Robert Sapolsky gets interviewed about his new book on free will and determinism

October 22, 2023 • 1:00 pm

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).

(from the NYT, for some reason in Spanish): Robert Sapolsky, biólogo y neurocientífico de la Universidad Stanford, dejó de creer en el libre albedrío a los 13 años. Credit: Damon Casarez para The New York Times

h/t: Keith

78 thoughts on “Robert Sapolsky gets interviewed about his new book on free will and determinism

  1. A friendship ended over a metaphysical argument!

    … as determined by the initial conditions at the Big Bang. Your friend had no choice but to throw you out.

      1. Agree. I’ve had this issue with my brother and cousin who both cannot seem to accommodate the concept of no free will. I’m a biologist (well, virologist) so have no problem with it. My cousin is a practising catholic so he’s already far down the rabbit hole of souls and I worry my brother is getting some sort of religion in his old age.

        1. I’ve read Jerry’s account of the friend who kicked him out of his home for such heresy, and thought, “Wow. That’s unbelievable.” Then, just this last spring, my wife and I were traveling with our daughter and son-in-law. The topic came up at dinner and my son-in-law became apoplectic when I gave my support to determinism. It really spoiled dinner and our last day together. He’s a biological anthropologist, an atheist, and a generally good thinker. I was dumbfounded by his visceral reaction.

  2. The notion that improvisation proves free will is a delusion – all improvisation is built on the solos and compositions of the greats – sounds in everyday life – and more. There is a spontaneous personal creative element – but it isn’t created in a vacuum.

    It’s both.

    And where it comes from is a mystery and that’s what makes it fascinating!

  3. Given determinism, if you made the free choice to do something that wasn’t determined, then you would be choosing to do something you didn’t want to do, since your wishes are determined.
    If you aren’t suicidal, you aren’t free to throw yourself in front of a bus.
    That’s a meaningless kind of “freedom”, disconnected from reality.
    Dennett’s book “Freedom Evolves” is a good explanation of compatibilism.

    1. Plenty of people do things they don’t want to do because society pressures them. Sending your kid to an expensive college when you could use the extra money for a fancy car is one. That is not meaningless. I have read “Freedom Evolves” and found it tendentious and trivial. And realize that most people think free will is libertarian free will.

      I should point out that by your definition, everything you do is in accordance with what you want to do, which is tautological.

      Do you think that it’s meaningless to point out to people that they couldn’t have chosen otherwise? Go tell that to a bunch of Southern Baptists.

      1. I was taught that part of being a man is getting up every day and doing what needs to be done, even if it is not what you want to do.

        But back to the subject at hand. I keep reading these “free will” posts, and it still seems sort of abstract to me. More philosophical than scientific.

        For useful information, it would be helpful to know in advance what team will win the Superbowl next year. But that sort of information is just not available, no matter which side of “free will” you ascribe to.

        The only practical use for the belief is misuse by people who believe it excuses their poor choices.

        That is where I am so far. But I will keep reading the subject, and perhaps have an epiphany, so that I cab add useful comments.

  4. I think of the reluctance to embrace determinism as a special case of human exceptionalism and the reluctance to embrace our biology as mere mammals. We have some awareness of our own interior mental state, and this misleads us into thinking that this awareness is “ourselves” and is somehow in charge of our actions. But as Sapolsky says that awareness is very limited: we lack awareness of where our immediate or current state came from. It’s all churning away outside of our awareness, and it’s all determined by what happened to us in the past given our genetic predispositions. It’s important that people like Sapolsky study that churn so we can better understand it. Seems even more important for us to embrace those aspects of our biology that we can’t change and might never be able to understand. Would be especially helpful in overcoming fear of death, from which most religions and religious conflicts seem to arise.

    1. Mike, I’m curious whether you would accept that you did not reason your way to these conclusions? If determinism is true, might not reason (rationality, intellect, sense) simply be self-flattering terms that we apply to the unpredictable and little understood mental processes in a long chain of causation that place various thoughts in our heads? It seems little different than fate or fortune or what the gods have ordained. I often read here of determinism applying to our actions. It seems it would equally apply to everything we think or believe, with some of us blessed by fortune to have correct beliefs and some of us damned to be wrong.

      1. “Right and wrong” are determined by morality, which to me is a combination of evolved feelings (i.e., they enhanced the fitness of our ancestor) and learned feelings (i.e., we learn that makes us and our society better.

        Do you reject naturalism, then?

      2. If determinism is true, organisms can evolve cognitive capacities that are highly reliable. Potentially, even perfectly reliable (which would not be possible if cognition were indeterministic). How does that imply irrationality? It seems rather the opposite.

  5. “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.”
    How many people besides PCC(E) can say that Richard Dawkins saved them from a very large jazz musician?

  6. “That’s where the machine-ness becomes something we should be willing to ignore.”

    How is that any different than entertaining the fantasy that there’s a personal god who cares about your wellbeing? It’s. Not. True.

    This is something that I’ve noticed time and again, that people who are hard determinists on an intellectual level really haven’t internalized the implications of their belief. If hard determinism is true (which seems more likely than not) then just about every aspect of how we, human beings, live our lives needs a reappraisal.

    For example, it’s really hard to justify procreation. We seem to be self-aware, but aren’t actually in control of our lives in any meaningful sense. Life is the equivalent of being strapped to the top of a runaway train. If we retain any shred of conventional morality it becomes very hard to justify subjecting another self-aware being to that. Especially when the alternative, not procreating, is guaranteed to do no harm.

    Or consider moral dessert in the context of the judicial system. We punish the people who commit crimes because they deserve it. However, if there’s no such thing as dessert the judicial system must necessarily reorient itself in a consequentialist direction, which leads to some conclusion which are counterintuitive, if not repugnant. If it turns out that parents are more concerned about children’s well being than their own it then becomes permissible to punish children for their parents’ transgressions as long as that maximizes the long-term outcomes of concern.

    Or consider our perceptions of war. Lots of people get angry… deeply, deeply angry… when they contemplate the pain and suffering engendered by conflict. But if hard determinism is true then war is just another natural process, a playing out of immutable physical laws. It’s literally no different than an earthquake, and its utterly irrational to get angry at an earthquake, so why get angry at war? I suppose that hard determinists who get angry at war can claim that they’re not actually angry (because getting angry at a natural phenomenon is irrational) but rather engaging in a carefully-calculated display of pseudo-anger intended to influence the long term course of events. The more parsimonious explanation, however, is that they’re actually angry, and that that anger is cause by them misattributing agency to actors in the war itself.

    None of this is an argument against the truth of hard determinism. Rather, it’s a complaint against people who go “lol, no free will” and then blithely proceed with their day.

    1. Sorry, but you don’t have to JUSTIFY procreation: it’s an evolved instinct, ,not a choice, just like our brains have evolved to allow us to pass on our genes.

      As far as “If it turns out that parents are more concerned about children’s well being than their own it then becomes permissible to punish children for their parents’ transgressions as long as that maximizes the long-term outcomes of concern.” Nope, because that kind of society would be dysfunctional; doing this would raise as outcry because it doesn’t seem fair. A society in which people are punished when they didn’t do anything would not be a harmonious society

      As for war, our morality (which I believed has an evolutionary basis but a cultural veneer) should enable us to judge which side to support and which not to. Ukraine and Russia apply. I’m not sure why you concentrate so much on “anger” as “support” versus “denigration.”

      And if you’re implying that I or Sapolsky is “people who go “lol, no free will” and then blithely proceed with their day”, you’re wrong and that’s an insult. Which determinists are you referring to? None of the ones I know. You are making a strawman.

      I don’t want to go into detail rebutting all your claims, but you seem to have missed the largest consequences of determinism and concentrated on weird ones.

      Finally, we may even have evolved to think we have free will, so it’s not a criticism of determinists to say that they haven’t “fully internalized their beliefs”.

  7. I’ll reiterate the suggestion that the differences between “hard determinists” and “compatibilists” are simply over semantics, and that the very phrase “free will” carries so much baggage that it is unhelpful.

    Instead we should emphasize that our brains are physical computational devices and that our choices are products of the prior state (and backwards in a causal chain).

    As for the effect of accepting that on judicial systems, well, that remains to be argued, but I don’t think it is that large.

    1. It’s HUGE. Lots of punishment is based on the idea that people could have done other than what they did (this is accounted for to a minor degree by the idea of “mitigating circumstances”). Retribution, as a meeting of judges admitted, is a substantial part of the justice system. I think the change in how we treat people in the justice system is HUGE when we’re naturalists. Have you read about the conditions in Florence ADX?

      1. I’m with Coel on this one. You can argue (successfully I think) that people are not free agents to be blamed but that does not mean that society should allow people who have been convicted of stealing or violence to walk freely around others.

        Yes, we should put more effort into rehabilitation, but retribution also signals to victims of crime that bad behaviour by convicted criminals has been punished – so that families of the victims do not need to declare vendetta or resort to vigilantism.

        The individual treatment of prisoners is not the total of consideration.

    2. I wonder if the urge for retribution in punishment is that it feels good. In delegating the actual prescribed retribution to the state we prevent runaway escalation of private retaliation. As utilitarians we settle for an eye for an eye instead of a life for an eye because it ends up with fewer people dead. But fundamentally we are still punishing a bad person for what he did. It doesn’t matter if the punishment prevents recidivism or deters others. If it does, that’s gravy. We don’t even care if he in fact could have done otherwise. We punish because in some atavistic part of our brains it feels just, somehow. If the government stopped inflicting revenge, on the argument that the criminal couldn’t have done otherwise, the victims’ families would return to private retaliation or they would elect a new government regime, depending on how responsive the state was to popular will and the degree of latitude it allowed for private action.

      None of this argues against determinism, or naturalism, which must be true. But just as the criminal couldn’t help committing the crime, the rest of us can’t help believing, viscerally, that he still has to be punished in retribution. We create, or at least suffer, our states to do what we believe is right. So even if everyone accepted determinism and said so out loud, I agree with Coel that it would not change the justice system very much.

      Maybe criminals can be “cured” or “corrected” even after they’ve got a few offences under their belts. We should try until it fails. And keeping someone in prison indefinitely just to prevent recidivism doesn’t seem right either, except for the most heinous crimes where retribution produces the same sentence.

      1. I think you can make the argument that in evolutionary terms animals that live in groups will prosper more if there are methods (instinctive or social or both) that cheaters should not prosper.

        It has been suggested that gossip is one way of moderating behaviour. Ostracism another. Perhaps retribution is another. You can certainly debate how much retribution is appropriate but I don’t think it is slam dunk wrong because of naturalism.

    3. We agree on a lot Coel, but this is one area of disagreement: having been in tons of discussions on free will with hard incompatibilists, I don’t think the disagreement boils down to semantics. There’s a whole bunch of conceptual issues packed in to the Free Will debate that one can fall on either side of. (And on that basis I agree with Jerry).

      But I’m not to comment much on Free Will here anymore, so won’t say more.

      (I submitted one other comment concerning the claim that “Most people think Free Will is Libertarian Free Will” but I don’t know if it went through as it’s not showing up)

  8. Economics has developed rational choice theory. Rational choice theory asserts people make reasoned decisions. Rational choice theory has lost adherents, and is no longer dominant. Well, that suggests people aren’t really making reasoned decisions.

    Econometrics has proposed statistical models for choice. The more successful models suggest the existence of a random component in people’s choices supporting Coyne’s assertion of some quantum uncertainty where if the tape is rolled back and let go, we might expect a different result.

  9. It is funny, I was a witness to the ‘incident’ of you talking to the large jazz player. I must admit I remember and interpreted what was happening in a very different way.

      1. I remember the person being more distraught than angry. I got the sense you were completely safe. Plus there were at least half a dozen spectators to the events you describe. They would have kept you safe. I was surprised at the gentleman’s position: thinking that his ‘choice’ of improvised notes was somehow suggestive of free will. I am not a musician, but jazz for me would be a product of a lot of training and practice and being able to let go.

        I am not suggesting that you are embellishing your memory, just trying to be factual as possible. My memory and perception differ from yours. I have a picture of Richard Dawkins standing next to me as we were waiting to talk to you. I have a picture of me talking to you. Do you remember? I remember being miffed at Richard as I had been waiting patiently to thank you for your talk. Richard joined the milieu and went ahead.

  10. Our language does not well support an understanding of determinism. Both of these phrases “We have free will” and “We don’t have free will” imply that there is a self that is separate from our state – a self that can have or not have free will. But our self IS the state, not something that HAS a state. Free will would require a self to separate from its own state. Free will is not something that we do or do not have, it’s a logically nonsensical idea.

  11. “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.”

    Determinism (plus any randomness that might exist, which doesn’t help with agency) doesn’t turn us into robots except on the assumption that our control capacities and autonomy only exist if we are ultimately self-created exceptions to causation, an impossibility. So to say we lose control, choice, and autonomy under determinism is to hold on to an essentially supernatural and logically incoherent criterion for such things. Why persist in that? We obviously have internal capacities for choice and control and many more degrees of behavioral freedom than do robots (although that may change of course). To maintain that determinism robs us of control, choice, and autonomy is exactly the (mistaken) claim that puts determinism in a bad light. So we should stop claiming it if we want the project of naturalizing ourselves to gain support.

    In this interview and in the book in several places Sapolsky unfortunately gives the impression that agency and choice disappear under determinism, when in fact reliable cause and effect relations are what make it possible. That’s my only complaint about Determined, which I’ve reviewed very positively as you noted in one of your earlier posts on it,

    1. The APPEARANCE of choice do disappear under determinism, at least as how most people conceive of choice. And for most people “agency” is intimately connected with libertarianism. I disagree that reliable cause and effect make agency and choice possible.

      1. Note 2 from my review of Determined:

        In a book chapter titled “Fear of Determinism,” Steven Pinker puts it this way: “The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortations of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it *is* you.” (original emphasis)

        You and Pinker are best buds, so what say you? Only the reliable cause and effect relations among neurons and their ensembles allow choosing to happen. That it isn’t contra-causal doesn’t subtract from its reality.

          1. Also reminds me of a quote from Sam Harris’s book Free Will: “You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it. You are the storm”.

          2. For all this discussion, which points to no such thing as the F-word, I still think there is something to be said for “willpower”.

            I’ve heard “willpower” used for different things, but cannot recall exactly – I think people know about “willpower”. It is usually to find resolve to carry out an onerous task, or some such.

            I.e. not to choose (..shudder…) vanilla over chocolate!

          3. “Hmm, Sam Harris seems to be implying that control is irreflexive – that self-control is not a thing.”

            Could be. Or that might have been directed at dualism. He may have meant that there is no privileged “you” that can observe and make decisions unconstrained from the natural laws that bound everything else.

            Hard to say without more context.

  12. If naturalism becomes generally accepted, my guess is that most people will not want to have children, and society might fall apart.

    1. I doubt it. We’re evolved to want children because that’s how we pass on our genes. In other words, genes making us want to have children are the genes that persist. It doesn’t matter whether naturalism becomes generally accepted. I bet most determinists who are married have kids.

    2. I think that is a conclusion that can only be reached by looking at the world through a lens of assumed free will without understanding how naturalism works and all it implies.

      Anecdotally, I came to be a very strong believer in determinism a very long time ago. Since then I have married and have a daughter who is now twenty. My love for them is the best thing in my life.

      One thing I have come to realize in my years of pondering determinism is that rationality is the servant of the irrational. The point of rationality is to build and maintain a healthy societal framework within which we can enjoy the completely irrational beauty of life. It’s my belief that belief in free will greatly hinders that goal.

  13. One thing is for sure: if you’re a naturalist, you have no choice but to reject free will, not because of the laws of physics but because of the laws of logic.

  14. Dear Jerry,

    I’m currently reading Behave, after having it on my shelf for a couple of years, because I ordered this book after you mentioned it. I must say it’s a slog! I’m about a third through.

    I was interested to hear your views on it and went looking for a review from you and wasn’t disappointed. I fear it may have already answered the questions I’m about to ask; you thought it was a slog too and skipped some of it (fair enough,I’m tempted also).

    But, just in case:

    1) He seems to lean towards nurture vs nature and seems fairly dismissive of genes. The chapters on genes, if anything, try to dismiss their importance. He’s not a “blank slater”, but he appears adjacent to me.
    2) Similarly, I think he comes across as a proponent of epigenetics.

    What did you think of his views on genes and epigentics, in Behave? Or from what you know of them from other sources of his?

    Also I feel his bias shines through. He is clearly on the political left, which I absolutely don’t mind, but I was hoping for a more objective account of human behaviour.

    For example, and I hope I don’t mis-represent his point (it was only a footnote), when he was comparing collectivist vs individualistic societies (and he essentially uses China vs the USA) he causally drops in that one explanation for the difference is the USA/West had slaves. Implication being the West didn’t form “collective” societies because an individual had slaves doing their work as opposed to communities having to work together.

    This is surely disingenuous? He points out that Asian Americans adopt the individualistic virtues two generations after moving to America, and America hasn’t had slaves for a couple of hundred years, and didn’t every society have slaves? Some claim China even does today. It seemed an unnecessary swipe, but one that demonstrated his bias.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to the chapters on determinism and also this book. And apologies for approaching (or passing the word count on this post!). Would love to hear anybody’s thoughts on the above…but appreciate nobody else might be particularly interested 🙂

    1. Sapolsky’s emphasis regarding genes is that the environment has a lot more to do with behavior than genes alone. It’s always genes + environment that creates behavior and it’s still a lot more complicated than that, and that’s also an emphasis of his. I didn’t get he was a proponent of epigenetics, but he brought up points where it’s a factor. Again, his main point is “it’s complicated” and even epigenetics has a place…nothing, especially if it’s based on ideology or taboo, should be discounted if it has a kernel of truth. I read “Behave” a while ago, and I remember questioning the epigenetic bits, but I think I grok it now. It’s important to read the entire book as well, before making assumptions, as he rehashes a lot of his arguments in the last pages of the book.

      1. Thank you Mark.

        Will certainly finish, but might take me some time. I do quite enjoy his style and when he moves past the “biology textbook” bit I think he might really get into his stride.

  15. I just got his book via Kindle the other day and have finished the first chapter. So far, so good. One thing I noticed. Sapolsky says that he’s a hard determinist and believes in no free will at all, but he tells his readers that he hopes only to convince them that they have “less” free will than they think. Well, none is less than some, but I find it interesting that he’s not trying to go all the way and convince us that there is No free will.

    Anyway, I haven’t gotten past the first chapter of 512 (Kindle) pages. For the moment, I’m not going to read the commentaries above. I will. But I want to get into the book lest the learned folks on this web site alter my expectations. Just looking a few words out of the corner of my eye (I couldn’t help myself) tells me that there is a lot of juicy stuff to read here!

  16. If we accept naturalism, for example, prisons would not be designed to make a prisoner miserable, but to try to reform him.

    I think most people’s idea of reforming someone involves a mentor figure talking with said person and convincing him to make different choices. But if a person has no control over those choices, how can any reform occur? It seems that it would require an intrusive procedure of zapping his brain and changing its wiring. What would a new judicial and prison system look like? Would every perpetrator be found not guilty but subject to forced electroshock therapy or the like? I’m honestly curious what has been proposed.

      1. Thanks for this reference. Based just on that review, though, it appears that the proposal is “quarantine them until they’re not dangerous”, while promoting an idea that denies that they can decide to become so on their own. I’m looking for proposals that deal with the task of rehabilitation in light of determinism. Does Caruso address this in the book? His proposal seems to be based more on progressive wishful thinking than anything else.

        1. I’ve never understood the idea that if determinism is true then people can’t be reformed. It is actually just the opposite. If determinism were not true, at least locally, then people could not be reformed.

          People can be reformed, or decide (whatever that process may be) to change, based on new input they receive from their environment, which absolutely includes input from other people. Causality. New data, new output. If computers can do it why does it seem implausible that human brains can do it?

          1. “People can be reformed, or decide (whatever that process may be) to change, based on new input they receive from their environment, which absolutely includes input from other people.”

            And there’s plenty of evidence for that :

            Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism – A Study of “Brainwashing” in China
            Robert Jay Lifton
            W. W. Norton, NY

            [quote] “(The word “brainwashing” ) was first used by an American journalist, Edward Hunter, as a translation of the colloquialism hsi nao (literally, “wash brain”) which he quoted from Chinese informants who described its use following the Communist takeover(ref. 1).”[end quote]

            Ref. 1: Edward Hunter, Brainwashing in Red China, New York, Vanguard Press, 1951

            …. not that hsi nao is ethical – I’m just saying there is clear evidence – but unfortunately in a context of evil – and perhaps there is no “good” hsi nao. So maybe something to be wary of, is all. A limit.

          2. If people are capable of acting differently after reformation attempts (by whatever mechanism you want to be involved in that), then they were capable of acting differently beforehand even if their decision-making processes strongly favored one specific action at any given time. Yet the supposed lack of such capability is the rationale for suggestions to reform the judicial process to eliminate any notion of responsibility.

            Judicial reformers seem to want us to accept that determinism means 1) people are so robotic that they have no meaningful control over what they do and thus are not responsible for their actions AND 2) that they are so non-robotic that they can meaningfully change how they act, i.e., to reform their decision-making processes. If that reformation is instead supposed to occur involuntarily, I have asked for what mechanisms reformers have in mind for forcing that to happen.

            In the computer analogy, we’re talking about changes to the software that it was not already programmed to make.

            The input people receive from their environment already includes education on what is right or wrong, legal or illegal; the likelihood of arrest, conviction, and consequences; awareness of consequences that other convicts receive, etc. – all the information that we expect adults to have and that we expect will factor into whatever decision-making processes they have, deterministic or not. The fact that at some level their processes compelled them to commit a crime does not change the fact that those were their processes and that they, as complete individuals, are responsible for what they do based on them.

            We make exceptions only for demonstrable insanity. I doubt that it’s helpful to change that.

            And with that I think I’ve used up my quota here.

  17. I’m confused. I agree that there is no contracausal free will but the “choice to do otherwise” or especially “could not have done otherwise” phrases strike me as problematically ambiguous. Choice I would define as an act of intentionally deciding between potential options that results in a desired outcome that manifests as the actual outcome. So there’s no choice that can magically overcome the fate of neurotransmission but if the intent of someone is reversed in less than a second based on new information entering their brain to have the opposite actual outcome than was intended (and by completely subconscious, inscrutable means within the agent), didn’t it appear that their mind WAS changed and they DID otherwise?

    Sapolsky writes:
    “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.”

    I agree. Take the example of pulling the trigger to shoot someone. It’s going to happen but in the last second, a breeze brings the floral scent of jasmine which reminds the would be perp of that same smell while sitting on their father’s lap and overtaken by nostalgia and remorse, they don’t pull the trigger.

    The “could not have done otherwise” phrase is very misleading because it implies that an action in progress is irrevocable and has an extremely probable, maybe inevitable, outcome because those neurotransmitters are traveling. But the agent DID do otherwise (their brain did actually on the <1sec timescale) – and importantly, the opposite of their intent and no murder was the outcome. To any observer, this would appear exactly like they chose to do otherwise and did exactly that. So of course they COULD do otherwise, they just DID. Yes, the individual did not “change their mind,” the odor did it but a second before that random scent arrived and their intent absolutely would’ve equaled the outcome – a dead victim.

    Does anyone else have an issue with these popular phrases?

    1. The agent obviously didn’t do other than what they did in the actual situation as you describe it, despite the last second deflection of what looked to be inevitable. But could they have done otherwise (CHDO) in that actual situation? Here’s a bit from my review of Sapolsky’s Determined that relates to the question of CHDO:

      Most folks will cling tightly to the idea that they could have chosen otherwise in an actual situation with all conditions, including their reasons and desires, exactly as they were. Philosophers call this the unconditional ability to do otherwise, as contrasted with the conditional ability in which, had some condition been otherwise, a different choice might have ensued given that we’re behaviorally flexible.[3] It isn’t difficult to see that exercising the unconditional ability would render a choice unintelligible and arbitrary by sidelining your very own reasons as the final determinants. Try this: If you suppose you could have chosen otherwise on a specific occasion, why didn’t you? Answer that question and you’ll be led to an essentially, albeit only approximately, deterministic explanation of your behavior in terms of the reasons and causes that were in play (approximate because we’re not omniscient about our own behavior, plus there might be inherent indeterminacy in nature). To have chosen otherwise something relevant to your choice would have had to have been otherwise. To want to be free to choose independently of the factors that in hindsight explain a choice, many of which have to do with who we are as specific persons, seems irrational, even though of course we sometimes wish we *had* chosen otherwise.

      1. Thanks. Yes, I don’t think people can “choose” to do otherwise, they do what they do and the “choice” appears to be post hoc rationalization of what they actually did based on whether it aligns with their intent. When people do the opposite of what they intended (whether by randomness in my example above/other indeterminancy or the outcome has levels of success, e.g. shot but didn’t kill victim when they were trying to kill them) we have phrases like “something came over them” to change their mind. No, what happened, happened but for reasons not even they can explain which in this case is new sensory input to their brain beneath their notice. New sensory input changes everything, otherwise they could not be reasoned out of commiting murder but that’s not true as the Pinker quote above suggests. What’s the difference then between a conversation and scent molecules? Just different inputs to a brain that will either change or not an agent’s action and possibly, the outcome

      2. It’s worthwhile to examine the role of time in this “could have done otherwise” business:

        could have chosen otherwise in an actual situation with all conditions, including their reasons and desires, exactly as they were. Philosophers call this the unconditional ability to do otherwise, as contrasted with the conditional ability in which, had some condition been otherwise, a different choice might have ensued given that we’re behaviorally flexible.

        But when I act on a decision, I not only have beliefs and desires, I have an *intention* to do (say) X. Yet if I intended to do X, the idea that I could have done Y instead doesn’t bolster my free will. If anything, it shows that I have a weak will, or maybe that someone is about to overpower me.

        So presumably, the philosopher who talks about “unconditional ability” doesn’t mean to suggest that it should be “unconditional” on the current conditions when I act. But they also don’t mean it to be “unconditional” with regard to future conditions either. For obvious reasons.

        Might some of those obvious reasons apply also, in a very non-obvious manner, to some past conditions as well? (Hint: yes.)

  18. I was thinking about 3d visual perception and thinking that it is powerful and complex and must have evolved but it must be a different type of evolution than what is taught in biology class. I started to notice that uber-rational materialist scientists that I respected had terribly unconvincing theories about consciousness that seem to make uneducated people that are not indoctrinated in the religion of materialist scientism seem to be geniuses by comparison. I got interested in science fiction because it ventured farther away from scientism and explored big ideas about consciousness.

    I realized that consciousness would not have evolved if it was powerless because it wouldn’t be a factor in natural selection and therefore libertarian free will is real. I realized if atoms were just inanimate building blocks then no combination that normal evolution of life on Earth could produce would be consciousness with libertarian free will. I realized there must be a high mass particle that is capable of being a little holodeck with a virtual homunculus that is a mind that can interface with an external body — probably dark matter. The only reason I could think such a particle could exist is if it is a baby universe that is the result of a large number of generations of universes reproducing during big bangs which could only happen if libertarian free will is real because only then would consciousness matter and drive the evolution of universes. I thought of libertarian free will as the whole universe partially controlling it parts or a whole dark matter baby universe particle partially controlling it parts which reminded me of some ways a quantum whole can instantly effect (a verb sometimes used when someone uses their libertarian free will to cause change) its parts like making two of its particles it controls have opposite spins even if they are light years apart.

    1. I realized that consciousness would not have evolved if it was powerless because it wouldn’t be a factor in natural selection and therefore libertarian free will is real.

      Could consciousness simply be an epiphenomenon?

  19. Having read Sam Harris’ excellent short book Free Will many years ago, I’m happily up to page 45 of Sapolsky’s Determined – a fascinating and thought-provoking read. I was intrigued by his comment that in a survey of jailed murderers, a majority had a reduced frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls decision-making. It leads me to ponder the decision making processes of the major actors of Ukraine vs Russia, Israel vs Palestine. In time, I wonder if might we be able to reduce the appearance of such conflicts in human behaviour?

  20. I’ve wondered for a long time: to what extent is our macroscopic world actually deterministic?
    It isn’t deterministic on the quantum level, if you don’t take a many-worlds point of view. Lots of quantum randomness.
    So to what extent does quantum randomness average out into deterministic evolution on the macroscopic level, and to what extent is there a sensitivity to quantum randomness, where tiny random quantum events get magnified into macroscopic events?

    1. The best minds in physics wonder most of those things too. We haven’t figured it out yet.

      From what I understand, the general consensus in physics is that determinism is indeed true at least “locally” and at the scales humans exist at, and that we don’t know yet whether or not quantum mechanics ultimately is probabilistic or deterministic.

      Some of the thinkers that ponder the Free Will question have stopped using the term “determinism” and started using terms like “natural laws.” I agree with this change because when it comes to the question of Free Will the thing that really matters is whether or not humans can make choices unconstrained from the natural laws that constrain everything else in our reality, as far as we can tell. Whether those laws are wholly or only partially deterministic, whether causality is true everywhere and at every scale or only locally and at certain scales, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is if human’s can make decisions unconstrained by whatever the laws are or they can’t.

      1. when it comes to the question of Free Will the thing that really matters is whether or not humans can make choices unconstrained from the natural laws

        Not at all – the compatibilist position is that you can have free will in a deterministic world. Indeed, it wouldn’t mean anything to have will at all if the world were too random.
        Natural laws aren’t tying you down and preventing you from making choices that you otherwise “would make”, because your *wishes* themselves are determined, in a deterministic world.
        Except in the sense that there are lots of things people would like to do that natural laws prevent, like floating up in the air any time they please. But in THAT sense, everyone agrees that we don’t have free will.
        But there’s no point in arguing about compatibilism vs incompatibilism.

        1. “Not at all – the compatibilist position is that you can have free will in a deterministic world.”

          I’m not sure what the over all direction of your thoughts are here. To be clear, I am not talking about compatibilism vs incompatiblism. Both C & IC accept determinism. Both C & IC accept that contra-causal / libertarian / magic freewill does not exist. The freewill that C’s claim is compatible with determinism is the “I’ve made this decision free of coercion” type of freewill which IC’s agree is real but that it’s not what the freewill question is really about, and the type of freewill that IC’s claim is not compatible with determinism is the magic type of freewill, which C’s agree is not real.

          The original freewill argument was about the magic freewill contemplated by religious thinkers. Humans being able to observe and make decisions from a privileged perspective free from the constraints that bound everything else. That is the context of my earlier comment.

          Compatibilists and Incompatibilists, at least the earliest formulations of those positions, agree on nearly all of the primary points, including that magic freewill doesn’t exist. That’s why I and many others, both Cs and ICs, have come to think that arguing about whether or not determinism is true, sometimes true, or false, is a red herring and the key point is that humans are constrained by natural laws, whatever they may be, just like everything else.

          For more, or better explanation, search for “Sean Carroll, freewill, determinism.” Particularly more recent hits.

  21. The paradox between determinism and predictability claims to arise from a lack of knowledge about a system’s initial state or a lack of computational power to make accurate predictions. Consequently, this paradox compels the conversation to delve into an abstract and philosophical realm where neither side can be empirically proven. Consequently, we are left with model systems to derive experimental data from, biasing the burden of proof towards determinism due to its scientific assertion. Regrettably, the presence of non-deterministic issues and algorithms, which are well-established in computer science, poses challenges in modeling deterministic systems as the complexity of computers increases. Thus, ensuring the ongoing dialogue between determinism and free will continues to captivate the curious minds of many future generations.

  22. Regarding this: “A friendship ended over a metaphysical argument!” Happens a lot, too bad, too.

    In my old age I try to be more charitable about knuckleheads who upset me with their metaphysics or who dare to disagree with me, to come up with a disarming quip, maybe change the subject.

    Late to the scene reading Sapolsky’s books. Got to catch up on some reading! I’ve seen some of YouTube posting. I reckon I’m sympathetic to a lot of his content just as I am sympathetic to this blog, and/but frequently eddies of thought…(hey, what about this (or the the other)?). So I can’t comment on issues Sapolskiy raises but see below:

    epigenetics: I first encountered this term in an advanced genetics class in 1973. Developmental biology, developmental, genetics, genes and development, all that amazing stuff — but I’ve become wary of even expert polymaths evoking epigenetics apparently to fill the gaps of the argument. all the time now epigenetics.

    I’m confused. There are half a dozen other scientific/philosophical buzzwords or phrases in the post that have triggered me — so to avoid word content max, conversation turns to the local athletic teams. (How’d the Badgers do? What about the Huskies — under-rated?)

  23. I wonder if in the many-worlds model of QM whether, when people make choices it is often true that both choices exist in different possible futures with a significant likelihood, in the many-worlds model.
    When people make a choice, they tend to think of their alternatives as possible futures that could exist. Do both of these alternatives sometimes actually happen in different futures, in the many-worlds model? Or just one?

  24. (My original post didn’t show up, so I’ll try breaking it in to two parts…sorry…)

    “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,”

    Surveys? Or studies actually trying to investigate the nature of people’s assumptions about free will?

    “Surveys” would “show” that “what people mean by morality is based on their God.”
    But a careful look in to what people actually assume/mean/think will show that “morality” is actually a set of concerns about what reasons we have, or not, for treating people one way over another. Plenty of people have the false explanation for this basis, but “morality” doesn’t disappear when you show their God likely doesn’t exist. That’s why so many religious people who deconvert find that…hey…there was meaning, purpose and morality still there after they got rid of God!

    I think you are making a similar mistake by continually asserting that the “real” notion of Free Will is the magical hypothesis many have used to explain human choices. Once you burrow down in to people’s intuitions on Free Will and study it, it’s not at all clear that most people’s intuitions are strictly aligned with Libertarian free will. Depending on how you ask the question, which intuitions you are pushing, the responses cover all sorts of ground, including compatibilism.

    (ETA: I tried a follow up post with links to numerous studies on people’s free will beliefs…showing that it’s far from established that people assume Libertarian Free Will….but it won’t show up…)

  25. “Free” is a very loaded word. Freedom is very important to us, so suggesting that our will is not free is going to upset people.
    If one said instead “So far as we know, our choices do not have a source that’s outside the laws of nature” then it becomes an agnostic-atheist statement. We have no reason to believe that we’re little gods who intervene in the world and cause little miracles that are our choices.
    But what people hear when they hear “We don’t have free will” is something very different. As Daniel Dennett wrote in “Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting”,

    If having free will matters, it must be because not having free will would be awful, and there must be some grounds for doubting that we have it. … What exactly are we afraid of? … there are a host of analogies to be found in the literature: not having free will would be … like being in prison, or being hypnotized, or being paralyzed, or …”

    and he goes on to analyze these bugbears.
    Of course, people’s choices *are* constrained by physics in very important ways. You can’t choose to float up into the air. Your choices are influenced by marketing – and this is a vulnerability that people like to deny. They choose to buy some thing, and they like to think their choice wasn’t partly created by advertising they were exposed to. You can’t choose to go back into the past and change your old choices. And so on.
    But the truth in the idea that “You don’t have free will” is something much more metaphysical, and not about freedom as people usually understand it.

  26. Here’s a Gedankenexperiment for you:
    Suppose you got a quantum random number generator, and you decided to make some decision using it. Electron spin up, you do option A. Electron spin down, you do option B.
    Then, did you have free will in making that decision? And would you feel like it was *your* decision? You didn’t choose the actual decision, but you did choose how you made it.

    1. The free will component of the problem is in giving the number generator decision making power over your actions, not the option choice selected.

  27. Well this book is out at the same time as one in favour of free will : Kevin J Mitchell’s Free Agents, How Evolution Gave Us Free Will.

    Will you read this one, Jerry?

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