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Who is redefining free will? A Response to Jerry Coyne

Famed evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has recently gained a lot of public attention for his views on free will. As he sees it, we don’t have it. (See here and here for popular press articles from him on the subject. See here, and here for blog posts on his personal blog in which he slan … um, I mean, debates some of those who do not agree with him.)

According to Coyne, free will, at least ‘free will’ as understood by non-scientists and non-philosophers (AKA “the folk”), requires the unconditional ability to do otherwise. The unconditional ability to do otherwise is the ability to do differently than one in fact did, even if everything up until the moment of doing was exactly the same. The ‘everything’ in that previous clause is meant to be taken literal. LITERALLY EVERYTHING. The unconditional ability to do otherwise requires the ability to do otherwise even if every single molecule in the universe was aligned exactly the same way, even if all your thoughts, desires, beliefs, intentions, etc. were exactly the same, etc., etc., etc.

And, according to Coyne, we do not have this ability; the laws of nature won’t allow such an extraordinary ability. Thus, we don’t have free will.


That’s right: Embrace your strings! According to Coyne (echoing a point made by Sam Harris), we really are nothing more than puppets. (credit:

Of course, some philosophers do not think free will requires the unconditional ability to do otherwise. According to these philosophers, free will is perfectly compatible with the lack of the unconditional ability to do otherwise.

But Coyne admonishes these “compatibilist” philosophers as defining free will in a way that is so radically different from the way the folk understand free will that the compatibilists simply are no longer talking about free will; the compatibilists’ subject matter, according to Coyne, is something else altogether.

For example, in a recent blog post at Big Questions Online, Eddy Nahmias remarks, “Free will can be understood as our capacities to both make choices … and to carry them out.” According to Nahmias our ability to make choices is perfectly compatible with people lacking the unconditional ability to do otherwise.

Coyne quotes this exact quote in a recent blog post on his blog Why Evolution is True. He follows this quote by expressing amazement over the fact that someone could actually believe such a “fanciful” view of free will. But what is so fanciful about this view?

Well, Coyne doesn’t deny that the folk notion of free will requires the ability to make choices and the ability to carry these choices out. Rather, Coyne denies that the folk notion of choice (and thus free will) is compatible with people lacking the unconditional ability to do otherwise. Coyne claims, “To the average person, I think, ‘making a choice’ means that you could have made different choices,” where ‘could have made different choices’ is explicitly understood as an unconditional ability to choose differently.

Of course, Coyne is making an empirical assertion regarding the folk’s use, application, and understanding of the concepts ‘choice’ and ‘free will’. And his whole argument against free will (and his admonishing of the compatibilists) rests on this empirically testable assertion.

So Coyne, being the good scientists he is, either (a) goes out and collects the data himself or (b) reports on empirical findings that support his claim, right? Of course not! Rather, Coyne simply baldly asserts his empirical claims as being obvious truths.

Luckily for Coyne, my colleagues and I have been empirically exploring the exact claims that Coyne makes. In a recently published study in the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience, my collaborator Shane Reuter and I showed that people are perfectly willing to apply their concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘free will’ even in situations in which it is clear that the actor in a situation could not have made a different choice. We even directly asked people whether the actor in the scenarios could have chosen differently. Most people said “No.” Even more importantly, whether people thought the actor in the scenario could have made a different choice was in no way related to their willingness to apply their concept of choice or free will. That is worth repeating: In our experiment, we found that people’s application of their concept of choice and free will was in no way related to whether they judged that the actor could have made a different choice. (Check out the paper here.)

Of course, the experiment reported in this article involves a science fiction-y philosophical thought experiment. Perhaps, our findings are due, in part, to the fact that we are giving participants unusual scenarios. But have no fear, in collaboration with Ross Gordon, I am currently collecting data on people’s judgments of choice, ability to choose differently, and moral responsibility using realistic scenarios. And early results strongly suggest that people are willing to say that an actor can make a choice and can be held morally responsible even in circumstances in which people are not willing to say that the actor could have chosen differently.

Additionally, Eddy Nahmias, Shane Reuter, and I are doing follow up work that attempts to extend the results Shane and I report in the AJOB Neuroscience paper. In this follow-up work, we are presenting people with various scenarios, all of which take cues from the exact sorts of cases that scientists like Coyne (and Sam Harris) claim are incompatible with the folk concept of choice and free will. Even though data collection is still in a relatively early stage, the results thus far unanimously disagree with Coyne’s claims regarding the folk concept of choice, free will, and responsibility.

All in all, as long as certain conditions are met (e.g., the actor wasn’t coerced or manipulated into acting, the actor’s reasoning capacities were working normally, etc.), people seem to be overwhelmingly comfortable with saying that an actor made a choice, that an actor acted freely, and that an actor is morally responsible even in scenarios in which the actor could not have chosen otherwise.

If this is right, then people’s view of free will, choice, and moral responsibility accords well with the compatibilist philosopher’s view of free will. Unfortunately, this also means that people’s view of free will does not accord well with the view of free will that Coyne attributes to them.

Coyne’s definition of free will appears to be so radically different from the way the folk understand free will that Coyne is no longer talking about free will; Coyne’s subject matter appears to be something else altogether.

Cite This Blog! (You know you want to.)

Shepard, J. (2012). Who is redefining free will? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Jason
    Awesome- I tend to disagree with Coyne's definition of free will myself (mostly from a "where are you drawing the line around the will-er" perspective), and I'm glad to see that questions on the nature of the 'folk' definition of "free will" are being explored objectively. To play devil's advocate though, Dr. Coyne does bring up a valid point, on the nature of the subjects in those sorts of studies (I'm guessing you will/have been using the same standard undergraduate population that Dr. Coyne deems problematic). On the one hand, there is the question of who should be the authority, if not the mean of several hundred undergraduates, on the (folk) definition of something like free will. On the other hand, what is the concept of "free will" supposed to be accomplishing in the first place (is there a 'correct' vs 'popular' definition)? Is there a natural history of the concept that could hint to the needs it fills?


  2. Hi Riley,

    We tend to get the same results regardless of whether we are running the experiments on college students at GSU, Emory, or on the more general population. We tend to get the same basic trends regardless of education level, age, gender, race, political affiliation, or religiosity.


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