by Robert M. Sapolsky (Penguin Press, 528 pp., $35)
The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer famously suggested that human civilization “must believe in free will—we have no choice.”
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, begs to differ. The author of the aptly titled Determined: Life without Free Will, Sapolsky argues rather persuasively that none of us are free agents. Rather, he suggests, we are the products of our environments, our biological properties, our hormones, and a variety of other things that we have little, if any, control over.
In the words of Sapolsky, “we are never free to intend what we intend,” because every action is determined by something that occurred earlier in our lives—and many of these occurrences materialized without our knowledge and without our consent.” Every action is similar to a domino falling.
In a meticulous manner, Determined dissects the differences between success and failure. Contrary to popular belief, according to Sapolsky, the mathematician, the maestro-like musician, and the multimillionaire entrepreneur are less the product of individual brilliance and more the product of a lucky lottery win. Their subsequent successes, he notes, are highly contingent on the womb they find themselves in, because the nine months spent there have “lifelong epigenetic consequences.” As no child gets to choose the womb they will inhibit, the hospital they are born in, the doctor that helps deliver them, or the home they find themselves raised in, the idea of free will gets shaken to its core. Sapolsky examines the luck (or lack thereof) of the baby born to a drug-addicted mother. What chance does this child, raised in abject poverty in a violent neighborhood, stand in this unforgiving world? Could they be the next rags-to-riches story? Perhaps. But it’s highly unlikely—poverty in childhood generally results in an impoverished adulthood. If such a child had a choice, would he or she have chosen to be born into such circumstances?
All of this might leave you, the reader, feeling a bit disillusioned. But, according to Sapolsky, it really shouldn’t. In an interview with the New York Times, the academic suggested that a world without free will is pretty “liberating” for most people, for whom “life has been about being blamed and punished and deprived and ignored for things they have no control over.” A genial gent with a formidable intellect and even more formidable beard, Sapolsky doesn’t view the absence of free will as troubling. Not in the slightest. In an interview, he told me that if we wish to fully understand the free will debate, we must first examine a person’s behavior.
“A behavior happens,” he says. “Someone does something good or bad, and you ask why they did it.” It’s not rocket science; it’s neuroscience. They did what they did, suggests Sapolsky, “because a bunch of neurons did this or that a tenth of a second earlier. And to make sense of those neurons doing that, you have to know what all the other 80 billion neurons were doing just before, the state of the person at that moment—were they tired, scared, happy, stressed, hungry, what sensory stimuli were occurring that were impacting those neurons?”
Anything else we should know? I ask.
Yes, he says.
You have to know what the levels were of a gazillion different hormones in the person's bloodstream that morning, because they would have shaped how sensitive those neurons were to those particular stimuli. And you have to know what the person's previous months, few years have been like—had they gone through a major trauma or loss; had they found love; found God; whatever—because all those things change the brain—"neuroplasticity”—and often not in subtle ways, where one area of the brain may have been atrophying, another expanding.
Is that it? I ask. No! There’s even more.
At that point, says Sapolsky, you must
go back to the person's adolescence, where arguably the most important part of the brain was undergoing its final stage of construction, and childhood, and fetal life (where hormone levels in the mother's bloodstream—how she is reacting to the world—shape fetal brain construction, for example). And the person's genes. And, amazingly, what sort of culture the person's ancestors invented in what sort of ecosystem, because that was shaping how their mother mothered them within minutes of birth.
“Are you sorry you asked?” he asks me, somewhat sarcastically. The answer is yes. Yes, I am.
To be clear, Sapolsky is a determinist, not a fatalist. Determinism uses scientific data, whereas fatalism is more of a philosophical or religious idea, completely untethered from science. Sapolsky, very much a man of science, is certainly not a man of religion. An atheist since the age of fourteen, the Brooklyn-born brainiac, now sixty-six years old, has spent more than forty years wrestling with the idea of free will, human agency, and the search for meaning in a (scientifically speaking) meaningless world.
Sapolsky’s thesis poses a direct challenge to the legal system, as well as to our concepts of “good” and “evil.” The author’s book challenges the concept of inherent evil. Was Jeffrey Dahmer really a violent immoral man who could have acted differently but chose otherwise, or simply a guy who found himself in the wrong womb at the wrong time, raised in the wrong home by the wrong type of parents? If we veer towards the latter assumption, then we quickly see that Dahmer was simply dealt bad cards, and his life of explicit violence and unspeakable crimes were, in some ways, beyond his control. Sapolsky is not asking you to necessarily sympathize with Dahmer (or Manson, or Hitler, or the like) but to view the ideas of “good” and “bad” through a broader lens.
Nevertheless, Kevin Mitchell, also the author of a new book, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, thinks otherwise. A neurogeneticist at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, Mitchell tells me that Sapolsky’s desire to think “that all the prior influences on our behavior should be thought of, collectively, as completely and absolutely determining what we do (so we have no freedom or choice or control whatsoever),” is wrong. Rather, he says, we should think “of them as influencing and informing us in ways that shape our degrees of freedom (within which, we, as whole causal entities—our selves—still make real choices).
Moreover, says Mitchell, “looking to locate free will at the lowest levels of neural functioning,” as Sapolsky does, “is weird on several levels.” First, notes the academic, “this would just be random, not controlled by a self. Second, why look down for free will—the ability of the whole organism to control its behavior for organism-level reasons? Sapolsky should be looking up!”
Even when Sapolsky does look up, however, Mitchell accuses him of falling into dualist thinking. “At least, he seems to think that if we can show that some brain regions or circuits or neurons are involved when animals or humans are making decisions or selecting actions, then this shows that ‘you’ are not really doing it—it's just your brain making the decisions,” Mitchell says. “This,” he concludes, “is also weird. How else are you supposed to make a decision, except by using your brain?”
Christian List, the author of Why Free Will Is Real, also challenges the no-free-will theory. "On the subject of agency and free will, [Sapolsky] makes some serious conceptual mistakes.” List, a professor of philosophy and decision theory at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, concludes that “Sapolsky seems to think, in essence, that because human actions have a physical implementation mechanism in the brain and body and because human choices always take place in a context (which no one could reasonably deny), there is no room for genuine human agency and free will.” Sapolsky's argument doesn't make a crucial distinction between humans as products of their environment and humans as shaping their environment through agency. The individual agency of humankind, List notes, is critical in the scientific explanation of complex human behaviors. "How could we even begin to make sense of history, politics, and culture, for example, if we didn’t recognize that humans are goal-directed agents capable of making choices?”
Unsurprisingly, Sapolsky is having none of it. Whether we look at voting patterns or school shootings, he believes that the idea of taking any person as able to assume full responsibility for their actions is, at best, a nonsensical one. "None of us are entities that can be ‘responsible’ for actions” that are “separate from the biology and environment that happened one second before, one minute before, one century before,” he says. In short, stresses Sapolsky, “there is no separate entity.” We cannot be separated from our biology and the neurochemistry of yesteryears (and yesterseconds).
Whatever your own thoughts on the idea of free will and human agency, reading Sapolsky’s new book is certainly worth the effort. An author capable of making complex subjects accessible to the general public, Sapolsky is one of America’s most important contemporary thinkers on the nature of the human mind. In Determined, his avowed determination to make the reader view the world in a deterministic light is both compelling and controversial.
John Mac Ghlionn is an essayist and regular contributor to the New York Post and The Spectator (US and UK). He can be found on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ghlionn.
Image: A man surveys the choices among vending machines. (Unsplash: Victoriano Lzquierdo)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe