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:
- 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, 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).