LA Times: Philosopher critiques Sapolsky’s book on determinism, touts free will

October 27, 2023 • 9:35 am

I’m reading Robert Sapolsky’s new book Determined now and like it a lot, but of course I’ve always agree with him about the hegemony of naturalism. Because Sapolsky is a hard determinist, and many people, even philosophers, won’t accept the form of unrelenting naturalism that both Sapolsky and I accept, we can expect a lot of uninformed criticism of the book But now we have uninformed criticism by somebody who’s informed, for the book has been negatively reviewed in the L. A. Times by John Martin Fischer, identified by the the paper as ” a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside [who] has written widely on free will and moral responsibility.” Fisher has also been characterized on Wikipedia as “a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.”

So I was pretty appalled to see Fischer, in a critical review of Determined, saying some things that seemed deeply uninformed, even to a philosophical tyro like me. It may be because he’s trying to summarize complex arguments for the public in a short review, but if that’s the case, Fischer’s concisions have led to mischaracterization of the book (I’ve read about 100 pages of Sapolsky’s 450-page book, but he’s advanced his thesis in other writings as well). Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are a few statements by Fischer (indented) and my comments about them (flush left).

Perhaps surprisingly, these views — which seem so unintuitive — have become more influential in contemporary philosophy and even legal theory. They are, nevertheless, a minority opinion. Although philosophy isn’t about majority rule (nor should it be!), many of us inside the field — and likely outside it, too — find this skepticism toward free will and moral responsibility deeply problematic.

Most philosophers aren’t libertarian “you-could-have-done-otherwise” believers in free will, but are determinists who accept, like Sapolsky, the idea that at any time, there is only one behavior possible (with the exception of behaviors that could be changed by the fundamental indeterminism of quantum mechanics; see below).  Yet they are determinists who say that their view of free will is not a libertarian view, so that free will is compatible with determinism. That’s why these philosophers (who hold the majority view on free will) are called “compatibilists”.

While Fischer may be right in that most philosophers accept moral responsibility, he misleads the reader, most of whom take free will to mean that you could change your mind at a single moment and do or choose more than one thing. (Without that ability, the “free” in “free will” is meaningless.)  Here Fischer plays into the popular libertarian conception of free will—the one that Sapolsky spends the whole book attacking—but may be referring to compatibilist free will (“yes, we’re determined, but we can semantically construct another form of “free will”). The problem is that Fischer never defines what he means by free will, while Sapolsky starts off his book with definitions to avoid this kind of muddle. The onus was on Fischer to define “free will”, but he dropped the ball.

Here’s more:

Some neurobiologists, including Sapolsky, hold that neurobiology supports determinism — that the brain activity science has uncovered reveals essentially mechanical procedures that cause human decisions. Other neuroscientists believe that at a fundamental level the brain works indeterministically, perhaps in accordance with quantum mechanics, which allows for randomness and unpredictability. In other words, whether the past and laws of nature dictate my choices and actions remains scientifically controversial.

There’s only one form of pure indeterminism in nature (I’m not talking here about “unpredictability”): quantum mechanics. And if our behaviors and choices are unpredictable because they are affected by quantum phenomena (note: WE DON’T KNOW THIS), that gives us randomness and unpredictability, but does not give us libertarian free will. (We can’t move electrons via our “will”.) And doesn’t Fischer realize that the laws of nature happen to include quantum mechanics?  Sapolsky and I are both naturalists: we accept that behaviors proceed only from the laws of nature: laws that can have acted eons ago to produce a behavior we evince today.  No, determinism is not scientifically controversial, at least among the majority of philosophers who accept that the laws of nature dictate our choices and actions.

Further, unpredictability can result from absolute, pure determinism, simply because, though determinism be true, we don’t know enough to be able to predict with great accuracy. It is a fundamental error to say that determinism is incompatible with unpredictability.  It’s just a matter of not knowing enough!  Let me put it in caps:  “UNPREDICTABILITY IS NOT THE OPPOSITE OF DETERMINISM”.

But wait; there’s more! You also get a free set of Ginsu knives!:

But let’s say determinism were true. Why exactly would it follow that we lack free will? Even if our choices and actions are shaped heavily by external factors, couldn’t they still be caused in a way that involves the human capacity for reasoning? Coughs, sneezes, seizures — these behaviors are easy to dismiss as beyond our control. Not all causal chains, however, are like those that trigger involuntary movements. Equating all human behavior to a cough is an egregiously hasty generalization.

Consider, as a simple example, my decision to sit down at my computer to write these sentences. Yes, my past and the laws of nature may have crucially led me here. But I did so also because of deliberation. I weighed the pros for writing against the cons and chose to do it. It wasn’t like a sneeze; it was a process that involved reasoning. Determinism helps explain why I started typing, but it does not in itself rule out my free will.

Well, that depends on what Fischer defines as “free will”, doesn’t it? The problem with the two paragraphs above is that Sapolsky’s entire book is devoted to showing exactly why a decision to sit down and write is precisely like a cough or sneeze: both depend on a concatenation of causal events that extend way back to the past, well before you’re born.  Reasoning is just a brain process, and is itself conditioned by the past history of the neurons in one’s brain and of the body that carries them. That history includes genetics, environment, and experience, things that extend way back into the past since there are long chains of causation. Fischer is showing here that he either hasn’t read Sapolsky’s book or doesn’t understand it.


The “why” might additionally involve exercises of free will that confer responsibility — and thus we cannot dismiss moral responsibility because we are machines. We are biological machines, but the biology does not get in the way of free will. It enables it, just as our neurobiology enables our thoughts and feelings.

Yes, Sapolsky (and I) do dismiss “moral responsibility” (but not “responsibility”) because it violates determinism (I call it “naturalism”, which equals determinism plus fundamental indeterminism caused by quantum mechanics.) And what does Fischer mean by “the biology does not get in the way of free will”?  Since he hasn’t defined “free will”, we don’t know what he means, nor what he means by saying free will is “enabled by biology”.  Here Fischer is misleading the reader. Even if he’s a compatibilist, Fischer is responsible for not only defining free will, but explaining his critique.  By the way, Sapolsky’s book is largely about neurobiology, and Fischer shows no evidence of having read Sapolsky’s neurobiological argument for determinism.

And even if Fischer is accepting a compatibilist form of free will, he then goes way off the rails by implying that determinism, by absolving us of “moral responsibility,” completely lets us off the hook when we do something bad. Like most ignorant critics of determinism (but Fischer shouldn’t be that ignorant!), he argues that without a notion of free will, we can rape, pillage, plunder, and murder at will, without fear of punishment. To wit:

We live in a world with horrors almost too terrible to imagine. That no one could fairly be blamed or punished for anything is a view as disturbing as it is radical. It would entail that Vladimir Putin could not be morally blamed or punished for documented war crimes; he would not deserve such treatment. Moral responsibility skepticism implies that Hitler did not deserve to be morally blamed or punished, nor did Stalin or any mass murderer.

The skeptical view asks us to do what is almost humanly impossible: to let even our worst actors off the hook. Of course, the same point applies to good behavior: Heroes such as Sully Sullenberger would not deserve our gratitude, and your friend who sacrifices her plans so she can pick you up at LAX wouldn’t merit it either. (Sometimes, though, even this requires heroism!)

Yes, Sapolsky says that determinism means that people don’t deserve what happens to them, whether it be good or bad, but he doesn’t argue that people don’t need to be blamed or punished! No rational determinist thinks that.  Blame and punishment are social tools for encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad ones, and we can confer praise or opprobrium without having to think that a person had a choice of showing good or bad behavior. As a determinist, one can praise someone to elicit further good behaviors (another mistake of critics is to think that behavior is unchangeable), or discourage bad ones. That’s why Sapolsky thinks that judicial punishment is still needed.  Again, Fischer shows no sign of having read Sapolsky’s book, for he’s constantly misrepresenting Sapolsky’s views.

Fischer does that one last time at the end, when he levels what seems like a gratuitous swipe at Sapolsky, managing to argue that his views justify—wait for it—the cheating scheme of Sam Bankman-Fried!

In a beautiful vision of the no-responsibility world, people are liberated from forces over which they have no control. But there is an ugly side too. Consider that Barbara Fried, a professor emerita at Stanford Law School, has argued against free will and moral responsibility. Right now her son, Sam Bankman-Fried, is on trial for allegations that he looted billions from customers of his collapsed crypto exchange FTX. Under the skeptics’ view, Bankman-Fried deserves no blame or responsibility. How convenient, but deeply wrong.

Here Fischer is not only wrong, but stupid as well. Sapolsky does not think that criminals should get off. The sentence argues that those who criticize free will, like Barbara Fried, whose views he mischaracterizes—read the link, which goes to an essay written, of course, by Fischer himself—also think that nobody should be punished. (Fried says we should “move past blame,”, which is a reasonable view and does not say we should not punish.)

In the end, here we have a philosopher who doesn’t define his terms (isn’t that de rigueur in philosophy?), doesn’t explain himself, and appears not to have read the book he’s reviewing. It’s a horrible review of a very good book, and I continue to highly recommend Determined. 

Oh, and Fischer should be kept away from popular writing until he can understand what he’s writing about and be honest in his criticism.


36 thoughts on “LA Times: Philosopher critiques Sapolsky’s book on determinism, touts free will

  1. It’s remarkable, and rather ironic, that so many people’s arguments against the lack of free will are so…well, knee-jerk, rather than well thought out.

    I also recommend Sapolsky’s book highly (I’m a bit further along in it than PCC(E) but not yet finished–there’s a lot of good stuff in there), and it seems clear that this professor of philosophy has not seriously read the book.

  2. From the Wikipedia article about John Martin Fischer: “… he also has worked on the metaphysics of death and philosophy of religion and led a multi-year, multi-pronged research project on “immortality,” funded in 2012 by the John Templeton Foundation.”

    1. “John Martin Fischer grew up in a Jewish family in San Jose and struggled as a teenager to comprehend his grandfather’s murder by the Nazis”– Larry Gordon, LATimes (March 12, 2013), in an article entitled “Using the Here and Now To Get a Handle on the Hereafter”.

  3. It seems like Fischer may not have read the book or that he misunderstands it. It may also be that Fischer is biased to reject determinism a priori because of its moral implications: ”Why abandon something so important,” he asks, when discussing “moral responsibility.” It’s hard to tell.

    I’m on page 159 so far and I like the book. So far, Sapolsky is (rightly, in my view) arguing from several vantage points that all human thoughts and behaviors are determined by antecedent causes, and that those causes are the typical ones we know of from physics and chemistry. Atomic and molecular processes taking place at one instant of time determine the atomic and molecular processes that take place at the next instant of time—including, of course, those processes that take place in the brain that people (erroneously, in my view) interpret as free will.

    He is also—by about page 100 or so—dismissing chaos theory as a safe harbor for free will. (It is not. Just because an outcome is surprising or unpredictable does not mean that it the outcome wasn’t determined—a common logical error.) I’m anticipating that Sapolsky will (rightly) be dismissing quantum effects as a safe harbor for free will soon.

    So far, so good. Sapolsky’s approach seems to be mostly empirical (so far), showing how a person’s thoughts and behaviors are determined by brain states that were themselves determined by biology, physics, and that person’s unique history. It’s antecedent causes all the way down, just like it’s “turtles all the way down,” which Sapolsky uses liberally.

    1. Well, Chaos Theory is deterministic – so anyone who argues otherwise is doing so in bad faith. It’s not even an interpretation – it just IS deterministic.
      I assume Fischer would/does bypass such trifles…I mean, it has the word ‘chaos’ in it…QED!

  4. Just for the record: The Phil Survey for 2020 shows that most philosophers are compatibilists, which is pretty much “no free will” dressed in a smart shirt.

    Accept or lean towards:
    59.16% (57.68%)
    Accept or lean towards:
    18.83% (18.20%)
    Accept or lean towards:
    no free will
    11.21% (10.58%)

    survey2020 philpeople dot org/survey/results/all

    1. Yes, I know this, though I’m not sure I know why. Dennett is a compatibilist, I think, because he thinks society would fall apart without the notion of free will, and others may feel the same.

      1. I’m not sure there is a significant difference between compatibilists and no free will positions. Compatibilists are simply emphasizing the fact that determinism can be and perhaps should be expressed at two levels. One, of a direct view of determinism and the other of how we should talk at a higher level of interactions in human culture.

    2. Anecdotal, I know; but way back in 2005, the psychologist and author Susan Blackmore published ‘Conversations on Consciousness’, consisting of records of discussions with 20 philosophers and neuroscientists, including Dennett, Chalmers, Searle and the Churchlands. I haven’t read it for some time, but AFAIR none of them accepted libertarian free will. (Blackmore wrote that whenever she goes out to a restaurant, she finds herself thinking ‘I wonder what she’s going to choose’).

      The book is also noteworthy in that it includes the last interview that Francis Crick ever gave. He was very ill at the time, but his continuing intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm still shine through.

  5. Fischer is best known for “semi-compatibilism” – the idea that compatibilism is partly but not entirely true. In Fischer’s particular version (note, there are others) we don’t have “could have done otherwise” freedom but we do often have moral responsibility.

    1. Fischer has also recently argued in favor of “semiretributivism” in which people deserve to be punished whether or not any beneficial consequences ensue (retribution), but that consideration of an offender’s upbringing is acknowledged as a something that can mitigate moral anger. In his op-ed, Fischer doesn’t bring up the second point – a point Sapolsky emphasizes in Determined – since that would have undercut his plea for punishment. I’ve critiqued Fischer’s semiretributivism, saying that his case for retribution fails and that he’s still very much thrall to moral anger.

      1. I just read your piece. Thank you for the link. It’s interesting that Fischer seems to think that punishment is desirable even if it serves no future goal (deterrence, for instance). I wonder if his views regarding punishment *force* him to believe in (some sort of) free will. Without free will (in the hard, determinist, non-compatibilist sense), Fischer would not be able to justify retributive punishment because, after all, perpetrators would not be responsible for their criminal acts. If one believes in retributive punishment a priori, then it seems that one would have to believe in free will or invent it.

        In fairness, I have not immersed myself in this literature so hope I’m not misinterpreting people’s views here.

    2. Semi-compatabilist…semiretributivism..?!?!

      A one, two
      A one, two, three, four

      Half a bee, philosophically
      Must, ipso facto, half not be
      But half the bee has got to be
      A vis-a-vis its entity, you see?
      I love this hive employee-ee-ee
      Bisected accidentally
      One summer afternoon, by me
      I love him carnally

      He loves him carnally
      The end

      Cyril Connolly?

      No, semi-carnally


      Cyril Connolly

  6. “Blame and punishment are social tools for encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad ones, and we can confer praise or opprobrium without having to think that a person had a choice of showing good or bad behavior.”

    This is where I run into a wall. If they are ‘tools’ then surely we use them in the expectation or hope that they will make a person decide to do one thing rather than another i.e. implying that s/he has some choice in the matter. It seems to me that (assuming rejection of libertarian “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will) we are surely all de facto compatibilists as we go about our daily lives, if not when we sit and think deeply about it. We take hundreds of decisions daily, ranging from the trivial – eggs or cereal for breakfast? – to the deeply important. And it seems to me that we don’t have any choice in the matter – we can’t decide not to decide and just allow our destiny to run its course with no input from our reason or feelings. That way we’d just grind to a halt and do nothing which mostly doesn’t happen. And surely the reason philosophers write treatises on the existence or absence of free will is because they hope to be able to influence the thinking of others and get them to change their minds.

    I am sure free will is illusory but I can’t really see how to live a normal life without going along with the illusion and facing the navigation of life as the helmsman in my own wheelhouse.

    1. Not really. The argument for deterrence is that it is an external input that changes the “weights” in your neural network, meaning that if you change your behavior based on being deterred, you see video cameras installed at a home you want to enter and steal from, then that too follows a causal pathway for decision making, just as much as not seeing installed video cameras makes you enter the house. “You” did not decide which pathway to take based on a disembodied separate mechanism.

      1. This is the part of determinism I have difficulty grasping. How can we rationalize that the universe is controlled by natural laws and yet argue that people can influence each other behavior and decision making process. Those influences should be built into the model. I also believe much of the argument about determinism boils down to philosophical reasoning even though determinism aligns itself with science. We can’t prove determinism because we can’t know everything seems to make this ideology unfalsifiable.

  7. “ Blame and punishment are social tools for encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad ones, and we can confer praise or opprobrium without having to think that a person had a choice of showing good or bad behavior. As a determinist, one can praise someone to elicit further good behaviors (another mistake of critics is to think that behavior is unchangeable), or discourage bad ones. That’s why Sapolsky thinks that judicial punishment is still needed.”

    I’m very much an amateur here, but since societal punishments are themselves collections of individual actions, and individual actions are determined, then blame and punishment are also not freely taken actions.

    1. Yes, this exactly. There is a disconnect between saying on one hand that there is no true free will, and on the other saying that therefore we should reform our justice system to eliminate retributive punishments. If there is no free will, then “should” is a nonsensical concept, with respect to our criminal justice system and with respect to everything else. It would be more consistent to say that it’s unfortunate that we have retributive punishments in our justice system, and that hopefully one day those with power to shape that system will eliminate these punishments. But if there is no free will, then the architects of our justice system are no more blameworthy than the criminals who are needlessly punished.

      1. There is no disconnect. “Should” is a statement we make (yes, our statements like that are determined) to enforce good behaviors. You don’t seem to realize that our judgments are the result of evolution, and our “shoulds” are incentives to improve other people’s behaviors. Our reason is also shaped by natural selection, as is our sense of fairness (culture also contributes, of course). So reasoning that retribution achieves nothing may come from our evolved/cultural sense of fairness. And my views are not “nonsensical” here.

        I think you need to read more about free will.

          1. A writer should always watch his verbs. His nouns and his modifiers, too. After all, it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning. It can also be the difference between disagreement and insult.

        1. So in this wholly deterministic world, where everyone’s actions are preordained, we can only but hope that the system evolves in some way that we could define as a moral good. We are just actors unknowingly following a script and wondering how the story will end, but actually powerless to ever modify the action. It doesn’t seem a movie worth the viewing.

          1. I wouldn’t mind so much if it were a comedy instead of a horror film.

            I should (there’s that word again) take Howard Bloom’s “Lucifer Principle” off the shelf and read it already. He offers an explanation of why this was inevitable.

        2. I understand that “should” is used as an incentive. But if free will does not exist, it is meaningless as a concept. A better choice of wording would be “it would be socially desirable for you to do x, and I hope that my statement that such a course of action is socially desirable will be among the environmental factors that, along with your genetics, leads to you doing x.” I realize this is a mouthful, and if you want to use “should” as a shorthand for it, fine. But I maintain that “should” as we generally understand it, that is, a course of action that it is morally incumbent for you to take, can have no coherent conceptual meaning if there is no free will.

        3. “And my views are not ‘nonsensical’ here.” Please take no offense. I do not view your comments or theories as “nonsensical.” My comment was directed at what I perceive to be a conceptual problem with some of the discussion on free will. I appreciate your work and your blog. Keep up the good work.

    2. Of course in a deterministic but unpredictable world there can be meta-explanations. So maybe “blame and punishment encourage moral behavior” has a similar relation to multi person neurobiology as the laws of thermodynamics have to many body physical systems.

    3. Yes, that’s correct, but remember that evolution has played a role in evolution and group behaviors. They may be determined, but they are also evolved to in general enhance the fitness of their carriers.

  8. “ Consider, as a simple example, my decision to sit down at my computer to write these sentences. Yes, my past and the laws of nature may have crucially led me here. But I did so also because of deliberation. I weighed the pros for writing against the cons and chose to do it. It wasn’t like a sneeze; it was a process that involved reasoning.”

    Fischer thinks that thoughts cause the arrangement of the neurones in the brain. It’s the other way around, thoughts are the result of the arrangement of the neurones in the brain.

  9. Sapolsky brilliantly describes a version of ‘free will’ which is nothing like the free-will that I understand. I agree that his version of free-will explains away the moral responsibility that is inseparable from my version. Yes that’s argumentum ad lapidem, but when in a corner I turn with gratitude to Dr Samuel Johnson who invented it – of his own free will.

  10. Perhaps if we focus instead on the spectrum of degrees of Agency which we see in nature, rather than debating philosophical definitions relating to types of “Will” we might be more able to make some progress in these debates. In nature we find that there is a wide spectrum of capabilities in agency in organisms… at one extreme say that of an amoeba and at the other an adult human being. What are the mental processes which are engaged in human agency vs. that of an amoeba- the human capacities are unique, complex and extremely sophisticated and include abstraction, associative memory, learning, computational processing, pattern recognition etc. So we can ask is a decision for a human really only an act of agency in some predetermined causal chain such as an amoeba when the human decision engages these facilities. And where exactly can this causal chain be located in all this mental processing? Human agency is wholly dependent on what we call the “SELF” and this self is principally “self formed” – in that it is the product of a continuous feedback system in which the self is part of every forming process and is modified by that very process. Claiming that free will dose not exist is an effect of extreme reductionism, and takes no account of the possibility that a greater complexity of agency can ever emerge.. There must be a line that can be drawn on the spectrum of agency – where above that line we can define free will.


    It is correct. Do the following thought experiment. Suppose the world is predetermined and you come to know you will have a car accident tomorrow? What will you do?

    Perhaps, you will probably hide in a cave where no car can hit you.

    But now it gets a bit fuzzy. If you change your planned action, do you have a free will? Or was it predetermined that you came to know the future and then changed it?

    Perhaps, determinism requires unpredictability.

  12. I agree with a lot of the conclusions of incompatibalism, but for anyone who has read the philosophers in these debates it’s hard to miss how badly Sapolsky is begging the question. It’s a shame because he’s so good elsewhere. If he’s going to write a book about the nature of free will and moral responsibility then why doesn’t he engage with those concepts in the rigorous way commonplace by philosophers of action? I really liked Behave, but I just had to put this book down because he’s pretty flippant with the central questions he’s supposed to be making a case for.

    Picking apart Fischer’s brief response in the Times isn’t a great use of time. His more thorough review in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review is pretty damning. I don’t buy Fisher’s semicompatibalism, but he should be taken seriously. In his own writing he actually defines the key terms.

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