Before epilepsy was understood to be a neurological condition, people believed it was caused by the moon, or by phlegm in the brain. They condemned seizures as evidence of witchcraft or demonic possession, and killed or castrated sufferers to prevent them from passing tainted blood to a new generation. Today we know epilepsy is a disease. By and large, it’s accepted that a person who causes a fatal traffic accident while in the grip of a seizure should not be charged with murder. After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has reached the conclusion that virtually all human behavior is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells or the beating of our hearts.
This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane. “The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over,” Sapolsky said. “We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there.”
Sapolsky, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, is extremely aware that this is an out-there position. Most neuroscientists believe humans have at least some degree of free will. So do most philosophers and the vast majority of the general population. Free will is essential to how we see ourselves, fueling the satisfaction of achievement or the shame of failing to do the right thing. Saying that people have no free will is a great way to start an argument. This is partly why Sapolsky, who describes himself as “majorly averse to interpersonal conflict,” put off writing his new book “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.” […]
Analyzing human behavior through the lens of any single discipline leaves room for the possibility that people choose their actions, he says. But after a long cross-disciplinary career, he feels it’s intellectually dishonest to write anything other than what he sees as the unavoidable conclusion: Free will is a myth, and the sooner we accept that, the more just our society will be. “Determined,” which comes out today, builds on Sapolsky’s 2017 bestseller “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a slew of other accolades. The book breaks down the neurochemical influences that contribute to human behaviors, analyzing the milliseconds to centuries preceding, say, the pulling of a trigger or the suggestive touch on an arm. “Determined” goes a step further. If it’s impossible for any single neuron or any single brain to act without influence from factors beyond its control, Sapolsky argues, there can be no logical room for free will.
Originally Posted at https://slashdot.org/