Robert Sapolsky’s book on free will and determinism came out five days ago, and already it’s making a big stir in the media. That’s expected because Sapolsky is already very well known for his previous popular books on biology (especially Behave) and also because free will and determinism are subjects that evoke strong reactions from people—especially those who believe in libertarian (“I could have chosen otherwise”) free will. I’ve had many discussions about the topic, some of them quite heated, and you may remember that one of my old friends threw me out of his house on Cape Cod because I espoused determinism (it wasn’t even an argument; the guy just couldn’t stand the idea of determinism). A friendship ended over a metaphysical argument!
I’ve also described another scenario after I gave a talk called “You Don’t Have Free Will”. A very large jazz musician accosted me afterwards and asked me if I thought that the extemporaneous solos he played were actually determined in advance. When I said “yes,” he got really mad and I was afraid he was going to hit me. Fortunately, Richard Dawkins stepped in and, with his British politesse, defused the situation. These two incidents show you the strong feelings evoked by someone who espouses determinism.
You can get Sapolsky’s new book by clicking on the screenshot below; I have a copy at home that the author sent me, and I’m about to dive into it. The paperback is already out, but it costs as much as the hardback. I’ve written about the book a few times (see here), but really need to peruse the whole thing.
Like me, Sapolsky is a “hard determinist”, who thinks that all our actions are determined by the laws of physics. (I prefer “naturalist”, because if quantum mechanics be true, there are some small-scale phenomena that are fundamentally indeterminate, and thus our futures, insofar as quantum mechanics can affect macro phenomena, are not predictable even in principle. But quantum mechanics that affects behavior still doesn’t give us “agency”.)
And like me, Sapolsky has no truck with compatibilism, the fiction that we can have a sort of free will by redefining what the term means. Surveys show that most people, as well as nearly all religious people I’ve met, accept libertarian or contracausal free will, not compatibilism, though all compatibilist are naturalists. But how can you go to heaven if you can’t freely choose to accept Jesus Christ as your savior? (This is where Calvinists have it right.)
Anyway, I know there are reviews of Sapolsky’s book out there but I haven’t read any, as I want to read Determined without having heard other reviewers’ opinions. I suspect they will be mixed, praising his incisive thought and writing style, but not fully accepting his hard determinism. That’s because the laws of physics, for some reason, make people reject naturalism, which turns us into meat robots who are ourselves guided by the laws of physics.
Well, I digress. Let’s look at a few Q&As from Sapolsky and interviewer Hope Reese. Click the headline to read, or, if you don’t subscribe, I found the article archived for free here.
Part of the intro:
In his latest book, “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” Dr. Sapolsky confronts and refutes the biological and philosophical arguments for free will. He contends that we are not free agents, but that biology, hormones, childhood and life circumstances coalesce to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.
It’s a provocative claim, he concedes, but he would be content if readers simply began to question the belief, which is embedded in our cultural conversation. Getting rid of free will “completely strikes at our sense of identity and autonomy and where we get meaning from,” Dr. Sapolsky said, and this makes the idea particularly hard to shake.
There are major implications, he notes: Absent free will, no one should be held responsible for their behavior, good or bad. Dr. Sapolsky sees this as “liberating” for most people, for whom “life has been about being blamed and punished and deprived and ignored for things they have no control over.”
The major implications of determinism are for praise and blame, but especially the kind of blame instantiated by the judicial system. Much of judicial punishment throughout the world is based on the assumption that the guilty party chose the wrong act, as if the miscreant could have done that! Naturalism eliminates retributive punishment and mandates a judicial system focused not on retribution but on deterrence, sequestration of malefactors, and reformation.
If we accept naturalism, for example, prisons would not be designed to make a prisoner miserable, but to try to reform him. Compatibilists may say that there are other arguments for judicial reform, but somehow you don’t hear compatibilists like Dennett arguing for that kind of reform, which is far more important for society than philosophical lucubrations in big books. Compatibilists also seem to hold the palpably false idea that society would fall apart if we didn’t think we had free will. Well, Sapolsky, Sam Harris, and I don’t, yet we don’t run amok. The fact is that we feel like and act like we have free will, even if we know otherwise, and that is enough.
These are the words of a hard determinist (or a hard naturalist):
To most people, free will means being in charge of our actions. What’s wrong with that outlook?
It’s a completely useless definition. When most people think they’re discerning free will, what they mean is somebody intended to do what they did: Something has just happened; somebody pulled the trigger. They understood the consequences and knew that alternative behaviors were available.
But that doesn’t remotely begin to touch it, because you’ve got to ask: Where did that intent come from? That’s what happened a minute before, in the years before, and everything in between.
For that sort of free will to exist, it would have to function on a biological level completely independently of the history of that organism. You would be able to identify the neurons that caused a particular behavior, and it wouldn’t matter what any other neuron in the brain was doing, what the environment was, what the person’s hormone levels were, what culture they were brought up in. Show me that those neurons would do the exact same thing with all these other things changed, and you’ve proven free will to me.
So, whether I wore a red or blue shirt today — are you saying I didn’t really choose that?
Absolutely. It can play out in the seconds before. Studies show that if you’re sitting in a room with a terrible smell, people become more socially conservative. Some of that has to do with genetics: What’s the makeup of their olfactory receptors? With childhood: What conditioning did they have to particular smells? All of that affects the outcome.
The last bit in the next answer is the scientific program for figuring out how decisions and behaviors arise. It’s very hard, of course!
What about something bigger, like choosing where to go to college?
You ask, “Why did you pick this one?” And the person says, “I’ve learned that I do better in smaller classes.” Or, “They have an amazing party scene.” At any meaningful juncture, we’re making decisions based on our tastes and predilections and values and character. And you have to ask: Where did they come from?
Neuroscience is getting really good at two levels of stuff. One is understanding what a particular part of the brain does, based on techniques like neuroimaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
The other is at the level of tiny, reductive stuff: This variant of this gene interacts with this enzyme differently. So, we kind of understand what happens in one neuron. But how do 30 billion of them collectively make this a human cortex instead of a primate cortex? How do you scale up from understanding little component parts and getting some sense of the big, emergent thing?
Say we figured that out. Have X happen 4,000 times per second in Y part of the brain, countered — as an opposing, inhibitory thing — 2,123 times a second when the hormone levels are doing such-and-such. How does this big thing called a “behavior” or a “personality” or a “thought” or a “mistake” pop out at the macro level? We’re beginning to understand how you get from one level to the other, but it’s unbelievably difficult.
Below he goes after compatibilists and Dennett’s “run amok” theory:
But you’re saying that the myth [of free will] isn’t always benign?
Fundamentally injurious things about our universe run on the notion that people get stuff that they didn’t earn or they didn’t deserve, and a huge amount of humanity’s misery is due to myths of free will.
Most of the time, I get by without having to pay any attention whatsoever to how I think things work. Recognize how hard it is to do otherwise. Save that recognition for when it matters: when you’re on a jury; when you’re a schoolteacher, assessing students. If you have myths about free will, keep it to how you’re flossing your teeth.
I want to wean people off the knee-jerk reaction to the notion that without free will, we will run amok because we can’t be held responsible for things. That we have no societal mechanisms for having dangerous people not be dangerous, or for having gifted people do the things society needs to function. It’s not the case that in a deterministic world, nothing can change.
It is true that things can change in a deterministic world. My stock example is that if you encounter a friendly dog, and kick it when it approaches you, and keep doing that, the dog will eventually shy away from you. You have changed its behavior with your actions. What we have to realize, though, is that our “choice” to kick the dog is itself determined, so although things change, they change in a predetermined way, leading to an infinite regress of naturalistic causation.
Finally, Sapolsky describes a phenomenon I’ve experienced, but more often than once a month: the realization that when I think I’m making a free choice, I’m not. There are several ways I can walk to work every morning, for example, and I’m always curious about which way I’ll go, knowing that it’s already determined. Sometimes I try to take a different path from the one I’d planned, only to realize that that decision to deviate was itself determined!
Do we lose love, too, if we lose free will?
Yeah. Like: “Wow! Why? Why did this person turn out to love me? Where did that come from? And how much of that has to do with how my parents raised me, or what sort of olfactory receptor genes I have in my nose and how much I like their scent?” At some point you get to that existential crisis of, “Oh God, that’s what’s underlying all this stuff!” That’s where the machine-ness becomes something we should be willing to ignore.
But it’s not OK for you to decide, with the same denial of reality, that you truly deserve a better salary than the average human on this planet.
Do it for where it’s needed. I sure can’t do it more than a tiny percent of the time. Like once every three and a half weeks or so. It’s a confusing, recursive challenge to watch yourself watching yourself, and to decide that what you’re feeling feels real.
The last paragraph is the one I referred to above. (I wonder what his wife thinks of this answer!)
Anyway, I’ve never met Sapolsky but I like him. There are some people you know you’ll like by getting a sense of them from their interviews and writings, and he’s one of them. Here he is, looking like an old hippie, and wearing crocs (tomorrow is National Croc Day).