Robert Sapolsky on (the lack of) free will and its consequences

May 30, 2020 • 1:30 pm

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).

The great man

h/t: Bob

31 thoughts on “Robert Sapolsky on (the lack of) free will and its consequences

  1. “Yes, I know some readers say that you can still favor penal reform if you’re a compatibilist, and that’s true.”

    Actually, you can favor penal reform (I have) even without having any conscious notion of determinism or compatibilism. You can desire penal reform for all those African-Americans who are in jail for possessing a miniscule amount of a banned substance (and who, very conveniently, for some, lose their right to vote); or for those on death row who maybe are innocent (or even those who are innocent); or for the two-layer system whereby the rich avoid harsh punishment.

    Btw, I was finally convinced of determinism by Sapolksy’s book. Not because of the laws of physics (which I once practiced professionally) but because of that long train of past events which dictate my every action.

  2. I want to subscribe but there no longer is a subscribe button. I don’t have time to come back many times a day.

    1. Yes, there is, Bob. It’s in the sidebar, which you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom to see (bottom of page or bottom of post). I’m working on fixing that to. Just keep going down past the posts and you’ll see where to subscribe.

  3. “When your car is broken, you don’t say it deserves to be punished.”

    The difference is that, if you threaten a car: “if you break down I’ll confine you to the garage for a month”, then it won’t have any effect. But, if you threaten a human it will affect their behaviour.

    And, if you purely medicalise it, then you allow: “I may as well rob a bank since, if I get away with it I’m rich, and if I get caught then the worst is that I get a shot in the arm and no longer want to rob banks, so obviously I should rob banks until I get caught”.

    Alternatively, if you punish them for not having been deterred then you are de facto (whatever the semantics) holding them morally responsible (where “morally” responsible here just means “you should be punished”).

    “You don’t see many compatibilists, even though they’re determinists, worrying much about penal reform.”

    OK, but then what do the incompatibilists want? Suppose someone robs a bank. What then? Something more akin to the Scandinavian justice system than the American one? OK, I expect many compatibilists would agree on that.

  4. “Actually, you can favor penal reform (I have) even without having any conscious notion of determinism or compatibilism”

    Agree, In Norway, where our legal and prison system is completely different, there’s no discussion about determinism or compatibilism in relation to crime and punishment. It’s just common sense and best for society to have a prison system build on rehabilitation rather than harsh punishment. Why are there still so many Americans who doesn’t seems to understand this. (fortunately, when reading WEIT I understand that many Americans more and more seems to favor a more humane

  5. But once again if we as individuals have no free will then society itself can have no free will. If society is predetermined to have a justice system that recognizes free will then there is nothing we as individuals can do about it.

    Also even if some external force enforced a justice system that assumed determinism it isn’t clear what deterministic effect that would cause. It may make things worse.

    If you are a hard core determinist then you have to accept the fact that what will happen will happen.

    This deterministic nihilism is why some reject determinism. Even Daniel Dennett cannot handle the issue coherently. For example:

    That’s like arguing that telling people there is no god makes them bad people even if there is no god.

    1. You equate determinism with a misunderstanding that nothing can change going forward. There can always be new information, whether it is ideas from other people or the result of an action used to change what is done next. Your statement that society can have no free will is equivalent to saying go north of the north pole – it isn’t even a concept.

      1. But what you say about society is also true about individuals. If society can get new information than so can an individual. They both have the same Dennettish kind of free will if you wish to call it free will. But the individual can access, process and respond to new information much faster and in more complex ways. If you believe in Dennett’s kind of free will then the individual has much more of it than society. That is why we have a brain after all.

        But if you believe in absolute determinism then none of this matters. There is no such thing as new information. All the information was present at the big bang. The events of the universe play out like playing a movie.

        Understand I am not arguing for or against determinism or even prison reform. I suspect that a good prison system would be the same with or without determinism. I’m simply pointing out the failure to follow the claims of determinism to their logical conclusion.

        For what its worth people who argue for free will are on even shakier ground.

  6. There are humane forms of justice that still attribute moral responsibility to criminals. Here is a partial transcript from an interview on NPR. Sujatha Baliga is a recent MacArthur Fellowship winner who works on restorative justice.

    REPORTER: In matters like this, in matters of serious crime and serious harm, where someone’s life is taken, where someone is seriously harmed, what, in your view, is the societal benefit of taking this approach?

    BALIGA: Actually, restorative justice works best with more serious harms because we’re talking about people who are actually impacted. In that face-to-face dialogue, you can imagine it not having any heat or any value, really, in terms of the wake-up or the aha moments when we’re talking about graffiti versus when someone has actually entered someone’s home and taken their things, right? That’s a situation that calls for accountability, calls for a direct dialogue where someone takes responsibility for what they’ve done. So, to my mind, restorative justice – and it’s not just to my mind. There’s international data that shows that restorative justice is actually more effective with the more serious harms that people do to one another.; emphasis added

  7. I had a moment to watch an entire lecture of his on YouTube- interesting and compelling presentation.

  8. … 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.)

    Those readers would be wrong. The concept of “blameworthiness” — as determined in large measure by the offender’s state of mind (or “mens rea“) at the time the offense was committed — is fundamental to the American system of justice. Concerns like rehabilitation and deterrence are ancillary in comparison.

  9. My own hypothesis called ‘Human Sub-Set Theory’ seems to explain this intellectual predicament. The hypothesis suggests that human beings are tribal in that we are each members of Groups, and those many Groups are differentiated by their assumptions about the nature of reality. An easy example is that religeous people and astrologers have a hidden assumption that we live in an ‘Intentional Universe’ organised from outside ourselves for us. Professor Sopolsky is such a typical and identifiable member of a different Group who’s assumptions about the nature of reality tricks them into wrestling with the Free Will delusion. It all seems so concrete and so clear to them until another, greater ‘reality’ overtakes their intellectual certitude, and it all begins to seem like naivete. So, please look at thephoto of Prof Sapolsky and realise that his beliefs, and those around him who agree with him are there by a devastating problem of academic disciplines called ‘Social Self-Selection’ whereby people of the same intellectual Group will reinforce each other by gathering into academic conclaves. The whole problem outlined by Human Sub-Set Theory is that all, yes, all assumptions about the nature of reality carry within them the mechanisms to deny refutations and contradictions. As I say, the great example of these ice-palaces of intellectual logical-possibility is to be found in religions, and in the apologists for religions.
    It seems to me that the whole question of Free Will is a Social Construction that will fade as we grow wiser.

  10. I’m generally for penal reform – shorter sentences much more effort spent on rehabilitation and so on.

    However there are some people who cannot be rehabilitated and remain a risk to others. Any reformed system has to cater for these incorrigibles otherwise each new failure will weaken the public support for reform. Quite how you decide who cannot be rehabilitated is an interesting challenge.

  11. This discussion gives me headaches. The free will bit, at least at the level it is being discussed, is beyond my level of education.

    I can address the penal system a bit. When I was at university studying industrial archaeology, one of the interesting subjects was the early human development of walls, and how they relate to peaceful society. What I got from it was a sense that walls are inevitable, but the goal is to live where they are far away, or at least not intrusive. Not having to live in a fortified compound is sort of a luxury. Border walls can be far away ( and hypothetical instead of literal), but they are good at keeping away the Scythians or whatever.
    If you have someone in your community who, just as an example, has a habit of invading people’s homes, robbing them, then burning them alive, you are not going to be safe unless that person is isolated or removed from society. It is more efficient to put those sorts of people inside a prison than it would be to let them run amok and and have to build little fortifications around all of our residences.
    It would be nice if we could rehabilitate everyone, but I just don’t see that as a realistic goal.

  12. Could it be that a good launching point is to start treating criminal behaviour as a health issue not a criminal act. Criminality is based around retribution, health, to make well again… if that ain’t obvious, This may be a mechanism to move forward with accepting no free will as a universal given. It could take some time but is an erosion by increment of outmoded thinking.

  13. Thx for the reference to Robert S’s latest interview, I’m a huge fan. He is excellent (and very personal) on Sam Harris’ podcast also.
    Free will is for the birds, of course, but try telling one of the shaved apes we live with that. I suggested that in a crim law class decades ago and the professor (a judge) said:”I see Councillor Anderson doesn’t believe in personal responsibility,” and there was THAT semester. hehhee D.A., NYC

  14. Natural selection has equipped humans with a core morality about fairness and do no harm.

    Everyone agrees about fairness and do-no-harm and are happy with that.

    Disagreement is about being unfair and bringing harm to people who are perceived to have been performing unfair or harmful actions. Even deterrence does violate our built-in do-no-harm-rule.

    Without a believe in freewill this disagreement can not exist because it’s the only justified way to satisfy our retributive emotions.

  15. Cool. I like his wit – he’s serious, and articulate, but seems aware of the limits of his words? He immediately knows the car metaphor is only so useful and says so, but uses it anyway.

    I’ll note that I listened to this falling asleep – so, not a scenario for which reading, for me, works. That said, I do note some discrepancies with reading that are hard to explain in brief. I still think the spoken word is valuable to digest in the moment, and these recordings- “podcasts” – can deliver that.

    Thanks for fixing up the site. I tried Brave for this – seems fine. Still reporting four fingerprinting methods.

  16. The comparison that Sapolsky uses to illustrate the concept of free will, the reference to a broken car, I do not find successful at all, because he compares apples and oranges here.
    Cars have not emerged from biological evolution, they do not develop, they do not compete for resources and reproduction, and that is why this approach of comparing living beings with inanimate things is simply pointless.

    So Sapolsky says that some cars can still be helped, they go to a mechanic, in other words, analogous to offenders in rehabilitation. And then there are cars that can’t be helped any more, they go to the junkyard. Another word for junkyard is car cemetery. And with this analogy, the way would now be clear to advocate and maintain the death penalty for all those hopeless offenders who cannot be rehabilitated and must be sorted out. The means to achieve this would be quite simply the application of the death penalty, the offender would be put on the electric chair, just as a broken car is taken to the junkyard.

    People can do everything with inanimate things, without exception, really everything, therefore the concept based on the “broken car” is wrong, since the way we deal with inanimate things cannot be compared with the way we deal with animate things, and the conclusions we draw from such analogies are therefore completely misleading.

  17. I have recently finished viewing Dr Sopolsky’s 2010 Stanford lectures on human biology. He is an excellent speaker with a depth of knowledge over a wide field. He asks his students in the introductory lecture who is a free-willer and who a determinist. In his final lecture in the series he poses the same question. No doubt, he opened up the minds of his many young students.

  18. “And since Sapolsky, like me, sees criminals as „broken humans“ -”

    Criminals as “broken people” – is that really the right way to describe them?

    Yes, criminals reflect in their behavior the influence of their genes and their environment – as we all do.
    But I do not find the use of ” broken ” entirely correct, because it hides the fact that what is described as “criminal” depends on society, age and culture. Criminal behaviour is always an attribution, a social agreement on what behaviour is to be considered bad, as ” broken”. In the end, it is the masses against the individual, against the deviant, who has violated the law.
    Laws themselves are therefore subject to constant change, they are not static and reflect the changing circumstances and agreements about right and wrong.
    The term “broken people”, however, leaves out the fact that criminal behaviour is not static, not absolute.
    Almost everything we know about types of crime can be found in the entire animal kingdom: theft, murder, war, infanticide, fratricide and rape.
    There is also behaviour that was once considered criminal and punishable (sometimes by death), but which today, in most countries, is completely unpunished, such as adultery or abortion.

    All these forms of criminal behaviour have evolved over time. Since they have spread and persisted throughout the entire animal world (including humans) over thousands, even millions of years, it can be assumed that criminal behavior also offers evolutionary advantages. Not for everyone, not always, but here and there. This means nothing other than that criminal behavior has proven and continues to prove itself to be simply evolutionary advantageous behavior in the past, including the behavior of those who are pejoratively attributed with the description “broken people”.

    If evolution knows no goal, then there can be no such thing as “broken living beings / people” in relation to their behavior, which may be deviant or striking, if it ultimately proved or can prove to be evolutionarily advantageous .

  19. Sapolsky on determinism: “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…”

    We may not have ultimate control, but plenty of proximate control, thus all the agency we can coherently want. Saying that determinism robs us of agency and control will not help in getting the folk to accept it. But I’m glad to hear Sapolsky is aiming to do just that.

  20. Sapolsky’s view of the causes of behavior reduces everything to neurophysiology and contingent influences. Would he have us believe then that he could have been a free-will compatibilist if his mother had adopted a different diet while pregnant? Of course not; he explicitly credits his incompatibilism to the logic of the arguments, not to obscure developmental factors. This boils down to a kind of Little People argument: he, Robert Sapolsky, is able to reason his way to correct conclusions, but the masses are just operating on biological reflexes programmed into them.

    Sapolsky advocates the abolition of any concept of justice or individual responsibility in favor of a thoroughly medicalized view of crime. This would seem to open the door to classifying political dissent, nonviolent civil disobedience, and the like as behavioral problems requiring forcible medical intervention. That seems dangerous, to say the least.

    He’s also off base in denying that anyone deserves to be punished. If deterrence is the goal, why not amplify its effectiveness by punishing a criminal’s children as well? We don’t do that because we recognize that it would be unjust, that there’s some sense in which criminals have earned (and therefore deserve) their punishment, whereas their loved ones have not.

    I don’t know how Sapolsky proposes to rehabilitate offenders without talking about self-control and making smart choices. In the end he admits he doesn’t know either; he has no idea what a society that fully embraced incompatibilism would look like, but he plans to give it some thought and write a book about it. We’ll see whether he comes up with any sensible answers.

  21. There is evidence to show the relationship between genetic material and the physical structure of every animal. There is no evidence to support that behavior of any sort is determined by genetic material. The tropistic response of every life form to the world in which it lives is dependent upon the bodily chemistry of the organism and the environment of the organism. This can easily be seen in the much smaller and less complex forms of life. It is the environment that determines the behavior in concert with the complexity of the life form. Change the environment and the behavior changes or is modified. Free will assumes origination and assigns that assumption to the organism. When the concern for behavior is expressed in life forms that have an associative memory structure within its central nervous system, it can be shown that the memory system is activated by the environment via the sensory system that is an extension of the brain. Thus, the behavior is directly related to the information and the events in the environment of the animal. Aberrant behavior in human beings is the result of poor-quality information. In other words, human beings are driven to behavior by the combination of information in an associative system, environmental events and conclusions derived from predictability. The nonsense of free will stems from mankind’s inability to solve problems and the effects of scarcity, ignorance, impatience and a host of other cultural malfunctions.

    1. You’re just wrong when you say that there is no evidence to suport that behavior of any sort is determined by genetic material. There’s a whole subfield about this: behavior genetics. You can select for many behaviors, and we know lots of genes that alter behavior when mutated.

      So, I’m afraid you haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Given what you said about behavior, I suspect you’d be a better fit at Pharyngula.

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