Jerry Coyne Free Will Incoherence Watch: His Confession

At atheist Jerry Coyne’s blog, the following statement by Spinoza on free will is quoted with approval:

Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause of their actions.

It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of philosophical determinism, but it’s fair to ask, if one endorses it, whether one then still uses the language of freedom in day-to-day affairs. Jerry Coyne, to his credit, doesn’t duck the question. Instead, he confesses:

I use the language of choice because I feel that I’m choosing, even if I don’t believe that intellectually. . . .

In other words, he uses the language of freedom exactly as if he still believed in it; as if he were a free-will religionist.

Isn’t that curious?

And how about existentially owning up to his actions? Since arriving at the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist, does Jerry Coyne take responsibility for his past behavior?


I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative […]

Let’s deconstruct these two statements of Jerry Coyne’s a bit.

With regard to freedom, first notice that his rationale for using the “language of choice” in his day-to-day life is in tension with his endorsement of Spinoza’s declaration of strict determinism. If it wasn’t in tension, Coyne might have said something more straightforward:

I use the language of choice because I have no choice.

Instead, Jerry Coyne makes it sound as if he’s offering a mea culpa to his anti-free will position; as if he’s volunteering to go with a feeling he might otherwise resist. To do this, he implicitly deploys brain modularity as justification: I go with one part of my modular brain against another. In other words, one part of Jerry Coyne’s brain is in the grip of an illusory but irresistible feeling that he has free will even as another part of his brain knows, intellectually, that this is nonsense. Needless to say, the feeling part of his brain wins his praxis :

I use the language of choice because I feel that I’m choosing, even if I don’t believe that intellectually. . . .

So, in matters of the heart, Jerry Coyne is kind with himself. His modular brain divides him. It’s as if there’s a good and bad angel at each ear, and he admits to going with his bad angel—what feels good and mesmerizing to him—as opposed to the better angel of his nature, his reason. He doesn’t even try, like a Buddhist meditator might, to reign in his feelings to the governance of his reason via some method of discipline—some habit-shifting practice in the way he uses language. He just lets his delusion be and allows it to reinforce itself in him by habit.

But it’s hard to imagine Jerry Coyne being quite so casual about similar delusions. Imagine, for example, Jerry Coyne’s response to a professing agnostic or atheist who nevertheless makes the following confession concerning theological language and religious behavior:

I use theological language and engage in religious practices because it feels to me like God—or something quite personal and mysterious—really is present and active in the world, even if I don’t believe that intellectually.

Tosh! Jerry Coyne would no doubt say. Grow up! Don’t be so indulgent and undisciplined intellectually. Stop fooling yourself!

And Jerry Coyne presumably wouldn’t be especially hard on himself for ungenerously coming down on such a person (see here and here) because, after all, Coyne knows (intellectually) that he has no choice:

I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative […]

Did you catch that? A self-professed determinist confesses that he tries to stop fretting. But why would he even tell us this except to elicit sympathy for his morally praiseworthy efforts to stop beating up on himself?

And who gets the credit for trying to stop the fretting, really? If you can’t be blamed for trying to stop something, you also can’t be praised for trying to stop something.

How curiously self-serving is Jerry Coyne in his reasoning about determinism. I wonder if he notices.

But I also wonder what a strictly deterministic attitude toward the world would, in fact, look like if placed into truly consistent practice—not just individually, but sociologically. What would really happen to language, the self, the courts?

To effort?

I’ve long liked the way Mel Gibson plays the below scene from Hamlet. In searching for his father’s ghost, he’s frantic and sword wielding, but the moment he truly absorbs the ghost’s presence, he recognizes the futility of his defenses—both bodily and mental—and surrenders to what is obviously vaster than his ability to control or comprehend.

This is what abandoning free will would really look like, I think.


And perhaps this (something go-with-the-flow religious):

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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