Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says we have no free will. That’s a BIG claim. What are the implications of that??? And if we don’t have free will, is there a science of showing how we’re supposed to function once we accept that there’s no free will? These are the sorts of (very difficult!) questions EconTalk host Russ Roberts discusses with Sapolsky in this episode.

Have a listen, and let us know what you think!


1- How did Sapolsky come to a scientific view that all our actions are pre-determined? What does he mean when he describes human action as merely a part of the “seamless arc of biology?” To what extent are you convinced by Sapolsky’s argument?


2- Why do we “remember” only the seemingly meritocratic reasons for people’s success? (Recall the example of the the Stanford graduate and the gardener. Why, according to Sapolsky, should we  not regard the graduate’s achievement as any greater?)


3- Roberts found Sapolsky’s book to be a very Christian book. Why does he think this, and why does Sapolsky disagree? How does Sapolsky respond when Roberts asks him whether free will is possible in a world with an omniscient God? How does Sapolsky answer when Roberts asks, “how do we see ourselves as human beings in the world within this view?”


4- Sapolsky asserts that the absence of free will does not mean that people’s behavior doesn’t change; it does. How can change occur if humans have no agency? How can learning occur, which Sapolsky insists still happens?


5- What is the difference between sentience and free will? (Think of the story of sparrows’ instincts.) If not free will, what then separates humans from other species? (Are we just “simply cursed with the gift of consciousness???)


Bonus Question. Sapolsky insists that while we do not understand consciousness, AI may give us opportunity to do so. Why do you think he believes this, and to what extent might he be correct?