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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.