Robert Sapolsky and Sam Harris on neurobiology, free will, and baboons

I’ve recently been introduced to neurobiologist and science writer Robert Sapolsky (see my post here), and am looking forward to reading his new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Apparently a lot of the book is devoted to the topic of free will, which was a big part of the NPR show mentioned in the first link.

Last week, YouTube posted a good discussion with Sapolsky and Sam Harris (also trained as a neurobiologist). Sam’s podcasts are often a bit long for me, but I like this one, especially because of the discussion of free will and the fact that for once two people agree that it doesn’t exist—not in the dualistic sense. And they both agree with me. Here’s the YouTube summary of Sam’s podcast.

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Robert Sapolsky about his work with baboons, the opposition between reason and emotion, doubt, the evolution of the brain, the civilizing role of the frontal cortex, the illusion of free will, justice and vengeance, brain-machine interface, religion, drugs, and other topics.

The discussion of free will begins at 40:40 (Sapolsky explains why he rejects free will at 42:40) and ends at 1:14:50—about 35 minutes.

Sapolsky is distressed by the dilemma of realizing that we’re purely determined beings, yet we still feel we have agency. For some reason, that doesn’t bother me a bit. Yes, I act and feel as if I have a choice, even though I know I don’t, but where the rubber meets the road—on the societal and personal implications of fully grasping determinism—I can leave that sense of agency behind.

I think it’s likely that evolution, for reasons I don’t understand,  instilled in us a feeling of agency (I have some theories that are mine), but we can overcome that when we ponder how we reward and (especially) punish people. Both men agree that one of the most important implications of grasping determinism is the reformation of the criminal justice system.

Now both Harris and Sapolsky conceive of “free will” as contracausal  or “dualistic” free will: in other words, the notion that at any point in time, you could have done or decided something other than what you did, and independent of the laws of physics. They are not compatibilists who accept a Dennettian view that, despite the hegemony of determinism, we still have some form of free will, just one that’s different from what we think. (And yes, most people do accept contracausal free will.) I suppose that’s because Sapolsky and Harris think, as do I, that the implications of determinism are far more important than confecting some philosophical species of free will that’s compatible with determinism. But don’t argue with me—argue with Sapolsky, and chastise him for ignoring compatibilism!

I’d listen at least to the section between 40:40 and 1:15:00—if you’re interested in free will. If you have time, listen to all of it.



h/t: Julian


  1. Sam
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Just a heads up that the YouTube video you’ve embedded isn’t from Sam’s official page. This is the link to Sam’s page:

  2. dd
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, Have you seen this article?

    “Australian Senator Wears Burqa in Parliament to Push for Ban”

    ” Australia’s Senate is rowdy and raucous, and often compared to a schoolyard. But after the leader of the anti-immigrant One Nation party walked into the chamber on Thursday wearing a burqa, the room went silent.

    Then came the stunned responses: “oh” and “what on earth.”

    The party leader, Pauline Hanson, took her seat as political rivals watched astounded. Senators from her party laughed.”

    • Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard about it but not yet seen it. Oy!

    • Paul S
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Would have been funny if it was a man pretending to be her.

  3. Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s likely that evolution, for reasons I don’t understand,  instilled in us a feeling of agency

    I’ve always thought, rather, that the feeling of agency was an inevitable illusion of being conscious.
    Its easy to imagine not having agency with ones limbs: wanting to move ones hand and not being able to. But to observe ones lack of free will would entail wanting to think thought X and not being able to and thinking thought Y instead. It seems to me that this immediately leads to logical absurdities and so the illusion of free will* must by necessity be complete and seamless

    *I haven’t decided on whether I agree with this yet

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see why our sense of agency should be considered mysterious. It’s just the perception of ourselves as autonomous organisms capable of regulating our own behavior. Our decisions really do have causal consequences that we can observe and verify. Both the ability to self-regulate and the correct perception of that ability are evolutionarily adaptive, so where’s the puzzle?

      • rickflick
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        There are many modules in the brain which pay attention to specific inputs and processes. The idea that an additional module or modules would evolve to harmonize, connect, and to some degree manage other functions seems natural to me. This is likely going to turn out to be responsible for our sense of self. The mind can recursively evaluate high level states that include my perception of myself as agent. One of many. Very simple really, but you can see why this setup would lead to a sense of “selfhood” that would defy a naive understanding and lead to thinking of it as a mystery that only the deepest philosophers and theologians could manage to explain.

        • Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

          Since you and Gregory explain this so well in two short coherent paragraphs, it is a mystery to me why it should be a mystery.

          • rickflick
            Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

            It’s not. 😕

            • Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

              I think the mystery – which I can provoke in myself sometimes – is that one feels like one is not just “reverberating” but one is originating something new. This is an illusion, but a persistent one. To the point we get philosophers like Galen Strawson (IIRC) claiming that if we are sure of anything it is that. (Cartesian fallacy, needless to say.)

        • Vaal
          Posted August 17, 2017 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

          I’ve nothing to add to Gregory and rickflick’s comments, except to say I agree.
          The “hard” problem of consciousness has never resonated with me no matter how many times I read on it. Not that we know precisely how consciousness operates, but the idea that, despite it obviously being an operation of our brain it is somehow *in principle* mysterious just doesn’t ring true.
          I always get this feeling that the “Mysterians” (as I think Dennett calls them) can never accept any physical theory of consciousness because that makes it become knowable, even prosaic…but consciousness is so mysterious whatever physical theory offered just can’t be right.

      • Posted August 18, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t mean to suggest there was a puzzle. I was only suggesting that our perception that we have free will can not be counted as evidence that we have free will

        If we didn’t have free will it would be impossible for us to perceive this because doing so would lead to logical contradictions and so there is no need for a module in the brain to give us the illusion of free will.

        I’m not sure I agree with the consensus here that we don’t have free will. I think some form of it may be possible as an emergent property of the mind…but I don’t know if I want to open that can of worms.

    • Xuuths
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      But the argument can take this simple tack: are you really conscious if you don’t have the capability of demonstrating it? I think, therefore I am only works if you can demonstrate even to yourself that you are thinking, and that would require some kind of active choice, not a determined one.

      So is the stereo speaker singing and enjoying it, or just processing signals that require some consciousness to appreciate that it is singing as opposed to white noise?

      This discussion brings up all kinds of interesting points.

      • rickflick
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        I think Kant’s commentary suggests the question answers itself and does not require further demonstration.

        I think the interesting points about consciousness involve the complexity of sentient brains. Stereo speakers are too simple to have actual emotions.

      • Posted August 17, 2017 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have to demonstrate to anyone else that I enjoy making music to make it true. My nervous system responds with the “enjoy” response even if it is determined. Just as I respond with “enjoy” to fats and sugars. I don’t see what your comment about speakers has to do with this.

  4. YF
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    “I did it out of my own free will” means that I did it volitionally. Volitional action is caused by the brain, which operates according to the laws of physics. Free will and naturalism/physicalism are therefore compatible.

    How can anyone seriously deny that we (fully embodied beings) make choices? Is there really no meaning to the question: “What flavor of ice cream did you choose?”

    • rom
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      We don’t.

      It is that we generally don’t choose our volitions. It is cause and effect all the way down. OK we can have second and higher order volitions but we don’t ultimately choose those. Try this on for size:

    • YF
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      To clarify, here volitional = voluntary.

      One would think that there is a meaningful difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

      • rom
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        So you seem to be referring to some legal definition rather than some philosophical or scientific definition.

        You chose the flavour of ice cream without a gun to your head so to speak?

        The free will we are referring to is could you have chosen any other flavour than the one you did?

        • YF
          Posted August 17, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          You mean if the tape of cosmic evolution were replayed? Assuming no quantum randomness, then no, I could not have chosen otherwise.

          But I can still meaningfully say that I chose the ice cream flavor freely, i.e., voluntarily, in accordance with my desires, as opposed to with a gun to my head. That’s the conventional, commonsense meaning of ‘free choice’, and I don’t see anything scientifically or philosophically incoherent about it.

          • rom
            Posted August 17, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            If we were talking in the vernacular I would agree with you.

            But this discussion is not (at least for me). It is of the roll back the tape type of discussion.

            And you quite rightly point out with quantum phenomena it might not roll back the same way. Again that does not help the free will argument.

            • Xuuths
              Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              But isn’t it kind of silly, since you can’t — it isn’t possible to — roll back the tape. While interesting from a linguistic standpoint, and it presents the appearance of being part of the thought experiment, but since it isn’t possible in reality, why would anyone try and use it to make a point?

              Just like “if you could suddenly teleport across time/space/dimension, then…” is silly in reality, but may be interesting if you’re with a friend and you’re both drunk/high.

    • Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Jerry and Sam (Harris) think that because you couldn’t have chosen otherwise in an actual situation, you didn’t really choose, so agency is an illusion and we’re simply puppets of cause and effect (hence the marionette strings on the cover of Sam’s book on free will). But as you point out, choices do occur, even if they couldn’t have happened otherwise given the circumstances, and *agents* make them happen, not the causes that shaped the agents.

      “Volitional action is caused by the brain, which operates according to the laws of physics.”

      Everything that agents do is of course *consistent* with the laws of physics, but those laws don’t perspicaciously explain why agents behave as they do. Sapolsky’s book is all about explaining behavior, and here’s a good article on agent-level causation by Erik Hoel if you haven’t seen it,

      • Xuuths
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Except they aren’t choices. Just like the items you drop don’t choose to respond to gravity and fall to the floor.

        • Vaal
          Posted August 17, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

          Except they aren’t choices.

          Of course they are.

          Why do you think that word is part of our vocabulary? Why does it do actual work to describe and predict actions? You seem to want to re-define the word out of existence on some arbitrary new standard.

          But if I ask the car salesman “do I have a choice of different colors?” this is a request for real-world, valuable information.

          Just like the items you drop don’t choose to respond to gravity and fall to the floor.

          No, not just like it. We are obviously very, very different than objects that can not make choices. The pot in my kitchen drawer can not choose to go outside when it’s sunny; I can. It can’t choose to leave the drawer, or to withdraw from a flame, or partake of any other countless options I have, due to my complex brain that allows me to model different outcomes of different actions, and choose which is most likely to fulfill a particular goal.

          We are the “same” as a banana in the sense we are both made of atoms and obey the laws of physics, to that level of description would miss virtually everything of consequence in terms of how we are different; what a banana is capable of doing, vs what I am capable of doing.

          Why people engage in such greedy reductionism always leaves me scratching my head.

          • Posted August 17, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

            The usual problem: words are redefined, and then it is claimed that it is the compatibilists who redefine.

            This is just like saying that our stomachs do not ‘really’ digest food because digesting food follows cause-and-effect. The laws of physics digest the food, not the stomach! Digestion is an illusion!

            • Posted August 18, 2017 at 3:16 am | Permalink

              Excellent analogy!

            • Vaal
              Posted August 18, 2017 at 8:41 am | Permalink

              Nicely put.

              It seems so baffling to continually encounter what seem to me to be obviously strange mistakes of reasoning.

              Of course from my perspective, I believe I’m doing my best to make sure I’ve drilled down into my assumptions, but it really strikes me that “the other side” isn’t doing that.

              Somewhat like arguments about morality, it seems to be a battle of intuitions. The intuitions are doing the job of making assumptions seem already justified.

          • YF
            Posted August 18, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            Exactly right. There are different levels of description and new properties that emerge at those levels.

            After all, when your car breaks down you go to an auto mechanic, not a quantum mechanic!

            An intact, functioning brain has properties and capacities well beyond those of a brain that has been put in a blender. Among those capacities are deliberation, choice, and goal-directed behavior.

      • Posted August 18, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        It’s interesting that agent-level causation yields more Shannon-information about causation than a micro-level description. But it’s solving a non-problem. It’s not like there’s any way for the micro-level to be exactly the way it is *without* the agent doing what she’s doing.

  5. Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Who decided that agency requires contra-causal freewill? A chess-playing computer has agency; it really is the computer deciding on the move (even though the decision-making mechanism is deterministic).

    We have a feeling of agency because we have agency in exactly the same way that the chess-playing computer has agency.

    • YF
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes. And there is a vast literature in neuroscience studying decision making, choice, and voluntary action. No neuroscientist denies that these decisions, choices, and actions are determined by the brain. This doesn’t make them any less real or legitimate.

    • rom
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Would you agree we can define free will into and out of existence?

      To me it would seem to.

      Having said that regardless of what we call it, us determinists (hard and soft) should find the concept of not actually being able to do otherwise quite interesting.

      Now I am not saying we can’t envisage doing otherwise, but our cogitating and envisaging are also determined by physics (deterministic and probabilistic). So we are left with not being able to do otherwise and calling this free will?

      • YF
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        We can accept that we could not have done otherwise in a deterministic universe while still admitting that physical brains can make legitimate choices, and recognizing the meaningful distinction between voluntary (i.e. ‘free’) vs. coerced actions. This is all the compatibilist is asking for, and I don’t see why this position should be at all controversial.

        Now, imagine we lived in an indeterministic universe, wherein we could have done otherwise (by replaying the tape of cosmic evolution). Would that invalidate the position of ‘incompatibilists’? I think not. Every choice is still made in accordance with the laws of physics.

        So, I submit that ‘doing otherwise’ is not actually relevant to the debate. The real debate, I think, is (or should be) between naturalism and supernaturalism/dualism.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 18, 2017 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      Yes. A simple “freewill” model of agency is earlier and independent of philosophy. Of course philosophy matters for *some*, but that is not the dragon Jerry has to slay.

      I would rather note the biochemical or electronic machinery, and be satisfied with that. Admittedly there were historical open gaps to understand roughly how it could work in organisms or how to institute agency in machines (c.f. Babbage) as well as for religious magic ideas. But both are satisfactorily closed now.

  6. Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Most people engaging in the debate on free will point out the studies showing that action potentials for muscles ramp up a second or more before a decision is made consciously to move whatever that muscle controls. They claim that we do not have free will, because if we did then we would not initiate muscle action until the decision was made. (This is not their only argument, but …)

    The error I believe is being made is limiting the identity of “I” to our conscious selves. Clearly the majority of our mental processes and actions based upon those are based in the subconscious mental processing of our brains.

    Our conscious minds, often described as a hitchhiker, often lag behind because it takes time for them to “get the memo” when a decision is made subconsciously (as most are).

    If we identify with our conscious and subconscious minds (I include autonomic processes, too … being a diversity advocate). I think many of these philosophical questions will go away.

    • YF
      Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Not so fast. Check out this paper on Libet:

      Conscious Cogn. 2014 Feb;24:12-21

      Brain signals do not demonstrate unconscious decision making: an interpretation based on graded conscious awareness.

      Miller J1, Schwarz W2.


      Neuroscientific studies have shown that brain activity correlated with a decision to move can be observed before a person reports being consciously aware of having made that decision (e.g., Libet, Gleason, Wright, & Pearl, 1983; Soon, Brass, Heinze, & Haynes, 2008). Given that a later event (i.e., conscious awareness) cannot cause an earlier one (i.e., decision-related brain activity), such results have been interpreted as evidence that decisions are made unconsciously (e.g., Libet, 1985). We argue that this interpretation depends upon an all-or-none view of consciousness, and we offer an alternative interpretation of the early decision-related brain activity based on models in which conscious awareness of the decision to move develops gradually up to the level of a reporting criterion. Under this interpretation, the early brain activity reflects sub-criterion levels of awareness rather than complete absence of awareness and thus does not suggest that decisions are made unconsciously.

      • Rosmarie Maran
        Posted August 17, 2017 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Is the Libet experiment actually about free will at all? Is it not much more about the opposite of making a deliberate decision, namely about how to produce a “surprise” decision about when exactly to do the only one thing you can do in this setup – move your arm (or whatever exactly), and nothing at all depends on your decision, it’s completely irrelevant to your personal fate. So it seems to be much more about how the brain is deliberately made working as a random generator, and not about how the brain is working to make an informed, in any minimal sense relevant decision. This are very different tasks for the brain, I guess.

        • Xuuths
          Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          Libet experiment: let’s set up an artificial situation and claim it describes natural situations.

          That may be harsh, but is basically accurate. Oh, and I had no choice but to write that… (I find those kinds of statements highly unsatisfying and unconvincing.)

    • Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      My colleague Lisa Fuller from UBC in the graduate seminar I did on FW years ago pointed out, IMO correctly, that the FW debate is really just the mind-body problem. (I regard this as solved, at least in outline, so I am not as puzzled by FW.)

  7. Gregg
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t listened to this episode yet, but I’m well into Sapolsky’s book. I’m really enjoying it, but I’m not science literate enough to know if he’s right about his views on environment vs. genes. He says that traits can only be said to have high heritability with respect to whatever environments they were tested in, and that it’s typically foolish to claim that any genetic influence on heritability remains large across most human environments. He seems to heavily downplay the role genes play in genetic variability, seemingly for all behaviors or cognitive tendencies. He claims that genetic influence is mostly in where the center of the distribution is found, which he says varies dramatically more so than the gene-driven variability in traits, and that genetic influence in genome-wide assocation studies is extremely tiny. He says IQ variability is due far more to socioeconomic status than to the gene-driven variation. Psychologists seem very confident about IQ and g-score variance having high heritability, though, along with the Big 5 personality traits. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the book after you’ve read it. It’s certaintly refreshing that Sapolsky openly rejects both libertarian and compatibilst free will.

  8. Kevin
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    A most excellent discussion. I recommend anyone listen to the whole thing.

    Convincing arguments are supplied that strongly suggest that not only should we always consider a biologically deterministic view when considering punishment, but also that as a civilization we are getting closer to adopting this strategy more and more whether people want it or not.

    I particularly like Sapolsky’s description of how execution as a retributivist function in our species has changed over time:

    0. mob eviscerates criminal
    1. mob hand criminal to state to be eviscerated
    2. state hangs rather brutal death (mob can still come with picnic baskets)
    3. state hangs privately (invitation only)
    4. state poisons
    5. state poisons with machine

    • Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      As a European I’ll point out that death penalty has been abolished in all 47 countries belonging to the Council of Europe.

      • Posted August 17, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        FTR…Nineteen of the fifty American states have abolished it as well. Four states still have the law on their books but no executions are done because of governor-imposed moratoriums, three are prohibited by court order and two – New Hampshire and Kansas – have the death penalty on their books and are not prohibited by either moratorium or court order but have not executed anyone since 1976 (when the death penalty we re-insituted in the U.S.).

  9. Gregg
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Sapolsky heavily criticizes Pinker’s claims about levels of violence in pre-state societies and more modern hunter-gatherer tribes. He frequently references anthropologist Douglas Fry. He suggests that most anthropologists make persuasive criticisms of the claims made by Pinker and Keeley, who supposedly rely on cherry picking and misinterpretations of the evidence. The criticisms I’m reading seem pretty damning, but I would like to hear Jerry’s thoughts on this after he has read it. I expect that Pinker will respond to these criticisms in his upcoming book, Enlightenment Now.

  10. Posted August 17, 2017 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Laplace wasn’t aware of the irreducible element of chance on the quantum level; or of the asymmetric thermodynamic arrow of time; or of evolution through natural selection.

    For a long time now, we have used the word “determinism” in a way that accepts all these things. Maybe it’s confusing to some, and possibly something like “irreversible causality” might be a better term.

    In the old dualistic sense, free will doesn’t exist. Will is simply a part of our physical universe of chance and necessity. I don’t think any serious “compatibilist” believes otherwise.

  11. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    “I think it’s likely that evolution, for reasons I don’t understand, instilled in us a feeling of agency (I have some theories that are mine), …”

    I’d like to hear them, because the purportedly illusory sense of agency (which I take as more-or-less congruent with consciousness), is a great puzzle for me.

    When I think of determinism I think of particles and wave functions and equations that describe their evolution at the fundamental level, because that’s where the justification for determinism comes from. An illusory sense of agency and subjective consciousness seem superfluous, unnecessary, and dispensable, because they can’t affect the determined evolution of the particles and wave functions. That would be dualism.

  12. Posted August 18, 2017 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    I suspect that free will is an artifact of the Reformation, and therefore a puzzling res non entia like “all men are liars..” that is unresolvable because there is actually nothing there except, in the case of free will, the non-flippability of time’s arrow. The puzzle arises from the theological contradiction of an omnipotent and omniscient god creating a creature, whose future he knew from alpha to omega, but who was not therefore a determinist automaton. The simple answer is that there wasn’t, and he didn’t

    • Posted August 19, 2017 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      Actually, time’s arrow has already flipped, according to a leading cosmological theory (Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here, chapter 15). Entropy was at a minimum somewhere in the middle of the history of an ancestor universe of our universe. At times further from ours than that, time in the ancestral universe ran the other way.

      But maybe you mean “flipped by humans”? I don’t quite get your meaning.

      I certainly agree that theologians have sorely aggravated some human misconceptions about choice and causality.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 18, 2017 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    A deeper kind of worry about our fondness for nouns occurs to me: does it happen, perhaps, that speakers of English are drawn to believe that certain things exist because nouns that serve as their labels exist? Might it be only the labels that exist?
    ~ Perry Link

    There’s a difference between having Free Will (a thing) and the feeling of freedom to decide (an experience or process).

    You can discuss whether or not we ‘have’ Free Will but if Free Will only exists as a feeling then the ownership debate is just word games. Same with ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Mind’ (or even ‘Soul’)

  14. Posted August 18, 2017 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I believe determinism is true, too. But the view has the unique property that it renders itself completely meaningless. If you think it through, you realize that everything, including the very thoughts about it, are going through motions. You think whatever you think. Only one property remains, namely that “stuff happens”. It’s not even a form of nihilism, because you cannot give up and do nothing. You do whatever you do, including having some reaction to my comment, or no reaction at all. Nobody can fully grasp determinism, and everyone — going through the motions — still clings to a residue of free will, even those who say they don’t.

    From the view of The Grand Frame, there is no decision making, no wanting, wishing, reasoning, and there can be no meaning either. Everything becomes quantity (of something we cannot fathom and which we describe by analogy as “fields” or “particles” etc). We can also eliminate “time”, and by analogy consider everything to be like a string, containing the “seed” of everything that is and ever “would” be.

    Of course, humans seem to influence each other. Philosophers thinking and writing about it seem to influence society. I might influence you. But that too, is all residue of free will. In the Grand Frame, none of that matters in any way. Philosophers argueing about it, strictly speaking, are not even deluding themselves. They go through the motions, as everyone else end everything does just as determined. They could not do it differently. And likewise, are not influencing anyone (only in the relative, human sense with the residue of free will from our human point of view) and whatever they “found out” is whatever they found out as things go its course.

    Nobody can escape determinism and truly view it from outside. But that’s why I prefer a form of honest “practical compatibilism” which simply admits defeat. I do whatever I do, but at least on a human scale there are decisions, reasons, meaning, and influences.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 18, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      You seem to share Stephen Barnard’s view that determinism somehow negates causality. You say philosophers don’t influence anyone; he says decisions are causally ineffectual.

      I honestly don’t understand how anyone can arrive at this conclusion, since cause-and-effect is the very engine of determinism. Events influencing other events is how the determined future unfolds. It doesn’t just seem that way; it is that way (if determinism is true).

      Saying “stuff happens” is a copout. We still want to know why stuff happened this way instead of that way. That sort of question can’t be answered without acknowledging causes and influences.

      • Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        It does not negate causality, or whatever is going on in reality, at all. Also, “we still want to know” again switches perspectives to our point of view. We want to know, because to us, we make decisions, reason, and have free will. But truly try to think outside of this box, and none of that has any relevance — the universe might be encoded in a static string that just exists.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          If causality is something that goes on in reality, then it’s not just an artifact of our parochial human perspective. The causes and influences are objectively real and relevant to the observed regularities in your static string.

          • Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            If you look at a fully deterministic system, then only the “seed” (starting point and conditions) has any relevance, because every other state can be determined from there. Occam’s Razor would perhaps advice to cut away every thing else, too.

            But of the course the whole attempt to leave the box is futile and contaminated. We cannot fully comprehend determinism from inside the very system itself.

            It’s also not a copout. Determinism is the most magnificient unproductive view ever, it must be! It is such unproductive that it collapses unto itself. It’s true, but at once terminates itself.

            You cannot eleminate free will, and then arbitrarily stop there. Once you assume that quasi-objective point of view of a spirit floating outside, all that is, and matters, is the seed, which (again in “mixed” or contaminated perspective) produces patterns which wash through this curious medium. You can call things “reasoning”, or “zebra” and sure, these things somehow influence each other, but all of this is a sort of qualia.

            People who at once want determinism, and also think about “consequences” of their views, i.e on law, have not thought it through. People argue, because inside this box it has relevance, and there is causality, but of everything is deterministic, then this too, is just going through motions. Jerry can’t help but post, you can’t help but reply etc. but again, from a truly deterministic perspective this is like a tiny train going in circles. It will always drive the cicle, whatever its thoughts or reasons are.

            • Posted August 18, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              Here’s another metaphor: you build an elaborate, fully deterministic super computer. You have a seed, which is always the same. And the computer’s purpose is to compute whether you have a vanilla or chocolate ice cream for dessert. Of course, it’s pointless, because every time the answer is “vanilla”.

              Now, somethnig utmost fascinating goes on inside the computer. It simulates tenthousand generations of philosophers, each coming up with elaborate reasons for one flavour or the other. Religious wars are fought over the question, whether vanilla is the correct answer to everything. Reasonig and the causality is not pointless. It’s the very thing the machine does. But at once, it is pointless. You are a super genuius, and you know how the computer would “decide”, since you build it. Hence, you knew all along that the answer would be “vanilla” and you know all along about Fquixhiao, magnificent reasoner who emergeres in generation 13678332512444 to give the “final impulse” for the answer. Of course, at once, she didn’t. That was determined and contained in the starting condition, too.

              I hope this juxtaposition of perspectives makes clear what I mean.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 18, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                Being the architect of the computer does not magically give me the ability to predict its eventual output, no matter how smart I am. Turing proved that I can’t even predict whether a given program will halt. In general, the only way to know precisely what a program will do is to run it and see what happens.

                The same is true of physics. Knowing the initial conditions doesn’t magically confer knowledge of all subsequent events. Laplace’s demon isn’t an oracle, conjuring answers from thin air. It’s a supercomputer running a simulation of reality to see what happens.

                So even from your Laplacean perspective, causality still matters, because it’s the only tool you have to know what’s going on.

              • Posted August 18, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

                As I see it, you are cherrypicking liberally from different angles. A truly, but unimaginable, Laplacean perspective is not concerned with causality. You only have to play through it, because you assume your Laplacean Observer to be like a human mind. Only from our human point of view, it matters.

                Consider as an approximation the following: You slice reality along time, say in slices of each a second. Each of these slices is a kind of snapshot, a state of affairs. You begin with slice one, which produces slice two, and so on. To know that you have to “run” the computation to know how slice n turns out is completely irrelevant, just assume you do it once, then you know. But Jerry, an entity on slice 356 doesn’t know. He does whatever he does, and he cannot do otherwise, leading to precisely the exact same slice 357. You might as well, as a Laplacean supermind consider the whole thing, all slices and all, as one installation, a kind of fossil record. Things are arranged according to some rules, and if you were a human, you’d care a great deal about it. You interest is that of a scientific minded mind. But in reality, there is no great mind looking in, and thus nothing that could care. You end up with a kind of fossil-record installation that just exists.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        “You seem to share Stephen Barnard’s view that determinism somehow negates causality.”

        Don’t put words in my mouth. That’s not my view at all. It’s a ridiculous position.

        The determinism I’ve been talking about is causal determinism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives this definition:

        Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

        You seem to be confusing causality with choice. I’m not saying that determinism negates causality. I’m saying determinism negates choice.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          Here’s what you said in the Hitler thread:

          I want to suggest a corollary to the determinist position. It seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something. It is

          No conscious experience can have any causal effect on the outcome of future events. It’s a pure epiphenomenon.

          You also endorsed the claim that “determinism necessarily entails that conscious experience is somehow out of the loop”.

          • Stephen Barnard
            Posted August 18, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            Please explain how what I wrote negates causality. You do realize, I suppose, that causality exists independently of conscious experience.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted August 18, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

              First, let me say that I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I’m just trying to understanding your argument, which doesn’t make much sense to me. So let’s break it down:

              You agree (I think) that brain events, including decisions, are ultimately physical, and conscious experience is “a constellation of physical events”.

              You agree that physical events (presumably including brain events) have both causes and consequences; they’re fully embedded in the causal web.

              But somehow (and here’s where you lose me) you conclude that this causality entails that “No conscious experience can have any causal effect on the outcome of future events.” And you stand by this claim when pressed.

              To me that seems like a denial of causality, at least for the special case of conscious experience. But I’m not clear on why you think this case should be special, if brain events are physical events.

              But perhaps I’m misreading you, and what you really mean is something like “No conscious experience can have any acausal effect on the outcome of future events” — i.e. effects outside the normal cause-and-effect of physics. If that’s what you mean, I’m with you. But that still doesn’t entail that brain events are “pure epiphenomenon”, without effects of any kind, so your insistence on this point remains puzzling.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted August 18, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                I think the problem arises because you’re thinking in terms of brain events and I’m thinking in terms of particles, wave functions, and the equations that govern their evolution in time.

                The brain doesn’t have a physically privileged status. It consists of particles and wave functions just like everything else, at least according to fundamental physics. The brain participates in the evolution of the ensemble, but can’t influence it because it’s determined. It’s going to be the same evolution in time no matter what. That’s causal determinism, and I think many people who call themselves determinists don’t appreciate the radical implications.

                Don’t think I believe this story. I don’t, but it’s a consequence of determinism.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 18, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Wouldn’t those same radical implications tell us that the hammer doesn’t drive in the nail, because it’s all just particles and waves?

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted August 18, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                You could look at it that way, I suppose. The point is that the sole justification for determinism is the apparent determinism of fundamental physics, which deals with microscopic states of particles and wave functions, not macroscopic objects like hammers and brains.

  15. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 18, 2017 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Just listened to the Harris/Sapolsky podcast, and I have to say I was somewhat shocked to hear Harris say, at around 52:30, that “I haven’t thought a lot about” the question of whether the efficacy of punishment says anything about our capacity for self-control. That seems like something he should have thought about before writing his book on free will.

    For me the most frustrating thing about this conversation was that Sapolsky kept saying things like “We think we have cognitive justifications for what we do, but really it’s all because of neurons” — as if cognition is somehow different from neural activity. He seems to think that an explanation at the level of biology means that an explanation at the level of cognition must be wrong, or ruled out. The possibility that the two explanations might be just different descriptions of the same underlying facts doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

    • Vaal
      Posted August 18, 2017 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      “He seems to think that an explanation at the level of biology means that an explanation at the level of cognition must be wrong, or ruled out.”

      That seems to be a central intuition for the people making these kind of “no free will” and “consciousness/agency is an illusion” crowd.

      All I can do sometimes is sort of sit back and marvel at the incoherence that seems to spill from arguments made from those assumptions.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted August 18, 2017 at 11:39 pm | Permalink


  17. Rupinder Sayal
    Posted August 19, 2017 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    I listened to the whole thing last week when it came out, and I am progressing albeit slowly through his book. He may become one of my favorite authors on neuroscience. Both the podcast and the book are just amazing!!

  18. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 19, 2017 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I disagree with Jerry on the need to reform the justice system in light of determinism. We will always act as though we are dualists, in the justice system and in every other aspect of human affairs. We will always consider others’ motivations and assign guilt or innocence accordingly. It’s built in to our psyche. That doesn’t mean that the justice system can’t be reformed to be more humane, fair, and effective, but it won’t be done in determinist terms.

  19. Posted August 19, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, I act and feel as if I have a choice, even though I know I don’t, but where the rubber meets the road—on the societal and personal implications of fully grasping determinism—I can leave that sense of agency behind.”

    Along with vaal I continue to marvel at the incoherence in such a statement. Surely if one is dedicated to scientific method one cannot recognise that X is NOT true but then behave exactly as if X really IS true. Any tendency to think that “the sun revolves around the earth” must always be resisted. But no, with free will we allow ourselves to think it does ,,,, EXCEPT on “societal issues”. But wait…. if everything we decide is actually pre-determined, how do we know that our moral conclusions on subjects such as punishment are actually thought through properly. The whole thing begs the question of how can robots determine what is morally right for robots anyhow?

    Compatibilism, which I hold to be true, and act as if it is true, provides the only coherent basis to address any of these issues.

    • Vaal
      Posted August 19, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Aneris’s strange claims, for instance, essentially annihilate knowledge and reason – “stuff just happens” – which of course means his very argument has no real grounding beyond “it just happened.”

      It’s just a spectacle of self-refutation.

  20. Kosmos
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think our feeling of agency is that hard to understand.

    First off, we are conscious.

    Secondly, when we make decisions we have multiple options available to us from our subjective point of view and we are not aware of all the causal factors that go into the decision-making process.

    The fact that we are endowed with emotions creates different feelings associated with decisions; e.g. guilt and shame. They make us dwell on decisions we regret and make us feel personally responsible for those decisions.

    Also, pondering the questions of why we make the decisions we do and whether we have free will or not, is typically an adult activity. Since we already have lived many years with the feeling of agency and not having reflected about the causal factors that go into them it doesn’t seem so strange that we can have libertarian intuitions.

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