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If free will is only an illusion, it’s the most convincing one ever

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky argues that we don’t actually make choices in life. I decided (I think) to challenge him on that.

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If we don’t have free will, we’ve built our society on a powerful myth. At home and work, in school, and when spending time with friends, people get rewarded and punished for their choices. In the sentencing phase of a criminal trial, a judge typically reduces a sentence only if the defendant had extreme mitigating circumstances, on the grounds that we’re usually responsible for our decisions.

According to Robert Sapolsky, free will is a myth that ought to be shattered. In “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” he advocates for hard determinism — a philosophical view that free will is an illusion because all events, including our moral decisions, are predetermined by causes beyond our control. Sapolsky reaches this conclusion after a long and distinguished scientific career studying animal and human behavior. His last book was “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” He has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and is a professor of biology, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University.

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Even if any human action really is the end result of physical processes in our brains and our environments, many philosophers and scientists reject hard determinism, saying that scientific evidence justifies continuing to believe in free will (at least some aspects of it). The philosopher Daniel Dennett and the geneticist and neuroscientist Kevin J. Mitchell argue that evolution enabled free will to evolve. You can even see this play out over the span of individual lives. As we mature, most of us can sufficiently expand our agency and control to be held accountable for what we do.

Robert Sapolsky, the author of “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will."Christopher P. Michel

While Sapolsky offers a position that is so extreme he admits he often can’t integrate it into his daily life, he contends we’d be better off if we could accept it. As an example of how he’d apply his philosophy: He thinks it’s not someone’s fault that they turned out to be a dangerous criminal. So they should be sent to prison not to punish them but to quarantine them, just as kids should stay home from school if they’re sick. And since they didn’t choose to be dangerous, we owe them nice accommodations.

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My interview with Sapolsky has been edited and condensed.

What do you mean when you say all our behavior is determined?

People have a powerful intuition that they have just made a freely willed choice when they’re in a situation where they intend to do something, realize what the consequences are likely to be, and know they have alternatives. What could be more ridiculous than denying I was the captain of my own fate when I picked chocolate over vanilla ice cream?

And yet, as a determinist, I believe that you became the type of person who made that selection entirely due to factors that you had absolutely no control over, like biology and interactions with your environment.

Does this mean free will is an illusion?

Yes, there is no free will whatsoever.

How does determinism affect moral responsibility?

It makes no sense ever to praise anyone or reward them for anything. Nor should we blame or punish anyone because we believe they deserve it. Doing so is intellectually bankrupt.

Are you saying we shouldn’t hate Bernie Madoff for scamming so many people, admire Martin Luther King for being a tireless advocate for justice, and commend parents who sacrifice so their kids can have a better life?

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Correct! Admittedly, it’s a very hard challenge for me to think this way. Most of the time, I feel very pleased with myself when someone says I’ve done a good job. I need to remind myself that I had nothing to do with everything I’ve accomplished. All I’ve done is had the right string of luck. Likewise, hating someone makes as little sense as hating a virus that’s very good at melting your lungs away or hating an earthquake for killing many people.

Why do you bother having an Acknowledgments section of your book where you thank people for their help?

That’s a great question. Ultimately, it’s because I’m a person living in a particular place and time. We’ve gotten to a point where nobody expects to be thanked for making today sunny and warm. That’s a 15th-century mindset. But today, people still expect other expressions of gratitude.

What do you make of President Obama saying, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. . . . When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together.”

He’s in the ballpark but doesn’t quite get there because he’s unwilling to admit that it all comes down to circumstances. That said, it’s a good message to emphasize from an instrumental perspective.

Why?

It could make people feel less entitled. Not having free will isn’t grounds for existential despair. It’s the basis for not being smug about the privilege we don’t deserve.

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Since you’re a scientist, what kind of evidence could prove you wrong — that free will exists and moral responsibility is deserved?

I would demand that someone who insists there is free will look at someone who just did something terrible and prove to me that if they had the person’s genome, had their breakfast that morning, had their history of trauma and substance abuse, were raised in that person’s culture, began life as that person’s fetus, etc., could have traded places with the offender and not done the same exact thing. You would have to show me how a brain that produced the behavior was impervious to everything that brought it to that moment.

Your book doesn’t say much about the importance of maturation. Parents don’t hold 2-year-old kids to the same standard as 18-year-olds. That’s because as most kids mature, they gain more self-control — enough control, for example, to keep promises and follow rules like making curfew. Isn’t this expanded control enough to hold people responsible for what they do?

Oh my God, a kid was moved from one foster home to another from the time they were 3. Another was abused most of the time by their mother who drank excessively while they were a fetus. In these situations, we have the tools to clearly explain how someone was determined. In other cases, however, the causes may be more subtle. But no one gains enough control to deserve accountability.

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But think about games. We emphasize the rules for playing them and the penalties for breaking them. In sports, the fans expect referees to make good calls — and good calls enforce the rules. Why is free will any different than this?

Intuitively, most of us wouldn’t be OK with a referee calling a foul on someone who made an uncontrollable movement due to a neurological disorder. But that is just a case where we can pinpoint the cause. It’s not a special case.

If knowledge is power, shouldn’t learning more about how we’re determined potentially make us freer, say by using therapy to change our lives or removing temptations that deplete our willpower (no snacks in the house)?

No, these things don’t make us any freer. You don’t choose to become more disciplined or develop greater self-understanding. The question is what determining causes lead some people to seek therapy or adjust for limitations on their willpower, but not others.

Another way of asking your question is to wonder why some of us are so moved by a movie that we not only find it stirring and emotionally uplifting but leave the theater vowing to become better people. And why do others find it so emotionally manipulative that they swear never to see another film by the same director? Here, too, it’s just a matter of the preceding causes leading people to react differently.

The discussion we’re having contradicts a claim you make in the book. You say your argument might be that “we have much less free will than is generally assumed when it really matters.” This phrasing suggests we do have at least some degree of free will. Why, then, are you reducing it to an all-or-nothing ability, rather than seeing free will on a continuum where it can increase or decrease?

I was trying to be a good dinner guest. I make that claim early in the book because I don’t want to scare readers away before they can better appreciate my position.

But isn’t science full of continuums?

Yes, it is. Take biology, for example. There’s nothing unique about us. We are on a continuum with other species; the differences are qualitative.

However, some things don’t come on a continuum. We can’t breathe underwater or do photosynthesis.

You note that it’s incredibly hard to integrate your view into everyday life — that you find yourself constantly sliding into hypocrisy and wanting people who do terrible things to be punished. What’s the point, then, of writing your book?

Belief in free will is pervasive and pronounced but not inevitable. Four hundred years ago, it would have been intuitively obvious that some people were meant to be slaves, and it was a good thing to enslave them because otherwise they couldn’t take care of themselves. But as we learn more, our knowledge grows.

When I was 20 years old, I would have advocated for a world where rewards are given out for effort. But eventually, I learned that effort is made of the same stuff as having perfect pitch.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity.