Review of: "Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will" by Robert M. Sapolsky

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will by Robert M. Sapolsky
Penguin Publishing Group | 2023 | ISBN: 9780525560982, 052556098X | Page count: 528 | Wikipedia article | Goodreads entry and quotations from the book | Google Books entry with preview | Amazon link

Determined is Robert M. Sapolsky's skeptical take on the topic of free will. The topic is relevant to this blog since conceptions of free will have a long (and contentious) history in Christianity and other religions. In the religion debate, the issue of free will is likely to come up at some point, given that religious conceptions of free will tend to be pretty far from the scientific picture. See for example: As Sapolsky's book demonstrates at great length, free will is nowhere to be found in a scientific study of the human organism. Now, maybe some future scientific discovery will rescue free will, and therefore breathe some life into religious talking points that assume free will, but the trend so far is not encouraging for those who chain their theistic wagons to it.

Determined is a fairly high-profile book in its niche, and has attracted its share of comment. Rather than rewrite everything in the existing commentary, I'll link to some of it. If anything in the rest of my review seems hard to follow, consider coming back here to read some or all of these: Uri Maoz for example summarizes the book pretty well, and closes his review with:
"Although he is careful not to conflate determinism with inability to affect change in the world, Sapolsky's dismissive attitude toward how determinism might be compatible with free will is one of the book's weak points. Indeed, he sets the bar very high for free will ("Show me a neuron being a causeless cause¯). This well-written book is nonetheless worth reading. Better yet, pair it with Kevin Mitchell's book Free Agents: How Evolution Gate Us Free Will, also publishing in October 2023, which makes the opposite argument, and then decide for yourself whether you had a choice to do so or it was all predetermined."
I'm a little puzzled as to why Maoz thinks Sapolski "sets the bar very high for free will"; I don't know where else to set it. If we reject substance dualism, namely if we don't believe every time we make a choice, a miracle happens, and if we accept the principle of supervenience (i.e., that the mind supervenes on the brain), then the mind does nothing without some corresponding physical event(s) in the brain. For the mind to act freely, the brain must act freely, and "freely" means without being caused (and thus determined) by what happened earlier. For the mind to perform a free action, it seemingly must supervene on events in the brain having no prior physical cause. And thus free will would require there to be some neuron, or collection of neurons, acting as causeless causes. Sapolsky spends several chapters considering the ways people have tried to set the bar somewhere else (by seeking to locate free will in chaos, emergence, or quantum randomness), and he convingingly refutes them all (to me, at least). However, I don't think Sapolsky has actually destroyed the precious thing that many people fear you need free will to have - something I call "amenability" (more on this below).

Sapolsky lays out a comprehensive case for his incompatibilist conception of free will - namely, he views free will as being incompatible with the materialist picture of reality produced by some 400 years of modern science. For Sapolsky's own framing of his view among four major views on free will, see this quotation. And see this quotation (and this one) for Sapolsky's framing of the moral implications of free will. As he writes:
"Again, my goal isn’t to convince you that there’s no free will; it will suffice if you merely conclude that there’s so much less free will than you thought that you have to change your thinking about some truly important things."
I'll agree with Sapolsky that everywhere in science you look for free will, you keep not finding it, which makes free will similar to the Historical Jesus (i.e. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man to quote Robert Price). But I'm less persuaded by Sapolsky's selective application of his science; he can't stop making the kinds of moral judgements that he says his science precludes (more on this below).

For morality and moral judgements to make sense, people must be in some sense moral agents, with the ability to make choices. If agents can choose freely, then multiple agents can hold each other responsible for the choices they make. Without this assumption, it's hard to see how human commnunities can work, especially as they grow to enormous size, and the judgements and punishments begin to be made by professional police officers and court officials, operating less on personal intuition and more on some agreed theory. Humans often have a strong intuition that we are in control of our choices, that we weigh alternatives and freely decide what to do. And importantly, when other people do things that harm us, they could have chosen not to, and we are justified in demanding retribution. This intuition is perhaps as strong as our intuition that we stand on a solid unmoving Earth and the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets wheel around the sky above us. Of course our astronomical intuitions didn't survive contact with Galileo's telescope, and Sapolsky aims to do something similar with our intuitions about free will.

Does he succeed? He's written a readable and compelling book. He may not say a lot that's entirely original, for those who know all the inside baseball stuff about the topic, but much of it should be news to most folks. Few people could be experts in all the science topics Sapolsky covers. But as long and dense and well-referenced as the book is, Sapolsky leaves a few things out (more on that below also).

Since this is the Debunking Christianity blog, it's useful to position Sapolsky's book from that perspective. Sapolsky doesn't say too much about religion in the book, but he hardly has to. Anyone who absorbed religious indoctrination about human nature (can we say, dualism?) will find themselves in an alien landscape here; but that is also true for most modern behavioral science books. The behavioral sciences, like much of science generally, tend to debunk just about every pre-scientific religious view that bears on them.

Perhaps most Christian conceptions of free will are based on some version of mind–body dualism, which according to Wikipedia means: "either the view that mental phenomena are non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separable." Oddly, free will doesn't necessarily follow from mind-body dualism; just ask the Calvinists, who seem to believe the fate of our souls is predestined by God. For people to have souls, some form of dualism would have to be true, but having souls is apparently not sufficient for having a choice! However, the perhaps more common rationale for God to torture and burn people for all eternity is that they could have chosen otherwise. Thus those Christians who believe people have free will are likely to mention it or allude to it at some point, for example when trying to reconcile their notion of an omnibenevolent God with a God who metes out infinite punishment for people's merely finite sins (which would make God infinitely tyrannical). But from what we learn from Sapolsky, we conclude that for someone to claim we "freely" chose to "sin", they have to ignore all the relevant scientific evidence about what makes people tick. Sapolsky focuses on retributive punishment meted out by humans rather than by God. But his argument applies equally to the imaginary case of God doing the punishing, on the basis of people deserving it.

Sapolsky only briefly mentions religious conceptions of free will, and he doesn't really need to: just laying out the scientific picture of how humans operate does the job. There's about as much evidence for dualism as there is for precambrian rabbits - maybe even less, since rabbits are known to exist during other geological periods, whereas there is no finding in science to support any form of dualism at any time. Everything humans do appears to be fully explainable in terms of human biology, in particular neuroscience, along with all the areas of science that bear on how our nervous systems get built and continuously reshaped. As far as science has been able to tell, humans are as much a part of the great causal chain as is any other part of Nature.

Sapolsky's main target is compatibilism - the philosophical position that somehow holds free will to be compatible with humans being fully parts of a purely material universe in which everything that happens is fully determined by what happened earlier. Compatibilism seems to be a popular view with a long history and distinguished pedigree. It links to concepts of political liberty, moral responsibility, holding people to account for their misdeeds, and lauding them for their good deeds. According to the English Wikipedia, "Statements of political liberty, such as the United States Bill of Rights, assume moral liberty: the ability to choose to do otherwise than what one does." Philosophical heavyweights such as Daniel Dennett champion various flavors of compatibilism, despite many being card-carrying atheists and materialists (if cards are issued for such things). So along comes Sapolsky, digging into the scientific picture of how humans operate, and failing to find any place to insert the kind of "uncaused decider" that free will seems to require. In contrast, when I read Dennett's book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, I felt like Dennett was trying to pull a fast one in places, by sneaking in a "decider" that could somehow stand back from the causal chain of the entire universe, and make a decision that is not determined by anything else. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to understand what Dennett is on about, but it seems to me that everything in the human brain capable of making the kind of reflective decision that Dennett seems to regard as an exercise of free will is itself a material organ obeying all the usual laws of physics and chemistry that govern the rest of the determined universe. So here comes Sapolsky to put an exclamation point on my hunch.

To call the book expansive would be an understatement. The citations and footnotes roughly double its heft, and you could assemble a decent science library just by collecting all the books Sapolsky cites, before you get to the papers. Sapolsky's writing is as readable as that of any good journalist, putting him on the top rung of popular science writers in my opinion.

The first half of the book summarizes the stack of causal influences on human behavior and decision-making. These extend backward in time, from what happened in your brain an instant ago, to what happened seconds ago, hours ago, days ago, years ago, during your childhood, during your gestation, at your conception, to your culture in the decades and centuries before you, and to your species and antecent species during millions of years before you. Sapolsky likens that stack of influences to the famous Turtles all the way down joke about infinite regress.

Sapolsky begins where most books on the science of free will do: with the seminal work of Benjamin Libet. Professor Libet ran some now-famous and widely-replicated experiments that found that when a human decides to do something, the brain generates the nervous signals to act just slightly before the person becomes consciously aware of deciding to act. Which seems to imply that our brain makes decisions for us, outside of our control, and only then allows us to imagine that we decided, and quite convincingly as it turns out. If this sounds confusing, it's because it is, but don't worry, Sapolsky deals with the "Libetian" literature at length. And while many commentators on free will end the science lesson there, Sapolsky is just getting his boots on. Because according to Sapolsky, and you'll probably end up agreeing, what happens in the second before we choose is just the very last step in a gigantic causal chain over which we had no control. Sapolsky then lays out the influences on our selves and our choices in a series of chapters that look progressively farther back in time. According to Sapolsky, none of these myriad influences by itself rules out free will; but taken together, they virtually crush the possibility.

I couldn't help noticing the analogy with my notion of science as the metaphorical "trash compactor for God" i.e. the crusher of the God of the Gaps. As science keeps finding purely material explanations for more and more phenomena we can observe, there is steadily less and less for God to do. This is especially apparent if we look back centuries, to a time when people believed God (or gods, or witches, or demons, or the spirits of the dear departed, etc.) caused real-world events such as famines, plagues, volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, wars, and maybe even a blessing now and then. God's daily planner has thinned out considerably since the Middle Ages, as his workload keeps getting outsourced to material causes. And so you have Christian apologists moving the goalposts, all the way back to before the Big Bang, where God purportedly had a hand in fine-tuning the universe. But Sapolsky's book isn't about that, so we'll keep moving.

When Sapolsky considers the stack of causes, he goes surprisingly light on genetics. He's aware of behavioral genetics and does mention it, but he doesn't for example cite any of Robert Plomin's works. To me this seems like a fairly staggering omission, and a possible reason for it emerges in the second half of the book, where Sapolsky applies his determinism rather selectively to real-world problems (more on that below). Anyway, to fill the void that Sapolsky leaves, I recommend Plomin's book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. We're currently living in the genomics revolution, which only began in my view in the early 2000s with the advent of genome-wide association studies (GWAS - another rather gargantuan detail of the determinism puzzle that Sapolsky unaccountably fails to mention). The omission of GWAS in a book about determinism seems odd to me, given that Sapolsky does mention the replication crisis, which emerged in the early 2010s, another similarly important issue in science with a similarly recent timing.

Sapolsky also largely ignores the science of human intelligence differences, another hugely causal category beyond our control (for now). (Among many other things, a person's intelligence level strongly influences their odds of reading a complex book like Determined.) Sapolsky acknowledges that people differ in intelligence, lauding the giants of scientific history for their mental ability, but he seems to view IQ as a lamentable measure of human worth. For example, he writes "There’s our nation with its cult of meritocracy that judges your worth by your IQ and your number of degrees." (I find his complaint puzzling, because I'd say "our nation" largely denies or plays down IQ as a measure of anything. And not to mention that if people were judged by their IQs, then their number of degrees wouldn't matter as much. But the main problem with IQ is not that people are judged by it, but that we can't get more of it. Adult IQ is roughly as fixed as adult height.) Elsewhere in the same book he calls Richard Feynman a "physics god" and fairly drools over another towering scientific intellect:
"Cellular automata were first studied and named by the Hungarian American mathematician / physicist / computer scientist John von Neumann in the 1950s. It’s virtually required by law to call him a genius. He was wildly precocious—at age six, he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head and was fluent in ancient Greek."
It also seems required by law for the public intellectual to say something disparaging about the very thing that makes intellectuals, which they value above all else, and constantly weigh each other by: intelligence. Perhaps it's a form of thunder-stealing that results from the rough adolescence experienced by those who were good at school, at the hands of duller, more numerous, often popular, often larger kids, who didn't enjoy being shown up by the studious kids.

In any case, to brush up on the intelligence-related causal factors that knock people around, and which Sapolsky largely sidesteps, I recommend these books for a solid start: The science of human intelligence differences is another vast topic that could fill multiple blog posts. But we'll stick to the review topic for now.

After Sapolsky summarizes the stack of causal influences on the human meat puppet, he then considers the three main potential escape hatches for science-aware compatibilists and libertarians: chaos theory, emergence, and quantum mechanics. These are some of the best parts of the book, which is odd because they seem to lie the farthest outside of Sapolsky's professional focus. Perhaps his outsider's perspective and sheer determination to make sense of it all led him to explain these areas beautifully, and to show how they don't give wiggle room to free will at all.

I had some prior familiarity with the topics of these chapters, but Sapolsky clarified the ontic / epistemic distinction for me: the fact that a system is determined doesn't necessarily make it predictable (i.e., knowable). And the fact that a system is unpredictable (as in chaotic systems) doesn't make it free. A chaotic system is going to do whatever it is going to do, even if we can't predict it. There's no place to squeeze in free (i.e. uncaused) choices along the way.

And when Sapolsky got to quantum mechanics (with the aim of showing that the probabilistic nature of quantum systems under the Copenhagen interpretation doesn't create wiggle room for free will either) he mentioned Gordon Pennycook's wonderful dissection of the psychology behind acceptance of the "pseudo-profound bullshit" (his term) of Deepak Chopra. Chopra is a notable proponent of quantum mysticism (also called "quantum flapdoodle" by the actual quantum physicist Murray Gell-Mann). Pennycook is in every way the opposite: a still-young professor of psychology who already has an h-index of 65 according to Google Scholar. He's doing lots of interesting work on belief formation, susceptibility to fake news, rationality and cognitive reflection, and more. Much of Pennycook's work is relevant to the subject of this blog, and worthy of some future blog posts. But I digress.

In the second half of the book, Sapolski answers the question, now that we've killed free will, what are we going to do with it? (To paraphrase the title of a catchy tune by the O'Jays and covered by others.) This is the half Sapolsky shows what he meant at the start of the book when he wrote:
"There’s no free will, and thus holding people morally responsible for their actions is wrong. Where I sit."
Already I find a difficulty, possibly even a self-refutation. To say that something is wrong is to make a moral judgement about it, and if someone does the thing you say is wrong, then you hold them morally responsible for doing it. Otherwise, if you don't hold people morally responsible for their actions, then no action a person does is morally wrong, as far as I can see. Now, perhaps Sapolsky has a way to declare an action to be morally wrong, without simultaneously holding the person who does the action to be morally responsible. But I don't recall seeing that in the book. He does, of course, fully acknowledge that actions are consequential, and that society has a right to defend itself from people whose actions are consequentially harmful. He just thinks we should be as non-vengeful about it as we can. But contained in those two short sentences might be something that Sapolski tends to overlook: that if we excuse the perpetrators of crimes due to their lack of free will, why do we not also excuse the adjudicators on the same basis? Sapolski even presents evidence to show that judges hand out harsher sentences when they're hungry. And yet he seems to hold judges and others in positions of authority to a higher standard, as if they have free will while common criminals do not.

Sapolsky highlights the changing societal and psychiatric attitudes toward people with epilepsy and schizophrenia, respectively. As scientific understanding of the causes improved, people stopped holding people with these disorders responsible for them. But Sapolsky can't hide his disgust for the villains in these histories. For example, he expresses his disdain for the "psychoanalytic scumbags" who blamed schizophrenia on bad mothering. Undoubtedly these incorrect views compounded the harm of the disorder itself, but it's as if Sapolsky forgets everything else in his book when passing moral judgement on the "scumbags." They, like everyone else, were the products of all the prior events that made them what they were, and over which they had no choice. At least Sapolsky acknowledges that his particular revulsion for a Dr. Bruno Bettelheim challenges the message of his book. Saying you don't believe in free will and thus in moral responsibility is one thing; actually not passing moral judgement on other people is quite another.

I did notice a seemingly odd pattern in who Sapolsky chooses to excuse under the banner of no free will, and who he does not excuse. But then I recalled an observation from Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, "the modern tendency of those who call themselves "progressive" or "liberal" (in the American context) to divide the world into oppressor and oppressed, and to explain all achievement gaps as the product of oppression." This observation seems to explain Sapolsky's choice of who to excuse or vilify. Common criminals, for example, deserve our sympathy, because they may have had many adverse childhood experiences. In contrast, the "psychoanalytic scumbags" enjoyed positions of power, privilege, and prestige, and therefore Sapolsky seems to judge them as if they freely chose their beliefs and actions. Of course I do not blame Sapolsky if he behaves like a stereotypical American "bleeding-heart liberal" (in his own words), because he, like everyone else, had no choice in all those prior events that shaped him.

Some people confuse free will with willpower, a distinctly different thing. Sapolsky gives a whole chapter to the topic, and concludes:
"This chapter’s punchline is that it’s impossible to successfully will yourself to have more willpower."
I suppose I agree that this is "impossible" in the same sense that it's (probably) impossible to will yourself to double your bench press. But it is possible to will yourself to undertake a training program that might result in an increase to your bench press. And willpower might work similarly to some degree, for some people at least. Indeed, physical exercise itself might help. There are books purporting to teach us how: Granted, those books were published when the replication crisis I mentioned earlier was just coming into view. So some of the studies they cite might not replicate; we should be wary of any pre-replication-crisis social psychology book. But to say that you can't will yourself to have more willpower doesn't seem quite right - you might well have some capacity to get more, although probably not just by "willing" it. You might have to will yourself to take specific actions. And of course as with every trained skill, people will vary in their response to training, again due to factors they did not choose.

And one last observation about willpower: Sapolsky doesn't mention the Ulysses pact. A person can pre-arrange with someone else to provide an external willpower boost for those moments when the person anticipates coming under temptation. While this too doesn't quite amount to "willing yourself to have more willpower" it can function similarly. During a "lucid" moment, a person might anticipate doing something stupid in a future "weak" moment, and enlist someone or something else to hold them to their prior commitment. And in the future, we might have AI assistants doing this for us, monitoring the current state of our willpower, and reminding us or incentivizing us in various ways to do what we agreed to do when we were rational.

I mentioned earlier in this way-too-long review a notion of "amenability" that might sort of explain our intuition that we make free choices. By "amenability" I mean that we have brains whose every action is fully determined by prior events, and yet we can display a degree of behavioral flexibility that looks and feels a lot like free will. But I don't think I'm a "compatibilist" because I don't think this amenability amounts to actual free will. Rather it's like a constant battle taking place between separate parts of our brains, each having its own conflicting goals, and each of them being fully determined by prior events. The unpredictability of the outcome, and its modulation by constantly changing environmental triggers (themselves unpredictable), creates the compelling illusion of free choice.

To illustrate, picture a person who is prone to committing crime because they have all those prior causes stacked against them: adverse childhood experiences, maybe some bad DNA, a laissez-faire government with a poor safety net, low intelligence, poor impulse control, few marketable skills, etc. But even this crime-prone person seems to find deep reserves of self-control whenever he or she is aware that a cop is watching. That is, all those prior causes seem to be swept away, at least temporarily, by a very tiny change to the current environment. The watchful cop does not physically prevent people from committing crime, but vastly increases the probability of swift and sure punishment. Even the most depraved criminal mind seems capable of performing the basic subconscious analysis and "choosing" to do the least dumb thing in that situation. And that fact leads other people, who don't need the cop to be there, to mistakenly conclude that the criminal shouldn't need the cop to be there either.

Thus Sapolsky's focus on how we treat the fraction of criminals we catch (he lauds the remarkably comfortable prisons in Sweden, for example) slightly misses the point, I think. Investing in crime prevention and increasing the rate of solved cases might matter more. No matter how well or poorly we treat convicted criminals, we still failed them, in a sense, by letting them commit crimes in the first place. No matter how enlightened the justice system may be, it's still far worse than letting people fall into it by offending. Those criminals who could have been deterred by the presence of a cop, for example, or by a sense that committing a crime is almost certain to get them punished, got into trouble we might have prevented, by investing in more and better policing.

Plato's Ring of Gyges story suggests that almost anyone would probably be corrupted if they had the magical power to do anything with complete impunity. And we can see this is almost entirely true, in the category of harmful actions that are perfectly legal today. Such as burning fossil fuels. There is no punishment whatsoever, and often rewards instead, for people who help to destroy Earth's habitable climate by burning fossil fuels. It's pretty much a perfect crime at the moment. The fact that there are real victims of our fossil fuel burning, possibly including ourselves in the future, seems to deter almost no one. Just look at any highway or airport. It certainly doesn't deter Sapolsky when he casually mentions all the driving and flying he's done, with no hint of shame. So while it's great that he has some injustices in mind, such as our treatment of criminals, or the past sins of psychoanalysts, he barely mentions what is arguably the greatest injustice going today: human-caused climate change and our mass participation in it. But if he's correct in his book, his awareness of some injustices and blindness to others are the product of a vast sequence of past events beyond his control. But other people might be driven by their equally determined brains to inject new causes into the causal mix, which is basically what made Sapolsky's determined brain write his book. He's added a new cause to the environment that might cause some people to behave differently than they would otherwise.