Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
A choice of two ways. Woman at a crossroads.
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Free Will: Never Let Mere Atoms Near a Keyboard

No free will — and therefore no responsibility — may sound more “cool” than free will but we had better be careful about what we admire

If we are fully determined collections of atoms, we don’t have free will. But what follows?

Last year, the free will debate really heated up. Two big books got published: On the No free will side was Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will (Penguin 2023), a New York Times bestseller by primatologist and Stanford professor of neurology, Robert Sapolsky. On the Yes to free will side was Trinity College neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell with Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (Princeton University Press, 2023).

door choice

Currently, Sapolsky’s book is #6 at Amazon in the Free Will & Determinism Philosophy category but Mitchell’s lags at only #76. However, Mitchell remains academically respectable because he maintains that “evolution” gave us free will.

Is nature completely determined?

Late last year, a radio program on the CBC (Canada’s government broadcaster) with longtime science news host Bob McDonald featured Sapolsky, arguing against free will. He made some points worth considering — and responding to:

McDonald asked about the biological basis of his argument and he replied:

Well, you look at some behaviour and you ask a biologist’s sort of question which is, why did you do that at that point? And that’s actually a whole hierarchy of questions.

You’re asking which neurons in your brain just did something a second ago and which ones turned off? But you’re also asking, what was it in your environment in the last minute that triggered those neurons to do that? And you’re also asking, what did your hormone levels, that you’ve had since this morning, have to do with how sensitive your brain was or wasn’t to those stimuli? …

If you’re talking about genes and behaviour, by definition, you’re also talking about the evolution of them. And you’re also talking about your childhood that epigenetically programmed your genes to do this or that for the rest of your life. And you’re also talking about the proteins those genes made for you 15 minutes ago.

It’s all one seamless arc and there isn’t a crack anywhere in there to shoehorn in free will.

“Does biology trump free will? A behavioural scientist argues we have little choice,” Quirks & Quarks/CBC Radio, Nov 10, 2023

That’s a standard argument that depends on the idea, popularized in science by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), that the universe is completely determined. In today’s terms, that means it was determined from the Big Bang to the present. But quantum mechanics (the behavior of the universe’s smallest particles) later showed that it is not completely determined.

So now opponents of free will appeal to a higher sort of determinism, known as superdeterminism. But whereas quantum mechanics is observation, superdeterminism is a theory: “For now, we don’t know how to experimentally test for superdeterminism in a comprehensive way. Some partially relevant experiments have not found evidence for it.” (Tom Hartsfield, Big Think, 2022)

Where there is no guilt, there is also no innocence

Sapolsky goes on to make another point that goes beyond philosophy of science issues:

We know without perfect predictability that if a kid grows up in a single parent household with a mother who’s working four jobs to meet the rent and they’re dealing with substance abuse issues, gangs in the neighbourhood and poverty, that this kid is approximately 80 fold more likely to wind up having a history of anti-social violence by age 25, than a kid growing up in the suburbs with two professional parents who sang them lullabies and read them books.

We know enough already to decide that a system that decides that each of those people was actually responsible for their terrible outcome or their wonderful outcome, that something’s wrong with this picture.

Little choice,” Quirks & Quarks

Sapolsky’s argument would appear stronger if people from disadvantaged backgrounds universally fared poorly in later life. But that’s not what happens. They are at a statistical disadvantage, which is not the same thing. Stories abound of those who beat the odds.

But there is a dangerous side to that type of reasoning as well. If we dismiss free will, the justice system must predict who is “statistically” likely to commit a crime rather than dealing with the aftermath. The idea of “precrime” was popularized by science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928–1982), whose 1956 novella The Minority Report was adapted as the film Minority Report (2002):

In any such scenario, people from disadvantaged backgrounds would, in reality, fare much more poorly than they do today. As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor points out, “If you deny free will, you deny that anyone could really even be innocent. And what you’re really asking for there is a very frightening totalitarian world where people are simply treated as chess pieces, who are manipulated on a chessboard, to get the result the people in power want to achieve.”

It’s useless then to say “I didn’t do it” if sociologically, you have a higher probability of doing it than someone else might. Remember, your free choice not to do it no longer counts. In a society that truly does not believe in free will, the authorities must take your statistics into account, not just wait for the facts as we do today.

Sapolsky may sound more “cool” than Mitchell but we had better be careful about what we admire.

Note: Thanks to Ken Francis for the “atoms” image.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Free Will: Never Let Mere Atoms Near a Keyboard