Do Human Beings Have Free Will? And Just What Is Free Will Anwyay?

I thought it would be worthwhile to post my response to an article on USA Today's on-line publication that deals with the subject of free will.  The author, Jerry A. Coyne, is a strict determinist who disavowed any belief in free will.  My response attempts to rebut his hypothesis.  Please note that I wrote it without edits.  As such, the response represents a visceral (and ironically perhaps non-autonomous) response to Coyne's remarks.  You can find Jerry A. Coyne's article, "Why You Don't Really Have Free Will" here:

I posted an additional response clarifying some of my remarks on a blog...I will posit that entry later on tonight...For now, here is my response to Jerry Coyne:

Jerry Coyne's hypothesis seems to be flawed.  I have listed some of my reservations to Coyne's analysis below.  Perhaps, apologists in the "no free will" camp can provide valid rejoinders to these queries.  As an aside, this list represents my immediate concerns with Coyne's article; I could probably posit a more erudite, lengthy list if I had the time to devote to research the issue. 

From an Evolutionary Perspective:

1) If I recall, isn't 1/3 of the human brain devoted to higher-end, thought processes (ie. not subconscious but conscious actions).  If that is the case, and assuming no free-will, human minds are horribly inefficient.  We should have been out-competed by organisms which utilized more efficient means to overcome the problems inherent in living in complex societies (mentioned in Coyne's piece).

2) From my view, wouldn't evolution favor organisms with free will over animals whose behavior was wholly determined by their genes and past experiences?  The more dynamic and fluid a creatures have the best chance of overcoming unique environmental occurrences long enough to maximize the number of off-spring they produce.

From a Statistical Perspective:

Even in closed systems, it is impossible to predict some outcomes, which is due to the inherent randomness in these systems.  The existence of this randomness calls into question Coyne's view that all human actions are  predetermined.  It is impossible to say that something is foreordained if the same object placed in exactly the same conditions behaves in differently in each test. 

From a Biological Perspective:

It is possible that free will, as such, could be an emergent trait and thus is "more than the sum of its parts."  While this may seem unrealistic, it is worth noting its possibility, given the existence of another emergent trait--consciousness.  In regards to consciousness, it really should not exist.  Its antecedents cannot be traced (ie. it does not seem to emanate from any part of the brain), and it does not seem to derive its powers from any particular grouping of cells. 

From a Sociological Perspective:

Even if we assume that people could not make free choices if they were closed entities (ie. made up of and controlled by genes and environment, it is worth noting that human beings are not closed systems.  Individuals  interact with each other and transmit ideas, information, feelings, behaviors, etc. via these social interchanges.  Further, these interactions are dynamic.  In other words, people don't act as passive entities in these interactions; they respond in both active and passive ways.  Their open-ended relationships provide them with the impetus and occasions necessary to make decisions which run counter to their internal programming.

From a Neurological Perspective:

It appears that Coyne's article conflates two types of choices that human beings make.  He refers to scientific research (which might or might not be flawed; I have not reviewed the literature) to debunk instantaneous choice-making.  It would make sense that human beings would rely on their subconscious when making quick decisions, ie. which button to push.  One wants to be able to process a decision quickly (ie. via the subconscious) when making instantaneous choices.  However, I think it would be more difficult to prove (or disprove) that human beings utilize free will when making decisions after thinking on the matter for some time.


Personally, I think that this issue is complex.  On some occasions, we certainly rely on instinctual behaviors to guide decisions.  In these instances, our choices are foreordained (not a free choice).  In other instances, we do not consciously make a decision; however, our unconscious choice is not predetermined (so the choice is free to some extent).  In both of these cases, our conscious minds trick us into believing that we made conscious, free choices.  At other times, we are able to exert some conscious control over our choices; however, we make a decision from a limited set of possibilities (greater freedom of choice).  Finally, I cannot conceive of it ever happening, but it is always possible that someone, relying on the input of numerous other individuals, is able to make a free decision from an almost unlimited set of potential choices (absolute freedom of choice).

1 comment:

  1. On my better blog, Surgeonsblog, I addressed this, sort of, at one point. I guess "free will" is to some extent a matter of semantics. We think, or so I think. Nevertheless, the fact is our brain neurons are very interconnected, and are affected both by their internal and external millieu. Which means that a neuron in my head would fire at a different stimulus, were the temperature different, the humidity, the ambient sounds, etc; and, by inference, if things that happened yesterday had happened differently. Likewise, if my serum sodium and potassium were different, as they might be were I dieting, or thirsty, had I exercised or not...

    So, whereas I seem to be able to generate thought, and to do so more or less freely, I don't doubt that they'd have been somewhat different, had those various and innumerable factors been different.