I finally binged hours of Robert Sapolsky on free will. This post synthesizes everything I learned.
Robert Sapolsky is a researcher, author, and professor of biology, neurology & neurological sciences at Stanford. Maybe you’ve heard of his 25-video lecture series on human behavioral biology, his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Amazon), or his upcoming book on free will (which should be fascinating from his perspective). Until his new book is published, this post will give you the comprehensive overview of Sapolsky’s stance on free will.
- “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky (Chapter 16)
- Why You Don’t Have Free Will — Big Think (3 mins | YouTube)
- Best Explanation for Human Free Will (4 mins | YouTube)
- Life and Free Will — Pau Guinart (11 mins | YouTube)
- Free Will & Criminal Justice — Alan Alda (25 mins | YouTube)
- Justice & Morality in the Absence of Free Will — Vert Dider (60 mins | YouTube)
- Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst — Stanford (75 mins | YouTube)
- Science of Stress, Testosterone & Free Will — Andrew Huberman (90 mins | YouTube)
- Why We Behave the Way We Do — Sean Carroll (90 mins | YouTube)
- The Biology of Good and Evil — Sam Harris (90 mins | YouTube)
- The Pervasive Effect of Stress — Peter Attia (2 hrs | YouTube)
- All content in quotation marks is straight from the original source.
- All content is organized into my own themes.
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
No Free Will: The Biology of Behavior with Robert Sapolsky
There’s No Free Will
“Not only am I a free will skeptic, I don’t believe there is a shred of agency that goes into any of our behavior.”
- “I don’t think we have any free will whatsoever.”
- “This notion of free will, for want of a less provocative word, is nothing but a myth.”
- “I believe free will is what we call the biology that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
- “What we call ‘free will’ is simply the biology that we haven’t understood well enough yet.”
- “One of the things that’s absolutely clear to me when you look at the biology of behavior—human behavior—is there’s no free will.”
- “I don’t think it’s possible to look at this whole range of ways in which our behavior is being shaped by biology and see a shred of possibility of free will sitting in there.”
- “If you want to believe in free will, you have to admit that it’s getting more and more crowded into tiny spaces, and spaces that are not very interesting.”
- “If there is free will, it’s in all the boring places, and those places are getting more and more cramped.”
- “I am extremely out in left field with this along with people like Sam Harris and a few other philosophers in terms of absolutely hard determinism and hard incompatibilism.”
The ‘no free will’ argument in a nutshell:
“I don’t think we have a shred of free will—despite 95% of philosophers and probably the majority of neuroscientists … The reason for this is you do something—you behave, you make a choice, whatever—and to understand why you did that and where that intention came from:
· Part of it was due to the sensory environment you were in the previous minute.
· Some of it is from the hormone levels in your bloodstream that morning.
· Some of it is from whether you had a wonderful or stressful last three months and what sort of neuroplasticity happened.
· Part of it is what hormone levels you were exposed to as a fetus.
· Part of it is what culture your ancestors came up with and thus how you were parented when you were a kid.
All of those are in there, and you can’t understand where behavior is coming from without incorporating all of those. And, at that point, not only are all of these relevant factors, but they are ultimately all one factor:
· If you’re talking about what evolution has to do with your behavior, by definition you’re also talking about genetics.
· If you’re talking about what your genes have to do with behavior, by definition you’re talking about how your brain was constructed or what proteins are coded for.
· If you’re talking about your mood disorder now, you’re talking about the sense of efficacy you were getting as a five-year-old.
They’re all intertwined. And when you look at all those influences, basically, the challenge is: show me a neuron that just caused that behavior (or show me a network of neurons that just caused that behavior), and show me that nothing about what they just did was influenced by anything from the sensory environment one second ago to the evolution of your species. And, there’s no space in there to fit in a free will concept that winds up being in your brain but not of your brain. There’s simply no wiggle room for it there.”
Or, consider this:
“One angle I take in trying to convince people there’s no free will is just to look at the sheer number of things influencing our behavior:
· If you were sitting in a room with smelly garbage, that made you more likely to do that.
· If you are male or female and your testosterone levels have been elevated for the last day, that’s more likely to have happened.
· If you’ve been traumatized five months ago and neurons and your amygdala grew new connections, that’s more likely to happen.
· If as a third trimester fetus you were exposed to elevated levels of stress hormones from your mom’s circulation.
· If your ancestors were nomadic pastoralists wandering grasslands or deserts and came up with the culture of honor and you were raised in that, you were more likely to have done that as well.
· Wait a second, ecosystems 500 years ago have an influence? Yeah, turns out people’s cultures are greatly shaped by that, and it greatly shapes their brains.”
Show me the free neuron:
- (Let’s say you perform an action, even the most basic one): “Neurobiologists can go and find the neuron in your motor cortex which sent the signal to those muscles to flex. And, you could find the neurons in what are called the pre-motor cortex which sent signals which triggered that motor cortex to send that signal. And, you could then find neurons in the frontal cortex that triggered that. And, find neurons in the prefrontal cortex that triggered that. And, neurons in emotional parts of the brain that triggered those neurons. And, basically, show me the neuron that started that cascade—a neuron that fired that had an action potential for no reason whatsoever, a neuron whose firing was not regulated by the physical laws of the universe that happened for no prior causal antecedent reason. Show me a neuron that started that, and that works that way, and then we could talk about free will.”
What about quantum mechanics?
- “Quantum mechanics is all about the subatomic level: wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement, non-locality over space and time, quantum tunneling. These are all the things that are occurring at a subatomic level. If that’s going to have anything to do with why you are a good, kind person or why you were a selfish horror, those quantum effects are going to have to bubble up 20-30 orders of magnitude to begin to explain a single action potential which takes about 3-4 milliseconds. That is about 10 to the 23rd times longer in duration than a quantum effect … That’s a hell of a lot of bubbling up you need to do to get to just that level of biology. And, what 99% of the people in the field agree on is you cannot get the bubbling up even if a quantal effect in this one synapse has synchronized through superposition and quantum entanglement and has entangled the events of 4000 other synapses. You’re using about a trillion synapses, emptying about a trillion axon terminals full of neurotransmitter, every time you do an action. There’s very little evidence that it bubbles up.”
- “The second big problem is in some ways the even more fundamental one, which is even if it did bubble up that high, the gigantic problem is quantum indeterminacy cannot be the explanation for free will. It could be the explanation for us doing stupid, random things that are completely out of character for us. It’s the explanation for us doing things where we would then say, ‘I have no idea why I just said that,’ except you wouldn’t be able to say that because your tongue muscles would be doing stupid, random things and you wouldn’t even be able to speak … We’re trying to understand the things that make up consistency, and quantum indeterminacy—the most subatomic level of randomness—is not where we get the consistency of a moral philosophy coming from, or your character, or your outlook on life.”
- “The third problem is nevertheless there’s a whole bunch of thinkers out there, and they are almost certainly philosophers rather than neurobiologists, who try to magically pull enough levels of bubbling up to get it up to the behavior we’re interested in and magically find a means by which you can harness the randomness of indeterminacy into something determinate and philosophically consistent. And, the problem with that is—I’m being polite here—you read this and it just does not make sense what these people are postulating: they’re ways in which your conscious free will can reach down and change your electron orbitals and from that your brain will work differently. The ways in which you get around the bubbling up problem and the randomness problem make no sense at all. I think quantum indeterminacy has nothing to do with why you pick up this knife at this moment, or why you pick up this fork, and it certainly has nothing to do with moral philosophy.”
What are we then?
- “I think we are the outcomes of the sheer random, good and bad biological luck that each of us has stumbled into.”
- “All we are is the sum, nothing more or less, of what our biology and its interactions with the environment have been.”
- “We are nothing, more or less, than the sum of all of those biological factors that have made us who we are in this instance.”
- “Every bad person is nothing, more or less, than the outcome of their biological luck and their luck has been worse than any person out there who was nothing, more or less, than the sum of their biological good luck which causes us to call them a ‘good person’ or a ‘smart person’ or an ’empathic person’ or a ‘talented person.'”
- (When asked to describe his own life): “Just damn luck. Every bit of neurosis, every bit of affective instability, every childhood trauma I’ve got tucked away—I’ve titrated in just the right way that I’ve turned it into more productivity. Incredibly lucky in that regard. My capacity to sublimate emotion into intellectual pursuit into really, really, really wanting to understand something … I’ve just been very lucky in that regard. I’ve gotten just the right levels of all sorts of tumult that have synergized most productively. In other words, just huge amounts of luck. And, at least now coming later in life, an increasing capacity to more carefully try to analyze what cost each type of ambition comes with.”
The Biology of Behavior
“Somewhere in all of this studying the biology of behavior, somewhere in there when you’re realizing activity levels in this part of the brain one second before this act, what you had for breakfast all the way back to like what culture your ancestors evolved to, all of these are influencing your behavior. Most of these variables we’re not even aware of. They’re subliminal. We never would have expected it. Inevitably somewhere in there you’ve got to sit down and start having the free will discussion.”
- “There’s nothing in the biology of our behavior that just happens from out of nowhere. Every single biological event that we have has a history.”
- “Every bit of behavior has multiple levels of causality … What was going on that caused this behavior? This is a multitude of questions.”
- “There’s a whole lot more stuff going on under the hood—a whole lot more subterranean influences—than one would think.”
- “It is impossible to make sense of anything that we do, or think, or feel, or remember, or hoped for, or any such thing out of the context of the neurobiology that went on one second ago, and the environmental triggers of that neurobiology that went on one minute ago, and the hormone levels you were exposed to this morning, and the neural plasticity over recent months, and your adolescence, and your childhood, and the epigenetics of your fetal life and your genes, and the culture that your ancestors came up with, and the ecosystems that made those cultures, and millions of years of evolution.”
- “The stuff your mother consumed, or didn’t consume, or abused, or recreated with, or whatever when you were a fetus has something to do with how your frontal cortex works. By the time you’re six, your socioeconomic status is a predictor of how active your frontal cortex is when you’re given a task that requires you to do some gratification postponement. By the time you’re that age, the thickness of this part of the brain is already influenced by the mothering style and the number of stressors you had in childhood.”
- “If you look at the things that come into account as to whether or not someone is going to do the right thing in the next two seconds amid a temptation to do otherwise, the variables in there reflect everything from whether they’re having gas pains that day because of something unpleasant they ate that morning—that makes us more selfish, more impulsive, et cetera—to what epigenetic effects occurred to them when they were a first trimester fetus.”
- “You see how fetal environment has something to do with the adult that you are. You see something about childhood nutrition has something to do with it. You see something about this morning’s hormone levels, last year’s trauma, what smells there are in this room—everything from one second ago to a lifetime ago—all of those are shaping behavior.”
One-second before behavior:
“What was going on in your brain one second before? … This brings us into the realm of a brain region called the amygdala. The amygdala, which is central to violence, central to fear, initiates volleys of cascades … What was the level of activity in your amygdala one second before?”
- “The amygdala is about aggression, it’s about violence … The amygdala is about fear, it’s about phobias … even more importantly it’s about where you learn to be afraid of things, fear conditioning, and in other words, you cannot understand the neurobiology of violence without understanding the neurobiology of fear.”
- “You can’t make sense of the neurobiology of aggression without considering the neurobiology of fear. The amygdala gets rapid, privileged access to sensory information…that is often inaccurate because of that speed.”
- (Eating something disgusting, or even just thinking about eating something disgusting, activates the insular cortex. But, that’s not all. It even activates with moral disgust.) “That’s why if something is sufficiently morally disgusting we feel sick to our stomachs, it leaves a bad taste in our mouth, we feel queasy … But, there’s a problem with this, which of course, is that one person’s morally disgusting behavior is somebody else’s perfectly normal loving lifestyle. In other words, moral disgust is a moving target … And, the first place in the brain the insula screams that news to next is the amygdala.”
- “In other animals, the insula is about sensory disgust. In a human, it’s also about moral disgust…which is intensely context-dependent. And the insula is central to the human tendency to consider what is merely different to be disgustingly wrong…and to tell the amygdala about it.”
- “The frontal cortex is most interesting part of the brain, it’s most recently evolved, we’ve got more of it proportionately than any other species … It makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do: gratification postponement, long-term planning, impulse control, emotional regulation … The frontal cortex spends a whole lot of time sending inhibitory projections down into the amygdala … If you’ve got a part of the brain that’s both central to resisting the temptation to lie, but once you decide to lie doing a good job at it, this is a very very complex brain region.”
- “The frontal cortex makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do. But ‘the right thing’ is value free. And the frontal cortex isn’t cerebral, lofty and aloof; instead, it’s constantly influenced by emotions and viscera.”
Seconds-to-minutes before behavior:
“What was going on in the environment seconds to minutes before that impacted the amygdala? The sights, the sounds … Furthermore, if you’re in pain, if you’re hungry, if you’re exhausted, your frontal cortex is not going to work as well, part of the brain whose job it is to get to the amygdala in time.”
- “We are constantly buffered and swayed by sensory information that seems irrelevant and hardly noticeable…as well as by sensory information that is entirely subliminal.”
Hours-to-days before behavior:
“Now we have to look at hours to days before, and with this, we have entered the realm of hormones. For example, testosterone … Elevated testosterone levels, elevated levels of stress hormones, and your amygdala is going to be more active and your frontal cortex will be more sluggish.”
- “Our brain and sensory systems are constantly marinating in hormones.”
- “Dopamine is about reward but even more so it’s about the anticipation of reward … It’s about the goal-directed behavior. It’s about the pursuit of reward rather than about reward itself … Nothing cranks out reward-related behavior, motivated behavior, like intermittent reinforcement and ‘maybe.'”
- “Dopamine is somewhat about reward…but even more so about the anticipation of reward…and even more so about the motivation to get that reward. Nothing activates the system like inserting ‘maybe’ into the mix. Few things activate the dopamine system more than the prospects of righteous punishment.”
- “Testosterone does not invent aggression, testosterone exaggerates existing social patterns of aggression … When your status is being challenged, testosterone makes you do whatever you need to do to maintain status … The trouble isn’t that testosterone makes us aggressive, the trouble is that we reward aggression with status so readily.”
- “The problem isn’t testosterone’s effects on aggression; it’s that we often reward aggression so abundantly.”
- “Oxytocin doesn’t make us more pro-social, it makes us more pro-social to people who feel like an ‘us’—if it’s a ‘them’, it makes us crappier and more xenophobic to them.”
- “Oxytocin promotes being pro-social only to in-group members; if it’s a ‘them’, oxytocin does the opposite.”
Weeks-to-months before behavior:
“Weeks to months before, where’s the relevance there? This is the realm of neural plasticity, the fact that your brain can change in response to experience, and if your previous months have been filled with stress and trauma, your amygdala will have enlarged. The neurons will have become more excitable, your frontal cortex would have atrophied, all relevant to what happens in that one second.”
- “Neuroplasticity is a value-free phenomenon because sometimes neuroplasticity can make you much better at being a saint, and sometimes it can make you better at ethnically cleansing villages. It’s not an intrinsic good or bad.”
- “The brain has the potential for enormous amounts of neuroplasticity. But it has its limits: no amount of practicing and rewiring of your brain will make you a Yo-Yo Ma, or allow you to completely recover from certain injuries. Neural plasticity is value free: brains can change to make you better at being saintly or at being vile.”
Years before behavior (adolescence):
“But we push back even more, back years, to your adolescence. Now, the central fact of the adolescent brain is all of it is going full blast except the frontal cortex, which is still half-baked. It doesn’t fully mature until you’re around 25. And thus, adolescence and early adulthood are the years where environment and experience sculpt your frontal cortex into the version you’re going to have as an adult.”
- “Everything about adolescent behavior is explained by two facts. First off, your dopamine system is going full blast by the time you’re about 11 or 12. Second, your frontal cortex is half-baked when you’re a teenager. Frontal cortex is not fully online amazingly enough until you’re about 25 years old. In other words, this is why juveniles behave in juvenile ways: impulse issues and sensation seeking and novelty seeking and peer effects and conformity … Late adolescence early adulthood is when environment is having its biggest affects on what kind of frontal cortex you’re going to have as an adult … If the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to come online, by definition it’s the part of the brain least shaped by your genes and most shaped by your experience and environment. And, it’s got to be that way because what’s the difficult, subtle ‘doing the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do’ kind of stuff that takes forever to master? Cultural relativity, context-dependent rules, ‘thou shalt not kill’ but it’s really good to kill them, and ‘you don’t lie’ but this is a good time to lie, and hypocrisy and self-serving—and no genes are going to code for that. Your frontal cortex needs 25 years to master stuff like that.”
- “Adolescence is all about the dopaminergic maturity and frontocortical immaturity. If the frontal cortex is the last region to mature, it is the part of the brain least determined by genes and most sculpted by experience. Delayed frontocortical maturation probably evolved precisely for that reason.”
Years-to-decades before behavior (childhood & fetal life):
“But pushing back even further, to childhood and fetal life, and all the different versions that that could come in. Now, obviously, that’s the time that your brain is being constructed, and that’s important, but in addition, experience during those times produce what are called epigenetic changes, permanent, in some cases, permanently activating certain genes, turning off others. And as an example of this, if as a fetus you were exposed to a lot of stress hormones through your mother, epigenetics is going to produce your amygdala in adulthood as a more excitable form, and you’re going to have elevated stress hormone levels.”
- “Genetics (your genes, your DNA sequences) experience doesn’t change those. What epigenetic experience changes though is the regulation of those genes, when they are activated … We have early environment shaping all sorts of aspects of how the brain and the endocrine systems are put together, and most importantly, thanks to these epigenetic changes starting during fetal life environment does not begin at birth, these changes can be long-lasting, life-long, even multi-generational.”
- “Early environmental experience sculpts the construction of the brain and endocrine systems. This can involve epigenetic changes in gene regulation that can be life-long. Some of these acquired traits will influence the next generation’s fetal environment.”
Birth before behavior (fertilized egg):
“But pushing even further back, back to when you were just a fetus, back to when all you were was a collection of genes. Now, genes are really important to all of this, but critically, genes don’t determine anything, because genes work differently in different environments … Genes and environment interact. And what’s happening in that one second before (the behavior) reflects your lifetime of those gene-environment interactions.”
- “There’s no subject in this whole lecture that’s more contentious than the role of a genes and behavior … Your genes have no idea what they’re doing … Saying that a gene knows what it’s doing is like saying that a cake recipe knows when you’re going to make the cake or decides when you were going to make the cake. Genes don’t regulate themselves. What regulates genes? Environment does. Environment can be very local … Genes don’t really know what they’re doing. Genes are being regulated by environment, and the critical thing is, different environments regulate the same genes in different ways.”
- “Genes decide nothing. The environment directs genes when to make particular proteins. Don’t ask what a gene does; ask what it does in a particular environment. Greenland, the Sahara, the Amazon, Brooklyn: No other species lives in as wide of a variety of environments. Thus, no species is freer from ‘genetic determinism.'”
Centuries before behavior:
“Now, remarkably enough, we’ve got to push even further back now, back centuries. What were your ancestors up to? And if, for example, they were nomadic pastoralists, people living in deserts or grasslands with their herds of camels, cows, goats, odds are they would have invented what’s called a culture of honor filled with warrior classes, retributive violence, clan vendettas, and amazingly, centuries later, that would still be influencing the values with which you were raised.”
- “What were your ancestors doing? What sort of cultures were they inventing? Because that’s going to influence how you are going to turn into that adult that you are. What sort of cultures did they invent turns out to be very sensitive to what sort of ecosystems they lived in … Ecosystems shape cultures shape brains shape behaviors and some of these differences are manifest within minutes of birth. In other words, brains and bodies and behaviors and cultures and genes all co-evolve.”
- “Different types of ecosystems…produce different ways of making a living…systematically producing radically different cultures. Within seconds of birth, culture shapes everything from what we view as the purpose of life, whether we are intrinsically beautiful or sinful, what happens after we die…to where our eyes track over the course of milliseconds. Brains, genes and cultures co-evolve.”
Millions of years before behavior:
“But we’ve got to push even further back, back millions of years, because if we’re talking about genes, implicitly we’re now talking about the evolution of genes. And what you see is, for example, patterns across different primate species. Some of them have evolved for extremely low levels of aggression, others have evolved in the opposite direction, and floating there in between by every measure are humans, once again this confused, barely defined species that has all these potentials to go one way or the other.”
- “If we’re gotten this far back and we’re talking about things like genes, by definition, we’re talking about evolution … We behave in order to pass on copies of genes. Contemporary thinking about the evolution of behavior is built around three building blocks: (1) Individual Selection: what organisms do is try to leave as many copies of their genes in the next generation as possible, maximizing reproductive success, the ‘selfish gene’ concept. And, this explains a ton of human behavior; (2) Kin Selection: some of the time you pass on as many copies of genes as you can, but some of the time an even better way of doing it is helping your relatives pass on copies of genes. Humans have invented a version of kin selection that we can bequeath our material wealth to our relatives, there’s inheritance, we have a way of magnifying differences through generations that way; (3) Reciprocal Altruism: sometimes there’s selection for cooperating with utter strangers, being cooperative/altruistic with them as long as they do it back, reciprocal relationships of cooperation.”
- “The evolution of behavior is built around individual selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism (plus something called ‘neo-group selection’)…All of which explains a ton about human social behavior…as long as you don’t look too closely.”
So, what has this gotten us to?
“Basically, what we’re seeing here is, if you want to understand a behavior—whether it’s an appalling one, a wondrous one, or confusedly in between—you’ve got take into account what happened a second before to a million years before and everything in between. So, what can we conclude at this point? Officially, it’s complicated.”
- “It’s complicated, and you’d better be real careful, real cautious before you conclude you know what causes a behavior—especially if it’s a behavior you’re judging harshly.”
- “Where we need to do the heavy lifting is when we’re making judgments about volition in areas where we harshly judge people. There we really have to do the hard work of thinking through that there’s not a lot of free will going on there.”
- “The realm where it is most important is when it comes to behaviors that we judged harshly—that we punish people for, that we condemn people for.”
The History (& Future) of Science
“All we’ve been learning for the last 200 years are more and more things that we used to attribute to this nebulous concept of ‘free will’ we instead at some point have to sit up and say, ‘Oh, I had no idea that was biological.'”
- “The lesson that I pound into the heads of my students over and over is: 500 years ago in virtually every European country if you had an epileptic seizure, the best doctors around had a diagnosis for you as to what caused the seizure. The seizure was caused because you were consorting with satan. and they had an absolutely clear neurological intervention which is to burn you at the stake. And, somewhere along the way, people learned, oh, no, it’s actually a disease. And, somewhere along the way, they stopped putting people with epilepsy in psychiatric hospitals. And, somewhere along the way, people started developing laws that distinguished between who a person is and what a seizure might do to them in terms of the ability to drive only once the meds have kept you seizure-free for a certain length. You sit somebody down today and say, ‘Wow, can you imagine somebody having a seizure?’ And, you saying, ‘Yeah, that’s because you’re sleeping with beelzebub.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh my god, that’s ridiculous.’ People are going to look back on how we think of people with bad self-control, people with an inability to feel somebody else’s problems, people who are remorseless, people who are cold-blooded this or that, and it’s going to be as misplaced of attribution that we have now—when saying these are attributes that are deserving of punishment—as people saying that epileptics were consorting with satan.”
- “Science keeps overturning our notions of what makes us human and what is within our realm of control. We’re only a half dozen centuries or so past the point of viewing epileptics as being possessed by the devil and treating them accordingly. And, we know that instead, it’s actually not the devil—it’s often a mutation in a rectifying potassium channel in the nervous system. Oh, that’s a different explanatory model. It’s not them, it’s their screwed up ion channels in one part of the brain. It’s not the devil after all.”
- “If it was 1950, the wisest psychiatrists on earth, the wisest neuroscientists, would have had an answer. They would say it’s you. You, the mother of that child, you caused your child schizophrenia through something that was called ‘schizophrenic mothering’—a mothering style that generated schizophrenia. It started off as a Freudian notion but it festered in all sorts of poisonous directions. The basic core of it was that a horrible mothering style could produce schizophrenia, and it was a mothering style that was built around a mother who unconsciously hated her child and wished that the child hadn’t been born. Oh my god, and thus you were teaching hundreds of thousands of mothers for decades that they caused their child schizophrenia. And, then in the mid-1950s along came biochemists who discovered the first drug out there that had antipsychotic effects. And, it worked not by going back in time and making your mother actually love you, it made you block dopamine receptors in your brain and everyone sat there—in some cases the psychiatrists didn’t sit there, it took them about 20-30 years to sit there—and say, ‘Oh my god, it wasn’t the mothering, it’s a crappy biochemical disorder. It’s brain chemistry, it’s not the wrong kind of incompetent mothering.'”
Subtracting out free will:
- “The most emotionally salient way of getting at the free will issue is to just look historically and look at the stuff that we understand now if we’re reasonably educated, reflective, thoughtful people. We know that epileptic seizures are neurological disorders, they’re not because somebody has slept with Satan. We know that certain types of learning disabilities are not children being lazy and unmotivated, it turns out there’s cortical malformations. We know that certain times when somebody is completely inappropriate in their behavior, it’s because they’ve got a neurochemical disorder called schizophrenia. Most of us have gotten to the point where free will has been subtracted out of that equation. If you have somebody with treatment-resistant epilepsy, and they have occasional seizures, they can’t drive a car. But, you don’t feel like justice has been served and they’re getting their due punishment when their driver’s license is inactivated for a while. You say it’s not them, it’s their disease. There’s a biological explanation that sidesteps notions of agency or free will.“
- “It’s going to be incredibly hard, but nonetheless when you look at the history of how we have subtracted the notion of agency out of all sorts of realms of blame, starting with thinking that witches caused hailstorms 500 years ago to the notion that psychodynamically screwed up mothers cause schizophrenia, we’ve done it. We’ve done it endless number of times—we’ve been able to subtract out a sense of volition in understanding how the world works around us. And, we don’t have murderers running amuck on the street, and society hasn’t collapsed into a puddle. In fact, it’s a more humane society. So, the good news is it’s possible because we’ve done it repeatedly in the past, but it’s going to be hard as hell.”
The march of science:
- “All you have to do is look at how much of this stuff we’ve learned in the last century, in the last 50 years, in the last ten years, in the last five years.”
- “Look at the number of things we recognize now that are biological/organic—where 500 years ago or 5 years ago we would have had a harsh moral judgment about it. Instead we now know, oh, that’s a biological phenomenon.”
- “When you look at the number of influences on behavior, from what your brain was doing one second before, and whatever the behavior is, to sensory cues that you’re not even consciously aware of, to what hormones that morning have to do with it, to what your childhood was like, what your fetal life was like, your genes, the culture that your ancestors invented, the evolution of us as a species … When you look at all the pieces of that together, basically what the science of behavior has spent the last 50 years doing, is every week or so coming up with a finding where someone would say, ‘Oh, I had no idea that had an influence on behavior.'”
- “Look at what we know about the biology of behavior at this point, and 99% of it we’ve learned in the last century, 50% of it we’ve learned in the last 10 years, 25% of it we’ve learned in the last year. So, either you’ve got to sit there and say, ‘That’s it, tonight at midnight there’s no more science. We’ve learned all the science we can ever learn’ … You have to be crazy to think that the science is not going to continue to rise at the same exact fast pace. One way of reframing that is we are going to learn the things that we call ‘free will’ now we’re going to discover a century from now or a year from now that, no, it’s actually a biological phenomenon.”
- “Either you’ve got to conclude that tonight at midnight we’re never going to get a new scientific fact again, or you’re going to conclude that the march of science is going to continue exactly as is and the number of ways in which we say, ‘Oh, it’s not him, it’s his brain, it’s this weird quirk of it’—it’s just going to grow more and more until we’re not talking about them and their diseases, or them and their weird quirks, but we’re talking about every one of our individualities, and they’re biological ones.”
- “We’re going to sit there and look back at this and say, ‘Oh my god, the things we didn’t know about then—the damage that we did thinking we understood behavior and that there was choice and responsibility and agency.’ And, that’s not just going to be scientists 300 years from now. Almost certainly, we’re going to last long enough to sit there in some of these realms, and we’re going to say, ‘My god, the way I’ve treated people in my life thinking that there was responsibility at that juncture, and we had no idea about that part of the brain, that hormone, that neurotransmitter, that gene, that childhood experience, whatever, my god, the damage that we have done.'”
“Where the huge paradox comes in for me is: I haven’t any clue whatsoever what the world is supposed to look like if people actually started accepting that there’s no free will … What’s going to be really challenging though is to figure out how you structure a society that actually runs humanely built around the notion that we are merely biological organisms. And, that one I haven’t a clue … I have absolutely no problem at all with the notion that there’s no free will. I have vast problems with trying to imagine how are we supposed to live with that conclusion, and I have no idea what that should look like.”
- “After a while, the word ‘responsibility’ is irrelevant.”
- “It’s just a totally different attributional model.”
- “If you think it’s going to be hard to subtract a notion of free will out of making sense of serial murderers, it’s going to be a thousand times harder making sense of when somebody says ‘good job’ to you.”
- “What do we do with our good traits? Because if we are purely biological organisms when it comes to our worst behaviors, it’s the same thing with our best ones. My gut feeling is if it’s going to be hard to convince people to think in a purely biological way when you’re looking at murderers, it’s going to be so much harder to think that way when it comes to considering our own sort of best behaviors.”
- “Subtracting praise out of how we judge behavior because of biology cannot be anything other than liberating and freeing. And, at the end of the day, one of the most liberating things we can possibly reach is if you truly truly believe this stuff, you cannot feel entitled to anything that makes you more special than the next person, and you truly cannot feel hatred for anyone else.”
- “There’s no basis for hating anyone, and if people really believed that, it would make life rather different … Forgiveness has to play a role that’s a thousand times more dominant in life than it is now or it even stops being meaningful in the sense that we use it now.”
- “Maybe the best we can hope for is when you have a first impulse towards hating someone for what they did, all you can hope for is a year later or a minute later you can stop yourself and say, ‘That behavior did not come from nowhere, and they had no more control over how they turned into who they are than how I turned into who I am.'”
- “What do we do with the fact that we’re just we’re one extremely complex, nonlinear, chaotic, unpredictable version of an ant in terms of just biological stuff making us up? At the end of the day, the only thing that comes through to me as having any meaning is, amid all of that, pain is painful. So, it’s a good thing to try to reduce the amounts of it in the world, in people around you, and loved ones. That single fact just seems to transcend whatever you might do to turn all of our feelings and longings and everything into their biological substrates. Pain is painful, and even if we’re all just biological organisms, that’s a pretty dominating piece of biology. So, if we need a purpose out of all of this, I guess it’s just simply to try to reduce the amounts of it.”
- “It doesn’t change in the slightest the need to protect people from people whose behavior can’t be regulated—often the need to protect the people themselves.”
- “What do you do with a whole notion that crime and evil and guilt and punishment and criminal justice and none of those concepts make any sense whatsoever if you’re dealing with a biological model?”
- “In the realm of inappropriate human behavior, criminal activity, somebody does something violent—that’s a biological phenomenon. That’s not to say you don’t do anything … If a car’s brakes are faulty you don’t let it out on the street. It’s going to kill somebody. You fix him if you can, and if you can’t fix him you put the car in a garage for the rest of time. But, no one would sit there and say the car has a rotten soul or it’s deserving the punishment in seclusion in the garage. It’s a mechanical problem. And, if somebody says, ‘Wow, that’s so dehumanizing to view us as just biological machines,’ that’s a hell of a lot better than sermonizing us into having bad souls.”
- “We should probably start with the criminal justice system … It is absolutely essential that we do it because basically the science that informed the current criminal justice system is based on neuroscience from the mid 19th century, and that’s appalling.”
- “The entire criminal justice system has to be abolished because it is based on a scientific mindset that was obsolete during the Renaissance, during the medieval periods. It has not been informed by neuroscience for 150 years or so when you look at how it works. We’ve got to completely get rid of it.”
- “It’s absurd to frame the criminal justice system in the world of volition and blame.”
- “The whole system has to go. The modern criminal justice system is incompatible with neuroscience.”
- “What’s a world like where not only does criminal justice and retribution make no sense at all, but where rewarding people for being better at something than the next person makes no sense either?”
- “It’s also incredibly hard to think about a world in which two people do a job, and this person gets more money at it because they’re smarter, and they could do it more effectively because they had enough protein when they were a fetus so that their brain developed right and because when they were 10 years old they were not beaten on a regular basis and stress hormones impaired the development of their brain.”
- “The hardest thing of all is how do you avoid complete existential despair if your sense is we’re just biological machines—including our emotions and our memories. They are obeying the same laws of the physical universe as any other thing made up of atoms or whatever. How do you avoid the existential despair of, ‘What’s this all for?’ And, I sure don’t have an answer to that.”
- “I haven’t thought there’s any free will since I was an adolescent. And, despite thinking that way, I still have absolutely no idea how you’re supposed to function with that belief. How are you supposed to go about everyday life if anything you feel entitled to isn’t true? If any angers and hatreds you feel aren’t justified? If there’s no such thing as appropriate blame or punishment or praise or reward?”
- “What I find to be a hugely daunting task is how you’re supposed to live your life thinking that way.”
- “What do you do with a lack of free will and to truly live that way?”
- “There’s no free will, we can’t be blamed, we can’t be praised. We’re just following our biological luck, but at the same time, everything we’ve learned about the biology of behavior is about the biology of change.”
- “One thing you have to be totally on guard for is to not turn the ‘don’t blame me, don’t praise me, I’m just following biological orders’ into ‘I cannot change’ … Organisms change.”
- “We do not choose to change because we do not choose to do anything. We are changed by circumstance.”
- “Change can happen. Even traumatic change—the worst of circumstances, most unlikely people—and change can happen. Things can change. Don’t be fatalistic. Don’t decide because we’re mechanistic, biological machines that nothing can ever change. Change can happen, but where people go off the rails is translating that into: we can change ourselves. We don’t, we can’t, because there’s no free will. However, we can be changed by circumstance … And, because you have learned that change is possible—despite understanding mechanistically that we can’t change ourselves volitionally, but because you understand change is possible—you have just changed the ability of your brain to respond to optimistic stimuli, and you have changed the ability of your brain to now send you in the direction of being exposed to more information that will seem cheerful rather than depressing … Change can happen within a framework of a mechanistic neurobiology.”
- “Not only can prenatal hormone exposure change the way your brain is being constructed, but learning that prenatal hormone exposure can change the construction of your brain will change your brain right now, and how you think about where your intentions came from … The knowledge of the knowledge is an effector in and of itself.”
- “Now, to me, the single most important point about all of this is one having to do with change. Every bit of biology I have mentioned here can change in different circumstances … Most importantly, brains change. Neurons grow new processes. Circuits disconnect. Everything in the brain changes, and out of this come extraordinary examples of human change.”
- “The single most important thing about all of this is all of these realms of factoids all have one thing in common: they change, they can change over time, they change in response to experience, they change in the most fundamental ways over long periods, over short periods, ecosystems change … Those who don’t study the history and science of human change are destined not to be able to repeat it.”
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