Robert Sapolsky, a biological polymath who’s written several best-selling books, pointed out in earlier ones (like Behave) that he was a hard determinist, a view he reinforced on a Sci. Am. podcast—one of their rare positive contributions. Now, as I mentioned in February, his new book, totally about determinism, is about to come out—on October 17. You can order it by clicking on the screenshot below. It ain’t cheap at $31.50 for the hardcover, but I may have to dig down deep to get it–or order it from the library.
Here’s the Amazon summary, which implies that Sapolsky isn’t buying any of the compatibilism bullpucky:
Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.
Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together.By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.
As I wrote in February based on this summary:
If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)
. . . So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.
The good news is that now when someone wants to understand determinism, I can just shut up and say, “Read Sapolsky’s book,” for I see no divergence between his views and mine (I’d also add Free Will by Sam Harris.) In the end—and I’ll get in trouble for this—I think compatibilists are semantic grifters. They’re really all determinists who want to find some way to convince people that they have a form of free will, even though they couldn’t have behaved other than how they did. This is the “little people’s” argument, not for religion but for philosophy. But in the end it’s the same: “People need religion/the notion of free will because without it, society could not flourish.” That, of course, is bogus. As long as we feel we make choices, even if intellectually we know we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, society will go on. After all, I’m a hard determinist and yet I’m still alive, getting out of bed each morning. I don’t know what I’ll pick when I go to a restaurant, even though I know it’s determined right before I look at the menu.
Reader Tom Clark wrote a positive review of Sapolsky’s book on the Naturalism site. Click below to read it.
I’ll give just two of Clark’s quotes:
If free will is widely conceived as being opposed to determinism, it isn’t surprising that the latter is seen as a threat to responsibility, meaning, creativity, rationality, and other desiderata tied to our core notion of agency. If we’re fully caused to be who we are and do what we do, then it seems we’re merely biological robots, acting out a pre-ordained script; we don’t make real choices for which we might be praised or blamed.
Could you have done otherwise?
This is why Robert Sapolsky’s book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will(link is external), is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers (although it will do so very entertainingly, see below). Following up on his earlier work Behave(link is external), Sapolsky, a behavioral biologist, is intent on making it clear to anyone who will listen that there is no escaping determinism if we’re serious about understanding ourselves: understanding how we got to be the exact persons we are and why our intentions and choices arise as they do. Moreover, as he takes pains to point out, indeterminism or randomness doesn’t help the cause of agency. After all, as deciders we want to determine our choices, not have them be subject to factors we don’t control. Strangely enough, therefore, determinism, construed commonsensically as the existence of reliable causal, and more broadly, explanatory connections between our desires, decisions, actions, and their effects on the world, seems a necessary condition of genuine agenthood. We really make choices, just not undetermined or arbitrary ones.
Well, the last sentence is a bit grifty given that “make choices” means, to most people, “we could have made other choices.” But I won’t quibble too much. The best part is that, according to Clark, Sapolsky has no truck with compatibilism:
The fight with compatibilists isn’t about determinism; compatibilists agree that we and our choices are in principle explicable by various determinants, not the causa sui. It’s rather about the relative importance assigned to determinism and its implications for moral responsibility and other beliefs, attitudes, and social practices informed by our conception of agency. Sapolsky argues that compatibilists tend to ignore the causal story behind an individual in order to fix our attention on agents and their capacities for rationality and reasons-responsiveness, capacities that compatibilists argue justify holding each other morally responsible. Most of us are capable in these respects to varying degrees, but by downplaying determinism and the causal story, what Sapolsky calls taking the ahistorical stance, compatibilists in effect block access to the psychological and practical benefits of putting determinism front and center: increased compassion and more attention paid to the conditions that thwart human flourishing. Due to factors beyond our control too many of us end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to health, education, social skills, and employability. Sapolsky is especially critical of compatibilist Daniel Dennett, who has claimed that “luck averages out in the long run”. He responds in characteristically plain-spoken style:
No it doesn’t. Suppose you’re born a crack baby. In order to counterbalance this bad luck, does society rush in to ensure that you’ll be raised in relative affluence and with various therapies to overcome your neurodevelopmental problems? No, you are overwhelmingly likely to be born into poverty and stay there. Well then, says society, at least let’s make sure your mother is loving, is stable, has lots of free time to nurture you with books and museum visits. Yeah, right; as we know your mother is likely to be drowning in the pathological consequences of her own miserable luck in life, with a good chance of leaving you neglected, abused, shuttled through foster homes. Well, does society at least mobilize then to counterbalance that additional bad luck, ensuring you live in a safe neighborhood with excellent schools? Nope, your neighborhood is likely to be gang-riddled and your school underfunded.
In arguing against compatibilists, Sapolsky engages with the philosophical literature, citing skeptics about free will and moral responsibility such as Neil Levy, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, and Sam Harris (see references below). Such backup suggests he is not completely crazy to think that a robust appreciation of determinism, and therefore the sheer contingency of our formative circumstances, should force reconsideration of our conceptions of credit, blame, reward, and punishment.
Clark’s final sentence:
[Sapolsky’s] persistence in seeing Determined to completion – a prodigious undertaking – is much to be congratulated, although he would disavow deserving any such praise. Even if he’s right about that, we’re still lucky to have him.
YES! But read the rest for yourself. This is a book we can all benefit from (even those miscreants who accept libertarian free will or compatibilism), and I’m glad I can point to a respected polymath who makes an argument I agree with, but written much better than I’d be able to.
What I’d love to see: a debate about compatibilism between Dennett and Sapolsky.