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Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager.

This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism.

In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s response to my piece, and elaborate on his arguments in defence of compatibilism.

The Utilitarian Case for Free Will

Coyne and I both cited studies in support of our arguments. During a systematic, transparent, open-access search and review of the literature, I found 65 studies shedding direct light on the “utilitarian question.” As Coyne pointed out, belief in free will certainly seems to be associated with retributive attitudes and credulity. However, the evidence also strongly suggests that belief in free will is positively correlated with subjective well-being, tangible success in life, along with pro-social and compassionate behaviour. Additionally, people tend to embrace contradictory intuitions of cause and effect and agency, which leads them to favour compatibilism. There is some evidence to suggest that when belief in free will is undermined, “low-level” adaptive responses are also undermined at a behavioural and neurological level.

The unambiguous conclusion seems to be that people are better off believing in either libertarian free will (which grants us complete agency) or the intuitive compatibilism (which grants us compromised agency) that they tend to favour. A theological variant of Coyne’s determinism may have helped to make the hardships of pre-industrial society easier to bear, but the secular variant is a marginal viewpoint with marginal adaptive value in marginal contexts.

The Conscious Case for Libertarian Free Will

Coyne dismisses the hard problem of consciousness and cites a Sean Carroll article claiming that the “physics of everyday life” are “completely understood.” In the same sense that we’ve only recently understood some aspects of how bicycles work, maybe Coyne thinks that we will soon examine consciousness through the lens of a “Newtonian regime,” and say “Aha! So that’s how it all happens!” But Coyne ought to know that my evocation of the mysteries of consciousness isn’t simply an “argument from ignorance.” We are not discussing natural phenomena for which we have a robust third-person view, and needlessly attributing supernatural properties to them. We are trying to understand how a first-person perspective can even exist in the first place.

Coyne dismisses the relevance of quantum phenomena here. While it’s true that there is no conclusive evidence for non-trivial quantum effects in the brain, it is an area of ongoing research with promising avenues, and the observer effect heavily implies a connection. Coyne correctly points out that the fundamental randomness at the quantum level does not grant libertarian free will. Libertarian free will implies that humans produce output from a process that is neither random nor deterministic. What process could fit the bill?

Well, if the human decision-making process recruits one or more irremovable singularities, and achieves fundamentally unpredictable output from those, I would consider that a sufficient approximation to libertarian free will. Furthermore, a singularity could be a good approximation to an “agent.” Singularities do occur in nature, at the center of every black hole, and quite possibly at the beginning of the universe, and quantum phenomena leave plenty of room open for them.

There’s a plausible case to be made for libertarian free will with the mysteries of consciousness being what they are, and the science will continue to advance towards vindication or falsification.

Imagination Changes Everything; the Case for Compatibilist Free Will

In his essay, Burgis exposes “contra-causal free will” to be a straw man and intuition pump. Want, impetus, and desire are essentially deterministic forces. Free will to not want happiness is indeed free will not worth wanting.

Burgis’s essay reveals another intuition pump—the idea that free will concerns discreet options A or B, such as to push or not to push a button. However, the human imagination changes everything. Because we can speculate about and consider the outcomes of different choices, we can attempt to custom build our future. Fundamentally deterministic desire is less important than the course of action we construct around our impetus.

Absolute determinism could be intuitively visualized as a chain of dominoes. Neither the chain nor any domino in particular has a past or a future. Whatever happens to each comes down to the last force they made contact with. People, on the other hand, can run simulations on what might have been, and what could be, all day long. Even if it is all achieved through classical physics and a computational mind, your imagination is one hell of an achievement.

If we were philosophical dominos we would simply be on the fly from moment to moment responding to things as they happen. But, as it happens, we can simulate—or generate—an outcome that we want to effect and then act in an attempt to make it so. We can simulate many paths, and while we’re putting one of them into motion we retain some capacity to veto it. If the courses of action that we may create are best modeled as hemmed in, and finite, then we are comfortably within the realm of compatibilism.

The concept of a singularity becomes important once again here because if you can access some kind of instantaneous infinity and your options are fundamentally, non-trivially infinite, then it would seem you have escaped compatibilism and achieved a more profound freedom.

Mainstream physics tells us that nature draws things with function from infinity and nothingness. Biological life has every incentive to evolve to be able to do the same. To do so seems to confer a certain ownership. As Jean-Paul Sartre once observed, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”


William Tomos Edwards is a writer, philosopher, and the founder of Bright Tapestry Data. You can follow him on Medium, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


  1. For Coyne and Carroll to assert that “the physics of everyday life” are “completely understood” is nonsense. Physics has no idea of the nature of qualia, their purpose, … Physics does not even know whether the “blue” that I see is the same as the “blue” that another person sees. Or how to accurately predict psychopathy, or …

    Coyne asserts:
    “First, as I explained above, any fundamental indeterminism in nature, such as that apparently present in quantum mechanics, doesn’t give us a scintilla of free will. Even if that indeterminism acts in our neurons and can affect behavior, it’s not an effect we can control with our thoughts.”
    That is bald speculation. He has zero proof of that assertion.

    The fact is that quantum mechanics generally, and the Uncertainty Principle in particular, eliminated the possibility of a billiard ball universe, and that would have been the only “proof” that we have zero free will.

  2. I’m perfectly happy accepting people’s beliefs in free will (on either side) as long as they accept my application of their beliefs to my understanding of them.

  3. I think that the case for free will can be made purely on the basis of complexity. Because if we assume that the root of consciousness lies in the biological, and that complexity is the cause of the emergence of consciousness, then the argument exists that in this emergence of consciousness, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Lets be clear- I am not arguing that like the alchemist, consciousness summons something from nothing. The point is that the emergence of consciousness itself is proof that our will can exceed the biological systems that govern us.

    I would not be foolish enough to argue that we are not governed by biological systems, even the proto-brain in our digestive system has a profound influence on our behaviour. In many ways we are slaves to biology. But the fact that our ability to perceive, reason and deduce a near limitless course of potential actions, at any given point expands this view of free will. Now the sceptic will say that fine, you’re still governed by biological processes. But what if I were to introduce a random number generator into the equation, and introduce the mechanistic to the biological? I could roll a dice to decide my actions. Ah yes, but I hear you say, your biological processes are governing the choices you present yourself with.

    But here’s the rub. I go online and find a site that presents me with a thousand possible courses of actions and ask it to randomly choose two potential courses of action. I toss a coin. Does the fact that the history of our coinage include the stamping of heads on one side, inherently favour one decision over another, make an argument for or against determinism? I would argue against it, because however complex and iterative our biology is, the actions of billions of other human beings making supposedly deterministic decisions is infinitely more complex, especially when one factors in time as a dimension in space.

    In the face of all this complexity, human consciousness is forced into a transactional and reactive mode of being, that leaves ample room for free will. Because even if one assumes that the human brain is an incredibly sophisticated organic computer, the mode that our reality forces upon it, forces it to exceed it’s programming. Indeed, this is the reason why the brain has developed into two hemispheres, with one sphere governing hypothesis and positing way to interpret the world, and the other operating on a best guess system, in order to operate in the world. And although the coding that emerges from a infinitely interpretative world may be trapped in the organic, governed it, and governed by the influences of the hormonal and the physical, the coding itself is too complex to be governed by deterministic processes. Otherwise, how else could Richard Feynman ever have made the intuitive and rational leap necessary to express the inexpressible, in the form of creating Feynman diagrams?

  4. If determinism is correct, then that would mean that actions could be predicted with certainty if all the variables were known. However the number of variables appears to be almost infinite. Thus using Occam’s Razor determinism when contrasted against free will would fail.

  5. If there is no free will, there is no morality. Have fun with that one.

  6. Exactly. This is now next level navel-gazing. Neither side can prove squat. Believe whatever you want to believe, and get on with it already.

    Meanwhile, I’m gonna have a sandwich… whether I think I want to or not.

  7. Precisely. The fact that two different people make two different choices for the same thing (Ann buys the pint of gourmet ice cream for $5, Bob doesn’t) means that they had to value it differently, which is possible only if their (e)valuation was subjective.

  8. I have heard this argument before and yet I do not understand it. Would you be able to expand why is morality tied to free will? I do not believe I have free will, but that does not exclude me from acting in a bad way.
    We might need a definition of morality?

  9. Permit me to take a stab at the problem.

    Bed bugs literally get a life by sucking on your blood (assuming they infest your living area). They can’t make a living in any other way: they have to suck your blood, there is no other option for them.

    By being parasitic on you, they’re “bad” to you. This can be refined a bit further: they unilaterally impose costs on you without providing anything valuable for you in exchange*.

    So bed bugs have no freedom of choice in something which is “bad” for you (causes you to suffer a net loss in a material and/or psychic sense). How could bed bugs be immoral?

    (* now that’s a wicked thought: was there ever such a masochist who insisted on being preyed upon by bed bugs?)

  10. How could any human act be described as praiseworthy or blameworthy if a person had no choice but to behave as they did?

  11. Morality is tied to free will because morality is a function of intention (e.g. first-degree, premeditated murder is worse, and incurs worse penalties, than involuntary manslaughter). And with no free will, no intention can be freely formulated.

  12. Where do intentions/desires come from? Some black hole of the mind. You don’t have any control on what thoughts appear in your mind they just do. I disagree that morality is a function of intention. Morality to me is a set of principles/beliefs that offer a guidance on how to distinguish between good and bad.
    Your past experiences, values and beliefs shape your morality.

  13. but you CAN control which thoughts you put into action.

    This is the point I want to argue and with which I disagree. Your actions depend on what your thought are. You have no more control over your actions as you have over your thoughts. The illusion seems very real, however it is just that - an illusion.
    When you put your thoughts into action, you have a reason to do so. Where does this reason come from? Past experiences, internal value systems, a black hole of your mind.
    This whole discussion started from the assertion (below), with which I disagree. I believe there is morality without free will.

    If there is no free will, there is no morality.

  14. No doubt, a society is destroyed if all the members of that society are killed. But a society may not be destroyed even if a large number of members of that society are killed. (For example, the Soviet Union during WWII). And the other extreme - a relatively small number of members of a society leading to the demise of that particular society - has also been recorded historically. (For example, the Norman invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror).

    Individual Romans may well have been a danger to individual Carthaginians, but individual Romans were NOT a danger to Carthage - the Roman Republic was the danger to Carthage in the third Punic war, where Carthage was destroyed.

    If we assume that your argument is true, that would mean that there would be no difference between the actions of individuals and mob behaviour, a conclusion that is not correct empirically.

  15. If 3/4th of a society’s population is killed, but the remaining 1/4th promulgates the beliefs, etc., of that society to their offspring, then that society is NOT destroyed. If 3/4th of a society’s population is killed, and the remaining 1/4th give up, thinking that the society that they were part of is now defunct, that society no longer exists - it has been destroyed.

    Re: European Jewry. Don’t you read what you quote: “The history of the beginnings of a Jewish presence in Europe cannot be thought of as a linear and continuous development. The evidence is fragmentary, random, and often inconsistent.”

    That does not say much about European Jewry being a society, which you implied.

    While individuals may attempt to lead or control a riot, riots typically consist of disorganized groups that are frequently “chaotic and exhibit herd behavior.”[1]

    Herd mentality , mob mentality and pack mentality , also lesser known as gang mentality , describes how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis.

    Since when is an example of mob behaviour not talking about mob behaviour?

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