Sapolsky's "Determined": review

I believe in consciousness equipped with free will. Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky doesn’t. Our difference runs deep. Sapolsky: “I haven’t believed in free will since adolescence.” At that age I remember believing in free will enough to explore ways of amplifying it. So, on the matter of free will, we both care.

But should you? Two decades ago, of two dozen humanists I queried, three claimed they didn’t have free will, another three (not including me) claimed they did. Three quarters of those present, though, cared so little as to have no opinion. So, no, like most people you probably don’t care.

But Sapolsky is intent on making you care:

This book has a goal—to get people to think differently about moral responsibility, blame and praise, and the notion of our being free agents. And to feel differently about those issues as well. And most of all, to change fundamental aspects of how we behave.

In reviewing “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” I too have a goal: to thwart Sapolsky’s goal.

From his introduction:

The book’s intentionally ambiguous title reflects these two halves—it is both about the science of why there is no free will and the science of how we might best live once we accept that.

For me, Sapolsky’s marshalling of scientific proofs for the non-existence of free will falls flat. For two reasons: first, more obviously, because absence of evidence, which is all science can deliver, is not evidence of absence. Let me give you a parallel to illustrate this: Jane’s car traveled to Albany yesterday. Explain. Sapolsky would respond by itemizing everything required for the car to travel--the engine, the brakes, the tires, the gasoline. Since any one of them being deficient would prevent the car from operating, them all being sound together accounts for the car travelling to Albany! Actually, the explanation we want is that Jane drove her car to Albany because she has a friend there she wanted to visit. Sapolsky’s listing all the ways our thinking and behaving depend of neuronal machinery and established cultural norms is beside the point. Our concern is, how to account for our experience of free will operating within conscious experience to drive at least some of our behaviors. Sapolsky ignores this concern.

Why? How does Sapolsky experience consciousness? Let’s consult his text. I recall only one instance of him reporting his conscious experience:

I’m driving down the freeway… I’m listening to music. And then a guy passes in a sensible electric car that I note has one of those commit random acts of kindness bumper stickers. In the next few seconds, I probably have the microexpressive start of a smile, along with a number of thoughts. “Well that’s nice.” “I bet I would like the guy.” “I wonder who he is.” “I bet he has an organ donor sticker on his driver’s license.” And then I tease myself for having such a macabre thought. I think that he no doubt listens to NPR. Then I think how ironic it would be if he were on his way to rob a bank…

No conscious decision-making here, no intentions, no desires, simply observations and associations. Daniel Dennett, to prove he experienced consciousness, similarly reported being conscious of seeing a tree out of his window. Again, sensation, no free will.

Sapolsky goes on:

Then, about thirty seconds later, the car ahead of me to the right signals that it wants to merge into my lane. Being a jerk, I think, “Oh no you don’t! I’m in a rush,” and am just about to put my foot on the gas when I briefly flash on the bumper sticker. I stop from pressing the accelerator. And half a second later, I shift my foot to the brake, allowing that car to merge, briefly basking in a sense of my profound nobility.

What does this experience mean to him:

What went on in those seconds after I saw the bumper sticker? It’s deterministic Aplysia [sea snail neuroanatomy] all the way down… We have a motor output, the neuron(s) that triggers our muscles to push down on the gas. And on a metaphorical level, there’s neural circuitry whose net output is to stimulate that neuron, a “Do it” signal, while a different circuit prompts an inhibitory “Don’t; slow down instead.”

As he points out, his decisions were autonomic. No reports here of decisions arrived at within consciousness. Is it conceivable that Sapolsky does not experience conscious as we do?

While reading about people having no mind’s eye, no ability to create mental images (“aphantasia”), I came across a related condition: people testifying to not being conscious of their own thinking processes, only of sensations coming into consciousness and completed thoughts passing out, as speaking and behaving. The thinking required to go from sensations to responses appeared to them to go on behind a curtain, out of sight. Yet they displayed no loss of mental ability. So there are people whose experience matches what Sapolsky reports of himself and seems to assume of the rest of us. From their experiences these people would have no reason to doubt what science declares, that all their thinking is due to deterministic factors. Fortunately for people with aphantasia (“aphants”), there’s an organization, the Aphantasia Network (, that they can visit to commiserate with fellow sufferers. Maybe Sapolsky should start such an organization, for people not conscious of their own thinking processes. He knows his condition is unusual. He writes:

I recognize that I’m on the fringe here, fellow traveling with only a handful of scholars (e.g., Gregg Caruso, Sam Harris, Derk Pereboom, Galen Strawson)…

And one other professional spokesperson for physicalism/determinism, in response to my asking, paused, then admitted he did not experience consciousness. There are probably candidates enough for a jolly Arctic cruise.

You might wonder, how do they account for so many people disagreeing with them? We get insight into that from Sapolsky. In an extended defense of atheism he likens other people’s reports of consciousness and free will to belief in religion. In other words, for him consciousness and free will partake of the supernatural. Could he be serious? For me, there is nothing more down-to-earth and in-your face than being conscious. It’s more real to me than my right hand. Yet he regards our conscious experience as no more real than ghosts and goblins or, as he tactfully puts it, “rarefied aspects of the universe that do work indeterministically.”

In the second half of “Determined,” to present the upside of determinism, Sapolsky resorts to the classic moral concern of physicalists/determinists: responsibility. If all our behaviors are determined, as he believes he has proved, what sense does it make to hold anyone responsible for anything?

Here again for me all his huffing and puffing is to no effect. We hold people responsible because we assume they arrive at the decisions that drive their behavior in consciousness, as we do, and it is that that justifies us and them being held responsible. Whatever the consequences of this are, they operate by entering the consciousness of them, of us, and of everyone else.

Where can you start when confronted with such an evangelical physicalist/determinist? First of all, do not argue in his/her terms. There is no way to defeat the physical denial of consciousness and free will, their absence is implied in the very terms they use. Instead, ask if they experience arriving at their decisions within consciousness? If they say, no, there is nothing to discuss. Change the subject. If they’re like Sapolsky they’ll be highly intelligent, broadly cultured, and dryly amusing. Good fun.

I end this review with quotations from his text.

About the impact of science:

the decisions you supposedly make freely in moments that test your character—generosity, empathy, honesty—are influenced by the levels of these hormones in your bloodstream and the levels and variants of their receptors in your brain.

In order to prove there’s free will, you have to show that some behavior just happened out of thin air in the sense of considering all these biological precursors. It may be possible to sidestep that with some subtle philosophical arguments, but you can’t with anything known to science.

where did that intent come from in the first place? This is so important because, as we will see, while it sure may seem at times that we are free to do as we intend, we are never free to intend what we intend… at the moment when we believe that we are consciously and freely choosing to do something, the neurobiological die has already been cast. That sense of conscious intent is an irrelevant afterthought.

Is the reach of science broad enough to banish the possibility of free will?

Crucially, if you focus on any single field like these—neuroscience, endocrinology, behavioral economics, genetics, criminology, ecology, child development, or evolutionary biology—you are left with plenty of wiggle room for deciding that biology and free will can coexist. [But] put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there’s no room for free will.

Some science must be qualified:

what the revolutions of chaoticism, emergent complexity, and quantum indeterminism show is that some of the most interesting things about us defy pure reductionism.

But isn’t that also true of the classic laws of physics?

Will we ever get to the point where our behavior is entirely predictable, given the deterministic gears grinding underneath? Never—

Generally most physicalists/determinists comfort us with this assurance it can never be proved that we're determined. But doesn't it also mean they can never prove we are? Why are they so sure?

Sapolsky goes on to claim that by giving up free will we’ll enjoy enhanced harmony with our surroundings:

we can subtract responsibility out of our view of aspects of behavior. And this makes the world a better place… it makes as little sense to hate someone as to hate a tornado because it supposedly decided to level your house, or to love a lilac because it supposedly decided to make a wonderful fragrance. That’s what it means to conclude that there is no free will.


What the science in this book ultimately teaches is that there is no meaning. There’s no answer to “Why?” beyond “This happened because of what came just before, which happened because of what came just before that.” There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe in which, occasionally, atoms come together temporarily to form things we each call Me.

What about evolution, through which free will would have had to originate? He marches loyally behind physicalism’s standard: we originated through purely physical processes.

evolution—the random physical chemistry of mutations occurring in DNA provides genotypic variety, and natural selection is then the filter choosing which mutations get through and become more common in a gene pool.

No room for free will there.

In one crucial respect, physicalists/determinists do overshadow us free-will advocates. They have inherited and further developed an elaborate and coherent body of concepts.  Can we free-will advocates develop our own? Until we do, it will remain inviting for physicalists/determinists to add to their tally of publications with further denials of consciousness and free will.