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


Review by Walter Cummins

First, a confession. I was not an objective reader of Sapolsky’s book because I was looking for evidence to undermine his thesis and find some way of reclaiming the possibility of free will. Long ago I was convinced by the existential centrality of choice. Camus said, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” For Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Although we are born into a set of circumstances, we still are compelled to make choices that define who we are once we exist.

Sapolsky might paraphrase Sartre by stating, “Man is condemned to have whatever choices he (or she) makes not choices at all but results of a predetermined process.” In effect, for him, humans are merely performing acts that are beyond their control, the inevitable outcomes an elaborate set of preexisting causes over which they have no power.

He is not positing that we are creatures acting out a predetermined script that existed on the day of our birth. Instead, when a situation arises that demands a decision on our part what we will do is a manifestation of an algorithm already implanted in our being, an inevitable outcome in which our will has no role. In fact, our will is an empty concept: “[W]e are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological or environmental luck, over which we have no control, that has brought us to any moment.”

Sapolsky assembles a wide panoply of implanted causes for each one of us. They include the cultural givens of the society we are born into, the beliefs of our local community, the specific family dynamic within that community, our genetic makeup, our specific set of hormones, the behavior of our neurons, and more. All of these forces serve as determinants of our actions.

Sapolsky, a professor of biologyneurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University, widely regarded as an authority, offers citation after citation to argue his conclusion. Throughout he brings in the opposing theories of other experts and dismisses them all, martialing the findings of those in his scientific fields who support him.

Another confession. My own credentials in these matters are slight. I’m only an English major who hasn’t been inside a laboratory since high school, and I struggled to follow his explanations of scientific theories in a number of chapters. But in my defense, I’ve read Camus and Sartre and agonized over a number of choices I’ve made throughout the decades of my life.

One well-known example of a much-debated act in Camus’ fiction is Meursault’s shooting of the Arab under a brutally hot Algerian beach in L’Éstranger (The Stranger/The Outsider). Here’s Matthew Ward’s English version of Camus’ crucial passage:

...The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded behind the curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blades slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Camus deliberately left the cause of the initial shot and the subsequent four ambiguous. Most apparently, it’s a reflex action from the stabbing sunlight, the product of immediate circumstances rather than the result of a causal chain engrained within Meursault. Yet the officials directing the trial that dominates the second part of the novel seek to find a reason, unable to accept the possibility of a manifestation that lacks a predetermined condition.

Yet the irony of Meursault’s accusation and imprisonment for a crime he did not choose is his realization that he must make a decision about the manner in which he will confront his crucial existential situation, his execution. An English version has this final sentence: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

For me, this ending indicates that Meursault has freed himself from whatever determinants may have guided his actions and emotions in his previous life. He has exercised his freedom to become a different person, Camus’ version of a literary epiphany.

An apparent assumption behind Sapolsky’s theory is that there is an essential ongoing human being that is the source of our actions and attitudes throughout our lives. The human being is the product of a set of determinants, what Sapolsky calls, “a seamless set of influences that … precludes being able to shoehorn in this thing called free will that is supposedly in the brain but not of it.”

For Sapolsky, “who we are” is a constant tempered by physiological changes, such as disease. It’s the opposite of Sartre in that essence precedes how we exist, the choices we make. In contrast, from an existential perspective, the crucial choices we make may result in a fundamental revision of our essence.

I’ll admit that most of my day to day life is a playing out of activities guided by my cultural, societal, family, and genetic inputs. But there comes fundamental situations in which I—like all of us—have to make a choice. Let’s simplify and say it is just between option A and option B, although in real life the options may be multiple. My choice make result in a change in who I am. Whether I picked A or B, a Sapolsky probably could trace the chain of determinants that led to the choice because so many are within me. But I believe my free decision set off which chain I initiated.

Another way of looking at the sources of a choice is to say that the collection of my cultural, societal, family, and genetic inputs is not of a united whole. The influences that led me to A or B may involve a conflict among inputs, say, my political instincts disagreeing with my economic situation and the state of my amygdala and synapses. I’m the one who decides, perhaps unconsciously, which dominates. That, I consider, is an exercise of free will.

Ironically, both Sapolsky and Camus believe life is meaningless. For Sapolsky, “There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe in which, occasionally, atoms come together temporally to form things we each call Me.” The universe according to Camus is indifferent and irrational. Yet Sapolsky has written a whole book in an attempt to prove free will is a feeble delusion to make life bearable. For Camus, his exemplar is Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology condemned to spend eternity pushing a rock up a hill and never reaching the peak, just one failure after another. Yet Camus concludes that we must consider Sisyphus happy.  He has found a freedom in confronting the absurdity of his situation.

Addendum: Sapolsky considers only the behavior of individuals, yet many of our choices are made in collaboration with others. For example, during our forty years of marriage my late wife and I shared dozens of decisions—which house to buy, what trip to take, what to have for dinner, which cat to adopt, and so on. Occasionally, we worked through a clash of determinants, but usually we were in happy agreement despite our often very different algorithms. I conclude that our decisions were not the inevitable results of a singular set of determinants but rather a newly created joint approach to each situation.

An explanation for such collaboration is offered by Mercedes Valmisa in her Adapting: A Chinese Philosophy of Action. What she calls a co-action paradigm in Chinese thinking offers a fundamental alternative to the issue of free will skepticism: “For these philosophers, the goal of agency is not to attain and exercise free will; rather, it is to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, establishing harmony with other beings in the environment.”