Free Will Confusion Watch: Gnu Atheist Jerry Coyne Calls Humans Molecular Puppets, Then Endorses Sam Harris’s New Year’s Resolution

In a blog post this past summer, evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, didn’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, libertarian free will is illusory. We are molecular puppets: slaves of blind quantum random or determinate material forces.

But wait. Within six months of writing this, Jerry Coyne has just made an appeal to his blog readers to exercise self-control, and to give a favorable hearing to Sam Harris’s call for the rich to also exercise self-control through a new year’s resolution:

All you readers who can’t resist going after Sam Harris—back off a tick.  He has a nice new piece on HufPo: “A new year’s resolution for the rich,” which highlights the growing financial inequality between Americans.

Are you confused? Apparently, so is Jerry Coyne, for if people are molecular puppets how can they ever really exercise anything like mental-to-physical causation (such as willing their minds to command their brains and bodies to back off a tick from deconstructing Sam Harris)? And how could the rich ever freely exercise their wills in a resolution to help the poor—at the inauguration of a new year or at any other time?

Surely Jerry Coyne does not believe in spooks, ghosts, or souls in any machines. Surely he must know that he is speaking metaphorically, and that, really, people cannot arrest the course of their molecules. Free will is an artifact of an archaic religious language surrounding souls; it is a delusion. He said so himself just half-a-year earlier.

But if he is fully aware of these things, why is he continuing to type out new blog posts that contain persuasive appeals?

If Jerry Coyne is any indication, it appears that living out the consequences of one’s strict materialist beliefs is simply too much of a psychological pretzel twist to sustain for even half a year. It reminds me of what Christopher Hitchens once said in response to whether he believed in free will:

I have no choice.

Really, it’s too glib a response. If you say you believe that something is false, yet you live as if it were true, you don’t really believe it’s false, do you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Free Will Confusion Watch: Gnu Atheist Jerry Coyne Calls Humans Molecular Puppets, Then Endorses Sam Harris’s New Year’s Resolution

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Chemistry merely an abstraction of physics, yet would you say the chemistry doesn’t exist? If human consciousness were based on a ‘soul’ then would you require that each soul be irreducible and autonomous so that it could never be broken down into simpler parts? Your entire premise rests on the assumption that the whole cannot ever be more than the sum of its parts.

    • santitafarella says:


      That’s the thing about consciousness, isn’t it? Unlike water and its component parts—H2O molecules—consciousness doesn’t seem to have any obvious relation to its component parts. Why would blind atoms in a particular configuration, lacking any conscious purposes themselves, ever evoke the quale of consciousness? “It just does” is not really an answer, is it?

      You can know all the positions of the determinate atoms in your skull and it doesn’t seem to begin to explain HOW those positions actually result in the evocation of a mind that then imagines itself to have free will and to be pushing matter around.

      I agree that mind and matter are in a causal relation to one another—matter affects mind and mind affects matter—but I doubt that mind can be reduced to matter. We might have souls.

      Maybe Paul was right: to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (a mind prior to matter responsible for evoking the material world).

      I’m not done giving dualism a fair hearing yet, are you? I’ve just recently downloaded a free version of Decartes’ “Meditations” from Google Books onto my iPad. I’m still reading and thinking.


      • andrewclunn says:

        Once you get how Descartes’ logic can be calculated using electrical switches, and how linear dichotomizers can calculate models through trial and error repetition (especially networking router tables), and the selective forces of natural selection on genetics, it’s pretty easy to dismiss dualism. Math + Computer Programming + Biology have filled in both the ‘how’ in the sense of both formation and conceptual representation. And neuroscience is causing dualism and mystical “free will” to rely on God of the gaps style arguments more and more.

  2. Excellent post. Something that occurred to me recently is that “free will” is redundant. There is either “will” or there isn’t. Or, perhaps more properly, there is either “volition” or there isn’t.

  3. Paradigm says:

    It’s hard to explain free will since it contradicts the scientific models of reality. If there is more than one possible outcome then logic doesn’t apply anymore – we get at least two conclusions from the same premise. And if determinism is a fact then all our conversations become useless because they have the intention of changing this one outcome.

    One thing is sure: the human brain, scientifically minded or otherwise, is not equipped to handle determinism. We say “pass me the milk” when we should say “I hope the only possible outcome is that you pass me the milk”. Maybe we should reject determinism on account of it being inhumane. After all we disregard so many other aspects of reality : )

    • santitafarella says:


      I love the way you put the milk request: “I hope the only possible outcome is that you pass me the milk”.

      I wonder what the comic (or tragic) effects would be of writing a screenplay in such dialogue (where either one or more characters in the screenplay have decided—not freely, of course!—to never again use language that distorts their strict materialist beliefs. Or perhaps someone time travels into a future where a strict materialist language has overtaken the culture. I seem to recall Richard Rorty actually once proposing a language of this sort (as in—on touching a stove burner—exclaiming, “My neurons at location 426 are firing!”).

      I’ll have to see where I read it.


    • santitafarella says:


      A bit more on this. Really, if one talked at all on such a premise it would likely be (mostly) to oneself. As in, “I wish that thing over there would move my way.” All subjects would become objects—things. And if you talked to people at all it would be solely because you have discovered that your desire compels you to speak, and APPEARS to have positive consequences (at least in some instances). Also, it reduces your anxiety somehow (perhaps by giving you information and signals of hope that the universe might be turning your way and doing what you were hoping it would do). Language would sort of start functioning as cheerleaders on the sidelines of a football game. They’re not really influencing what happens on the field, but the jumping up and down and calling expresses their emotions of desire and aversion. When two cheerleaders communicate with one another about the action on the field, they express their hopes and fears, but are without effect.

      Sort of like this blog.


    • santitafarella says:

      Oh, and one more thing.

      To reject free will is to believe that the universe is, from the human vantage, a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Think about that. Absolutely no subjective causal agent is actually responsible for any of the effects attributed to him or her. It’s kind of like Hume’s argument about causation generally. We see patterns, but we can never really say that x causes y, or will always seem to cause y in the future.

      Is free will belief akin to astrology belief?


  4. Paradigm says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “responsible”. The causal agent is of course causing (by definition) its effects. To reject free will means only that the agent couldn’t do otherwise. We try to influence others but our influence on them is already determined by earlier causes that defines our behavior in every single detail. So our only hope is that some ultimate agent – God? – has provided some sort of pre-established harmony that makes our will coincide with our actions. Which is a bit like Leibniz I think.

    Although I don’t think people like Jerry Coyne will find much comfort in this theory since it requires that ultimate agent.

  5. I am really confused by this post. You seem to say that if I accept the premise that I am a molecular puppet that the puppets cannot then will themselves to do something? This seems to be filling in lots of unknowns with assumptions. Yes, we are molecular puppets. Yes, we have brains. Our brains are our cognition and consciousness and our brains controls most of our actions. Cognition and consciousness give us an ability to respond to external stimuli in more complex ways than our autonomous nervous system can provide – a lot more latitude in reaction. Unless that external stimuli turns to internal stimuli, it will not control our consciousness. Yes, internal stimuli -drugs, poisons, physical damage, etc, can vastly change our consciousness and response. But while the stimuli is not affecting our brains, we can use that brain to rationalize a reaction. Thus exerting what you are referring to as “free will.”

    • santitafarella says:


      Maybe I should make the distinction between fatalism and determinism. Obviously, a person shouldn’t, on concluding that he or she is determined, resolve to sit on the couch all day since “what I do doesn’t matter.” The point is that one’s desires and impulses, like one’s other perceptions and thoughts, COME TO YOU. You do not generate them freely, or respond to them freely. If you will to speak it is because you have been impelled by a desire to do so. In a determined world perhaps the best we can hope for is that we stay out of the way of one another’s desires and take comfort in the fact that our brains are so complicated that we can never really trace the route by which each new individual action is always already determined. Unlike a simple knee-jerk reaction in which hitting a hammer to a knee illicits a predictable response, the human brain does not make its processing of environmental stimuli and its response simple and obvious: the cause and effect chain runs through a very complicated maze (the human brain). Or, put another way: we don’t know what series of neuronal dominoes will tumble from moment to moment, evoking our conscious responses.

      Then again, we might have a soul—a ghost in the machine. The mind may not be reducible to matter. It comes down to what leap makes the most sense to you: monism or dualism.


      • That makes a lot more sense to me :)

        I struggle with the soul. I realize that there is no real proof of such, but the more I look at the universe and how little we know, then look at all the interesting theories (holographic universe) it seems like it just might be possible … ah, the hubris of it .. “we are all little gods.”

  6. John says:

    This argument about “molecular automatons” is really an argument about whether high school science applies to the world. (See Materialists should read this first)

    However, even if we dismiss simplistic materialism, there is a well known logical flaw in the concept of simple, conscious, free will because if you are to consciously decide to “will” something to happen this conscious decision cannot just pop into your mind. If it just popped into mind the decision itself would be non-conscious. To make a conscious decision you must consciously decide that you are going to consciously decide that you are going to consciously decide that….. and so on ad infinitum. The only alternative to this infinite regress is to accept that what we believe to be conscious decisions are usually just things that pop into mind – we are conscious of having made a decision but did not make the decision consciously.

    (See Conscious free will and empiricism)

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