That is the reasoning of Dr. Jerry Coyne, one of the nation’s leading evolutionary scientists, in a resent Op-Ed for USA Today – Why you don’t have free will. Coyne is not alone in this assertion. There is a growing number of materialistic atheists holding to this claim.
The logic sounds plausible, even convincing if you allow Coyne to guide the discussion. This is where the Christian who seeks to engage an educated populace must understand the arguments being made in culture and how exactly we can respond. So, how could a Christian seek to rebut Coyne’s argument? I believe there are questions that can be asked, which demonstrate the shortcomings in viewing our brains as nothing more than “meat computers.”
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1. Why should I trust your argument, since, according to you, it came from a “meat computer”? If Coyne is right, we are all simply products of naturalistic evolution that has no outside guiding influence. It is just time and chance working together with no “knowledge” of the outcome. If this is the case and my brain is only the product of those forces, why should I trust it?
To use Coyne’s illustration, who or what originally programmed the “meat computer” and why should I believe that it can be used rationally and can find truth? Maybe our meat computers are full of bugs and viruses and when we believe we are thinking rationally, we are actually thinking irrationally. If there is nothing outside the circular system of naturalism, then we have no reason to trust anything Coyne or anyone else (including our own mind) says.
2. What would morality look like without free will? Coyne argues that people have no choice over their behaviors because that is simply the output of their genetic material and environment. If this is the case, then there is no sense of moral responsibility. As Coyne says, Bernie Madoff, who scammed people for millions, is no different from Nelson Mandela, who helped bring freedom to a nation. Because this is the case, we cannot punish based on personal choice. We should, however, punish based on future deterrent. Here is where Coyne’s argument falls apart.
Why? Why should we deter someone from murdering or committing other crimes? Coyne says we should continue to punish criminals as that adds to the environment of others and can make them choose differently later. But the question remains as to why we would want them to choose in a certain way. If there is no sense of morality, as it would only be the by-products of our brains, why would we care what other’s do, particularly if it does not effect us personally?
3. If it is impossible to act as if free will does not exist, is that not a strong indication that it does? The column repeatedly acknowledges the appearance of free will and even the inevitability of behaving as if free will does exist. If that is the case, why is that not then evidence for free will’s existence?
Coyne’s theory does not fit with the coherence test of a worldview. If you are unable to live with the logical conclusions of your worldview, then it is evidence for its falsity. Coyne will continue to mentally hold to the non-existence of free will, but he will continue to live his life as if it existed. Yet, he wants me to jettison the idea as out-dated. First, let me see him live a fully functioning life without behaving as if free will existed. Then, he can come talk to me about his new way of thinking. If it can’t be lived out, why should I believe it?
4. How could society be better if we stopped believe in free will? Coyne argues that realizing that we do not have free will would bring about positive changes to society. It would cause us to wonder at our evolved minds and would increase our empathy. At this point, however, Coyne has to answer two questions – “What is better?” and “How can I stop believing?”.
As we just talked about with morality, how can you call one result “better” compared to the other. That would require some standard of morality that exists outside of our minds. Coyne’s system does not allow for that, so he cannot sneak in terms like “postive,” “kinder,” or “improvement.” The other question is practically begging to be asked – how could I possibly stop believing in free will? According to the entire article, I have no choice over my actions. I cannot truly decide to do otherwise, so am I not locked into believe in free will, regardless of what Coyne may argue?
Coyne compared our brains to computers. That analogy is not the best one for his argument. He is right that computers can only use what has been programmed into them to use, but how does that information get into those computers? That’s right. Humans put it in there. An outside source, makes the computers for a purpose and then programs them to fulfill that purpose. That sounds vaguely familiar.