Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Undeterred: A Critique of a Book About Life Without Free Will


Is it responsible to review a book you haven’t even fully read? Well, here’s a thought experiment: suppose somebody came out with a new book about UFOs and in the introduction mentioned casually, “I never go UFO hunting without dropping acid first.” You’d have a pretty good justification to dismiss the book without even going out and buying it, right? Of course, bothering to review it would seem beside the point … but what if it were an “instant New York Times bestseller”? And what if you had reason to believe that thousands of otherwise appropriately skeptical people might somehow embrace the book? What if your family members decided that the denial of UFOs was a NASA conspiracy, and resolved to start dropping acid regularly? Wouldn’t you want to weigh in?

Something kind of like this happened a dozen years ago with Amy Chua’s irresponsible and stupid book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I wrote a blog post criticizing her book without having read it—but I did read the excerpt of it in the New York Times which I felt was enough. If Chua’s own distillation has enough wrong with it to fundamentally undermine her argument, do we need to read the full book? (To make an analogy, if you’re at a restaurant and your appetizer has a cockroach in it, do you need to stay through the entrée and dessert to conclude the restaurant has a problem?) Bestselling books in this vein have a way of smearing their overall message across the zeitgeist, whether or not people engage with the source material. For example, my wife, who also didn’t read Chua’s book, was somewhat swept up in the chatter around it and started wondering aloud if we needed to start getting all tiger mother on our kids’ asses. At that point I felt the need to stand up and say something.

I’m feeling that again now about Robert Sapolsky’s new “instant bestseller,” Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. I read two profiles of Sapolsky, which struck a nerve, and then I waded through enough of his book to take its measure. The book is total drivel, and yet it’s clearly making a splash … almost as though people are taking Sapolsky seriously.

In this post, I will delve into my issues with the book: not just that it’s poorly written and reasoned, but why I disagree with its very ambition. This examination will involve a lot of logic (something Sapolsky occasionally dabbles in between bouts of self indulgent blathering). But first, just as a warm-up and for your amusement, I’ll start with an irresponsible ad hominem attack against him, since this blog prioritizes entertainment over utility.

Irresponsible ad hominem attack

Just look at that picture above, a drawing my daughter did of the photo accompanying the Sapolsky profile in the New York Times. Can’t you just imagine this guy cornering you at a cocktail party and holding forth? I wonder how that beard came to be. It could be he just has a weak chin, which would make his beard a better idea than his new book, but probably the superabundant facial hair is more about the intellectual air he hopes to achieve. I can picture him looking in the mirror thinking, “Would I look more like a guru if I had a big, fluffy grey beard? Or would I just look like Santa? How can I look more like Karl Marx?” Maybe that’s why he also has the really long hair. Now, let me be clear, I think long hair on a dude is totally fine, when he’s young. But an ageing adult needs to have a little decorum. I mean, he’s got fricking ringlets! Doe he use product in his hair? And check out the odd difference in coloration between his beard and his hair … makes me wonder if he actually dyes it. If so, how vain!

Also note his wise, world-weary expression … does he always look like that, or only when he’s posing for a photo that will appear in the New York Times? Of course, it could be the photographer saying, “Okay, that’s good, but could you try to look more contemplative, maybe a little world-weary? Could we get, you know, a little more guru going here?” In that case Sapolsky shouldn’t have gone along with it. He should have just smiled naturally, because he gets to be in the Times and that’s a pretty big deal. But of course he needs to present this persona, so he stares gloomily and intellectually off into the distance, little realizing that he does not, cannot convey an air of gravitas when he’s wearing plastic clogs. With white socks. Sure, I have flip-flops I wear around the house, but for the Times I would dress up a bit, show a little respect. Look, Sapolsky, you might hang around college kids but that doesn’t make you hip or cool. You’re trying to shape widespread public perception of deep philosophical matters … try to be a grown-up, would you please?

One more heads-up

Full disclosure: I hold free will to be a capacity people should cherish, and to deny or even doubt its existence is to threaten our ability to seize it. That is to say, anybody’s effort to discredit the existence of free will invokes my ire on principle. (As I describe here, I frequently bring unnecessary physical suffering upon myself simply to prove, to myself, that I have free will.) So to be perfectly candid, Sapolsky’s very intent (combined with his douche-y beard, vainglorious long hair, and Stanford pedigree) made we want to hate him right off. Nevertheless, as somebody truly interested in this topic (having read a number of books on existential philosophy), I was willing to read what Sapolsky has to say, even after reading the profile of him in the New York Times and a critique of his book in the New Yorker, both of which only deepened my sense that he’s a tool.

Alas, his book is really popular around here so I couldn’t get it from the library. (There are 35 holds ahead of me.) I don’t like to buy a book unless I’m pretty convinced it’ll be good. Sometimes all this takes is a paragraph ... if the opening to a book is good enough, I will take a gamble on that alone. If a book doesn’t start off great, but I still think it may have promise, I’ll read a few of the free sample pages Amazon serves up. In the case of Determined, Amazon was unusually generous, and for the first time ever I found myself longing for the end of the free pages. The excerpt of this poorly written, poorly reasoned tract just went on and on, until—32 excruciating pages in—Amazon finally cut me off. Now, based on the two profiles and the pages I’ve read, I’m prepared to say I’ve revised my initial opinion (that Sarposky is a tool) to more precisely and accurately state that I find him a self-indulgent, glib, preening old fool whose brazen dismissal of a vast body of thought going back hundreds of years is the height of arrogance. There’s no point trying to pretend this blog post is an exploration … it’s a take-down.

(Note that I’m not being ageist here. I wrote “preening old fool” because it’s sad how foolish Sapolsky still is despite the many years he’s had available to him to have gained wisdom … years that he has apparently squandered.)

Thirty-two excruciating pages

Right off the bat, I have an issue with the title: Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. What’s with “a science”? Science isn’t supposed to be a realm where everybody gets to have his own version, his own private belief system. It’s about building consensus, and improving our understanding in this way. A scientist investigates, builds a hypothesis, proves it in the lab, and then other scientists attempt to recreate the experiment and either confirm or deny the findings. That’s why the normal phrase is “the science of,” not “a science of.” Contrast this to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. “An inquiry” makes more sense: you would never have “the inquiry” since the number of inquiries into a realm as general and squishy as “values” is infinite. But science is supposed to be the leading edge of the best effort of scientists to build a common, tangible understanding of how the world works, based on experiments that produce data, which describe and predict behaviors and other demonstrable phenomena. The phrase “a science” suggests that Sapolsky doesn’t fully support the collaborative mission that science is supposed to have.

Rather than illustrating any specific line of scientific examination, Sapolsky seems to use his reputation and authority as a biologist and neuroscientist as a flag that he waves. His grand assertions really beg the question. For example: “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.” Here he includes a footnote directing the reader to an introduction to neuroscience that he includes as an appendix (which presumably we’ll ignore other than as a rubber stamp of his authority, or else it wouldn’t be an appendix) and to another book he wrote on neuroscience that he warns us is “agonizingly long.” It’s as though he’s saying, “Yeah, there’s all this science behind understanding behavior but it’s really complicated, so just take my word for it.”

But even beyond how complex this science might be, let’s back up a second: he’s asserting that we can explain any behavior in terms of deterministic, prior causes having to do with brain neurons in the preceding second. Seriously? We could actually catalog and describe all these neural events leading to the behavior? How could we possibly chase them all down? But it gets worse: he goes on to say that those neurons were activated in the minutes before the behavior, and that the behavior was also influenced by hormones from hours to days before that, and that the function of those neurons was influenced by experience and environment in the preceding months to years, and by the person’s development in the womb and what his or her pregnant mother was going through, and further by culture that has evolved over decades, even centuries. So really, there’s no way we’re actually “answering why the behavior occurred,” because who has data going back that far? It’s only a theoretical explanation.

In terms of tying a behavior to past events, neurological and circumstantial, I can suggest a simple scenario that defies the idea. Have you ever been on the fence about an action you had to take, and decided to flip a coin in order to decide? I think plenty of people do this, from time to time. Our willingness to base an action on the outcome of a flipped coin flies in the face of determinism. We have decided in advance to act based on the random outcome of this coin-flip, thus the behavior that follows this flip cannot be predetermined because until that coin is flipped, there is/are no predictive, deterministic preceding event(s). Since the result of the coin flip is random, one can’t go back and trace the resulting behavior to anything except the decision of the coin-flipper to base his or her next decision on heads vs. tails. How is that not freedom?

Sapolksy doesn’t seem to begin with data and use it to lead us towards a conclusion; rather, he starts with an attractive notion to get our buy-in, so that perhaps so we’ll go easy on him when he builds his case. At the end of his first chapter he asks us to imagine a college graduation ceremony with all the happy students and their proud families milling about, and then draws our attention to a (hypothetical) garbage collector in the back. He asks us to consider the background of this garbage collector compared to that of the graduates. He declares, “Trade every factor over which they had no control, and you will switch who would be in the graduation robe and who would be hauling garbage cans. This is what I mean by determinism.”

What a smarmy, smurfy load of shit. Yeah, being born to college graduates in a wholesome community surely helps a person’s educational prospects, but it doesn’t determine how far they get. It just changes the odds a bit. Both my parents went to Berkeley; my dad earned a Ph.D.; one of my brothers—though lucky enough to grow up in one of the best school districts in the nation—dropped out of high school. Meanwhile, the rapper Lil Wayne (as he describes in this interview) was raised in a school district so dangerous that his mom, upon seeing him packing a gun in his backpack before heading to class, implored him to drop out, which he then did. And yet, Lil Wayne (despite the distraction of a platinum-selling music career) earned his GED and later enrolled at the University of Houston. So there are two counterexamples, right off the top of my head. Sapolsky’s little anecdote doesn’t effectively convey the gist of determinism. It’s sentimental, simplistic, and twee.

This backwards-looking attempt at establishing causality breaks down so easily upon close inspection. How is it not free will that my brother Geoff moved to the Netherlands? Is it fair to say that, having been born to the parents that he was, with the genes that he had, developing as a fetus in the natal environment that he did, growing up in the community that he did, and attending the college that he did, there was no other possible outcome than relocating to Europe? What about his identical twin brother, who—despite having the same parents, the same genes, the same fetal environment, the same community, the same friends, and the same (initial) college—stayed on this continent? Shouldn’t these two have been deterministically pushed into the same inevitable decision about where to put down roots?

But let’s assume that a person’s behavior could be tied to a pattern of neuron activity and historical factors. How would the scientist determine, much less prove, causality that is so airtight as to deny the possibility of free will? The perfect test would be if the scientist could then use his understanding of the precise mechanism of that behavior to make predictions about future behaviors as well. If we’re confident we understand exactly why that man pulled that trigger, shouldn’t we know his next move?

The last time I checked, biologists haven’t proven to be great prognosticators of human behavior. (Business people have done okay here, in terms of understanding basic principles such as are used in advertising, but they don’t pretend to be scientists.) Doesn’t it seem like Sapolsky is overestimating what science can do for his thesis? To put it another way, if Sapolsky really thinks there is a solid scientific basis to his refutation of free will, why shouldn’t his scientific findings be subject to peer review instead of just published to a lay audience as a general interest book?

Actually, from what I can tell, Sapolsky didn’t even do much of his own research for this book; it’s more of a survey of the existing stuff. Well … some of it. Which brings us to an overarching failure of logic in Sapolsky’s approach. He declares in his first chapter that to accomplish his goal of convincing the reader there is no free will, he’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.” Um ... what? He’s going to discredit everyone who disagrees with him? Sure, his book is 528 pages long, but how is he going to evaluate even a moderately representative sample of the existing literature across these four gigantic fields? To be more honest he’d have to write, “I’m going to look at the way a VANISHINGLY SMALL PROPORTION of smart, nuanced (BUT NOT TOO SMART OR NUANCED SINCE I’VE CHOSEN TO INCLUDE ONLY THE ONES I THINK ARE WRONG) thinkers to explain why I think THIS TINY SAMPLING of them are all mistaken.” His approach only makes sense if he could refute all the great thinkers who’ve studied this question, which is of course impossible: it’s like proving a negative.

So, he digs himself in pretty deep with his stated intention to base his argument on a glancing review of these four realms while pretending that’s sufficient. Then, although he acknowledges that individual scientific studies can’t disprove free will, he goes on to say, “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” (italics his). Is he really purporting to have done this? He sure hasn’t presented the findings of such a comprehensive effort, which is no surprise because it would be simply impossible. ALL? ALL SCIENTIFIC RESULTS? There’s no way. Again, what he’s really asserting is more hypothetical; it’s like he’s saying, “I’ll bet if you looked at all the scientific results you’d find they’d collectively deny free will. In fact I’m sure of it. Just take my word for it.”

If it seems like I’m accusing Sapolsky of essentially cherry-picking his evidence: yes, I am. Consider that, as he willingly admits (in both profiles I’ve read of him), he has denied the existence of free will since he was thirteen years old: that is, since before he was educated and before his brain had even fully formed. So although he’s using biology and neurology to bolster his decades-old belief, he’s not doing so in the responsible manner of a scientist exploring the matter—he began his research with his mind already made up. It looks to me like a classic example of confirmation bias.

After his first chapter, which defines a lot of terms and explains his approach, Sapolsky’s book gets increasingly boring and pointless. He starts his second chapter with an exposition of one of the methodological approaches scientists have taken, through various studies, to evaluate the existence of free will. After a brief outline of this approach, Sapolsky concludes, “I think that at the end of the day, these studies are irrelevant.” Why, then, does he spend the next ten pages (well, at least ten—at this point the Amazon sample mercifully ran out) describing one such study in excruciating detail? How does simply knocking down other people’s work support his own improbable conclusion? (It’s like two economists discrediting a typewriter keyboard layout by basing their findings on a single previous study conducted about it, as I describe here.) I’m aghast at what passes for scholarship, and that this book is popular. Perhaps it’s just like the Tiger Mother book … it’ll be something to talk about at cocktail parties for a while because it’s timely, and then it will sink out of sight forever.

Beyond his poor execution

As described above, one of Sapolsky’s stated goals is “to convince you that there is no free will.” His second stated goal is “to take seriously all the implications of there being no free will.” With this second goal he seems to focus on whether or not we can hold people morally responsible for their behavior in the absence of free will. He says free-will skeptics (like himself) are “less punitive and more forgiving.” This seems to be at the heart of why, and perhaps how, he was able to publish this book: he’s positioning himself and his mission as a way to be a kinder and more liberal person, and as readers we can (choose to!) join him. Don’t hate the guy who broke into your car, he implies, because it wasn’t really him, he didn’t mean to do it, it was just the desperate position society put him in. So we’re sort of coaxed (or bullied) into accepting Sapolsky’s position so we don’t come off like the heartless old-school moralists who would throw a homeless man in prison for stealing loaf of bread.

The trouble is, such sentimental appeals cannot and should not stand in place of actual intellectual rigor. The New Yorker writer Nikhil Krishnan, in his review of Determined, questions Sapolsky’s assertion that free-will skeptics are less punitive and more forgiving:

But he can’t really have meant that... If free-will skepticism means never having to say you’re sorry, then it also means never being forgiven. Forgiveness is, as much as vengeance, a concept that can be applied only from within the first-person point of view. Sapolsky’s ethic of forgiveness demands that we retain something of our old-fashioned belief in holding one another responsible.

Ah, but I’m delving again into the failure of Sapolsky’s argument (because it’s just so easy!) when I’ve been trying to get into something else: the ramifications of accepting his ideas and putting them into practice.

My biggest issue with Sapolsky’s book is that if we truly embrace his goals of 1) agreeing there is no free will, and 2) living according to this belief, we are denying the possibility of making better choices. And yet isn’t making better choices the noble purpose of some of our most important human behaviors? Think of education, counseling, coaching, even self-reflection. If our every move has already been decided, what’s the point in trying to be better, by trying to choose better?

If we want to advance the argument that humans are slaves to our brain chemistry, it seems like nicotine addiction would be the ideal poster child. This NIH report, describing how nicotine activates reward centers, and how it rewires the brain of the addict, should be right up any neuroscientist’s alley:

Nicotine causes the release of dopamine in the mesolimbic area, the corpus striatum, and the frontal cortex. Of particular importance are the dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, and the release of dopamine in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, as this pathway appears to be critical in drug-induced reward… Likewise, nicotine withdrawal is associated with significant increases in intracranial self-stimulation reward threshold, consistent with deficient dopamine release and reduced reward. The decrease in brain reward function experienced during nicotine withdrawal is an essential component of nicotine addiction and a key barrier to abstinence.

The nicotine addict, then, would seem to be a classic case of somebody with no free will. As the same NIH report states, “Approximately 80% of smokers who attempt to quit on their own relapse within the first month of abstinence, and only approximately 3% remain abstinent at six months.” And yet, my brother—who had smoked for over forty years—decided exactly a year ago that he had to quit, and he did. For this to happen, he had to believe that he could … that he could fly in the face of statistics and his own fraught history with tobacco. But in Sapolsky’s view, my brother doesn’t get any credit for his resolve and tenacity—that is, for deciding enough was enough. Are we to believe Sapolsky that for my brother to quit smoking was predetermined somehow, just like taking up the nasty habit in the first place (even though he had the same parents I did, and grew up in the same health-crazed community)? So my brother’s behavior was all preordained, from the forty-year chemical addiction to the bold refusal to put up with even one more day of it? Seriously?

What if Sapolsky’s book had come out a year ago and my brother read it, decided he had no free will, decided to be more compassionate with himself because it wasn’t his fault he was a smoker, that he had no say in the matter, and that his lungs were already doomed based on neurons, environment, and history? Would he have taken that huge step of deciding (or, fine, pretending to decide) to quit?

Sapolsky seems to be trying to couch his worldview in being fairer: in not holding criminals responsible for their crime, and in not praising this or that lucky guy for his achievement. But we don’t need to deny the existence of free will to be more fair. We can acknowledge that a person choosing between hunger and theft was dealt, by society and history, a worse hand than the guy choosing between a savings account and a mutual fund. The world isn’t fair … we get it. But why not focus more on what all of us humans can choose (or seem to choose) to do, like taking better care of our bodies, our minds, our families? Why not behave as though we can improve, even if—worst case and unbeknownst to us—our free will is just a placebo? I mean, who cares … besides the preening, self-aggrandizing academic who needs to publish?

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