Re: Answer to Eugenie Scott's views

William B. Provine (
Sat, 21 Mar 1998 23:46:44 +0000

Dear Dick,

How can one be anything, believer or nonbeliever, and not believe in free will?

The existentialists, who were ardent atheists because of the carnage they lived
through in WWW I, argued that the only way to achieve meaning in our
meaningless lives was to define ourselves by our free decisions.

Belief in free will is far more prevalent than belief in gods of any kind, at
least for men. Women care less because traditionally their lives are more
determined by circumstances, so not having free will is not as bad for them.
One of my students organized a grand conference on free will here at Cornell.
The speakers were Richard Boyd and Carl Ginet from the Philosophy Department,
David Levitsky from Dept. of Nutrition, John Hopfield, Physicist from Cal Tech,
and me. Moderator was Carl Sagan. The philosophers favored free will, though
Carl Ginet's position has become more complex now as he approaches
incompatibility between free will and determinism. David Levitsky is an expert
in drug addiction and the nutrition problems that result from it, and he hates
the idea of human free will. Hopfield was sure free will was impossible from
the view of physics--all the indeterminacies of physics were pretty well damped
out in human minds and would not give free will in any case. I argued against
free will, of course, from the perspective of modern biology. We urged Carl
Sagan to take a stand, but he punted and did an even-handed job of chairing the

As the evening went on after the presentations, the audience would not leave.
Question followed question, or rather, assertions from the audience dominated
the discussion. All questions came from men. Finally, Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's
wife, sitting next to my then wife (and still dear friend) said in the loudest
stage whisper I have ever heard, "this is just mental masturbation for males."

Well, that broke the spell and we all went home.

To answer your question: biological organisms result from a combination of
genetics and environment. Both are totally deterministic. I think of organisms
as locally determined, meaning that nothing more is claimed about cosmic
determinism, etc. Determinism need not be a silly version so easily attacked,
but reasonably sophisticated determinism. Then free will becomes
unintelligible. It makes no sense at all in an organism determined by heredity
and environment and their terribly complex interaction.

What I detest about free will is the hate, revenge and ghastly punishment that
flows from this cultural myth. If we are mere complex machines, then we have no
rational basis for punishing anyone, just incarcerating them to protect
ourselves. Our conclusion about an evildoer is that he/she was poorly
programmed. Let's work together, and do better with the children yet to come.
The horrid spectacle of our movie stores jammed with revenge movies to the
gills befits our belief in a nonexistent free will.

But I know that virtually no one on this list might be convinced by a far
longer argument. So can I join with Christians who believe totally in human
free will, given by a kindly God who knew that we humans would ask why we did
such bad things (then it was our fault), but who also follow Christ's teaching
that a bad person deserved forgiveness and rehabilitation. Maybe you also
believe that our system of criminal treatment and punishment is a moral
travesty, and we can work together, non-believers in free will and believers.

Best wishes and apologies for this long-winded reply to a very respectably
short question. Will