Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford academic, took decades—decades, he says—to conclude he does not have free will. He chose now as the time to tell us of his decades-long, fruitless search for himself.
I was going to begin this with a joke about Sapolsky’s choice of hairdo, but even I had to acknowledge the man has a magnificent head of hair. Put a sword in his hand, die his face blue, and he’s ready to invade London. He made the right choice.
According to one report:
[His life] changed on a single night in his early teens, he says. While grappling with questions of faith and identity, he was struck by an epiphany that kept him awake until dawn and reshaped his future: God is not real, there is no free will, and we primates are pretty much on our own.
“That was kind of a big day,” he said with a chuckle, “and it’s been tumultuous since then.”
Whereas if he were consistent, it would have been an extraordinarily little day. For if there is no free will, he had no choice but to have this thought. Just as I, right now, here, have n choice but to tease him for his mistake. And he would have realized that day that he was just a meat machine—unless the meat machine told him to start acting like he had no free will.
Which it couldn’t have, because there would be no him to tell. It would only be a machine carrying out instructions, oblivious to all but those instructions. A machine has no capacity to assume it has free will. It does not have an intellect. Machines cannot have illusions, either.
Anyway, let’s see where Sapolsky goes with his revelation that he does not exist, but only a meat machine does. He chose to write a book. About this book:
“Who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would make us truly deserving of praise and blame, punishment and reward,” said Gregg Caruso, a philosopher at SUNY Corning who read early drafts of the book. “I am in agreement with Sapolsky that life without belief in free will is not only possible but preferable.”
Did you see it? That kind of hilarious self-contradiction is really only found in academics.
Preferable. That words means two things: a scale of morality and the existence of choice. Neither are present if we are meat machines. Nothing is preferable. Nothing is anything. Nothing has any meaning. Stuff just is. Like the interior of a star, each particle doing what it does without regard to right or wrong or what is preferable.
If you grasp this, you won’t be surprised by what comes next.
Caruso is co-director of the Justice Without Retribution Network, which advocates for an approach to criminal activity that prioritizes preventing future harm rather than assigning blame. Focusing on the causes of violent or antisocial behavior instead of fulfilling a desire for punishment, he said, “will allow us to adopt more humane and effective practices and policies.”…
“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 and Caruso commit the One-Way Recognition Fallacy that free will deniers—a risible term in itself—always employ. It is trotted out when its user laments the punishment of sins. Bad Men don’t have free will, Fallacy users say, so the Bad Men cannot be blamed for their misdeeds. There is no sin but to say there is sin. So, the Fallacy users imply, those who would react as if Bad Men have free will must choose to be more lenient.
The article adds to the error: “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.”
Yet it must also mean it is my fate to hang the sonofabitch that did it.
The Sapolskys of the world weep for criminals, saying criminals had no choice but to make mayhem maim murder rape rob roil. But, somehow, those who would punish criminals are loaded with free will, and should chose not to punish.
Even if that is so, and that criminals are only deadly meat machines, it does not follow criminals should not be punished. Suppose one of Musk’s self-driving cars has a habit of running over pedestrians. The car has no free will, all agree. But that does not mean we would not incarcerate it. Get it off the road. Dismantle it.
“Robert Sapolsky understands that saying that people have no free will is a great way to start an argument.” Does he? Does he understand this? Does he see his very thought is self-contradictory? No, sir, he does not.
The most common reason people deny they exist is love of theory. Let’s see if that is true with Sapolsky:
[His new book] “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.
Ah. There it is, love of theory. He embraces materialism and eschews spiritualism. But like I always say, it’s like the woman who has no idea how the internal combustion works claiming, therefore, that cars don’t go.
If only people realize they could not make choices, they would make better choices. Says Sapolsky, more or less.
I can’t wait for the comments. There’s always one like this: “Briggs, I chose to come here today, and I have chosen the following words, which demonstrate with certainty that I do not have the ability to chose.”
What a spectacle.
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