Scientists, philosophers, and everyone else have long pondered and argued the question of free will. Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky is the latest to weigh in on the subject with the publication of his new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.
Corinne Purtill profiled Sapolsky for The Los Angeles Times, interviewing several other scientists and experts for her piece. Interestingly, the people who disagreed with Sapolsky's belief in hardcore determinism had less to say about the scientific reasons why he was wrong and more about how believing in determinism is dangerous for individuals and society.
Sapolsky is "a wonderful explainer of complex phenomena," said Peter U. Tse, a Dartmouth neuroscientist and author of the 2013 book "The Neural Basis of Free Will." "However, a person can be both brilliant and utterly wrong."
Neural activity is highly variable, Tse said, with identical inputs often resulting in non-identical responses in individuals and populations. It's more accurate to think of those inputs as imposing parameters rather than determining specific outcomes. Even if the range of potential outcomes is limited, there's simply too much variability at play to think of our behavior as predetermined.
What's more, he said, it's harmful to do so.
"Those who push the idea that we are nothing but deterministic biochemical puppets are responsible for enhancing psychological suffering and hopelessness in this world," Tse said.
Even those who believe biology limits our choices are wary of how openly we should embrace that.
Saul Smilansky, a philosopher at the University of Haifa in Israel and author of the book "Free Will and Illusion," rejects the idea that we can will ourselves to transcend all genetic and environmental constraints. But if we want to live in a just society, we have to believe that we can.
"Losing all belief in free will and moral responsibility would likely be catastrophic," he said, and encouraging people to do so is "dangerous, even irresponsible."
If someone could prove to you that free will was an illusion, how would it affect you and society? Author Ted Chiang explored that question in his 2005 short-short story, "What's expected of us."