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Science shows that free will doesn't exist, Stanford professor claims

December 2, 2023 · Comment icon 74 comments
Man with his arms outstretched on a beach.
Do we really have free will ? Image Credit: Pixabay / PublicCo
Do we really have control over our actions or are they predetermined by our genes, environment and upbringing ?
It seems like we have free will. Most of the time, we are the ones who choose what we eat, how we tie our shoelaces and what articles we read.

However, the latest book by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, 'Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will', has been receiving a lot of media attention for arguing science shows this is an illusion.

Sapolsky summarises the latest scientific research relevant to determinism: the idea that we're causally "determined" to act as we do because of our histories - and couldn't possibly act any other way.

According to determinism, just as a rock that is dropped is determined to fall due to gravity, your neurons are determined to fire a certain way as a direct result of your environment, upbringing, hormones, genes, culture and myriad other factors outside your control. And this is true regardless of how "free" your choices seem to you.

Sapolsky also says that because our behaviour is determined in this way, nobody is morally responsible for what they do. He believes while we can lock up murderers to keep others safe, they technically don't deserve to be punished.

This is quite a radical position. It's worth asking why only 11% of philosophers agree with Sapolsky, compared with the 60% who think being causally determined is compatible with having free will and being morally responsible.

Have these "compatibilists" failed to understand the science? Or has Sapolsky failed to understand free will?

Is determinism incompatible with free will?

"Free will" and "responsibility" can mean a variety of different things depending on how you approach them.

Many people think of free will as having the ability to choose between alternatives. Determinism might seem to threaten this, because if we are causally determined then we lack any real choice between alternatives; we only ever make the choice we were always going to make.

But there are counterexamples to this way of thinking. For instance, suppose when you started reading this article someone secretly locked your door for 10 seconds, preventing you from leaving the room during that time. You, however, had no desire to leave anyway because you wanted to keep reading - so you stayed where you are. Was your choice free?

Many would argue even though you lacked the option to leave the room, this didn't make your choice to stay unfree. Therefore, lacking alternatives isn't what decides whether you lack free will. What matters instead is how the decision came about.

The trouble with Sapolsky's arguments, as free will expert John Martin Fischer explains, is he doesn't actually present any argument for why his conception of free will is correct.

He simply defines free will as being incompatible with determinism, assumes this absolves people of moral responsibility, and spends much of the book describing the many ways our behaviours are determined. His arguments can all be traced back to his definition of "free will".

Compatibilists believe humans are agents. We live lives with "meaning", have an understanding of right and wrong, and act for moral reasons. This is enough to suggest most of us, most of the time, have a certain type of freedom and are responsible for our actions (and deserving of blame) - even if our behaviours are "determined".
Compatibilists would point out that being constrained by determinism isn't the same as being constrained to a chair by a rope. Failing to save a drowning child because you were tied up is not the same as failing to save a drowning child because you were "determined" not to care about them. The former is an excuse. The latter is cause for condemnation.

Incompatibilists must defend themselves better

Some readers sympathetic to Sapolsky might feel unconvinced. They might say your decision to stay in the room, or ignore the child, was still caused by influences in your history that you didn't control - and therefore you weren't truly free to choose.

However, this doesn't prove that having alternatives or being "undetermined" is the only way we can count as having free will. Instead, it assumes they are. From the compatibilists' point of view, this is cheating.

Compatibilists and incompatibilists both agree that, given determinism is true, there is a sense in which you lack alternatives and could not do otherwise.

However, incompatibilists will say you therefore lack free will, whereas compatibilists will say you still possess free will because that sense of "lacking alternatives" isn't what undermines free will - and free will is something else entirely.

They say as long as your actions came from you in a relevant way (even if "you" were "determined" by other things), you count as having free will. When you're tied up by a rope, the decision to not save the drowning child doesn't come from you. But when you just don't care about the child, it does.

By another analogy, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around, one person may say no auditory senses are present, so this is incompatible with sound existing. But another person may say even though no auditory senses are present, this is still compatible with sound existing because "sound" isn't about auditory perception - it's about vibrating atoms.

Both agree nothing is heard, but disagree on what factors are relevant to determining the existence of "sound" in the first place. Sapolsky needs to show why his assumptions about what counts as free will are the ones relevant to moral responsibility. As philosopher Daniel Dennett once put it, we need to ask which "varieties of free will [are] worth wanting".

Free will isn't a scientific question

The point of this back and forth isn't to show compatibilists are right. It is to highlight there's a nuanced debate to engage with. Free will is a thorny issue. Showing nobody is responsible for what they do requires understanding and engaging with all the positions on offer. Sapolsky doesn't do this.

Sapolsky's broader mistake seems to be assuming his questions are purely scientific: answered by looking just at what the science says. While science is relevant, we first need some idea of what free will is (which is a metaphysical question) and how it relates to moral responsibility (a normative question). This is something philosophers have been interrogating for a very long time.

Interdisciplinary work is valuable and scientists are welcome to contribute to age-old philosophical questions. But unless they engage with existing arguments first, rather than picking a definition they like and attacking others for not meeting it, their claims will simply be confused.

Adam Piovarchy, Research Associate, Institute for Ethics and Society, University of Notre Dame Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (74)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #65 Posted by lightly 2 months ago
  Thank you,  all the/my best to you.     I was a bit surprised by your statement  and so, reply “it makes perfect sense to me” was an overstatement on my part…as I guess I know nothing for certain.. other than seeming to be aware of  Being .  (not just a separate self).  Anyway, thanks again.  Always find your views fascinating.   Peace and a very happy new year*
Comment icon #66 Posted by quiXilver 2 months ago
You continue to drop pearls my friend!  This statement is as profound as they come for me of late. In this bolded bit you hit on and summarize perhaps the cornerstone of my discovery and process over the last 35 years of study in the Longmen Pai tradition, Druidic Lore and my own unavoidable insights into the nature of life.  Truly, the source of reality is wihin the core of our very being.  We can never be seperated from it.
Comment icon #67 Posted by lightly 2 months ago
Wow,  I do!*?    thanks!          Your studies sound very interesting .. (including metaphysics). . I’m quite ignorant in general, but I’ve always Loved to Think..   the Nature of reality is a longtime favorite…just to ponder, and examine this way&that  as best I can. (including other’s previous and current knowledge & ideas). I think it’s human nature for us to have such insights  into, & intuitions of, what we are part OF.?        I like this!  From your post above..”Truly, the source of reality is wihin the core of our very being. ”.    If A... [More]
Comment icon #68 Posted by KJ Davis 2 months ago
The electrochemicals in my brain decided to say hello. “I”, whatever “I” is was reticent but ultimately had no choice. “I” think my electrochemical reactions are more gregarious than “I” so this is a bit uncomfortable. — The electrochemicals in this physical organism’s brain are now claiming that they are the sense of self “I”have previously deluded myself into believing exists and wants to know if any other electrochemical gestalts participating in this forum are interested in taking over the world? Well that sucks.   
Comment icon #69 Posted by simplybill 2 months ago
I agree with Ms. Jain’s conclusions about Mr. Sapolsky:  “Sapolsky's broader mistake seems to be assuming his questions are purely scientific: answered by looking just at what the science says. While science is relevant, we first need some idea of what free will is (which is a metaphysical question) and how it relates to moral responsibility (a normative question). This is something philosophers have been interrogating for a very long time.   Interdisciplinary work is valuable and scientists are welcome to contribute to age-old philosophical questions. But unless they engage with existi... [More]
Comment icon #70 Posted by Liquid Gardens 2 months ago
I'm not sure where you're seeing a contradiction, I assume it's in what you've bolded.  With or without free will people still are taking actions, and some of them are 'defining'.  Amoeba take actions too but not many argue they have free will.
Comment icon #71 Posted by simplybill 2 months ago
It’s no secret that our actions and decisions are influenced by factors outside our control, but Sapolsky believes that our actions and beliefs are determined by factors outside our control, in which case the phrase “defining action” is irrelevant as our lives would be based on unclearly-defined boundaries. 
Comment icon #72 Posted by Liquid Gardens 2 months ago
Guess I'm not following your reasoning here, but not sure what you mean specifically by 'unclearly-defined boundaries'; there are a ton of things in life where the boundaries are not clearly defined.  Sapolsky is still Sapolsky and a person whether we have free will or not.  People take actions, regardless again of whether we have free will.  I don't see why a person without free will cannot look back at the actions they (involuntarily ultimately) took and see them as defining actions/moments in their life. He broke away from religion, regardless of his free will status.  That certainly ca... [More]
Comment icon #73 Posted by Abramelin 2 months ago
I think that free will is similar to the weather. Both are being influenced, guided, by many known factors, but also by many which are still vague. We are able to 'predict' the weather rather accurately for only a couple of days, but after that it gets more and more UNpredictable. However, the general weather pattern can be predicted quite accurately, but not its day to day details. And then there are for instance unexpected volcanic explosions that can totally rearrange the weather pattern for a long time in the future.
Comment icon #74 Posted by 8th_wall 19 days ago
Science shows the the noun Science, and the verb, science, don't go hand in hand.  You think it's bad wondering what a philosopher does as a weary layman interloper?  What, precisely, exactly, does a scientist DO.  After all attempts have been made to disprove freewill science decides it is going to prove stuff instead.  Science needs to wake up to itself and do some mathematics, in particular discrete mathematics, before making such lofty assertions about fact in the rather abysmally small range it employs of the domain it deems as all encompassing. Quantum0 can be found in the macro, I d... [More]

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