Sapolsky’s free will book out this fall; and a few thoughts from PCC(E)

February 20, 2023 • 9:15 am

Biologist Robert Sapolsky is a polymath, having done research ranging from neuroendocrinology to the behavior of baboons in Africa. That’s reflected in his academic titles: he’s “the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, holding joint appointments in several departments, including Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery”. And, of course, he’s an excellent and prolific writer. His 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Their Best and Worst, was a bestseller and gets 4½ stars on Amazon out of over 6,000 reviews.

Now he’s written a new book (below) which I am much looking forward to. It’ll be out October 17, so remind me shortly before that. You can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link, but of course it’s nearly bare this early. You can read more at the publisher’s website (Penguin Random House, my own publisher):

This is what the publisher has to say about it (their bolding):

It’s clear from the summary that the “free will” Sapolsky’s attacking is dualistic or libertarian free will (“some separate self telling our biology what to do”). And although some readers think that kind of free will is passé, that eveeryone already rejects it, that’s wrong. I suspect those who say that are compatibilists who don’t get out much.  According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility. As I’ve long argued, yes, the concept of “moral” responsibility loses meaning in a naturalistic universe, but the concept of responsibility  (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment—although non-retributive punishment.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)

I’ve also experienced the hegemony of libertarian free will repeatedly. Here are three of my anecdotes, two of which I’ve described before:

a.) At the “Moving Naturalism Forward”, the late physicist Steve Weinberg professed to me a belief in libertarian free will. See the story I told here (scroll down). In our conversation I ascertained that yes, although Weinberg was a Nobel Laureate in physics, he was resolutely wedded to the idea that he could, at any time, have behaved other than how he did. (I gave a talk on free will there.)

b.) A story I told here in 2015 when I gave a talk on free will at the Imagine No Religion meeting in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sadly, those delightful meetings are extinct.)

After my free will talk, which I think at least made many people think about the hegemony of behavioral determinism (I don’t care so much whether they accept compatibilism or incompatibilism so long as they accept determinism), I was accosted by an angry jazz musician. He said that I had basically ruined his life (I am not exaggerating) by telling him that his “improvisations” were not really improvisations in the sense that he he (in a dualistic way) “decided” what riffs to play, but that they were were the determined product of unconscious processes. I tried to reassure him that they were still the product of his own brain, his own musical background, and his training that allowed him to improvise around what his fellow musicians were playing, but he didn’t find that reassuring. (Even Dawkins jumped in and tried to explain that this didn’t devalue the man’s art or abilities.)

I still remember the anger of that musician (a big man) and my fear that he was going to hit me. Richard saved the day! Such is the anger of people told that they’re deprived of their agency.

c.)  I haven’t told this story yet, but I will now. When I went to Massachusetts a few months ago, I visited an old friend on Cape Cod, whom I hadn’t seen for years. He’d recently remarried, and I was going to stay there for two days touring the area before heading up to Boston.  While eating Wellfleet oysters, somehow we got onto the subject of free will. My friend and his wife were absolutely astounded when I told them they had no dualistic free will and could never behave other than the way the laws of physics dictated, even taking into account quantum randomness. They couldn’t let the topic go, and as I explained my point of view (and yes, I mentioned compatibilism), they got angrier and angrier, and the argument went on into the night. I kept my cool because I’d thought a lot about the subject and they had just encountered it, so I had to explain things as calmly as carefully as I could.  The anger on their part continued, and I went to bed.

When I got up the next morning, set for another day of sightseeing, I went down to breakfast to find no coffee made and no people in evidence. Eventually my friend appeared and said, “You have to leave.”

“WHAT?”, I said, “I have a return ticket to Boston for tomorrow.” He replied that he’d buy me a ticket for that morning (I did it myself), but I had to get out of their house.  This was, of course, because they were totally angry at me for my views on free will. My friend had stayed up all night, consuming a whole bottle of wine, trying to find out people who believed in libertarian free will (he mostly found compatibilists like Dennett to support his case, but they didn’t, for the issue was naturalism).

Needless to say, I was dumbfounded.  I’ve gone over this in my mind repeatedly, and I am absolutely sure that I didn’t raise my voice or say anything offensive. I was being booted out of a friend’s house because I had the wrong stand on a metaphysical argument!

Again, such is the rage of those who hear others tell them they have no agency.  Of course that ended the friendship, and I’ll never see the guy again, nor do I want to. But the couple couldn’t resist getting in one last shot. When I hugged his wife goodbye and thanked her for her hospitality, she said, “Have a nice predetermined life.”  How rude can one get? I still haven’t gotten over this, as nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me, and I can’t fathom how a friendship could be scuppered over an argument like this. Fortunately, I called my friends in Boston and they were glad to put me up for an extra night, and also appalled that I got the heave-ho because I’m a hard determinist!

So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.

I’m glad to see that Sapolsky will be writing about those consequences.  Remember that several compatibilists, including Dan, have argued that unless we believe in some sort of free will—compatibilist or libertarian—society will fall apart. That’s bogus, of course, and Sapolsky argues that below. I reprise the section of his book précis I’m talking about (bolding is mine)

[Sapolsky] 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.

Here are two quotes from Dan that I use in my free will talks to show the attitude Sapolsky says is wrongheaded:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (

and this (basically identical to the published version; I got this from an earlier version).

This is a scare tactic used to bully people into accepting compatibilism!

I’ve never met Sapolsky, but I’d like to. He sounds like a guy worth knowing.

61 thoughts on “Sapolsky’s free will book out this fall; and a few thoughts from PCC(E)

  1. excellent – indeed, in my hands (as it were), Sapolsky’s books tend to drop-kick dopey notions I had cluttering up the attic (in the Sherlock Holmes sense). What a relief! One less thing to do mental acrobatics in order to keep around.

    1. … that is, it is a counterintuitive result, that recognizing “free will” for what it is andespecially for what “free will” is not, is liberating.

    2. I enjoyed the article! It is interesting to see people commenting somewhere far away on the internet, waiting for the book to come.

  2. I’ve been chewing over the words used in this debate recently. Words matter but the little buggers evolve over time, so rather than call Free Will (or Consciousness etc.) an illusion or a narrative I’d prefer to call Free Will a fabrication. That is some subjective mental device thrown together out of smaller elements (some objectively real, some not) that performs a useful subjective purpose. The implication being that something thrown up for a purpose, or in the absence of better knowledge, may be worth tearing down or being renovated.

    Just like Centre of Gravity – it isn’t real (there’s no natural physical identifier) but it can be useful.

    1. synthetic

      … and I apologize, but I now insinuate my own idea, which AFAIK is not mentioned – the notion of “will power”.

      IMO, “will power”, artificial or not, does something. I notice “will power” when I am eating some snack chips. I know I should not eat more snack chips, but I continue to eat them. Why? Because I did not think of how or what to use to get that result. It seems “Will power” is the “how” or “what” I must focus on to stop eating the chips.

      OK, apologies again for the insinuation – but it’s free will! endless discussion abounds.

      1. Very good. There’s some research to suggest that a particular enzyme drives neurotransmitters into synaptic vesicles and that empty vesicles affect signalling between neurons.

        Perhaps the emptying of these vesicles might explain why will power for a task reduces over time? Perhaps Free Will is the sensation that your brain has reserves of will power (signalling neurons) to call upon? The capacity to exert will power?

        Farfetched perhaps but open to scientific investigation.

        1. I put a couple clear bits of the Nature abstract, because this is interesting :

          “In neurons, the loading of all neurotransmitters into synaptic vesicles is energized by about one V-ATPase molecule per synaptic vesicle[6,7].”

          the authors ” investigated electrogenic proton-pumping by single mammalian-brain V-ATPases in single synaptic vesicles.”

          “V-ATPases do not pump continuously in time, […]” but “stochastically switch between three ultralong-lived modes: proton-pumping, inactive and proton-leaky. “[…]

          They discuss the regulation of those modes.

          nice pick! orignal article:

  3. I’ll reiterate the claim that you (Jerry) and Dan and (likely) Sapolsky do actually agree on just about everything. You only think you don’t agree with each other because you connote certain concepts somewhat differently.

    When Dan says:

    “If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do”,

    … and thus wants to retain a concept of “responsibility” and holding people to account for their actions (and calls that “compatibilism”), he’s saying pretty much the same as Jerry when Jerry says:

    As I’ve long argued [in a naturalistic universe] … the concept of responsibility (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment …

    I’m not sure there’s any practical difference between Dan’s vision and Jerry’s vision.

    1. Yes there is. I don’t think society will fall apart if people stop believing in free will, either libertarianism or compatibilism. And my vision goes straight from naturalism to fixing society in light of that. Dan’s goes straight from naturalism to writing two big books about compatibilism.

      1. Agreed, we could drop the concept of “free will” (it’s more trouble than it’s worth).

        But everyone (you, Dan, etc) agrees that we need the concepts of responsibility, punishment, holding people to account for their actions, enforcing contracts, et cetera.

        1. Yes, but I do not agree with Dan 100%, which you said we did. I have never argued that we don’t need the concepts of responsibility or punishment, which really should be directed towards rehabilitation rather than depriving people of their humanity.

          You said that I didn’t differ so much from the compatibilists. I say you’re wrong.

  4. When I noticed that Sapolsky had a new title, I became very excited…then I discovered it wasn’t due until October. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to wait that long! I love his work…even listened to his Great Courses course on Audible. He’s excellent, and one of many thinkers to whom I was introduced by Sam Harris’s podcast. (I would say PPC(E) was, as he was the first person to converse with Sam on that podcast, but I already knew about Professor Coyne).

  5. Thanks Jerry for this advance notice and for recounting your Cape Cod misadventure, yikes!. You say “Again, such is the rage of those who hear others tell them they have no agency.” I too would bridle at this claim even though I espouse a pragmatic, good-enough-for-government-work determinism when thinking about human behavior. After all, we remain perfectly real, competent agents under determinism, and it’s only the reliable brain-based causal relations between deliberation, intention, and action that permit effective agency. So determinism, should it be true, is no threat to it. To think that it is can be demoralizing, which is why in promoting a naturalistic view of ourselves we have to counter this and other misconception about determinism, e.g., that it’s equivalent to fatalism, that it’s a universal excuse, that it undermines rationality, and that things can’t change for the better. I hope Sapolsky understands all this and puts determinism in a positive light.

  6. I think that for compatibilists like Sean Carroll, what matters is the idea of free will, not free will itself. Carroll also thinks that gametes don’t matter when we use words like “woman” or “man”, what matter is what’s in our minds when we use those words.

  7. People like to believe that there is a little person inside their head that not only controls our actions but floats off someplace magical at death. Even folks who have abandoned religion seem to hold on to this comforting feeling so to tell them it is an illusion is a sort of existential threat. Fortunately meditation, as taught in most Buddhist traditions, provides a method for understanding and a huge body of literature concerning the ” illusory nature of the self”. But because this practice arose and is associated with Buddhism it carries the dreaded taint of religion. As an atheist I had a hard time squaring that circle until I read Sam Harris. (… and later discovered Jerry Coyne on his podcast – I am so glad I found you guys!)

  8. Looking forward to the Sapolsky book.

    Sorry to hear about your Cape Cod encounter PCC(E). I’ve had arguments myself and people can certainly get upset when you argue against Free Will, but I’ve never been kicked out of someone’s house for it!

    Dennett’s belief that it is morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial would seem to contradict Bertrand Russell’s edict , “It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty, and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true.”

    The impression given by Dennett is a condescending one – that these are ideas that philosophers and theologians can discuss among themselves… but not in front of the servants.

    Compatibilism – reconciling free will and determinism – is like reconciling never having had sex with being pregnant. Sure, you can try to make the claim, but, really, who are you kidding?

  9. I don’t understand why a person would be so upset about the issue over free will. Perhaps the connotations that there is no spirit or soul (and so no afterlife) is what alarms them so.

    1. But as friends of Jerry’s, they surely would have known about (and probably shared) Jerry’s atheism. Their reaction here suggests that the free will issue was really the problem.

  10. What if rehabilitation doesn’t work, Jerry? [Edit: this was meant as a reply in #3.]. You put a felon through the best-evidenced corrective rehab program you can come up with and he still commits crimes, dammit.

    Not his “fault”, sure, but if he can’t help being a criminal and you can’t rewire his brain particles to make him stop, do you lock him up for life to protect the community? Or, if someone whose wiring is so messed up that he can’t be made to stop committing murder, and will re-offend if he escapes from prison or is paroled because the penetentiaries are full to bursting, why not just kill him? Strictly on utilitarian principles, to prevent recidivism, mind you—no hard feelings driven by revenge or thrill of inflicting suffering.

    In Canada we have pretty much abandoned the concept of free will in the case of indigenous criminals. But the result is we don’t incarcerate them at all. That’s how natives who commit truly awful crimes, like the recent Saskatchewan knife assailant, are able to accumulate 60 criminal convictions in a 30-year lifetime. And that’s not including juvenile convictions under 18 which are expunged. Judges don’t even want to hold habitually violent indigenous arrestees without bail. They cite the usual impediments to free will and then release them. One such is charged in the murder of a policeman a couple of months ago while on bail from a previous violent charge.

    Abandoning free will is fine. But if a felon is powerless to do other, then the prescription is surely longer sentences, not shorter. Until you discover the rehab secret. Something like psychosurgery, maybe?

    1. Then, if the guy’s a danger to society, he has to stay sequestered away from society. I’ve made that clear in my writings before, though you clearly haven’t read them on this site.

      I don’t believe in capital punishment. A criminal that can’t be reformed is a broken human, but I don’t see the point of ending his life if he can still enjoy it. If he wants and begs for death, then maybe it’s okay. But I don’t like state-sanctioned killing, and, in fact, it costs less in terms of $$ alone to keep a guy in prison for life than to kill him.

      I’d urge you to go back and read what I wrote on this site about punishment.

  11. OMG. That’s an awful story about your friend and being evicted from his house. People get emotional about this subject. I can understand not getting over that event. I wouldn’t either.

    I’m looking forward to Sapolsky’s book.

    If—as the evidence suggests—all actions in the universe are the consequence of the ongoing interactions of atoms and molecules plus indeterminant quantum effects, the functioning of the brain, too, is consequent on these things. This means that all brain activity is caused by molecular (and quantum) processes that are already in motion.

    The only way for a person to have “free will” (in the hard sense) is for that person in some way to (1) suspend what’s already happening in the brain, (2) while suspended, identify possible “options,” (3) choose among them, (4) reconfigure the molecular state of the brain so that (once restarted) it will produce the “willed” outcome, and then (5) restart the brain in its new state to effect the desired outcome.

    But to do those five things, one needs a way (unknown) to stop all the molecular and quantum processes that are already in motion in the brain. Having now stopped those processes, one needs another (unknown) process to identify and choose among “options,” another (unknown) process to change the state of the brain such that when you start those molecular and quantum processes up again (by yet another unknown process), the outcome that you “willed” while brain activity was suspended takes place. That’s a high bar.

    Unless one accepts that there are ways to willfully suspend the laws of physics, act outside those laws (to change the state of the brain to specify the “willed” outcome), and then willfully turn the laws of physics back on again, one cannot accept the notion of free will. It’s a figment of one’s (already determined) imagination.

  12. According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility.

    Sure, most people believe in libertarian free will. Most people also believe in dualistic consciousness. Both doctrines have been taught to them by their religions, so it’s not surprising that people believe them. But you wouldn’t say that there’s no such thing as consciousness just because most people have an associated belief, namely dualism, which is false. You and I both believe that people are conscious but that most people have a wrong belief (dualism) about consciousness. I believe that people are free-willed but that most people have a wrong belief (libertarianism) about how it works.

    In your second sentence quoted above, you make an illegitimate equation between determinism and naturalism. The Sarkissian et. al. study asks survey respondents about a universe where “everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it.” That is determinism, and a scientifically dubious version of it to boot; it is not something all naturalists need to agree to. The dubious part is where they specify that everything is “caused by whatever happened before it” — thereby building-in the Arrow of Time into the most general level of physics. Sean Carroll explains why that is a mistake in a three minute video. It may be intuitively hard to believe that causality and the arrow of time don’t go all the way down, so to speak, but they don’t. That intuition about time and causality, I would argue (if this comment weren’t long already), is why even many non-religious people find incompatibilism intuitive.

    1. Some comments Sean Carroll has made regarding determinism and free will, all are paraphrases from memory.

      “Determinism is true, at least locally, and that’s all that matters in the context of free will.”

      “If I’m discussing free will with someone and they start talking about determinism I know that they’ve missed the point.”

      “It doesn’t matter what the laws of physics are, only that there are laws of physics.”

      “I don’t like using the term free will because it has too much baggage associated with it.”

      What he seems to mean by these comments, and I agree with him (and Jerry has made this point in the past as well), is that whatever you want to call what human minds are capable of doing, it obeys the laws of physics. What the laws are doesn’t matter, the philosophical implications are the same, that libertarian, dualistic and similar “magical” concepts of free will are bogus simply because they require that human minds be capable of doing something that is not bound by the laws of physics that everything else is. The C / IC debate certainly was originally centered on determinism, but I agree with Sean again, that really should be amended to simply “the laws of physics.”

      1. I would have pointed out that I think determinism is probably true, but for length considerations. The important point is that the un-physical version of determinism, which is implied by the survey question used by Sarkissian et. al., is not true. It doesn’t matter whether the laws of nature are deterministic or probabilistic. But it does help to realize that the fundamental laws of nature can be used to derive past states from present ones, as easily as the other direction. That fact immediately gives the lie to the idea that the whole past, down to the last microscopic detail, is “fixed”, i.e. independent of what you do now. The local macroscopic past is largely “fixed”, but that’s not the same thing. (Sean knows all this, but doesn’t see the relevance to the free will debate.)

        The “could/couldn’t have done otherwise” debate usually misses this important point. Asking, “could you have done otherwise, holding every detail of the past the same?” is a wrong question, for roughly the same reason that “could you have done otherwise, holding every detail of the future the same?” is a wrong question.

        You can also use the logic of self-reference to see that the “fixity of the past” is overblown, but if you don’t directly take on your intuitions about the Arrow of Time, you’ll remain befuddled.

  13. Thanks Jerry for your always stimulating posts, but, alas, I think you miss the point Dennett is making and it is a point that permeates his insights into the messy notion of consciousness and self identity. These are useful fictions that are “as if ” they are real phenomena, but are user illusions like pictures in the head. Free will is a convenient cultural tool and obviously if it’s jettisoned life will proceed just fine, just like becoming an atheist doesn’t mean morality evaporates. You and Dennett enjoy much in common and his position on free will is that despite the fact that it is obviously incoherent, it is a benign artifact and like a ”self,” a linguistic affectation. Steven Pinker is especially brilliant and clear on this issue in all his books.

    1. Alas, I think you are missing the point. I contend that if we reject any notion of free will, as I do, society will not all apart. Dan has said that it is, I claim it isn’t. We also differ in that Dennett is concerned with convincing people though various versions of compatibilism (and they do vary) that we do have free will. I don’t care about compatibilism as it’s a semantic trick; I care about what the real life consequences of naturalism are.

      I reject the idea that something that we know is not true can be given fancy new garb, tricked out, and be useful to society.

    2. I think if you re-read what Jerry has written, and re-read what Dennett has written, particularly the quotes that Jerry included above, you’ll see that Jerry really did not miss Dennett’s point.

      You might find the Moving Naturalism Forward lectures interesting. Both Jerry and Dan were participants and free will was very much on the menu. In other words, Jerry has discussed this in depth and in person with Dan.

  14. “I tried to reassure him that they were still the product of his own brain, his own musical background, and his training that allowed him to improvise around what his fellow musicians were playing, …” Well put, so why the same doesn’t go for freewill, agency, and choices.
    Anyway, I thought the concept of ‘agency’ was distinct from freewill and uncontroversial, i.e., accepted by everybody. I was wrong apparently.

    1. Not sure you are wrong necessarily. It’s been my observation that in discussions about free will from amateur to experts levels, and every level in between, that every key concept about human cognition has at least 2 different definitions. At a minimum, one that is compatible with the laws of physics and one that isn’t.

      Although it’s true that many Incompatibilists when discussing free will do reject terms like “choice” for the same reason they reject the term “free will,” and that’s to point out that, in their view, the classical notion of those terms is not compatible with the laws of physics.

  15. I don’t think a commitment to ‘determinism’ is necessary to challenge the libertarian notion of ‘free-will’. If nature is fundamentally indeterministic (as suggested by quantum physics), one still does not have (libertarian) free will, because quantum indeterminacy in the brain only makes our choices random. You could have chosen otherwise under exactly the same conditions because the quantum coin could have come up heads instead of tails. Our choices would then be ‘free’ but not ‘willed’.

    However, there is still a meaningful and practical distinction between choosing in accordance with what we desire (choosing ‘freely’ or ‘voluntarily’) and choosing under duress (‘against our will’ or ‘involuntarily’). This sensible and important ‘compatibilist’ notion of ‘free will’ pervades many of our social interactions and explanations of human behavior. I don’t see anything anti-naturalistic or problematic about it.

    1. You’re telling me what I’ve already written about in the first paragraph: I’ve defined “determinism” as “naturalism” which is “all laws of physics, including quantum mechanics.

      The problem, which I’ve also written about, is that “duress” is often hard to define. Is a man who wants to buy a new car but realizes that everyone expects him to pay for his kids’ education doing it under duress or of his own free will. Even if you have a gun to your head during a robbery, a possibility is to fight or run. The conflation of “under duress” and “voluntarily” is what’s really screwed up the American legal system–indeed, all legal systems.

  16. Stephen Wolfram wrote an essay on how ChatGPT works that is relevant:

    But, OK, at each step it gets a list of words with probabilities. But which one should it actually pick to add to the essay (or whatever) that it’s writing? One might think it should be the “highest-ranked” word (i.e. the one to which the highest “probability” was assigned). But this is where a bit of voodoo begins to creep in. Because for some reason—that maybe one day we’ll have a scientific-style understanding of—if we always pick the highest-ranked word, we’ll typically get a very “flat” essay, that never seems to “show any creativity” (and even sometimes repeats word for word). But if sometimes (at random) we pick lower-ranked words, we get a “more interesting” essay.

    The fact that there’s randomness here means that if we use the same prompt multiple times, we’re likely to get different essays each time. And, in keeping with the idea of voodoo, there’s a particular so-called “temperature” parameter that determines how often lower-ranked words will be used, and for essay generation, it turns out that a “temperature” of 0.8 seems best.

    Since ChatGPT can provide different answers to the same prompt, why would we expect people to behave exactly the same way if an episode was repeated “with everything exactly the same?” Does anybody really believe there is no random element to human behavior?

      1. Certainly the great majority of physicists would disagree with you. Irrreducible quantum randomness is everywhere, including in macroscopic objects, indeed even including the very existence of our own planet and all its inhabitants (the result of quantum fluctuations in the early universe). This includes human behavior, and even our very existence.

        Laplacian determinism died a hundred years ago. A determinism that includes randomness has replaced it. However, this has no bearing on the free will question.

        1. “No” meaning that I don’t deny that things happen by apparent chance. AAR…

          “Irrreducible quantum randomness is everywhere…”

          That’s actually an interpretation of QM, not I direct observation. Fully deterministic interpretations are possible.

          “…this has no bearing on the free will question.”


          1. Oops, I see that I misread your comment. Sorry.

            “That’s actually an interpretation of QM, not I direct observation.” Yes, that’s right. But it is the common interpretation.

  17. What does it matter if you have free will, instead of a physically deterministic brain that is so fantastically complex and sentitively dependent on environmental conditions that any decision it makes is going to be completely impossible to predict? I cannot think of any experiment, even theoretically possible ones, that would yield different predictions for the two hypotheses. Without that, free will vs determinism is a distinction without a difference.

    1. The difference is that admitting that our decisions are ultimately not our deliberate choices but are determined by an impossible to untangle complex web of cause (including a lot of random events) and effect means that we can more easily free ourselves of any obsessions around regret, anger, and vengeance in response to the bad acts or mistakes of ourselves or others.

  18. Ok. It took me a while, but now understand that it is a book about Free Will that you have to pay for, not a free book about Will. 🙂

  19. “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.”

    Contra Sapolsky: No it isn’t “difficult” to live our daily lives as if we don’t have Libertarian Free will. We aren’t doing metaphysics in our daily lives. That’s generally not how we are thinking. We’ll go on with all the normal empirical reasoning about “what is likely/possible” in making choices that we do already.

    It will only be “difficult” if Sapolsky’s argument implies some unresolved or incoherent problems. For instance, Sapolsky will still have to supply us with a robust sense of “could have done otherwise” – one compatible with his determinism – to keep making sense of the world as well as crime and punishment.

    For instance: A video goes viral of a lifeguard overlooking a hotel swimming pool.
    He’s fully certified, in fine condition, but sitting reading a magazine. He peers over the magazine as a toddler, alone, falls in to the swimming pool and starts drowning. He goes back to reading, occasionally stopping to watch the child drowning, until that child dies. Then goes back to reading.

    Why would this scenario *rightly* meet with our public opprobrium? Why would that guy never be hired again as a life guard? Why would he be charged legally for his lack of action? It’s because: He Could Have Chosen Otherwise. That is: He had the ability to save the child, but chose not to. If it had been an onlooker who was a paraplegic, we wouldn’t render any of the above judgements on that person because “he could not have done otherwise, than watch helplessly as the child drowned.” In fact it would be something of a double tragedy – for the child and such a helpless onlooker.

    So it is only by having a real, robust sense of “could have chosen otherwise” that allows us to infer something pernicious and alarming in the character of the life guard who doesn’t save the child. And to hold him “responsible” and to condemn him and to likely charge him with a crime. Any charge of “negligence” must rely on this sense of “alternative possibilities for action – the action not taken but which could have been taken.

    Not having read Sapolsky’s book I wonder if he has resolved such issues. But…as I and others have argued before, I still don’t see how one sorts out all these problems within the context of determinism without ending up a compatibilist 🙂

    1. I disagree. I am not a compatibilist and my argument about the lifeguard is that his inaction simply shows that he’s not a good lifeguard and would be more likely to let people drown in the future. That has NOTHING to do with his “being able to do otherwise.” It has to do with his nature as a person doing a job. He should not be hired in the future.

      So, I sorted it out without any compatibilism.

      End of discussion.

      1. (My only response…even if I were allowed, I am not inclined to engage in long Free Will discussions here…)

        Thanks for responding Prof CC.

        “I am not a compatibilist and my argument about the lifeguard is that his inaction simply shows that he’s not a good lifeguard and would be more likely to let people drown in the future. That has NOTHING to do with his “being able to do otherwise.”

        But that skips over exactly what allows you to make that judgement. If I ask you to explain why you drew the inference “He is not a good lifeguard” what is the answer? Surely it has to be “he could have saved the child, but chose not to.”
        What else could it be?

        It would be the same if just some able bodied adult stood there and watched the child drown in the shallow end of a pool. It is only insofar as that person “could have saved the child” – but chose the alternative – not saving the child – that would help us draw any inference about the character of such a person (or of a lifeguard).

        If the onlooker had been a quadriplegic you couldn’t draw any such inferences about that person’s character – because that person wouldn’t have had a “choice” to save the child. The quadriplegic “could not have done otherwise” while the able-bodied person could have.

        If this presumption of “could have done otherwise” as expressed above does not underlie the logic of your inference, what possibly could? I’ve been wondering what else it could actually be, on an incompatibilist view, to make some coherent inference in cases of negligence/inaction.


        1. I am amazed at how you miss my simple point. He is a bad lifeguard because he doesn’t act as a lifeguard should. THAT DOES NOT MEAN HE COULD HAVE ACTED OTHERWISE. It’s like a broken car that doesn’t well; you swap it for another one. That swap does not depend on thinking that “the car could have done otherwise.” There is no presumption of that. It doesn’t do what it was designed/programmed to do. Likewise with a faulty lifeguard. You get rid of him because his neuronal program is faulty an it results in deaths.

          This is such an easy point to understand that I am baffled that you don’t seem to grasp it. I can make this whole argument, for cars and humans, without using the word choice. I could also make it for computer chess-playing programs that are discarded because they consistently lose by making incorrect moves. They don’t CHOOSE TO MAKE THE WRONG MOVES. Now think of us as computer chess machines, that can, like those machines, absorb new information to adjust their playing, just like we absorb environmental inputs to change our output. There is no need to use the word choice.

          Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ll draw this discussion to an end. You are not going to convince me that we’re anything more than fancy computers made of meat that have evolved to change our behavior in light of new information. Given that, please stop trying to convince me that I really do believe in a form of free will and don’t realize it.

    2. A former prime minister of Canada—the father of the current one—had a swimming pool installed at the official residence in Ottawa, paid for by an anonymous private donor. This spawned a joke. While swimming one day, the PM ran into difficulty and called for the lifeguard to save him. The lifeguard responded from his chair, so sorry, but he didn’t know how to swim.

      “You can’t swim?!” The PM gasped and gurgled. “How did you get the job as my official lifeguard then?”

      Came the reply, “I’m fluently bilingual.”

      Not meant to continue a closed discussion.

    3. The interesting part of your example, to me, is the fact that the lifeguard is likely to do jail time. We can imagine a second lifeguard who has never let anyone drown, along with a futuristic brain scanner that gives a reliable prediction that the second lifeguard would not perform his duties. Neither lifeguard would get hired again, but most juries would only punish the first one.

  20. I’ve never met Sopalsky, but I’m a fan, having read many of his books and listened to his free online classes. I heard a really great interview with him – don’t remember where, Sean Carroll’s mindscape? – and he was definitely a firm and clear determinist. He’s also has some really great twists to how he presents things, normally not pissing people off if he doesn’t have to, but dedicated to following the science… so I’m really looking forward to this book.
    During the interview the host asked what the ramifications were of determinism, and he said he honestly didn’t know. As an example, when his mother told him how proud she was of him he said he was at a loss on how to respond. What’s to be “proud” of. I imagine those kind of issues get treatment in this book.

  21. I reasonably gather that not a few readers listen to Sam Harris’s podcast. Mr. Harris has theme music at the beginning and end of his podcast. Fine so far as that goes, as that seems to be de rigeur. Recently there have been several podcasts, collectively constituting a retrospective of Mr. Harris’s views on various subjects (including determinism, featuring a conversation/debate in a bar between Harris and Dan Dennett), with a female host.

    I’ve noticed that several-second stretches of music are featured several times in each of these retrospective podcasts. (This is true of innumerable podcasts. Bari Weiss’s “Honestly” comes to mind.) They seem to be strategically placed. I feel this is an effort to emotionally manipulate me. (Is that not the truth of the matter?) It works to the extent that I am moderately irked by and resent it, a result opposite to what I gather podcast producers desire. Perhaps my reaction is deterministic.

    At the same time, I contemplate whether the podcast producer’s decision to feature this (manipulative) music is deterministic or due to free will. Is it reasonable to believe that the production team sits around a table and of their own free will collectively and purposefully select music calculated to (attempt to) manipulate listeners? Or are they collectively deterministic in their decision?

    In a couple of months I have to go deal with an obstreperous relative. I am already composing and disciplining myself to hold my tongue in the face of very likely egregious, gratuitous obstreperous behavior from that relative, all in the service of accomplishing a Bigger Picture. This relative would seem to be a pretty good witness and example of determinism. It seems this relative just can’t help it. I have a pretty good track record of holding my tongue in the face of this obstreperousness, even though, truth be told, I have wanted to vent a volcanic riposte of invective. Is that determinism tamped down by free will? Seems it would be quite the easier path of resistance to succumb to it. I bloody resent having to hold my tongue. I contemplate whether my restraint is of my own free will or due to determinism.

  22. Although I had previously read several other books on the subject of determinism, it Sapolsky’s “Behave” which really finally convinced me. Aside from that issue, his other books are well worth reading. “A primate’s memoire” about his babbon studies in Africa” is far more interesting — and absorbing — than the title suggests. And “Monkeyluv” is a fascinating and hilarious collection of essays on a diverse set of subjects.

  23. Everyone has the ability to do bad things of enormous variety, from lying to fraud, to theft, to assault, to murder, even for most people to mass killings, so we will need to incarcerate everyone as soon as they develop that ability (shortly after turning 3, perhaps) on the chance that they will do something bad in the future, because we will never be able to know enough to determine with complete confidence whether or not they will do something terrible in the future.

  24. Jerry Coyne response to Free Will

    I’ve read Sapolsky’s book “Behave,” as well as Sam Harris’s long essay on Free Will. Even physicist Brian Greene delved into the subject in his “Until the End of Time.”

    I’m tempted to ask how we can even debate the matter – some people are “determined” to believe in Free Will, and others are “determined” not to. There is no possibility of proving one’s point to the other if the positions are hard-wired in any of us.

    The argument(s) against Free Will rest on experiments that show parts of the brain light up before certain (simple) decisions are made – we’re extrapolating quite a bit from those experiments – and what is a simplistic theory of causation, namely that everything that exists had an antecedent, and there were antecedents before that, so that everything is an effect of some cause that preceded it. Physicists certainly point out that we are 100 percent made of the same matter found elsewhere in the universe, and they have very good knowledge of how matter came to be. Basically, the argument is that Free Will does not exist because it cannot exist. And that is not a strong argument.

    Harris denies that strict determinism implies fatalism, that we have no control over what we do. He’s in denial – he writes that “we are not the author” of our own actions, words or lives, yet he denies that he’s supporting fatalism. Well, if “I” am not the author of anything, I don’t see an escape from fatalism.

    I don’t believe in supernatural anything, but I find it interesting that most anti-Free Will exponents ignore what they surely know well as “the hard problem” of consciousness (term coined by David Chalmers), that is, how can unconscious matter lead to consciousness. I can’t prove Free Will exists, only that virtually every human being conducts their lives as if it does exist, including the people who argue against the existence of Free Will. But I’ll wait until someone comes up with a good answer to hard problem of consciousness before concluding that Free Will cannot exist. (If not for consciousness of ourselves and its actions, the question of Free Will would be little more than a non sequitur, if even that.) Until then, I’m satisfied with the possibility, at least, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Or maybe we should say that we just don’t know they answer yet.

    1. I agree that there is so much about consciousness that we don’t know yet, which makes it such a fascinating subject.

      I do think there is an escape from fatalism and that the confusion of determinism with fatalism, while widespread, is still a confusion.

      As Harris points out, “the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don’t matter…But the next choice that you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.” Or to put in another way (as Einstein did paraphrasing Schopenhauer), “Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will” (Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills).

  25. Interesting phrasing “the couple couldn’t resist getting in one last shot”. I imagine in your view that must literally have been true. They could not have done otherwise, so isn’t your aggravation misplaced?

  26. I’ve reviewed Determined quite favorably at There’s really no problem with causal determinism – it’s the necessary basis for effective agency – and indeterminism can’t give you more control or responsibility. Most folks, like your former friends on Cape Cod, will resist Sapolsky’s thesis since they want to believe they could have done otherwise in an actual situation. He explains in great detail why they couldn’t have. Highly recommend this!

  27. Suppose the Cape Cod story was told a different way. You tell me that every choice is not a choice, that the way my brain is formed and affected by personal circumstance means that matters could not have been decided otherwise, and that I have no sense of morality because there is no such thing as morality. You tell me, at my own dinner table, that Nazis are no less the victims of their biology than were their victims, that I cannot help my children or students learn how to think through alternatives, and that only if we would recognize this truth we would, having understood all, be forced to forgive all. Worse, every time I suggest ways in which the contrary might be worth considering you – like a psychoanalyst who discounts everything I say as but another example of repression – tell me this is just further evidence of my neurons’ control over me. Worse, too, is that you claim this in the name of science. But this is actually the very antithesis of science – it is scientized ideology – reductionism to its own presuppositions, a method whose terms of proof are, if not predetermined by your own lack of choice, framed so as to make objective verification impossible. And put forth in so unyielding a fashion, in a way that is so insulting for its assertion that only you know this truth and the rest of us are just blind to our own lack of control – well, I guess it would just be my uncontrollable neurons speaking when I throw you out of my house.

    1. It’s not scientized ideology: read Sean Carroll on how the laws of physics explain all everyday behavior, including choice. The laws of physics are observed to apply universally (that’s science, by the way, in case as an anthropologist you don’t recognize it), so they apply in our brain and thus control our behaviors save for the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. You clearly haven’t read either Sapolsky or my own writings showing how “will” can be manipulated one way or the other by either tricking people or stimulating their brains, not to mention the studies showing that we make decisions before we’re conscious of having made them.

      Your comment about my views being “insulting”, however, are not only uncalled for, but violate the posting rules of this site. Go read Sapolsky and then go after him. BTW, I never said that only I know the truth and everybody else is blind; I advanced my hypothesis, gave data (in other posts), and tried to convince people I was right. You are exaggerating a scientific/philosophical argument but making no good counterarguments of your own except ad hominem ones. On what physical premise could we have used our will do do otherwise at a given moment? You don’t say.

      But your incivility and insults mean you can’t ever post here again.You could have written a civil response, but I guess you’re just an angry, obstreperous guy. Did you read the Roolz for posting?

      Don’t let the door hit you on the tuchas!

  28. I came across this exchange when searching for reviews of Sapolsky’s book after purchasing a copy: I often read reviews before reading a book, although I try not to let them determine my response to the book itself. I have read many fine works by Sapolsky, Coyne, and other theorists of free will, so I have some familiarity with their arguments. My question: Will all the scientific research disproving libertarian and compatibilist theories have any practical impact on society? Mr. Coyne believes that it would have a beneficial effect if a large enough number of people accept determinism, but he presents no evidence supporting this argument. Indeed, there is no evidence to present, since never in history has there been a large enough number of determinists to have a real impact on an actual society. Coyne’s opponents believe the opposite, also without evidence. Supporters of a possible socially potent future belief in determinism point to the general process of secularization and its historic source in atheism as an analogous example, but I find that atheists of my acquaintance cling to the myth of libertarian free will even more fiercely than the theists I have known.

    So where does this leave us? There is apparently an overwhelming need for most people to believe in some form of free will, either libertarian or compatibilist. This need, while not universal, is prevalent enough that it is very likely strongly conditioned — that is, determined — for the vast majority of human beings, even among those whose religious or ethical commitments may not support that conclusion. In my opinion, the probability of enough people adopting this belief to have a social impact is so vanishingly small that it can be ignored for the foreseeable future. So Coyne, Sapolsky and company are correct, and determinism is true. That has some impact on my personal set of beliefs, but as far as social change is concerned, it is irrelevant. Even as more and more scientific evidence is marshalled in determinism’s support, the overwhelming majority of people will not accept it any more than the rude acquaintances who threw Mr. Coyne out of their home. Perhaps it’s time for socially conscious scientists to regard this dispute as substantially closed and move on to more consequential questions.

  29. I somehow missed this hearing about how you fell out with your friend – or rather, how he fell out with you. so sorry to hear that.

    I fell out with a long term friend over his views on climate change – but stupidly this was a text argument. Perhaps I was unfair & it would have been different face to face.

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