Robert Sapolsky
Big Brains podcst

Do we really have free will? with Robert Sapolsky (Ep. 126)

Renowned scholar argues that biology doesn’t shape our actions; it completely controls them

Robert Sapolsky
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Here’s the question you’re going to be asking for the next 30 minutes: Did I freely choose to listen to this podcast, or did I actually have no choice at all? Most of us probably believe we have free will. We feel like we make decisions, and that each of us is responsible for the consequences of our actions. But what if that’s all just an illusion?

Robert Sapolsky is a renowned professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, but he’s also the author of best-selling scientific books such as “Behave”. He’s always been focused on the biological mechanisms that shape our actions, but in his latest book, “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” he’s going a step further: He says the science shows that our biology doesn’t just shape our actions, but completely controls them. In this episode, he argues that letting go of the illusion of free will could radically reshape our world.

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(Episode published December 14, 2023)

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Here’s the question to ask yourself for the next 30 minutes. Did I freely choose to listen to this podcast or did I actually have no choice at all?

Most of us probably believe that we have free will. You could have chosen to listen to a different podcast or not listen to a podcast at all.

Robert Sapolsky: When we make a decision like that have such a strong, intuitive, palpable in-the-moment sense of agency.

Paul Rand: Of course, you chose to listen to this podcast. You had a desire or an intent to hear this episode, and you followed through on it.

Robert Sapolsky: For me, that’s missing 99% of what’s going on. It’s like reviewing a book after you’ve only read the last three pages or something because what that stance ignores is the critical question, how did you become the sort of person who would have that intent?

Paul Rand: Well, that’s Robert Sapolsky, probably one of the most well-known neuroscientists in the world. Sapolsky’s best-selling books, including Behave have examined the biological mechanisms that shape human actions. But his latest book, Determined, goes a step further. This time he’s arguing that these biological mechanisms don’t just shape action. They drive it completely.

Robert Sapolsky: Everything from the neurobiology of a second ago to evolutionary pressures over the last million years goes into how you became that sort of person. And when you look at all of that closely, you had no control over it. There is no room for this conventional sense we have a free will.

Paul Rand: Did you choose to listen to this podcast? Well, Sapolsky says no.

Robert Sapolsky: You just did what you did because of what came just before. And that happened because of what came just before that, and it’s all the way down from there.

Paul Rand: Sapolsky hasn’t believed in free will since he was a teenager, but the idea to finally write a research-based book on the subject came to him at an unlikely moment.

Robert Sapolsky: This was at my son’s college graduation sitting there and you’re proud as hell and you can just feel the waves of pride coming off of all these parents. And you’re sitting there basking in this. And then you notice at the corner of your eye. Oh, it’s the guy from grounds crew who’s clearing out the garbage from the various cans that were put up while all the proud parents had the free box lunches. So he’s cleaning stuff up.

And you look at whoever’s name was just called who’s now walking across the stage and everyone clapping and pictures being taken. And you realize if they had traded genomes and childhoods and prenatal environment and the neighborhood they spent adolescence in and whether they were worried about how they were going to pay their rent last month and whether they’re like scared of being safe if they walk home in the evening and whether their parents had free time to sing songs to them when they were little, or if their parents were working three jobs and et cetera, et cetera, if you switched all of those, they would switch who’d be standing up on stage and who’d be clearing out the garbage. And that’s determinism, because we all know that’s exactly what would’ve happened. And nonetheless, we go back to watching the ceremony and don’t give another thought to the guy.

Paul Rand: This is why it matters if we believe in free will or not. When you start to look around, you see this default belief in free will could be the foundation of our biggest inequalities from our criminal justice system to meritocracy.

Robert Sapolsky: Now, this is a world that is predicated on the notion that it’s okay to treat some people way better than average for stuff they had no control over and other people way worse than average for stuff they had no control over. And then to rub salt in the wound by coming up with myths about this being a just world and people getting what they deserve. It doesn’t make sense and whatever number of hundreds of pages the book is about of going into biology, whatever, it’s about looking at that guy collecting the garbage at the college graduation.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big Brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the illusion of free will and what it means for our society.

Well, let’s start with this very basic concept. When you talk about free will, because this entire conversation is based on this, give me the definition that you are using and how you think is that the general interpretation of free will.

Robert Sapolsky: Free will is when your brain produces a behavior and the brain did so completely free of every influence that came before. Free will is the ability of your brain to produce behavior free of its history and it can’t be done.

Paul Rand: Is this what is meant by determinism?

Robert Sapolsky: Yeah.

Paul Rand: There’s a thought experiment that went on. If I have this right, it’s called Laplace’s Demon. Is that the right way of pronouncing it?

Robert Sapolsky: Well, I know that’s definitely how you pronounce demon. I’ve always tried to avoid actually saying his name because I have no idea if I’ve mispronounced it or not, but ...

Paul Rand: How do you say it?

Robert Sapolsky: I say Laplace, but I’m certainly willing to defend that pronunciation.

Paul Rand: It sounds a lot fancier than Laplace, so let’s go with that.

Robert Sapolsky: Okay, well, French and stuff, Laplace is like the guardian angel of people who say there’s no free will, 18th century French polymath, whatever, but he’s the one who first formalized sort of the clearest notion of what might be called reductive determinism.

Paul Rand: Laplace imagined a demon with a very specific power.

Robert Sapolsky: If you could recreate the universe at the time that it started, and people did not quite know about molecules or atoms or what, but if everything was exactly the same, you would arrive at the exact same present. And if you knew the location of every single particle thing in the universe right now, you would know exactly what was going to happen 4 billion years and two and a half seconds from now.

Paul Rand: If everything in the universe, atoms, molecules, all matter follow unbreakable laws of physics in a chain of cause and effect, why should we be any different?

Robert Sapolsky: It is a mechanistic world.

Paul Rand: And that gets to the crux, I guess of your point of saying that we don’t have free will because let’s say everything happened because something that preceded it caused it to happen. That’s the crux of your argument. Is that right?

Robert Sapolsky: Yeah. And translated into sort of nuts and bolts biology, it’s because of what your neurons did a second ago, but it’s what your hormone levels were this morning and it was what traumas you’ve had over the previous year and what your adolescence and childhood had to do with what sort of brain you constructed and fetal environmental influences in your genes and culture and ecological shaping of cultures and evolution thrown in for good measure. And all we are is the end product of all that biology that came before which we had no control over, and its interactions with environment which we had no control over.

Paul Rand: There are three main ways we are shaped deterministically: biology, environment and culture. We’ll start with biology, and to understand how this works, it’s best to begin with a man named Phineas Gage.

Robert Sapolsky: Any philosopher, contemporary philosopher who says there is free will, if you sit them down and you take them through like the tale of Phineas Gage and if they still sit there and say, “Yeah, whatever, there’s free will,” I got nothing to say to them and I’ve got nothing to listen to that they have to say because they’re functioning in the 15th century or something.

Basically, people in togas have been arguing about free will forever and philosophers, and Phineas Gage is the person who designated year zero of brain scientists have something to say about the subject.

He was this railroad construction guy in the 1840s in Vermont. He clearly had it together. He was the foreman. He was a church going sobrietist guy, very well respected, all of that. One day there was an accident with the dynamite that they used to blow holes and a three-foot long iron pole weighing 13 pounds shot through at jet speed, shot through the underside of his brain and came out the top of the skull and landed 15 feet away taking part of Gage’s frontal cortex with it.

The amazing thing is not only wasn’t he killed. Amazingly he got up at that point and everybody’s looking and saying, “Gage, I can see off the top of your head,” kind of thing, and his boss says, “I tell you what, Gage? Take the rest of the day off, or whatever, see you tomorrow.” And he comes back the next day, not just figuratively but literally transformed, and Gage becomes this coarse, disinhibited, abusive, bullying guy who’s blasphemous in his cursing and all of that, and he was unemployable and it was his doctor who then followed his case for the rest of Gage’s life who summarized it by saying Gage was no longer Gage.

Wow, you can do something as material and concrete as blowing a hole through the top of somebody’s head, and afterward, Gage was no longer Gage. Who are? We’re made of that stuff.

Paul Rand: The specific stuff in Gage’s case was the frontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for judgment and restraint. One shocking statistic, roughly half the people incarcerated for violent antisocial criminality have a history of traumatic brain injury versus about 8% of the general population.

Robert Sapolsky: Any philosopher or any compatibilist who says, “Yes, yes, yes, the world is made of things like atoms and molecules, and yes, yes, yes, you take out somebody’s frontal cortex and Gage is no longer Gage, but somehow I’m going to explain to you why we somehow are something more than the sum of all of that stuff that got built into our heads, and yes, yes, this is what this neurotransmitter does to the brain, et cetera, et cetera, but here’s how you still pull free will out of the hat,” there’s a step that involves magic every single time.

Paul Rand: If Phineas Gage is year zero for arguing about the biology or free will, Benjamin Libet is the second chapter in that history.

Robert Sapolsky: He was a researcher at UCSF in the 1980s. He carried out the most famous experiment in the history of people arguing about free will. This is the one everybody’s heard some version of it. You sit somebody down and you say, “Here’s a button. Push the button whenever you feel like it. And here’s a big clock in front of you with a two-second sweep hand. And the second you realize you are intending to push the button, see what time it is, where it is on the clock and tell us afterward. And we’re going to wire up your arm muscles so we could see exactly the instant you start moving your finger to push the button.”

And what you see is people report. They form an intent about two tenths of a second before their muscles start moving and that makes perfect sense. But they’ve also stuck all sorts of electrodes on your head, 1980s EEGs, and they could look at certain parts of the brain related to motor function, that part of your brain that’s telling your muscles to do that. And there’s a very distinctive wave form that indicates when that part of the brain is first sending a command to your muscles.

And this is the thing that flattened everybody. That part of the brain was showing that distinctive pattern three tenths of a second before people were saying they had just formed the intent to press the button.

Paul Rand: What appears to be freely made decisions and actions are merely the end result of observable processes and the structure of the brain.

Robert Sapolsky: Oh my God, your brain knows before you do. Your sense of voluntarily with agency forming that intent is a total after the fact sort of confabulation. There’s no such thing as free will.

Paul Rand: But it’s not just the structure of the brain that determines our actions. It’s our genes and our hormones as well.

Robert Sapolsky: What hormone levels you had this morning, whether you were male or female, if you had higher than average testosterone, androgen levels that morning, you look at a face that has a totally neutral expression on it and you were more likely than chance to perceive it as being threatening and hostile because of what testosterone is doing to one part of your brain called the amygdala.

If you went through a horrible trauma in any time in the last 20 years and now have PTSD, parts of your brain will have atrophied and other parts will have gotten bigger than normal, and as a result you were not able to see signs of safety and security in the world around you that other people can perceive.

By the time you had a five-year-old kid, their resting stress hormone levels are significantly influenced by the socioeconomic status of their parents and the degree of maturation of part of the brain that has to do with impulse control and emotional regulation is already lagging behind average. And that’s totally outrageous. And then you follow up that literature and then they show it in two-year-olds, and then they show it in four-week-old kids.

Paul Rand: My god.

Robert Sapolsky: And a recent paper where some people had some really fancy neuroimaging techniques where you could get brain volume imaging on the brain of a fetus, and already a third trimester fetus who has stupidly chosen the wrong womb to hang out in for nine months, and that’s the womb of somebody of low socioeconomic status and on the average brain volume is already lagging behind. This is outrageous and how in the hell can it work this way? And you’ll notice that somewhere in the process of this, we’ve just snuck in culture.

Paul Rand: If our biology is what determines our actions, in many ways our culture is what determines our biology.

Robert Sapolsky: If I were to become a really grandiose version of a neurobiologist, I would say culture is the means by which you create a brain in your child that’s going to look just like yours when they’re an adult, like your ancestors wound up in one of two different ecosystems. They either wound up in southern China where you have flat floodplains that are very amenable to irrigation and thus very amenable to rice farming. Or you wound up in northern China, which is more mountainous or you actually wind up being a wheat farmer.

If you are a southern Chinese rice farmer, you develop a collectivist culture because you and 50 other villages maintain this 100-mile-long irrigation canal that’s 1,000 years old, and when it is planting day, the entire village shows up and plants your crop and tomorrow you all show up and plant the next guy’s crop and get a mindset cross-cultural psychologists have shown that is one of collectivist thinking that manifests itself in incredibly unlikely domains.

And then you go to northern China and you find people who are either doing rice farming of their own plot of land for their wheat farming, which is very individualistic, and you do the same psychological tests and they’re as individualistic as somebody yelling at you in Times Square in Manhattan.

Whoa, ecology created culture, culture based on differences in how you make a living that’s 1,000 years old. And then you do something like, well, let’s look at people from collectivist cultures and individualist cultures and let’s look at something as nutty and bizarre as on the average how many seconds does a baby cry before mom picks them up. And in individualist cultures, they let you sit there and cry for a longer stretch of time. Individualist culture mothers sing to their babies louder than collectivist culture mothers do on the average.

In other words, within minutes of birth you were already being shaped by stuff like that. And then it comes through, this was this wonderful study in science a few years ago looking at people from Northern China and people from Southern China. And these are not northern wheat farmers and southern rice. These are their grandkids who are university students now who have never seen a hoe or a spade in their life or whatever because they’re just working at some internet cafe in Beijing or something.

You do a field experiment, which is what these scientists did. They went into a Starbucks and between two tables they would put two chairs back to back blocking your way if you wanted to walk through there. Do you pull the chairs out of the way or do you walk around the tables? And the grandchildren of rice farmers walk around the tables and don’t do anything as individualistic as moving the chairs, and like the wheat farmer grandkids move the chairs. Are you kidding me? These were the descendants of people who were either rice farming or wheat farming 1,000 years ago, and this is a residue of that.

Paul Rand: Fascinating.

Robert Sapolsky: The infectious disease load that your ancestors and their culture had 500 years ago. (How scary were strangers because how scary was it that they might bring in an infectious disease?) The infectious disease load back when is a predictor of the level of xenophobia in your society at this point.

Yeah, this stuff matters and biology shapes the sort of culture you transmit to your kids and it’s one big coevolutionary blowout.

Paul Rand: The final piece of this coevolutionary blowout is environment.

Robert Sapolsky: What’s the crime rate in your neighborhood? What’s the likelihood that your water is filled with contaminants? How much lead is there in the paint on your peeling walls or whatever that all of those are part of predictors? Yeah, if you are developmental psych person these days, you are totally obsessed with what somebody’s ACE score, A-C-E, their Adverse Childhood Experience score. And this is this whole battery that you fill out and you get a score from zero to 10 and it’s like, were you a victim of psychological abuse as a child? How about physical abuse? How about sexual abuse? You get a point for each one of those. Did you witness any of those? Was there a family member who was incarcerated? Was there a weapon at home? Was there somebody with substance abuse problems?

And you get your score from that going from wonderfully privileged kids who wind up in classrooms at both of our sorts of universities to kids who had every possible thing go wrong and were lost by the time they were second trimester fetuses.

And what you see is for every additional point you get in your zero to 10 ACE score, there’s an approximate 35% increased chance that as a young adult you will have shown antisocial violence, that as a young adult you will have substance abuse problems, that as a young adult you will have been pregnant as a teenager, that as a young adult you will have had a long history of unsafe sex, you will be more at risk for mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Like every step higher in that on the average you’re 35% more at risk? Yeah.

This is how all that stuff turns into how your environment instructed how your brain was constructed. Environment matters. Environment matters because it’s produced by biological impulses and it matters because it instantiated itself in us by way of its effects on our biology, totally intertwined.

Paul Rand: But if we don’t have free will, what would that mean for how we think about things like punishments and rewards? Do we need to scrap meritocracy and the criminal justice system? That’s after the break.

If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains, there’s another University of Chicago Podcast Network show you should check out. It’s called Entitled, and it’s about human rights, co-hosted by lawyers and new Chicago Law School professors, Claudia Flores and Tom Ginsburg, Entitled explores the stories around why rights matter and what’s the matter with rights.

You have talked about people that may disagree with the argument that you’re making. As the more I listen to you talk about it, it seems harder to argue with it. But I’m wondering because you do this in the book, you do talk about people that are arguing against you or things that you’ve heard about why what you’re saying is wrong. And so some of those things are probably people that could be listening saying, “But what about this?” Answer some of those if you can preemptively for me.

Robert Sapolsky: Well, some of the ones who say there actually is free will and you get it from quantum indeterminacy ...

Paul Rand: This is the idea that because we can observe randomness at the subatomic level, perhaps that randomness scales up. But randomness isn’t will and choice. It’s just well, randomness.

Robert Sapolsky: From chaoticism some of the things that happened are intrinsically, formally unpredictable. And that puts you in the world of non-linear, chaotic systems and the three body problem multiplied a gazillion times over all of that.

Paul Rand: Think of the butterfly effect. Small, chaotic changes in the system that create unpredictability. But just because something can’t be predicted doesn’t mean it’s not following a determined path.

Robert Sapolsky: Those are cool, but those don’t work.

Paul Rand: But what about the fact that people change? If there is no free will, how is it that people overcome addictions and prove their mental and physical health or become kinder and more compassionate?

Robert Sapolsky: Oh my God, are you saying if there’s no free will, everything’s determined, nothing can ever change, why bother? No. That’s ridiculous. People change beyond recognition, cultures change, all of that. But where we get into trouble with sort of the free will mythology is that when our behavior changes, when we decide we like a different flavor of ice cream than we used to, or when we decide we really don’t want to be a white supremacist anymore or that sort of thing, what we interpret that as is I chose to change, and that’s not the case in the slightest.

What occurs is circumstances, the things that made you who you are, all those things that came a second before and a lifetime before that made you the sort of person so that this sort of circumstance that you find yourself in is going to change you in this particular way. We do not choose to change. We are changed.

You go and see some totally inspirational movie and you watch the movie and you’re changed by it. You come out and you say, “Oh my God, that was so inspirational. Tomorrow I’m going to go volunteer for Doctors Without Borders.” And the person sitting next to you comes out of it changed by the experience. They say, “Oh my God, that was the most amazing cinematography. Wow, you’ve all been changed by experience.” Why change? Because all of you went into that being people who became who you are because of things you had no control over.

How did you wind up being that sort of person where what you’re mostly doing is looking at camera angles or listening to what the clarinets are doing? We don’t choose to change, but we are plenty changed by what happens around us and who we are at the time.

Paul Rand: You might be asking at this point, couldn’t this all be a bit dangerous?

Robert Sapolsky: What’s much more common is the people who say, “Yes, there’s free will, and there better be free will because oh my God, what if there isn’t.”

The panic that ensues covers a few different domains. The first one is, “Oh my God, everybody’s going to run amok,” because we can’t be held responsible. And there’s even some studies that suggest that when you unconsciously prime people towards believing less in free will, they become more likely to cheat on a game immediately afterward, they become less generous. “Oh my God, we’re all going to run amok.”

And when you look at the literature closely and when you look at people, not who you’ve psychologically manipulated in the last five minutes to believe less in free will, but somebody who shows up and says, “I haven’t believed in free will for years,” they are as exactly as ethical in their behavior as someone who says, “I totally believe in free will and that we need to be held responsible for acts, and we are the captains of our own faiths.” There’s a parallel that I explore.

You get people who show up and who say, “I’ve not believed in God for 30 years,” and the usual response is, “Oh my God, how can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” And people who are stridently atheist and people who are stridently religious are equally and highly ethical in their behaviors.

And what’s that about in both of these cases where it’s the people who in between that sort of fall, people say, “Yeah, I don’t really care about free will, whatever,” or people who say, “I don’t know. It’s God. I don’t think about it much.”

If you get somebody, if they have thought long and hard about what are the roots of human goodness and kindness and why are we here and what is our purpose, it turns out it basically doesn’t matter if you conclude there is a God or there isn’t a God or we are the captains of our fate or we are just biological machines. If you’ve done the hard work to think through it, that’s what is pretty much the guarantee that you’re going to have a highly ethical approach to life. You may have different ethics than the person at the other end of that spectrum of conclusions, but it’s the ones out at the extremes who’ve done the hard work to think about it. That’s the predictor of ethical behavior.

Paul Rand: A lot of implications that could come out of this that may change things. And I wonder as you think about this, let’s even take for example, our legal and our justice system. If the concept and the belief of a lack of free will is there, does this change in your mind how we should be organized in our legal and justice system?

Robert Sapolsky: When you look through the fact that there is neither any intellectual or moral justification to blame or punish anyone, and just as strongly to praise or reward anyone, the only possible conclusion is the entire criminal justice system has to be trashed, and every thought we have about meritocracies has to be trashed as well.

Paul Rand: What would that mean?

Robert Sapolsky: “What would that mean? Oh my God, you’re going to have murderers running around the streets.” No, absolutely not. We are able to subtract the notion of blame out of things damaging that happens around us. And like the roof doesn’t cave in, so society ... Somewhere along the way we figured out that like ruinously bad lightning storms are not caused by that old lady with no teeth who lives alone at the edge of the village. Oh, witchcraft is not for real. Don’t burn them at the stakes anymore.

Paul Rand: So what would Sapolsky do with dangerous people? He suggests something like a quarantine model in which people should be constrained just enough to protect everyone else but no more. But at the same time, we must fix the social determinants of criminal behavior. He writes, “While a criminal can be dangerous, the poverty bias, systemic disadvantage and so on that produce criminals are more dangerous.”

Robert Sapolsky: This is somebody who you look at the incredibly smart, motivated, kind, empathic people who wind up in my classrooms in Palo Alto, and you go across the tracks to East Palo and go to the county jail there and look at the people of the same age who were sitting there and like you asked, simply something simple like, okay, which one of them had ice skating lessons when they were a kid? You want to make a guess which one had ice skating lessons? Which one had a parent who worked three jobs and came home at midnight each night? Which one had played games and laughed a lot at home? Which one? Do you want to predict? Do you want to take a guess?

And that’s where you see incredible predictability. And all along, you could flip that around. Instead of making an ACE score, an Adverse Childhood Experiences score, you could instead come up with a psych inventory of ridiculously lucky childhood experiences and your RLCE score. Like how many times did you get to visit a foreign country and look at a museum, how many times ... And it would have the exact same thing. It’s just another way of stating this is one of the big sledgehammers having to do with you had no control over who you became. This is just one of those domains.

Paul Rand: Sapolsky admits that a quarantine model has major issues that need to be sorted out, and that it’s difficult enough to live his own personal life without a belief in free will, much less change a whole society.

Robert Sapolsky: Like if you really follow through the logic of this, no one has earned anything. No one deserves anything that entitles them to any treatment that is any better than anybody else have. You have not earned having your needs have more consideration than that of any other human. And it makes as little sense to hate somebody as it does to hate a virus that’s good at getting into your lungs. That’s the only logical and moral conclusions you can make about the world, and I can live that way maybe 1% of the time.

Most of the time I’m a complete flaming hypocrite because if someone says to me, “Wow, nice shirt,” idiotically, immorally, I’ll say, “Oh, thanks,” and I’ll feel like a little bit better about my fashion tastes or something asinine like that. We’re all humans and I could manage to have this sort of detachment where don’t judge anyone, don’t feel entitled to anything. That’s the only moral way you can go about life because that’s where all the signs takes you.

Yeah, it’s not easy. What we have to do is recognize where it really counts and put the effort in those cases. If you want to decide someone was a jerk for cutting you off in traffic, that’s one thing. If you are going to not only judge, but punish someone or judge and disproportionately reward someone for stuff they had no control over, do the hard work. Then.

Paul Rand: I think that however I got to it, I was predetermined to enjoy this conversation, predetermined to like you, so I’m thankful for that. So I’m very appreciative of your time.

Robert Sapolsky: Well, and to flaunt that hypocrisy, wow, thanks. That feels nice. Thank you. This was a total blast.

Matt Hodapp : Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. We’re sponsored by the Graham School. Are you a lifelong learner with an insatiable curiosity? Access more than 50 open enrollment courses every quarter. Learn more at If you like what you heard on our podcast, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by Lea Ceasrine and me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.

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