Jerry Coyne on why we don’t have free-will

by Henry McQuale

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist, but he is also very interested in the traditionally philosophical problem of free-will versus determinism and he writes regularly about it on his website. And a couple of days ago he wrote a piece for USA Today called “Why you don’t  really have free will“, where he concisely states his position on the issue, which has remained basically the same since he started writing about it. He opens with it:

Perhaps you’ve chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you’re in a hotel, maybe you’ve decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you’ll wear today.

You haven’t. You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.

Now, what can we say about this? Of course it is clear that Coyne is a free will skeptic if by free will we mean libertarian or contra-causal free will, that is, a sort of free will that is free because it is not constrained or determined by the laws of physics or by any sort of causality other than that of that exerted by the will or a  substance with agency faculties itself. So he is a de facto determinist in the broad sense of the word, but since there are different types of determinism, we have to notice certain things in his view so we can place him within a more specific strain of determinism.

The first thing to notice is that he is not only as skeptic regarding free will, but also regarding unfree will. This means that he not only denies that we have free will, the capacity to decide and act according to the dicta of an unconstrained faculty or power traditionally called will, but also that we have such a faculty as the will, understood broadly as the cause of our actions, decisions and choices. It is important to notice this because not all determinists are skeptics regarding the existence or of our possession of the will, since it can also be understood as a determined faculty, not just an unconstrained one as libertarists do. In particular, Coyne, doesn’t seem to deny the existence of a faculty or phenomenon called the will, he only goes as far as denying that if it exists and if we have it, it doesn’t function as the cause of our decisions and actions. Thus, if we have such a faculty it is only epiphenomenal. And of course it is necessary to understand what epiphenomenal means in this context. Here (because it has stronger meanings) it only means that it doesn’t have the causal powers that we think it has regarding  relevant phenomena, in this case, our actions and decisions.  That is what he means when he says that our will has no part in our decisions.

Thanks to this, we can place him already along a specific strain of determists called hard determinists, who not only deny free will in a libertarian sense, but also in a compatibilist sense. A compatibilist (or soft determinist) denies we have contra-causal free will, but not that we have free will understood as the determined faculty to choose and act in accordance to our also determined personality and desires.  Coyne cannot be a compatibilist (besides the reasons that he states below), because compatibilists are also committed to the effectiveness  of our will regarding our actions. This is so because if the will has no part in our decisions and actions, then we cannot be responsible for them, and compatibilists are also committed to the idea that we are morally responsible for our actions  in a way that would make us worthy of praise or blame for them, and at least intuitively, it doesn’t seem correct to say that somebody is morally responsible for an action that was not cause by his will. I won’t say why this is so here nor will I defend it  but I think this alone  is enough  to characterize Coyne’s position as a form of hard determinism.

That is what we can say based on the overview of his position. But it is a must for every philosopher or scientist interested in the problem to be clear about what he or she understands by free will. Coyne has always done so, and this is the way he understands the notion:

[…] let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

I think Coyne is correct when he says that this way of understanding free will is the way most people understand it, that is, free will understood in a libertarian way. But as a definition of free will it is defective because it is too wide: as it is, it permits free will to be found in mere  indetermination, say, quantum fluctuations that would make a physically identical individual in identical circumstances to choose differently if the tape of life were rewound to the moment of the choice. This some libertarians would embrace, but not all of them, and certainly not any compatibilist nor any determinist. All of them would object to this possibility as not satisfactory, for a freedom of the will that made choices the product of a random fluctuation would not work as the basis of imputations of moral responsibility, and if free will is such a heavily debated issue it is because it is believed that moral responsibility no less is what is at stake. It is true that Coyne has already noticed this problem when he replied to this objection with ” My assumption here is, of course, that quantum indeterminacy at the moment of a decision cannot influence that decision.”, but that is not an assumption everyone makes, and as strange as the idea of free will residing in quantum indeterminacy may sound to him, he should make that assumption explicit when he pretends to define free will with  intention of being clear and easily understood. Anyway, provided this extra clause about the non randomness of free will, I think it is a usable definition.

But where is the evidence for the claim that we don’t have this sort of free will? Coyne offers “two lines of evidence”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

This, I think, is well supported by what we know about ourselves and our brain thanks to science, in particular biology and the neurosciences. And indeed libertarian free will, if we have it,  seems to require from us to “step outside of our brain’s structure” and modify how it works”, and indeed there is no evidence at all that suggests we are capable of doing that. And that is good enough, even if the libertarian defends free will as a faculty of a non-physical substance, or to say it more colloquially, an immaterial soul, because we don’t have any evidence whatsoever for the existence of such a thing either, without mentioning the severe metaphysical problems regarding mind-body causation that dualism would get us into.

All that is clear, but Coyne is defending – remember- not only that we don’t have free will, but that the will itself, if anything, is epiphenomenal, and this last line of evidence doesn’t give us reasons to suppose that the will has no causal powers regarding our choices and actions. For that we need more evidence, and Coyne finds it in relatively recent experimental neuroscientific discoveries:

Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

Let’s suppose that the correct interpretation of said experiments is the one Coyne accepts. If it is indeed correct, then I think it follows that our will is epiphenomenal. How? Well, because when we talk about our will in the sense required for imputations of moral responsibility, we talk about it as necessarily conscious. If unconscious brain processes are the ones responsible for our decisions and actions, then then it is counterintuitive to say that they were really our decision and actions, regardless of them having taken place or having been caused in our brain. One could try to make the concept of “will”  to be wider as to include the unconscious processes, drives and instincts that might be the actual causes of our actions, but I think that would only be a cop-out and decidedly ad-hoc. Following this interpretation of the experiments it seems that the will, our conscious feeling of being the deciders and the movers in our actions is only that: a feeling that produces in us the illusion of agency. Therefore, it is to be regarded as an effect of the unconscious decisions that take place before we are aware of them, but not as the cause of the decisions as the feeling of willing makes us think, no matter how convincing the illusion is.

However, there are some who dispute this interpretation of the experiments. On line of argumentation, just as an example, is based on what is identified as methodological flaws or limitations regarding the experiments. The problem is that there is a subjective element in them, the individuals being tested, since they are the ones that have to report when they consider that they are conscious of being deciding or willing something. The idea of course is that the subjects may be wrong in their assessment of when that happens. Right now I won’t defend Coyne’s interpretation against these objection, but I will just say that I agree with him, and I think that it is the most natural and simple interpretation based on the data we have.

The fact that our experience of willing may be epiphenomenal regarding the cause of our decisions and actions does not mean that it is epiphenomenal regarding everything else. Coyne is aware of that, and he points out to a hypothesis about its possible evolutionary origins:

I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions. Sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer prosocial behaviors and more antisocial behaviors.

I am not sure of how plausible that hypothesis is, but if it is correct of course it wouldn’t mean that therefore the belief in free will is correct. It would be merely an instance of an useful false belief or illusion. I personally don’t like the idea of useful falsehoods because I care deeply about truth, but the question of whether that “naturally instilled” false  belief in free will is useful enough or even necessary for a harmonious society as for us to prefer most of the people to keep believing in it rather than them becoming skeptics is still open to debate.

After standard rebuttals to compatibilist attempts at saving free will be redefining it as to be compatible with physical determinism (with which I agree) , Coyne moves to what worries and has worried most of those that have ever thought about this, the “Sure, we maybe be physically determined, but then what? What does not having free will imply for our lives?” question. One of the possible answers and attitudes is nihilism:

One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that’s impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose, and get on with our lives. After all, everyone deals with the unpalatable fact of our mortality, and usually do so by ignoring it rather than ruminating obsessively about it.

As a matter of what is possible for the average human being this is correct. Most of those who proclaim that is free will was merely an illusion then nothing would matter and therefore there would be no reason to do anything do not understand just how powerful the illusion is, and how powerful our drive to do things is. I think those that really believe they would simply stop doing anything if they come to realize they don’t have free will are fooling themselves. But fair enough, that is an observation of what would a believer in determinsim would or wouldn’t be able to do, and it is another question if nihilism would actually be the correct attitude in the face of determinism, whether unpracticeable or not.  Coyne doesn’t say much about that, but it is clear by the way he lives that he doesn’t think determinism entails nihilism. And as a free will skeptic myself I can say that it never even crossed my mind nor I ever felt that all that was and is important to me somehow loses its meaning just because I don’t posses a faculty of choosing without being determined to do so. To be sure, some beliefs about myself and others changed, but mostly for better.

But there are other implications that Coyne notices and that are worth discussing. The first one regarding religion:

 Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

This is correct. Whatever the religion, chances are that skepticism about free will is going to collide with one tenet or another of them. In mainstream Christianity it couldn’t be more obvious, as Coyne says, for free will is a basic dogma that makes the whole belief system collapse if it is proven false. Or if it doesn’t make it collapse, at least it makes the believer that wants to save it to revise it drastically. One form to save Christianity in the face of determinism, as Coyne notices, was Calvinism. There free will was abandoned, but it costed the Calvinists too much, and I doubt any Christian today could live with the revisions it made, because in favor of coherence with Gods omniscience -which indeed implies that we cannot be free, since God has always known what our choices were going to be-, it made the belief that God is omnibenevolent and all just untenable, since there is definitely nothing benevolent about a God that creates condemned individuals, since he has always known who will end up in heaven, but also who will inexorably end up and be tortured in hell for an eternity.

But the second implication is even more important and of general interest for all mankind, independently of their religious beliefs:

[…] the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can’t really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren’t freely chosen?

We should recognize that we already make some allowances for this problem by treating criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their “choice” by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression. But in truth those people don’t differ in responsibility from the “regular” criminal who shoots someone in a drug war; it’s just that the physical events behind their actions are less obvious.

This is absolutely correct: if we don’t have free will, if our decisions and actions were determined even before we were aware of them then imputations of moral responsibility and therefore of blame and praise seem to be unjustified and unfair. And as he notices, there is no relevant and robust differences between the criminals that get less harsh sentences for being mentally deficient than those who are mentally normal if we think the difference resides in the lack of or diminished free will in one, and the possession of it by another. None of them have it, and the legal system should recognize that and change things in accordance.

But not too radically if that means abolishing our punitive practices, as would seem to be the correct thing to do, because, according to Coyne:

[…] those [punishments] are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the “wrong choice.” And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.

I agree that showing that we don’t have free will makes of revenge and retributive justice in general unjustified practices, but I don’t agree with the idea that punishment would still have a legitimate use in a fair society that accepted that free will is only an illusion. I do agree that if determinism is true, then punishment can still be useful if we consider it a tool to determine the behavior of people for good ends, such as deterring them from committing crimes or the criminals from committing them again if they are released. The problem is that we would be punishing individuals that don’t deserve to be punished, and that is unfair. The standard defense for punishment in a world without free will, and that I think Coyne is endorsing here is a consequentialist one: an action can be ultimately good if its consequences are good or at least the good that comes from it surpasses the bad consequences. Here the bad consequences would be suffering for the punished criminal, the injustice in causing suffering in someone that doesn’t deserves it, and the action of using a person as a tool for deterrence rather than treating her as an end in herself. The greater good that comes from that injustice, they say,  is the deterrence of criminal behavior in general and also the possibility of the rehabilitation of criminals. A noted problem with the “deterrence defense of punishment” is that it would seem to justify really cruel and disproportionate punishments so long as they maximize the desired deterrence effect. But besides that objection, I don’t think punishment is necessary for this: if we, instead of using criminals as tools by unjustly punishing them we treated them as the carriers of an infectious disease, we could treat them in a humane way and also protect the rest of society. Just as carriers of infectious diseases are put in quarantine and therefore are separated from the rest of society as long as they remain dangerous without thinking about that as punishment or of them as deserving it, we could “quarantine” criminals in this way to protect the rest of society. This “quarantine” would be a deprivation of freedom without retributive or mainly deterring reasons. Deterrence would still be a byproduct of that quarantine of criminals, I think, because although its end is not punishing the criminal, it still causes enough suffering to work as a deterrent.  If there is an alternative that causes less suffering and that doesn’t make us behave unfairly while having the same advantages, I think we should prefer it. And I think Coyne would prefer it if he understood it.

He concludes his article thusly:

There’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It’s impossible, anyway, to act as though we don’t have it: you’ll pretend to choose your New Year’s resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of “me” are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

And with this, I agree.