Book Review: Tackling the Riddle of Free Will

Yves here. I may be doing Lambert a disservice by previewing some of his thinking, but he questions how much free will we really have. Oh, in theory, we could decide not to get out of bed or take all of our money out of the bank and live off the land in the Unorganized Territory of Maine or in some other way divorce ourselves from our current life. But in a neoliberal system, unless one has a lot of money or other resource, the question of how to survive looms large. And that keeps us largely tied into our current personal and business relationships.

“Free will” also suggests that we make and control our choices. But that is certainly not true when we are in “hot” emotional states. From Wikipedia:

A hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which people underestimate the influences of visceral drives on their own attitudes, preferences, and behaviors.[page needed] It is a type of empathy gap.: 27 

The most important aspect of this idea is that human understanding is “state-dependent”. For example, when one is angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one to be calm, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be, (or to imagine the possibility of not being blindly in love in the future). Importantly, an inability to minimize one’s gap in empathy can lead to negative outcomes in medical settings (e.g., when a doctor needs to accurately diagnose the physical pain of a patient).

Hot-cold empathy gaps can be analyzed according to their direction:

  1. Hot-to-cold: People under the influence of visceral factors (hot state) don’t fully grasp how much their behavior and preferences are being driven by their current state; they think instead that these short-term goals reflect their general and long-term preferences.
  2. Cold-to-hot: People in a cold state have difficulty picturing themselves in hot states, minimizing the motivational strength of visceral impulses. This leads to unpreparedness when visceral forces inevitably arise.

By Emily Cataneo, a writer and journalist from New England whose work has appeared in Slate, NPR, the Baffler, and Atlas Obscura, among other publications. Originally published at Undark

It’s 1922. You’re a scientist presented with a hundred youths who, you’re told, will grow up to lead conventional adult lives — with one exception. In 40 years, one of the one hundred is going to become impulsive and criminal. You run blood tests on the subjects and discover nothing that indicates that one of them will go off the rails in four decades. And yet sure enough, 40 years later, one bad egg has started shoplifting and threatening strangers. With no physical evidence to explain his behavior, you conclude that this man has chosen to act out of his own free will.

Now, imagine the same experiment starting in 2022. This time, you use the blood samples to sequence everyone’s genome. In one, you find a mutation that codes for something called tau protein in the brain and you realize that this individual will not become a criminal in 40 years out of choice, but rather due to dementia. It turns out he did not shoplift out of free will, but because of physical forces beyond his control.

Now, take the experiment a step further. If a man opens fire in an elementary school and kills scores of children and teachers, should he be held responsible? Should he be reviled and punished? Or should observers, even the mourning families, accept that under the right circumstances, that shooter could have been them? Does the shooter have free will while the man with dementia does not? Can you explain why?

BOOK REVIEW“Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will,” by Kevin J. Mitchell (Princeton University Press, 352 pages).

These provocative, even disturbing questions about similar scenarios underlie two new books about whether humans have control over our personalities, opinions, actions, and fates. “Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will,” by professor of genetics and neuroscience Kevin J. Mitchell, and “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,” by biology and neurology professor Robert M. Sapolsky, both undertake the expansive task of using the tools of science to probe the question of whether we possess free will, a question with stark moral and existential implications for the way we structure human society.

Mitchell takes an evolution-based approach, arguing that living organisms, from amoebas to humans, evolved to have agency and ultimately metacognition, or the ability to understand one’s own thought process, which he believes imbued us with, at the very least, partial free will. In his longer and ultimately more convincing book, Sapolsky draws on neurobiology, social behavioral science, psychology, and more to argue, emphatically and unequivocally, that free will is an illusion; for him, “We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to this moment.”

Before delving into the central question of whether humans have free will, it’s useful to provide some perspective on the morass of debates and terminology surrounding the topic. One essential concept to understand is determinism, which both Mitchell and Sapolsky grapple with. Basically, if the universe is comprised of the building blocks of matter, and those building blocks behave in predictable ways according to the laws of physics, then everything is predetermined, from the beginning of time until the end. Usefully, Mitchell distinguishes between physical predeterminism, which is the idea that only one possible timeline exists; casual determinism, which rests on the notion that every event is precipitated by preceding events stretching back to the beginning of time; and biological determinism, which means that an organism’s so-called choices are nothing but the result of its own physical wiring.

If you believe in predeterminism, which is basically preordination run by the laws of physics rather than by a god, then can you also believe in free will? Some thinkers, such as famed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, argue for something called the compatibilist approach, which makes space for free will even as it acknowledges that we live in a physically deterministic universe. But neither Sapolsky nor Mitchell have much patience for compatibilism. For Mitchell, free will isn’t something to wedge in around physical determinism. Instead, free will is part of the physical laws of the universe. To make that argument, he delves into evolution.

In Mitchell’s telling, billions of years ago, single-celled organisms distinguished themselves from their non-living counterparts by starting to “do things, for reasons.” Originally, these organisms’ actions were simple. They would make decisions based on, say, whether resources were more plentiful on a certain rock. As the millennia passed, movement and sensation made life become more complicated, and organisms began engaging in a sophisticated feedback loop where they interacted with their environment and internalized the consequences of their actions over time.

In the course of this narrative, Mitchell introduces us to creatures such as the hydra, a simple freshwater polyp that does not have a brain but can still make decisions such as moving towards light, regulating whether to eat something, and leaving waters that are too hot or cold, and C. elegans, a worm higher up the evolutionary chain that exhibits the ability to learn.

Mitchell argues that as life became more complex, evolving past the worm and the polyp, creatures started exhibiting dynamism and agency, and the meaning that organisms ascribed to action, thoughts, and experiences became the most important aspect of cognition. Finally, this evolution led us to humans, who possess a complex suite of brain systems that work together to perceive and integrate our perceptions of the world around us, making decisions, integrating the decisions, thinking about our thoughts about those decisions, and even imagining the results of those decisions. This process may have evolved initially as a way for us to model our own cognitive activity, but it accidentally “freed our minds,” transforming into something that we can call free will.

The two books have a fair number of similarities, highlighting the extent to which serious discussions of free will hinge on perspective and semantics. Both authors tackle the mid-20th century revolutions concerning indeterminacy in physics and its impact on debates over free will. Both bring up Laplace’s demon, a thought experiment by the 19th-century scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace that imagines a demon that could, using the deterministic laws of physics, predict everything about the universe from its beginning to its end.

And both authors discuss the Libet experiments, a famed set of studies from the 1980s that seemed to demonstrate that subjects’ brains showed neural activity indicative of an oncoming decision before the subject consciously knew that they were going to make that decision. Both authors dismiss Libet, with Mitchell arguing that a study conducted in a laboratory cannot be extrapolated to real-world decision-making with all its consequences, and Sapolsky arguing that it’s pointless to examine a brain’s decision-making processes in the split-second before it decides — that doing so is like trying to understand a movie by watching the last three minutes.

But despite delving into similar ideas and debates, Sapolsky reaches a diametrically opposite conclusion than Mitchell. Sapolsky, whose previous book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” explored why organisms act the way that they do, doesn’t talk much about evolution in his new book. (Apart from passing mention, he covers the concept in one paragraph.) Instead, he uses a variety of other fields, from neurobiology to psychology, to conclude that we don’t have free will.

BOOK REVIEW“Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” by Robert M. Sapolsky (Penguin Press, 528 pages).

He employs this generalist approach on purpose: In his view, examining the debate from only one discipline can allow claims of free will to slither in through the cracks of other, unexamined disciplines. It’s only by tackling the debate from multiple disciplines that one can systematically dismantle arguments for free will’s existence.

And over the course of the first half of his book, Sapolsky does just that. He takes us on a tour of the myriad ways in which we don’t have control over who we are or what we do. He points to the 4 million spots in a DNA sequence that code for the genes that are active in our brains — 4 million pieces of individual variability over which we have no say. He cites one study that shows that if a judge is hungry, he or she is far less likely to grant a criminal parole.

He also dives deep into the pre-frontal cortex, or PFC, the part of the brain that’s responsible for shaping what we would call grit and willpower, and argues that this region is shaped by everything from major stressors experienced by your mother while you’re in utero to the environment in which you spent your adolescence. “Whether you display admirable gumption, squander opportunity in a murk of self-indulgence, majestically stare down temptation or belly flop into it, these are all the outcome of the functioning of the PFC,” he writes.

None of these arguments are enough to disprove free will on their own, Sapolsky says, but taken together, they paint a grim picture for its existence. As he writes, “whether it’s the smell of a room, what happened to you when you were a fetus, or what was up with your ancestors in the year 1500, all are things that you couldn’t control.”

Sapolsky goes on to tackle the mid-20th century revolutions in chaos theory and quantum physics and these concepts’ impact on the free will wars. A quick primer: In the 1960s, an MIT weather scientist ran a predictor computer program with a slightly wrong number. Unexpectedly, rather than causing a slight shift in the prediction, that tiny error wreaked havoc. This accident gave rise to chaos theory, which postulates that contrary to those dry old laws of physics, some unpredictability exists in the universe. For free will proponents, these findings were a boon. If the universe behaves in an unpredictable way at times, that struck a blow against determinism, meaning that free will could, potentially, exist.

Sapolsky walks us through these arguments, as well as other pro-free will concepts, including quantum indeterminacy, which challenges the idea that the universe is deterministic, and emergent complexity, the idea that reductive, discrete parts of a system (say, neurons) can produce stunningly complex results without a master plan, which challenges the idea that you can predict what an organism will do based on examining the antics of its constituent neurons. But Sapolsky concludes that even though all these concepts challenge claims that the universe is deterministic, they do nothing for the pro-free will camp.

Back over in “Free Agents,” Mitchell does not entirely disagree. He concedes that humans do not have complete and total freedom: On the contrary, he believes that “selfhood entails constraints,” and he agrees that we are shaped by our evolution, genetics, and the random variability and environmental factors that developed our brain into its own particular organ. But, crucially, in his view, that doesn’t make us automatons. Once we evolved metacognition, we lost the ability to claim that our actions are entirely disconnected from any notion of moral responsibility. Accordingly, we should continue to praise people for their achievements and punish people for their sins, since, writes Mitchell, “Brains do not commit crimes: people do.”

But what is a person if not their brain? If you accept Mitchell’s assertion that free will is “the capacity for conscious, rational control of our actions,” then you must dismantle the constituent parts of that statement. What gave us the capacity for conscious, rational control of our actions? How much control does each person have? Should a person be blamed if they have lower than average self-control? Should I bear the blame if I am less rational than somebody else because of a maelstrom of factors including some distant ancestor’s mental illness? Mitchell himself even states that some people possess more free will than others. Get ready for this sentence: If people don’t have free will over how much free will they have, then do they possess free will at all?

These questions might seem like the stuff of dorm rooms and philosophy classes, but they have sobering consequences for the system of rewards and punishments that underlie our society. Sapolsky works as a consultant to public defender offices and is often tapped to explain to juries at murder trials how the brain works. This position has caused him to think long and hard about the implications of his claims. He acknowledges that he will have some detractors who fear that abandoning our collective belief in free will may cause us to “run amok.”

But he makes an impassioned case that leaving free will in the dust bin of history will actually transform us into a kinder, more forgiving society. Consider the dementia thought experiment, or the fact, Sapolsky writes, that the Victorians blamed epilepsy on people reading too many novels and not gardening enough.

As scientists demystify the brain, Sapolsky believes we can and should stop blaming any individual for any behavior, even if he sometimes feels “crazy, embarrassed” about making such extreme arguments. He imagines a radical world where, instead of blaming and punishing criminals, we retool our criminal justice system to simply quarantine dangerous individuals, the way we would for people who are sick with, say, Covid-19.

At a college graduation, we should congratulate the valedictorian and the custodian equally, since neither earned their place on the stage or in the utility closet. We should acknowledge that all our supposed flaws, from obesity to alcoholism, are not our fault, thus freeing ourselves from the “pain and self-loathing, staining all of life, about traits that are manifestations of biology.”

Sapolsky’s book is far from perfect: A vigorous editor certainly could have trimmed it down, and the author frequently wanders off on tangents about factoids that, while admittedly fascinating, can detract from his main narrative. But his argument — that free will does not exist — is ultimately more persuasive than Mitchell’s, which concludes that we do possess free will.

Read Mitchell’s book for an intriguing scientific journey on how we evolved movement, agency, imagination, cognition, and personality — all those essential aspects of being human. Read Sapolsky’s book if you want to shatter that quiet, persistent belief that you exist somehow separately from your biology — and, after you’ve recovered from the existential blow, imagine the potentially radical implications. “We can subtract responsibility out of our view of aspects of behavior,” Sapolsky writes. “And this makes the world a better place.”

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  1. marcel

    A Zen Koãn (I think that’s the word).
    A duck lives in a bottle. How can you free the duck without breaking the bottle?
    Tell it “you’re free”.

    1. Lee

      … Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
      “How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
      And I answer them most mysteriously
      “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

      B. Dylan, Ballad in Plain D

  2. Vector ZX

    It’s wise to remember that courts aren’t there to determine guilt, but repeat possibility, and further, they don’t dispense punishment (this would be meaningless as they don’t deal with children), but protect society by preventing said repetition.

    All this “free will” nonsense is irrelevant to the problem at hand, which is practical security, not metaphysical brooding of wanna-be philosophers.

    If a car model will likely kill its passengers (or cause any other problems) it needs to be removed from use, the fact that the car itself is not “guilty” of anything (what with being a machine) is completely irrelevant.

    Public security is, likewise, not a matter of sentiments, morals, ethics or philosophies, it’s a practical issue and we must not allow it to become (further) compromised by postmodernist symbol manipulation (which is what this whole rah-rah about “free will” comes down to – presenting known/recognised criminals as “non-guilty”, in fact as “non-guilt-capable”; with the only possible outcome being more dangerous individuals released back onto the streets where you and I can meet them).

    1. Mario

      Thank you. I’m so glad you’ve articulated what’s the real problem with the kind of thinking academics rock up these days.
      My first reaction to this kind of ‘narrative’ (and it is a narrative – because it obfuscates what is or is not logical or what is the axiomatic base for a particular argument) …. My reaction usually is “this surely can’t be right” …. of course to verbalize this aspect concisely is where the problem requires a bigger mind (mind which already explored and/or is not prepared to accept these kind of frivolous perspectives at their face value).
      Unfortunately people in general tend to gravitate towards not questioning an authority and if something’s written in a book, that’s most of the time given & considered as a default authority, so going past what’s written does require that extra effort which most people reading ‘popular science’ books do not exhibit – it’s often an achievement for the majority to reach the end of the book & don’t skip along.
      Also I’m realizing that with a post like this, there is such a great scope to allow very quick practical critique by those who happen to read it & do have a wider scope of knowledge – it is really telling that MSM are actively avoiding such practice – not just due to unruly behavior, but of course from the fear of being exposed for any and all shortsighted ideas they tend to splash around. Again, thanks for bringing up a core essence where academics seem to come very short – and what is wrong with their utopistic conclusions.

  3. Hidari

    As with all books on free will, it begs the question: why did you bother writing it? And the answer is of course, ‘I had no choice’. But I’ve read interviews with Sapolsky. He uses language like ‘The reason I chose to write this book is….’ and ‘What I think we should learn from these debates is…’ (In other words, what I choose to think we should choose to learn from these debates is….’). If he believes his own theories why does he use this language?

    Also think of great mass murders like the Holocaust or the current situation in Gaza. From a deterministic point of view: so what? These people were always going to die, it was totally pre-determined, so, who cares? But then the counter argument is ‘we are programmed to feel sorry for them’ therefore, everyone is essentially ‘faking it’….does this, phenomenologically, feel accurate? Do we, on watching the motherless children of Gaza think: ‘it’s so sad that I am programmed to feel this way. I wish I was programmed to feel a different way.’

    Also determinists are literally saying there is no difference between kicking a rock and hitting a person. There is literally no difference. You are engaging in physical actions, totally determined by the laws of physics. Does that ‘feel’ accurate?

    Finally, the idea that there is no such thing as free will is, strictly speaking, unfalsifiable in Popper’s sense. No demonstration of free will could ever satisfy the determinists because they can always come up with a ‘just so’ story saying ‘ah well you see what caused this was….’

    1. Migi

      I side with Sapolsky in that given what we know about physics and biology I think ultimately there is no free will. However, for intelligent social creatures like us, a sense of morality is necessary and that necessitates the illusion of free-will. In my view, the laws of physics ultimately determine everything and the only place for non-determinism to pop in is at the quantum level which is too low a level for the self, whatever that is, to affect. However, chaos theory also tells us that even if everything is pre-determined, it is also fundamentally unpredictable. Calculating the future would require a computer comparable to the size of the universe. So practically, the only possible way to know what the future holds is to wait and see.
      That said, despite my non belief in free will, I still think that people should be held responsible for their actions. Social creatures like humans can only maintain complex societies if there is punishment for wrong doing, i.e. we are pre-determined to have a strong sense that we have free will, and so will always act as if we do so.
      While, I accept at an intellectual level the absence of free will, it certainly feels as though I possess it, a sensation necessary for navigating my daily life.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        I don’t really feel equipped to participate in this discussion, and my metaphor may seem literally childish, but here goes: it seems to me that free will exists/can exist, but only within discreet, clearly defined limits, subject to an endless chain of biological and environmental precursors … the way a four year-old might choose between having vanilla or chocolate ice cream for dessert. Yes, they are “choosing,” but in a way so severely constrained that it’s simultaneously determined and random…

        1. pjay

          I think this is a very useful metaphor. I would extend it by saying that our very conception of “determinism,” and therefore of “choice” and “free will,” must necessarily consider these different levels of biological or environmental determinants. And as your example suggests, the *degree* to which our choices are constrained – or not – varies greatly depending on the nature of that environment, our *recognition* of the physical, psychological, and socio-cultural determinants of our behavior within that environment, and our individual or socio-cultural capacity to *affect* these determinants of our behavior. This ability to *recognize* and *affect* the determinants of our behavior varies greatly, both individually and collectively. We can *learn* – both individually and collectively – in ways that reduce the constraints on our behavior and therefore increase “choice.”

          Yes, we can always posit theoretically a universe of determinants at all levels that ultimately “determine” those “choices” in an infinite regress that makes “free will” meaningless. We can also posit theoretically an omniscient God that Understands this Ultimate Reality. I see both notions as equally useless in helping us to understand how humans make *particular* choices in *particular* social, historical, cultural, and physical environments.

          Lambert cites the famous “Men make their own history…” quote by Marx below. That’s a pretty good place to start for me.

      2. Oldtimer

        It looks to me that physics (which if we accept Einstein’s theory of relativity) only studies about 5% of the total matter that exists in the universe. That said, at a particle level of a certain mass, determinate laws of physics seem correct hence cause and effect theories although those laws break down at the level of Big Bang.
        Applied to humans they make sense, you are determined by physical laws, you can’t fly like a bird no matter how much you wish, at least on planet earth.
        Now at the infinitesimal level of quantum mechanics, things are completely different. A “particle” can be at both places at the same time and seem to communicate at speeds greater than speed of light somehow which Einstein’s theory tells it’s impossible (see quantum entanglement). So at this level of quantum mechanics determinate laws break down. There are only probabilities.
        It’s here that one should look for signs of free will, as neurons in our brain follow quantum laws.

      3. Societal Illusions

        Migi, what makes a sense of morality necessary? doesn’t that imply free will?

        isn’t morality itself based on the assumption of choice?

        and further to the article, why quarantine outliers when they can just be eliminated? social costs and all…

        It’s perhaps a difficult discussion because so many of our assumptions are built upon free will, which can only mean choice.

        My sense is the future is the result of our past and current choices, both individually and collectively, and is predestined only in that they all have nominal weight and mass which creates a trajectory which doesn’t change unless acted upon (a force, externally applied or internally generated). So if I keep doing what I’ve done, I will keep getting consistent results that can feel deterministic – but the determinism is the accumulation of my choices. A more interesting discussion may be around chance, or luck, which seems associated. There can be no denying we aren’t all created equally – that our genetics or geographic upbringing etc etc impact our life. But as someone bless with proviene can waste it, so too have many taken their disadvantages and used them as assets and made choices which have created great impact for their lives and for the world. Chance or determinism? Or the result of choices made and consistently applied?

        Energetics seem to be relevant also; vibrations and the fundamental conditions of consciousness and life – many of which are currently scientifically less measurable than chemistry or standard physics. And manifestation as a spiritual or psychic which may even follow quantum physic natural laws.

        I expect I need to read both books to have a better understanding of the subject. That this is something being discussed today could lead to interesting actions by societal leadership.

        1. Migi

          Migi, what makes a sense of morality necessary? doesn’t that imply free will?

          An *extremely simplified* analogy to think about is a thermostat. The way it is designed, if the environment it finds itself in gets too cold, then it will automatically turn on the heat, whereas if it gets too warm, the will turn on the cooling. No one would say that the thermostat has free will but an effective one has to be able to measure the environment and adjust it’s behaviour in response. The behaviour is determined according to the simple rules given by its designer, but it will change depending on the circumstances it finds itself in.

          The societies that social creatures like humans form are vastly more complex than a thermostat.
          But these societies will need control mechanisms, to keep them functioning. Evolution has given us the sense of morality for that purpose. So, we instinctively feel anger towards those who hurt others or cheat. Any social creatures lacking these kind of control mechanisms would not develop functioning societies.

          But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the members of these societies have free will. Their behaviour will be determined by the precise circumstances they find themselves in. But the need for a sense of morality seems to make the illusion of free will necessary. To be able to punish those whose behaviour is damaging, we need to feel like they had a choice.

        1. Migi

          Technically, chaos destroys predictability not determinism.
          If a chaotic deterministic system starts with the *exact* same initial conditions twice then it will follow exactly the same path in both instances. However, if the initial conditions differ ever so slightly, then the trajectory will be completely different.
          It is impossible to measure to full precision all the inputs to systems as complicated as human brains, or the weather, so we will never be able to predict precisely their behaviour

      4. NYMutza

        There are contradictions in your thoughts. If one thinks there is no free will, than something else (outside of one’s control) is acting on a person. So, a person who murders another did so due to influences beyond their control, and so they should not be punished. The lack of free will opens up a huge can of worms as the author Sapolsky has written. Society would prefer that can remain closed and so it holds on to the fairy tale of free will. I’m of the view that chemistry ultimately determines the fate of man. Our very conscience is a result of chemistry (and perhaps physics).

    2. gerry

      So what is the difference between “choice” and “free will”? All animals make choices. Is that the same as free will? To me, free will is just an invented moral component of choice: we can praise or blame you for your actions. This has nothing to do with determinism or chaos theory or quantum theory, etc. It would be a huge step forward to eliminate free will arguments and treat crime as physicians treat disease.

  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    To be frank (which once meant free), I think that the debate about free will was resolved by Epikouros and the great poet Lucretius in his On the Nature of the Universe. Lucretius teaches the epicurean idea that the cosmos is atomic, that atoms fall, and that the “swerve” as they fall leads to free will. (See the book The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, too.)

    I find in the discussion of both books by reviewer Emily Cataneo a tad too much emphasis on physics. I suspect that Lucretius is enough “quantum mechanics” to get us to free will.

    I am also reminded that Lambert Strether’s hypothesis of consciousness is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it may reside in the brain, but then there are the eye and the body and the whole big buzzing world around us. Likewise, free will, which is tied to consciousness.

    Free will is likely more than the sum of quantum mechanics and the tendency of a hydra to turn toward light.

    As I have mentioned more than once, the term “binary” so much in use these days came out of computer science. When I was in college, at the University of Knossos in the late Bronze Age, the mid-1970s, the term wasn’t used at all to describe human behavior. A caveat, dear colleagues.

    We often have discussions here at Naked Capitalism about scientism. This is one such case. If anything, the sordid history of social Darwinism should be a warning in thinking that “scientists” (although social Darwinists were lousy, lousy scientists) can tell us what freedom is.

    1. GramSci

      ‘”binary” came out of computer science’

      Not originally. All of us, dear colleagues, are bipeds, and some of us are amBIdextrous, with enough free will to choose between left and right. All vertebrate brains have this degree of free will, and even Octopoda, perhaps to the third power. The minimum requirement is an on-off a parralll, many switch system comprised of excitatory and inhibitory neurons.

      Certainly the needs to feed, fight, flee, etc. constrain those many degrees of freedom, but they do not negate them.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Thanks for that. Someone mentioned Sapolsky’s book here earlier and I had determined to read it until I read a review that convinced me it wasn’t worth my time. This post today made me reconsider, until I read your comment which has once again made me change my mind, and I won’t be adding this one to this list.

      Did I decide that myself of my own free will? Or did I require some assistance from the free wills of others? Or maybe this whole chain of decisions was set in motion when I stepped on an ant in the driveway at the age of four?

      I surely don’t know the answer, but I definitely enjoyed your eloquent take that “Free will is likely more than the sum of quantum mechanics and the tendency of a hydra to turn toward light.”

      Poets are likely far better arbiters than scientists of what this notion in our heads we call “freedom” is, and the best take I’ve heard comes from a man I’m sure you’re familiar with, etched on his gravestone near your old stomping grounds –

      “Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα.
      Δε φοβάμαι τίποτα.
      Είμαι λέφτερος.”

      (I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.)

      – Nikos Kazantzakis

      Very difficult to get to the state of mind where you can look into the abyss and laugh, but a very worthwhile endeavor. At least I think it is…

  5. The Rev Kev

    Decades ago this sociologist wanted to understand if there was a link between a career criminal and the children that he had. In other words, if criminal behaviour was genetic or not. It’s a very old idea this that has never gone away. He found one career crim still in prison and learned that he had two sons so he visited the first son. He too was a criminal and had already racked up a record. When the sociologist asked why he turned out the way that he was, the guy said that with a father like he had, how else would he turn out. So then he visited the second son and was surprised to find that he lived in the suburbs with his family and had a good job. So when he asked the guy why he turned out the way that he was, the guy said that with a father like he had, how else would he turn out.

    1. Lexx


      A great deal of social neuroscience research has been conducted to investigate the social functions of the hormone oxytocin,[55] including its role in empathy. Generally speaking, oxytocin is associated with cooperation between individuals (in both humans and non-human animals). However, these effects interact with group membership in intergroup settings: oxytocin is associated with increased bonding with ingroup, but not outgroup, members, and may thereby contribute to ingroup favoritism and intergroup empathy bias.[56] However, in one study of Israelis and Palestinians, intranasal oxytocin administration improved opposing partisans’ empathy for outgroup members by increasing the salience of their pain.[57]

      In addition to temporary changes in oxytocin levels, the influence of oxytocin on empathic responses may also be influenced by an oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism,[58] such that certain individuals may differ in the extent to which oxytocin promotes ingroup favoritism.’

      Certainly there’s a ‘tribal’ bias. Is this something we can really afford as a species on a little blue planet with 8 billion humans so far, most of them strangers to each other and incapable of wrapping their brains around the numbers? It’s why I wonder if we’re governable by any group of leaders, under any political party or ideology, with however much experience. The empathy gap is built in, ‘tribe’ our default mental construct (our ‘us’ vs. ‘them’) that simply doesn’t work on an international scale of cooperation*. That we’re all human and in this together isn’t enough; it never will be. I’m not convinced we can be compelled to act as though it were true long enough to save ourselves.

      *Or even a country with 335 million.

  6. dolores ibarruri

    I do like some elements of Mitchell’s book as its described above, but from the sound of it, Mitchell’s arguments are already covered by the last chapter of Sapolsky’s previous book, “Behave”, where he argues against the compatibilist account of free will as implying the existence of non-determined ‘homunculus’ that sits somewhere within the otherwise determined brain, steering us this way and that.

    I won’t recount his argument in full here, but he very convincingly makes the case that you can’t postulate the existence of determined and non-determined parts of the brain sitting alongside each other, it just doesn’t work- as the review states, if the PFC is indeed determined in its behaviour, then what else is there, and if we do want to point to some mythical, magical non-determined part of the brain, where does that part of the brain begin and the non-determined parts of the brain stop, given that our all parts of our brain are fantastically interconnected?

    From my perspective, “free will” is just a habitual way of describing a particular genre of determined behaviour, which we are forced into by the peculiarities of human language.

  7. Petter

    I’ve read Sapolsky’s Behave and am reading Determined, (intermittently admittedly – because I’m on a FUBAR rehab ward recovering from Covid and pneumonia and my shi*ts f*cked up.)
    Sapolsky is the MAN.
    Have a nice day everyone. Don’t forget to floss.

  8. KD

    One dimension of the free will debate that seems to be neglected by a lot of the people writing books (coming from or influenced by natural science), is the importance of language for human beings, and the nature of language.

    If we start with the assumption that our ordinary language functions analogically (there exist concrete paradigms which can be kludged onto other scenarios, whereby a hood, being an article of clothing, becomes the access point and the cover over an internal combustion engine). If this is the case, then language is indeterminant, and domains like politics become realms of competing metaphors for society.

    Taking this back to freedom, the question “Who am I?” or “What do I seek?” are integral to the question of personal identity. Even if I in fact am “X” and I am seeking “Y,” even if this does not change, means that my path is subject to indeterminacy and choice. One of the main reasons there is a legal system and judicial decision-making is to decide cases, that is to say, provide an authoritative interpretation of the constitutional provisions, laws, regulations, public policy and whatever else applies to a concrete scenario.

    A complex society with a legal code requires an on-going process of rational deliberation to determine what that code means and how it applies in particular cases. If legal decisions can just be reduced to biology, it is unclear why societies would have to invest so much in the way of resources into a judicial system to preform these complex rational deliberations of disputes. Further, how does biology tell us whether XYZ properly falls within the IRS safe harbor when it conducted transaction alpha or whether it owes taxes?

    I think the issue of personal identity is similar. People go through life, and they are placed in circumstances where they have to make difficult decisions, and the direction they go ultimately says something about what kind of person they are. Do you collaborate? Do you blow the whistle despite the personal costs? Do you pass on the lucrative opportunity because of the ethical considerations and/or potential legal liabilities connected with it? In life, often things consist mostly of flow, but in almost any reflective life, there will be times when we are divided, where we want simultaneously mutually incompatible things, where we are pulled in different directions, and we must deliberate and decide how we want to go forward. This is the exercise of free will, and serves as the foundation of character.

    A lot of determinism is obsesses with machines, for example, trains, whose path is determined by the train tracks. You can apply this metaphor to people, this person will be an axe murderer because they are riding the biologically determined rail toward that end. But that is a metaphor. In reality, machines operate very differently from natural systems like weather and climate. We can’t predict the weather very accurately more than 4 days out because weather systems are complex and nonlinear, while at the same time, we can talk about climate. So if a person is a weather system, we can’t say what they will do on a particular day, but presumably genetics and environmental effects contribute to a certain set of propensities like a climate.

    In addition, human beings and human societies are dialectical, in the sense that what we do is often reactive to what the others do. The current situation in Gaza is perhaps an extreme illustration, but you can imagine a normal kid whose life is on a particular trajectory and then 9-11 happens and they end up volunteering in the armed services and their lives take a different trajectory. . . there are certain outcomes which require catalysts, and there is no way to predict when the catalyst comes along.

    The whole point of rationality on one level is the consciousness of other minds. What are those people trying to do to us, or to me? How should I respond? A machine cannot do that, a train cannot do that, a biological chain reaction doesn’t work that way. What I do is based on what the others do, and what the others do is based on what they think I will do, ad infinitum.

    Skinner fixated on reflex, because a reflex is the closest biological analogy to a mechanism, and he hypothesized that behavioral training essentially induces artificial reflexes. This was a failed attempt to reduce psychology to something analogous to physics. In reality, the best you have are propensities, which are conditional, and often require some kind of catalyst to possibly induce a particular response, and those propensities are themselves subject to rational deliberation. Sometimes outcomes are predictable, sometimes they are not, its certainly very hard to see how they can be determined in all instances, in actuality or theoretically.

    1. Jeff W

      “Skinner fixated on reflex, because a reflex is the closest biological analogy to a mechanism, and he hypothesized that behavioral training essentially induces artificial reflexes. This was a failed attempt to reduce psychology to something analogous to physics.”

      BF Skinner’s work focused primarily on operant conditioning—essentially, the probability of a behavior being repeated depends on its consequences—not the reflex (although, very early in his career, he did talk about the reflex). And, if Skinner made an analogy to another science, it was to biology and, specifically, natural selection. As early as 1953, he said ““In both operant conditioning and the evolutionary selection of behavioral characteristics, consequences alter future probability.” (Probability, which he often mentioned, is more similar to “propensities” than it is to any fixed, reflexive response.)

    1. Alice X

      Ok, I’ll take a stab at it now. Sabine is fully in the deterministic camp, every particle and force in the universe will follow the rules in its trajectory from beginning to end and the results are baked in. Though, of course, we can’t know them until after they happen since we don’t have the computing power.

      1. nothing but the truth

        i’ve forgotten the undergraduate math to understand it at a technical level at this age, but from a hand waving understanding it appears to me that decoherence theory “proves” that waves (of matter) are real, particles are an illusion.

      2. Susan the other

        I like Sabine too. And I adore Rupert Sheldrake. Go figure. Lately I’ve been thinking that Free Will and Predetermination might be the same thing and our confusion lies in our missing capacity to understand time on the smallest scale. Action before conscious decisions? Epigenetics? Even the aspects of our world that are adaptable and elastic. No single choices even exist, but a whole cascade of them for which there is no consciousness. Because, god knows, we get confused enough trying to decide what to wear. Probably can’t have any elasticity without a firm container because everything would leak out in an untimely manner and just be a big mess! I can’t believe I just wrote this.;-). We should definitely be more compassionate with each other.

  9. bidule

    My favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), has pretty well explained, per geometrical order, “as if a question of lines, planes, and bodies”, the illusion of free will.

    Every singular thing, or anything which is finite and has a determinate existence, can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence; and again, this cause can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another, which is also finite and has a determinate existence, and so on, to infinity.

    Men decisions are driven by appetite and desire, by which “each thing as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its own being”. Men believe that they are free because they are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of their causes.

    All men are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that they all want to seek their own advantage and are conscious of this appetite. From these it follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetites, and do not even think in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing because they are ignorant of those causes.

    Determinism does not destroy the system of reward and punishment regulating human societies, contrary to the argument of Oldenburg in Letter 74, below.

    You seem to build on a fatal necessity of all things and actions. But, once that has been asserted and granted, they say the sinews of all laws, of all virtue and religion, are cut, and all rewards and punishments are useless. They think that whatever compels or implies necessity excuses. Therefore, they think no one will be inexcusable in the sight of God.

    “Determinism does not do away with law, moral or political, because the utility of the law, that is, the great advantages that following the law provides for the individual and the community and the disadvantages that result from transgressing the law, are retained whether or not human beings have free will” (as brillantly stated by Christopher Kluz in this very good text, which I perused quite a lot). Spinoza replies to Oldendurg in Letter 75 (with my emphasis).

    This inevitable necessity of things does not destroy either divine or human laws. For whether or not the moral teachings themselves receive the form of law or legislation from God himself, they are still divine and salutary. The good which follows from virtue and the love of God will be just as desirable whether we receive it from God as a judge or as something emanating from the necessity of the divine nature. Nor will the bad things which follow from evil actions and affects be any less to be feared because they follow from them necessarily. Finally, whether we do what we do necessarily or contingently, we are still led by hope and fear.

    For those who want to go (way) further and do read French, the translation (available in Livre de poche) of Spinoza’s masterpiece, Ethics, done by Robert Misrahi, with a lot of very good notes, and who just died this October, is far better than the classical, and now outdated, Charles Appuhn’s (Garnier Flammarion). For the though, the very last paragraph of Ethics:

    If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

    1. Oldtimer

      Hard to argue with Spinoza.
      But one has to wonder, why a determinist of his caliber would call his seminal work “Ethics”?

  10. John Steinbach

    I just finished reading “Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology & Human Nature” by Richard Lewontin & 2 co-authors. In the book they demolish the entire concept of biological determinism, of which “free will” is a subset. Also read “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen J. Gould for a discussion about the heritability of IQ “measures”.

    1. Hepativore

      I also recommend The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, as while Pinker’s judgment when it comes to current political commentary is questionable, he did do a good job making the case for just how biologically-ingrained many human behaviors are when it comes to things like children learning languages, hierarchical tendencies in humans, and the human propensity for violence as these behaviors have been selected for by evolution and can be traced back to our great ape ancestry.

      Pinker’s point is that in understanding just how innate violence and territoriality is to our species as opposed to denying that they are ingrained behaviors can we hope to find ways of defusing human aggression before it spirals out of control into wars which are much more dangerous with the weapons we have now.

      A similar book I recommend is Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. This book looks at how violence has been selected for in human behavior as a mating strategy in a manner that is consistent with our other primate relatives such as chimpanzees. The phrase “demonic males” refers to the degree of sexual aggression and territoriality that is displayed by male primates and many other animals as a survival instinct and why it has been selected for in evolutionary history.

      Wrangham and Peterson also say that this is the cause behind why humans are so prone to wars and homicide, and also make the case that these instinctive drives of ours need to be analyzed and understood before we can hope to make any degree of meaningful progress towards lasting human peace or stopping wars before they start as Wrangham and Peterson are by no means proponents of the above, just making the case that many animals are stuck with behaviors that evolved millions of years ago, and humans are no exception, and to take this into account when trying to counteract this.

      While I am firmly on the left, I disagree strongly with the idea that human violence, territoriality, and hierarchy is “learned” from society or culture as opposed to traits that evolved because they were once useful in our evolutionary history. While the above is maladaptive in modern civilization with the weaponry we have, we are still stuck with them as the process of evolution takes millions of years, not mere thousands.

  11. Carolinian

    Need one point out that a famous movie about Nazis is called Triumph of the Will? Whereas the reality was that the Nazis were the triumph of the opposite–the monkeybrain, red in tooth and claw, that hides within all of us. But fascists and rightwingers always love the Man and Superman nonsense. Democracy is not for them.

    We do have the capability of free minds or relatively free that are trapped within animal bodies that we have no control over whatsoever. Reason is our divinity, if we can just manage a little bit of it.

    1. Laurence

      Do not discard Hitler so lightly, because there is no greater humorist than history. Give it some time and when the Frankenstein creature that western powers created in the Middle East, loaded with nukes and led by religious nuts, starts to see Amaleks everywhere or seeks revenge against the Germans by nuking them, people might start to venerate Hitler again as a visionary and saver, albeit that might be in 2 or 300 years.

  12. Michael Maratsos

    I think other writers have covered most of the issues here. I want to add something about attempts to find “free will” in quantum mechanics, in which unpredictability of occurrence (identified with the “swerve” in one comment) is built in. Even if non-predictable events at the level of quantum mechanics affect out actions, this essentially amounts to introducing randomness (with some probabilistic weighting) into the system. I don’t think that “randomness” is what people mean by “free will.” So as I understand matters, the unpredictability of action at the smallest level would not show free will either. It sees to me that even if we agree with some writers that there is something besides the physical natural world involved, I think the same choices of arguments appear: either there is causal determinism for all processes, or, there is some unpredictability caused by randomness – but randomness is not what people usually mean by “free will.” I have yet, to my mind, seen a conceptual definition of “free will” that avoids these being the ultimate choices, neither of which seems to me “free will”.

  13. John Merryman

    For one thing, free will is an oxymoron, as the premise of will is to affect and without cause, there is no effect.
    The more basic issue is whether the future is effectively predetermined by endless causation.
    Which goes to the nature of time;
    As these mobile organisms, this sentient interface our body has with its situation functions as a sequence of perceptions, in order to navigate, so our experience of time is as the present going past to future, but the underlying basis is activity and the resulting change turning future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns.
    There is no dimension of time, because the past is consumed by the present. Causality and conservation of energy. Cause becomes effect.
    Energy is conserved, because it manifests this presence, creating time, temperature, pressure, color and sound. Frequency and amplitude, rate and degree.
    The energy goes past to future, because the patterns generated come and go, future to past. Energy drives the wave, the fluctuations rise and fall.
    Consciousness also goes past to future, while the perceptions, emotions and thoughts giving it form and structure go future to past. Suggesting consciousness functions as a form of energy. Though it’s the digestive system processing the energy, feeding the flame, while the nervous system sorts the information and the circulation system as feedback in the middle.
    So, yes, energy is causal, but the element of consciousness is initially emotional and only as feedback is it rational.
    The future is not predetermined, because the act of determination can only occur as the present.

  14. voislav

    I find that these books fail in the most basic way. One is that to discuss free will, one must first understand the nature of consciousness, which we don’t. They discuss a nebulous notion of free will, which allows them to start with a binary premise (free will yes/no) and then cherry pick the argument that will support their preferred conclusion.

    Fundamental question is whether there is a binary answer to free will and why does it need to be a yes/no answer. Human decision making faces all kinds of constraints, from physical (such as neurological disorders) to societal that imposes consequences on our decisions. So it’s likely that we exhibit free will, but limited to a lesser or greater degree by other factors.

    This general approach is symptomatic of what I’ve seen in social sciences in general. Oversimplification of complex problems and insistence on simple answers, whereas in reality both the problem and the answers are more complex and nuanced.

  15. pjay

    The reviewer tells us this about Sapolsky’s analysis of human behavior:

    “He employs this generalist approach on purpose: In his view, examining the debate from only one discipline can allow claims of free will to slither in through the cracks of other, unexamined disciplines. It’s only by tackling the debate from multiple disciplines that one can systematically dismantle arguments for free will’s existence.”

    This makes sense. To explain the behavior of something as complex as a human being, whose actions are affected by innumerable factors small (an individual’s DNA), large (the norms, laws, class structure, etc. in which an individual is embedded), and very large (climate, geography), it is necessary to be aware not only of these complex levels of causation, but also how these levels interact with each other and, indeed, shape the wildly variable actions which our language and “consciousness” define as “choices.” Only a truly mutli-disciplined understanding of these multiple factors and levels of analysis can account for the determinants of such behavior, and the very meaning of “choice,” at a given point in time and place. That’s a pretty tall order.

    So why is Sapolsky’s argument so obviously flawed, not to mention dangerous, to me? One hint might be the previous sentence to the one quoted above, which perhaps sheds light on what a “multi-disciplined” analysis means to him:

    “… he uses a variety of other fields, from neurobiology to psychology, to conclude that we don’t have free will.”

    LOL! “From neurobiology to psychology.” To a man whose only tool is a hammer…

    Don’t get me wrong. I strongly support inquiry into the biological and psycho-biological determinants of human behavior. But I’m sorry. It is laughable to pretend these levels of analysis alone provide ultimate answers to a question like “free will” without examining the social, historical, cultural, and linguistic environments in which such individual determinants always operate, and which shape the very definitions – and possibilities – of “choice” and “will” in the consciousness of particular individuals in a given time or place.

    Because of this impossible complexity, legitimate social or historical “science” is mushy and imprecise, necessarily so. Those who are frustrated by this, often coming from the physical or biological sciences, are constantly attempting to increase precision by some sort of reductionistic mechanism or another. It’s an old story.

    1. korual

      “From neurobiology to psychology.” To a man whose only tool is a hammer…

      Yes, and language is an integral part of our psychology, which Sapolsky doesn’t even begin to address. I have been skipping through ‘Determined’ and he is a popular science writer with little knowledge of the humanities. Science really only gets us as far as the brain, so it’s physics, chemistry, biology, psychology? and that’s it. But surely higher, human consciousness is what lies beyond the individual brain? Language, ethics, art, philosophy are non-individualistic and even to use the individualistic term free-will is a category error because no individual Robinson Crusoe could learn a language to start with.

  16. Neutrino

    Laplace descendent working on Quantum Daemon, trying to reconcile with cousin’s AI research.
    Therein a field ripe for development, script or otherwise.

  17. lambert strether

    I’m a materialist.* I don’t believe I exist separately from my biology (or chemistry (or physics (or…))). I don’t think that means I don’t have (the illusion of?) free will, which as Mitchell urges, would not exist in nature were it not adaptive. Following Covid, I have come to believe that our freedom is a good deal more constrained than I thought that it was, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (or cannot be recaptured when surrendered).

    Cf. the hoary quote from The Bearded One on hysteresis:

    Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

    NOTE * In the spiritual mode, an animist. Paraphrasing Christopher Alexander, rocks are conscious. Just not very.

  18. Lefty Godot

    “Free will” is a malformed language construct that can be debated endlessly because of the different goalposts that can be set up to determine whether “it” exists or not. Like much of philosophy, the debate is excellent for wasting time and convincing the debaters that they have something important to say. Study of the Buddhist concept of not-self should be mandatory for those who devote significant time and energy to arguing about free will.

    Let’s face it, there are just some poorly constructed concepts and words that lead to unhelpful and sometimes outright harmful social phenomena. Think of the unclear and elastic concept/word “child” in English (yes, think of the children!) and how it is reinterpreted and misused to serve various malign agendas. And that’s just one example. Not saying we have to go all Sapir-Whorf, but the words and phrases we use can lead us astray or serve us appropriately, and nothing guarantees that the ones we’re familiar with will only do the latter.

  19. nothing but the truth

    these free will philosophers and dismissers assume we know fully how the universe works, and because we cannot accommodate free will in a mechanistic universe, they say free will is an illusion.

    their assumption is clearly wrong.

  20. Laurence

    If we have free will, how can one explain evolution?
    It’s seems to me that we can only have free will by proclamation, I don’t think my decision to choose coffee or tee in the morning has its origin in the Big Bang where a reasoning of cause and effect always ends up with all absurdities that it entails.

    1. Bobby Gladd

      See Gould’s Drunkard’s Walk. A bit of geochemistry, a stable low entropy, local environment, and a lot of time. Pop the clutch, and 3 1/2 billion years later you may end up with critters like us typing away on the naked Capitalism blog.

      But, in fairness, one could object that you can’t re-run the experiment. Essentially, “you can never step in the same river twice.”

      Kapolsky kinda loses me when he starts talking about “luck“ and “chance.“ (I’ve been deep into both of these books lately. I am approaching my lifetime permissible dose of “no true Scotsman“ definitional deflections.)

      1. Laurence

        Free will cannot coexist with the theory of evolution which is deterministic. Pop the clutch, accidentally, Big Bang, etc are just substitute words for magic and have no place in a cause effect dynamic.

          1. anahuna

            I have been asking myself if “proof’ of free will or the lack of free will would change anything in my actions or my experience of life. I can’t find a single example.


  21. Joe Well

    “journalist from New England”

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bio listing someone just as being from New England rather than a specific state (New Hampshire, Maine, etc.)

    My theory is that as more of us get expelled from Greater Boston and the metro area extends ever outward into New England, we’ll be seeing more of this. Or maybe the Collapse will save us.

  22. NYMutza

    This is a very meaty topic for which no simple explanations will suffice. I’m reminded of a book written by Richard Rhodes – Why They Kill The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. The criminologist is Lonnie Athens who discovered, through in-depth interviews with hundreds of violent prison inmates, what he calls “violentization”, the four-stage process by which almost any person, regardless of race, gender, genetic heritage, or socioeconomic status, can become someone who will assault, batter, rape, mutilate, or murder another human being.

  23. Darthbobber

    I’m not sure you can successfully reason from physical determinism (which biological determinism reduces to) to a secular predestination.

    Suppose I start making all significant decisions on the basis of flipping a coin if there are two choices, rolling dice if there are more. The results will not only be physically determined, but unlike the present state of brain science the nature of the determination is actually quite transparent. The physical objects doing the determining are right there in the open and you can watch them do their thing.

    So the decisions will be physically determined, in a strict sense, but this will not make the behaviour that’s going to result at all predictable in advance. It will probably make it less so.

    Sapolsky aside, we’re all stuck with the subjective experience of free will, with no alternative really but to make what seem to be choices through a process that seems to be reasoning. This holds for Sapolsky as well, or he wouldn’t be giving “reasons” why he “chose” to write his book.

    I strongly suspect that when brain science advanced beyond it’s present infancy some things that he treats as following a billiard ball model of causation will turn out to be probabilistic in terms of predictive value.

    I wouldn’t really expect the “positive” results some do from absolving people of responsibility. Those who believe in draconian sanctions for certain acts don’t need “personal responsibility” to justify their position. They need only argue that knowledge of the draconian sanctions becomes one of the data points that enter the calculations of the actor. And that this will reduce the frequency of behaviour known to be heavily and reliably sanctioned. Technocrats operating on game theory can deliver the same results as theocrat, often even worse.

    1. Bobby Gladd

      “I wouldn’t really expect the “positive” results some do from absolving people of responsibility.”

      We might want to ask Sam Bankman-Fried‘s mother, eh?

  24. irenic

    Maybe the scent of free will can be found in NDE’s(near death experiences). Specifically the NDE that includes a review of part or all of their lives.

    It might be that every conscious being experiences the transcendent moment when they are separate from their classical selves and fully in their quantum selves and in particular, experience its atemporality.

    Whether it is at the end of ones life or its beginning or somewhere in between, perhaps we all have that mystical moment of being/knowing the complete universe, and it is there and “then” that we exercise our free will and make all the choices of our entire lives. Only to have that supreme moment slip from our consciousness and have (almost?!) any memory of it fade away . . .

  25. MarkT

    Free will exists. As does the worship of science, and whatever it has discovered at the time. Someone mentioned the laws of physics. But these get rewritten from time to time. All I am sure of is that the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. And anyone who tells you otherwise is either an idiot, or out to fleece you.

  26. Craig Dempsey

    Arguing about whether free will exists is a lot like arguing about whether the historical Jesus existed. It can be an interesting and even informative exercise, but neither gets to the significance of either free will or Jesus.

    I would start the question of free will with a look at Douglas Hofstadter‘s 2007 book I am a Strange Loop, where he tried to clarify his 1979 book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. He finds our sense of self-identity in self-knowledge. This impacts the question of free will by highlighting how powerfully our knowledge impacts our actions. A thirsty man in the desert may well be fooled by a mirage, but if he understands the physics of mirage, he can change what otherwise would have been his behavior. Similarly, it was pointed out above that a hungry Judge will not be as lenient as a not-hungry Judge. However, if the Judge learns about this bias, he can strive to overcome it, and produce more consistent justice.

    Just as power is an emergent property of money, I think the phenomena of free will is an emergent property of knowledge, especially self-knowledge. Otherwise, what is the point of a liberal arts education? Soldiers with PTSD are being treated by reading Sophocles. AA members seek to overcome addiction by learning and following the 12 Steps. Let’s learn to improve our use and knowledge of the phenomena of free will, rather than getting into metaphysical dead ends about it.

    1. Ingolf Eide

      “I think the phenomena of free will is an emergent property of knowledge, especially self-knowledge.”

      Yes, Craig, absolutely, and perhaps even more importantly, of imagination. Once a creature becomes self-conscious, capable of visualising and conjecturing, any chain of physical causation will be consistently bent, broken, derailed, sent off into new and unpredictable directions.

      None of which is to say we’re not heavily influenced by our genes, experiences, environment and so on, ad nauseam. Clearly we are and there are times when exercising any degree of “free will” is nigh on impossible. But to conclude that it simply doesn’t exist has always seemed to me a sort of category error. Billiard balls and neurons . . . ?

      Cataneo perhaps reveals a good deal about her thought processes in the following quote from the last paragraph of the review:

      “Read Sapolsky’s book if you want to shatter that quiet, persistent belief that you exist somehow separately from your biology — and, after you’ve recovered from the existential blow, imagine the potentially radical implications. “We can subtract responsibility out of our view of aspects of behavior,” Sapolsky writes. “And this makes the world a better place.”’

      Why should a “you” separate from your biology be required for the play of imagination, or for Craig’s “knowledge, especially self-knowledge” to emerge and accumulate?

  27. podcastkid

    I have a memory of flying off the top of a wave. In color. Can anyone explain how neurons in the brain store this memory? Not yet. But Sheldrake says they very well might not be there.

    Some would say if factors are vying evenly and no one can tell which factor will end up most influential (on the making of some decison), then merely because no one knows what factor will edge out the others in the mind of Joe (not even Joe’s mind a minute prior) some will say that’s tantamount to free will.

    It’s alright to listen to lectures about the energy of this chakra, or the energy of that chakra…even if no one can tell us what makes it, or comprises it. So, why is a morphic field considered too crackpot? I mean by these determinists who want to teach the world they can’t choose things?

    Then you have all the personas that reside in one individual. If it’s an equal contest regarding which one makes the subject choose whatever, wouldn’t that make it somewhat like free will? But if each one’s a stereotype, then you have determinism! I think maybe the individual has to learn all the karma that comes with whatever persona. Maybe freeing the soul up from all those characters and their appetites.


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