In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at Edge.org. This year’s question was, “What *Should” we be Worried About,” and answers were submitted by a select group of 155 public intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, etc. An answer that is interesting if only because it is counterintuitive was submitted by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford. In his response, entitled, “The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches,” we find that Sapolsky is worried that we will make wrong choices because we don’t have free will. In his words,
I don’t think that there is Free will. The conclusion first hit me in some sort of primordial ooze of insight when I was about 13-years old, and that conclusion has only become stronger since then. What worries me is that despite the fact that I think this without hesitation, there are times that it is simply too hard to feel as if there is no free will, to believe that, to act accordingly. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.
But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.
To this, I can only answer, “Why?” Why be worried about things you can do absolutely nothing about? Why be worried that people won’t “truly act as if there is no free will” when it is perfectly obvious that, lacking free will, they can have no choice in the matter? Why be worried about how difficult it is to “really believe that there is no free will” if we have not the faintest control over what we believe? This is supposed to be a difficulty we all “should” worry about? Surely it must be obvious that “should” is a completely meaningless term in a world without free will. “Should” implies the freedom to choose between alternatives. Remove free will, and that freedom is removed with it. Remove free will and worry becomes absurd. Why worry about something you can do nothing about? It makes no more sense than poisoning your whole life by constantly worrying about the inevitability of death.
I by no means mean to imply that I am taking sides one way or the other on the question of whether we have free will. I am simply pointing out that the very suggestion that we worry about it implies that we do. If we have no free will then the question of whether we will worry about it or not is completely out of our control. In that case it turns out I am in that happy category of people who are not worried about it. If we do have free will, then the rationale for worrying about the lack of it is removed. In either case, I am happy to report, I have no worries.
Neither do I imply any disrespect of Prof. Sapolsky, a brilliant man whose work I admire regardless of whether I have any choice in the matter or not. See, for example, his work on the Toxo parasite, which strongly suggests that we must throw manipulation by other species into the mix along with genes and culture if we are ever to gain a complete understanding of human behavior. Work of this kind, by the way, is so critical to the human condition that it cries out for replication. There are only a few groups in the world doing similar work, and one must hope that they are not so intent on charging ahead with their own research that they neglect the scientific imperative of checking the work of their peers.
On the lighter side, readers of Prof. Sapolsky’s response will note that he throws in the disclaimer, “… lack of free will doesn’t remotely equal anything about genetic determinism.” The Blank Slaters must have gotten to him! In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is not nor has there ever been such a beast as a “genetic determinist.” They are as rare as unicorns. The term was invented by cultural determinists to use in ad hominem attacks on anyone who dared to suggest that our behavior might actually be influenced by something other than environment and learning. Their ideology requires them to blindly insist that “there is no evidence whatsoever” that anything but culture influences our behavior, just as the fundamentalist Christian must blindly insist that “there is not one iota of evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and the right wing ideologue must blindly insist that “there is not the faintest scrap of evidence for global warming.” Of course, Prof. Sapolsky has just supplied even more compelling evidence that they are wrong.
In closing, I will include a poetic statement of Prof. Sapolsky’s philosophy by Edward Fitzgerald, who cloaked his own world view in his whimsical “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
With earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sow’s the seed,
And the first morning of creation wrote,
what the last dawn of reckoning shall read.