Robert Sapolsky

Determinism Means You Can Do Anything You Want

I actually feel sorry for this guy. I have some quick thoughts about this admittedly condensed NYT interview with Stanford neurologist (and “genius grant” recipient) Robert Sapolsky.

  • Sapolsky contends, the interviewer says, that “biology, hormones, childhood and life circumstances coalesce to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.” This is actually not a denial of free will. Circumstances narrow choices. Choices narrow choices. Morality narrows choices. Choices are narrow, and sometimes, maybe even often, you don’t really have a choice. You still have free will.
  • I don’t think that “free will” means that you can do anything you want, at any time. In fact, that statement would more appropriately summarize Sapolsky’s deterministic argument. Because, if free will is a myth, and you can’t be held responsible for your actions, then aside from physics etc., what is there to limit your choices in any particular situation?
  • Sapolsky believes that this avoidance of responsibility is “liberating.” This is like saying a week’s vacation at the beach is relaxing. Yes, and so what?
  • He says this feeling of liberation is because, for “most people,” “life has been about being blamed and punished and deprived and ignored for things they have no control over.” Um, has it? Don’t ask this guy to take care of your plants while you’re enjoying that week at the beach.
  • He’s a biologist (turned neurologist) and apparently, he believes that this gives him expert insight into human behavior, when in fact all he is doing is applying the principles of one particular field to a completely different one. For example, he says that you can prove to him that free will exists if you can prove the existence of neurons controlling every decision you make that act independently of all the other neurons. Sigh. This just shows how STEM education without an in-depth humanities requirement is destructive …
  • because Sapolsky doesn’t know what a metaphor is. You see, he keeps referring to humans as machines, biological machines. Except that humans are not machines; that is a metaphor. As Iain McGilchrist wrote: “Just as a joke is robbed of power when it has to be explained, metaphors and symbols lose their power when rendered explicit … Is it logical, or just a matter of faith, to believe that logic has no limits? Is it logical to rule out the possibility, understood for millennia, that there was a difference between the sort of knowledge that is available to logos and the sort that is available to mythos? Is it logical, or an assertion of faith, to assign reality to only one of these kinds of knowledge? Is it logical, or just a dogma, to assume that all will be understood, as long as we only carry on applying the model of the machine? Is there a cost to this approach, which, though it makes us powerful manipulators, puts us out of touch with so much that gives life value?”
  • Sapolsky, at least in this interview, doesn’t even pretend that his viewpoint is actionable. His “machine-ness” comes to mind maybe “once every three and a half weeks or so.” Otherwise he’s just, you know, living his life — making decisions — like any other human being.
  • He has even less of a grasp on how human society works. Don’t worry about everything sinking into chaos, he says, because there are “societal mechanisms for having dangerous people not be dangerous, or for having gifted people do the things society needs to function.” As if … these societal “mechanisms” have some sort of independent ontological status? Societal mechanisms exist because humans form societies and agree, collectively, on what those rules are. Take a look around if you want to know what it’s like when people stop agreeing on those rules. It’s only going to get worse.
  • Finally, Sapolsky admits, “At some point, it doesn’t make a difference whether your feelings are real or whether your feeling of feelings being real is the case.” Then why even have the conversation? He seems to specifically limit the applicability of his argument to areas where thinking in this way might support his own political opinions.
  • A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I didn’t think “determinism” could ever rise above the level of college dorm bull session because it’s simply not actionable. Even if it were somehow proven to be true, that free will is false, there’s literally no way to go through one hour, let alone one day or one lifetime, as if it were true. Based on this interview, Sapolsky agrees. And yet he chose to write a book about it anyway.