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Why Free Will Denial Is Self-Refuting

Photo credit: Vladislav Babienko via Unsplash.

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne has doubled down (it’s more like quadrupled down) on his denial of the reality of free will. There are abundant reasons to affirm free will — e.g., it is the lived experience of every psychologically normal human being throughout history, it is the foundation for most of our religious traditions as well as the foundation for our systems of justice, our systems of government, our conventions of morality, it is the foundation for every aspect of our interpersonal relationships (does your spouse really choose to love you, or is she a meat robot compelled to do so by her molecules?), and there is strong neuroscience evidence for the reality of free will as well.

The only “scientific” basis for the denial of free will is determinism, which is the theory that every change in nature is baked in and absolutely determined prior to its occurrence. As I have pointed out, local determinism in nature has been decisively disproven by the work of John Stewart Bell, Alain Aspect, John Clauser, Anton Zeilinger, and others, and this work was the basis for the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics. Determinism is dead in physics, yet Coyne and his coterie of free will deniers cling to 19th-century physics, just as they do to 19th-century biology. This is the atheist/materialist way — cling to ideology at all costs, even if it means denying reality. They can’t let a Divine foot in the door!

Among the compelling reasons to affirm the reality of free will is the simple observation that free will denial is self-refuting. This is how it goes.

Brain States Have No Truth Value

The statement: “There is no free will, because all of our actions are determined by physics and chemistry” is a truth claim, and as such, it is a proposition. The free will denier has proposed that free will is not true.  The logical difficulty the free will denier faces is that physics and chemistry contain no propositions — neurochemistry, cellular metabolism, fluid dynamics, action potentials, etc. hew to the laws of physics, not to the laws of logic. A brain state, consisting of a particular configuration of neuronal activity at a given instant, has no truth value, and thus, if nature were deterministic (it is not), then a brain state could not generate a proposition, even the proposition “there is no free will.” There are no propositions in the laws of physics and chemistry, yet the free will denier claims that all he says is determined absolutely by the laws of physics and chemistry. The free will denier claims implicitly that he is a meat robot incapable of asserting the truth. Why would we pay any attention to him?

To get a clearer picture of the self-refutation of free will denial, imagine that you spill a bottle of ink on a piece of paper. As the ink dries, you notice that (if you use your imagination) you can make out the letters “f-r-e-e  w-i-l-l  i-s  n-o-t  r-e-a-l.” Even though it would be a bit uncanny, you would appropriately chalk it up to chance and to the laws of physics and chemistry — gravity, fluid dynamics, chemistry of paper and ink, etc. It is of course wholly deterministic (if we neglect quantum effects) — ink spills create patterns wholly according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

Just Spilled Ink

One thing you would not think is, “Well, there’s another opinion I must consider about the free will debate!” Things that are wholly determined by the laws of physics and chemistry aren’t truth claims. They’re just spilled ink.

If Coyne and other free will deniers are right, their denial of free will is just a biological ink stain — chance occurrences of biological molecules determined wholly by physics and chemistry, not by logic or evidence.

Of course, free will deniers will take exception to the comparison between their opinions and spilled ink — Darwin showed that they are not merely spilled ink! They are evolved primates, after all, and their metaphysical speculations are certainly entitled to the respect due to evolved primates! 

Free will denial is self-refuting gibberish. If free will deniers are right, there’s no reason to pay any attention to them. Who pays attention to evolved primates wholly determined by non-rational laws? It is only opinions freely and rationally chosen, based on logic and evidence, that warrant our attention and respect. 

Cross-posted at Mind Matters.