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.
This, Coyne's concluding paragraph, has it all: scientism, incoherence, and liberal victimology.
1. Coyne realizes that we cannot deliberate, choose, and act without the belief in free will. He realizes that one cannot, say, choose to eat less in the coming year without believing (even if falsely) that one is freely choosing, without believing that the choice is 'up to oneself.' But then Coyne immediately confuses this unavoidable false believing with pretending to choose. He seems to think that if my choice is determined and not free (in the libertarian sense explained in the earlier post), then it is not a genuine choice, but a pretend choice. But that is not the case. A choice is genuine whether or not it is determined.
People deliberate and choose. Bicycles don't. That's part of the pre-analytic data. It is also part of the pre-analytic data that people sometimes pretend to deliberate and pretend to choose. It is a grotesque confusion on Coyne's part to think that if one is determined to choose then one's choice is not genuine but pretend. (Note also that if determinism is true, then one's pretending to choose is also determined without prejudice to its being a real case of pretending to choose.)
Coyne is making a mistake similar to the one he made at the beginning of the piece. There he implied that if a choice is not free then it is not a choice. But a choice is a choice whether free or determined. Coyne was confusing the question, Are there choices? with the question, Are there free choices? He now thinks that if a choice is determined, then it not a real, but a merely pretend, choice. That is doubly confused. Just as a pretend choice can be free, a real choice can be determined.
2. We are then told that consciousness, free choice, and the idea of the self are "illusions fashioned by natural selection." This is nonsense pure and simple.
First of all, consciousness cannot be an illusion. Consciousness cannot be an illusion for the simple reason that it is a presupposition of the distinction between reality and illusion. An illusion is an illusion to consciousness, so that if there is no consciousness there are no illusions either. There simply is no (nonverbal) distinction between the illusion of consciousness and consciousness. If one is under the illusion that one is conscious, then one is conscious, really conscious, and therefore not under any illusion about the matter.
The thesis that consciousness is an illusion is self-refuting. If I merely seem to be conscious, but am not conscious, then I am conscious. And if I do not merely seem to be conscious, but am conscious, then (of course) I am conscious. Therefore, necessarily, if I seem to be conscious, then I am conscious. Here we bite on granite, and "our spade is turned" -- to mix Nimzovich and Wittgenstein metaphors. Or in the words of a German proverb, Soviel Schein, soviel Sein.
Consciousness, in this regard, is analogous to truth. If you try to say something about truth, you presuppose truth. For if you try to say something about truth, presumably you are trying to say something true about truth. So if you say that truth is an illusion, and that there are no truths, then you are saying that in truth there are no truths -- which is self-refuting. If, on the other hand, you are simply making noises or perhaps aiming to say something false, the we ignore you for those reasons.
3. I don't believe that one can show in the same clean 'knock-down' way that free will is not an illusion. That consciousness is an illusion is a plainly incoherent idea; the incoherence of the notion that free will is an illusion is harder to uncover. But suppose we ask, "In which sense of 'illusion' is free will an illusion?" It is nothing like a correctable perceptual illusion of the sort we are subject to on a daily basis. The 'illusion' of free will, if illusion it be, cannot be thrown off. I cannot function as an agent without taking myself to be free, and I cannot cease being an agent short of suicide. Echoing Sartre, I am condemned to agency and to that extent "condemned to be free." Even a mad-dog quietist who decided to renounce all action, would be deciding to renounce all action and thereby demonstrating willy-nilly the ineradicable reality of his agency. An 'illusion' that it constutive of my very being an agent is no illusion in any worthwile sense of the term.
It's a bit like an Advaitin (an adherent of Advaita Vedanta) telling me that the multiple world of our ordinary sense experience is an illusion. "OK, but what does that mean? When we are at the shooting range, you are going to take care not to be down range when the shooting starts, right? Why, if the world of multiplicity, the world of shotguns and shells and targets and tender human bodies is an illusion? Why would it matter? Obviously, you are playing fast and loose with 'illusion' and don't really believe that this gun and your head are illusions.)
One cannot distinguish (except verbally) the mere appearance of consciousness and the reality of consciousness. Similarly, I suggest that one cannot distinguish between the 'illusion' of free will and its reality. This thesis of course requires much more development and support! But hey, this is a blog, just an online notebook!
Those who claim that free will is an illusion are simply playing fast and loose with the word 'illusion.' There are not using it in an ordinary way, in the sort of way that gives it its ordinary 'bite'; they are using it in some extended way that drains it of meaning. It is a kind of bullshitting that scientists often fall into when they are spouting scientism in the popular books they scribble to turn a buck. Doing science is hard; writing bad philosopohy is easy. By the way, that is why we need philosophy. We need it to expose all the pseudo-philsophy abroad in the world.
We need philosophy to bury its undertakers lest there be all those rotting corpses laying about.
4. Finally, Coyne tells us we are all "victims of circumstance." But I've had enough of this guy for one day. I shouldn't be wasting so much time on him.