Free will denial watch: Jerry Coyne calls himself “a molecular puppet”

In a recent blog post, evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, doesn’t flinch at spelling out the implications of strict naturalism for the idea of free will:

We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free.  But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet.  I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is.  I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, either, but you don’t see me redefining the notion of “death” to pretend I’m immortal.

In other words, philosophical attempts to reconcile strict naturalism with free will are, to Jerry Coyne’s mind, sophistry. Truth be told, human existential freedom is illusory. We are molecular puppets: slaves of determinate forces.

As an agnostic, my guess is that Jerry Coyne is probably right. When we recall something, or have an idea, or suddenly decide that we shall go one way and not another, it is our meat computers (that is, our brains) that have worked up the sums in advance, at an unconscious level, and then set a thought or desire into our awareness, so that now we declare to others, and to ourselves, what we recall, think, or want.

Put another way, the experience of awareness (I have a memory, an idea, a longing, an aversion) is mistaken for what I’m consciously doing, as if I were an actor on a stage. Instead, it is perhaps more accurate to say this:

  • A memory has come to me, an idea has come to me, a feeling of love (or hate) has come to me, and what to do about these things has also come to me, which is why I’m behaving as I am, etc.

What we actually experience passively as the reception of perceptions and impulses coming into awareness, we call our  thoughts, desires, and decisions. We are, in other words, in the habit of not giving credit where credit is due. Reception is confused with ownership and declarations of responsibility. And so, when we act on the thoughts, desires, and decisions that we have (in fact) received from unconscious mental processes, we call this action “free will.”

Understandably, the Western persona greets the news of its illusory nature as a desolation. Afterall, all of Western cultural history—our art, our literature, our politics—has been built against the idea that the self is an illusion. The assertion of persona onto the stage of existence is what Western cultural history is. But strict naturalism, by stripping us of the persona’s conceit, delivers us into the hands of, in GK Chesterton’s tart phrase, a “Calvinism without God,” and few have ever thought of determinist Calvinism as particularly pleasant or desirable (even with the promise of ultimate transcendence).

Jerry Coyne’s reluctant and somber conclusion about free will (which he no doubt forgets or ignores in his day-to-day life) illustrates why strict naturalism, even if true, is unlikely ever to really gain widespread public traction (at least in Western societies), for:

  1. like Buddhism or Calvinism, it is too bleak to live by;
  2. it is, as a practical matter, impossible to live by; 
  3. it does not accord with the common sense direct perception that we are more than determinate beings, and have free will; and
  4. it overturns all of Western cultural history, which is based on the assertion of heroic and sexual personae onto an existential stage (as illustrated by the Marina and the Diamonds  video below). 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Free will denial watch: Jerry Coyne calls himself “a molecular puppet”

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think I’ll let Rush do my talking this time.

    • santitafarella says:

      Andrew:

      I didn’t know that song. Thanks for sharing that.

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        You aren’t familiar with Rush?! Well then you should really check them out, they have MANY awesome songs, both musically and with an inspirational romanticism that’s unashamedly secular.

      • santitafarella says:

        Andrew:

        I know. It’s lame. Th fell beneath my radar.

        —Santi

  2. “Calvinism without God”!! Thanks for that. I will certainly use it!

    It has occurred to me in the past that many modern “secularists” are, in essence, preaching “Protestantism without Jesus.”

  3. santitafarella says:

    Apuleius:

    That is a striking phrase, isn’t it?

    —Santi

  4. Ik says:

    Well, the ultimate theory reveals there is Only One I. Ergo, with One I, I have Free Will.

    Peace,

    Ik

  5. christianclarityreview says:

    There are in fact two determinisms, not one.

    The one is built on a notion of no new creation going on at all, because it is also built on the lie that no creation ever happened to begin with.
    The status quo, which is falsely idealized to be a zone of non-creation is then the only thing that can happen ..which seems to mandate a fight over an idealized set of perpetually limited resources. With no new creation, no new resources can exist in that ideology and war is assured. But that is also a determinism that depends on free will to exist: the supposed unchanging character of human beings mandates certain resources be consumed to keep the creature alive and competition in a limited environment acts to force certain behaviors ( drinking water, eating food, needing shelter, needing love..) that force competition for those same resources as an ‘invisible hand’ of ..determinism. So in those circles “free will = determinism” as an unspoken hopelessness/fatalism. Outgrowths of that outlook are communism, socialism and fascism, not as ‘reactions to that situation’, but as spiritual attacks on people by the means of spirits in other people and even themselves.

    Determinism as predestination and election of God in Jesus Christ ( Calvinism ) depends on the reality of new creation in Jesus Christ, that God created all there is by His Word ( Christ ) and thus there will always be enough of everything and on time. We grow in Christ because God lives in us and actively creates through us.

    The supposed dreariness you mention in connection with Calvinism is nothing more than a product of an outlook that hopes for personal empowerment in the deception of having to compete over idealized limited resources and finds no such empowerment in Calvinism, yet is stuck in the false determinism caused by denying new creation in Jesus Christ. It finds no such empowerment, not because Calvinism has some weakness to it, but because the very scenario and ideology that mandates such empowerment is a lie and provokes false fears in order to provoke a real hope for deliverance from those false fears in the manner dictated by the overall paradigm. Those hopes always go unfulfilled and those spirits in you end up blaming everything but the ideology itself.

    Now, in order to get out of the free will = determinism trap they have built for themselves, the false determinism of an idealized non-creating outlook is merely embracing the more emotionally evil aspects of no new creation as if doing so made them brave and ideological heroes. “Life is nothing” is to expected from pro-abortionists who seek in every way to deny new creation in Jesus Christ in the womb of the mother and in order to do so, take a long journey through false determinism to make life meaningless. I haven’t heard of any nihilist who are pro-life.

    If you don’t understand Calvinism, say “I don’t understand Calvinism”. But the constant snubbing of what you don’t understand is nothing more than a protection of your own education in the hopes it is of value ..somewhere in the universe and that you didn’t just pay someone to lie to you unwittingly. Your versions of Calvinism are exactly like complaining why Spanish speaking people say ‘verduras’ instead of ‘vegetable’ and inquiring with not-so-subtle humor why it is that they can’t just say “vege-tah-blays”.

    That Calvinism is completely different from anything you ever knew has completely escaped you and your attempts to match it with a little of this and a little of that in your own ideological outlook can provoke a certain sympathy for you if it were not for the evil your ideology produces continually. It must be a nifty feeling to think to have divorced homosexuality, abortion, theft, murder, greed, lust, adultery, fornication war, and damnation from a walk-in-the-park discussion of ‘determinism’ as if it were one Meta term to cover all of reality as a rhetorical widget.

    I invite you and your readers to take the poll on Polldaddy “Do you feel pressured to say you have free will?” You seem to be very interested in protecting the notion of free will for its own sake. I wonder why. Who benefits from your cooperation as the spirits in you do so? As in cash money and control over other people..

    Matthew 7:20 By their fruits then surely ye shall know them.

    timothy

    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  6. Tom Clark says:

    “…strict naturalism, even if true, is unlikely ever to really gain widespread public traction (at least in Western societies), for: like Buddhism or Calvinism, it is too bleak to live by; it is, as a practical matter, impossible to live by; it does not accord with the common sense direct perception that we are more than determinate beings, and have free will; and it overturns all of Western cultural history…”

    Not so. Naturalism is eminently livable – we need not believe we’re causal exceptions to nature, see http://www.naturalism.org/living1.htm . Generally we can’t trust common sense direct perception as a reliable guide to what’s true, including the feeling we have contra-causal free will – lots of education needed on this. And naturalism doesn’t overturn all of Western cultural history, only the parts which set human beings over and above nature. As our culture becomes more informed by science, the less it will conflict with naturalism, and culture has just begun. Btw, Jerry is wrong about our being molecular puppets, see my comments at his blog.

  7. I do see the power of the argument that if all we are is material then we don’t have free will. I’m not yet ready to give in ‘tho.

    What I did enjoy is your phrase “the Western persona greets the news of its illusory nature as a desolation.” I guess that’s what we get from a literary academic, instead of a mere philosopher ;)

  8. Interesting.

    I’m always interested in how pop music get folded into these discussions.

  9. Pingback: Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain? | Prometheus Unbound

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