The Good Fight
Robert Sapolsky on Free Will

Robert Sapolsky on Free Will

Yascha Mounk and Robert Sapolsky debate whether there is free will and if it would matter if there weren't.
(Photo by Christopher Michel)

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and primatologist, is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor and professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University. Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. His latest book is Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Robert Sapolsky discuss whether, as Sapolsky argues, there is no such thing as free will; and what follows for everything from criminal law to the possibility of love and friendship if we were to agree that it doesn't.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I'm really excited for this conversation and to touch on different elements of your work, but we should start with your new book, in which you claim that there is no such thing as free will and that it's a mistake to think of ourselves as having free will. How did you come to that conclusion?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, this is not going to count as terribly scientific, but I was 14 when I decided that there was no such thing. I was having all sorts of, oh, I suppose, early adolescent sort of sturm und drang. It was one night at two in the morning that I woke up and I had this sudden clarity as to explaining everything that had been bothering me, which was: there's no God, there's no free will, there's no purpose to anything. And it's been like that ever since then.

Mounk: What is the intellectual case for why we should trust your intuition when you were 14?

Sapolsky: Well, I certainly had some hesitancy there. Basically, I'm half a neurobiologist, half a primatologist. And people, whether they would say so or not, have been working on this issue intensely in laboratories in lots of different disciplines. And what you've got is enough of a landscape of insight as to what's going on with the nuts and bolts of our behavior that, even though every piece of it is not there (you can't predict everything about behavior, you're never going to be able to), nonetheless, you see the structure of what makes us who we are. And when you look at that closely, there is not a crack anywhere in it into which you could shoehorn in a notion of free will.

Mounk: Why is it that predictability and the notion of free will are in such direct conflict in the way you put it? I might be able to predict the behavior of a close friend of mine because, in part, I know about their values. And so I know that if I say a particular kind of thing they’re likely to give a certain kind of response. But they might say that, as long as their action accords with their reasoning processes and values and so on, that doesn't actually undermine the idea that there is a useful notion of free will at play here. 

Why is it that, in the debate about free will, the idea that if we can predict something, that proves the inexistence of free will, has been so central?

Sapolsky: Well, that plays out on a number of levels. On the most abstract one, we're never going to be able to predict everything. Chaos theory is this very frothy way of exploring the fact that the world can be utterly deterministic yet formally unpredictable. And it doesn't matter how big of a metaphorical magnifying glass we have to look at some phenomenon: unpredictability is just intrinsic.

But on the more meaningful level, the predictability we have at this point is a statistical one. You may not be able to look at every kid growing up in a horrible, threatening, unstable neighborhood, and predict exactly what's going to come with every one of them. But you can predict with a fair amount of confidence that, on the average, more of those kids are going to wind up in trouble with the police than a cohort growing up in a nice, cushy suburb—you get predictability on that level. But the main thing is, it really doesn't matter if the science has not brought us to a point where we can predict exactly what your friend is going to say next; what it brought us to is the point where we can understand how that friend got to that moment, and how there was no agency going on in that.

Mounk: Right, but I understood what you were saying as: scientifically, we can predict how people act and that somehow should make us skeptical of free will. But how do we distinguish between scientific findings which show that how we're going to act is somehow determined in a way that is supposedly compatible with free will from scientific findings that simply describe the way in which human beings reflect, or the way in which they decide how to act? 

How do we know that this should push us towards the direction of “Oh, it was predetermined”—the idea that we're making this decision is kind of an illusion—versus it being precisely the description of what goes on when human beings exercise free will?

Sapolsky: This is great, because what we've shifted away from here is whether or not all of this pivots on the ability to predict what somebody is about to do. But instead, I think, one should shift more to a notion of the influences. The determinants are subterranean, the stuff going on in us that we have absolutely no idea was happening biologically and which, in the aftermath, we completely ascribe to agency. Why did you do what you just did? And what we're mostly oriented to, and intuitively so, is thinking, “Well, did I intend to do that? Did I intend to do that at that moment? Did I know I was doing that? Did I know what the consequences were likely to be? I know that there were alternatives to what I could have done.”

And as soon as you get answers of “yes” to those, everyone's intuition is that you have just seen free will in action. But that's not beginning to touch the actual question: where did that intent come from in the first place?

Mounk: Help me understand how our view of ourselves should change if we embrace your argument. Let's say that I have a week of vacation coming up and I'm trying to figure out if I am going to go to Mexico City or Buenos Aires. I face a kind of choice, right? So I reflect on this and I make a list with different pros and cons and I look up hotels and flight prices, and then I come to some kind of decision, I say, “OK, Buenos Aires, it is.” 

How is it that the naive view of me exercising free will in that process leads me astray? And how is it that a scientific understanding of all the subterranean processes that are involved in it, all the ways in which I might not be aware of what's truly driving my decision, should make me rethink myself and rethink how the world actually works?

Sapolsky: The range of those subterranean influences is astonishing. Someone picks Buenos Aires over Mexico City. And as a result, they have carried out a behavior, they push this little button instead of that little button and, in other words, six neurons up there in your brain just made that finger go to the button on that side. And you say, “Well, why did that happen? Why did that occur? Why did the person choose Buenos Aires?” What you're doing there is asking what was going on in the brain a quarter second ago—what was activated, what wasn't, all of that. So that keeps a neurobiologist happy. But you also have to ask what went on in the environment in the previous 30 seconds: when you haven't had enough sleep, you will perceive threats that other people don't. But what about your hormone levels? Your hormone levels have been surging, or doing whatever they're doing, over the previous six hours or so. If it turns out you had elevated levels of oxytocin, you would have been more likely to believe someone trying to convince you to go on a tour of Buenos Aires (that hormone influences how readily you trust the opinions of someone who you view benevolently). But then you also have to factor in some amazing, horrible trauma in your life: do you have PTSD? did you find love during that period? did you find God? Because all of those will have changed your brain, and not in some fuzzy, metaphorical sense—stuff will have been constructed in your brain that wasn't there before and your brain will work differently. And then you're back to, well, what about your adolescence, which is the last part of your life when you're doing a major construction project on your brain, and then childhood and then fetal life, which, bizarrely enough, has a huge amount to do with kind of brain you're building, and then there’s genes. 

And then just when you thought you're done, you’ve got to ask questions like “What kind of culture did my ancestors invent 500 years ago? What did ecological influences have to do with that?” Because they played a big role: within minutes of your birth, cultural influences were shaping how your mother was mothering you. Let's throw in some evolution as well. You put all those pieces together, and it produces the seamless arc of biology explaining how you got the brain you had just now that chose Buenos Aires over Mexico City. And when you look at how those influences work, it's not just that there's a lot of different influences, it winds up being the same single influence: if you're talking about the influence of your genes on your behavior, by definition, you're also talking about evolution. And you're talking about your childhood environment that had all sorts of epigenetic effects on those genes of yours, determining how readily they're turned on or off for the rest of your life. And you're also talking about the proteins made in your brain 35 minutes ago and all those pieces in between.

You look at this whole seamless set of inputs, and there's not any space in there for something to happen, which can only be defined as fairy dust, because it requires breaking the rules of how all that biology happens to figure out how you got to that moment of choosing one option over another.

Mounk: I feel like we're getting into the heart of a discussion now. How should we think about free will in relation to social, cultural, and biological influences on how we act? Certainly, there is a very naive notion of free will that says “I have free will because who I am and how I think about the world and what kind of decisions I'm going to make are completely unconstrained by where I grew up, the country I'm in, and the choices that are available to me. I'm this kind of self-creating agent floating in the ether.” That clearly is an incredibly naive notion that you and I both flatly reject. But I suppose I would wonder how vulnerable to your critique is a more sophisticated notion of free will. Yes, of course, I'm deeply shaped by my culture. But that doesn't mean that when I sit down to say “Alright, Buenos Aires or Mexico City?” that I don't have a moment of choice in which I have thought about the options and evaluated them against some of my values and preferences. I nevertheless have a meaningful choice. 

I can acknowledge all of that and have as strong a notion of free will as I did before this conversation. But now we’re really down to your claim about the biological process that, somehow, what’s going on in the background in ways that I'm not aware of that actually make me fall prey to the illusion that I'm choosing, when, somehow, the moment I was born, it was predetermined.

Sapolsky: Well, I think we've just reframed it a bit because, as you said, you consider your options, you reflect on your “values and preferences.” And where do you get those values from? You didn't consciously choose those, because at the time those were incorporated into what makes you who you are, that was based on other things you had no control over. You cannot, no matter how much you try, prefer to prefer something else. Your preferences and values are the tip of the iceberg of what makes you you. You can't successfully wish to wish for something different from what you actually do wish for. In the moment, we have this seeming sort of open horizon of agency. But what we then do with that perceived agency is to intend to do something. But where did that intent come from?

Mounk: Now we have two different kinds of questions, and the first is, is it possible to have agency over some of the things like your values and preferences in a meaningful way? On that topic, I'll put my cards on the table: I think I'm agnostic about it. I don't entirely buy it. But I don't not buy it. It does seem like people change their values in certain ways; we're not just the product of hidden social influences in the ways that you seem to suggest, but there is something more like reflection that helps to form who we are in more meaningful ways. We can have a debate about that. Certainly, I think that, in meaningful ways, as adults, our preferences and tastes are reflected ones that are more than just dictated to us by our environment. 

But the other point that I've been wanting to make is, again, about whether the way in which people often argue against free will (and which I think you argue against free will, in this context) isn't slightly ambiguous between two different interpretations. I'm willing to say, for the sake of argument, at some level, the preferences and tastes I have are determined by my environment. But that is still consonant with the fact that, as I'm sitting down to make a choice between Buenos Aires and Mexico City, I am, in a meaningful way, reflecting on my preferences, my values, and reasoning about which of those two courses of action is going to be more enjoyable and more in tune with my conception of life and what I want out of life. 

I think to most people, that is where the meaningful center of free will lies: when you say there's no such thing as free will, what really freaks people out is the sense of “I thought that when I made a decision about who to marry, whether to have children, or where to go on holiday, I am reflecting in a deep sense on my values about how to act in the world, but, really, it's just neurons hitting against each other in my brain and all of that is an illusion—I'm really driven by all these other things.” That's what freaks people out. But I don't think you've made an argument against that notion of what determines our actions, or even that notion of whether there is a meaningful process of moral reasoning going on at that moment. Now, you might say the process of moral reasoning is predetermined by personality traits and values that stand in the background, so there's a kind of predetermination. But it still runs through a process of reflection about our values of trying to figure out how we want to act in the world—that, I think, is the meaningful piece of “free will” to most people.

Sapolsky: Your example here generates a very simple question: why do you wind up as the sort of person who respects self-reflection and analysis where you could just as easily have wound up as somebody where whim is what defines your values about how you go about making decisions? Because you have to be guided by your heart, your spirit. Why do you wind up being somebody who thinks reflection at that point and thinking hard is a good thing? 

Mounk: This is where getting away from the terminology of free will is helpful, because free will can mean so many different things that I think it becomes confusing. I think a lot of people would say, “Yeah, you're right. If I had had different parents, perhaps I would have different values and preferences in the world. If I had completely different genes, perhaps I would not be somebody who prizes reflection. The point, though, is that my self-conception is as somebody who holds a set of values that I can reflect upon, and who's trying to order my life in accordance with those values, as well as some other desires and so on, insofar as it’s possible. And the reason why I'm freaked out when somebody is telling me I don't have free will is that it makes me think that all of that is an illusion.” 

And you're not, I think, arguing that that's an illusion, right? You're saying the fact that you have those values and preferences is itself determined in part by a social environment—sure, I'm willing to admit all of that. But that doesn't actually dissolve the fact that it's meaningful to have a set of values and preferences and to try and order your life in accordance with them, and that this entails choices I make in light of those values that help to shape what I'm going to do in my life.

Sapolsky: There’s a key phrase that you use: your “self-conception.” First off, there's the question of whether it is an accurate predictor of what you're going to do. Because an awful lot of us have self-conceptions that involve a hell of a lot more self-control, social grace, talent, or capabilities than turns out to actually be the case. But assuming that that's actually congruent, even if that is an accurate picture of sort of what you wind up valuing and choosing, where the problem comes in is your belief that you constructed it; that you chose to have the teacher who had the enormous impact on your life, that not only did you choose to be mugged by somebody (which has left you with all sorts of geopolitical views about things) but that you had the sort of brain to reach that conclusion after that experience. 

When those sources occurred, you were not a blank slate; you would have brought all sorts of filters, biological and environmental, to those interactions. As to how you were going to interpret what that thing just did to you, which aspects of it you were even capable of paying attention to, or remembering all of that—we do not experience any of those. 

Mounk: You quoted me back to myself, I'm going to quote you back to yourself for a second. Towards the beginning of the conversation, you said “When I was 14, I decided that there's no such thing as free will.” You used the term “decided.” Now, presumably, you're speaking metaphorically, or it's just a habit of our language to use terms like decided, and you did not decide in a real or deepest sense. 

But how much should it change our view of the world if we agree with your argument? We're going to talk about this and have a wonderful conversation about this, and then we'll say, “Alright, where should we go to lunch: the Indian place or the Chinese place?” And it'll feel like we're making a decision, right? Should we change how we actually talk and think about the world on the basis of his insight? Are we capable of doing so?

Sapolsky: On the sort of language level, truly embracing this demands something that we're not capable of, and the philosopher John Searle has a wonderful quote about this. He happens not to believe there's free will, but are we supposed to go into a restaurant, and when the waiter comes over, are we supposed to say, “Well, I'm a hard determinist, so I'm just gonna sit back now and see what I order”? No, because that requires that there's a separate entity in there that’s separate from all of those influences. But, flipping the argument over, when you say of course there’s influences and all of that—let's sort of redefine that in the nuts and bolts of the biological world we come from, which is to say both you and I believe that this stuff is made of things like atoms, and brains are made out of things like cells that operate in certain ways; switching over to that, show me a way in which a neuron could have done what it just did that was completely independent of everything that came before. Show me that it could have had a different genome. Show me that it could have had a different history of what genes are readily activated, and show me it has a different history as to how it wound up connecting into this circuit instead of that circuit. Show me that all of those things didn't matter.

Show me anything that occurred independently of that, and you can say that your influences are just influential; when you put all those pieces together, that there is nothing that made you you that happened separate of how all that stuff works.

Mounk: Let’s leave that dispute to the side for now. I think we have different views about how clear it is that we’re determined all the way down. It's not clear to me that it follows that we're determined all the way down. But I'm generally agnostic. Where I have strong views is that the claim that we're determined in this way is often taken to entail a sort of radical revolution in how we should think about what human agency consists in, and what the structure of the world is—and that doesn't seem to follow. And here is where Searle's argument is very interesting: when you're sitting down to decide what to eat, you can't get around reflecting on which is going to be tastier—you're inextricably going to find yourself really engaged in a process of decision-making, which I think is part of what we care about when we talk about free will. 

When you stretch that argument further, you also get to interpersonal relationships. One of the key implications that free will is often meant to have is to say that if you treat me poorly, then I can't judge you for that, because you didn't choose that; it's beyond your control in some kind of way. So how can I be mad at you? Tim Scanlon and his work, I think, have put pressure on that notion very effectively; that, actually, human relationships are about the different sets of intentions you have, the sets of personality traits you have, and the relationship in which we stand to each other. And whether or not you have free will, if you treat me ill, I should be able to blame you for that. And I should be able to demand an apology to reestablish friendly relations. And none of that is actually imperiled by the supposed absence of free will in the way that people sometimes assume. How do you respond to that sort of line of argument?

Sapolsky: How do we judge when someone has supposedly been showing free will to us? Well, working with the restaurant example: the waiter comes over, and the person orders whatever, and the waiter happens to think that's an idiotic decision: they’re offended, they happen to be an animal rights activist, and I'm offended that they ordered red meat, and they judge them for that. But what's going on instead is the person is violently allergic to vegetables and tofu, and the waiter doesn't know the person’s inflammatory system developed in a way so that bits of tofu can put them into cardiac arrest. But that's not a special case, because suppose instead the waiter comes over and the person orders red meat, and the animal rights activist is absolutely enraged and despises the person and all of that. And why did the person order what they did in this case? Not because this is how their inflammatory system works, but because they got raised with values where their spiritual belief system forbids eating tofu. 

In that case, is the waiter allowed to be any more pissed off at them for violating the waiter's own moral preferences? No. It's a more subtle application of the same thing. It's only much harder for us to see that they didn't choose to be the sort of person who doesn't order tofu because in their theological system today is the day Saint Whoever was martyred for their unwillingness to eat tofu. It's just harder to see threads. In the same way, I've done a whole bunch of work trying to teach juries about the brain, and a jury, these days, if you wind up in the right jurisdiction with the right sort of demographic, a jury is going to be pretty comfortable with the idea that here's someone who had a concussive head trauma which put them into a lengthy coma when they were 10 years old, and they came out the other end a different sort of person—someone who now cannot regulate their behavior, and they are organically impaired when they did this outrageously damaging, impulsive thing or whatever. Most juries in sort of predictable parts of the country can sit there and say, “Oh, they had nothing to do with that—this part of their brain was damaged.” We can do that by now. 

Mounk: What you're saying is, if somebody has a traumatic brain trauma, and we can see how that leads to a failure of inhibition on aggressiveness and therefore they end up committing a violent crime, that should count as a kind of excuse or mitigating circumstance, or it had sort of some kind of significant consequence for how this criminal defendant is treated.

But presumably, now, if we embrace a broader rejection of free will, and you say “Actually, everybody is determined by their environment and by their genes,” then that same excuse should be available to everybody, right? Perhaps a child of extremely rich people growing up in great privilege was never disciplined enough and ended up being really spoiled. Presumably, the same excuse is available to them, because, like the person who grew up in poverty, they are a product of their influences and environment. 

Sapolsky: Absolutely. And what we're up against is, intellectually, is that it's a lot easier to understand single dramatic causes of things. And it's easy to come out the other end of considering this person with this singular, undeniable, neurological, neurologically-credentialed experience of having had a concussive head trauma, it's a lot easier for us to understand how that person came to have no control over their behavior than when it's distributed causality distributed more widely than we can even imagine, and distributed in ways that we can never ever be conscious of. And thus, we have a hard time giving any credence to it. It’s a much harder task for us to say, “Oh, that's why they did it. They had no control over that, either.”

Mounk: Let's grant that for the moment. I think that actually illustrates perfectly how we think that questions turn on free will when they really don't. I think the moral notion that you seem to have in the background here is that the judge and jury are standing for God. But you come in and say, “Actually, there's no good or bad human beings in that kind of way, because we're all products of our influences, and environments and genes and all of those kinds of things. And, therefore, it is unjust to put these people in jail because they didn't have an ability to act otherwise.”

But I think that that is misconstruing what the role of the criminal justice system is. The role of the criminal justice system is that we are trying to maintain a society with people who have very different motivations and desires, and we need to maintain public order. If we don't punish people for acting in deeply socially destructive ways, we're gonna end up with a hellscape. And we know from many studies in criminology that rapid and certain punishment is a powerful deterrent, and so the reason why we're punishing these people is not that we are playing God: we want to build a deterrent that stops other people from engaging in similar behavior. And so this is why I think this sort of obsession with whether or not free will exists in terms of how to think about our social institutions is just a distraction.

Sapolsky: We're transitioning now as to whether it's a good idea to convince people that there's no free will or not. To define the landscape—it's not only how we evaluate good and evil and all of that, it's how we feel about somebody. I think what you're getting at is, even in a world in which did we decide that none of us are responsible for who we became, nonetheless, now and then, in a purely instrumental way, it is a good thing to do some moralizing, to hit somebody over the head, if a society runs on sufficient deterrence, but recognize that as merely a tool. 

These absolutely could be tools, but it has to be within a backdrop of no actual responsibility. And that's where it sticks in everybody's throat. Because if we just believe the former version, somebody does something unspeakably horrible, and we say, “OK, they are now going to spend the rest of their life in jail. And there's no chance of them getting out. And they will never ever get to be home for Christmas and smell the whatever and have a great time with their family.” And it may be scientifically provable that people are now less likely to do whatever. But you would have to show that we'd be willing to [present] it that way when, in reality, we instead put the person on this fabulous tropical island, and they spend the rest of their lives getting great golf lessons and free drinks or whatever. Because if we truly believe that all we want out of it is the instrumental value, we should be OK with sticking them at the resort. And we're not, because we think they deserve punishment. We take pleasure in the righteousness of it. We believe that blame and punishment is justified for actions that people did not have control over because it fits with our view of stuff. 

And the way to see that those are just temporary constructs is that we have figured out how not to think that way in certain domains. Somebody has an epileptic seizure while they're driving a car, they have no history of it before, it comes from out of nowhere. They lose control of the car as a result and strike somebody. And 100 years ago, we would be able to say, or 200 years ago, in certain cultures, we would be able to say, “Yeah, this person's demonically possessed, they welcomed Satan into them. And the appropriate thing to do now is burned at the stake.” And what we've learned since then is that none of that stuff is relevant. Because we're not looking at a rotten soul. We're looking at somebody's screwed up potassium channels in their brain. And we instead come up with something that is completely free of retribution and the need for blame. We say, “Take these meds, and the law in our state is you have to be seizure-free now for X number of months before we can give you your driver's license back.” We've subtracted all of the stuff you were referring to, and society hasn't fallen apart. The roof hasn't caved in. And it's a better world in which we don't burn people at the stake because of some biology they had no control over.

Mounk: I want to ask a last question. You ask “Is it okay to blame people for things which they may not be able to choose? Are we morally at fault when we make those attributions of blame?” But that is assuming once again, that you and I in this case, are capable of that kind of form of moral reflection, and that if we act in the wrong way, we become subject to moral opprobrium. But if we were consistent about believing that the absence of free will makes it impossible to blame or praise people to punish or reward them, then we shouldn't have that concern. Because we are going to do whatever we're going to do, and there's no standpoint from which anybody might heap praise or blame upon us for blaming or praising somebody else.

Sapolsky: We're in danger of a Möbius strip here of recursive things: You can't judge somebody, but does that mean I can't judge you for not judging somebody? And so on all the way down. I think the best way to appreciate that is to understand that there's all sorts of realms in which we don't have this conversation at all, because we have completely solid, societally agreed-upon intuitions. We have this totally agreed-upon intuition that it's not okay for people to be slaves. Yet you and I, with the exact same us-ness, living 100 years ago, valuing reflection and reasoning and all of that—it would just seem intuitive to us that some people are meant to be slaves. What we take to be so much of an obvious intuition now is something that was not in the past and would not have been to us in the past. 

At some point in the future, it will seem intuitively obvious that the intuitions we had about all of this made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Because in your and my lifetime, we've been able to see some of these shifts: if I was a professor 50 years ago, and I had a student who every week was spacing out in class, and they weren't getting their assignments in on time, and I would have had a whole bunch of attributions that I don't have now, because I now know about this thing called Attention Deficit Disorder and the organizational skills that that plays havoc with, and I know something about the science of it. And that is now a domain, which, in my mind, is completely irrelevant to what you and I've just spent the last hour on. We're just talking about the stuff that we haven't yet been able to explain in that way.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.