Here’s a 43-minute Scientific American podcast in which Stanford biology professor, author, and atheist Robert Sapolsky is interviewed by Robert Mirsky. Many of us have read Sapolsky’s recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, and Mirsky centers the talk on one of Sapolsky’s chapters from that book on behavior and free will. Here’s that chapter:
“Oh, why not?” That phrase shows that Sapolsky knows what a minefield is the issue of free will. But nevertheless, he persists. Like me, he’s a hard determinist; unlike me, he doesn’t seem to even consider compatibilism; and he feels that the most important implication for determinism is in reforming the justice system. But, as he notes in the podcast, this will be a hard thing to accomplish, since it means first dispelling the notion that most people have of libertarian free will and attendant moral responsibility for what they do.
Sapolsky, as you may know, is a brilliant and eloquent polymath, so what he says must be correct, right? Click on the screenshot to hear the podcast, which has a digression about an award between 16:00 and 22:37.
Most of Sapolsky’s eloquent take on free will relates to the concept of humans as “broken cars.” When your car is broken, you don’t say it deserves to be punished. You either “rehabilitate” it by taking it to a mechanic, or if it’s a car that won’t ever work well again, you “sequester” it by putting it in the junkyard or letting it rust in your front yard. And since Sapolsky, like me, sees criminals as “broken humans” who simply reflect in their criminality the influence of their genes and environments, he sees no sense in putting people away because they made the “wrong choice” or “deserve” retribution. (Some readers here think these two ideas are not part of our penal system, but I would disagree strongly.)
Since libertarian free will doesn’t exist, Sapolsky looks at our criminal justice system and sees it severely wanting—in fact, broken beyond immediate repair:
“I am of the stance that the entire criminal justice system, top to bottom, makes no sense whatsoever because it is predicated on 200-year-old biology. We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do. When we say ‘I’ve changed my mind’ about doing this or that, we are in fact saying ‘circumstances have changed my mind.’ We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”
One function of criminal justice isn’t mention by Sapolsky: deterrence. That’s a reason why you don’t go to jail for a parking ticket but do for shooting somebody, and it seems to me that this, too, should be considered by determinists when weighing how to fix the justice system.
Another analogy used by Sapolsky is epilepsy. In the Middle Ages and even later, epileptics were thought to be possessed by demons, and were often punished or burned at the stake. But now we’ve discovered that epilepsy is a disease that one has no control over: a screw-up in the brain’s potassium channels. Now that epilepsy is medicalized, we don’t punish people for being epileptics, but instead try to alleviate their disease. And so should we do with criminals.
Another minor difference I have with Sapolsky is his view that determinism completely gets rid of the idea of “responsibility” for bad acts. I would disagree in the sense that someone who commits a crime is the responsible person—the person who has to be reformed, treated, or “punished”. All that means is “this is the person who did the act.” But Sapolsky seems to construe “responsibility” as “moral responsibility”—that the person had a free choice to act good or ill, and makes one choice or another that comports with or contravenes societal morality. In that sense, yes, I agree with him—we should deep-six that notion of responsibility. But there are different ways to define “responsibility.”
At the end, Sapolsky answers two of Mirsky’s questions. First, does he think that neuroscientists will drive philosophers out of business? That is, will empirical studies of volition make philosophical lucubrations about free will obsolete? Sapolsky says “no”, that we should simply “force dead white male neurobiologists and philosophers to talk to each other more.” I mostly agree, for we need philosophers to clarify the concepts of “will” and “agency.”
Second, given the success of Behave, is Sapolsky writing another book? His answer is “yes,” and it sounds like an interesting one. He’s writing a book about how the world is supposed to function if everyone is a determinist and nobody accepts libertarian free will. (He doesn’t address compatibilism in his entire interview, which I suspect reflects his view—and mine—that compatibilism is just a semantic game that distracts from the real issue: the hegemony of determinism.) What he wants to happen is a big change in the penal system to reflect our knowledge that everyone’s behavior is “biological luck” flowing from the nexus of our genes and our environments. And that, he says, is almost an insuperable task. In fact, he’s right, for the first step is to convince people of determinism, and only then can we do the hard, empirical-based changes in, say, the judicial system.
Likewise, how we view “rewarding” people will change, he argues. Praising someone for their beautiful cheekbones, he says, is ludicrous: they have no “responsibility” for their cheekbones. (He means that the zygomatic arches are, like behavior, a product of genes and environment.) But neither do they deserve encomiums for their praiseworthy behavior like being generous, so why even laud people who do good? Sapolsky doesn’t seem to consider here that praising good behavior is an environmental input into others’ behavior that can change it—even if we are predetermined to praise people for the good things they do.
One can see Sapolsky’s whole interview as the logical consequence of his determinism, which leads to an immediate consideration of how screwed up our penal system is. You don’t see many compatibilists, even though they’re determinists, worrying much about penal reform. But such reform is far more important and consequential than trying to redefine “free will” so people won’t get freaked out if they don’t think they have it.
Yes, I know some readers say that you can still favor penal reform if you’re a compatibilist, and that’s true. But then why do you see hard determinists like me, Sapolsky, and others being the determinists most concerned with penal reform, compared to compatibilist/determinist philosophers, who argue semantics ad infinitum and claim, falsely that their efforts aren’t directed toward keeping the Little People convinced that they have free will?
If you don’t like Sapolsky’s views, don’t take them up with me; take them up with him! (That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t comment on them below; and anyway, I’ve said that I largely agree with him).