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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. How is a choice not free if two people make two different choices for the same thing?
    Can I not choose blindly, by using a RNG to generate a yes/no response, and then I flip a coin to determine whether to follow the RNG yes/no answer or not, and then choose solely on that?
    How about when I love to eat ice cream, for example, but when my stomach is sore, I decide against it (was my sore stomach really something that had to come about, based on my having to eat X that contained some germs Y in sufficient quantity to make me feel ill, and the offer of ice cream couldn’t have come 2 hours later when I perhaps felt better again?)? Or I though maybe since I have to go swimming later, I decide to postpone it, etc. Or I wanted the ice cream, then I saw a bug crawl across the counter, so I decided not to?
    In the end, free will for non-argumentative humans only means that nobody else makes the call. How my brain does it in coordination with the current environment. To pretend that no other choice could have been reached is fine, but that’s faith, not founded on reason, experience or convincing evidence.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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?)

  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. I accept the reformulation, much better. Indeed a system independent of free will would require a great degree of self awareness and wisdom. In my opinion not much would have to change, our current laws for the most part would still apply.
    Yes it is difficult to know someone’s intent when they themselves don’t actually know it, or lie about it on purpose. In order for this to change one needs to be self aware and disciplined.
    Let’s take something like lying. Why do we do it? It seems to me it is an evolutionary defense mechanism. At least in most cases we lie to protect ourselves, maybe we want to fit in with a group, maybe the consequences would threaten our well being. So why are people fearful of the truth? Shouldn’t we all strive to discover the truth? In the long run the truth is always better than the lie. It is difficult to see on the surface. Lying is a product of judging and shame. Once you accept that people don’t have choice judgement and shame rather loose their meaning. So if we drop prejudice and shame people could be more trustful and open. When you wield the truth you can make better decisions in your life which leads everyone to be better off in the long run.

    Much of our negative experiences and arguments happen because of this belief in free will. When someone does something it is because they chose to do that on purpose with malicious intent. So our justice becomes retribution rather than deterring punishment.

    Well not sure if I explained very well. This is a multi layer topic and more of an utopian dream, but it is something worth pondering about.

  15. I hate to burst your bubble on this, but if you think the execution of Socrates was the end of ethical reasoning and moral philosophy, you are mistaken. Plato and Aristotle made sure of that. Both founded their own schools which in turn gave rise to the philosophies of the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics, the Cyrenaicists, etc. These schools evolved over time and made their way to Rome where they survived until the decline of the empire. After which, the legacy of Aristotle was preserved by the Arabs while Stoic thought had a considerable influence on early Christian theology. The rediscovery of Hellenistic philosophical thought in the 16th and 17th centuries led to the establishment of the political, ethical, and scientific foundations of modernity.

    You seem to be conflating the political process of governance with morality. While ethical reasoning can certainly contribute to the political process, one must also apply instrumental reasoning to arrive at viable policy. Morality may concern society as a whole but it takes place on the scale of the individual.

    The moral status of murder exists independent of subjective opinion.

    Morality is not contingent upon law or convention.

    What do you mean by “ultimate truth”?

    You seem to presuppose that all knowledge is certain, i.e., that we always know what what we know with certainty. If that were the case, we would have to admit that we, as a species, know very little. Even the rules of inference in classical logic rely on the acceptance of philosophical assumptions; the denial of which has led to alternate logics such as intuitionist and dialethic logics. Ultimately it comes down to one’s epistemic temperament. If one wants to maximize the amount of true propositions one believes, then one should believe everything. If one wants to minimize the amount of false propositions one believes, then one should believe nothing. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

    What I am saying is that when deciding what I believe to be true, I take into account the evidence and arguments for and against a given proposition or set of propositions. Part of this reasoning process includes examining the logical implications of accepting the proposition in terms of what conclusions I would then be philosophically committed to. If our acts are truly indicative of our beliefs, and I think that they are, then I reject moral relativism for the same reason I reject determinism or Pyrrhonian skepticism; because nobody actually lives consistently according to these doctrines.

    As it happens, I think that the universe has a rational structure, and very possibly, a guiding intelligence. So, I don’t dismiss the idea of God out of hand, I just think ‘God’ is unnecessary for establishing a ground for objective moral truth. Is it not possible that, given the kind of creatures that we are, there are objectively better ways to live?

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