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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Monday, 19 February 2024
Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will

This week I’d like to tell you about one of my “travelling companions” who has had a huge influence on me for as long as I’ve been writing popular science. His name is Robert Sapolsky, he’s a neurobiologist and primatologist, and I’ve posted about him before here and here. He has just published a new book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will , following his earlier, sensational book Behave, published in 2017.

I haven’t read his new book yet, but I would like to tell you about two long interviews in which he discusses it with two interesting personalities whom I had never heard of before. The first interview is with Nate Hagens, a well-known speaker on the big-picture issues facing human society, and is available on his YouTube Channel, The Great Simplification. This fascinating, two-hour interview is entitled “The Brain, Determinism, and Cultural Implications”, and I enjoyed it a lot. Sapolsky has a real gift not only for summarizing complex studies in a few simple sentences that make them understandable for non-scientists, but also for bringing out all of their difficult social and moral implications in a punchy and often very funny way. For example, after watching Sapolsky demolish the idea that we really exercise much free will in our lives, you’ll have a whole new perspective on our criminal-justice system.

The other Sapolsky interview is with Lawrence Krauss, on his YouTube channel The Origins Podcast , and this episode’s title, The Illusion of Free Will, refers directly to the concerns that Sapolsky addresses in his new book. I can’t tell you any more about this interview, because I haven’t had the chance to watch it yet myself, so I’ll take an easy way out and leave you with this quote from his book, as it appears on his publisher’s website:

[…] Determined offers a marvelous synthesis of what we know about how consciousness works–the tight weave between reason and emotion and between response in the moment and over a life. One by one, Sapolsky tackles all the major arguments for free will and takes them out, cutting a path through the thickets of chaos and complexity science and quantum physics, as well as touching ground on some of the wilder shores of philosophy. He shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession.

Yet, as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together. By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness, and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.


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