Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will? If all of our “free” decisions are really predetermined—perhaps long in advance—by a combination of our biology and our environment, and our brain is simply a concatenation of cells that must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, how can any of our decisions be “free”? And if what we do for the rest of our lives has already been determined by the laws of physics—absent, perhaps a tad of quantum indeterminacy—how can we be held responsible for our actions? ...And a SciAm interview of neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga:
What is not justified under my scheme is the notion of punishment as retribution.
A kid who holds up a liquor store with a gun is no more “responsible” for his actions -— in the sense of being able to freely refrain from them -— than is someone with a brain tumor who becomes aggressive and attacks another person. The only difference is that the physical influences on behavior are more obvious in the second case. Choices come from minds, minds come from brains, and brains are collections of molecules that obey physical laws.
Cook: You talk about “abandoning” the idea of free will. Can you explain what you mean by this, and how you came to this conclusion?There is not science here. Scientists claim that they are right because they have a superior worldview, and then proceed to draw policy conclusions.
Gazzaniga: As I see it, this is the way to think about it: If you were a Martian landing on Earth today and were gathering information how humans work, the idea of free will as commonly understood in folk psychology would not come up. The Martian would learn humans had learned about physics and chemistry and causation in the standard sense. They would be astonished to see the amount of information that has accumulated about how cells work, how brains work and would conclude, “OK, they are getting it. Just like cells are complex wonderful machines, so are brains. They work in cool ways even though there is this strong tug on them to think there is some little guy in their head calling the shots. There is not.”
The world is not flat. Before this truth was realized, people use to wonder what happened when you got to the end of the earth-- did you fall off? Once we knew the earth was round, the new perspective, made us see how the old questions were silly. New questions also seem silly many times until a new perspective is accepted. I think we will get over the idea of free will and and accept we are a special kind of machine, one with a moral agency which comes from living in social groups. This perspective will make us ask new kinds of questions.
They are able to make the leap from saying that the world is not flat to saying that criminals are not responsible for their actions.
Update: A comment below doubts that Coyne is really determinist. I agree with him that free will is philosophy, not science. But Coyne is firmly against free will. Besides the above quote, Coyne says that free will is impossible, and attacks Carroll and Horgan for saying that free will is possible. Adam K. Fetterman explains that for new atheists like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, believing in free will is like believing in God, and both are contrary to science.
Update: Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci more fully explains where Coyne goes wrong. They both claim to be rational naturalist skeptics on the warpath against creationists.