Thursday, February 18, 2021

Sapolsky denies free will

Here is the latest Sean M. Carroll podcast: Mindscape 134 | Robert Sapolsky on Why We Behave the Way We Do.

Sapolsky is a hard determinist who likes to list all the biological causes for our actions, such as genes, germs, and culture. He is firmly convinced that we are robots with no ability to choose anything.

I believe he has a depressing view of life.

SciAm columnist John Horgan disagrees:

To be honest, I have a problem with all these treatments of free will, pro and con. They examine free will within the narrow, reductionistic framework of physics and mathematics, and they equate free will with randomness and unpredictability. My choices, at least important ones, are not random, and they are all too predictable, at least for those who know me.

For example, here I am arguing for free will once again. I do so not because physical processes in my brain compel me to do so. I defend free will because the idea of free will matters to me, and I want it to matter to others. I am committed to free will for philosophical, ethical and even political reasons. I believe, for example, that deterministic views of human nature make us more likely to accept sexism, racism and militarism. No physics model — not even the most complex, nonlocal cellular automaton -- can capture my rational and, yes, emotional motives for believing in free will, but that doesn’t mean these motives lack causal power.

Just as it cannot prove or disprove God’s existence, science will never decisively confirm or deny free will. In fact, ‘t Hooft might be right. I might be just a mortal, 3-D, analog version of the Speed Demonoid, plodding from square to square, my thoughts and actions dictated by hidden, superdeterministic rules far beyond my ken. But I can’t accept that grim worldview. Without free will, life lacks meaning, and hope. Especially in dark times, my faith in free will consoles me, and makes me feel less bullied by the deadly Game of Life.

I agree with much of that, except where he says that his choices are predictable to those who know him, and not random.

To me, free will means that I can makes choices that surprise those who know me. If my friends can predict everything I do, then I am acting like a robot. Making choices that seem random to others is the essence of free will.

If I toss coins to make my decisions, then my choices are really the coin's choices. Then my free will hinges on the free will of the coin. That is being bullied by a coin, instead of being bullied by an automaton. No, free will is being able to make the choices myself.

Sapolsky may be right that genes and other unseen factors influence us more than we realize. I can accept that. But it is hard to understand how he can think that he never makes a decision.

It has become politically incorrect to be a genetic determinist, so Sapolsky denies being that. But he does say that a millennium of rice farming has turned Chinese people into collectivists. Another popular theory says that centuries of Christian feudalism turned Europeans into individualists. Whether these changes can be attributed to specific genes is unknown, but regardless, this appears to be preprogrammed behavior that could persist for centuries.

Carroll says he is a compatibilist. That is, he is a determinist who believes we have no free will, but we have an illusion of free will so we can act as if we do. He says no one should believe in true free will, which he calls libertarian free will.

It is hard to find any respected academic who believes in free will. It is like finding one who openly professes Christianity, or support for Donald Trump. They probably exist, but they keep a low profile.


  1. I've been trialing an argument that determinism is flawed because we do not know *precisely* what the initial conditions or the dynamics are. If the dynamics is such that the initial conditions require infinite detail, then we need the axiom of choice, which greatly restricts what we can prove to be true. It's impossible to tell whether the dynamics and initial conditions are or are not everywhere non-differentiable: a determinist can't discover by experiment whether there are smaller fleas on larger fleas at *every* scale.

  2. SCIENTIST: We can safely say the universe is deterministic because if we knew all the initial states we could predict all the outcomes.

    INTERVIEWER: I noticed your not so subtle use of the conditional 'if' on which you hang your entire determinist assertion. Do you or anyone else have any possible way of EVER knowing all the initial states of the universe?

    SCIENTIST: Ummmm...

    INTERVIEWER: ...and further, if you were present at the beginning of the universe to observe such initial conditions, wouldn't that by logical necessity require several preconditions...

    1. You would have to for all intents and purposes be a god in order to observe such an initial event and track every interaction..

    2. You would have to be capable of somehow calculating the possible outcomes of said interactions over billions of years...

    3. You would have to also be capable of living as long as the universe to prove yourself correct about your initial premise by being present at the halt state of the universe...

    4. You would also have to somehow separate yourself from the very universe itself whilst you were observing it, or else you would quite literally be at least ONE of the initial conditions influencing the whole process...

    5. You would also have to deal with a considerable paradox. If you were somehow there at the initial states of the universe, you would have to already be older than the universe, as there would be no atoms in existence for you to be composed of would have to be completely non-coporal.

    To be non-coporal, you would also be devoid of the very things which you claim make everything deterministic, such as biological causes (as you would have no atoms to compose cells from), to be an initial observer, you would have to be able to excuse yourself from the very determinism you are proclaiming prevents free will.

    SCIENTIST: well...err... we still have no free will.

    INTERVIEWER: Please feel free to speak for YOURSELF.
    Thank you for your time.

  3. Yes, we can never know precisely all the initial conditions. That makes the issue of free will more of a philosophical question, than a scientific one.

  4. Roger,
    The actual heart of the argument of determinism is simply an empty tautology: that if you could know everything, you would know everything. Since you can't, you shan't. I have never understood how physicists claiming knowledge of something they can't ever know is somehow a valid proof of anything but hubris.

    When it requires an outright miracle (omniscience) to make your claim (determinism) true, what you are doing is not philosophy at all, but faith. I have no troubles considering acts of faith philosophically, but I do have a problem with incorrectly considering it as science. Words truly do matter, quite a bit. They aren't just what you use to fill in the spaces between the math to make your paper look more impressive.

    Physics today largely resembles illiterate high school students using words in sentences they don't understand.