Why you don’t really have free will

Professor Jerry A. Coyne, from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago, writes: 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 your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. 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.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons. [Continue reading…]

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5 thoughts on “Why you don’t really have free will

  1. delia ruhe

    Every time biological determinism rears its ugly head it’s through another discipline. It once discredited the discipline of biology, so it shifted and gave sociologists the opportunity to embarrass themselves. This time it’s through the discipline of psychology — Evolutionary Psychology, I think it’s called. And when it’s finished making psychologists look like asses, it’ll move on to another discipline.

    The only answer for the rest of us is just to roll our eyes and ride it out.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    Another mechanistic view of reality. It does contain some useful approaches to the Buddhist concepts of anatta—the non-existence of a ‘self’.

    I really liked the importance he gives to the word ‘illusion’ without any consideration of the illusions he holds…that he has control over his own existence, that the determinism of physics (19th century physics I might point out — before quantum mechanics) is an accurate portrayal of reality, and the belief that mathematics (or its influence over molecular biology) is the only ground in which reality can be interpreted. Items of ‘scientific’ faith, more likely to be ‘maya’.

    It would seem to me that for the human mind to be merely the stage upon which molecular biology plays out, the indeterminism of the atomic/molecular level also has an effect. He also seems to slide over the nature of memory, whether a computer-like file storage, or the more realistic interpretation as the emergent property of otherwise unconnected synapses…until an outside stimulation engenders a matrix of connection. Of course his whole argument falls apart if the brain can receive stimulus from outside sources, as many individuals over the years have reported. I like to call that ‘don’t believe all you think’.

    Worth reading but too simplistic.

  3. Laurie K

    Alas, Coyne is unable to resist writing as he did. I tried not to rotate my eyeballs skyward but neurons and molecules shifted my gaze.

  4. Clif Brown

    The logic is compelling: since we are only physical creatures with noting spiritual that exists apart from our tissues, there can be no independent source of decision making that stands apart from our chemistry. This doesn’t mean that our fate is sealed because there is no predicting what our environment will present to us. It does mean, however, that given the environment, our “decisions” could be predicted if we knew enough about how the process works.

    But here’s a mind game for you. A brain scientist of the future who knows precisely how the “decision” process works, is monitoring his own brain as he is presented visual things from which he must choose. Upon presentation of an object, the “decision” mechanism of his brain will tell him to choose object A over object B. Knowing this, he can deliberately choose object B simply to be contrary, or he can go along with object A. What will he do and what determines his choice?

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