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Trying to Disprove Free Will Shows that Materialism Doesn’t Work

Michael Egnor
Photo credit: Randy Jacob, via Unsplash.

Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is also an atheist activist, offers another post denying free will. Journalist Oliver Burkeman published an essay at the The Guardian last week, asking, “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion?”, quoting Coyne among others. Coyne, who believes that free will is indeed an illusion, offers support at his blog. Read at your leisure but note: He ignores critical science issues around free will, including the following:

1. Nature is not deterministic. The fact that nature is not predetermined in detail has been shown quite convincingly by the experimental confirmation of Bell’s theorem in quantum mechanics. Succinctly, over the past 50 years, at least 17 teams of researchers have asked and answered the question: Does the state of a system immediately prior to a quantum change determine the state of the system immediately after the quantum change? The clear answer: It does not.

In more technical terms, there are no hidden variables that determine the outcome of quantum waveform collapse. Coyne is undoubtedly aware of this — I have pointed it out to him repeatedly and he has acknowledged it tangentially — but he continues to misrepresent it in his posts on determinism.

Obviously, the fact that nature itself has been shown not to be deterministic is a real problem for denying free will via an appeal to science. Coyne and others like him seem to want to misrepresent the science rather than admit that they are wrong about science-based support for determinism.

More Misrepresentations

2. Neuroscience clearly supports the reality of free will. The research of Benjamin Libet and others unequivocally points to freedom of the will. I discuss that in detail here.

3. The claim that “free will isn’t real because we are governed by states of matter” is self-refuting. Suppose nature were determinist: Then states of matter — particular arrangement of molecules, neurotransmitters, or whatever — would govern our thoughts and actions.

However, that claim (“Free will isn’t real because … ”) is a proposition — a statement that can be either true or false. But states of matter are not propositions. They can be neither true nor false. Then the very proposition, “Free will is an illusion,” is not an argument. It’s just an arrangement of matter that has no truth value. All claims on the subject are meaningless.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

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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Bell's theoremBenjamin Libetdeterminismfree willillusionJerry CoynematerialismmattermindneuroscienceOliver Burkemanpropositionsquantum changequantum mechanicsquantum waveform collapseresearchersThe Guardian