Robert Sapolsky on life without free will

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“Neuroscience cannot disprove free will. Genetics cannot disprove free will. Endocrinology can't do it. Evolutionary theory, child development, etcetera, etcetera, but put all the pieces together and you can” says Robert Sapolsky. Graphic courtesy of KCRW’s Gabby Quarante.

When it comes to determining what we’ll do in our life — i.e., what job we take, where we live, or how we interact with the world — the assumption is that the decision is ours and that we’re all masters of our own destiny.

Whether we’re good or evil, work hard or slack off, look like an athlete or not, it’s our choice. It follows that we live in a world that rewards and praises those who achieve greatness while punishing and blaming those who fall by the wayside.  

But just how much control over our actions do we actually have? Stanford biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky offers a different perspective in his latest book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will,  Advances in scientific and behavioral research indicate that environment, genes, hormones, culture, childhood, and even the nine months spent in the womb, have a far greater impact over how we behave and the choices we make. 

“Your first day after birth, you're already being influenced by the culture that your mother was brought up in,” says Sapolsky. “There's differences in instances of antisocial violence and instances of different forms of psychiatric disorders in different cultures — we've got massive cultural differences and they make for different brains.”

It’s a provocative yet compelling argument that gets to the heart of our identity and individualism. Still, Sapolsky says that he sees it as “incredibly liberating” and adds that if you “walk through the implications of this, praise, blame and reward, and punishment make no sense whatsoever as virtues.”

And what are the implications for society and the criminal justice system? According to Sapolsky, “the entire system has to be trashed because it's predicated on the notion that it is okay to treat some people less than average because of the things they had no control over.”

A better understanding of determinism, the belief that all actions and events result from other actions, events, or situations, could also lead to greater compassion and a reexamination of our current system. As Sapolsky sees it, “we have a world in which we treat some people really badly for stuff they had no control over and other people get second homes up in the mountains.”

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  • Robert Sapolsky - Author; Professor of Biology, neurology and neuro-surgery, Stanford University


Andrea Brody