Tag Archives: Moral responsibility

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.

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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.