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.