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.
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.