Thursday, October 19, 2023

Sapolsky Podcast against Free Will

I mention the New Sapolsky Book on Determinism, and he explains his views on the Skeptic podcast, and also on the Lawrence Krauss Origins podcast.

He is against all forms of free will, including compatibilism. He particularly argues against theories of criminal responsibility, where criminals are convicted if they knew what they were doing, understood the consequences, and did the crime anyway. He denies that anyone could make a criminal decision, or deserves punishment for it.

He does not even talk about true (libertarian) free will, as he says that is too silly to consider.

I am trying to understand this view. He seems to make two arguments.

(1) Free will is a form of magical thinking, akin to witchcraft. Centuries ago, people believed that witches might cause thunderstorms. Now that we have a more scientific understanding of the world, we see this as absurd. Likewise, we will someday see free will as absurdly contrary to a rational worldview.

(2) While he cannot prove determinism on a individual human level, he can on a statistical level. For example, given a sample of children who are abused, neglected, low IQ, criminal parents, poor, etc, he can predict that a certain percentage of them will turn out to be criminal.

While some say a lack of free will would be depressing, he says it is liberating to know that we are not responsible for his actions.

It is legitimate to argue that people have more causes than they realize, and the causes might be external, genetic, or biochemical. But even if your choices are 90% determined, I don't see how this is an argument against free will.

He says that instead of punishing criminals, we should be figuring out ways to prevent crime. But what is the point of figuring out anything, if we do not have the ability to make the choices to make a better society? It all makes no sense to me.

There is an amusing thought experiment, where he has to explain an infidelity to his wife. Is he really going to tell her that he had no choice, and that his actions were a product of his upbringing? He said that he would try to show empathy for his wife's feelings.

Krause is also a free will denier:

I have long felt the issue of free will is overplayed. The laws of physics are deterministic, and since biology and chemistry are based on physics, I have never doubted that free will is an illusion, but have also felt that for all intents and purposes the world we live in is indistinguishable from a world with free will, so we should take responsibility for our actions.

As is often the case when reading Robert’s works, my view has now become more nuanced. His book masterfully discusses the neurobiology behind the illusion of free will, what actually interests me the most, and he effectively demolished claims of numerous philosophers, including Dan Dennett and others, that some magic occurs between the level of neurons and the level of the full brain that allows for some uncaused behavior.

Krauss knows a lot more physics than I do, but I do not get how he can say that the laws of physics are deterministic. I thought that the consensus for the last century was that quantum mechanics is not deterministic.

Since Sapolsky and Krauss believe that they are completely determined by their genes and upbringing, they spend a lot of time talking about their Jewish backgrounds and other early influences.

Update: Listening to more of the podcast, Krauss emphatically says that quantum mechanics is deterministic, contrary to common understandings.

Krauss compares belief in free will to belief in God. He says Daniel Dennett gives arguments for free will that sound like arguments for Gad that he would never accept.

Sapolsky promotes determinism, which I thought meant that the past determines the future. No, his definition is that things happen with no magic.

This is a huge dodge. Anything we do not understand can be called magic. That might include consciousness, free will, intanglement, multiverse, and maybe even neutrinos.

They implicitly accept this argument for atheism. Centuries ago, most of the natural world was unexplained, and it was reasonable to attribute various things to God. When science got much better, then at some point it became more reasonable to assume scientific explanations for everything, and deny God.

Likewise, now that we know much more about genes and neuroscience, we don't need the free will hypothesis anymore.

Sapolsky gives the example of prairie voles which were thought to be more virtuous than mountain voles, because prairie voles were monogamous. But then someone discovered a single gene that controls the difference, and mountain voles can be made monogamous by changing the gene.

Okay, I can believe that some apparently-virtuous humans are just behaving as they have been programmed. And some people believe in God because they are overly impressed by natural mysteries that have good scientific explanations.

But my belief in free will is mostly hased on my ability to make my own decisions. Not on any scientific ignorance.

Update: I listened on to where Krauss says quentum mechanics is deterministic. He says that solving the Schroedinger equation is deterministic from a previous wave function. Only the measurement is random. And while radioactive decay is random, macroscopic statistics from millions of decays are accurately predictable. Wow, I thought that he would have a better argument.

The wave function is no observable. You can never know what it was in the past, and you cannot use it to make a deterministic prediction.

Krauss says, at 2:25:20:

It is undeniable that we don't have free will, based on science. There's no loopholes, no places for the magic to occur.
No, I do not see how a smart physicist can say that. Sapolsky accepts his physics expertise, and says:
Clinical depression is the pathological failure of the ability to rationalize away reality.
These guys have a bizarre world view. He does say that people with an injured prefrontal cortex have no free will. So maybe that is were consciousness resides? But consciousness is just a tool for rationalizing what is forced on us.

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