Biologist Robert Sapolsky is a polymath, having done research ranging from neuroendocrinology to the behavior of baboons in Africa. That’s reflected in his academic titles: he’s “the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, holding joint appointments in several departments, including Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery”. And, of course, he’s an excellent and prolific writer. His 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Their Best and Worst, was a bestseller and gets 4½ stars on Amazon out of over 6,000 reviews.
Now he’s written a new book (below) which I am much looking forward to. It’ll be out October 17, so remind me shortly before that. You can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link, but of course it’s nearly bare this early. You can read more at the publisher’s website (Penguin Random House, my own publisher):
This is what the publisher has to say about it (their bolding):
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.)
I’ve also experienced the hegemony of libertarian free will repeatedly. Here are three of my anecdotes, two of which I’ve described before:
a.) At the “Moving Naturalism Forward”, the late physicist Steve Weinberg professed to me a belief in libertarian free will. See the story I told here (scroll down). In our conversation I ascertained that yes, although Weinberg was a Nobel Laureate in physics, he was resolutely wedded to the idea that he could, at any time, have behaved other than how he did. (I gave a talk on free will there.)
b.) A story I told here in 2015 when I gave a talk on free will at the Imagine No Religion meeting in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sadly, those delightful meetings are extinct.)
After my free will talk, which I think at least made many people think about the hegemony of behavioral determinism (I don’t care so much whether they accept compatibilism or incompatibilism so long as they accept determinism), I was accosted by an angry jazz musician. He said that I had basically ruined his life (I am not exaggerating) by telling him that his “improvisations” were not really improvisations in the sense that he he (in a dualistic way) “decided” what riffs to play, but that they were were the determined product of unconscious processes. I tried to reassure him that they were still the product of his own brain, his own musical background, and his training that allowed him to improvise around what his fellow musicians were playing, but he didn’t find that reassuring. (Even Dawkins jumped in and tried to explain that this didn’t devalue the man’s art or abilities.)
I still remember the anger of that musician (a big man) and my fear that he was going to hit me. Richard saved the day! Such is the anger of people told that they’re deprived of their agency.
c.) I haven’t told this story yet, but I will now. When I went to Massachusetts a few months ago, I visited an old friend on Cape Cod, whom I hadn’t seen for years. He’d recently remarried, and I was going to stay there for two days touring the area before heading up to Boston. While eating Wellfleet oysters, somehow we got onto the subject of free will. My friend and his wife were absolutely astounded when I told them they had no dualistic free will and could never behave other than the way the laws of physics dictated, even taking into account quantum randomness. They couldn’t let the topic go, and as I explained my point of view (and yes, I mentioned compatibilism), they got angrier and angrier, and the argument went on into the night. I kept my cool because I’d thought a lot about the subject and they had just encountered it, so I had to explain things as calmly as carefully as I could. The anger on their part continued, and I went to bed.
When I got up the next morning, set for another day of sightseeing, I went down to breakfast to find no coffee made and no people in evidence. Eventually my friend appeared and said, “You have to leave.”
“WHAT?”, I said, “I have a return ticket to Boston for tomorrow.” He replied that he’d buy me a ticket for that morning (I did it myself), but I had to get out of their house. This was, of course, because they were totally angry at me for my views on free will. My friend had stayed up all night, consuming a whole bottle of wine, trying to find out people who believed in libertarian free will (he mostly found compatibilists like Dennett to support his case, but they didn’t, for the issue was naturalism).
Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. I’ve gone over this in my mind repeatedly, and I am absolutely sure that I didn’t raise my voice or say anything offensive. I was being booted out of a friend’s house because I had the wrong stand on a metaphysical argument!
Again, such is the rage of those who hear others tell them they have no agency. Of course that ended the friendship, and I’ll never see the guy again, nor do I want to. But the couple couldn’t resist getting in one last shot. When I hugged his wife goodbye and thanked her for her hospitality, she said, “Have a nice predetermined life.” How rude can one get? I still haven’t gotten over this, as nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me, and I can’t fathom how a friendship could be scuppered over an argument like this. Fortunately, I called my friends in Boston and they were glad to put me up for an extra night, and also appalled that I got the heave-ho because I’m a hard determinist!
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.
I’m glad to see that Sapolsky will be writing about those consequences. Remember that several compatibilists, including Dan, have argued that unless we believe in some sort of free will—compatibilist or libertarian—society will fall apart. That’s bogus, of course, and Sapolsky argues that below. I reprise the section of his book précis I’m talking about (bolding is mine)
[Sapolsky] 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.
Here are two quotes from Dan that I use in my free will talks to show the attitude Sapolsky says is wrongheaded:
If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)
and this (basically identical to the published version; I got this from an earlier version).
This is a scare tactic used to bully people into accepting compatibilism!
I’ve never met Sapolsky, but I’d like to. He sounds like a guy worth knowing.