The Determinist’s Dilemmas

Absent free will, one is not free even to evaluate an argument

Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky recently captured a headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Humans lack free will, says Stanford scientist” (10-22-2023, B1). The subtitle drives home the point: “Decades of study lead to claim that virtually all behavior is beyond our conscious control.” So contends Sapolsky, the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant.”

Whether he’s a genius or not, I argue that his decades have been ill-spent. Allow me, gentle reader, to offer a three-pronged argument to support my contention. I hereby appoint you as my judge and jury. (Note: I make no mention of an executioner.)

Sapolsky’s new book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will offers a reasoned defense of his position. But that leads him to a first dilemma. To reason for or against a thesis is to present an argument that one’s interlocutor is able to accept or reject. That is, “able” in the sense of being free to accept or reject. (Philosophy, after all, is not a thumbscrew.) But absent free will, we are never free in the sense required for a reasoned evaluation of an argument. Human reasoning, including Sapolsky’s, depends on the very freedom that he rejects.

So what, on his neurobiological view, does reasoning become? It gets reduced to a set of external verbal stimuli that induce an internal desire to hold a particular belief. Given this analysis, of course, reason readily becomes a vehicle for manipulation. Power rules! Take that, Socrates!

Critics of Marx, also a determinist, have noted a second dilemma for determinists. Why call for revolution (or reform), they ask, if revolution is predetermined? History rolls on regardless. All politics, including revolutionary politics, never rises above the level of propaganda. The romance of revolution is the merest froth on the surface of dialectical materialism.

Sapolsky, if nothing else, is honest about his determinist anthropology. In his estimation, we are machines—exceptional machines, but nothing more. But his admission leads to a third determinist’s dilemma. He admits to a puzzle.  “It is logically indefensible,” he tells us, “to believe that something ‘good’ can happen to a machine.” And yet, he insists, “Nonetheless, I am certain that it is good if people feel less pain and more happiness.”

But an evolutionary worldview upends his certainty. Thomas Nagel, an atheist critic of Neo-Darwinism, observes, “The real badness of pain and the ability to recognize that badness are completely superfluous in a Darwinian explanation of our aversion to pain.” And why is this the case? Because, explains Nagel, “The aversion to pain enhances fitness solely in virtue of the fact that it leads us to avoid the injury associated with pain…So far as natural selection is concerned, pain could perfectly well be in itself good, and pleasure in itself bad or…both of them might be in themselves valueless.” It’s no use spending conceptual money that one doesn’t have.

Sapolsky does acknowledge that “It may be dangerous to tell people that they don’t have free will.” Still, he contends, “The vast majority of time, I really think it’s a hell of a lot more humane.” After all, he continues, “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.”

Yet he has undercut his own ethical ideals. To be “humane” reduces, doesn’t it, to “functioning like an exceptional machine”? And how are we to understand “fair” and “unfair”? For the determinist, whatever is the case cannot be otherwise. Indeed, to “regret” anything is to regret the whole course of history that led to the present moment.

One falls into a performative contradiction when one speaks in such a way that one contradicts one’s own avowed position. Sapolsky’s appeal to reason, his call for reform, and his ethical ideals are all victims of his relentless determinism. In the end, the determinist can avoid the dilemmas into which Sapolsky falls only by keeping silent. Over against such silence we have the whole, and on occasion cacophonous, practice of humankind.

Is it a practice worth pursuing? Indeed, it is. Does not the Psalmist tell us that we have been created only a little less than angels?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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