Intro. [Recording date: September 20, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September 20th, 2023, and my guest is neuroscientist and author Robert Sapolsky. He is a John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor; Professor of Biology, of Neurology and of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. His latest book is Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. Robert, welcome to EconTalk.
Robert Sapolsky: Thanks for having me on.
Russ Roberts: Let's start with the title of the book, which is extremely clever. Explain it.
Robert Sapolsky: Well, thank you. For one thing, months and months were spent in agitated ambivalence as to whether it should be called Determined: A science of or The Science of, and I decided that Thesounded even more grandiose than A does.
Well, as one might guess from the title, my stance is there's no free will whatsoever--which I guess we will get to the implausibility of that shortly. But the title, in a sense is a play on the two meanings of it: What is the science that shows that there is no free will? And, in some ways--what was the much more meaningful part of the book for me: Is there a science of showing how we're supposed to function once we accept that there's no free will? So, that's basically Parts One and Two of the book, and the title sort of encompasses that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I took it a slightly different way, which I assume you meant, but you're welcome to take a--it's your book. Yeah, 'Determined' meaning it's determined--there's nothing you can choose about it; it's set already--versus 'determined'--'I'm really determined to do something,'--and your belief that that is essentially an illusion; and in that sense, free will is an illusion.
So the book, it's a large book. It has two--I would say two essential parts. One is the science--the evidence that you bring that there is no free will. And then, much of the book--and in many ways, for me the most interesting part--are the implications of that view. Most of them were disturbing. And, you recognize that I was disturbed by the book in many ways; and, trying to both comfort me--which is interesting--comfort the reader about why that is going to turn out okay, and why we might want to embrace the viewpoint of determinism, that there's no free will.
So, obviously in a mere 60-plus minutes, even if the plus was relatively long, we're not going to summarize all the data and studies that you bring, many of which I found compelling, some of which I didn't. But, that's the nature of science and social science, which you also of course rely on. But, try to give us the flavor of the evidence rather than a blow-by-blow account. How might one come to a scientific view that our behavior as human beings is preordained, is written, is destined, is determined?
Robert Sapolsky: Well, let me first frame it in terms of when people are thinking about free will or lack thereof, it's often in this very proximal kind of way. And, that's one that comes through in courtrooms where there's this intense interest on the issue of intent. Did the person intend to do what they did? Did they know what the consequences would be? And, did they know that there were alternatives available? And, if the answer is yes to all of those, hang them: they're culpable.
An equivalent in science is like a classic experiment that people have been fighting over for 40 years to make sense of where intent figured very largely: again, a scientist named Benjamin Libet, where--I kid you not, people are still publishing papers now 40 years later with titles like, 'Libet had no idea what he was talking about,' or some equivalent. This is very unheard of in science, but the arguing for 40 years.
And what, essentially, the argument was about was: at the time that somebody intends to do something, has the brain already decided before the person is consciously aware of it? And, famous, famous studies, and the endless fighting over: is this the most effective way to measure it? Should you have used a brain scan instead of an EEG [electroencephalogram]? All of that.
In both cases, the critical thing is: Was theer intent? So, the metaphor I use as to why that doesn't begin to scratch the surface is that's like assessing what you think of a movie by only watching the last three minutes of it. Because, whether in a legal setting or in the Libet slugfest interpretation setting, in both cases you are not asking what's really the only interesting question in there, which is: Where did that intent come from?
And, when you frame it that way, suddenly you've got a much larger vista. Because, as soon as you're trying to make sense of, 'Okay, forget whether the person knew the brain was already going to do it or the brain was coming afterward or whatever, and they did whatever they just did in the last second,' asking where did the intent to do that come from opens up a massive portal. Because you're asking, 'Okay, well, what parts of the brain just did whatever, and which parts didn't do whatever and told those muscles to cause you to behave in that way?'
But then, you have to consider, 'Well, what was going on in the world around that individual in the previous seconds to minutes that might've triggered that behavior?' And then, you have to ask, 'Well, what was going on in the previous hours--today's--hormone levels? What did the person's hormone levels this morning have to do with how sensitive their brain would be to this or that stimulus?' And then you've got to do, 'Okay, in proceeding months, was the person traumatized? Were they wildly stimulated?' Because whatever it was, the very structure and workings of your brain would have changed as a result. And, what played out in those last two seconds would have been heavily influenced by that.
And then, you're off and running, and adolescence, which is sort of a special time for the brain, and childhood, and fetal life. Because it turns out what kind of environment your womb was has all sorts of lifelong implications for what kind of brain you're building there.
And then, of course, back to genes. And, most surprisingly, in lots of ways, you've got to push back further to what kind of culture did your ancestors invent centuries ago, parentheses, (and what did their ecology have to do with it)? Because that culture affected how you were raised within a minute of birth. The culture they invented back when is what gave your parents the values they used to construct your brain and the way it wound up getting constructed.
So, you look at all of that, 'Oh my god, where'd that behavior come from, that intent-to come from?' And, the answer is: everything from one second ago to a million years ago, and everything in between.
And, the critical point is this is not just saying when you study all these different disciplines, the conclusion is 'Wow, there's no room for free will.' The critical point is it's one discipline.
If, for example, you're talking about genes, by definition you're talking about millions of years of evolution. If you're talking about genes, you're talking about the proteins you made in your brain three minutes ago. It's this seamless arc of biology--over which you had no control--interacting with environment--over which you had no control. And, when you look at this seamless arc, there's not a crack in it anywhere in which you can shoehorn in free will, where you could shoehorn in decision-making being a causeless cause, in a way that happened totally independently of one second before, one hour before, or 1 million years before.
Russ Roberts: And so, if you believe--as many do, including me--that your friends influence you, and you choose your friends wisely then--or you should: you're encouraged to do so--you're also arguing: you mentioned your environment, you had no choice. Of course, in some sense we feel like we do. We can choose our friends, or choose who we socialize with. You're saying that, too, of course, is the result of influences biological, chemical, physical processes, my brain structure, my hormones, etc.
And, we get to a world that William James in a very provocative article called "The Dilemma of Determinism"--which I would say we'll put a link up to it, but I can't find an un-copyrighted article on the web, so we might not link to it. But, you can find it. It's in the first five things that'll show up in Google, if you're interested.
James is an indeterminist and makes, I think, one of the best arguments against the argument that there is no free will. James believes there is free will, and he makes this argument in 1881, which is striking, because we feel like this is a modern problem because of neuroscience. There wasn't any real neuroscience in 1881, but it's the same arguments.
And, the way James describes your viewpoint, which I find very helpful, is: It's an iron block, from the Big Bang--again, a phrase he didn't know, but it didn't matter. From the beginning of time to the present, everything was inevitable because of the nature of the physical world, and we have an iron block of actions and observations from the real world. We don't see all of them, of course. But, the ones we see could be nothing else than what they were. Is that a fair summary?
Robert Sapolsky: As long as one incorporates in, and then very lively discards the 20th century and quantum indeterminacy, that it turns out the little bitty, bitty aspects of the universe don't work in that sort of mechanistic clockwork way. In which case it then becomes a debate whether that's got anything to do with free will. And, in fact, in the book I spend two very tentative chapters trying to show all the ways in which people who have concluded that quantum indeterminacy is the magic hat out of which you pull free will, that it doesn't work that way. That's not relevant.
But, beyond that, yes, it's a universe that follows universal laws of the physical universe. We, and ardvaarks, and comets are made up of things like atoms, and it's essentially what's going on.
Russ Roberts: So, I find that view horrifying. So, I'm putting my cards on the table. And, until I read your book, in the back of my mind--it's come up in this program maybe three times in the 17 years we've been doing this. I've referenced quantum indeterminacy, entanglement, I've referenced emergence; and you very thoughtfully examined both those at quite a bit of length as you mention, and find no out for those of us who want to believe in free will.
And, I think that's right. I think in the case of quantum indeterminacy or the God-playing-dice with the universe as Einstein called it, the fact that there are certain random elements to, at the quantum level, doesn't change--I would say, the way I would summarize your argument, and you can correct me if I'm wrong: it doesn't change the physical forces that impinge on my volition or sense of choice. That's still an illusion. Is that correct?
Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, I would say that's one of the three problems. One is quantum events are so tiny, tiny, that one would have to speculate orders of magnitudes worth of mechanisms to amplify it upwards, so that it bubbles out at the level of, 'Here's one ion channel that opened or closed as a result,' let alone 'Here's one neuron, one part of the brain, one person's actions that were driven by that,' because it requires all of those random little quantal events to be going in the same direction at once. And, it's essentially impossible that it bubbles up like that.
Ultimately, the bigger problem is that even if quantal events bubbled all the way up to affect our most critical neurons, this is not a mechanism for free will. It's a mechanism for randomness. And, we're not really interested in randomness. We're interested in why, already at age six, this person was already showing their adult qualities, and we're interested in the consistency of what we call somebody's character. So, this is a way to get randomness, not what we think of the free will.
The third problem is if you're really desperate at that point and want to saw off the branch that you're hanging on, you then come up with a fairly unconvincing bunch of hand-waving by which you--the you, the nebulous, imaginary you up on top who's independent of all of this--can reach down and in some way lasso in, shape, finesse the quantum effects so that you could then produce what you're calling free will. And, it doesn't work that way.
Russ Roberts: Darn. Okay. So, that's out.
Russ Roberts: Before we go on to some of the more philosophical issues that inevitably arise, there's other practical issues we're going to talk about which are very important. But, give a flavor, again, of some of the evidence that you have seen in your career as a neuroscientist, but also the social science, that makes it overwhelming in your view that behavior is predetermined and that the volition and intent is essentially meaningless.
Robert Sapolsky: Great. Well, given that I just said you've got to consider everything from a second before to a million years before, let me just cherry-pick three examples from three different time points showing exactly that.
You sit someone down in a room, and you have them fill out a questionnaire about their political views, their social politics, economics, geopolitics, whatever. And, you do that with them. And if instead, you had done that with them in a room where unbeknownst, there's a horrible rotten smell in there, and you can actually write away to some company and give them your credit card, and get a decaying corpse smell little vial that you can open up, or a rancid--whatever: the person is sitting in there, and something smells really bad in there.
And, what you see is, when you put people in a room with a bad smell, people on the average become more socially conservative. It doesn't affect their economic views, their geopolitical views. They're much more likely to view the actions of other people that are different as being kind of disturbing and kind of wrong, wrong, wrong. And, none of this is conscious.
And, in the most charming, imaginable follow-up study, you put people in a room where there's a smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies, and they become more generous in economic games. And, you sit the person down and say, 'Whoa, that's really interesting. A week ago in another survey, you said it's okay that these people do this practice, but just now you said: Oh my god, that should be illegal. How come?' No one's going to say, 'Because the room smells of putrid garbage and it activated the parts of my brain that confuse sensory disgust with moral disgust.' They're going to say, 'I thought about it and I realized this is actually the reason why. Here is the post hoc confabulation I'm going to come up with.' So, that's happening one second before.
Russ Roberts: I want to just mention that--I don't know whether this is comforting or disturbing--but real estate agents I think have realized this long before social scientists. They encourage you, when you're selling your house, to bake chocolate chip cookies or cookies generally in the house when prospective buyers come. I guess you also have to keep the buyer [probably Russ meant seller--Econlib Ed.] herself/himself out of the kitchen afterwards so they don't make an overly generous offer to the prospective seller--I mean buyer.
But, I find--that kind of evidence, by the way, to me is very similar to economists, deep--not deep; I'm being sarcastic--insight that demand curve slope downward. People buy less of things when the price goes up.
We are influenced, certainly, by the things around us. And, although you quote the Hungry Judges story, which we'll link to, but we're not going to talk about because I think it's literally absurd and wrong and has been highly critiqued. But, the Hungry Judges story basically says people change their behavior when they're hungry. That's true. The amount they change it and what its consequences are, I think, is not true.
But, people act differently when they're hungry. They act differently when there are smells. They act differently when they didn't sleep well. They act differently for a thousand reasons. They had a bad childhood, they have bad genes. There are all kinds of things like that. Some of those, we learn to do better at as we grow older. Right? Once you realize that part of it comes from parenting, you see an angry child and you think, 'I wonder what's wrong.' And after awhile, you learn there are really only three things for an infant. They didn't sleep enough, they're hungry, or they have a dirty diaper.
So, 'hangry'--the state of being angry when you're hungry--you become aware of it actually. And, if you're a mature and self-aware adult, you learn to try to use that knowledge to change your behavior.
So, the fact that we're influenceable or that our behavior is understandable in ways that aren't understandable to us, I don't find that so compelling. Why is it compelling to you?
Robert Sapolsky: Because you used a word on which your whole universe is pivoting, if you are a mature, competent adult. And thus we look in a situation, two people are both tempted by whatever, and one of them is a mature, competent adult and says, 'Yes, but I'm going to regret it; really don't do it,' and the other person does. And, they're both competent, whatever. And, you then have to ask, where did the person's intent to resist come from, and where did the other person's intent to resist fail?
And, we're back to what went on in their brains one second ago, one minute ago. Because one of them will have had a childhood that gave them a greater capacity to respect self-discipline. One of them will have had a genetic makeup that make them more sensorially sensitive to thrill-seeking--and there's a genetics to that, and a neurobiology. One of them will have had a miserable interactions with their peers whenever and as such has had a, 'I'll show them,' mindset forever after. And, somehow, thumbing your nose at the sensible thing to do at that point is what you're pulled to instead. Why, if they're both mature adults, doesn't begin to scratch the surface.
And, in a sense, what you've just done is gotten what's for most people, the most compatible way to deal with all of this, which is to say, 'Okay, okay: most of the time most of us have free will, but there's special cases.' There's edge cases. You could be so tired, or so brain-damaged, or have such a low IQ [intelligence quotient], or whatever--
Russ Roberts: Drunk--
Robert Sapolsky: Or drunk, that one can reevaluate it and one can say, 'And then there's some people out there who usually have none of that self-control stuff. So, keep them in mind. Keep them in mind if they're not a mature, competent adult because they started off fetal life being a fetal alcohol baby, and it's been downhill from there. Okay, they're one of those exceptions. But, the rest of us can be held responsible.'
But then you have to just unpack it, piece by piece. And, all that's going on is the exact same influences. But, it's a whole lot easier. This person, when they were 10 years old, was in a car accident that wiped out their frontal cortex. And, ever since then, they haven't been able to regulate their behavior. A jury--depending on what time zone and state you're in--a jury may find that convincing or not. It is never going to find convincing that second trimester stress hormone levels for mom, and whether it was a safe neighborhood when they were a kid, and whether they were culturally raised with a viewpoint that if you don't take revenge, they're going to come back and get you twice as bad is going to produce the same exact sort of frontal cortex as something like an accident did or as something like a single gene. But, it's a lot harder to see all those little threads adding up to influence.
And, the whole point is it's incredibly distributed.
And, what I just said, alluding to a second example is fetal life. Fetal life--environment doesn't begin at birth, it begins at conception. And, one of a zillion examples that could be shown is one of those studies that should floor you with how outrageous this implies the universe is. People have gotten good enough at brain imaging techniques that they could do neuroimaging on a fetus. And, already, the rate of a fetus's brain growth is influenced by the mother's socioeconomic status. If your mother is poor, a bazillion studies show your brain is more likely to be getting marinated in stress hormones from her circulation. And, that delays aspects of brain maturation. You're a fetus, and already, you picked the wrong womb to land in. Your mother's socioeconomic status is already beginning to influence what kind of brain you're going to have as an adult.
The third example, just to pick sort of the other extreme is you look at--this is now cultural stuff--cultures of honor. Cultures of honor, we know them the world over, and there's ecological predictors of it. Cultures of honor come from people who herd animals--camel people, and cow people, and yak people, and all of that. And, the reason why that happens, they develop a culture of honor where if somebody disses you, you have to come back twice as bad. Because if you don't, next time they'll come for everything you own. And, if you don't get the chance to do it, your grandkids should be willing to do it to their grandkids, generations later in the feuds. You don't see that among hunter-gatherers. You don't see that among farmers, because people can't come at night and steal your rainforest, and people can't come at night and harvest your entire crops and steal it. But, people can come out at night and be low-down sneaky varmints and rustle your cattle or steal your camels or whatever.
And, what you see is people who are nomadic pastoralists come up with cultures of honor that involve warrior classes, that involve ethos of revenge--and double the revenge if need be. And then you look at us, and you look at things like: Why does the American South have a higher rate of honor murders than the rest of the country does?--and that has been the case for centuries. Because New England was settled by a bunch of Puritans and the Mid-Atlantic states were settled by a bunch of Quakers trying to set up shops and be mercantile. And, the South was settled by, like, wild-ass Scotsmen, and Irish, and Northern English--shepherds who showed up with a culture of honor. And, that was the start of the South, that has exactly that culture.
So, what are we doing? We're sitting here and we're saying, 'Well, the smell of the room and what your mother's place in society was when you were a fetus, and what kind of ecosystem your ancestors were in centuries ago, which determined if they raised crops or if they wandered the desert with their camels--all of that put together has something to do with why I just did what I did?' And, the answer is yes. And every single thing in between the smell and the time back in the womb, everything in between the time back in the womb and when they were just working out your culture back then, because that culture is going to have influenced how your mother mothered you within minutes of birth--and great cross-cultural studies showing you get people from this type of culture versus that type and so on. And, within minutes of birth, there are reliable differences in how long the baby has to cry before on the average, the mother picks them up. And, if you come from a culture where they wait three minutes versus three seconds, your brain is being very differently shaped by the world within minutes of life, because your people lived in the rainforest back when, or because your people got booted out after they stole their farmland and had it become nomadic pastoralists.
Yeah, it's nothing but that and everything in between.
Russ Roberts: So, those are all interesting, and compelling, and I particularly like the nomadic/pastoralist example, because that's a really beautiful example of how culture emerges from constraints and the nature of the incentives people face. It's economics. Those all matter. Science matters, biology matters, the womb matters. Having a mother who is an alcoholic matters.
And, to make it even more dramatic--I think of this all the time--you know, you give a beautiful example of the graduate from say, Stanford, who's being congratulated by their parents for their hard work and success that they made it to graduation. And in the background is a lawn person who is cutting the lawn or trimming the hedge. And, what's the difference between those two? Well, there are a lot of differences, and we forget the differences that interfere with our view of the world as a meritocracy. And, we remember the ones that are more meritocratic, and we praise the student who graduates, and we sometimes excoriate the one who never finished high school, forgetting that they're not the same people and then had the same influences, had the same opportunities.
And then, you have people who not very smart, who say things like, 'Well, if I were that person, I would have,'--well, except you wouldn't have because you wouldn't have been you. You can't bring your motivations, the household you grew up in, the genes you were blessed with to this person, who had a different genetic endowment, a different household, and so on.
So, I'm 100% with you on much of this, and I am going to make a claim that may--I don't know what your reaction will be--but in many ways this is a very Christian book. It is the equivalent worldview of someone who believes in an omniscient God. If you believe in an omniscient God, a God who can not just know everything about the current world--your thoughts and so on, your genes, your hormones, the morning you had--but also the future: foresees all the things that are going to happen. In your case, you foresee the future because of the science. In the Christian, or sometimes Jewish worldview and other religions, you foresee it because God foresees it. God knows all the patterns, even to the random elements at the quantum level.
And, that of course raises a perennial theological question of whether free will is possible in a world of an omniscient God. I think most religious people deal with that by saying, 'God knows the script, but I don't. So, I have to make my decisions in the absence of that knowledge. And so, it feels like free will to me,' and--etc.
But, the other Christian part of it, which I found fascinating, is of course there's no judgment in your world. There's no blame. You have to turn the other cheek.
So, there was an incredible example of this, this weekend. A football player was hurt badly--sent to the hospital--by a nasty, unnecessary play by his opponent in a game between Colorado and Colorado State. And, the person who did this very unsportsmanlike and ugly play that sent this opposing player to the hospital was vilified on social media. It's a horrible play. We have the video. It looks disgusting, and in it we see what happened to the person.
And, Deion Sanders, the coach at Colorado whose player was hurt, said, 'Let's not judge this young man. You don't know the world he grew up in. He's trying to be an adult. He failed in that setting, but let's not ruin his life over one bad play. He doesn't serve a death threat. It's a game.' Now, it is a game, but it's a game that sometimes unfortunately people die playing it because it's very physical and violent.
But, the point that Deion Sanders was making--which is a point that I am deeply attracted to and is a religious point in many dimensions--is that we can't judge other people because we have not walked in their shoes. We don't know what they're subject to.
But, you go farther--excuse me, you go further: I guess you go farther in the shoes--but you can't have any judgment. There's no blame. There's no reward. There's no regret. Correct?
Robert Sapolsky: Yeah. That's the only logical place all of this can take you. By the way, you have no idea how many dozens of generations of ancestors are turning over in their graves by you suggesting I've written a Christian book, but regardless, somehow--
Russ Roberts: I do know. I do know, Robert. I read your book. I know you're Jewish. I'm Jewish, too. It's a bit--what?
Robert Sapolsky: And I'm a Jewish atheist, so that much more turning over of the ancestors.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Sapolsky: That's, in a sense, the reason why this is, like a crazy challenging set of implications to reach. Because if you truly, truly believe that we are nothing more or less than the sum of the biology over which we had no control, and its interactions with the sum of the environment over which we had no control, it never ever makes any sense to blame someone or punish someone. And, equally so, it never--
Russ Roberts: Or honor them or reward them--
Robert Sapolsky: To praise them or reward them. And, just as surely as the world, we[?] have to be turned upside down of getting rid of the whole criminal justice system, you'd have to get rid of an entire system of meritocracy, because it's premised on the notion that people should be punished or rewarded for things that they had no control over.
And, this is the only logical place to take it to, which is why, like: Oh my God, what if the whole world started believing this?
And, I should sort of emphasize: I was 14 when I first decided there's no free will at all. And, despite half-a-century's, now, worth of, like, pickled, and that kind of view, 99% of the time I'm just a flaming hypocrite because I can't get out of a mindset where people can do things where they deserve to have you irritated with them, or deserve to have you think they're wonderful or feel gratitude towards them. And, every now and then, I really can think and maybe even act in a way that's an outcome of all these implications. But, when you think about it, it's the only possible logical thing. If all we are is everything that came before, none of us have earned anything more or less, and is entitled to anything more or less, than any other person.
Russ Roberts: So, on a personal level--and I said I really love that--on a personal level, I think that's a very admirable way to be, is to give people the benefit of the doubt: say you haven't walked in their shoes, to remember that everyone is in a battle. So, be kind. And when someone mistreats you in a social encounter or a business encounter, maybe they had a bad day, maybe their spouse has terminal cancer, maybe they had a bad parent, and so on and so on; go all the way back to the Big Bang. I think that's a great way to be on a personal level. And so, I think that's fine.
The question is, how do we see ourselves as human beings in the world within this view? And, I think that's much more difficult.
Let's take the example--so, I'm going to contend in this next piece of our conversation that you can make a decision. Now, you don't agree with that. But, I'm going to pretend you can have volition. And, that's consistent with what? It's consistent with--what's my empirical evidence for that as opposed to my desire to believe it?
Well, the empirical evidence is, is that certainly it feels that way. It could be an illusion. And, more than that though, as you just confessed, we have all this baggage. Maybe it's just cultural, but we have all these feelings--which are empirical, which are real, the feelings. They may be difficult to measure. We don't have a very good understanding of the neuroscience of qualia, but we have these feelings which are real.
So, I have regret, I have judgment, I have honor. I can say to you, 'Wow, it's really kind of cool that my guest, as I'm criticizing him, is sitting there quietly and taking it with a great deal of courtesy.' But, of course, you're right: That's just a benefit of your upbringing. And, it's 10:00 at night where you're doing this. I shouldn't honor you for that.
But, every bone of my body wants to. And, similarly, were you to be rude, and curse me out, and take a cheap shot at me, I would get annoyed, and I would probably judge you. I would try to make allowances, but I would judge you.
So, the question is this. Earlier today, let's pretend you and I both had interactions with our wives; and we got angry, and we said something cruel, and we regret it. So, in your worldview, you can't regret it, because essentially you had no choice. Can you imagine the possibility that you could have spoken differently, given all of your history, and that the next time you will do so? Or is that just an illusion?
And, what do you do with those feelings of regret and those feelings of right or wrong, the 99% of the time that it's hard to accept this? Those, too, of course are preordained, as William James points out. All those feelings of judgment, regret, those are preordained. So, we live in a irrational universe in the inexorable conclusion that you're driven to. How do you square that?
Robert Sapolsky: Well, what we're seemingly doing here is hitting our heads against an initial reason why the notion of there being no free will, like, sticks in everyone's throat. Not only does it mean people will just run amok, and we'll have murderers on the street and not do anything about it, but that if it's an entirely deterministic world, that must mean that nothing can ever change.
And, what we have to deal with is the fact that, because of your emotional response to having the insight as to what you just said that was awful or whatever, your behavior will change next time. Behavior changes. Behavior changes.
And, when you take apart the nuts and bolts of how it happens, when we learn something, it's literally involving some of the same genes, and some of the same enzymes and neurochemicals, as does a sea slug when it learns something. It's a very, very mechanistic process when a sea slug learns to be afraid of something that's giving it a shock. And, it's a remarkably similar thing when we learn to be afraid of someone because of all sorts of people who we respect keep telling us, 'Those people are dangerous, those people are vermin, those people are cancers. Those people are going to come and destroy.' And, before you know it, people have fear-related pathways in their brain activating in a fraction of a second when you show them a symbol of those people.
So, learning happens, and thus change happens. The key thing is the belief that we are the agents of change: that we choose to change. And thus, there is free will. And, far more accurate is to say that all the circumstances that occurred one second before, a billion years before, all of those brought about circumstances such that you were changed just now.
An example: Somebody watches a documentary on the Armenian genocide, and they knew nothing about that previously. And, one person will come out of it very shaken and say, 'Wow, I had no idea. I want to read some more about this, and I want to read about some similarities between that and the Holocaust, and the Bosnian genocide, and some of the differences, and learn about that. And remember that I was capable of feeling empathy for people 100 years ago in a different part of the planet. So let's see if I could do that more and feel empathy for everybody else.'
And, somebody else will say, 'Okay, that was cool. Wow. What an interesting, bizarre chapter of history.' And, that's the end of it.
Why does one person say, 'I want to learn more about this'? Where do they learn how to read? Where do they get respect for reading as a means for finding out about the world? Where do they have the emotional temperament to think that I might change my fundamental opinions about something based on outside information? Where did they get the attention span to be able to read that they don't have an attentional disorder where, etc., etc., etc.? And, where did they have the empathic capacity to decide that one person's pain might work just the same way as somebody else's person's pain, even though every bit of cultural symbol the other person carries is yelling, 'Enemy,' or 'Alien,' or whatever? How do they get the means to extrapolate to that? You can show elements of that in five-year-olds already, and elements in that of how their brain responds to novelty. And, two people in seemingly the same circumstance do dramatically different things with all sorts of heavy-duty implications perhaps. And, why did they differ? Because each one had a different one second before, one hour before, etc.
Russ Roberts: So, as I suggested, I think, earlier, a dismal view of the human experience. I've mentioned on the program before the idea that if you watch a sparrow, and if it flits about--a sparrow's brain is the size of a pea or a little bit smaller I guess--we don't think that the sparrow is pondering that tomorrow, it'll go to a different field. 'Well, I've kind of worked this field enough tomorrow. I'll go over there.' The sparrow just is driven by instinct. And, we don't know, I guess, exactly what drives the sparrow. But, they don't plan--we don't think. They don't have consciousness. They don't bemoan the planet getting warmer--or cheer it depending on what part of the climate they're in. They're oblivious. They're trees. They're sentient in a way that a tree is sentient, but a tree will turn to the sun, and a sparrow will look for food. And, those are just fundamental urges, biological nature.
And so, in your view, human beings are no different. We flit from here to there. We're just simply cursed with the gift of consciousness to have the illusion that we're not sparrows.
But, I don't think we are sparrows. We're something more than a sparrow. Is our consciousness and this difficulty we have of accepting that there is no regret--that regret is foolish, that right and wrong are meaningless, that judgment is a mistake--that's just something that's going on in our brains that has no real significance for the data? It's just noise? Is it relevant at all?
Robert Sapolsky: It's relevant insofar as believing in that then shapes your behavior. Rejecting that shapes your behavior in other ways in and of itself. You listen to a lecture like this, and you consider it like raving gibberish. And, the process of deciding it's raving gibberish has caused changes in your brain. You can spot neurons there that are now working differently, or the process of deciding, 'Wow, that makes perfect sense and I'm depressed as hell.' That makes every--somebody sneezes in the room, and one and a half hysterically hypersensitive neurons will work a little bit differently afterward instead of something really substantial.
But, it's exactly on that level. And, what you wind up seeing, then, is--this is virtually, this is a metaphor--we, like the sparrows, and like crab grass, and blue whales, and trees, and all of that, we are biological machines that interact with environment. But, the difference with us is we're the only biological machines that know our machine-ness, and thus can view feelings and intentions for real things; and thus they become real things to us. That's the weirdness of us.
I mean, sort of, sparrows--I remember I was in a lecture once, a guy who studies Alzheimer's disease, it was an Alzheimer's conference. And he put up this slide showing the fruit fly and the human, and showing we've got, like, half our genes in common, and with the exact same structure to this enzyme and the neurons. You take a fruit fly neuron and you take one of ours, and you put it under a microscope, and you can't tell them apart. They look the same, they taste the same, they smell the same, whatever. And, whoa.
But, look at what we do with our neurons. What's the difference? And, the difference is that we have 100 million neurons for every single one that a fly has. And, you get this thing of an emergent complexity and emergent process that throw enough neurons together, and stuff comes out that defines primate-ness. And throw about five times as many neurons together, and stuff comes out that characterizes the species that comes up with theology, and aesthetics, and economic systems.
And, we know the nuts and bolts biology as to why we have three times as many neurons as a chimp does. It's got something to do with some genes that were duplicated evolutionarily. We know that. And, what that leads you to is if you gave a chimp three times as many neurons as it currently has, that increased quantity would invent human-like qualities. They would come up with a theology like nothing any of us have ever seen, an aesthetic and all.
But, stuff pops out. And, it's not because we're made of fancier building blocks than would a sparrow be. We just have so many of them that you get, like, more-is-different type emergent things going on. And, as part of that, is this weird human capacity to know our fate, our ultimate fate, and to know the ultimate fate of our loved ones.
And along with that--as something an evolutionary biologist of one stripe have studied--along with that has had to evolve the capacity for self-deception, because a failure of that is a pretty damaging thing to people when they consider the human predicament.
We're just another species. We're just another species using the same building blocks in ways that nobody else can dream of. But, it's the same building blocks, and it's the same biological yuck that we're made up of at the end of the day as any other snail out there. And, it's just on a different scale. And, with a different enough of a scale, quantity changes quality.
Russ Roberts: But this question of right, wrong, regret, blame, praise, all these things that we feel, but all those things that are part of that mental world, that emerged from that consciousness, they are just mistakes that we've come to believe? I mean, it's a fascinating thing how hard it is to accept your viewpoint. I accept by the way, that it's hard for me. I don't want to believe it. And I love the logic of your argument, but I don't want to believe that everything in the world is physical. I don't want to believe I'm a physical machine. It could just be an illusion. I understand there's a lot of evidence that I'm a physical machine. But, this stuff that's emerged--my consciousness--that we don't understand very well by the way and may never understand. Does that give you any pause, or is it just again, some side-music off in the distance?
Robert Sapolsky: Oh, it gives me massive pause. It gives me 50 years' worth of pause trying to think through the implications of that. By the way, in terms of we don't understand how consciousness works, we sure don't. But, we may be not that many years away from seeing another version of: with enough quantity, quality emerges. AI [artificial intelligence] and the possibility of consciousness coming out there, which will bear no resemblance. But, we're looking at a world where unexpected things are emerging when you throw enough bits of computational power at something.
But, in terms of giving pause, absolutely. And, for the really consequential reasons. The ones that obviously I'm going to frame here now as not consequential, is: the first thing people say is, 'Are you saying nothing can ever change?' And, we just went through that.
The next thing that people always say is, 'Whether it's true or not,'--and it's not true--'we shouldn't let people think that way because everyone will run amok. If people conclude that we cannot logically or morally be held responsible for our actions, we're all going to run amok. And, oh my God, that's a disaster.'
And, there's experimental psych studies where you take people, and you prime them subtly to believe a little bit less in free will. And, 10 minutes afterward, they're more likely to cheat in an economic game that they're playing online. 'Whoa, that's it. Make people stop believing in free will, and they will run amok,' and people will nod in the slightest, because there's something much more subtle going on.
Let's take an equivalent. In the case of 'there's no free will; let's all run amok,' it's because I can't be held responsible. In the case of the usual canard of 'there's no God; let's all run amok,' because there's no ultimate source to judge and divvy out responsibility based on that. So, there's a huge literature saying, 'So are atheists less moral than theists? When you look at that literature, what is absolutely clear is: you take somebody who has thought long and hard about what is the nature of good and evil, and where does human nature come from, and what is our responsibilities to others? And, it doesn't matter if your conclusion is, 'We're biological machines, and there's no God, and here's how it works,' or if your conclusion is, 'We're all children of God, and we have free will, and here's how it works.' What you see is if you've thought long and hard about it, you're going to be equally ethical, whether your conclusion is to be an atheist or a theist. Literature shows that over and over: the most ethical people in their behavior are either people who are stridently religious or stridently non-religious. It's the apathetic ones in between, those are the ones who haven't gotten there.
And, in the same way, you take people, and you prime them to believe less in free will, and they're jerks five minutes later. Instead, get into your lab people who haven't believed in free will for a long, long time, and already worked through that. And, they're exactly as ethical as are people who fully believe in agency and responsibility. And, the common--
Russ Roberts: I'm not sure I believe that literature. You write about it quite a bit in the book, by the way, I should let listeners know. And, it's quite interesting. The obvious challenge in that literature is that you have to hold everything else constant, such as religious belief. And that's hard to do--as you would know, and verify, and confirm in your book; and you talk about that often. Thoughtfully.
It's interesting: In--it's probably an illusion--but in my life when I became more religious, I changed my behavior. Some of my behavior was how I treated other people. So, I'm somewhat held constant, but that could be an illusion. I also have the illusion that--I mean, it could be a misreading of the data, not a normal kind of illusion we've been talking about. I also have the feeling that I've only met a handful of truly saintly people in my life. I don't mean they're actual saints, I mean just people who are good in a very pure way, in a non-utilitar--what's the word I want? Non-transactional way. And, those tend to be religious people. But, that could be the circles I'm in. It could be I misread the--I have my own biases.
But, I do think that's a fundamentally unanswerable question. I'm open to the possibility that Dostoevsky is wrong. You quote in the book, you say, 'Without a God, everything is permitted,' said Dostoevsky. There are many atheists I know who are gloriously kind, generous people. It's a foolish statement to argue that a world of atheists would run amok, to use your language.
On the other hand, it's hard to know because we are embedded in America--or here in Israel where I live--in a Judeo-Christian heritage, as you would be the first to point out. We don't always observe the influence that has on us. John Gray has written about it eloquently that, we recently had Walter Russell Mead talking about the influence of so-called Abrahamic religions on culture that are purportedly atheist, say, Communist China.
So, I would turn back your question in a different way. I'll concede to you that we won't run amok, and it's a wonderful thought-experiment actually. If you thought you were really free, after a while, if you think about it for more than 10 minutes, you realize it doesn't really mean you can do whatever you want. It's a very strange--it's actually a paradox. But, let's say people don't run amok.
My question is a different question. Why would you care? Why do you care at all? Why would you write a book like this? Why would you try to convince me? I mean, you can't judge me. You can't say I'm wrong because I don't agree with you yet, right? I tried to read your book with an open mind, and you didn't quite convince me, but you gave me a lot of pause.
But, why would you care? I'm stuck with my views because of my upbringing, my genes, my culture. Who cares if people run amok? Who caress about whether the world's a good place or not? Who cares about where our children--it's all fore-ordained. So, you should not only not judge the world. I don't think you can care about it either in your worldview. Or am I wrong?
Robert Sapolsky: Well, here's where we get back again to that bizarre state of us: We are biological machines who know our machine-ness. And some of us flee from that with responses that are--and I say this is the most respectful possible way--that are delusional insofar as irrationally based, confabulatory, and comforting. Some of us face it and feel utterly depressed, all of that.
Why care about it? Because we are machines for whom those emotions that are just reducible down to this neurotransmitter, and this gene, and this thing that happened to you when you were a tadpole, because those emotions feel real enough to us that they are real. That's the ultimate paradox: that even though we know our machine-ness, things that feel, feel. And, things that feel real for us are actually real insofar as we are capable of being pained by them, or comforted by them, or solaced, or whatever.
So, why try to push this idea, though? Because at the end of the day, it seems like all that one can get to is this very nihilistic: There's no purpose. And, that one goes down a hole very quickly.
Here's a much more, like, low-rent version of that, which is, someone goes through 'there's no free will' and they're convinced. And they say, 'Oh my God, does that mean my excellent education that I got because I was disciplined and worked hard, it doesn't mean anything? I didn't really earn it. I didn't really earn my corner office. I didn't really earn in any biologically agentive way being loved, or loving someone. I didn't earn any of this stuff. What a bummer. What a bummer that I'm really not entitled to any of this. None of this was my doing.'
And, in some ways, the punchline to the whole book is: If you are someone for whom that's the response--if it is a total bummer to decide that there's no free will afterward, and that's totally deflating and depressing, and there's this existential void that you're now dangling in--by definition you are one of the lucky ones. For most people on this planet, being held accountable for things that you really had no control over goes in a bad direction. Most people on this planet who have not had the privilege to have gotten your education, who have not had the privilege to have found love, who have not had the privilege to have clean, running water, or to have--for most people on earth, the notion that we are being held responsible for things we had no control over is the cruelest thing we come up with, because it's a cause of an enormous percentage of earth's miseries.
And, the really bizarre, ironic thing about this book is it's virtually guaranteed that anyone who reads it is one of the folks who is lucky enough that they learned how to read. And, they live in a place that has a functioning government, so there's still libraries, or Amazon still delivers there, or they have time to reflect, or they're not having cerebral malaria once every three months, or there's not a warlord who is terrorizing them. So, no time to finish this chapter.
It's virtually guaranteed that anyone who would show up for a lecture and think about this stuff, and read about it, and all of that is privileged enough that the only thing that they could conclude is, 'This is so demoralizing, the notion that we are not entitled to anything about how we are treated. We have earned nothing.' For most people though, who happen not to be the ones who are going to be reading the book or listening to a podcast like this, that's liberating.
And, a point I try to hammer in over and over is: not only is it possible for us to jettison a sense of responsibility for some particular aspect of human behavior. Not only can we do it--and we know that because we've done it over, and over, and over again throughout history--but, at each one of those junctures, the roof didn't cave in on civilization. The world became a more humane place. At some point, we figured out witches don't really exist. At some point, we figured out that people who have epileptic seizures are not cavorting with Satan at midnight each night. And, that's why--at some point, we figured out that schizophrenia is not caused by mothers having some psychodynamic, toxic hatred of their child. At some point, we figured out kids who you decide are unmotivated or lazy because they just can't learn to read, instead have something screwy going on with their cortical malformation, and they reverse looped letters, and they have dyslexia.
At some point, we figured out that if you have a certain variant of a gene related to the hormone leptin, no matter what you do and how self-disciplined you are, you're going to be overweight. You're going to be obese, because your whole reward system in your brain works differently because of this. At some point, you're going to figure out, and in each one of these cases, we figure out, 'Oh, I had no idea biology had something to do with that. Oh, I had no idea that was due to commendable self-discipline, or deplorable self-indulgence, or whatever.' And, we can subtract out a sense of blame at that point. And the world gets kinder.
It's a good thing that we don't burn people with epilepsy at the stake. And, it's a good thing that we figured out that some kids, because of things beyond their control, need a different sort of teaching environment to learn how to read. And, it's a good thing that we've learned any one of these things. And, it's a good thing that we have the means to see that these are not just the edge cases: 'Okay. Keep that in mind when it comes to a learning difference.' 'Okay. Keep that in mind when it comes to a neuropsychiatric disorder,' that that's an artificial line you're drawing between them and us. This applies to every single one of us.
And over, and over, and over, if you and I were exactly as reflective, and introspective, and capable of compassion or loving our fellow being or whatever, as we are now, but it happened to be 300 years ago: overwhelmingly, it would have seemed intuitively obvious to us that some people constitutionally are appropriately slaves. And, that in fact, you're doing them a favor by making them slaves, because they can't take care of them. And, somewhere along the way, that stopped being a self-evident intuition, and we're in a different place now.
And, over and over we've done that. And, like, due to the insurmountably hard work, at least every now and then, to know that this occurs in the present tense also. And, people will look back and say, 'Oh. Another example of that.'
Russ Roberts: Well, that's very eloquent, beautiful, lovely. As listeners know, I don't agree that--I don't think the world is getting kinder. It's getting kinder in those areas. And I, of course, agree with every one of them that you mention. The 20th century is a difficult data point for the view that the pushing out the frontiers of knowledge has led to a kinder and better world. It's led to a better material world, but 100 million or so people were murdered through the Gulag, and the Holocaust, and other sundry things. So, it's, I think, a more complicated picture.
Just a couple of quick thoughts, additional thoughts, and then I'll let you close this out. I agree, again, with a bunch of what you said. I wrote an essay we'll link to called "Do I Deserve What I Have?" I'm very successful. I have a very good career, made a lot of money. I've had some professional success. Should I feel proud of that? And, occasionally I do.
But, when I sit down and think about it reflectively, I have to realize that in some dimension, it's none of my doing. I had two loving parents. They gave me good genes. They pushed me to work hard. You could argue, quote, "anyone else" who had that would have my experience. And, I think that's the essential thought-experiment that is at the heart of your worldview, and there's a lot to that.
I managed to conclude that I'm still not a Socialist: that I don't believe that we should redistribute income, despite the fact that I don't deserve what I have, because I don't think the government does that very thoughtfully and that leads to an even darker world. You could disagree, but that's the certainly--
Robert Sapolsky: I fully agree.
Russ Roberts: What?
Robert Sapolsky: I fully agree--
Russ Roberts: Okay--
Robert Sapolsky: [inaudible 01:08:00] like that as an incentive, differential salaries, but not because anyone deserves it.
Russ Roberts: Correct. So, I totally accept that. And, I think to give your view it's full due and to put it in your framework, we are biological machines that have a belief that we have agency.
And, the irony is that if everyone of the world read your book, and if everyone in the world came to agree with it, I don't know how much it would matter and the behavior from day to day in the sense--it may change our justice system, and I'm in favor of that too, by the way. The justice system is horrible not just because it's unfair to people who didn't deserve the blame we give them, but because it does not make them better. It's woefully failed at what it should be doing. Although you deal with very thoughtfully, with the idea that people enjoy punishment, and that punishing others they think have done bad things.
What I think would happen is that, if everyone read your book and found it compelling, we would change the justice system a little bit. But, I don't think people would run amok. And the reason is that we are biological machines that cannot accept our machine-ness. Our day-to-day life, we feel regret. We feel we make decisions. We feel we had a choice. We feel we have a choice. And, even though we may indeed be machines, we are machines that have evolved a consciousness that finds that unacceptable.
So, I think that's the world we actually may live in--although, I am more open than I think you are--I'm pretty confident I'm more open than you are to the possibility that there are things that are different, that are beyond the physical.
So, let's close with a--I'll let you meditate on the following. You hint at this in the book. You don't quite say it, I don't think, but you hint at it. Do you think that we will figure, quote, "everything" out? That, because the world is fundamentally physical in your worldview and nothing else at all, that everything will be known, short of, say, Planck, the first nanosecond, nano-nano-nanosecond of the Big Bang? When all of matter writ into stone this conversation, right? The Big Bang, in your world, foresaw--even though no one was there in your worldview for you to see it--foresaw that we would be having this conversation at 9:23 Israel Time, and 11:23 Pacific Time, we would be having this conversation. Do you think it's just a matter of time before we figure everything out, including maybe Planck time, maybe before Planck time, maybe time itself, the nature of math, the nature of consciousness? Since it's all physical in your worldview, will it all come under the microscope of our biological machine brains?
Robert Sapolsky: Are we going to be able to explain everything? Absolutely not. And, this is because some of the most interesting stuff out there about how molecules work, and how brains work, and how societies work show non-linear, chaotic, emergent properties in that whole world--which is, like, utterly groovy, and cool, and so deeply fundamental.
What it means is we're never going to be able to have the level of predictive power that we anticipate would happen as we learn more and more about less and less, and everyone gets enormous insights.
But, this is where people make a big misstep in concluding that there's free will. Just because the world is not predictable, doesn't mean the world is not deterministic.
That's a very fundamental mistake that people then make in terms of the chaoticism about the world. Just because we can't tell you which of these three kids growing up in this awful urban setting is going to be the serial murderer, nonetheless, we can have the knowledge built around statistics that somebody growing up in that environment is 47 times more likely than a kid growing up in a nice middle class suburb. We're never going to have prediction on that level. But, nonetheless, that doesn't mean there weren't gears there. Just because we don't know how they work, doesn't mean it just happened for no reason.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Robert Sapolsky, his work--his book--is Determined. Robert, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Robert Sapolsky: Thanks for having me on.