which I think is a good thing. You simply CANNOT freely accept whether or not to hold Christ as your savior, or Muhammad as Allah’s prophet. To punish people for eternity on the basis that they could have chosen otherwise makes no sense at all…

While we’re on the topic of “makes no sense at all,” let’s consider Coyne’s ambitious program for changing our minds about free will…

Wait. Coyne denies that he can change his own mind, so how can he change the minds of others? How can anyone without free will, in a deterministic universe, change anything? The future, according to Coyne, is already determined, so what’s the use of “banging on” about determinism? It can’t change anything at all. Why not retire from “banging on” and find some other pointless pastime? It won’t make any difference. It can’t make any difference, in a determined world.

If determinism is true, there are no “huge potential effect[s] on human behavior.” There are no huge potential effects on anything. There’s no “potential” at all. There are no choices and there are no options. It’s baked in the cake.

Or half-baked, as befits Coyne’s puerile self-refuting determinism.

Photo credit: © 2016

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.