A Conversation with Robert Sapolsky on the Illusion of Free Will.

A Conversation with Robert Sapolsky on the Illusion of Free Will.

Robert Sapolsky is one of the world’s greatest scientists of human behaviour. In his new book Determined, he makes a persuasive, and meticulously researched case for the absence of free will, grounded in human biology.

Behind every thought, action, and experience there lies a chain of biological and environmental causes, stretching back from the moment a neuron fires to the dawn of our species and beyond. Nowhere in this infinite sequence is there a place where free will could play a role. Without free will, it makes no more sense to punish people for antisocial behaviour than it does to scold a car for breaking down. It is no one’s fault they are poor or overweight or unsuccessful, nor do people deserve praise for their talent or hard work; ‘grit’ is a myth. This mechanistic view of human behaviour challenges our most powerful instincts, but history suggests that we have already made great strides toward it: where once we saw demonic possession or cowardice, for example, now we diagnose illness or trauma and offer help.

In this interview, I speak to Robert Sapolsky about the foundational relationship between the idea of free will and human civilisation. We discuss how science demonstrates that free will is nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and how accepting this reality can lead to a more just, and humane world.

Q: How much of our world depends on our assumption of free will?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: Often, the reason it remains unstated is because it’s embedded so deeply in our foundational understanding. It underpins our grasp of why we behave the way we do or why someone becomes the person they are. It’s become so implicitly ingrained that we scarcely notice it half the time.

Q: Why are we so convinced we have free will?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: I believe there are both immediate and overarching explanations for this. In the immediate sense, when you’re choosing, say, between different ice cream flavours, the decision feels tangible, immediate, and fully conscious. You think, ‘I must decide now, choosing one over the other.’ This process seems to ooze with perceived agency, making it difficult to recognise the hidden, underlying forces influencing us at that moment. That’s the proximal aspect. On a broader scale, the reason we cling to the notion of free will is that, frankly, it’s quite disheartening to think otherwise. If we dismiss free will, we’re immediately faced with existential questions about life’s meaning and our purpose. Many evolutionary biologists have pondered the evolution of self-deception. Given our intelligence and awareness of our mortality, self-deception seems almost necessary for our mental well-being. Intelligence and self-deception appear to have co-evolved, with the belief that we are fully in control of our destinies serving as a mental safeguard, despite its inaccuracy.

Q: How does science show that free-will does not exist?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: Consider the complexity, especially when acknowledging that some influencing factors date back centuries. Take a recent behaviour, for instance. We can pinpoint the brain region responsible for initiating that behaviour and sending signals to our muscles. When we ask why this happens, a scientifically minded person might feel they’ve answered it by identifying which brain parts activated or went silent. But there’s more to it. Factors like sensory stimuli in the preceding minute, or your internal state in the last hour – hunger, fear, fatigue, euphoria – all significantly impact how your brain reacts. Your hormone levels from the morning affect your brain’s sensitivity. Your experiences in recent months, your adolescence – a crucial period for brain development – and even your childhood and foetal life play roles. Not to mention genetics, in more nuanced ways than often assumed. All these aspects have shaped you.

Moreover, we must even consider the culture your ancestors developed centuries ago. Astonishingly, it influences things like how your mother interacted with you right after birth. All these elements collectively forge your identity. When you examine how these myriad factors intertwine, from genetics and evolution to the proteins synthesized mere minutes ago, you see a continuous arc. In my view, there’s no room in this intricate web for free will. This intricate tapestry of factors, spanning from the distant past to the immediate present, is what makes us who we are.

Q: How can we cope without having agency over the things in our lives?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: The challenge lies in recognising the absence of free will, which we can sometimes easily acknowledge. Take, for example, a defendant whose life was normal until a car accident damaged a specific part of their brain. In the more progressive half of U.S. states, the legal system might recognise this as a case of involuntary, organic brain damage, absolving the person of full responsibility. We find it straightforward to understand this because it’s a singular event – a car accident. However, it becomes more complex when considering a person’s traumatic childhood filled with abuse. And it’s even more challenging to discern when we’re dealing with subtler influences like a multitude of hormonal factors, cultural elements, and various other small influences. These factors, though less overt than a major head injury, can be just as influential in shaping a person. The difficulty lies in perceiving this distributed causality.

[Vikas: does this path not end with catastrophe?]

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: Well, setting aside my belief that people won’t descend into chaos despite biological determinism, and acknowledging that change is still possible – which I hope we’ll discuss – what does this understanding call for in terms of societal changes? Firstly, we need to abandon the myths that perpetuate unjust societal structures, where some are deemed superior for attributes beyond their control, and others are treated as inferior for the same reasons. In the U.S., for instance, children grow up hearing unrealistic, mythic assertions like ‘anyone can succeed in business’ or ‘anyone can become president,’ ignoring the significant barriers to such achievements. We must start by eliminating a culture that falsely implies the existence of agency where there is none and condones differential treatment of individuals based on a misguided notion of self-control.

Q: How would our justice system work without free will being assumed?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: …well, just to stir things up a bit more, I even question the use of the word ‘justice,’ as it implies that judgment is acceptable. But moving on to the practicalities of managing a world with this perspective, people often worry, ‘If we don’t believe in free will, won’t we just have criminals running rampant because nobody is responsible for their actions?’ The answer is a definitive no, and there’s a straightforward solution. Consider a car with malfunctioning brakes; it’s unsafe to let it on the street, as it could cause harm. You’d need to confine it, but you wouldn’t punish it or moralize its malfunction. Instead, you’d seek to understand why its brakes failed.

This approach mirrors how we should handle human criminality. Responsibility becomes irrelevant. The focus is on preventing danger, not imposing moral judgments or excess constraints. Like public health research, we should invest in understanding the root causes of criminal behaviour.

This ‘quarantine model’ is already practiced in everyday scenarios. For instance, if your child has a cold, you keep them home from kindergarten to prevent spreading the illness, without moral judgment or excessive punishment. We simply seek to understand and prevent the spread of the cold. Similarly, we limit certain individuals, like those who are blind, from driving, focusing on safety rather than moral character, while investing in research to address the underlying issue.

This is the model we need to apply broadly to those who, due to various damages, become harmful. It’s about minimal, non-moralizing constraints and a commitment to understanding and addressing root causes.

Q: If there is no free will, how do we explain creativity?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: In considering creativity and how we assess it, I don’t see a significant problem. Take Picasso, for instance. It’s unlikely anyone believes he consciously chose to perceive faces in a manner unprecedented in human history. If we oversimplify this to something like ‘face neurons,’ which don’t exist, we can imagine a scenario. As we grow, we learn from input to these hypothetical neurons about the various types of faces. Then, someone like Picasso, through some unexplained quirk or random wiring, might receive input from a much broader array of these neurons. This could explain why a cubist face, with two eyes on the same side of the nose, appears as a legitimate face to him. Of course, it’s not exactly like this, but the idea is similar.

No one chooses their level of creativity. Moving to the realm of art and aesthetics, we encounter questions like, ‘Why does a particular piece of music move me to tears?’ This could be due to our unique neuro-chemical makeup or how the basilar membrane in our ears responds to different tones. But understanding these mechanisms doesn’t diminish the experience. For instance, knowing the biomechanics behind a gazelle’s leap doesn’t reduce our awe of its ability. Similarly, understanding the neurological underpinnings of our reactions to art doesn’t detract from the beauty and awe these creations inspire.

We exist on a continuum, and a perfect illustration of this is our comparison with other primates. Fundamentally, we share the same basic blueprint with them, yet we use it in ways that are entirely unprecedented and unimaginable to any other primate. Consider the peculiarities of human experience: we can be sexually aroused by a mere text message, tapping into a primal sensory system in a bizarre way. We can feel empathy for someone on the other side of the globe. We can perpetrate violence, like dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet, without ever seeing the victim’s face. We’re utilizing the same neural circuitry for aggression, pro-social, anti-social, and affiliative behaviours, but in ways that are abstracted across time and space like no other species.

We can even experience distress over the eventual death of our sun or feel empathy for the people who perished in Pompeii, connecting with their terror through their plaster casts, despite them having been gone for millennia. We are indeed an unusual species. While many socially complex species exhibit empathy, rudiments of justice, and theory of mind, their experiences are much more localised. In contrast, we humans can find ourselves deeply affected by events in a novel, mourning fictional characters. This broad spectrum of emotional and cognitive experiences sets us apart in a fascinating way.

Q: How do we find meaning, without free will?

[Professor Robert Sapolsky]: I’ve spent a significant part of my life seeking a satisfying emotional response to this complex issue. To start, you accurately describe the viewpoint of most philosophers, about 90% of whom would identify as compatibilist determinists. They acknowledge the basic scientific understanding of the world, accepting that it consists of atoms, that neurons control our muscles, and generally aligning with 21st-century scientific views, as opposed to medieval beliefs. However, they still somehow manage to extract the notion of free will from this framework, asserting that occasionally something operates differently, which they label as free will.

In my book, I somewhat sarcastically argue that while these compatibilists claim not to attribute free will to magic, their explanations often seem magically grounded when examined closely. This view doesn’t align with our understanding of how the world, brains, and neurons function.

Regarding the broader question of deriving meaning from this perspective, I admit that I haven’t found a satisfying answer. It’s disheartening, and many would agree. However, if this understanding were more universally embraced, I believe the overall impact would be more beneficial than our current state. This shift in perspective would address the needs of those who have been marginalized, who’ve been told their struggles are their own fault. It would challenge the harmful myth that people always get what they deserve. For those of us fortunate enough to not face such struggles, we can deal with our existential questions. Ultimately, embracing this view could lead to a more compassionate and humane world.

For me, and decidedly not for many others, the notion of an omnipotent architect orchestrating everything doesn’t resonate. I don’t subscribe to that belief. The realisation that one can explain the emergence of beautifully complex and adaptive phenomena without invoking a grand blueprint or a designer behind it has been profound for me. Understanding how our brains, while similar, are each unique, or how ants construct their societies, or even why matter exists in the universe, and knowing that these can be explained without a preordained plan, was an almost ecstatic revelation for my atheistic perspective. It’s the closest I’ve felt to what might be described as religious ecstasy – grasping how certain aspects of emergent complexity work. There’s no need for a predetermined blueprint. These intricate and wonderful aspects of life and the universe simply arise under specific conditions. That understanding is how I comprehend our existence and place in the world.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.