Free Will?

Have I a choice of doors? Have I decided which one to enter?

Maybe I have, maybe I have not!

Recently, I read the ebook version of Robert Sapolsky’s book: Determined: Life Without Free Will by Robert Sapolsky, published by Bodley Head (2023). If you want to hear his 5 minute talk on this issue on YouTube, here is a link:

His view presents this website with a lot of problems! I talk about forming choices and selecting one or more options. There is a whole safe experiment THINK-JUDGE-OPTIONS-ACT based on this view.

Sapolosky asserts that humankind is not in a position to do the judge/option chunk in the experiment as our choices are pre-determined. He even questions the bases of our criminal justice system when offenders do not ‘know’ their intention to conduct themselves in a criminal fashion. Sapolsky appears to forget that ‘criminal’ is, itself, a fiction; a socially constructed action for which various sanctions are prescribed from one society, to another. Indeed, here in the UK, that same construction makes allowances for actions that happen when we are of “unsound mind”.

In some ways he is right about choices; I have little choice but to disagree with his over-egged case. I am no philosopher and Free Will is a philosophical question. There are problems with language here, as well, and I should say I am no linguist either. Yet I know some nonsense when I hear it! I’m not saying his perspective is all nonsense; there is much about neural systems that are fascinating and I do not pretend to know enough about them. What I do know is that our neural system is but one part of the system that makes you and I a complex being – a human being.

For instance, I exercised a choice when I sat down to write this – at that time and on that day. I could have done the ironing, gone into the garden or made a cup of coffee. Is the time, day and place on which I do my subsequent edits of this page immutably fixed or can I act when its convenient, or when an unexpected opportunity presents itself? After all, it’s not just me that creates an unexpected opportunity; that’s why it is unexpected.

I am choosing to write this now and, when the occasion arises, you may decide to read a little of what I write, some of what I write, or all of this page. Which is it to be?

I like much of Robert Supolsky’s material and I have called on his Great Courses lectures to develop some of the material in this large website.

So let’s see if there are any small, safe experiments that can be connected to his assertions. I may misrepresent him (and I may have done this to others within this website). I am waiting your feedback on that possibility.

Some small, safe experiments involving choice

What about the one on my Welcome page? That demonstrates my point that you can choose how much notice to take of my words.

What about any exploration of the Scenic Route we undertake – separately or together?

Then there are several suggestions relating to how to act differently.

What about the stories we could tell – to ourselves or to others?

How come one person uses controlled breathing in a way that relaxes and another does not?

The website is riddles with suggestions. Before now, I have offered the self-criticism that the website might offer too much choice.

Sapolosky points out that “behavior happened because something that preceded it caused it to happen“, going on to infer there is no end to that process. He is disparaging of the ‘turtle’ metaphor used in logic and philosophy. In his discussion of the criminal just ic system he overlooks the fact that the “turtle floating in the air” are arbitrary social definitions shaped by legislators.

By contrast, many small, safe experiments I use spell out an order in which things can be caused to happen. It does not infer there is only one end – indeed, I infer your scenic route can have multiple ends. After all, what do I say about who decides on when there is an ‘ending’? You and I can decide differently on that question. Sapolsky goes on to say “when you behave in a particular way, which is to say when your brain has generated a particular behavior, it is because of the determinism that came just before, which was caused by the determinism just before that, and before that, all the way down.”

Although “determined” seems a problematic word here, the main obstacle may be “it“. Sapolsky sees ‘it’ as prior neural activity. He argues that some neural activity, beyond our awareness, precede all and any action. I’ve no substantial argument with hat view. Neural activity does, indeed, happen out of our awareness. Some actions can do the same thing – but not all of them – and it is often ill-advised that they do! Even so, I do not observe all actions being determined out of our awareness. Some might, but not all, and I see ‘it’ as a series of interactions you have with your body, brain, your upbringing, your values, other people and the wider environment in which you live. To pursue this further, it is worth studying Dan Siegel’s work and his notion of MWe.

Indeed, the function of many safe experiments is to bring more and more of our responses into our awareness. Only through this process can you and I make a judgement about what helps most and what helps least. Bear in mind that this requires you to make a judgement, to reach an opinion and, as I list above, this will differ according to the values you hold.

All these interactions create an essential process that helps us to confront the lies we are told – and we tell ourselves. Maybe Sapolsky’s text contains quite a few of those lies! Consider, if you would, who is showing a blind spot here – me, you or Sapolsky – or all three of us? After all, you could argue that there is something unreal about reality.

Further leads to consider

Unpacking the scenic route: The Scenic Route: how it might help you change direction

What is the truth? Making My Own Meaning

Is helpless learned or the default state: Learned Helplessness

Compassion for self and others: Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

Putting things in context: It’s the context: compassion-focused therapy in practice

Keeping in touch

Where do you stand on this issue? Let me have your opinion, and some examples, to add to this page

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