The Mystical Character of Mechanical Determinism

A Conversation with Robert Sapolsky

"Determined" by Robert Sapolsky

None of us live as the net result of our parents’ decisions, good or bad. Or those of our teachers or governments. Our ability to navigate the world relies on an idea of self, a sense of intention and purpose predicated on our ability to make choices, however constrained those choices may be. Our ontological experience of the world is grounded in an intuitive, continuous sense of individual will. Our cultural experience, in the US and elsewhere, is of a system that praises achievement as individual successes and punishes crime as individual failures. Science, however, seems to tell a different story of what it means to be the human animal: our choices are made before we know we’re making them, shaped by a series of interconnected biological processes and environmental conditions from the flashpoints of neurons all the way back to the conditions of childhood and epigenetic influence of ancestors.

I was fortunate that the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky sat down with me for an hour to discuss his much-anticipated new book, Determined, just before its release in October 2023. Dr. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine, and a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research of the National Museums of Kenya. Sapolsky is a recipient of a MacArthur genius fellowship and the author of many bestselling books that draw on the findings of his research, including Stress, the Aging Brain and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (1992); Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (1995), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, The Trouble with Testosterone (1997); A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2002); Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005); Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, one of the Washington Post’s Ten Best Books of 2017; and, most recently, Determined (2023). An advocate of science for the general public, he regularly publishes essays in Discover, Science, Scientific American, Harper’s, and The New Yorker.

Determined stands firmly on the shoulders of Sapolsky’s previous book, an 800-page “magisterial account of human behavior.” As the review in the Guardian from which this laurel hails also points out in bold type, Behave argues that humans (and, presumably, animals in general) do not have free will. This account of the origins of human behavior, from the micro-increments of the mechanisms of individual cognition to large scale social formations and cultural institutions, is an amazing synthesis of many disciplines and interdisciplinary areas of inquiry. Behave translates the findings of countless observations and experiments in a range of fields to create a clear, cogent picture of our current scientific understanding of human behavior for the general public and makes a compelling argument for the broad ethical implications of this work. It is interesting that a book which painstakingly demonstrates the biological and cultural mechanisms that precede, permeate, and even masquerade as individual agency has such high and genuine hopes for our ability to “listen to reason:” Behave is, as much as anything else, a manifesto for desperately needed social change. But, as the Guardian has it, “It remains debatable whether strict determinism is compatible with Sapolsky’s final message of hope for humanity.” 

Picking up where Behave leaves off, Determined begins by marshalling further evidence from the sciences to continue his argument that human behavior is determined by neural activity; hormone levels; childhood and conditions in utero; the lives of our parents and ancestors, and their natural and social environments. But the bulk of the book, its real work, is taking on the arguments for free-will, addressing the work of philosophers and others who consider these findings of neurobiology. This, to my mind, makes Determined an important book, a work that we will be thinking about for decades to come.

Given his previous work, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s a book both fiercely dedicated to science and deeply personal, one that is ultimately about what it means to grapple, individually and socially, with what we’ve learned thus far from the sciences about consciousness. As I struggled, and often disagreed, with the philosophical implications of Sapolsky’s argument, I was enriched by his work and humbled by its scope and command of complex, multidisciplinary material. Whatever one thinks about determinism, it seems impossible not to be grateful for whatever combination of biology and environment shaped Sapolsky and his work: his aim in writing Determined is to increase our capacity for compassion. His goal, paradoxical though it might seem, is to help free us from the suffering we inflict on each other.

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Helena Feder: Let’s start with the obvious, but far from simple, question. What do you mean by free will?

Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky: As you say, not simple and, I think, far from obvious. Maybe the best place to start is with what I don’t mean by free will. Let’s take the criminal justice system. You’re on a jury that decides the defendant committed the crime. At that point there’s typically three questions asked. Did they intend to do it? Did they know what the likely outcome was going to be? And did they know that they had alternatives available to them? And if the answers are yes, that’s it. They’re responsible. They’re culpable. They acted with intent. And there you go: they demonstrated free will. 

The argument of Determined is that [coming to this conclusion] is like trying to write a review of a movie when you only see the last three minutes of it. Yes, the defendant intended it, knew there was an alternative, and knew what was happening. But where did that intent come from in the first place? Intent comes from a lifetime of biology over which that they had no control, and biology’s interactions with the environment over which they had no control. And that’s what brought the defendant to the moment of the crime. [Intent isn’t chosen freely.] No matter how much you might want to, you can’t intend to do something that you don’t intend to do; equally, you can’t make yourself wish for something different than what you wish for.

Feder: You explain this very clearly and, at times, convincingly in the book. The criminal justice system is broken, and that’s where you make a strong case for the dangers of the concept of free will. But if you had to define the idea positively—in terms of what do you do mean rather than what you don’t—what do you mean by free will?

Sapolsky: To be reductively neurobiological, you get a bunch of neurons that just commanded your muscles to do something. On a completely concrete level, this is what behavior is. And those neurons would have done that exact same thing, no matter what you had for breakfast or what the rest of your neurons were doing or what your hormone levels were. If you had somebody else’s genome and fetal life and childhood, and if your neurons still did the exact same thing, that’s evidence of free will. In other words, something that acted without being influenced in any way whatsoever by everything that’s gone on before in the world of neurobiology.

Feder: From this point of view, free will is a free-floating abstraction, one that makes no sense when thinking about biological entities in ecological contexts. In Determined, you argue that, for this reason, none of us “deserve” what we get in life, good or bad. On page 403 you write that, “99% of the time I can’t remotely achieve that mindset, but there is nothing to do but try because it will be freeing.” After 400 pages of neuroscience, chaos theory, quantum physics, psychological experiments, and sociological analysis, it’s a very humble, and humbling, sentence, and a very carefully written one too. It claims that only abandoning free will, will make us free. The grammar suggests that even for you, freedom is necessary, even as an illusion.

Sapolsky: The structure of that sentence is very intentional. Abandoning free will, will make everyone around you freer. It would be nice, if impossible, to be completely free of entitlement and resentment and hate.

Feder: Losing entitlement, resentment, and hate would improve the world dramatically.

In Determined, and in your previous book, Behave, you explain the ways in which biological mechanisms are part of complex ecological mechanisms, embedded in evolutionary and cultural history. From thousands of years ago to a few seconds ago, behavior is connected in some way to these larger processes and histories. But if all behavior is determined, and there’s no moral value to praise or blame, what is the moral value of being free? 

Sapolsky: I can’t imagine how you could function [thinking] this way all the time. It’s a different framework, a different view of purpose and utility and merit. We’re biological machines, but we can know that we are. That capacity upends everything.

Feder: William McGrew, Frans de Waal, Hal Whitehead and other biologists demonstrate, to my mind conclusively, the existence of nonhuman animal cultures. It seems the more we learn about other animals, the more we learn that we’re not so unique in terms of our ability to think abstractly, understand complex relations, use tools, and pass on traditions and knowledge. The study of animals in their environments, cultural biology in particular, has taught us not to think of other animals as machines (as many once did). To return for a moment to your important work with nonhuman primates, can you speak to the lives of nonhuman animals in this framework? Could thinking of humans as determined help us understand the inner lives of other animals as more complex or, for lack of a better work, more free? Or just the opposite?

Sapolsky: Well, basically the opposite. Descartes is forever known in my circles for having pronounced that animals are just machines (so when you’re brutal to them and they seem to be in pain, they’re not really, it’s just a simulation of pain). And people have been trashing him ever since about how wrong he was—there is not this huge canyon of a dichotomy between humans and other animals, animals also have emotions, can feel loss, pain and fear, all that. Well, I also think that Descartes was wrong, dealing in a false dichotomy, but my take is just the opposite.  Humans, like animals, are just machines.

Feder: You began Determined with a compelling juxtaposition, that of the graduate and the garbage collector (17), which you circle back to near the end of the book (402). At any given graduation ceremony, you argue it is not a matter of grit and achievement, but an accident of biological and cultural fate that one person is graduating, and another is collecting garbage. Accidents of fate are the basis of drama and fiction—from Greek tragedy to Dickens and beyond. But in literature we don’t simply accept fate—we rail against determinism or strive to make the world a better place, or “trade places” to find compassion or change our fate. Did you choose this comparison because what you’re really aiming for is a scientific refutation of justifications for social and economic inequity?

Sapolsky: Yes, in its many versions. People who have had lonelier lives than they should have, because they’ve got some screwy gene variant that has doomed them to morbid obesity or people whose neurobiology makes them too loud and too screechy. The contrast of the graduate and the garbage collector was inspired by my son’s Stanford graduation. It’s a moving salute to achievement and what a perception of agency it can produce. But then you see this guy off in the corner, collecting garbage. The intensity of that contrast got to me. That, and the fact that I, like almost everyone else in the position I was in, would rather not make eye contact with him walking past carrying garbage, because it was all too discordant.

Feder: I really appreciate those moments in the book where you’re thinking about your own struggles with your conclusions about human behavior, with the way in which you’ve been shaped by the worldview you’re challenging. 

Sapolsky: I know you’d appreciate, given your work, how unbelievably dissonant it felt to be providing expert testimony to help a neo-Nazi avoid the death penalty. But if I really believe any of this, the work can’t all be heartwarming, right? I can’t help the migrant worker who finally takes a machete to an abusive boss and not the neo-Nazi.

Feder: Your book not only has important implications for the criminal justice system, but for class politics. If I can return to literature for a moment (I know you love classic science fiction, and literature generally), the critique of structural inequality is implicit or explicit in so many dystopian novels—Huxley’s Brave New World, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? …In these speculative novels, someone always seems to break free in some way, to step out of the system just enough to see it critically. Something enables them to make a leap beyond what seems like programming. 

Both art and science are forms of creativity, fueled by intuition; what to study, and how to study it, is the result of a series of personal—and even irrational—choices. You dismiss intuition because it seems responsible for our sense of free will. But I would argue that your work is also intuitive: while you bring many disciplines together to make your argument, you’re also stepping outside of a grandiose system, a worldview that has shaped so much of philosophy, science, and politics. Your book is an act of will, a moment of turning left instead when the world is turning right.

Sapolsky: Well, I can’t [think deterministically] most of the time and, overwhelmingly, I’m still going to feel indefensibly happy if someone says, hey, nice book. But this happiness is a kind of gratitude, gratitude that by chance I turned out this way. But if this sense of self turned into believing that I should get earlier access to Covid vaccines than other people do, that’s the problem. Or if I decide that, because circumstance made me capable of working hard on this book, I deserve to be more comfortable or happier in life.

Feder: I wonder if there might be a way to disarticulate or tease out “free” from “will.” Free and determined both seem potentially problematic. “Will,” as a site of individual creativity, seems different from the kind of free will that enables entitlement and justifies suffering.

Sapolsky: Well, yes. Because those are just pickled in judgment and comparison. It’s a very unjust world to operate with a just world point of view. Even if we could pull this biological understanding of will 1% of the time, to do the hard work at the moments where it really matters, we’d be better off.

Feder: You do discuss determinism as, in part, a thought experiment, explaining that you don’t expect everyone to change, radically, the way they think, because it’s so ingrained and, for some, self-evident. 

If we can discuss the philosophical implications of neurobiology, you define free will as the “causeless cause” (neurons that would behave the same way regardless of everything else), claiming this definition does not set the bar too high. For me, this is where science and metaphysics merge. It might seem a strange question, but is there a touch of metaphysics in this determined materialist view of consciousness? Something like the Buddhist concept of self/no self?

Sapolsky: What’s been amply clear to me since I was about 14 or so is that I’m incapable of anything spiritual. My view of the world is very mechanistic, but somehow, nonetheless, able to encompass the fact that when I’m off at my field site I can see that the gazelles running past are biomechanically interesting and mouth-droppingly beautiful. These experiences don’t have to be incompatible in the slightest.

Feder: But that description of a moment of beauty, of awe at grace in complexity, carries a meaning, a value. Determined goes to great lengths to assert nothing ‘means’ anything. But that’s not how human beings live; we’re not made to interact with each other or our environment in this way—quite the reverse. I would say we’re more homo narrator than homo sapiens; narrating meaning is the means by which we as a species have survived. 

Sapolsky: I agree; we have to keep in mind who we’re working with here (i.e., us). This is no doubt going to sound philosophically dubious in someone’s book, but nevertheless: I think it is okay, natural, and inevitable (unless you are deeply troubled) that moments of awe carry value and meaning, as long as the meaning is something along the lines of gratitude, a sense that life is worth it, other people should be able to experience moments like this in their lives. The value/meaning that it shouldn’t generate is to feel contempt for the inferred inhumanity of people who are unmoved by nature, or to start a holy war against the infidel who only reacts that way to impalas, rather than gazelles.

Feder: Okay, but why? Aside from the fact that it would be nicer if we were all nicer, why are individual choices, even individual lives, valuable in this framework? Even if we take it as given, for a moment, that our universe is a machine in which everything is determined, we still—as you acknowledge—live as individuals making choices, as if we’re sites of meaningful consciousness and our feelings are real. But one thing about consciousness is that sometimes the “as if” is no different from what is. The obvious example is love. It’s a completely subjective state: if you feel you’re in love, you’re in love. The feeling is its own reality. Equally, if one feels something is meaningful, then it’s meaningful, right?

Sapolsky: Which gets us into a recursive loop. Because we’re such a damn weird species. We feel so intensely that we believe our feelings are real, but they’re determined biologically and environmentally. They collapse into nothingness, but we can’t make feelings stop feeling like something real. That’s the bizarre oddity of our mechanics: knowing our mechanics doesn’t free us from the fact that feelings feel so real and have to be treated as such.

Feder: What, then, does “real” mean? Feelings are real, determined or not, inasmuch as they exist. Right? Do you mean they’re not real inasmuch as they don’t give us the same kind of factual information about the world? It almost seems as if you’re arguing there are two worlds: one of mechanism and one of intangible epiphenomena. At one point in the book, for example, you refer to culture and aesthetics as “emergent macro phenomenon” (198). Of course, consciousness itself seems like the key example of an intangible epiphenomenon. 

Sapolsky: It’s unsolvable. And most of the time it’s not only benign but makes the world much better. If you love, the fact that you turned out to be lucky enough that someone would love you, or feel like life is worth living, most of the time that’s great. Just don’t come out the other end of this feeling entitled or feeling that people who wound up not being loved had anything more to do with it than you did. Make sure you do the hard work when it really matters. 

But, yes, determinism makes no intuitive sense, and we have to push against it. 300 years ago, it might have seemed intuitively obvious to plantation owners that some people are destined to be enslaved. Or to the farmer beating a cart horse, it might have seemed intuitively obvious that nonhuman animals don’t have feelings because they’re just machines.

It’s intuitively obvious to us now that those things are not okay. But it took very conscious, declarative reasoning to get to a point where three centuries later, it’s obvious we shouldn’t beat horses to death or burn women at the stake as witches. And today, if you’ve lucked out by being born into a middle-class, protective environment, you will be diagnosed with dyslexia, instead of being called lazy. It is interesting to see these transitions happening. And all you have to do is look at what percentage of the country was horrified every time somebody is acquitted on an insanity defense. And how many people now look at this and say, yes, that’s a person with a terribly broken brain.

Consider the country before and after Caitlyn Jenner and how we think about transgender identities. Instead of a 200-year drudge to break down an edifice, maybe some changes happen one person at a time, maybe one instance at a time, an incredible catalyst that changes things overnight. But there are not a lot of those.

Feder: I’m still curious about how you account for such change in this framework of determinism, even as you yourself are arguing for enormous change. 

Looking at your last two books, one could argue that Determined is to Behave as Descent of Man is to Origin of the Species. You make your point in Behave but save the punch for Determined. You wait until the next book to emphasize your really upsetting claim and explain clearly what you mean by it and why.

Sapolsky: Unforgivably, I’m very pleased by that comparison. 

After Behave came out, I gave a lot of public lectures. In Q&As, someone would inevitably say, “Wow, I’m wondering if we actually have less free will than we think.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Of course!” And then realizing I was too subtle about that point in Behave. I need to write another book.

Feder: And I must say I’m glad you’re pleased. So, the person sitting in the audience hears you and thinks maybe I need to rethink the idea of free will. As you argue, nothing comes from nothing (this I do agree with). So new ideas, too, come from somewhere. You demonstrate it can’t be explained (or, at least, not yet) through quantum physics. Both Behave and Determined were written because you see a desperate need for social change, because you’re hoping that life will improve for people. How does mechanistic determinism allow room for, or enable, social change?

Sapolsky: On some fundamental, nuts and bolts level, there are astonishing similarities between a sea slug getting conditioned to retract its gill and somebody getting conditioned to hate some group of people. It’s the same nuts and bolts but, in our case, exponentially more complex. But when you understand the nuts and bolts, not only does change seem possible, and not for a second incompatible with there being no free will, it makes it more obvious how it occurs outside the context of free will. For example, that’s why this person turned out to be this kind of person, etc. 

Feder: But then how do we choose the change we want?

Sapolsky: We can’t.

Feder: That’s hard to accept. How will science alleviate suffering? Promote human flourishing? Save the planet?

Sapolsky: But, as you know, most of the time science means wondering, Who will fund my research? Or what pharmaceutical company can I work for? And that’s very depressing. How do we think ethically and politically, which are important? We can’t. We can’t just freely choose the choices we want.

We have to be sufficiently knowledgeable and introspective to see where the buttons are. We have to be raised in a world in which that’s our viewpoint, rather than one of infinite human agency. A world where you need to feel grateful. One in which if you see something inspiring that somebody else has done, you think maybe I can do that too, instead of succumbing to a trained helplessness in every domain of your life. The paradoxical thing is, at the end of the day, okay, this calls for a revolutionary rethinking about everything about us, but which we’re going to have to accomplish incrementally. So, we’re going to fight the revolution in slow motion, because it’s an uphill battle. We can see this in monkeys too (in Determined I discuss an experiment in which monkeys demonstrate a rudimentary sense of free will, when they choose which reward they want for solving a puzzle: a treat or the ability to punish a graduate student whose seemed incompetent). This is very old stuff in us. So, it’s a major, massive transformation. But if we could just stop blaming addicts, for example, for their disease that would be great.

Feder: Thinking about those monkey experiments, the monkeys who would sacrifice food to punish someone who seemed to act poorly or unethically, or experiments with human infants who demonstrate a preference for puppets who behave fairly versus puppets who do not behave fairly. A preference for equity seems ingrained, prior to culture and the exercise of language. 

Sapolsky: It’s a primate [cognitive] archaeology. One of the coolest things in the universe is we’re beginning to understand, mechanistically, genes that free us from genetic determinism, which is flabbergasting. They’re genes that up the influence of environment. 

We need to recognize that our less palatable behaviors are not inevitable. Change happens. And if you’re starting to feel helpless and overwhelmed, just look at the fact that we don’t castrate murderers anymore. 

Feder: I’m trying to sit with the contradiction: everything is determined and nothing is inevitable. Perhaps one way of inhabiting it is to try to build a continuum between the two, a consideration of human consciousness in evolutionary terms—the adaptive advantage of the perception of choice. Some of the bad things about thinking about ourselves as machinic, or animals or the world as machinic, seem obvious (not just because it makes people feel helpless, but it can justify all kinds of terrible, terrible things, including, as you said, beating cart horses).

Sapolsky: You know, Hitler and Stalin may have been atheists, but they were unreflective. Whether you think the world is determined or not, what you really want is a very, very reflective person, religious or irreligious, making moral and social decisions. They’ve done the hard work, that sort of thinking I’ve been talking about.

I do think the problem is on a continuum, in terms of how we deal with it. We need the ability to rationalize away some of the worst things in life. An inability to do so is a definition of major depression and, from an evolutionary standpoint, these are people who are less fit. They die earlier; they’re more at risk for heart disease. An incapacity for self-deception is a maladaptive trait in a species that is evolved to be smart enough to know that every one of us is going to die.

Feder: Since we’re thinking about people who are particularly self-reflective, people that have put in the very hard work and are more likely to come to conclusions about human beings that are less egotistical or exploitative, I’d like to consider Slavoj Zizek as a case study. He’s a public intellectual, a left-wing cultural theorist. Brilliant, erudite, and, at times, infuriating. While you’ve demonstrated what’s socially useful about determinism, for Zizek it justifies embracing anthropocentrism. In a 2009 documentary interview with Astra Taylor, Zizek said, “nature itself is perceived as just another artificial program.” As a determinist, he argues that we should “denaturalize” ourselves and approach ecological crises in a “ruthlessly egoistic way.” In other words, that we should only consider what we want to get out of the environment. The universe itself, he says, “is blind, stupid,” and meaning is “a fundamental lie of the human condition.” He calls it “the temptation of meaning.” This is one outcome of a strictly deterministic view of the universe.

Sapolsky: The response I would have to him is, if he really believes that meaning is a fundamental lie of the human condition, then he should have no problem whatsoever with being plopped down into the middle of one of the many war zones on the planet right now. That should be fine if he, suddenly, turns into an endangered quail. [His position] seems more like a veil of ignorance than an avoidance of the temptation of meaning. 

Feder: But at the end of the book, you do face this problem: the bleakest outcome of determinism, this very problem of meaning. It feels like one of what Freud characterized as a major wound to the western psyche: first, we learn that the Earth (and so humanity) isn’t the center of the universe (Copernicus); second, that human beings are animals, not masters of and separate from the animal kingdom (Darwin); and, finally that we’re not even the masters of our own minds (Freud). Donna Haraway added her collapse of the distinction between the natural and the artificial as the fourth wound. I would say that yours is as likely a candidate: we’re not only not masters of our own minds, we don’t have free “minds” as such. 

At the end of the book, you have this profoundly sad moment, thinking of the love you feel looking at your children. How does one choose a worldview where that love isn’t “real”?

Sapolsky: With a sense of gratitude. If you’re a pianist, gratitude at what it turns out your fingers can do. And gratitude that this can make some people happy, and gratitude that you also lucked out and had what it took to do mindless scales for hours and hours.

I once saw the Dalai Lama at a neuroscience conference. Before he showed up for the main attraction, we were hanging out and talking with his superstar monks. When we were comfortable enough, a scientist asked, “When you’re meditating, do you ever stop because your knees are hurting?” And one monk replied, “Yes, sometimes I’ll stop, but I do that out of a kindness to my knees.” My response was, wow, this is a really nice planet this guy comes from, but he’s coming from another planet. But that is the flipside of determinism: amazement. Just be amazed that you’re a good neurosurgeon and you took out this person’s brain tumor, that you had parents who bought you the right science books when you were a kid and cheered you on at science fairs and made you feel as if you could do anything. And now, wow, you can take out gliomas.

That is the meaning we can make from determinism: amazement and gratitude. You know we can’t choose to feel it, but for those of us lucky enough to feel those things, we should express it, share it, and inspire others. Maybe it will be the thing that tips the balance of who people who are or become. Let’s say, neuronally, somewhere between off and on, or yes or no, or A and B. A kind of tipping point.

Feder: A kind of tipping point for being kind. Thank you for your kindness and generosity with your time.

Sapolsky: And thank you for the interview.

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