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Robert Sapolsky on Free Will and Determinism

Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will (book cover)

Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His most recent book, Behave, was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” He and his wife live in San Francisco. His latest book is Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.

Shermer and Sapolsky discuss:

  • Definitions of free will, determinism, compatibilism, libertarian free will, etc. Sapolsky’s typology:

    • The world is deterministic and there’s no free will.
    • The world is deterministic and there is free will.
    • The world is not deterministic; there’s no free will.
    • The world is not deterministic; there is free will.

    “One compatibilist philosopher after another reassuringly proclaims their belief in material, deterministic modernity…yet somehow, there is still room for free will. As might be kinda clear by now, I think that this doesn’t work (see chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…). I suspect that most of them know this as well. When you read between the lines, or sometimes even the lines themselves in their writing, a lot of these compatibilists are actually saying that there has to be free will because it would be a total downer otherwise, doing contortions to make an emotional stance seem like an intellectual one. Humans ‘descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known,’ said the wife of an Anglican bishop in 1860, when told about Darwin’s novel theory of evolution. One hundred firty-six years later, Stephen Cave titled a much-discussed June 2016 article in The Atlantic ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Will…but We’re Better Off Believing in it Anyway.”

    Noam Chomsky: “No one really believes in determinism nor acts like it is true, not even determinists.”

    Here is how the neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated it in his widely-read book Free Will:

    Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

    In his 2023 book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, the Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky states his deterministic position even more succinctly:

    We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment.

    Remember these exact definitions as I will come back to them shortly.

    Could we have done otherwise?

    Since philosophers love to employ thought experiments to test ideas, here’s one for you to consider: John Doe is an exceptionally moral person who is happily married to Jane. The chances of John ever cheating on Jane is close to zero. But the odds are not zero because John is human, so let’s say—for the sake of argument—that John has a one-night stand while on the road and Jane finds out. How does John account for his actions? Does he, pace the standard deterministic explanation for human behavior (as in Harris’s and Sapolsky’s descriptors above), say something like this to Jane?

    Honey, my will is simply not of my own making. My thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which I am unaware and over which I exert no conscious control. I do not have the freedom you think I have. I could not have done otherwise because I am nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which I had no control, that brought me to the moment of infidelity…

    Could John even finish the thought before the stinging slap of Jane’s hand across his face terminated the rationalization?

    If free will is the power to do otherwise, as it is typically defined by philosophers, both John and Jane know that, of course, he could have done otherwise, and she reminds him that should such similar circumstances arise again he damn well better make the right choice…or else.

    Consider the “could you have done otherwise?” question in a rewind of the tape of your life. If it is a Read Only Memory (ROM) tape, then no, you could not have done otherwise, because that’s just a replay of a recording of what already happened. If the entire universe is a ROM tape that in a replay everything would repeat exactly as it originally happened, then determinism is true and free will is an illusion. In this universe, it was determined from the moment of the Big Bang that I would type these words and you would read them.

    But this is not the universe we live in. In our universe (unlike the one in which thought experiments are run), time flows forward and no future scenario can never perfectly match one the past, so what you did in the past influences what you choose to do next in future circumstances (this has a technical name in psychology called “learning”), which are always different from the past. So, while the world is determined, we are active agents in determining our decisions going forward in a self-determined way, in the context of what already happened and what might happen. This universe is not pre-determined but rather post-determined, and we are part of the causal net of the myriad determining factors to create that post-determined world.

  • Christian List’s 3 related capacities for free will: (1) The capacity to consider several possibilities for action; (2) the capacity to form an intention to pursue one of those possibilities; (3) the capacity to take action to move toward that possibility.
  • Why free will matters: how what people believe about free will and determinism influences their behaviors
  • The three horsemen of determinism: (1) reductionist/materialist perspective (the building blocks are too far away from the action); (2) predetermination; (3) epiphenomenalism: a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process.
  • Dualism and free will
  • Is the self an illusion?
  • Punishment
  • Retributive vs. Restorative Justice
  • Capital punishment (Mike Dukakis/Kitty)
  • Game theory evolution of punishment: Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins
  • Anders Brevivik, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy
  • Mr. OFT & Donta Page; Adrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence
  • Luck
  • Consequences of believing determinism: run amok?
  • Meaning: “What the science in this book ultimately teaches is that there is no meaning. There’s no answer to ‘Why?’ beyond ‘This happened because of what came just before, which happened because of what came just before that.’ There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe in which, occasionally, atoms come together temporarily to form things we each call Me.”

This episode was released on October 17, 2023.

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