The Monsters Among Us - "Meat Computers"?

Atheist Jerry A. Coyne: Why you don't really have free will


You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your "will" had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year's resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they're finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

The issue of whether we have of free will is not an arcane academic debate about philosophy, but a critical question whose answer affects us in many ways: how we assign moral responsibility, how we punish criminals, how we feel about our religion, and, most important, how we see ourselves — as autonomous or automatons.

But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by "free will."

I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

Now there's no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances. But two lines of evidence suggest that such free will is an illusion.

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the "choosing." And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True "free will," then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain's structure and modify how it works. Science hasn't shown any way we can do this because "we" are simply constructs of our brain. We can't impose a nebulous "will" on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

'Meat computers' And that's what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.

Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject "decides" to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) "Decisions" made like that aren't conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense.
Heinrich admits killing Jacob Wetterling


Heinrich detailed how he kidnapped and killed Jacob. Heinrich told the courtroom how on that fateful night he was driving through St. Joseph around 8 p.m. when he noticed three boys on bikes with a flashlight. He pulled into a driveway after they passed him.

Heinrich testified that he jumped out of the car wearing a mask and holding a .38 revolver. He ordered them into a ditch and asked their names and ages. "I told Trevor and Aaron to run away, don't look back or i'll shoot. " Heinrich recalled.

The defendant described how he handcuffed Jacob and put him in the passenger seat of his car. Heinrich had a police scanner in his vehicle, and after hearing police respond to the kidnapping he decided he'd better drive back to Paynesville. He recalled Jacob at one point asking him, "What did I do wrong?" He took a series of backroads that wound through small central Minnesota communities until he reached a sewage pond road and drove to a gravel pit by a grove of trees. There, he forced Jacob to disrobe and masturbate him until the boy told Heinrich he was cold.

Jacob asked to be taken home, but Heinrich recalls telling the boy it was too far. On the way back to the car he noticed a police cruiser on the road nearby. Heinrich said he panicked, pulled his revolver and put two rounds inside. "I raised the revolver to his head, clicked once with no bullet in the chamber. Shot him twice after that. " He admitted firing into the back of Jacob's head after asking the boy to turn around so he could go to the bathroom.

The details got worse. Heinrich described how Jacob was still crying after the first shot, so he fired again. After driving back to his home and staying for a couple of hours, Heinrich testified that he returned to the gravel pit and dragged him approximately 100 yard to bury him. The defendant says his own shovel was too small so he stole one from the construction site. He then spotted a Bobcat digger with keys in it, and used the machine to dig a large grave for Jacob. When asked by a prosecutor if he returned to the burial site one year later, Heinrich said yes, and detailed how he dug up and collected Jacobs remains and put them in a garbage bag. He moved them to an unspecified site nearby. " Found a spot and dug a hole with a trenching tool about 2 feet deep. and put the bones in that hole and the jacket on top," he told the court.
Comment: Top image from Kare11 article (screen snap). Source of Jacob Wetterling = Missing Persons of America . Human brain source

What would morality look like without free will?


Coyne argues that people have no choice over their behaviors because that is simply the output of their genetic material and environment. If this is the case, then there is no sense of moral responsibility. As Coyne says, Bernie Madoff, who scammed people for millions, is no different from Nelson Mandela, who helped bring freedom to a nation. Because this is the case, we cannot punish based on personal choice. We should, however, punish based on future deterrent. Here is where Coyne’s argument falls apart.

Why? Why should we deter someone from murdering or committing other crimes? Coyne says we should continue to punish criminals as that adds to the environment of others and can make them choose differently later. But the question remains as to why we would want them to choose in a certain way. If there is no sense of morality, as it would only be the by-products of our brains, why would we care what other’s do, particularly if it does not effect us personally?

Final comments: I have atheist friends and family who are fine, moral individuals. So I am not saying that atheists are killers! But there is a disconnect for atheists because if there is no soul, no moral absolutes based upon a higher Being; what makes the Monsters' acts immoral?! Wiki on Jerry Coyne here.


  1. OK, so Coyne's atheism is just the product of his meat computer, and therefore we cannot conclude there was any independent thought put into it.

    OK. Seems like a rather self-defeating argument, though, and one that's not going to be terribly helpful to him if he ever has to deal with someone like the perp in question.


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