Reconsidering Whether We Have Free Will

by David Kordahl

A few months ago, the Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky released Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. It’s a book whose thesis is as easy to state as it is hard to accept. Sapolsky argues that since our actions result from nothing more than one event following another, no one really deserves praise or blame for anything they do. Our actions are determined by physical events in the physical brain, tightly linked in a causal chain that none of us is able to control any more than anyone else. Our attitudes about all sorts of everyday issues, from financial compensation to prison sentencing, should be reformed in the light of this truth.

Sapolsky is a witty writer, but notions of agency are so deeply baked into our usual way of talking that he frequently has to catch himself. (From a footnote: “I have to try to go through the same thinking process that this whole book is about to arrive at any thoughts about [Bruno] Bettelheim other than that he was a sick, sadistic fuck.”) While one might turn to Determined for lively discussions about current debates in neuroscience, philosophers who have criticized the book point out that there’s nothing really new in his basic assertion, besides the new details.

Of course, filling in the details can be important for establishing plausibility. But the problem with determinism—at least for scientists since the time of Laplace—isn’t that the idea seems implausible. The problem is that even if determinism is plausible, it’s not clear what the consequences of this realization should be.

Consider William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, who waded into the free will debate over a century ago in his short 1907 tract, Pragmatism. James, as it turns out, is mentioned on the very first page of Determined, as the “fall guy” for Sapolsky’s college version of the turtles all the way down joke. (From another of Determined’s frequent footnotes: “We told our version because we liked James’s beard, and there was a building on campus named for him.”) But Sapolsky only addresses James’s objections to the standard discussions of free will indirectly, and this column will lay out these objections more bluntly.

James insisted that philosophical pragmatism indicates two things. On the one hand, pragmatism suggests an attitude that we should adopt toward words and concepts, wherein we examine their “cash-value,” putting new concepts in relation with familiar ones. On the other hand, pragmatism also entails a revised theory of truth. This revised theory holds that truth has less to do with the world “out there” than with with the relationships of new claims to the claims that we already accept. As James wrote, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.”

Though William James’s pragmatism is a variety of empiricism, it’s easy to see why it never caught on among natural scientists. (The physicists I’ve read who gesture toward pragmatism instead cite Charles Sanders Pierce, who was himself a mathematician and natural scientist.) Most natural scientists are motivated to discover something about the objective, mind-independent properties of nature, not just relations between human concepts, constrained by our environment.

Pragmatism stipulates that we recognize scientific theories as human tools, levers that we use to augment our possibilities. We should adopt whatever theories prove most helpful. To reproduce another emphasized maxim of James: “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.”

The question of free will is addressed in Lecture III of Pragmatism, “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” The way that James pragmatically considers said metaphysical problems follows from the basic methodology of pragmatism. First, he considers how concepts are used. Next, he evaluates whether these way of using concepts are actually helpful to us.

James was an advocate of free will, but seemed to waffle on whether it was a quasi-religious principle or a scientific claim. Here’s the key passage:

Free-will pragmatically means novelties in the world, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past. That imitation en masse is there, who can deny? The general ‘uniformity of nature’ is presupposed by every lesser law. But nature may be only approximately uniform; and persons in whom knowledge of the world’s past has bred pessimism (or doubts as to the world’s good character, which become certainties if that character be supposed eternally fixed) may naturally welcome free-will as a melioristic doctrine. It holds up improvement as at least possible; whereas determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance, and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world.

In this passage, James was rewarming an argument that he had made some years earlier in “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in which he took moral offense at the very idea of determinism. Basically, James felt scientists were backing him into a corner, insisting that he must, as a rational person, accept determinism—to which he raucously cleared his throat and yelled back, you can’t make me!

Modern opponents of Sapolsky sound a similar note. In his short column, “Free Will and the Sapolsky Paradox,” the science journalist John Horgan claims that the existence of a remarkable character like Sapolsky is proof positive of free will. “If Sapolsky rejects free will because of rational deliberation, then he demonstrates that he possesses free will. If he rejects free will because he is prone to depression, then we can reject his stance as subjective and unscientific.” Horgan then declares victory: “Again, free will wins either way.”

But despite my enjoyment of both Horgan and James, I’m not sure Sapolsky lets us off so easy. In Determined, Sapolsky acknowledges that the question of determinism is more than just a word game, and he’s upfront about the lack of any bulletproof argument. Instead, he discusses how morally significant psychological descriptions (like “intent,” “willpower,” and so forth) are captured by physical brain processes, and holds forth on how apparent sources of scientific novelty (quantum mechanics, chaos theory, etc.) are just extra gears in a world we don’t control—just more turtles, in a causal stack that goes all the way down.

Robert Sapolsky and William James are essentially in agreement that this is a high-stakes conflict. For James, the problem with accepting determinism is that it saps humans of our sense of agency. For Sapolsky, accepting this lack of agency is vital if we are to sidestep negative social behaviors that come all too naturally.

The last chapters of Determined draw an analogy between obsolete forms of demonology and current attitudes toward free will. Humans once saw epileptics as being possessed by demons. Humans today see criminals as being willfully evil. In a more enlightened world, once we are all exorcised, these confusions will give way to the understanding no one can help what they do. Some people’s actions cause harm, no doubt, but this is no reason for us to want them to suffer any more. Even Sapolsky knows that this is pushing it, but he points to the Norwegian leniency toward Anders Breivik, who is mocked rather than vilified by his countrymen. Could not we Americans, after accepting determinism, learn to do the same?

Maybe it’s possible, but I’m not holding my breath. The thing that Sapolsky fails to emphasize is that the scientific and moral conclusions, here, are largely uncoupled. It doesn’t take a dystopian visionary to imagine a world where determinism is widely acknowledged, but where, in the place of radical empathy, this acceptance leads doctors to preemptively kill off those patients whose bodies seem primed to cause trouble—just for instance. If you’re a cozy humanist after accepting determinism, you were probably a cozy humanist to begin with.

Strangely, in the very last pages of Determined, Robert Sapolsky at least nods toward the hybrid view that I myself hold. Even Sapolsky recognizes that there’s something inherently sad about giving up one’s own sense of agency, and mentions the 2016 article in The Atlantic, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will … but We’re Better Off Believing in It Anyway.” I’m not sure about the first half of that headline, but I agree with the second. I don’t know the degree to which the future is determined, but I know for certain that it isn’t helpful for me to think of it as being so. As I approach every day, my attitude is staunchly Jamesian. The statistical likelihoods that can be pointed out at the population level make no difference to me. I’m an individual, baby—forget all those broader trends.

Admittedly, though, these are the words of a depressive (me) giving himself (myself) a pep talk. To some extent, William James was likely doing the same. Sapolsky admits that he suffers from depression, but argues that depressives are uniquely suited recognize the real state of things. “As such,” he writes, “depression is the pathological loss of the capacity to rationalize away reality.”

Again, could be. But it isn’t obvious to me that we should give in to a staunch belief in determinism. It isn’t even obvious to me that compassionate determinists should be sharing their views. After all, if we want to live productive lives, there’s nothing about the commonplace belief in free will that will stop us from doing that. If we take our scientific theories as pragmatic tools that are either helpful or not, as “instruments, not answers to enigmas,” then perhaps the best way forward is to do as we have always done: to bite our tongues, and to hope for the best.

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