UPDATE: In a review in The American Scholar, Michael Shermer gives Sapolsky’s book a very positive review, and also has a few words of his own on free will. Shermer’s assessment:
The book is Sapolsky’s magnum opus, not just in length, scope (nearly every aspect of the human condition is considered), and depth (thousands of references document decades of research by Sapolsky and many others) but also in importance as the acclaimed scientist integrates numerous disciplines to explain both our inner demons and our better angels. It is a magnificent culmination of integrative thinking, on par with similar authoritative works, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Its length and detail are daunting, but Sapolsky’s engaging style—honed through decades of writing editorials, review essays, and columns for The Wall Street Journal, as well as popular science books (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir)—carries the reader effortlessly from one subject to the next. The work is a monumental contribution to the scientific understanding of human behavior that belongs on every bookshelf and many a course syllabus.
I guess I’d better read it now!
Robert Sapolsky is a professor of neurology at Stanford, and is well known for his popular writing, especially on anthropology. He got a MacArthur “genius award,” and, like me, was raised Jewish, became an atheist, and got the Freedom From Religion’s “Emperor Has No Clothes Award“. I haven’t read much of his stuff but I know a lot of readers like it, because they recommend it to me all the time.
I’ve started liking him since a reader whose name I’ve forgotten (apologies) recommended that I read an interview Sapolsky had at Vox with Sean Illing, “A Stanford scientist on the biology of human evil.” The occasion was the publication of Sapolsky’s new book, Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst, which is Amazon’s #1 best seller in Biology (I haven’t read it). The interview is wide ranging, and I’ll reproduce just one bit on a topic that interests me. I’ve put asterisks on the last three sets of questions and answers, which form the crux of the discussion and clear up some common misconceptions.
Oh, and I guess he’s not a compatibilist. 🙂
Free will is an illusion
Okay, but in the book you come awfully close to concluding something very different. Specifically, in your discussion of free will, you reluctantly embrace a deterministic account of human behavior. You argue that free will is, in fact, an illusion, and if that’s true, I’m not sure how “malleable” we can be.
If it seemed tentative, it was just because I was trying to be polite to the reader or to a certain subset of readers. If there is free will, it’s free will about all sorts of uninteresting stuff, and it’s getting cramped into tighter and increasingly boring places. It seems impossible to view the full range of influences on our behavior and conclude that there is anything like free will.
That’s a bold claim…
You’re right. On the one hand, it seems obvious to me and to most scientists thinking about behavior that there is no free will. And yet it’s staggeringly difficult to try to begin to even imagine what a world is supposed to look like in which everybody recognizes this and accepts this.
The most obvious place to start is to approach this differently in terms of how we judge behavior. Even an extremely trivial decision like the shirt you choose to wear today, if dissected close enough, doesn’t really involve agency in the way we assume. There are millions of antecedent causes that led you to choose that shirt, and you had no control over them. So if I was to compliment you and say, “Hey, nice shirt,” that doesn’t really make any sense in that you aren’t really responsible for wearing it, at least not in the way that question implies.
Now, this is a very trivial thing and doesn’t appear to matter much, but this logic is also true for serious and consequential behaviors, and that’s where things get complicated.
If we’re just marionettes on a string and we don’t have the kind of agency that we think we have, then what sense does it make to reward or punish behavior? Doesn’t that imply some degree of freedom of action?
Organisms on the average tend to increase the frequency of behaviors for which they’ve been rewarded and to do the opposite for punishment or absence of reward. That’s fine and instrumentally is going to be helpful in all sorts of circumstances. The notion of there being something virtuous about punishing a bad behavior, that’s the idea that’s got to go out the window.
I always come back to the example of epilepsy. Five hundred years ago, an epileptic seizure was a sign that you were hanging out with Satan, and the appropriate treatment for that was obvious: burning someone at the stake. This went on for hundreds of years. Now, of course, we know that such a person has got screwy potassium channels in their neurons. It’s not them; it’s a disease. It’s not a moral failing; it’s a biological phenomenon.
Now we don’t punish epileptics for their epilepsy, but if they suffer bouts frequently, we might not let them drive a car because it’s not safe. It’s not that they don’t deserve to drive a car; it’s that it’s not safe. It’s a biological thing that has to be constrained because it represents a danger.
It’s taken us 500 years or so to get to this revelation, so I don’t know how long it will take us to reach this mindset for all other sorts of behaviors, but we absolutely must get there.
So what is true for the epileptic is true for all of us all of the time? We are our brains and we had no role in the shaping of our biology or our neurology or our chemistry, and yet these are the forces that determine our behavior.
That’s true, but it’s still difficult to fully grasp this. Look, I believe there is no free will whatsoever, but I can’t function that way. I get pissed off at our dog if he pees on the floor in the kitchen, even though I can easily come up with a mechanistic explanation for that.
Our entire notion of moral and legal responsibility is thrown into doubt the minute we fully embrace this truth, so I’m not sure we can really afford to own up to the implications of free will being an illusion.
I think that’s mostly right. As individuals and a society, I’m not sure we’re ready to face this fact. But we could perhaps do it bits and pieces at a time.