Scientist, after decades of study, concludes: We don't have free will

Before epilepsy was recognized as a neurological disorder, the moon or brain phlegm were thought to be the cause. In order to stop patients from passing on polluted blood to future generations, they murdered or castrated them and denounced seizures as proof of witchcraft or demonic possession.

We now understand epilepsy to be an illness. It is generally agreed upon that a person suffering from a seizure who causes a fatal car accident should not be prosecuted for murder.

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, believes that's excellent. That's advancement. However, there is still more to be done.

Sapolsky came to the opinion that almost all human behavior is as much beyond of our conscious control as epileptic convulsions, cell division, or heartbeat after more than 40 years of research on humans and other primates.

This entails acknowledging that a man shooting into a crowd has no more control over his destiny than those victims who were unlucky enough to be there at the right moment. It entails handling inebriated motorists who slam into pedestrians in the same manner as those who abruptly lose consciousness and swerve out of their lane.

"The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over," Sapolsky stated. There is no free will in us. Give up putting things on us that don't exist."

Winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, Sapolsky is well aware of how unconventional this perspective is. The majority of neuroscientists think that humans possess some degree of free will. As do the great majority of people in general and philosophers in particular. Our self-perception is based on our ability to exercise free choice, which gives rise to feelings of pride in accomplishment or guilt when we don't act morally.

One of the best ways to start a debate is to claim that humans have no free will. For this reason, among other reasons, Sapolsky, who calls himself "majorly averse to interpersonal conflict," postponed authoring "Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will."

Sapolsky, 66, has a bearded face and a calm manner. He spent almost thirty years evading the politics of academia by spending a few months each year studying baboons in rural Kenya.

"I'm really, really, really trying not to sound like a combative jerk in the book," he stated. "I travel and live in a tent to cope with the complexity of human nature. Thus, I'm not interested in getting into many fights over this.

According to him, considering human conduct only from the perspective of one field ignores the idea that individuals have choices about what they do. However, after a lengthy career spanning several disciplines, he believes it would be intellectually dishonest to write anything else than what he perceives to be the inevitable conclusion: the sooner we acknowledge that free choice is a delusion, the more just society will be.

"Determined," which hits stores today, is an extension of Sapolsky's critically acclaimed 2017 book "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst," which took home several awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

The book dissects the neurochemical factors that shape human behavior, examining the milliseconds to millennia that may have passed before someone pulled on a trigger or touched their arm suggestively, for example.

"Determined" goes above and beyond. Free will, according to Sapolsky, cannot make sense if no one neuron or brain can act without being influenced by forces outside of its control.

This is something that most individuals who have even a little understanding of human biology can agree on, at least in part.

When we're terrified, anxious, or hungry, we know that we make worse judgments. We are aware that the genes we received from our distant ancestors and the health of our mother throughout her pregnancy have an impact on our physical composition. There is a wealth of data to suggest that those reared in households characterized by disorder and lack of resources will have a different perspective on the world and make different decisions than those raised in secure, stable, and resource-rich situations. Many significant things are out of our control.

However, like, all of it? Is there any significant control over the jobs, relationships, and weekends we choose? Was it predetermined in any way for you to reach out and pick up a pen right now?

Indeed, Sapolsky responds to the innumerable students who have posed the identical query during his office hours as well as in the book. The student's decision to pick up the pen is preceded by a mix of conflicting impulses that are outside of their conscious awareness. Perhaps their curiosity is aroused by the fact that they skipped lunch, or perhaps the professor's likeness to a grating relative has unconsciously set them off.

Next, consider the factors that led them to the professor's office where they felt confident enough to raise an objection. They are more likely to come from an individualistic society rather than a collective one, and their parents are more likely to have attended college. All of those factors gently prod behavior in predictable directions.

Perhaps you've had the eerie sensation of discussing with a buddy about an impending camping vacation, only to later find yourself inundated by social media advertisements for tents. Despite how it may seem, your phone did not record your discussion. It's just that computers can predict—often with unnerving accuracy—what you will do based on the cumulative history of your likes, clicks, searches, and shares, which together create such a thorough picture of your preferences and decision-making tendencies.

Reaching for the pen causes something similar, according to Sapolsky. It's difficult to pinpoint just how much you "chosen" to take up the pen because so many things outside of your conscious awareness had a role.

Sapolsky, the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn.

His early interest in biology prompted him to write fan letters to primatologists and spend time in front of the American Museum of Natural History's taxidermied gorillas by grade school. However, his upbringing was influenced by religion.

He claims that one night in his early teens, everything changed. He was struggling with issues of religion and identity when he had a revelation that altered his destiny and kept him awake until dawn: God does not exist, free choice does not exist, and we are essentially on our own.

He laughed and continued, "That was kind of a big day, and it's been tumultuous since then."

This might be used by critics to refute his claims: How can a young man from a very religious conservative family become a liberal atheist on his own if we aren't free to choose our actions or beliefs?

He contends that change is always possible but results from outside forces. Sea slugs are able to learn to automatically back away from an electric shock. Humans are altered by exposure to external events in ways we seldom anticipate through the same biological mechanisms.

He suggests that you picture a group of friends seeing a film about a motivational campaigner. The next day, someone applies to be a Peace Corps volunteer. After being captivated by the stunning cinematography, someone decides to enrol in a filmmaking course. The others are irritated because they missed a Marvel movie.

As soon as they sat down to watch, the pals were all set to react. Perhaps one was in a new relationship and flooded with oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, while another may have had an adrenaline rush from a near-miss with another automobile on the way here. They differed in their cultural origins, dopamine and serotonin levels in their brains, and sensitivity to sensory disturbances in the theater. No more than the sea slug "decided" to flinch in reaction to a jolt, none of them got to choose how the stimulation of the film would effect them.

Scientists who support determinism, which holds that an individual can never have behaved differently in any given circumstance, would appreciate Sappolsky's objective explanation of causation.

Gregg Caruso, a philosopher at SUNY Corning who read early drafts of the book, said, "Who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would truly make us deserving of praise and blame, punishment and reward." "I am in agreement with Sapolsky that life without belief in free will is not only possible but preferable."

Caruso is a co-director of the Justice Without Retribution Network, an organization that promotes a criminal justice system that places more emphasis on avoiding future harm than on placing blame. He said that rather than satisfying the need for punishment, concentrating on the root causes of aggressive or antisocial conduct "will allow us to adopt more humane and effective practices and policies."

Their perspective is very much in the minority.

According to Peter U. Tse, a neurologist from Dartmouth and the author of the 2013 book "The Neural Basis of Free Will," Sapolsky is "a wonderful explainer of complex phenomena." "However, a person can be both brilliant and utterly wrong."

According to Tse, neural activity is very varied, with similar inputs frequently producing non-identical responses in both individuals and communities. It would be more realistic to see such inputs as imposing constraints as opposed to predetermined results. Our conduct is simply too variable to consider it preset, even if the range of possible outcomes is constrained.

Furthermore, he continued, doing so is detrimental.

"Those who push the idea that we are nothing but deterministic biochemical puppets are responsible for enhancing psychological suffering and hopelessness in this world," Tse said.

Even proponents of the idea that biology restricts our options are hesitant to accept it too fully.

Author of "Free Will and Illusion," Saul Smilansky is a philosopher at the University of Haifa in Israel. He disbelieves that we can will themselves to overcome any limitations imposed by genetics or environment. However, we must have faith in our ability to live in a just society.

He stated that it would "probably be catastrophic" to abandon all faith in moral responsibility and free choice, and that it would be "dangerous, even irresponsible," to encourage others to do so.

People who read texts rejecting the concept of free will were more inclined to cheat on a later exam, according to a widely reported 2008 research. According to findings from other research, those who have less control over their behavior are less concerned about making errors at work and are more aggressive and unhelpful when they don't believe in free will.

In his book, Sapolsky addresses these worries in detail and comes to the conclusion that the effects shown in these tests are too little and their repeatability too high to justify the notion that society would collapse if we believe that we have no influence over our destiny.

He claims that the more persuasive criticism is well expressed in Ted Chiang's short tale "What's Expected of Us," a work of speculative fiction. The narrator tells about a new device that deprives people of their desire to live by leading them to believe that their decisions are predestined.

"It's essential that you behave as if your decisions matter," the storyteller cautions, "even though you know that they don't."

Sapolsky acknowledges that the biggest danger of giving up on free will isn't that we'll want to act badly. It's because we won't want to accomplish anything if we don't feel like we have personal agency.

"It may be dangerous to tell people that they don't have free will," Sapolsky stated. "The vast majority of the time, I really think it's a hell of a lot more humane."

Sapolsky is aware that most of his readers won't be convinced. It is difficult to persuade victims of abuse that offenders should bear less responsibility due to their past financial hardships. Convincing the wealthy that their past affluence makes their efforts less deserving of recognition is much more difficult.

"If you have time to be bummed out by that, you're one of the lucky ones," stated the man.

He claims that growing compassion is his real goal. Perhaps if people realized the extent to which early trauma can rewire the brain, they might lose their desire for severe penalties. Perhaps if someone understands they have a mental illness such as ADHD or depression, they will be less likely to hate themselves for finding things that other people find easy.

Science may one day disprove some of our current views about personal responsibility, much as past generations believed that seizures were caused by witchcraft.

According to Sapolsky, we are just robots with extraordinary abilities to sense and feel our own experiences. Hating a machine for its flaws is useless.

He is just unable to resolve one final thread.

"It is logically indefensible, ludicrous, meaningless to believe that something 'good' can happen to a machine," he states. "Nonetheless, I am certain that it is good if people feel less pain and more happiness."