TJ [Tom Jacobs]: You write that you don’t really believe in free will, but we nevertheless have an obligation to try to understand our behavior and make things better. Isn’t that something of a contradiction?

RS [Sapolsky]: I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.

Gaining new knowledge, having new experiences, being inspired by someone’s example—these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.

There are all sorts of neuro-pathways that analyze the world in terms of cause and effect. The knowledge that one person—or a bunch of high school students—really can make a difference can be inspiring. That means certain pathways have been facilitated, and, as a result of that, certain behaviors become more likely. Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened if you find out you have no control in a certain domain. Learning to be helpless is also biological.

TJ: So the fact free will is largely illusory does not mean the way we react to the world is static and unchanging.

RS: Absolutely not. There’s a vast difference between a biologically determined universe and fatalism.

h/t: Tom