The wheels fell off the Science Guy juggernaut a long time ago, but Bill Nye still tries to heave the ungainly cart forward, desperately trying to remain relevant. As you know, I haven’t been a fan of his “comeback,” for his attempts to sell science have been ham-handed and embarrassing. (See some of my criticism here.)
Here, in a video made in 2016, he goes way out of his depth to answer a reader’s question on The Big Stink. I came across this while watching videos about free will by genuinely smart people, and then cringed while I watched this one.
In this video an inquisitive man named Thomas asks Nye whether he, Thomas, has free will, which the inquisitor interprets as libertarian free will: “neural causation”, with an independent ego in control of one’s thoughts and actions. He’s clearly asking about libertarian free will because he sets his notion in free will in contrast to physical determinism. Thomas also asks whether the “uncertainty principle” may allow us to have some free will.
Listen to Nye’s answer. Here’s how he screws up—virtually every sentence is irrelevant or dumb:
- Nye says we have “free will up to a point”, but doesn’t say what that point is.
- He talks about the evolutionary drives to mate and eat have something to do with free will, but that’s completely irrelevant.
- He says that there is heritability of behavior: “Members of the same family tend to do the same things.” Well, that may be some evidence against free will if there’s genetic determination to “decisions”, but Nye doesn’t make that connection; he seems befuddled.
- Nye says, “I know I have made decisions based on things that happened around me that I wouldn’t have made without being informed by history or what I’d noticed. I know I have. Now if that turns out not to be true, I’d be very surprised.” How is this relevant? Under either libertarian free will (which I and nearly all scientists reject), compatibilism (a concept of “free will” that accepts determinism) or pure “hard determinism”, your actions will be influenced by your environment, including your interactions with others. Environmental influence of actions is irrelevant to the question of determinism.
- Nye starts riffing on the uncertainty principle, but never mentions the important caveat that even if our behaviors are in part purely indeterministic because of quantum indeterminacy, that doesn’t give us any agency or free will. What does the random position of an electron have to do with “will”?
- Nye continues by saying, correctly, that “our brains are chemical reactions, and chemical reactions, at some level depend on quantum mechanics.” But then he adds, “At some level, there is randomness in what we think, because we’re made of chemicals that have randomness.” But there is no evidence that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced at all by quantum phenomena.
- Nye then says that “Human behavior is generally predictable”. So what? That would be true under either pure determinism or libertarianism.
- He winds up by saying that we may very soon understand the nature of consciousness via the construction of complicated computers. “As long as they’re plugged in—the computers—carry on.” How embarrassing! Nye never tries to connect consciousness with free will. His random emissions of thought remind me of George W. Bush, or worse.
One gets the impression here that Nye doesn’t have a clue how to answer Thomas’s question, which I could answer without all this irrelevant piffle. (Of course, readers who are either libertarians or compatibilists would disagree with me.) But Nye doesn’t even have a viewpoint here: he doesn’t even say whether or not he thinks we have free will. I think inquisitor Thomas is far more aware of the issue than is Nye.
Nye also says he’s a scientist, which is debatable since he was an engineer and hasn’t done any science since at least 1986. I’m not a big credential critic, but Nye keeps saying he’s a scientist as a way of gaining credibility. I don’t even say I’m a scientist any more because I no longer do science. Nye is a science popularizer, and no longer a good one.
This guy really needs to hang it up. As far as I can see, the Science Guy is no longer promoting science, but only himself.