Sapolsky: "You can't successfully wish to wish for something different from what you actually do wish for."

Nonsense. I've done it many times. When you forgive someone, you stop wishing harm upon them. Maybe you don't come to wish them rainbows and ponies, but at least you withdraw your negative wish. But forgiveness can be difficult; it's not uncommon to find yourself in a place of knowing you need to forgive, and wishing you could, but not being ready.

Sapolsky is choosing, out of his own free will, not to believe in free will. Fine, he can do that, but why do so many people welcome this message?

Expand full comment

An insight you get at fourteen, even if it's basically true, is likely to be an oversimplification. By Sapolsky's age you should know that.

Expand full comment

The great John Searle, philosopher of mind, is mentioned in the podcast, and it's worth listening to his bracingly clear, persuasive, and brief take on the problem of free will here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=973akk1q5Ws

In any case, I agree with Yascha that a rejection of the possibility of free will does not necessitate significant changes in the way we think about criminal punishment or punishment generally. As a law-trained person, I can rattle off the list of four purposes for criminal punishment in theory: confinement, deterrence, rehabilitation, and, most classically, retribution. All of those continue to make sense in a world of hard determinism, as much as any policy can make sense in such a world. (After all, as Searle notes, we simply can't escape the necessity of making up our minds, about criminal punishment or what you want for dinner or anything.)

Ask yourself, in a determined world, do we still wish to confine dangerous people? Do we still wish to deter criminal conduct? Do we still hope to rehabilitate offenders so they don't commit further crimes and in recognition of their humanity and potential (to whatever extent we ever sought to)? Do we still wish to "balance the books" in cases of egregious wrongs, in a spirit of condemnation of deeply anti-social conduct? I would say that we do, and that nothing about the determinist's argument demonstrates that we're wrong to want those things or wrong to pursue them.

The determinist might object that this attitude is inconsistent with principles of mens rea and excuse. After all, the criminal law only punishes actions said to be carried out with some sort of intent, and it provides insanity defenses. The whole edifice is premised on the idea that people make choices. If we accept the hard determinist's argument, there's no such thing as choices, only the illusion of choices. We all seem to agree that a schizophrenic truly under a delusion that the person she shot, let's say, was a spider monster out of a horror movie should not be held criminally liable in the same way as a person who, without such delusion, shoots their victim out of pure malice. The former case, we seem to agree, is akin to some third party grabbing the gun and pulling the trigger while it's in your hand. *You* didn't do it. In the latter case, there was no such demon. You did do it. Thus, we typically punish crimes committed with "malice aforethought" -- ones planned, committed with time for deliberation and reflection -- more severely than those committed in the heat of the moment, as, perhaps, a more understandable reaction to a provocation. But, the determinist might say, these are false categories. All of it is determined to the same extent. *Everything* is like a third party taking hold of that gun. As we increasingly come to understand the deterministic mechanisms at work in each case, we will find it harder and harder to justify criminal punishment.

Okay, but these crimes, even if they are equally determined, are not all equally *deterrable*, and this is where the determinist who urges leniency misses the point. Take our deliberate, sane shooter with malice aforethought. Sapolsky argues that there's no room for "fairy dust" in accounting for that person's "choice." But there *is* room for that person's mental processes, their state of mind, to be affected by the prospect of punishment -- lots and lots of room, and the most room for the most deliberate act. Indeed, a hard determinist would heartily endorse, I'm sure, the idea that such a prospect operates on the individual's determined brain, as one of the "eleventy" causes of what they do. Meanwhile, importantly, there is no such room in the case of the delusional schizophrenic. After all, she thinks she's being attacked by a monster and is, in her mind, acting in self-defense, which is legally and morally justified. Her actions are not deterrable by the prospect of punishment. (At the same time, we would want her confined and treated.)

Thus, our traditional approach to criminal punishment continues to make sense. The more the crime is deterrable by the threat of punishment, the more comfortable we feel punishing it and the more it makes sense to do so. Criminal punishment here is simply the "positive punishment" box in operant conditioning, psychological theory that has little time for souls and whatnot and is highly deterministic in its outlook and assumptions.

Sapolsky's response is to suggest that, notwithstanding criminal punishment's defensibility as a rational "tool," it would, in the real world, look much different if we accepted the determinist's account. He raises the prospect of simple separation on a resort island. Why wouldn't we be happy with that? Well, as Yascha points out, that wouldn't be much of a punishment, and thus not much of a deterrent! I take Sapolsky's point here, though, to a degree. I have often thought that criminal punishment need not and should not include draconian, inhumane conditions. I would settle for merely humble conditions, like a student dorm -- conditions that meet essential needs, including those for privacy and safety. At the same time, draconian conditions can be rationalized as an added deterrent. I'm willing to suppose that in a world where every felony is punished by a swift death penalty, we would have fewer felonies, but I wouldn't want to live in that world. In any case, I'm not sure the determinist can really undermine an argument for such a world, at least not with determinism alone.

But what about retribution? That's one of the classic rationales for criminal punishment. Surely that one must fall in the face of the determinist's account. Not so fast. I've always been more of a confinement/deterrent/rehabilitation-if-possible sort of guy, but it's worth pointing out Sapolsky's rhetorical error on this point. He notes that, in times past, people thought it made sense to, say, punish people for the evil demon working through them. We now know better, he says. We know there's no satanic demon -- just neurons acting on neurons, etc.

But it's not clear to me why the determinist's account doesn't actually *support* that old practice rather than condemn it. After all, that practice wasn't based on an idea of free choice, quite the opposite. It was premised on an idea that an evil force had taken control of the malefactor -- that a demon had taken control of the gun. Sapolsky seems to argue that that is in fact what's going on! The only difference is that the force we call evil is neurons acting on others rather than a literal demon. But so what?

When seen in this light, the determinist's insight leads us down a quite different path from that of Sapolsky's humanitarian instincts. Indeed, it could revive a notion of strict liability. You have taken, you have harmed, you are a malignant force. You must be removed or even destroyed like a cancer or a pestilence or any other "mindless" thing that does people harm!

I wouldn't go that far, but I can see room in the determinist's world for a view that says something like the following: we want to live in a culture that reinforces certain values and behavior, one that honors right and abhors wrong. Part of that culture could surely include very harsh treatment for very bad crimes, and that would be as rational as wanting such a culture in the first place. Perhaps, on this reasoning, retribution is ultimately justified as just another sort of deterrence, but, I suggest, this way of thinking depends less on a cooly objective approach, one that would calibrate punishments to what studies show is deterrable and so on. It would, rather, serve to validate a more general insistence on whatever we recognize as the good.

It's ultimately a matter of what sort of society we want to live in. I don't think the determinist's account resolves or even really touches that question.

Expand full comment
Nov 12·edited Nov 12

This is a wonderful conversation. I understand that "'data' is not the plural of 'anecdote'", but since Professor Sapolsky's thesis started with an anecdote which he's been selecting evidence to support ever since, I'll risk an anecdote of my own, in contrast to his statement, "You cannot, no matter how much you try, prefer to prefer something else. "

In Spring of 2014, I was looking forward to winding down my consulting business, selling up in the near Chicago suburbs, and retiring to an exciting new life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I know Santa Fe well and love the climate, the culture, the food, even the air. There was no doubt that life would be good there, with a beautiful new home, my art collection, new friends, new places to explore, a church community that I already had visited. I hadn't started putting moving checklists together yet, but I was already blocking out the plan in my mind.

In April, I received a message on a gay pickup site (really! 😂) from a very handsome, very young guy in Brazil to say that he thought I was attractive. Interested or not I always used to thank people who sent me messages like that, so I sent off a quick "thank you" and thought no more about it. I have a lifelong connection to Brazil dating back to my Peace Corps days right after college and even before. I speak Portuguese as well as I speak English and had consulting clients in Brazil, so there was little doubt that the country figured in my future, but only as somewhere to visit from time to time, certainly not as a permanent home.

To my surprise, I received a very nice response to my message, in beautiful Portuguese. Soon we were messaging several times a day, and it was clear that we had an almost immediate and intense connection. The next month I went to Brazil to meet him, before internet fantasies got totally out of hand. We fell in love, and for the next three years, he spend 2-3 months every year in the US, and I spent 2-3 months every year in Brazil. We talked every day when we were apart. We were married in Illinois in July of 2017; I moved to Brazil in November of that year, because that's where my husband's best career prospects are. In 2019 I became a naturalized Brazilian citizen while retaining my US citizenship -- one of those "two-passport people".

Sometimes I think about what my life would have been like in Santa Fe, not with longing, but with genuine wonder. I have no doubt that I would have been very happy there. I'm happier here, but this is the thing: I never would have known that. A lot of the difference here is that I get so much joy just from being married, which shocked me at first, because it was so unexpected. If anything, I was always wary of marriage as something that would limit my freedom. One thing I've learned over the past almost ten years is that our ability as humans to experience and appreciate happiness seems to expand with the more happiness and different kinds of happiness that come into our lives. And that we allow into our lives. My happiness in Santa Fe would have felt "full". Here it feels full, too, but greater.

My preference for moving to Santa Fe was strong, knowledge-based, and I'd felt it for years. Yet, when the very odd chain of events I've described above took place, it was totally eclipsed by a preference that I wouldn't even have considered under any "normal" circumstances. It does seem to me that I WAS able to "prefer to prefer something else", and to act on the new preference.

Even accepting, for the sake of argument, the chain of events above as a commonplace of the Internet Age, to say that my decision, or my husband's decision, were predetermined by our mental wiring and life experiences seems nothing more to me than dressing up the old, old idea of Fate in scientific clothes that don't really fit her very well. We're both unusually open to new experiences, and unusually resistant to other people's opinions -- it's hard to tell whether there were more people in the US who thought that he was a golddigger exploiting a lonely old codger, or in Brazil who thought that I was a dirty old man corrupting their Golden Boy, but there were plenty on both sides -- but that only made us available to each other. The idea that neither of us had agency has trouble standing up to Occam's Razor, in my view.

Expand full comment

A deterministic view of the concept of individual causality, of free will, also, as with the free will adherents, presumes the individual as distinct from the manifold of instances which produced him, but, in the view of the former, having no assignable responsibility for actions nominally assigned by usage to his agency. Such begs the question of “Why the empty suit?”. The argument presumes the reductive fallacy that an entity may be defined as the sum of its parts rather than as an entity defined by a particular arrangement of those parts and the consequences of those parts having been brought de novo into that particular arrangement. The argument deconstructs responsibility to the point of absurdity, having reduced the self to nonexistence.

The assumption of individual responsibility, of causality, does not necessitate that the individual is without prior influences, not only regarding his physical makeup, but of his proclivities as well; but that the individual is unique to the moment having a proximate reality a posteriori to speculation of its antecedents. We are each unique to the moment. The innumerable influences that produced us are only relevant to the extent that they are operationally relevant to one’s current unique manifestation. What came before may help to explain the present. But time, in this sense, is not a continuum; only the present may be said to exist. The proximate being, the individual, is a fully realized causal entity, a first cause, proof of itself by demonstration—that assumption of itself formative.

We may use physical and biological evidence to argue that rational beings do make decisions based on the operation of will and that to some significant degree will is autonomous and responsible for the outcome of its operation. The capacity for consciousness is genetically driven, as a decision-making entity in response to unique environmental situations, but the advent of consciousness occurs within the mind of an individual and is emergent and learned, and as such actively participates in the creation of its own self, is free, but no more or less free than to say that the freedom of all things is contingent upon history and circumstance; yet the will is autonomous to the extent that it is analytical and causal. It analysis unique situations and dictates actions it deems appropriate to its self-perceived interest.

Physical and mental realities are subject to different rules. Mental activities arise from physical structures and may be described in chemical and electrical terms but are not only subject to the laws of physics; they are peculiar to the biological world. Acts of will occur at the interface of physical reality and non-physical mentality, i.e., of consciousness, where we experience physical reality but act from reason or intuition according to desired outcomes. Our will is conditionally free in the context of our self, defined as a causal entity biologically designed for the capacity to make decisions based upon unique information as to possibilities inherent in the moment. The concept of quantum indeterminism amplified to the macroscopic level of chaos falsifies a classical deterministic view of the universe as a clock, once wound, playing out to the finest detail, to its inevitable conclusion. Will is the mechanism by which the uniquely teleological, i.e., goal driven, biological entity acts independently—within the context of its genotypic design and environmental influences and constraints—in response to stimuli from a multiplicity of diverse and unique situations according to its own judgement. It is its own complex adaptive system, a conditionally autonomous decision maker that emerged through biological evolution in response to the unreliability of the deterministic model. Will is at every moment confronted by the world as it is, for which no fixed intuition would be totally adequate. The will, for the organism to function, must be more than a helpless spectator of inevitable forces. From intuition and the experiential models we hold, we make judgements as to what actions might facilitate desirable outcomes. Physical systems are functions of their components; biological systems are, additionally, functions of their purposes.

Outcomes in the non-biological world are determined by physical laws, those in the biological world additionally influenced by the circumstance and purpose of the organism, purpose being a biological phenomenon. Consciousness is a function of biology. Consciousness begins with its first response to physical stimulus and is emergent as the self-becoming of itself. We act according to inherent propensity, perception and by volition. The act of will is the proximate causal event resulting both from perception of immediate circumstance and the decision of the will regarding action to be taken to achieve a desired outcome. Will comes into being, through the unfolding of the genetic program and its capacity for the development of consciousness, by empirical feedback, i.e., learning, by the growth of self-awareness through the contemplation of itself within the context of its environment—by the emergence of the self through the evolvement of its own volition. Will is free not because the action of the conscious entity is indeterminate but that it is, by design, undetermined. It’s very concept is of an entity self-created to make choices between variables based upon its developed state of consciousness, its judgement. The will is a primary force originating causal action. It creates order from randomness. Will constitutes a first cause and any explanation of its origin is secondary to its emergent reality.

Will is free in that it has been empowered, by evolutional distinction, to a status sufficient to order conflicting emotions—hopes, fears, and perceptions of necessity—and in performing that task it incurs responsibility, whether for praise or blame. That feedback is a functional mechanism, requires the assumption of a will that is free to respond to stimulus by light of judgement. And judgement must be judged by the quality of its decisions. Language and societal structures presume individual responsibility; any other position flies in the face of usage and is without utility. That we are the product of our heredity and environment is not a complete description in that it does not include the self as a causal agent. In assigning identity to the function of reason and learning, we as sign to it will in recognition of the power that it draws to itself in the function of resolving conflicting circumstances and emotions to the level of decision and action. Self is defined by the function of will between freedom and responsibility. Who we become is determined by our genetic propensities and by cumulative acts of will in response to environmental circumstance, and by our evolving sense of self in response to our own volition within the experiential world.

Will is subject to the genetic and environmental forces from which it emerges, to the extent that we act from where we are, in terms of our current ‘state’; and those forces include transgenerational influences of law and custom, of class and identity, of the zeitgeist, as well as heritable manifestations of human nature, of genetically defined behavioral propensities, that profoundly influence the range of our actions; and the momentary outcome of history, i.e., the present, and is expressed by the confluence of these influences. Nonetheless, we have causal integrity, and are in some real sense, through the accretion of decisions and their consequences, through the processes of thought and action, whom we have chosen to become and whom we choose to be. We are hemmed in by historical inertia and circumstance, but we have a say in the matter that operates, in matters both small and large, in ways that, in some real sense, may transcend or mitigate those limitations. Thought has the capacity for originality, and originality is of a construct that before consciousness did not exist except in the form of the accidental. The necessity of making decisions about truly unique situations, and the capacity for originality, create feedback loops that thicken the causal actuality of the emergent self—the neural network of consciousness.

Within the context of the real world we continually model outcomes of our own actions and make choices between outcomes assumed to be viable. Those choices have consequences in the real world, including the elimination of the outcomes not chosen. To the extent that we are knowledgeable of those effects, that knowledge is a reinforcement of our emergent sense of self, or will, or state of consciousness. Thoughts as original formulations have the power of levitation.

Expand full comment
Nov 14·edited Nov 14

One more point, this time in defense of free will: It's popular now to talk about consciousness as an "emergent" property -- one that magically manifests from the complexity of the system, as though that really explains it. It's not clear to me that a similar argument could not be made on behalf of free will -- in other words, just as the mystery of consciousness somehow manifests, why not the mystery of free will too? The brain remains mysterious to me, the most interesting thing in the known universe by far, and I'm not sure what I'd put past it, notwithstanding its materiality.

Expand full comment

I love what you're doing with Persuasion, and pretty much agree with your views down the line. My one reservation about the podcast is that sometimes you're overly deferential when a guest says something dubios. Accordingly, I was delighted by your pushback on Sapolsky.

The "free will" question raises profound philosophical questions, all the way to what is meant by "I" and "I think," but it was probably wise to avoid these weeds. I respect Sapolsky's scientific contributions, but speaking as a fellow neuroscientist, I think there's a note of scientism in his claims. We are very far indeed from understanding how the brain works. I don't think there's any question that our thoughts and actions are molded by many factors beyond our control, but to imply that because pulling the trigger of a gun requires the synchronous firing of multiple motoneurons, we are the helpless puppet of our bodies, it would be wrong to blame the shooter goes far beyond current scientific understanding.

Expand full comment
Nov 13·edited Nov 13

As long as, by Professor Sapolsky's own admission, we can't identify the biochemical, environmental, and hereditary factors that program anti-social behavior, then assuming them seems as arbitrary as assuming evil spirits, and significantly more arbitrary than assuming agency and at least the possibility of remorse and rehabilitation. But it can get much worse.

I dread that the advance of scientific "certainty" of causality and absence of responsibility will bring in its wake social pressure to "fix" the "defective" people, as it always has in the past. That could mean more indeterminate sentences, with more psychotropic medication for more people and a growing list of offenses. "You can have your license back if you're seizure-free after x months of taking this medication" seems reasonable enough, but as a general rule for all offenses it shades too easily into "you can have your freedom back when our psychiatric board certifies that your anti-social condition has been cured."

Expand full comment

On Free Will

What this conversation tells me is that the language of “free will” is deficit. (Lonergan calls it an “inverse insight.”) I choose to reject talking about free will except to say that.

The word we want in both ethics and politics including legal theory is “responsibility,” I.e. the ability to respond. We know enough about neurology and psychology to know that any personal or collective perception, viewpoint, behavior, and decision is within a long social, interdependent, contingent process of interaction with my physical, social, cultural, economic, and political environment. There are moments when I feel that “two paths are diverging in a yellow woods” and even that feeling is a recalling in memoire. I am responding at every step along the way sometimes swimming with or against the wave. And in that process of responding or not, I am developing who I am—my soul, my self, my character.

To deny “free will” (as I do) is not to deny responsibility and the ability to respond that helps shape my character, environment, and world. I am never totally free (meaning independent, master of the universe). Realizing that keeps me on a course to greater freedom—meaning greater agency (i.e, power) in the process with others in shaping ourselves, our soul, our character, our environment, our world.

Accidents of nature and society happen for which my personal, individual “I” is not responsible until I do actually respond or not respond. The more I respond the more I increase my ability to respond. Freedom is not an event or an entity or essence. Not a quid, but a quo. It is the result of a very relational, and never ending, process that I am choosing to engage.

Expand full comment