Free Will and Biology (2)

This is the 4th and final blog in this series which began with Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1).  In the previous blog, Free Will and Biology (1), we continued looking at the claims of  Professor Jerry Coyne in his  USA TODAY article  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will.   Coyne is not only an evolutionary scientist but also ardently committed to materialistic atheism which leads to his denial of a soul, of free will or of any non-materialist force which might act upon material creation.   All human behavior for him results from chemical and biological forces – the laws of physics.  Jerry Coyne:

“And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.”

Here is where Coyne makes a very odd claim: while he states unflinchingly and absolutely that humans have no free will, he says that our brains are programmed by our genes.   Now programming certainly requires some intention and forethought.  So do our genes have a free will that we do not?   If our brains are merely meat computers and if the computer analogy really satisfactorily can detail the workings of the brain, then we have to admit that programming requires intention – a knowledge of what results we want to occur.  It would require a decision what is the intended result and how to get the human to function in that way.   So then there is free will apparently, but for Coyne it exists in our genes?   Coyne himself says the genes program the brain for a “predetermined output.”   But a predetermined output would seem to imply intentionality and some knowledge of the future, something is deciding where things are headed and ought to be headed.  This seems to fly in the face of Coyne’s commitment to the random basis of natural selection.    Things aren’t randomly happening in humans according to Coyne, but are happening based on some predetermined plan.  Sounds like something believers in God would assert or that might be claimed by those who accept the anthropic principle.

I would offer as a counter to Coyne’s claim that there is no free will the following situation:  a driver coming to a stop sign.  Indeed the driver may be merely responding to “programmed” stimuli and so brings the car to a stop (and there are here decisons that must be made about the stopping).  But even if the driver is “conditioned” to stop, there is no exact stimuli to tell the driver when to go.  The driver has to analyze the situation and think about what to do and when to go.  The stop sign may give the driver a law to obey, but the driver has to decide when to proceed ahead.  Indeed this will cause various part of the brain to come into function – there will be physiological processes taking place as thought occurs, but then the driver makes a decision as to when to go.  This all may take place in a split second; the brain begins to put the body in motion for action before the driver is even fully consciously aware of the decision.  Nevertheless a real decision is made and the non-material force of the driver’s evaluation of the situation and then choosing what to do acts in conjunction with the driver’s entire physiological reaction.   These are not incompatible forces as Coyne believes, but rather the only way a human being can function.

Coyne’s references to neurobiological experiments ‘prove’ (to him, based on his belief system) that there is no free will.

“Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

But to me, all his experiments show is the biological nature of being human.  Yes our thought processes, our imaginations and our free will have a biological element to them that can be measured.  I would expect there to be neurobiological processes on the move before I did anything – otherwise my thoughts or actions would occur before my brain chemistry began and that makes no sense whatsoever.  “I” have no existence apart from my body and so the two have to operate in sync and in order.   A message can’t arrive before it is sent.  That seems like science to me.

Coyne proffers:

There’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It’s impossible, anyway, to act as though we don’t have it: you’ll pretend to choose your New Year’s resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of “me” are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

There’s no downside to Coyne giving up free will, he doesn’t believe in it to begin with.  So he imposes his own belief system on his conclusions, and certainly his conclusions seem to go far beyond what the science proves.

His “upside” – realizing there is no me or no free will or no consciousness – again is simply a reaffirmation of his belief system.  He doesn’t believe in any of these things, and yes we would have to call that a belief.  He hasn’t proven anything.  He is trying to lead the reader to follow his line of reasoning and his belief system without having proven any of the claims he made.  Hardly the scientific method and very disappointing for a person who wants to believe that materialism is all there is.

And he imagines his belief system will result in a kinder world with more empathetic people.   I would call it imagination rather than belief because there is even less proof that the kinder world will result from abandoning ideas of self or free will or consciousness or conscience.   Humans are humans.  We have the genetic makeup we have and to use Coyne’s own thinking – any empathy we have is the result of millions of years of evolution and therefore cannot be changed by abandoning ideas of self or free will.  The lack of empathy is in our genes – that should also be a claim of Jerry Coyne.  But apparently he is permitted a fantasy about humanity that leaves his own evolutionary claims behind.

This series is available to be read as one document:  Free Will and Biology (PDF).


10 thoughts on “Free Will and Biology (2)

  1. Pingback: Free Will and Biology (1) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Christ, sin, free will, and determinism. « Near Emmaus

  3. Fr. Ted, great set of posts in my opinion.

    I envy your ability to remain polite to biologist Coyne all the way through. The man seems completely devoid of any respectable philosophical arguments, and unconscious of the most basic philosophical grounds, and he truly believes none are required.

    Unbelievable that he was given such a broad forum to address matters that lie so far away from his specialty – I doubt that most readers of USA Today are equipped to handle his sophistries, and I’m afraid it would require at least 2 college courses just to get the average joe to a place where he could see the philosophical joke.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Thanks for your comment.

      As to being polite toward Coyne, there are plenty of ad hominem attacks all over the internet on these topics, I don’t need to add to those.

      There are issues of substance beneath the unsubstantiated claims of Coyne.

      1. Your reference to ‘issues of substance’ reminds me that there are supremely good reasons to pick up the strange gauntlet being thrown down these days ‘in the name’ of science (even if it appears to be a thing without fingertips or thumb).

        Thanks for the guidance. I am too prone to contempt (in the old sense of that word – that the new atheists carry the discussion so far away from the usual critical ‘markers’ and rules of reason that it looks to be beneath the dignity of philosophy or theology).

        Your words encourage me to try engaging them a little. At least to suggest, as you did, that they are actually offering no real proof for what they assert.

  4. Brian Garber

    Fr. Ted, here is my observation from an ‘engineer’s perspective’.

    If Coyne is arguing that the brain is in essence a “meat computer”, then we can think of it as a type of processing device. In other words, it is a system with inputs “x” and outputs “y” passing through a transfer function (the brain): x(t) -> h(t) -> y(t). Let’s consider the brain, h(t), the processing part as a filter.

    In signal processing, a causal filter is one whose output depends on past or present inputs. A non-causal filter is one whose output depends on future events and this type is called a non-realizable filter (it cannot be built to process real-time signals). Therefore, a non-causal brain is non-realizable and thus Coyne is wrong. Q.E.D. ;-)

    1. Fr. Ted

      I have read other things that say the comparison of the brain to the computer involves making certain mechanistic assumptions about the brain which simply aren’t true. The brain is vastly more complicated than any computer which we are able to construct to date. Computers are exceptionally good at crunching numbers speedily, and can do some other calculations and actions faster than the brain, but the brain is organic and the computer electronic and the two are not identical even though they are often thought about in a similar way.

  5. Fr. Ted…
    Great series. As a computer programmer type of person that dates back to the days of doing computer programming in Base 2, I am continually amazed at how “scientific” pundits can compare the human brain to a computer and then deny the existence of a Higher Power. I remember growing up in the era where everyone was worried that computers would one day take over the world. As Brian has indicated, a computer can very easily be quantified in engineering terms and will only do that which the programmer has given it the power and the ability to do. (I guess this argument could be used with people like Coyne to present the case for a Divine Power that has done the programming within our genes and brains.)

    Another simple point that Coyne seems to have missed (to me it is apparent that he has never really written a computer program) is that part of the programming entails starting up pre-processes in order to accomplish a task. To build your claim that free will or Divine intervention do not exist on the that fact that rudimentary tests show certain brain activities in place seven seconds before the actual event takes place is ludicrous. As a programmer I know that in order to perform a certain function that is dictated by the inputs provided I may have to do some preliminary actions (check to see if the printer is on and available before sending a print job to it, for example) before I start the action that is driven by the inputs. And as you so well pointed out, if as a driver I stop at a stop sign and receive no further inputs then I will sit there until the line of cars behind me begins to push me off of the road.

    Our minds, our spirits, our wills are so much more complex than anything that we as humans can understand. I believe that the need to explain it away as Coyne has indicates a more critical issue of free will…refusing to acknowledge that there is a Power greater than him acting in creation. His whole argument points to his application of free will in his conclusions.

  6. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  7. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 | Cheesewearing Theology

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