An atheist who writes consistently with his worldview. Sort of.

contradiction.jpgWhy you don’t really have free will is an article by Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary science professor, who not only admits that there can be no such thing as true morality but seems to rejoice in it. (Hat tip: Edgar).

The link is a must-read for Christians and atheists alike.   The Christians can see the flaws in Coyne’s worldview, and the atheists should at least see how inconsistent they are when they deny Coyne’s conclusions.

Here’s why: Coyne is wildly flawed, but at least he writes somewhat consistently with his worldview (I’ll get to the “sort of” part at the end). The atheists insisting they can be “good without God” are doubly wrong: They are as flawed as Coyne in their knowledge and they don’t live consistently with their worldview.

My guess is that Coyne just writes things that are consistent with his naturalism. When it comes to practice he is probably like most hypocritical moral relativists: If you stole his car he wouldn’t just attribute it to molecules obeying the laws of physics.

‘Meat computers’

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.

I wonder how well that strategy would work for a defense attorney?  Time to clear out the prisons!

More practically, it should make atheists stop using sound bites such as “science gets you to the moon, religion flies you into a burning building.”  After all, in Coyne’s assessment there is nothing morally superior about going to the moon versus killing in the name of religion.  Both are 100% deterministic, that is, they are determined by the laws of science.

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.

So anyone subscribing to this theory should realize that any notions of “good” or “evil” are meaningless.

Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our illusion that we really do make choices. But then where do these illusions of both will and “free” will come from? We’re not sure. I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions. Sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer prosocial behaviors and more antisocial behaviors.

Note how Coyne slips up here and implies that “prosocial behaviors” are somehow better than “antiscocial behaviors.”  Wouldn’t one have to have true standard of good to make that claim?

Many scientists and philosophers now accept that our actions and thoughts are indeed determined by physical laws, and in that sense we don’t really choose freely, but philosophers have concocted ingenious rationalizations for why we nevertheless have free will of a sort.

There is a simple and logical answer to Coyne: We have a body and a soul.

. . . But the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can’t really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren’t freely chosen?

We should recognize that we already make some allowances for this problem by treating criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their “choice” by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression. But in truth those people don’t differ in responsibility from the “regular” criminal who shoots someone in a drug war; it’s just that the physical events behind their actions are less obvious.

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.

So you punish people for things they couldn’t control?  Lovely.  Using that logic, societies that cut off hands for stealing are doing a good thing.  Why not kill people for every infraction?  Wouldn’t that really improve things?

And note how Coyne says we can choose whether and how to punish.  But isn’t his primary message that we have no free will to choose?

Oh, wait, Coyne used the term “bad behavior.”  He cheated again.  And he thinks it is a moral good to protect society.  Note how he snuck morality in the back door.  And he thinks it is good to rehabilitate people.  I may have to take back my “sort of” notation and just chalk up Coyne as another wildly inconsistent atheist.

What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the “wrong choice.”

Why not?  Where does he get off saying revenge and retribution are bad?

And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.

Whoa!  How does he decide what “good behavior” is?!  Wouldn’t all his calculations be based on these laws of physics?

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.

How can there be such a thing as a “downside” or and “upside” in Coyne’s world?  Why would pretending be bad?  How could allegedly evolved brains be “wonderful” if they are just meat?

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.

He goes off the rails completely in his closing comments.  Why is it good to build a kinder world?  And how can we have a choice if the universe is as deterministic as he insists?

I should have titled this, “An atheist who writes consistently with his worldview.  For three sentences.”  After you read the entire piece you’ll realize that Coyne just goes about one sentence farther than most atheists.

My conversion to Christianity and my trust in the evidence for the life, death and resurrection are 100.00% due to his beloved determinism, so for that I thank him.

—–

Follow up: The comment thread at the original piece was priceless.  I have encountered many hostile atheists but nothing like the ad hominem-fest offered by a guy who was 10x more inconsistent than Coyne.  It was tiring and repetitive to interact with him but illuminating as well. It is almost too easy to refute what they say. They are well educated, so it can lull people into not thinking critically — especially when it absolves them of guilt!

Watching the personal attacks fly was interesting. I know the “professional atheists” won’t be swayed by pointing out these obvious inconsistencies, as they are apparently wired by the laws of physics and chemistry to be irrational. But I hope that the nominal atheists will see how ridiculous that worldview is and reconsider their position.

22 thoughts on “An atheist who writes consistently with his worldview. Sort of.”

  1. “Coyne is wildly flawed”
    Ya, well, he’s wildly atheist, so . . .

    “Many scientists and philosophers now accept that our actions and thoughts are indeed determined by physical laws”

    And the exact same number think that everything physical can come from nothing physical without an external cause.

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  2. Just more proof that atheists, like other liberals, can’t consistently live their worldviews. They have to keep cheating. I read this quote somewhere (or maybe this is a paraphrase – it’s in my notebook): “If there is no reason behind nature, if humans owe their existence to nature alone, then how can you trust your reason to give an accurate account of nature? Aren’t your thoughts the results of irrational causes, the effects of nature’s whims, and therefore sure to be irrational?”

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    1. That crossed my mind, too. C. S. Lewis is the one I associate with that argument, from his book Miracles. Perhaps your quote is a paraphrase of that book.

      It’s a great point. I was already Christian when I finally read Miracles, but it was the first time I was convinced that materialism wasn’t even an option—that it was logically untenable.

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    1. Thanks. It was tiring and repetitive but illuminating as well. It is almost too easy to refute what they say. They are well educated, so it can lull people into not thinking critically — especially when it absolves them of guilt!

      Watching the personal attacks fly was interesting. I know the “professional atheists” won’t be swayed by pointing out these obvious inconsistencies, as they are apparently wired by the laws of physics and chemistry to be irrational. But I hope that the nominal atheists will see how ridiculous that worldview is and reconsider their position.

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  3. Uou beat me to the punch Neil – I had started a post on this subject that I was almost done with. I might still post it, but one thing that strikes about Coyne’s view of our lack of free will. If he is right about our decisions merely being the result of physical processes set in motion from the big bang, then not only do we not have free will, but everything that is ever going to happen in the universe has already been decided from the beginning – we can’t by ouractions change the future in any way because every decision we would make is merely the product of physical porcesses already in play.

    In other words, to be an atheist is to believe the fact that we exist as humans is really no different than if we existed as rocks or gas clouds; the only difference is we can be aware of how meaningless our existence is.

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  4. Great analysis.

    Why do Jerry Coyne and his nihilist ilk give a flying fornication about what happens to society? If we’re all just a bunch of meat computers, Coyne probably shouldn’t waste his time trying to “protect society from criminals.” As human beings, we’re no more important than any other chintzy collection of molecules.

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      1. Try this clip from the movie “waking life”, which is movie, if you haven’t seen it, on the patheticism (new word) of “our” materialistic worldview. For anyone needing that final push to commit suicide, this would be the movie to watch. Anyway, here’s the clip. I think it is apropos for this subject.

        BTW, have you heard of or seen this movie?

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      2. Waking Life! I loved that movie—when I was in high school.—And I wasn’t Christian.

        For those who haven’t seen it, its scenes are a collection of almost entirely unrelated musings at length on topics from the philosophical (e.g., that one, free will) to the profane (some guy rants for a long time about how much he hates everyone who has ever wronged him and how exactly he would like to kill them). When I first saw it, I thought it was really “deep”. After I converted to Christianity and was exposed to C. S. Lewis and the whole world of other Christian thinkers talking about the meaning of life etc., I watched the movie again and found it disappointingly shallow and insubstantial. As C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, Christianity is an education in itself?

        As I’ve since remarked to my non-Christian sister (who is still a big fan of the movie), I loved it when I wasn’t Christian and had no philosophical depth. (She didn’t like that.) I remember it as a bunch of desultory dabbling in philosophy, unable to come to serious conclusions about any of the big questions, and perhaps not seriously interested in any. Come to think of it, maybe a lot of my life before I was Christian, the quotes I found “inspirational” or “deep”, etc. fit that description.

        I still think the main gimmick of the movie was a cool idea, apart from its content: It’s not a cartoon—the entire movie was shot with live actors, but then each frame was digitally painted over, each scene in a different style by a different artist.

        I don’t want to make the movie sound worse than it is, though. I still think the scene with Timothy Speed Levitch is hilarious:
        http://www.movieweb.com/v/VIbL2hgjkKoGef
        (Alternatively, http://www.movieweb.com/movie/waking-life/speed-levitch )
        —although, to be honest, I have no idea whether that’s intentional.

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      3. Great analysis of the movie Chillingworth. I’ve only seen the movie in parts. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever seen the whole thing. In looking for this clip however, I did discover that the entire movie was on You Tube and thought I’d watch it through at some point. Not that such is necessary given it’s construction.

        My take was that it is ultimately nothing more than the recorded musings of port sippers with tenure, projected onto different subjects in a quasi movie format. Your take that no one ever comes to a serious conclusion was mine as well. The problem for the writer is: if we are all evolved material, which is the position I assume the writer holds, there are no serious conclusions to come to except those one makes up for himself. This film seems to simply catalog those conclusions, conjured up by, or projected onto varying meat machines, then display all of them as the absurdity that they are from a purely materialistic perspective.

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  5. “And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.”

    So, I can’t change my behavior, but I can change someboy else’s behavior. What if I reward myself for good behavior, although I don’t see how I am supposed to know what good behavior is?

    Right now I am going to reward myself for reading this blog, that way I can be sure I will be back.

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  6. They always make themselves to look so sophisticated and thoughtful. and yet, very few (shall we say the “ELECT”?) can see how they keep borrowing our theology …

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  7. “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.”

    The more things change, the more they stay the same? Coyne makes it sound as if this were a new idea (“recent” experiments), but I’m sure I heard basically the same argument in one of Scott Adams’s whimsical books back in the ’90s. (Scott Adams—yes, the Dilbert guy—may well have meant it tongue in cheek, but if he was saying it, that means he was getting it from others who were saying it at the same time, not tongue in cheek.) But what does it really mean if brain scans indicate that my choice is made before it’s made? No doubt it’s true, as Adams and Coyne suggest, that I’m not always flying by the seat of my pants, utterly undecided about every fork in the road until the last possible second. If I decide to move to a different city in a couple of weeks, looking for better job prospects, in a sense I won’t have made the final decision until the day I move, but realistically I’ve been weighing my options for months. Coyne uses examples like crime: fine, if I hit a guy because our argument gets heated, in a sense I’m sure it’s true that I didn’t decide to hit him just then—in the sense that I didn’t have much time to deliberate in that moment. But my decision, in effect, was made over the course of the rest of my life to that point, the accumulated sum of my good and bad choices: By the time I have the opportunity to hit him, God and I and the devil have already made me either the kind of person who will, or the kind of person who won’t. Certainly I’ll have wondered, in idle moments, whether I would hit someone in that situation, and made some decision about what I should or shouldn’t do in such a situation. If I hit him and think, in hindsight, that I shouldn’t have done that, I can in effect decide (at least to some degree) not to do it again if I’m ever in a similar situation again; if I do so decide, I’ve made the decision about next time, and it was a free choice, but I won’t mostly still be making it in that moment the next time it comes up.

    If I understand him, Coyne has heard this kind of counterargument before and is responding to it when he says that “philosophers have concocted ingenious rationalizations for why we nevertheless have free will of a sort. It’s all based on redefining ‘free will’ to mean something else. Some philosophers claim that if we can change our actions in response to reason, then we’ve shown free will. But of course the words and deeds of other people are simply environmental influences that can affect our brain molecules.”

    I understand Coyne to be saying that if we move the point at which we think a free choice is being made earlier in time, it doesn’t change anything, because he still assumes the decision is determined by our environment, not freely chosen. But at that point he’s admitting that his entire argument is circular: In effect, “I’ve already assumed that our choices are not free; therefore we have no free will.”

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  8. I just began my first G. K. Chesterton book; Orthodoxy. I’ve learned that this one is an old debate. Just wanted to share a couple of sentences:

    “Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut… Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will.”

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