Are we free?

Does it mean accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does it mean treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane?

There is no free will, according to Robert Sapolsky, a biologist and neuroscientist at Stanford University.  His latest book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, is already stirring controversy.  

Dr Sapolsky refutes the biological and philosophical arguments for free will.  Instead, he argues that we are not free agents but that biology, hormones, childhood, and life circumstances come together to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.

A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Dr Sapolsky has spent decades working as a field primatologist investigating behaviour across the animal kingdom.  He then turned to neuroscience and has written about it in books including Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst and Monkeyluv, and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals.

In his new compulsive review of the science of human behaviour, Sapolsky takes the reader on a journey back through time, and through various scientific disciplines. He asks what happens when you reach out to touch someone’s arm, or perhaps you pull a trigger. What made you do them?  What explains the fact that humans can massacre one another but also carry out spectacular acts of altruistic kindness?  Is one side of our nature destined to win out over the other?

The backwards time-travel is an organising principle of Sapolsky’s book.  Seconds before our action, it is neuroscience that investigates what is going on in the brain; minutes to days before is the domain of endocrinology (hormonal fluctuations); days to months before, we focus on the brain’s ability to learn and rewire itself.   

Sapolsky takes the reader through adolescence, childhood, and gestation (including genetics), and beyond our birth to more distant causes that are ingrained in culture, evolutionary psychology, game theory, and comparative zoology.  At the end of this journey, the reader might probably agree with him that, if it is impossible for any single neuron or any single brain to act without influence from factors beyond its control, there can be no logical room for free will.

How would you feel about it?  Well, we know that, when hungry, stressed, or scared, we tend to make bad decisions.  Our physical constitution is influenced by the genes inherited from distant ancestors and by our mothers’ health during her pregnancy.  Again, there is an abundance of evidence that people who grow up in homes marked by chaos and deprivation perceive the world differently and make different choices than people raised in safe and stable environments.

Is everything preordained?

But would you necessarily agree that everything is pre-determined?  How would you react if you are told that you have no material command over your choice of career, partner, or weekend plans?

If you decide to call your mum right now, was even that kind act somehow preordained?  Yes, Sapolsky says. What a son experiences as a decision to talk to his mother is preceded by a jumble of competing impulses beyond his conscious control. Maybe he had skipped lunch and the urge was subconsciously triggered by the remembrance that, as an infant, it has his mother who fed him.

Or you may have had the uncanny experience of talking about an upcoming holiday trip with friends, only to find yourself inundated by ads for hotels on social media later. Of course, your phone didn’t record your conversation, even if that’s what it feels like. It is just that the collective record of your likes, clicks, searches, and shares paints such a detailed picture of your preferences and decision-making patterns that algorithms can predict — often with unsettling accuracy — what you are going to do.

Sapolsky says that so many factors beyond your conscious awareness come into play whenever you act on something that it is hard to say how much you “chose” to do something in particular.  It is not that we have evolved to be ‘selfish’ or ‘altruistic’ or anything else – we could be different persona in different settings.  Consider that, according to one survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than person they don’t know if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more “kinship” with the dog.  In general, if our worst behaviours are “the product of our biology”, so are our best ones.    

Life without belief in free will

For fellow adherents of determinism — the belief that it is impossible for a person in any situation to have acted differently than they did — Sapolsky’s scientific defence of the cause is welcome.  “Who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would make us truly deserving of praise and blame, punishment and reward,” said Gregg Caruso, a philosopher at SUNY Corning. “I am in agreement with Sapolsky that life without belief in free will is not only possible but preferable.”

Caruso is co-director of the Justice Without Retribution Network, which advocates for an approach to criminal activity that prioritises preventing future harm rather than assigning blame. Focusing on the causes of violent or antisocial behaviour instead of fulfilling a desire for punishment, he said, “will allow us to adopt more humane and effective practices and policies.”

After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has concluded that virtually all human behaviour is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells, or the beating of our hearts.

Before epilepsy was understood to be a neurological condition, people believed it was caused by the moon, or by phlegm in the brain. They condemned seizures as evidence of witchcraft or demonic possession and killed or castrated sufferers to prevent them from passing tainted blood to a new generation. Today we know epilepsy is a disease. By and large, it is accepted that a person who causes a fatal traffic accident while in the grip of a seizure should not be charged with murder.

But does that mean accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Does it mean treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane?

A minority viewpoint

Sapolsky’s and Caruso’s viewpoints are very much a minority one. “Those who push the idea that we are nothing but deterministic biochemical puppets are responsible for enhancing psychological suffering and hopelessness in this world,” says Peter U. Tse, a Dartmouth neuroscientist and author of the 2013 book The Neural Basis of Free Will.

Neural activity is highly variable, Tse adds, with identical inputs often resulting in non-identical responses in different persons and populations.  It is more correct to think of those inputs as imposing parameters rather than determining specific outcomes.  Though the range of potential outcomes may be limited, there’s too much variability at play to think of our behaviour as predetermined.

Even those who believe that biology limits our choices are wary of how openly we should embrace that.  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,” says Smilansky, and encouraging people to do so is “dangerous, even irresponsible”.  This is quite plausible.  A widely cited 2008 study found that people who read passages dismissing the idea of free will were more likely to cheat on a subsequent test. Other studies have found that people who feel less control over their actions care less about making mistakes in their work, and that disbelief in free will leads to more aggression and less helpfulness.

If human beings are simply reactive robots like Alessia, slaves to natural law who are causally buffeted by a zillion factors of biology and circumstance, why would we have any say in whether things get better?  

The greatest risk of abandoning free will, as I see it, isn’t that we will want to do bad things. It is that, without a sense of personal responsibility, we won’t want to do anything. 

It is dangerous to tell people that they don’t have free will. 

Photo credit: imustbedead

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