A great Radiolab show: Robert Sapolsky on why we don’t have free will

As I always say, it’s easier to convince a diehard creationist of the truth of evolution than to convince a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.

Yet there are some enlightened folk who not only accept determinism but deny that a version of “free will” can be confected that preserves our notion of that term while accepting determinism. There are some enlightened folk who realize that accepting behavioral determinism mandates a severe reform of the criminal justice system, including adopting the view that criminals, like malfunctioning machines, need to be treated rather than punished.

One of those enlightened people is neurobiologist and author Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford. I know from the comments on this site that many readers admire Sapolsky. I haven’t chimed in simply because I don’t know much about the man or his work, but I do know that he’s just come out with a new book that’s received terrific reviews. It’s now #88 on Amazon’s top 100 books (click on screenshot to go to the site):

I’m definitely going to read this one, especially because I just heard a great interview with Sapolsky which was part of an absorbing 48-minute program on free will on Radiolab. Click on the screenshot below to go there, and I do recommend you listen if you have a spare 3/4 hour. I think that the first part of the show is older, and Sapolsky’s part was added on; but I’m not certain:

The title is clever, because “Fault line” refers not to geology but to where and how we affix blame for people’s actions. The program is about free will.

I believe the program is narrated by Jad Abumrad, who, along with Robert Krulwich, have some of the best jobs in the world, for their Radiolab show is thoughtful, clever, penetrating, and accompanied by great sound and music thanks to Abumrad’s background. (I was on the show once and they transformed my interview into a wonderful piece.)

This show begins with an earlier segment about an epileptic (named “Kevin” to protect his identity) describing how he underwent two brain operations to cure his epilepsy. After the first operation, he met a woman whom he married after a difficult courtship, and then underwent a second operation when his epilepsy returned. The second operation, which removed part of Kevin’s frontal cortex, changed his personality. He started eating a lot more, playing his piano obsessively—often the same song for 8 or 9 hours—and demanding sex at all hours and in all places. Not only that, but he started haunting pornography websites, winding up downloading child pornography.

Eventually Kevin was caught by the feds, and although he pleaded that he couldn’t help himself because his brain was damaged (indeed, he had Klüver–Bucy Syndrome), the judge rejected that defense and sent Kevin to federal prison for two years, with two additional years of house arrest. At this point (27:20), Sapolsky comes on to comment. He’s articulate and engaging, a really great talker and thinker. His first reaction to the judge’s decision was that he was “appalled by that judicial decision and the underlying worldview.” The appalling worldview is one of libertarian free will: the mistaken notion that Kevin had the power to control his behavior.

One reason Kevin went to prison is that the judge didn’t buy the defense’s claim that Kevin had lost impulse control; the reason was that he had child porn on his home computer but not on his work computer, which suggested to the judge that Kevin could override his impulse to look at illegal pornography. Sapolsky, though, says that there are many neurological conditions that vary in their intensity and expression with physiological state. Alzheimers patients, for instance, have a well-known tendency to be able to remember their names and other things in the morning, but lose it in the evening. It’s not that they simply choose not to tell you their name in the evening—they simply can’t!  And that bears on Kevin’s defense that he wasn’t choosing freely when and where to download child porn.

Indeed, Sapoksky notes that our own “normal” behaviors are unconsciously affected by how tired, stressed, or fearful we are. He cites a well known study about judges giving parole: when they’re hungry, right before lunch, judges are harsh, giving parole hardly any of the time. Right after lunch, however, they’re generous, giving parole 60% of the time! But when asked, the judges claim that they’re making their decisions freely. Sapolsky notes that hunger makes the cerebral cortex largely abandon considered judgment in favor of more emotional decisions, even though the judges claim that they’re acting out of pure free will and volition. But that’s a confabulation: their brain, starved, is helping “make these decisions.” (I hope good lawyers schedule their clients accordingly!) It’s scary to think that the working of our justice system is affected in this way, but that’s determinism.

Abumrad, like many rational people, is shocked by Sapolsky’s view that Kevin wasn’t deciding his criminal acts “freely”, i.e. in a libertarian manner. (Both Sapolsky and Abumrad take “free will” to mean, “I could have done otherwise at the moment”; neither even mention compatibilist free will.) But Sapolsky is relentless, feeling that, as science progresses, “one by one, all of the things that we think are under our control. . .will be chalked up to screwups in our biology”.

And it’s not just criminals whose behavior is determined; Sapolsky asserts that “Everyone is a Kevin; all of us are Kevins all of the time.” Abumrad is clearly flummoxed; he can’t bring himself to quite accept Sapolsky’s determinism.

Sapolsky ends by saying that what we need to do in the justice system is “prescribe treatments and constraints,” just like you’d treat a car with broken brakes or put it in a shop for complete overhaul if it were dangerous. People, he says, aren’t “bad”, but simply conditioned to behave in one way or another, and that we should abandon our notion of retributive punishment and our tendency to affix moral judgments to other people’s behavior. Yes, that tendency is evolved, but it can be overcome. Retributive punishment lingers, he says, because “punishment is pleasurable,” and though Sapolsky doesn’t mention that such pleasure is probably evolved, I’m sure he’d agree that it is; it’s a form of emotionality that was adaptive in our ancestors.

When Abumrad asks Sapolsky whether his determinism is maladaptive for society (a common but misconceived view), Sapolsky responds that the price of a free-will view of punishment is high: the affixing of shame to people as well as imprisoning them “for what is simply a biological problem.”

In the end, Sapolsky confesses, as do all of us determinists, that we still act as though we have free will. When he’s complimented on wearing a nice tee-shirt (I gather that Dr. Sapolsky is no paragon of sartorial splendor!), he says, “Thank you”, and then realizes that he had no choice about what shirt to wear and thus shouldn’t be grateful for having made a good “choice.” Yes, the feeling of volition is deeply ingrained in all of us; that’s why I have a hard time convincing people that their behaviors are absolutely determined—with the possible exception of quantum effects.

Sapolsky says, at the very end, that he has a hard time imagining a world in which everyone is a behavioral determinist. I don’t. We surely cannot abandon our feeling that our actions are free, but we can still accept the science, and modify our behavior, and society’s behavior, in light of the deterministic truth. Maybe Sapolsky can’t see a world without determinism now, but just a few centuries ago, people couldn’t imagine a world in which everybody refused to believe in gods. Now that world is coming.

Determinism will eventually be accepted in this world, but that, too, will come slowly—much more slowly than atheism will come.

And now I too am a fan of Sapolsky: not just because we agree 100% about free will, but because the man is thoughtful, articulate, and yet has a light popular touch that makes us want to listen to him.  Listen to the show; it’s great!

Robert Sapolsky (left)



h/t: Thomas


  1. Jenny Haniver
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an excellent, wide-ranging interview with Sapolsky that was broadcast on one of our local NPR stations https://ww2.kqed.org/forum/2017/05/15/robert-sapolsky-tackles-best-and-worst-of-human-nature-in-behave/. What he had to say about free will was extremely compelling, though it seemed to me that toward the end, he got a tad compatibilist with the host, but it was obvious to me that Sapolsky is no compatibilist. I also thought that he gave an excellent response to a caller who asked about reconciling karma and spiritual stuff with science. Sapolsky sent him packing, but politely and thoughtfully.

  2. Vaal
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry. This recalcitrant combatibilist will enjoy giving it a listen! 🙂

    • Posted July 10, 2017 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      “As I always say, it’s easier to convince a diehard creationist of the truth of evolution than to convince a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.”
      And given that a diehard atheist is totally committed to evidential reality and rationality, and accepts that his/her own views must be tested by severe scepticism I would think that this would give one pause in being so very certain that ones incompatibilist view is the one that is correct.

  3. Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    In Kevin’s case, I would not be surprised if focused activity in a structured environment, such as being at work, would temporarily suppress the severity of his symptoms. At least this is known to be true of other conditions.

  4. Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    There are some enlightened folk who realize that accepting behavioral determinism mandates a severe reform of the criminal justice system, …

    Ia jailing someone for 10 years for deterrence and to reduce their opportunity to re-offend, as opposed to jailing them for 10 years “as a punishment”, really that severe a reform?

    • BJ
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. In fact, who knows, we may find out that we need to increase sentences to deter the majority of people who would commit certain heinous crimes. We have no idea.

      The only thing I can see as definitely needing change — and it’s something that needs change regardless of whether or not you’re a determinist, so long as you believe that rehabilitation should be an aspect of criminal justice — is improving conditions and increasing rehabilitative treatment during imprisonment.

      • Zach
        Posted July 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink


        Norway treats its prisoners humanely and has a much lower recidivism rate than the U.S.

        We, on the other hand, in our Christian capacity for almost infinite forgiveness, still glow with righteous satisfaction every time a detective on Law & Order gloats at a fresh convict with some sort of “don’t drop the soap” quip. Because, as all good people know, anyone who commits a serious crime deserves to be repeatedly and violently sodomized.

    • Tom
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Is this magic 10 year sentence (it trips easily off the tongue)really anything to do with punishment and reform or is it just the usual time period in which bitter memories fade and the chance of vigilante retribution is diminished, in fact really saving serious criminals from the natural consequences of crime?

      • Posted July 8, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        The amount of time is irrelevant to the point Coel is making.

  5. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I watched his Great Courses 4-DVD course on the this topic recently and can attest that he presents a very compelling, easy to follow exposition of his ideas in the course. His lectures are sprinkled with enough deadpan humour to make the sometimes complex examples he uses come to life. Highly recommended. As Sam Harris points out, there is ultimately no way to have contra-causal free will (which is what most people mean by “free will” where you could have done otherwise than you did given the exact same configuration of the Universe and the same history up to that point) without invoking magic. And as we all know, invoking magic is like saying “I don’t really know, but I’m going to push my firmly held belief that I do know and furthermore if you continue to ask questions, you’re calling me a liar!”

    • Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I also watched that course. He is (I find) an excellent lecturer. The same content (and same as in the book) is also covered his lectures uploaded by Stanford Uni on You Tube — here’s the first lecture of 24.

    • Posted July 9, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      contra-causal free will (which is what most people mean by “free will”

      Nope, most people, or at least most college students, are intuitive compatibilists. (Beliefs seem to vary by age; more conservatism among the older, and so on.)

      And, actually, determinism is entirely compatible with the fact that you could have done otherwise given the exact same configuration of the universe. Attempts to prove otherwise always run afoul of the modal scope fallacy. Try to construct the proof, and you’ll see.

      • peepuk
        Posted July 10, 2017 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        This is called the “determinism has no consequences”-fallacy.

        • Posted July 11, 2017 at 3:48 am | Permalink

          No, it just doesn’t have the consequences you think it does. Probably because you equivocate between the epistemic versus causal senses of the word (a common mistake).

          • Posted July 11, 2017 at 4:00 am | Permalink

            Sorry, I mean, of senses the word “can”. There’s a difference between “what a person can do” (causal dispositions of the person) and “what an observer can expect” (epistemic, for the observer). Often the latter is a single action while the former is a larger set. Causal dispositions always refer to the set of things an object will do in *various* conditions, even when the object is in one particular condition and not the others. A salt crystal is still soluble – it has that property, that disposition – even when it is perfectly dry.

  6. Andrew B.
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah. I’ve become a huge fan of Sapolsky ever since seeing his Stanford lecture on depression on YouTube. Increasing the public understanding of determinism could completely revolutionize the way we think about EVERY aspect of human behavior. This is extraordinarily important stuff.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this reference. I, for one, want to hear what he has to say about depression. I found the link to his lecture on depression and publish it here because others may be interested as well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btXTsDVO6pw. I suffer from chronic depression, ennui, angst, weltschmerz — no meds work, am driven almost to murderous distraction by those well-meaning, “glass half full” folk who cheerily try to force Positive Psychology down my gullet. PP only makes me more melancholy and angry. I think that most PP people also believe in free will — that it’s all simply a matter of attitude and we’re free to just look on the sunny side instead of the dark — like the people who declare that “it’s just as easy to believe (in god or whatever) than not.” If so, it’d be just as easy for them to become atheists as for me to believe in that claptrap.

      To cheer myself up after this, I’m gonna listen to Monty Python “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2Wx230gYJw

      • Andrew B.
        Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been living with treatment resistant depression for nearly 20 years. Same frustrating situation with medication.

        I would mention two treatments that you may not have heard of and really aren’t discussed enough. EEG Neurofeedback, (especially Infra-low frequency and Alpha-Theta training, which are often used in tandem) and EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and re-processing).

        I’ve been trying neurofeedback for a few months and have started to notice positive results. Am cautiously optimistic.

        Anyway, I thought I’d just get the word out about these two treatments, because although growing in popularity they still aren’t household terms.


        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted July 8, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          Thank you. I’m not familiar with these. I’ll investigate them. I can say that even if a positive effect is due to a placebo, I’ll take it.

          • BJ
            Posted July 8, 2017 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

            I’ve been suffering with chronic, treatment-resistant depression for twelve years. While no treatments have yet worked for me, I’ve been through nearly every one available (except, unfortunately, for ECT, which apparently has one of the highest success rates, but which I cannot undergo because I also have epilepsy). One new and promising treatment you might want to look into is ketamine infusions. Ketamine infusions are very expensive, won’t be covered by insurance, and if they work, you need to get an infusion about once a month after the initial infusions. The initial set of five to six infusions takes place over a two week period and costs about $3,000, and if it works, you then get a single infusion every two to four weeks or so (some people don’t see it wear off for as long as two or three months, but this is a less common timeframe) at a cost of about $500 per.

            Another treatment to check out is transcranial magnetic stimulation (also known as TMC). As with everything else, it didn’t work for me, but it’s newer and has (some) promising research behind it.

            As far as medications go, high dose pharmaceutical-grade folic acid has recently been shown to have significant effects for chronic, treatment-resistant depression, likely due to folic acid’s role in the brain’s methylation processes. The prescription medication is called Deplin. Again, didn’t work for me, but has worked for many others who have tried it and it isn’t yet known by too many run-of-the-mill psychiatrists.

            If you have a psychiatrist, you might want to ask him/her about any or all of these things, including ECT. I know ECT seems scary, but it’s not like it was decades ago — they now use a different, far less dangerous waveform, use a pulse instead of a constant current, and target a specific area of the brain to induce the seizures. The only side effect is some short-term memory loss, and there are many places that offer outpatient services so you don’t necessarily have to stay in a hospital for two or three weeks. It probably has the highest success rate of any treatment for treatment-resistant depression.

            Good luck!

  7. Ken
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink


  8. David Duncan
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    “One reason Kevin went to prison is that the judge didn’t buy the defense’s claim that Kevin had lost impulse control; the reason was that he had child porn on his home computer but not on his work computer, which suggested to the judge that Kevin could override his impulse to look at illegal pornography.”

    Perhaps ‘Kevin’ made a rational judgement that he was more likely to be caught at work and so abstained.

    • Fernando
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. And the problem is not what he was doing at night, rather what he wasn’t doing at work.

    • Andrew B.
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Right, and so he felt fearful (which is not something he’s responsible for) of the likely consequences of being caught at work. Still no free will there.

      • Fernando
        Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        I agree, no moral responsibility. But the action to be corrected is his not asking for help in the morning. Still no free will.

  9. Fernando
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    In the Kevin’s case the problem is that he, while at work, certainly knew what he had done in the previous nights, and what he was going to do in the following nights. He “chose” to hide it.

  10. Don
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    The caption on the picture made me smile.

  11. marvz
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I would also recommend Sapolsky’s “Great Courses” course “Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition”

    I note that evolution is discussed parenthetically in some of the courses but there is no specific course on evolution. Perhaps Dr Coyne would consider correcting this oversight??

  12. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t yet listened to the ep but it’s on the list. I thought sure you were going to say something about Krulwich bringing up some vaguely religious objection, which he seems to do fairly regularly, but no. Aside from “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” this is easily one of the best ‘casts on the intertubes; consistently delivers fascinating, difficult stories

  13. D. Cameron Harbord
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m always amazed by evolutionary biologists who evidently believe that we evolved all of that expensive decision-making machinery (in the brain) for no apparent purpose. Humans have devoted large amounts of their time and energy to both individual and collective decision making for at least 10’s, and probably 100´s, of thousands of years. What would be the point of evolving to waste so much time and energy in a deterministic universe? It’s a question that I wish believers in a deterministic universe would provide a satisfactory answer to.

    • Posted July 8, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      What would be the point? It just happened because some genes that affected rumination and behavior left more copies than others.Not all decision making “machinery” is evolved, of course: some is learned.

      With all due respect, I don’t think you have the slightest idea what you’re haranguing about, and you clearly don’t understand evolution.

      I have just answered your question in a satisfactory manner.

      • D. Cameron Harbord
        Posted July 8, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        I believe I that I do understand evolution, as I believe that you do also. Genes for “rumination”? The point is that the amount of time and energy spent in decision-making “rumination” (and discussion and argument and investigation) has been significant for modern humans, at least since the time we were living in hunter gatherer bands. It is at least a little mysterious why would evolve to be this way, if you are correct.

        But then there is no current finding in physics that establishes the hypothesis of a deterministic universe, so there is no scientific finding that rules out the existence of free will.

        Thank you very much for your kind reply.

        • Posted July 8, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          Well. we’ve established that you really don’t understand evolution, as you can’t see any selective advantage to evolving a more complex onboard computer in a social and bipedal animal.

          What we’ve also established now is that you don’t understand physics, either. You clearly haven’t read the classical physics that establishes determinism; the laws of physics themselves are evidence for a deterministic universe. That we can land rockets on a comet establishes a deterministic universe, as does the fact that we can predict solar eclipses with great accuracy: to the second.

          Do you want to try to misunderstand chemistry as well?

    • Kevin
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      For one thing, humans have been terrible at predicting. Any sentient life with limited knowledge of future outcomes will evolve competitive techniques for making probablistic decisions that attempt to approximate future events.

  14. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    “one by one, all of the things that we think are under our control. . .will be chalked up to screwups in our biology”

    So when mathematicians construct and vet a proof, when medical researchers conduct double-blind trials and submit the results for peer review, when NASA engineers successfully soft-land a rover on Mars, none of that is under anybody’s control, and it’s all down to biological screwups?

    Sapolsky apparently has rather different notions of what “control” and “screwup” mean than I do.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 8, 2017 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      Haven’t heard the interview yet, but I suspect that’s the direction it will take.

      As I’ve said before, the level of seemingly hasty extrapolation reminds me of a lawyer for someone accused of running a ponzi scheme. The Lawyer approaches his client on the stand, brings out a rubber mallet, knocks below the knee of his client and the man’s leg twitches involuntarily.

      “There you see it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: by this demonstration I have shown how my client’s entire nervous system works. His actions are completely reflexive and involuntary, and hence he could not have been responsible for concocting any crime that requires true control and deliberation.”

  15. Yavoy
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Out of interest, have you read “freedom evolves” by Daniel Dennet?

    In it he argues, quite rightly in my opinion, that free will and determinism are two seperate questions. The world is deterministic, and yet we don’t just act as if we have free will, we genuinely do have free will.

    It’s just that when you think carefully about what free will means you will realise that it’s not quite what you always thought it says…

  16. Greg Geisler
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Have listened to hours of him lecturing on youTube and in other interviews. This week I listened to his sit-down with Joe Rogan which was a very casual and enjoyable conversation. He’s an amazing speaker, very affable, with a subdued passion and he manages to be an incredibly deep thinker and humble at the same time. Much like PCC. ;^)

    His latest book is in my Kindle queue and I’m looking forward to it. ITMT, more hours of him on youtube.

    “The modern criminal justice system is incompatible with neuroscience”

  17. kevin7alexander
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I am about halfway through this book. Buy it. Don’t borrow it because you will want it on your shelf.

  18. kevin7alexander
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Retributive punishment lingers, he says, because “punishment is pleasurable,”

    We have made some social progress. At least we make up stories to justify it.
    Someone asked me what year the Romans converted to Christianity. I said that they never did. They changed their name to Christian but they never stopped being Romans with all the deep love of cruelty. They just realized that you don’t need to pay for the upkeep of the Colosseum, you just had to make rules that guaranteed the suffering that you enjoy.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Parole isn’t granted by judges; it’s granted by parole boards. The feds abrogated parole in 1987; everyone sentenced for a federal offense committed after that date is required to do all his or her time (minus time off for good behavior, generally about 15% of the total sentence).

    Many states have followed suit by abrogating their own parole systems (usually pursuant to so-called “truth in sentencing laws”). In the states that still have parole, the parole board generally hears cases at the prison where the offenders are incarcerated. Most states do not afford prisoners the right to have counsel present at parole hearings.

    If “Kevin” entered an insanity plea based on his inability to control his behavior, that issue ordinarily would have been decided by the jury at trial, rather than the judge, in a federal case. (It’s possible “Kevin” waived his right to a jury, opting instead for a bench trial before the judge. Judges also make pretrial determinations of the defendant’s mental competency to stand trial.)

    In federal practice, a defendant’s “diminished capacity” at the time of an offense is not a complete defense to a criminal charge. It may, however, be a factor that the judge considers at sentencing in deciding whether to impose punishment below the range otherwise prescribed by the federal sentencing guidelines.

  20. Kevin
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Sapolsky (left). Laughing hysterically.

  21. Posted July 8, 2017 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    I can’t wrap my brain around not having free will, but then I just read The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far, by Lawrence Krauss, and I can’t wrap my brain around that either.

  22. Vaal
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 10:58 pm | Permalink


    I’m not sure I’m clear on what you think about morality.

    If I remember correctly, you believe in “Morality” insofar as some actions are right and wrong. And if so, are you a moral realist like Sam Harris (or something else)?

    However, you reject the concept of “moral responsibility” (because we have no free will and can not have such a deep sense of responsibility).

    Is that correct?


    • Posted July 10, 2017 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      Jerry in his arguments has inferred consciousness as being the byproduct of an internal Cartesian Theater. If free will is an illusion what we are is mere conscious OBSERVERS. We are conscious of what is happening, we have the illusion that we are making decisions that affect the outcome of the play, but these decisions are themselves already embedded in the script. It creates a disfunctional world when we want to discuss morality. Moral responsibility is indeed out the door. The proposed benefit of all this is supposedly that we eliminate BLAME. But with the blame going out with the bath water, with it goes the credit, responsibility, morality, and the duty baby. If we cannot “blame” the criminal so we cannot blame Trump. Trump is an inevitability – all those nasty things we say about him are misplaced. The fact that we are saying these things about him at all is part of our overall illusion.

  23. Rupinder
    Posted July 8, 2017 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the pointer! I just bought his new tome of a book, and looking forward to reading it 🙂

  24. Diane G.
    Posted July 9, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink


  25. Posted July 9, 2017 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    I’m a big fan, but isn’t that him on the right?

  26. Disappointed
    Posted July 9, 2017 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I have to confess that I was fairly disappointed by both Radiolab and R. Sapolsky, even though:

    – I am (generally) a fan of both,
    – I was (cautiously) excited about these topics getting some (serious) attention in the media,
    – I’m also (extremely) committed to minimal punishment in the criminal justice system, and
    – I accept the world to function in a deterministic way (in theory), though not quite in every day life (for the very reasons outlined by Coyne and Sapolsky).

    I’ll try to be brief, and I’ll fail.

    1. I think R. Sapolsky did not take the arguments of the judge and of Radiolab seriously. And I think that Radiolab was a little too overwhelmed by the (charming) passion of Sapolsky to push back against the answers that were not quite on target.

    Sapolsky, for example, focused primarily on:

    – How an operation could really have limited Kevin’s self control.
    – How Kevin’s ability to control his own behaviour could have varied over the course of a day.
    – How cruel (and senseless) it is to harm someone who had no control over his actions (at the time).

    So, with a generous attitude, we might conclude that it may not make much sense for the state to imprison Kevin for some of these actions.

    But, even if this is our conclusion, we still need to consider another potential crime. I emphasize “potential,” here, because it’s (unfortunately) not clear from the reporting and because the law itself may not (yet) be adapted to this kind of nuanced reasoning.

    So I’ll formulate my discomfort as a series of questions.

    Kevin was unable to stop himself in the evenings. But, given the example of the Alzheimer’s patients which are competent in the mornings, Radiolab and the prosecutor should have asked:

    – “Did Kevin understand (at any point after his illegal actions) that what he was doing was illegal?” (The answer seems to be “yes,” since he knew exactly why Homeland Security had arrived.)

    – “Did Kevin understand (at any point after his harmful actions) that what he was doing very harmful to children?” (The answer is, unfortunately, because of way the story was reported less clear. But I think the answer to this question was “yes” too.)

    – “Was Kevin able to plan ahead (at any point in time)?”
    (This was completely unaddressed by the reporting. I suspect, with no real evidence, that the answer is “yes.”)

    – “Was Kevin able to reach out for help (at least once)?” (Idem.)

    This is all a warm-up to the question:

    – “Can the state hold Kevin responsible for standing by and not preventing a series of crimes committed by a person who had no control over his actions?”

    (I understand there are legal concepts that make these questions very difficult. For example: self-incrimination, testifying against yourself, etc.)

    Why was none of this addressed?

    2. Sapolsky also tried to explain how problematic the concept of free will is, especially given our species’ desire to harm those we don’t like. Again, I agree, and these objections deserve much more attention in many areas of life.

    But this is the “easy” and rather “obvious” conclusion. The “harder” part is how societies, the courts, and individuals deal with this conclusion in a constructive way (if we have any choice in the matter at all! ;)).

    Sapolsky claimed that “we are all Kevins.” Very well, but I fear that such unuanced statements out of context will hardly make the reform of the justice system more palatable to the general public. I can already hear people think “if responsibility all-or-nothing, then I’ll take it all over nothing.”

    A more useful approach (I believe) would be to emphasize that deterrents may be useful in some cases, but cruel and even counter-productive in other cases. For example: various laws against abuse of children may actually (unintentionally) make the problem worse, since people cannot reach out for help.

    I hope not too much nuance was lost in trying to keep it short.

    • Posted July 9, 2017 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      This comment isn’t short. While it’s good, and so I’ll put it up. it’s longer than I’d like for comments (see the Roolz), so please keep them more concise in the future. Thanks!

      • Disappointed
        Posted July 9, 2017 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Thank you.

      Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Agree with the points made! I don’t think hard determinism is totally incompatible with retributive justice. A strongly retributive environment, an eye-for-an-eye culture, deters potential ‘cheaters’ for sure. And no cheater could have done otherwise [given the same retributive environment]!So, if a retributive environment can ‘determine’ a cheater’s behavior, why not use it to reduce such behavior?
      As Pinker said: ”Why should we discard our lever on the system for inhibition [prefrontal cortex] just because we are coming to understand the system for temptation? If you believe we shouldn’t, that is enough to hold people responsible for their actions — without appealing to a will, a soul, a self, or any other ghost in the machine.”

  27. jay
    Posted July 9, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “Indeed, Sapoksky notes that our own “normal” behaviors are unconsciously affected by how tired, stressed, or fearful we are. He cites a well known study about judges giving parole: when they’re hungry, right before lunch, judges are harsh, giving parole hardly any of the time. Right after lunch, however, they’re generous, giving parole 60% of the time!”

    I’ve often felt this is a good reason to allow juries ‘smoke breaks’ if they want them.


    I read quite a critique of this finding, however, including the point that the number of standard deviations in the shift should be a red flag that there are significant co factors. If it were really so drastic, there would be comparable off the charts (not just a statistical shift) effects showing up in business, medicine, driving, etc. There isn’t

    One possible factor is that the easy cases are scheduled first to avoid tying up lawyers, witness etc. for a long session.

  28. jay
    Posted July 9, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    There are a couple of things that keep me from being an all out determinist.

    As a computer science guy, determinism makes some sense. But as a computer science guy, I also see a BIG gap in our understanding… too much of a gap to be dogmatic. That gap is consciousness.

    Basically, it’s tempting to think of the brain as a computer, but by everything we know about computation, consciousness is not explainable. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we experience it, we’d probably write it of as impossible… some type of ‘ghost in the machine’ thing.

    But it exists, and it works, and we have absolutely now idea how. IBM’s Watson does some incredible feats of computation, out performing humans in many areas, but if someone destroyed it, it would be property damage, not murder. Because there STILL is no consciousness there. Until and unless we can find a deterministic model for consciousness, we really do not have the footing to decide that it’s closely related concept of free will is also purely deterministic.

    It’s always dangerous to take dogmatic positions when the information is very incomplete.

    As a side point, retribution as a concept exists in virtually every human society on the planet–some more, some less, but the underlying behavior is there. That pretty much guarantees that it is something deeply part of our makeup, not a cultural artifact. For whatever evolutionary reason, it is part of who we are.

    • BJ
      Posted July 9, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      This is exactly my thinking on the subject. I don’t care whether or not the world is deterministic or whether we have free will. If it turns out we don’t have free will, I won’t be bothered by the discovery. But for people to be so sure about the deterministic model makes zero sense to me. We understand almost nothing about consciousness, from how it arises to how it is carried out. We even have significant gaps in our understanding of physics. I understand the physics-based argument for determinism, but I cannot see how anyone can be so sure of determinism considering how little we understand about some of the critical issues involved.

    • Posted July 9, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Imagine an explanation so powerful and obvious that even an intelligence with no experience of the phenomenon could understand it. Now imagine a slightly lesser explanation, that only works for someone familiar with the subject, but can tell them all sorts of additional facts, and lets them predict how the phenomenon will work in novel situations.

      We can’t “explain consciousness” in the first way. But we can, in the second way. And that’s exactly what we’d expect if consciousness is physical and deterministic. Consciousness is subjective: a report on it isn’t going to magically transport a listener or reader into the same state, but it can prompt a recall of a memory, if the subject already has such a memory.

  29. Posted July 9, 2017 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Fascinating talk, I love the phrase”Free Will is biology we havent explained yet.”I was struggling with Determinism as a concept,but when I heard that, it was like the light being turned on in a darkened room,I could see much more clearly,must get his Book.

  30. Posted July 9, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I have many questions that I would like to ask, but I will restrain myself and ask only one for now. Before I ask my question, I have to create a foundation for it.

    You talk about how humans are “malfunctioning machines” and need to be “treated” in order to be fixed. There are some people who according to most of society were “malfunctioning” by being addicted to drugs or sex or violence. These people were “treated” or fixed through belief in a Higher Power. I know many people who came into church as an adult and previous to coming to church they were “malfunctioning machines” according to society, but since being a part of the church and being “treated”, these people are no longer “malfunctioning” according to societal standards. These people claim that if it were not for the belief in a deity, then they would never have changed who they are. I also know that if I was viewed as a “malfunctioning machine” because I believe Christ rose from the dead and I were to be “treated” to be convinced that there is no God, then I would immediately act out on my sexual urges instead of restraining them; I would also no longer give to charity since I only have one life to live and I should use my resources to enjoy this life as much as I can, screw strangers who have their own problems to deal with. I say this honestly, not critically or disparagingly because I have thought about this for a long time.

    So my question is: If the way to “treat” and fix a “malfunctioning machine” is belief in a deity (e.g., the Christian God), should we “treat” these “malfunctioning machines” with belief in a deity?

  31. Posted July 9, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Do we really need the notion of determinism in order to reform the criminal justice system? I hope not, because — as Sapolsky points out– it might take a long time. I also do not think that such a reform is an argument for determinism.

    Looking forward to the day when neuroscience will explain the behavior of thieves, rapists, murderers, con men and politicians.

  32. benjdm
    Posted July 9, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the ill will between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The disagreement is entirely semantic.

    I’m only a compatibilist because free will as defined by libertarians and incompatibilists is such a laughably incoherent concept that it doesn’t need to have a phrase labeling it. We don’t need a phrase for a married bachelor or to argue about whether there are any. The same goes for a four sided triangle. And libertarian free will.

  33. Lewis Almeida
    Posted July 10, 2017 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    As a student of Spinoza 17th century philosopher advocated the law of necessity and that free will is an illusion. See more..wayofspinoza.com

  34. Corey Keplinger
    Posted July 10, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I believe there is truth to this. However I hold a biblical worldview that Kevin has an inherited disease which is also a sin nature. Because of the fall of man, man has a nature enslaved to sin which is the root of every disease. Jesus came to redeem man and will one day give eternal and immortal life to those who trust in him.

    • Posted July 10, 2017 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      Ah, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: you see how far the termites have spread, and how well they’ve dined.

  35. andrewnwest
    Posted July 10, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Feeling grateful after someone compliments a good choice you made isn’t something we should worry about. It helps reinforce that choice in the future.

  36. Posted July 10, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    “all of us are Kevins all of the time.”
    What an absurd generalisation. It is equivalent to saying that if Kevin has a car with a very faulty steering wheel, everyone else is also incapable of safely driving their car.

  37. Posted July 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and on the subject of retribution I just cannot understand how incompatibilists say we should do away with retribution and in the next breath say we are evolutionarily programmed to favour the practice. We are robots right? As such the only criteria for social efficiency is to design society to properly work within our programmed nature and avoid the ensuing discord and dissatisfaction of not doing this. Retribution is optimal in a game theoretic sense – enough said! Why have compassion for the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner anyway? A clockwork orange world is the ideal world if we are indeed robots.

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  1. […] Een Amerikaans podcast over Kevin, een epilepticus die na hersenchirurgie impulscontrole verliest en vervolgd wordt voor kinderporno. Met Robert Sapolsky, Stanford hersenwetenschapper over de illusie van verantwoordelijkheid. [link] […]

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