Jerry Coyne: Free Will Is Also A Delusion

It’s not just God that’s a delusion. Free will is also. And our language should change to reflect it.

That, at any rate, is University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne’s opinion. Here’s his recommendation, from his blog today, of what to do with the term “free will”:

Abandon the term “free will” and replace it with something like “the appearance of having made a decision.”

In other words, Jerry Coyne is implying that every apparent act of freedom—of the human exercise of free will—should be seen, ultimately, as an illusion which, if not recognized as such, becomes a delusion carried by the mind of the believer.

As such, those who recognize the truth of determinism (that is, people like Jerry Coyne) should adopt some alternative term for free will so as to habituate themselves away from the rhetoric of human freedom and achieve greater precision in language and thought.

And, in Coyne’s view, atheists and scientists shouldn’t keep their disbelief in free will to themselves; the masses should be in-the-know about this as well. Their most cherished beliefs in agency are deluded. Here’s what he says to his blog readers (who consist mostly of atheists and academics like himself):

If people are dualists, we need to tell them that there is no free will in the contracausal sense.  This is what I have been doing, and, to a large extent, what Sam’s book does [Sam Harris’s new book on free will].  Many here seem loath to do that; indeed, some have said that we have to keep the precious knowledge of determinism to ourselves lest it discombobulate the “masses”. I find that condescending and invidious: above all, we must speak the truth.  After all, rejecting contracausal free will does have practical implications, at least for the justice system, as well as for people’s scientific view of how their brains work.

Note that Jerry Coyne says rejecting “contracausal free will” has “practical implications.”

To put it mildly, fleshing out those “practical implications” seems rather important. But Jerry Coyne mentions only two areas where those practical implications apply: education and the criminal justice system.

But isn’t democracy also a “justice system”—a method by which a society’s directions get justly determined? What could be more unjust, after all, than to exclude the individual’s will from matters that affect her?

Note also that democracy—which means determination by free people, not blind atoms shuffling in the void—is predicated on voting, praise, blame, and shame.

But if we abandon the term free will, the terms democracy, voting, praise, blame, and shame lose their meaning, and it becomes Orwellian to use them.

You can’t, after all, have a real democracy if people have reached the conclusion that they’re robots. Feminist self-assertion, for example, is predicated on a woman’s self-determination.

But if free will goes, whence feminism? In the video below, is the young woman, in boldly asserting herself, just being silly? Is existentialism silly too?

And, of course, libertarianism becomes problematic as well. Ayn Rand, for example, famously said that “to think or not to think” is the free individual’s pivotal decision, with praise or shame apportioned accordingly.

Ayn Rand was also an atheist. Was she not correctly thinking through the implications of her atheism?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Jerry Coyne: Free Will Is Also A Delusion

  1. Pingback: A Challenge for Atheist Materialism: Independent of Consciousness, Does Color Exist? | Prometheus Unbound

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