Folksy Automatons

I heard a strangely interesting monologue on NPR on Sunday, November 18, 2018. I tried, but I couldn’t find a reference to it online anywhere.  Either google failed me or I imagined the whole thing.


The pre-announcement was that the writer was going to explain why he didn’t believe in free will. I thought it might be something tongue-in-cheek or from pop psychology, but maybe not, I thought, let’s give it a listen. Its length coincided with my trip home from church.


It turned out the narrator was truly explaining why he thought there was no free will. He spoke as if he were the first one to think of this, but I think that was just the strategy for making it a compelling production. He’d studied physics and started with that. He gave no indication of having read philosophers as far back as Laplace, at least, who followed materialism all the way to its logical end, determinism. Every action and every thought was pre-determined at the moment of the Big Bang.


We are all meat machines, he concluded, even his two daughters, though they were “cute machines.” The sensation we have of making choices and directing our lives is only a feeling. It’s a curious oddity why that feeling even exists, but that was as far as he got with the observation. I don’t know why he didn’t take that sensation and try to explain it inside the deterministic paradigm, because it’s an important piece of evidence on the two-sided question of free will vs. meaninglessness.


There are only two ways to reject the idea of determinism, he said: God or magic. “Go ahead and say it out loud,” he said, by way of reinforcing how hopeless both options are. Both are embarrassing, but they’re the only ways free will is reintroduced into our understanding of reality.


The narrator seemed like a nice guy, but I thought his presentation was puzzling in its lack of depth. He got to the determinist conclusion and stopped, never examining the assumptions that got him there. I thought maybe he was just unaware of them, at first. He said every thought is a contingent event, meaning a physical event physically caused, even if the only immediate cause was the firing of a particular combination of neurons in the brain. He’s missing so much, though. Our thoughts have to have more of a cause than firing of neurons because there has to be a semantic content to the thought that is not reducible to electricity and tissue. He doesn’t begin to explain thought-caused thoughts; the logos to our logic. But on top of that, so many features of consciousness are inexplicable by deterministic physicalism.


I feel like this guy had to know this. I think he was using this folksy homily on physics-as-reality as a way of sneaking unexamined raw naturalism into public discourse. I.e., it was dishonest, like so much else on NPR. God is rejected out of hand on this guy’s analysis, and God-fearers too: believing in God equates to believing in magic. Anyone listening to this who is not conversant on the question of free will versus determinism (though it has been a subject of philosophy forever) has now had the deterministic materialist take on reality firmly planted, or reinforced. It was presented as a personal story of self-exploration, but it was an insidious indoctrination into anti-metaphysics. And this guy knew it.

2 thoughts on “Folksy Automatons”

  1. I heard that guy, on “This American Life.’ I thought it was as sophomoric and “sneaky” (sneaking naive materialism) as you so skillfully say. Thanks for the clarify of your account.

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