Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2)

In the previous blog, Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1), we looked at some surprising discoveries in changing behavior that resulted from studies done on soldiers who had become addicted to heroin, were dried out and returned to civilian life.  Incredibly 95% did not return to heroin addiction whereas in the general population, 90% of addicts who are dried out return to their addiction.

The overcoming of addictions certainly is a concern of any people who also believe in free will.  Slavery to anything is considered wrong.  Efforts to change behavior or to help people gain control over their behaviors have been a concern of medical science for some time.  Evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne recently wrote a USA  TODAY article,  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will, in which he deal with issues of behavioral changes in the form of New Year’s resolutions.

Coyne is a respected evolutionist who has written extensively in defense of the truth of evolution.   I have appreciated some of his writings in this regard and learned from him the strength of the evolutionary evidence.   Where I disagree with Coyne is in his aggressive commitment to atheistic materialism.  For Coyne there is nothing beyond biology, no soul, no free will, and really there can be no self.  Consciousness and conscience are all illusions of biological functions according to Coyne.  I want to quote extensively from his article and offer some comments on them.

While Coyne dismisses free will as an illusion created by chemical and biological functions in cells, he would, I think, welcome the news from the study mentioned in the previous blog – he still recognizes that there are things like good and bad behavior even while denying free will or any religious morality.  Coyne says discussions on free will are still important because they determine how we should treat miscreants and criminals.

But we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the “wrong choice.” And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.  There’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It’s impossible, anyway, …”

So while Coyne denies free will, he does believe that there are things like learned behavior, which can be changed.  Though, according to Coyne, we cannot freely choose to change our behavior, apparently some kind of behavioral conditioning can take place to modify behavior.  Though I’ve not kept up with this issue, it does seem to me that behavioral conditioning is not the theory in vogue in the behavioral sciences these days.

Coyne’s comments though also cause me to wonder what Coyne exactly believes.  For if it is true that there is no free will or no conscience (he has to deny these things because he is completely committed to materialism and thus cannot acknowledge the existence of non-material “forces” that can act on materialistic things), one has to wonder who or what exactly learns the behavior and changes it?  The cells?  The DNA?   The proteins?  The laws of physics?  If there is no conscience, if there is no real self, if there is no real consciousness apart from the cells and their chemical/biological functions, who or what exactly can learn to change behavior?   There would be further questions of why bother since everything is materialistically driven anyway?  Perhaps Coyne believes that cells and DNA are programmed to survive and thus have gained the need for social interactions as part of their survival techniques.   But I would wonder whether any of that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt by science or remains in the realm of Coyne’s beliefs?  James Le Fanu raised such questions about the claims of scientific materialism in his book, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Additionally, I would have to ask whether “learning” is not also an immaterial force that acts upon the material cells.  Cells may learn – change chemical processes, but what then is information?   By Coyne’s thinking one would logically abandon ideas about “learning” and just say the cells become reprogrammed.   For me, this is an inadequate description of what humans are and how our brains operate.

Coyne writes:

So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year‘s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.

In these words of Coyne, I think he overstates the case of what has actually been proven by science and what are merely his beliefs.   Human behavior is shaped by a multitude of factors, many of which we still do not understand, and certainly we don’t understand how all of these factors interrelate with and impact each other in shaping human behavior.  That was obvious in the NPR piece about the heroin addicted GIs in Vietnam.

Genetic determinism has not been proven as the only factor affecting human behavior.  And it is quite possible as in the case of epigenetics, that environmental factors might magnify or mitigate the purely genetic effects.  Whatever our genes may be programmed to do, if the environmental situation is not proper, the genes will not have that exact effect on our behavior.  And the fact that memories are somehow biologically stored in the human brain is no proof at all that free will does not exist, but only shows that that human thought processes take place in the physical brain:  the mind and the brain are linked in some mysterious way.  Coyne has not shown how tiny cells or the proteins of DNA can have a conscious awareness of being part of a greater being (the human) in order to control its behavior.  Nor do we have the understanding of how all the brain cells work together to create “thought.”  The whole process of the human brain is far more complex than Coyne admits in his article, and not fully understood by scientists to this day.

Additionally, our brains are not limited by memories or genetic determinants for human minds have shown the capacity for creativity – for bringing new ideas and products into existence that never before existed,  and for combining information in new ways whose combinations and solutions were at one time were thought impossible,  as has happened in the history of math and physics.  The human mind has shown an ingenious ability to think more and more abstractly through history.   This is not simply the product of learned past experiences.  The neural cells are in fact creating new ideas.  This wouldn’t seem possible based purely on Coyne’s claims.

In the next blog, I will continue to look at the claims of Jerry Coyne.

See my blog series commenting on the writings of James La Fanu,  The Genetic Side of Being Human.

Next:  Free Will and Biology (1)