The “Worry” that we don’t have Free Will

In the last couple of posts I’ve been looking at some of the more interesting responses to the “annual question” at  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.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “The “Worry” that we don’t have Free Will”

  1. I note that Sam Harris has just done a pod cast with Robert S. (Aug 9 2017)
    I’d be interested in any thoughts you have re their conversation.
    The delemma is clear, I’d argue that our biological determined behaviours have an overlay which is less determined, ie I can chose to eat, but aware that our food abundance is in a state of superabundance that the biology can’t regulate without a ‘consious’ decision to regulate our behaviour (eating).
    I’m aware that this ‘regulation’ of behaviour is complex and ironically somewhat ‘culturally specific’.
    The frontal cortex, as Harris calls it, is surely under our control. I’d argue that if we understand our ‘biological evolution’ our ‘Human nature’ then we can indeed demand the required set of appropriate behaviours.
    On a tangent there’s the argument that punishment is impossible if we accept the ‘set’ patterns is I think a straw man argument. It doesn’t matter if we are excluding socially inappropriate people because they have ‘killed’ or ‘raped’ for instance, and we deem exclusion from society appropriate and punishment neccesary or we exclude them because whilst they are ‘locked’ into a process, but deem that the effect on society is such that they must be excluded.
    I’m not getting the point clear here but lets say that we know that some people are unable to ‘regulate’ or ‘surpress’ , we as a society do not then need to accept ‘socially’ inappropriate behaviour. This was one of the point I got from reading Morias, (just downloaded his ‘the soul of the White ant. It’s down the bottom of his Wikipedia entry). The ‘soul’ which we imprison with the body, (historical thinking) may not be a seperate (read heaven linked) part of the person. Morias, to me said, (paraphrased) look there isn’t a soul here, there is however a complexity that whilst we don’t fully understand there is still a ‘centre of action.’ A centre of action that we can call the conscious person, a conscious person who is fully in this universe and fully made up of energy and matter, but that is an independent actor non the less. An independent person who can choose to over eat, or to kill, its up to the group to decide what sanctions are appropriate for the miriad of actions.
    The conversation between Harris and his guest was quiet interesting.

  2. Both Harris and Sapolsky claim that we have no free will, but that, nevertheless, it is a “consequential issue.” The implication is that we need to convince people they have no free will so they will make the right decisions. But if they make right decisions, they must have a choice, and, therefore, free will. That’s how I see the whole debate, as a non sequitur. If we have no free will, we have no power to make decisions that were not already decided at the time of the big bang, no choice, and no power to make things better or worse. We are simply automatons acting in ways that are preordained. Our choices are all preordained, so it is utterly pointless to feel anxiety about them, or to worry about whether they will be decided one way or the other. I personally assume that I have free will. It is the one assumption I know of that can’t possibly have negative results if I’m wrong. After all, if I have no free will, I couldn’t possibly have decided otherwise. My decision was preordained long before I was born.

    I generally agree with them regarding punishment, but because I don’t believe in objective morality, not because I deny the existence of free will. I think the question of whether public vengeance should be allowed or not is an open one. Suppressing it might have worse consequences than allowing it, depending, of course, on your definition of “better” and “worse.”

    It would be very interesting to hear these two try to apply their moral theories to Donald Trump. He is firmly in their outgroup, and in their heart of hearts, I think both of them believe he is morally culpable. In other words, when it comes to Trump, I suspect all their fine theories about the lack of free will and its implications for punishment would be somewhat relaxed.

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