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another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 2

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bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

The Darwin book continues to be a rollicking good read, I’m into the post Origin period, where shit hits the fans and Darwin’s fans, led by that young Turkish bulldog Tommy Huxley, shovel shit on the opposition, captained by soapy Sam Wilberforce and the brains of high Anglicanism, Dicky Owen – the most gifted naturalist of his age, to be fair. What’s fascinating is that the Origin precipitated the last great politico-religious struggle in England, a very drawn-out affair which crossed the Atlantic and continues in the US to this day, but in England it has been a slow-acting poison to conservative Anglicanism. Liberal Anglicanism, essentially a bridge to atheism, has swallowed natural selection with a sort of diffident, dumb grace, flexible as to their god’s ever-changing plan. As a semi-student of history though, I can well understand Darwin’s own diffidence about publicizing his theory. It was bad enough for the time, had it been a century earlier (impossible of course given the eighteenth century state of knowledge) he would absolutely have been martyred for it. As it was, during the couple of decades between formulating his theory and going public, the public, especially the disaffected Chartist ‘rabble’, had become increasingly keen for a weapon to strike down the High Clergy and the swanningly civilised aristos, and apes for ancestors, monkeys for uncles, even gorillas for girlfriends, fitted the bill perfectly. Darwin, of course, presented his case as dispassionately as humanly possible, with nary a mention of human descent, and afterwards kept his head down in Downe, obsessing over pigeons and orchids and sexual selection (actually chipping away very effectively at the god-did-it argument), while Tommy Huxley, Joe Hooker and co fought the good Darwinian battle in the big smoke with consummate derring-do (don’t believe a word of this by the way, as if you would). Darwin was anything but a fighter – he had vomiting fits at the very thought of confrontation – but in his oddly reclusive way he was always the leader, because unlike many of his supporters, even the closest ones, he knew he was right. His aim, his obsession, with all his apparently arcane researches, was to keep adding to the mountain of evidence.

There are many intriguing things about Darwin. He was vain but genuinely humble, highly-strung and emotional but profoundly analytical, a hypochondriac and yet a real invalid for stretches of his life, and of course a revolutionary who hated revolutionaries. As a young, footloose, disgustingly well-heeled intellectual, he could think of nothing better than to make a pleasant living as a naturalist-clergyman, like many a gentleman among his family’s connections. By his career’s end, the naturalist-clergyman was becoming a relic, probably more due to his own productions than to any other cause.

The founding father of eugenics, atheism, Nazism, bestiality and please don’t get me started


And this leads to a consideration of his most profound impact, outside the confines of science, what makes him the most controversial and contested, and in some circles reviled, figure of the past two hundred years, and that is his, and his theory’s, complete denial of human specialness. A specialness which is at the heart of the Abrahamic religions, without which not.

This recognition of human relatedness to other species, the bringing of humans back to the pack, wasn’t an anti-Christian urge by any means, it was more a result of his obsessive interest in solving the problems of adaptation and basic survival of creatures such as barnacles, earthworms and pigeons. This obsession gave him great respect for the sometimes barely fathomable complexity and ingenuity of even the most ‘basic’ life-forms. He saw human complexity as a continuation of that adaptive process, but biologists and many other scientists were, at that time, unable to shake off notions of human exceptionality. Owen, Wallace, Luis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart and others of Darwin’s time, all had qualms about, or simply rejected outright, the implications for humanity of Darwinian natural selection, and these represented the scientific mainstream, essentially. Darwin himself was able to weather the storm through the support of strong allies such as Hooker and Huxley, his own ability to avoid and deflect controversy, his inaccessibility at Downe, his long-suffering but profoundly loyal wife, and his habit of retreating into the messy fine detail of his studies. He also, through voluminous correspondence – he would’ve loved the world of email and Facebook – built up a huge network of scientific boffins, breeders and farmers, with whom he was unfailingly polite and charming while exploiting their specialist knowledge. So he was able to adapt very well to the challenges thrown at him.



I’m writing here as if delivering a lecture, and I do wish I could reach more people. I don’t have too many contacts with a penchant for science, or for history, but then I don’t have many contacts. But enough complaining (mea culpa after all), I note that the vaccination controversy drags on, with too many people standing on their ‘right’ to not vaccinate their children, which shows up the problems with the rights concept, which I’ve always considered artificial but a useful fiction which has helped to build a more humane global society, and speaking of globalism the battle to save the lives of Australians under the death penalty is almost over, but we should continue the battle to the end because it’s a bad law and national sovereignty be damned, and that should be the same for any national under any national or state law. Which makes me wonder, I’m not a lawyer, but what would happen if an Australian citizen was charged with a capital offence and sentenced to death in the notorious US state of Texas? Maybe they only kill US citizens, that’d keep them out of international trouble, but what we need to keep working on is an international code of ethics and an international law and I do think we’re creeping towards it slowly slowly.

capital punishment - green doesn't do it, red does, and yellow's moving away

capital punishment – green doesn’t do it, red does, and yellow’s moving away

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2015 at 6:53 am