Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will
The instant New York Times bestseller

“Excellent…Outstanding for its breadth of research, the liveliness of the writing, and the depth of humanity it conveys.” – Wall Street Journal

One of our great behavioral scientists, the bestselling author of Behave, plumbs the depths of the science and philosophy of decision-making to mount a devastating case against free will, an argument with profound consequences


Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession.

Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.
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Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will
The instant New York Times bestseller

“Excellent…Outstanding for its breadth of research, the liveliness of the writing, and the depth of humanity it conveys.” – Wall Street Journal

One of our great behavioral scientists, the bestselling author of Behave, plumbs the depths of the science and philosophy of decision-making to mount a devastating case against free will, an argument with profound consequences


Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession.

Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.
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Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will

Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will

by Robert M. Sapolsky
Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will

Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will

by Robert M. Sapolsky

Hardcover

$35.00 
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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

Immensely thought-provoking and yet infinitely accessible, this is a book that makes a compelling and realistic case for a fairer world. It is an exploration of the human brain, led by a renowned neuroscientist, and it’s a treat to read.

The instant New York Times bestseller

“Excellent…Outstanding for its breadth of research, the liveliness of the writing, and the depth of humanity it conveys.” – Wall Street Journal

One of our great behavioral scientists, the bestselling author of Behave, plumbs the depths of the science and philosophy of decision-making to mount a devastating case against free will, an argument with profound consequences


Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined, Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.

Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works—the tight weave between reason and emotion and between stimulus and response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession.

Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525560975
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/17/2023
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 19,106
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His most recent book, Behave, was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” He and his wife live in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt

1

Turtles All the Way Down

When I was in college, my friends and I had an anecdote that we retold frequently; it went like this (and our retelling was so ritualistic that I suspect this is close to verbatim, forty-five years later):

So, it seems that William James was giving a lecture about the nature of life and the universe. Afterward, an old woman came up and said, "Professor James, you have it all wrong."

To which James asked, "How so, madam?"

"Things aren't at all like you said," she replied. "The world is on the back of a gigantic turtle."

"Hmm." said James, bemused. "That may be so, but where does that turtle stand?"

"On the back of another turtle," she answered.

"But madam," said James indulgently, "where does that turtle stand?"

To which the old woman responded triumphantly: "It's no use, Professor James. It's turtles all the way down!"

Oh, how we loved that story, always told it with the same intonation. We thought it made us seem droll and pithy and attractive.

We used the anecdote as mockery, a pejorative critique of someone clinging unshakably to illogic. We'd be in the dinner hall, and someone had said something nonsensical, where their response to being challenged had made things worse. Inevitably, one of us would smugly say, "It's no use, Professor James!" to which the person, who had heard our stupid anecdote repeatedly, would inevitably respond, "Screw you, just listen. This actually makes sense."

Here is the point of this book: While it may seem ridiculous and nonsensical to explain something by resorting to an infinity of turtles all the way down, it actually is much more ridiculous and nonsensical to believe that somewhere down there, there's a turtle floating in the air. The science of human behavior shows that turtles can't float; instead, it is indeed turtles all the way down.

Someone behaves in a particular way. Maybe it's wonderful and inspiring, maybe it's appalling, maybe it's in the eye of the beholder, or maybe just trivial. And we frequently ask the same basic question: Why did that behavior occur?

If you believe that turtles can float in the air, the answer is that it just happened, that there was no cause besides that person having simply decided to create that behavior. Science has recently provided a much more accurate answer, and when I say "recently," I mean in the last few centuries. The answer is that the behavior happened because something that preceded it caused it to happen. And why did that prior circumstance occur? Because something that preceded it caused it to happen. It's antecedent causes all the way down, not a floating turtle or causeless cause to be found. Or as Maria sings in The Sound of Music, "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could."

To reiterate, when you behave in a particular way, which is to say when your brain has generated a particular behavior, it is because of the determinism that came just before, which was caused by the determinism just before that, and before that, all the way down. The approach of this book is to show how that determinism works, to explore how the biology over which you had no control, interacting with environment over which you had no control, made you you. And when people claim that there are causeless causes of your behavior that they call "free will," they have (a) failed to recognize or not learned about the determinism lurking beneath the surface and/or (b) erroneously concluded that the rarefied aspects of the universe that do work indeterministically can explain your character, morals, and behavior.

Once you work with the notion that every aspect of behavior has deterministic, prior causes, you observe a behavior and can answer why it occurred: as just noted, because of the action of neurons in this or that part of your brain in the preceding second. And in the seconds to minutes before, those neurons were activated by a thought, a memory, an emotion, or sensory stimuli. And in the hours to days before that behavior occurred, the hormones in your circulation shaped those thoughts, memories, and emotions and altered how sensitive your brain was to particular environmental stimuli. And in the preceding months to years, experience and environment changed how those neurons function, causing some to sprout new connections and become more excitable, and causing the opposite in others.

And from there, we hurtle back decades in identifying antecedent causes. Explaining why that behavior occurred requires recognizing how during your adolescence a key brain region was still being constructed, shaped by socialization and acculturation. Further back, there's childhood experience shaping the construction of your brain, with the same then applying to your fetal environment. Moving further back, we have to factor in the genes you inherited and their effects on behavior.

But we're not done yet. That's because everything in your childhood, starting with how you were mothered within minutes of birth, was influenced by culture, which means as well by the centuries of ecological factors that influenced what kind of culture your ancestors invented, and by the evolutionary pressures that molded the species you belong to. Why did that behavior occur? Because of biological and environmental interactions, all the way down.

As a central point of this book, those are all variables that you had little or no control over. You cannot decide all the sensory stimuli in your environment, your hormone levels this morning, whether something traumatic happened to you in the past, the socioeconomic status of your parents, your fetal environment, your genes, whether your ancestors were farmers or herders. Let me state this most broadly, probably at this point too broadly for most readers: we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment. You're going to be able to recite this sentence in your irritated sleep by the time we're done.

There are all sorts of aspects about behavior that, while true, are not relevant to where we're heading. For example, the fact that some criminal behavior can be due to psychiatric or neurological problems. That some kids have "learning differences" because of the way their brains work. That some people have trouble with self-restraint, because they grew up without any decent role models or because they're still a teenager with a teenager's brain. That someone has said something hurtful merely because they're tired and stressed, or even because of a medication they're taking.

All of these are circumstances where we recognize that sometimes, biology can impinge on our behavior. This is essentially a nice humane agenda that endorses society's general views about agency and personal responsibility but reminds you to make exceptions for edge cases: judges should consider mitigating factors in criminals' upbringing during sentencing; juvenile murderers shouldn't be executed; the teacher handing out gold stars to the kids who are soaring in learning to read should do something special too for that kid with dyslexia; college admissions officers should consider more than just SAT cutoffs for applicants who have overcome unique challenges.

These are good, sensible ideas that should be instituted if you decide that some people have much less self-control and capacity to freely choose their actions than average, and that at times, we all have much less than we imagine.

We can all agree on that; however, we're heading into very different terrain, one that I suspect most readers will not agree with, which is deciding that we have no free will at all. Here would be some of the logical implications of that being the case: That there can be no such thing as blame, and that punishment as retribution is indefensible-sure, keep dangerous people from damaging others, but do so as straightforwardly and nonjudgmentally as keeping a car with faulty brakes off the road. That it can be okay to praise someone or express gratitude toward them as an instrumental intervention, to make it likely that they will repeat that behavior in the future, or as an inspiration to others, but never because they deserve it. And that this applies to you when you've been smart or self-disciplined or kind. Oh, as long as we're at it, that you recognize that the experience of love is made of the same building blocks that constitute wildebeests or asteroids. That no one has earned or is entitled to being treated better or worse than anyone else. And that it makes as little sense to hate someone as to hate a tornado because it supposedly decided to level your house, or to love a lilac because it supposedly decided to make a wonderful fragrance.

That's what it means to conclude that there is no free will. This is what I've concluded, for a long, long time. And even I think that taking that seriously sounds absolutely nutty.

Moreover, most people agree that it sounds that way. People's beliefs and values, their behavior, their answers to survey questions, their actions as study subjects in the nascent field of "experimental philosophy," show that people believe in free will when it matters-philosophers (about 90 percent), lawyers, judges, jurors, educators, parents, and candlestick makers. As well as scientists, even biologists, even many neurobiologists, when push comes to shove. Work by psychologists Alison Gopnik at UC Berkeley and Tamar Kushnir at Cornell shows that preschool kids already have a robust belief in a recognizable version of free will. And such a belief is widespread (but not universal) among a wide variety of cultures. We are not machines in most people's view; as a clear demonstration, when a driver or an automated car makes the same mistake, the former is blamed more. And we are not alone in our faith in free will-research that we'll look at in a later chapter suggests that other primates even believe that there is free will.

This book has two goals. The first is to convince you that there is no free will, or at least that there is much less free will than generally assumed when it really matters. To accomplish that, we'll look at the way smart, nuanced thinkers argue for free will, from the perspectives of philosophy, legal thought, psychology, and neuroscience. I'll be trying to present their views to the best of my ability, and to then explain why I think they are all mistaken. Some of these mistakes arise from the myopia (used in a descriptive rather than judgmental sense) of focusing solely on just one sliver of the biology of behavior. Sometimes this is because of faulty logic, such as concluding that if it's not possible to ever tell what caused X, maybe nothing caused it. Sometimes the mistakes reflect unawareness or misinterpretation of the science underlying behavior. Most interestingly, I sense that mistakes arise for emotional reasons that reflect that there being no free will is pretty damn unsettling; we'll consider this at the end of the book. So one of my two goals is to explain why I think all these folks are wrong, and how life would improve if people stopped thinking like them.

Right around here, one might ask of me, Where do you get off? As will be seen, free-will debates often revolve around narrow issues-"Does a particular hormone actually cause a behavior or just make it more likely?" or "Is there a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to want something?"-that are usually debated by specialized authorities. My intellectual makeup happens to be that of a generalist. I'm a "neurobiologist" with a lab that does things like manipulate genes in a rat's brain to change behavior. At the same time, I spent part of each year for more than three decades studying the social behavior and physiology of wild baboons in a national park in Kenya. Some of my research turned out to be relevant to understanding how adult brains are influenced by the stress of childhood poverty, and as a result, I've wound up spending time around the likes of sociologists; another facet of my work has been relevant to mood disorders, leading me to hang with psychiatrists. And for the last decade, I've had a hobby of working with public defender offices on murder trials, teaching juries about the brain. As a result, I've been carpetbagging in a number of different fields related to behavior. Which I think has made me particularly prone toward deciding that free will doesn't exist.

Why? Crucially, if you focus on any single field like these-neuroscience, endocrinology, behavioral economics, genetics, criminology, ecology, child development, or evolutionary biology-you are left with plenty of wiggle room for deciding that biology and free will can coexist. In the words of UC San Diego philosopher Manuel Vargas, "Claiming that some scientific result shows the falsity of 'free will' . . . is either bad scholarship or academic hucksterism." He is right, if in-your-face. As we will see in the next chapter, most experimental neurobiology research about free will is narrowly anchored by the result of one study that examined events that happen in the brain a few seconds before a behavior occurs. And Vargas would correctly conclude that this "scientific result" (plus the spin-offs it has generated in the subsequent forty years) doesn't prove there's no free will. Similarly, you can't disprove free will with a "scientific result" from genetics-genes in general are not about inevitability but, rather, about vulnerability and potential, and no single gene, gene variant, or gene mutation has ever been identified that falsifies free will; you can't even do it when considering all our genes at once. And you can't disprove free will from a developmental/sociological perspective by emphasizing the scientific result that a childhood filled with abuse, deprivation, neglect, and trauma astronomically increases the odds of producing a deeply damaged and damaging adult-because there are exceptions. Yeah, no single result or scientific discipline can do that. But-and this is the incredibly important point-put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there's no room for free will.

Why is that? Something deeper than the idea that if you examine enough different disciplines, one -ology after another, you're bound to eventually find one that provides a slam dunk, falsifying free will all by itself. It is also deeper than the idea that even though each discipline has a hole that precludes it from falsifying free will, at least one of the other disciplines compensates for it.

Crucially, all these disciplines collectively negate free will because they are all interlinked, constituting the same ultimate body of knowledge. If you talk about the effects of neurotransmitters on behavior, you are also implicitly talking about the genes that specify the construction of those chemical messengers, and the evolution of those genes-the fields of "neurochemistry," "genetics," and "evolutionary biology" can't be separated. If you examine how events in fetal life influence adult behavior, you are also automatically considering things like lifelong changes in patterns of hormone secretion or in gene regulation. If you discuss the effects of mothering style on a kid's eventual adult behavior, by definition you are also automatically discussing the nature of the culture that the mother passes on through her actions. There's not a single crack of daylight to shoehorn in free will.

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