Human Exceptionalism

Denying Free Will Promotes Relativism

Sigh.  Once again someone has written that human beings only think they have free will, when in “reality,” implacable physical forces create the illusion that we have the power to decide.  Under this view, every decision we make and act we perform is forced unseen upon us by physical laws–genes, chemicals, whatever. The latest example is in USA Today, by Jerry Coyne, a professor (of course!) of ecology and evolution.  From “Why  You Don’t Really Have Free Will:”

But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion. The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

Science has not proved that we are mere constructs of our brain. Indeed, it doesn’t yet know what the mind is, much less how consciousness works. And our thoughts and emotions are influenced by far more than mere chemical interactions and atomic vibration.  For example, contrary to the assertion, we can will ourselves to change the way we react to certain things. People do it all the time.  It is nonsensical to say that one had no choice but to first, want to change, and then no choice whether to actually succeed.  Conscious awareness actually changes everything–adds a dimension, if you will–and to say we don’t have free will is to actually say we are not really conscious.

Then we get into Freudian (generically speaking) territory:

Psychologists and neuroscientists are also showing that the experience of will itself could be an illusion that evolution has given us to connect our thoughts, which stem from unconscious processes, and our actions, which also stem from unconscious process. We think this because our sense of “willing” an act can be changed, created, or even eliminated through brain stimulation, mental illness, or psychological experiments. The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.

Please.  This isn’t anything more than a hypothesis.  Besides, how can there be “mental illness” if we are just so many “meat computers?”  In such a world, there is no wrong way to act, nor a right one.  Coyne agrees:

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.

How can we gain empathy if we have no free will? How can we gain anything at all if we are merely flotsam and jetsam on the currents of atoms?  This is Dada talk.

The attack on free will is an attack on human exceptionalism, religion, and moral accountability–and a way of promoting and justifying relativism.  It is a means of allowing anything and judging nothing because whatever we do, it wasn’t essentially us doing it, anyway.  But somehow the I Robot peddler thinks we will be able to choose to use this information to build a better world! He ends:

With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

What?  We can take knowledge and apply it?  That contradicts Coyne’s entire thesis.

First, if everything is merely physicis, why is kinder to be valued more than brutality?  Indeed, to even assert that kind is preferable to brutal can’t be done absent free will.  And how do we go about making a kinder world if we can’t help ourselves either working toward or against that end?  Finally, physics is an implacable natural force.  Kindness is a human moral concept.  The two are unrelated, or to borrow an old saying from the feminists, physics is to kindness what a fish is to a bicycle.

In short, what utter drivel.


The Latest

The Great Elucidator

The Great Elucidator

An inspiring one-hour documentary about the conservative public intellectual Thomas Sowell serves as a superb intro to his thinking.