Discover more from Book reviews & random thoughts
On the biological basis of behavior and its origins.
Robert Sapolsky argues his case against the existence of free will in this book. As he already advanced in Behave, a veritable magnum opus, he doesn’t believe that human beings make decisions freely; he denies such a possibility.
In that work, he relied mainly on neuroscientific arguments, because throughout its pages, he reviewed the set of evolutionary, historical-cultural, hormonal and neural factors that condition each of our actions. In Determined, however, he focuses specifically on free will and in addition to resorting to neuroscientific arguments, he also relies on the knowledge we have about how reality works.
In recent decades, most of the debates on this issue have discussed the results of Benjamin Libet's 1983 experiments –which showed how the brain makes decisions before we are aware of them –as well as a whole series of subsequent experiments using a variety of techniques. These experiments, which have monitored the activity of various neurological structures, from hundreds of millions to individual neurons, essentially confirm Libet's results: the moment we think we are consciously and freely choosing to do something, the neurobiological die is already cast.
The scientific literature that Sapolsky calls "Libetian" shows that we can have an illusory sense of agency, and that we can be manipulated into believing we have conscious control even when we have none at all. The sense of agency arises after the brain has already committed to an action.
Despite all the research done in that field, Sapolsky believes that the only thing that can be concluded from it is that, under quite artificial circumstances, certain measures of brain function make it possible to predict subsequent behavior. And yet he believes that this is irrelevant to the question of the existence or non-existence of free will. According to Sapolsky, none of these experiments, in which consciousness and intention are evaluated, answers the key question: Where does this intention come from? What is its ultimate origin?
The question of the origin of behavior is important because, depending on how it is answered, responsibility may or may not be attributed to the individual. Suppose someone fervently desires to do something and succeeds in doing it. The important thing is not that he had that intention and carried it out; the important thing is that he cannot desire anything else. He has no way of modifying that desire, no way of having the tools –such as more discipline, for example– that would enable him to desire better what he desires. It is not in his power.
Therefore, Sapolsky understands that responsibility should be sought in the elements of the past that have converged to generate the concrete decision that we make at each moment. For this reason, he wonders about the ultimate origin of the intention.
To try to answer this question, he traces the events that have influenced the behavior of an individual, from what happened a few seconds ago in his brain, to the circumstances under which she developed in his mother's womb during pregnancy. And it does not stop there. It inquires about the cultural tradition of the human group to which she belongs, because the values and knowledge transmitted through generations also influence the way she acts. And it also assesses the influence of selective pressures that have shaped her past.
Sapolsky followed a similar sequence into the past in Behave. His goal then was simply to explain the behavior of an individual at a given time. He explained how hormones affect different time frames prior to a particular act; how a particular neurochemistry affects the brain; neuronal architecture as shaped by genetic factors; and how genes are expressed by epigenetic mechanisms.
At all levels of organization and time scales considered, the environment has a decisive role. At the evolutionary scale the environmental setting is the source of the selective pressures affecting the fitness of individuals. The culture of the group, as I have already pointed out, is transmitted from generation to generation, and constitutes another relevant environmental element. As is the uterine milieu, conditioned by the circumstances under which the pregnancy developed, or the environment under which she was raised in her childhood or developed during adolescence.
All these environmental factors have acted and left their mark. Given, moreover, the continuity between the different temporal stages, both of the individual's past and those of his own life, the interactions between the individual's biology and the environment of, say, a minute ago, and those of a decade ago, cannot be considered separate entities.
Sapolsky argues that it is absurd, in the midst of this fluidity, to think that we have free will because at some point, the state of the world (or the frontal cortex or the neuron or the serotonin molecule...) that came before each act happened out of nowhere and was the fruit of a will external to that sequence.
Curiously, in all this series of arguments, the author makes no mention of the self expressly, although it hovers at all times throughout the text. He does not deal with its nature, its properties. Let us realize that, at the end of the day, what Sapolsky does is to contest the existence of a self, of an autonomous, conscious entity, with agency and freedom. But he does not say so.
And although he does refer to dualism, the Cartesian doctrine of the existence of two natures, the res cogitans (immaterial, thinking) and the res extensa (material), he fails to express a notion similar or equivalent to that of the "ghost in the machine" popularized by Steven Pinker in Blank Slate.
I will return to this issue in the third part of this series that makes up the review of Determined. In the meantime, in the second part I will deal with the arguments that have been made in favor of the existence of free will based on phenomena such as chaotic systems, complexity, emergence and quantum mechanics. Sapolsky discusses them in detail.
Title: Determined–Life Without Free Will
Author: Robert M. Sapolsky
Ed. by Vintage, 2023.