Is There Free Will? Dr. Robert Sapolsky, and other ramblings

Fascinating and definitely overwhelming. Oh the nuances . . .

Is There Free Will? The Unsettling Science Behind Our Everyday Decisions

Dr. Robert Sapolsky - interviewed at Finding Mastery

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will

By Robert Sopalsky
Reviewed by John Martin Fischer, University of California, Riverside

“Robert Sapolsky’s Behave , his now classic account of why humans do good and why they do bad, pointed toward an unsettling conclusion: We may not grasp the precise marriage of nature and nurture that creates the physics and chemistry at the base of human behavior, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Determined , Sapolsky takes his argument all the way, mounting a brilliant (and in his inimitable way, delightful) full-frontal assault on the pleasant fantasy that there is some separate self telling our biology what to do.”

This is exactly where an explicit and deeply felt appreciation for our biological evolutionary heritage and being a product of Earth’s processes seems so important to me.
It dissolved this sense of angst being portrayed in those words.
It makes it all a little clearer, less mysterious and unattainable.
Of course, simplifying is not in the interest of academic progress, so on with the rhetoric . . .

A key point here - there is no separate self telling our biology what to do!
Yeah, of course not, because
It’s our biology that produces our mind! (as it’s interacting with the outside world and self, that is living)

That is, our “Consciousness” is in essence the inside reflection of your body and brain communicating with itself, as it goes about the chores of living.
Sopalsky does an awesome job of describing some of the biology details in chapter #3.

… and it dovetails with that philosophical bottom-up-Evolution-respecting perspective.

“… The view that causal determinism is true is not new, nor is the view that this entails no free will or moral responsibility, but Sapolsky collates and marshals the evidence (some of it recent and cutting-edge) as it bears on these issues. …”

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.


Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. His most recent book, Behave, was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” He and his wife live in San Francisco.

I’m only half way though the book, and have also been listening to some of his lectures. I love the evidence and facts he brings to the table, I’m not so sure about some of his tidy conclusions, but it’s fun to learn about just the same. I’m looking forward to the last half. Sapolsky is definitely someone to learn from.

I was disappointed by Daniel Dennett in their “Do We Have Freewill?” YouTube lecture, it felt like Sapolsky held his own while Dennett got petty and off topic.

As for regular mortals like me, living my live,
it still seems the fact remains, we need to make decisions and choices every day.

There will be cascading consequences from those choices.
Of course, life is deterministic, we were born into this body, and family, and set of genes, and environment, and trajectories, etc, etc,.

Okay, fine, we don’t have “Free Will”.
Still, each of us needs to make choices that will be impactful,
large, small, immediately or cumulatively.
How else should it be? How else could it be?

What about choice?
How about what Free Will there is, probably happens somewhere in the gaps of complexity,
it can’t be commanded?
But, it can be influenced.

In the end it’s you making those impactful choices,
and it’s you who chooses to learn, or blow it off.
Each to their own.


How it tie into my thing?

The thing I keep noticing when listening to Sapolsky regarding biology is how well my perspective or personal Earth Centrist Paradigm dovetails with the increasing biological facts.

So why aren’t people more explicit about it, that’s what I’m wondering.

For instance, seems to me the biological factual aspect of Sapolsky’s talk, would really benefit from a preamble of sorts. - "Dare to consider your body from a deep-time perspective, that is Evolutionary. Consider that you are a creature of Earth’s processes. Your sense of self comes from your physical body.

Your mind as the inside reflection of your entire body/brain, in a complex symphony of communicating with itself, in order to deal with the outside world and itself. It kind of smooths out the rough edges, when some people come with their expectation of impossible explanations from nature.

How often do we question how we are looking at these questions?
How we are framing our questions?

Body/brain as product of millions, billions of years of evolution on this singular Earth.
Mind as the product of our own singular amazing body getting on with living it’s one moment,
same as it ever was. Why not be like the other animals, we live and die and life goes on.
Why is that such a horrid vision for so many?

On another question,

Biology is biology
What about the real of mind,
We know our brain/body is producing.

We know next to nothing about the realm of mind, where bio-chemo-electrical emanation from different regions meld into coherent calculations that drive commands and actions. Seems hard to imagine that doesn’t exist, maybe it’s too early to get too certain about our pronouncements. There’s more to learn.

Remember magnet/moving copper.

I’m thinking of our mindscape in a new way - As the landscape between where our generated brain waves intermingle with each other, while other bodily systems are tuning in to decipher the messages that matter to them.

That biology is still way ahead of our headlights.

What we do know for sure is that we are animals, with few truly unique traits.
The most important one I can think is our ability to see outside of ourselves, in a way that’s not available to any living creature that has ever existed.
Nevertheless, it all grew out of the same biological stew being nurtured by an ever changing Mother Earth.

I first heard of him with “Zebras don’t get ulcers”. He works hard and that seems to have gained him independence, so he gets to grow a big beard, and I get a very hippie vibe from him.

Lausten I just started “Behave” and I think I nailed it.

Salopksy starts with a fantasy of catching Hitler seeking appropriate retribution, and so and so on.

Interesting well done.

But it occurred to me this book about the biological origins of human emotion starts with humans.

We are always of first order interest, because of course we are the utterly unique one.
That is the first order focus time and again.

Only later as a side thought, 3, 4th rung down is Evolution and the fact of us evolving out of the animal kingdom, etc. brought into the story. It’s all about our ability to thing about, and doing the most with our thoughts, (and intelligence being just as much a competition things a sports) Everyone has to out debate the other, and so forth.

That’s the problem, as I see it, I’m advocating for our Evolutionary heritage to take first order importance in how we look at, learn about, and debate these issues.

Because I know first hand, how that Earth/Evolution Centrist perspective washes away so many of today “great philosophical questions” like wee follies of our youth, and a prospect that puts our biology and behavior and our relationship with our mind, into a much more integrated self evident understanding.

Gotta run, excuse the typos a bit rushed. Later

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Next we come to the recent philosophy club meeting.

“Morality is a Sham: Defending Moral Error Theory”

Oh heck, never mind. I might as well start a new thread, we can kick around morality without crowding Sapolsky …