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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Neurobiology

Determined Life Without Free Will

Popular Science New
By: Robert M Sapolsky(Author)
528 pages, 103 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
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  • Determined ISBN: 9781529920062 Paperback Apr 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Determined ISBN: 9781847925534 Hardback Oct 2023 Out of Print #261802
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

One of the world's greatest scientists of human behaviour shows that free will does not exist – and challenges us to rethink the very notion of choice, identity, responsibility, justice, morality and how we live together.

Behind every thought, action and experience there lies a chain of biological and environmental causes, stretching back from the moment a neuron fires to the dawn of our species and beyond. Nowhere in this infinite sequence is there a place where free will could play a role.

Without free will, it makes no more sense to punish people for antisocial behaviour than it does to scold a car for breaking down. It is no one's fault they are poor or overweight or unsuccessful, nor do people deserve praise for their talent or hard work; 'grit' is a myth. This mechanistic view of human behaviour challenges our most powerful instincts, but history suggests that we have already made great strides toward it: where once we saw demonic possession or cowardice, for example, now we diagnose illness or trauma and offer help.

Determined confronts us with our true nature: who and what we are is biology and nothing more. Disturbing and liberating in equal measure, it explores the far-reaching implications for society of accepting this reality. Monumentally difficult as it may be, the reward will be a far more just and humane world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Witty, accessible and thought-provoking, but is his rejection borne out by the data?
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Jan 2024 Written for Hardback

    Do we have free will or not? Despite millennia of debate, this question stands as one of those seemingly unresolvable conundrums. I admit it has never kept me up at night; yes, biology influences and constrains our behaviour, but it sure feels like we have free will. Beyond that, however, I confess to ignorance on this subject. Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology who you may remember from his 2017 best-seller Behave, a 790-page behemoth on the biology of human behaviour. Before delving in, let me immediately highlight that Determined is accessible, well-researched, witty, and irreverent; it regularly made me chuckle. For a book that could have gotten bogged down in philosophical and neurobiological jargon, this one is a joy to read.

    Clearly, Sapolsky does not believe in free will. But what does that mean? He falls in the minority camp of hard incompatibilism: the world is deterministic (i.e. events result from both prior events and the laws of nature), this is incompatible with free will, and we are thus not morally responsible for our actions. The majority view he will examine and criticize most often is that of compatibilism: the world is deterministic, this is nevertheless compatible with free will, and we are morally responsible. Also important: how does he define free will? He takes a neurobiological perspective. To demonstrate free will, "show me a neuron (or brain) whose generation of a behavior is independent of the sum of its biological past" (p. 15). If I understand him correctly, he is in effect demanding you demonstrate a causeless cause. Whether this is a fruitful approach is debatable, but he defends it as: "anything but an absurdly high bar or straw man" (p. 84).

    Positional sketch out of the way, Determined breaks down into three parts that I will discuss in turn before giving some overall thoughts.

    First is Sapolsky's view. We do not have free will because our actions resulted from prior causes, which themselves resulted from prior causes, which... etc. He walks you through this causal chain of events that goes back seconds (behaviour was caused by neurons firing), minutes (which was caused by a thought, memory, emotion, or sensory stimulus), hours to days (hormones), months (long-term experiences, e.g. depression), years and decades (e.g. childhood, genetics), and centuries (the culture of your ancestors). His central point is that "we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control" (p. 4). Or, to employ one of his favourite metaphors, it is turtles all the way down: a seamless chain of causality stretching back in time "without a crevice for free will to lodge in" (p. 123).

    Unassailable logical elegance or circular reasoning? I cannot quite decide what to make of his argument, but I see a major problem with it. Sapolsky admits that each of these prior causes individually does not refute free will. Many of them do little more than influence or constrain the likelihood of certain behaviours. At best the available data shows we have less free will than we thought. But that is not what the book argues. Despite a few apologetic admissions that his is a fringe position, he nevertheless makes the giant leap that it all adds up to completely rule out free will. Would hard rejection not require that you demonstrate complete predictability at each level?

    Moving on, the second part of Determined focuses on three scientific revolutions that potentially break the idea of determinism, the familiar chain of cause and effect. Many people argue that chaos theory, emergent complexity, or quantum mechanics could give rise to free will. Sapolsky admits he is less emotionally invested in this section and he evidently had fun writing it. In six short chapters, he gives an accessible primer to each and explains why he thinks they do not generate free will. The first two confuse systems behaving unpredictably with them being indeterministic: just because you cannot deduce prior causes does not mean there were none. According to the third, the world is indeterministic on a subatomic level, but there is no evidence that this "bubbles up" to higher levels. And if it did, behaviour would be random. I actually mostly agree with Sapolsky on all three, though I remain intrigued by emergent complexity. A potential red flag is that he admits he does not always understand what its advocates are claiming.

    The third part of the book is more of a thought experiment: what would happen if we all stopped believing in free will? These chapters are a mixed bag. How could we change our behaviour? Simple, Sapolsky explores the neurobiological basis of learning, showing no free will is needed. Fine. We have changed our minds before. We no longer blame people afflicted by epilepsy and schizophrenia but understand these to be biological phenomena. If we achieved that, we can change our minds on free will. Sure. Other chapters are less convincing though. For example, what do we do with criminals? This chapter is a mess. Rather than punishing people by locking them up, Sapolsky proposes something akin to medical quarantine where we restrict the freedom of dangerous individuals to protect society. Congratulations, you have just described the prison system in different words. Worse, punishment has evolved in other social species as an effective strategy to dealing with miscreants, and it feels neurobiologically good, firing up reward circuits in our brains. He admits this is "the tip of the iceberg of a gigantic problem" (p. 355) against his case. Last one: he is haunted by the very real concern that rejecting free will robs people of a sense of purpose and meaning in life. No wonder e.g. Dennett has called instilling this belief in people dangerous and irresponsible.

    This brings me to some general observations; the good, the bad, and the incongruous. Starting with that last one, Sapolsky is remarkably torn over his own beliefs. Clearly, he thinks that he *should* believe there is no free will, but he admits that "I usually fail dismally [and] even I think it's crazy to take seriously all the implications of there being no free will" (p. 9). On to the good. Determined is nothing if not intensely thought-provoking and did make me question myself. Could it all be an illusion? After all, we are easily fooled and our brain is a hyperactive agency detector. However, (here comes the "bad") if that is true I apologise to Sapolsky: it is just too strong an illusion and this book has not robbed me of it. Though he succeeds in his soft goal of arguing that our free will is limited, I am not convinced the available data supports his hard rejection, merely the perhaps unsatisfying conclusion that the status of free will remains undetermined.
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Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation 'Genius Grant'. His previous books includes the international bestseller Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and A Primate's Memoir.

Popular Science New
By: Robert M Sapolsky(Author)
528 pages, 103 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
Media reviews

"A bravura performance, well worth reading for the pleasure of Sapolsky's deeply informed company [...] he makes a moving case that [our lack of freedom is] a reason to live with profound forgiveness and understanding [...] absorbing and compassionate"
– Oliver Burkeman, Observer

"Excellent [...] Outstanding for its breadth of research, the liveliness of the writing, and the depth of humanity it conveys"
Wall Street Journal

"[A] highly entertaining account of why [...] we should and must overcome the infuriating conspiracy of mind that insists we are the authors of our actions. Anyone who believes otherwise needs to read it"
– Philip Ball, Times Literary Supplement

"Wonderfully readable [...] humorous and warm and humane"
– Justin Webb, Today (BBC Radio 4)

"[A] witty, erudite, imaginative and deeply humane new book [...] [The] case that Sapolsky makes for a transition from a criminal-justice system based on blame and retribution [...] to one founded on blame-free rehabilitation is moving and compelling"
Literary Review

"Robert Sapolsky explains why the latest developments in neuroscience and psychology explode our conventional idea of Free Will. The book's chock-full of complex and often counter-intuitive ideas. It's also a joy to read. That's because Sapolsky is not only one of the world's most brilliant scientists, but also an immensely gifted writer who tells this important story with wit and compassion. It's impossible to recommend this book too highly. Reading it could change your life."
– Laurence Rees

"In his usual frank and amusing style, Robert Sapolsky argues that free will is an illusion. His stance is both hard to accept and hard to deny. An utterly fascinating topic with mind-boggling implications for human morality"
– Frans de Waal, author of Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist

"Witty and engaging, Determined is also a goldmine of fascinating information (most of it accessible even to those of us who aren't scientifically literate) about neuroscience; philosophy; chaos theory; emergent complexity; quantum indeterminacy; evolving knowledge of the causes of epilepsy, schizophrenia, and autism; and, of course, the impact of nature and nurture on decision-making"
Psychology Today

"Sapolsky's decades of experience studying the effects of the interplay of genes and the environment on behavior shine brightly [...] He provides compelling examples that bad luck compounds [...] convincingly argues against claims that chaos theory, emergent phenomena, or the indeterminism offered by quantum mechanics provide the gap required for free will to exist"

"Fascinating, provocative and profound. This book tackles all sorts of big issues: how the human brain works, what makes us different, and what underlies everything we do. If Sapolsky is right, we might need to rethink justice and law, and for each of us personally, what it really takes to be happy and successful"
– Daniel M. Davis, author of The Secret Body

"Provocative [...] If Sapolsky's ideas were widely accepted they would lead to profound societal changes, not least within the criminal justice system"
Sunday Times

"Fascinating and challenging – though I'm not sure if I really had a say in the matter"
New Scientist

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