Free will is one of the most cherished notions in human history. It is the idea that we are in charge of our own destiny, that we can make choices and actions that reflect our true selves, and that we are responsible for the consequences. But what if free will is nothing but an illusion? What if our behavior is determined by factors beyond our conscious control, such as genes, hormones, environment, culture, and history?
This is the provocative argument of Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neurobiologist who has spent 40 years studying the biological basis of human behavior. In his new book, Determined: Life Without Free Will, he summarizes his research and challenges the common belief that we have free will. He claims that we are not responsible for our actions or who we are, and that we should adopt a more compassionate and less punitive approach to people who do bad things.
Sapolsky’s book draws on extensive experiments and observations on both animals and humans, ranging from worms to primates. He illuminates how diverse biological factors impact our behavior at varying levels and timeframes, spanning from milliseconds to years. Sapolsky elucidates how genes, hormones, neurons, synapses, brain regions, and circuits shape our preferences, emotions, thoughts, and actions. Additionally, he showcases how environmental factors such as stress, trauma, infection, drugs, and social interactions impact our biology and behavior. Ultimately, Sapolsky argues that these factors are so intricate and interrelated that they leave no room for free will.
“The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over,” Sapolsky said. “We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there.”
Sapolsky, a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, acknowledges that his perspective is unconventional. The prevailing belief among neuroscientists, philosophers, and the general public is that humans possess some level of free will. This notion of free will is crucial in shaping our self-perception, as it fuels the sense of fulfillment when we succeed and the feeling of shame when we fail to act appropriately.
“The more you know about the brain, the more you realize that you’re not in charge of it,” Sapolsky says. He acknowledges that his position is controversial and unpopular, and that he has faced criticism and resistance from other scientists, philosophers, and the general public. He admits that he himself struggles with the implications of his own findings, and that he sometimes acts as if he has free will. He also recognizes that his view does not eliminate the need for morality or responsibility, but rather redefines what they mean in light of what we know about the brain.
What’s more, he said, it’s harmful to do so.
“Those who push the idea that we are nothing but deterministic biochemical puppets are responsible for enhancing psychological suffering and hopelessness in this world,” Tse said.
Even those who believe that biology limits our choices are cautious about how openly we should embrace it.
Saul Smilansky, a philosopher at the University of Haifa in Israel and author of the book “Free Will and Illusion,” rejects the idea that we can will ourselves to transcend all genetic and environmental constraints. But if we want to live in a just society, we have to believe that we can.
“Losing all belief in free will and moral responsibility would likely be catastrophic,” he said, and encouraging people to do so is “dangerous, even irresponsible.”
Sapolsky’s book is a highly comprehensive and persuasive examination of the scientific argument against free will. It is simultaneously one of the most thought-provoking and contentious books of our era. It compels us to challenge a fundamental assumption about ourselves and those around us, prompting a reevaluation of our existence in a world devoid of free will.
- Stanford scientist, after decades of study, concludes: We don’t have free will, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2023
- Determined: Life Without Free Will by Robert Sapolsky review – the hard science of decisions, The Guardian, October 24, 2023
- Why free will doesn’t exist, according to Robert Sapolsky, New Scientist, October 22, 2023
- Stanford scientist claims people have ‘no control over who they love’ following 40-year study, MSN, October 18, 2023