It does not inspire much confidence when a writer begins his piece with a blatant confusion. But that is what Jerry A. Coyne does in Why You Don't Really Have Free Will:
Perhaps you've chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you're in a hotel, maybe you've decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you'll wear today.
You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. . . . 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.
Suppose you have chosen to read Coyne's essay and have decided on scrambled eggs for breakfast. Well then, you have made a choice and a decision and it is nonsense for Coyne to claim that you haven't just done those things. It is also nonsense to claim that you had no choice concerning your New Year's resolutions. It is a plain fact that one chooses, decides, and deliberates. What is debatable, however, is whether one freely chooses, decides, deliberates. Coyne gets off to a rocky start by conflating these two questions:
1. Do human beings ever choose, decide, deliberate?
2. Do human beings ever freely choose, decide, deliberate?
Only the second can be debated reasonably, and this, to be charitable, is the question Coyne is posing. His answer is that we never freely choose, decide, deliberate. His thesis is that "free will is a complete illusion."
Suppose you ordered the scrambled eggs. No one held a gun to your head: your choice was uncoerced and in that sense free. So you made a choice and you made a free (uncoerced) choice. But there is another sense of 'free' and it is the one with which Coyne is operating:
3. Do human beings ever freely choose, etc. in the sense that they could have done otherwise even if all the antecedent conditions up to the point of the choice, etc. were the same?
Call this the libertararian sense of 'free' and distinguish it from the compatibilist sense of the word. To refine Coyne's thesis, he is claiming that libertarian freedom of the will is an illusion. Why should we believe this? Coyne says that there are "two lines of evidence."
Although Coyne uses the word 'evidence' and postures as if empirical science is going to step in, do some real work, and finally solve a problem that philosophers in their armchairs merely endlessly gas off about, the first "line of evidence" he provides is just a stock deterministic argument that could have been given in the 18th century. Determinism is the thesis that the actual past together with the actual laws of nature render only one present nomologically possible. Determinism has two consequences: it deprives the agent of alternative future possibilities, and it insures that the agent is not the ultimate source of any action. For if determinism is true, the agent himself is nothing other than an effect of causes that stretch back before his birth, so that no part of the agent can be an ultimate origin of action. Hence when you chose the scrambled eggs you could not have done otherwise given the actual past: you could not have chosen oat meal instead. You made a choice all right; it is just that it wasn't a libertarianly-free choice.
There 's nothing new here. We are just complex physical systems, and determinism is true. So everything that happens in our bodies and brains is necessitated, and libertarian freedom of will cannot exist. Hence our sense that we are libertarianly free is an illusion.
That's a nice philosophical argument that makes no appeal to empirical facts. Amazing how so many of these scientistic science types with their contempt for philosophy cannot help doing philosophy (while disingenuously denying that that is what they are doing) and simply trotting out old philosophical arguments all the while displaying their ignorance as to their origin and how to present them rigorously.
The argument is only as good as its premises. Even if we assume determinism, it is scarcely obvious that we are just complex physical systems: "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."
Really? I am now enjoying a memory of hippy-trippy Pam from the summer of '69. So my memory state is identical to a brain state. But that is arguably nonsense: the one exhibits intentionality ,the other doesn't, and so by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, they cannot be identical. No materialist has ever given a satisfactory account of intentionality.
So the first argument is rather less than compelling despite Coyne's scientistic posturing: "And what they're [neuroscientists] finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion."
The other "line of evidence" is from neurobiology:
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. [. . .] "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.
This argument is hardly compelling. For one thing, it appears to confuse predictability with unfreedom. Suppose I am able to predict accurately how Peter will behave in a range of situations. It doesn't follow that he does not act freely (in the libertarian sense) in those situations. On the basis of my knowledge of his character and habits, I predict that Peter will smoke a cigarette within an hour. That is a prediction about the future of the actual world. Suppose he does smoke a cigarette within an hour. My correct prediction does not entail that could not have done otherwise than smoke a cigarette within an hour. It does not entail that there is no possible world in which he refrains from smoking a cigarette within an hour.
So if, on the basis of unconscious brain activity, it is predicted that the subject will make a conscious decision, and he does, that does not entail that the decision was not free. Furthermore, why should 'decision' be used to cover the whole seven second brain process? If 'decision' is used to refer to the conscious pressing of the button, then no part of the decision is unconscious, and Coyne's argument collapses. What scientistic types don't seem to understand is that empirical science is not purely empirical. It cannot proceed without conceptual decisions that are a priori.
If Coyne thinks that contemporary neuroscience has proven that there is no libertarian freedom of the will, then he is delusional: he is passing off dubious philosophy as if it were incontrovertible science while hiding the fact from himself.
In the sequel I will will adress the question whether libertarian free will could be an illusion. Does that so much as make sense?
Companion post: Free Will Meets Neuroscience.