The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Robert Sapolsky. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Robert Sapolsky, Robert’s an American Neuroendocrinology Researcher and Author. And listen to this list, this is impressive. He is a professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. He’s written several books, including Behave, Primates Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone. Oh yeah, that stuff will get you into trouble from time to time. And why zebras don’t get ulcers? I think a few more, but anyway, welcome Robert.
Robert: Well thanks, thanks for having me on.
Jim: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this. I’ve enjoyed a couple of your books in the past. I know I’ve read Primates Memoir and I know I have behaved in my list. I don’t know if I’ve read it yet and
Robert: Nobody actually reads it.
Jim: But it’s definitely in my readings to act somewhere. But anyway, as I was mentioning in the pregame, it’s probably in the top five of my vivid memories from nonfiction is a scene from your primates memoir. And that is a truly hair-raising story about your adventures with some Somali gasoline truck drivers out in the middle of nowhere, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
That was quite a story, huh? So today we’re gonna talk about your newest book. And in fact, we will be releasing the episode on the pub date and the book’s called Determined, A Science of Life Without Free Will. And as usual, if you wanna learn more, you go to the episode page at JimRuttShow.com and there’ll be a nice link to click that’ll take you to Amazon and right to that book. So the book’s a deep dive into free will. What motivates you to write on that famously fraught topic?
Robert: I guess the basic thing is I was about 14 when I decided there’s no free will whatsoever. And just to orient anyone listening to this, that essentially puts me out in the lunatic fringe. Most people will go with there’s very little free will, there’s so much less free will that we’ve gotta rethink this or that about society. But I happen to be way out there with only a handful of other sort of biology types saying that there’s no free will at all. And what do you know over the years? I’ve tried to convince people of this and note that people have all sorts of complaints at the notion of that so figured, eh, why not? Let’s write a 500 page book on the subject.
Jim: So that’s make no mistake about it. You come out from the get go guns blazing, no free will guy, no equivocation all the way there. Which is always fun, whether one agrees with you or not. And so you start off as sort of a framing device talking about turtles all the way down. Why don’t you tell that very briefly and how that ties into your views on free will?
Robert: This is an anecdote that I first heard in college and we loved it and we always repeated it and we always repeated it in the same tone of voice which I’m going to do now, no doubt, 50 years later. Okay, so it seems that the philosopher William James was giving a lecture about the nature of the universe. Afterward, this old woman comes up and says, Professor James, you have it all wrong. The world is actually on the back of a gigantic turtle and he says, oh, well, madam, but where does that turtle stand? And she said, on the back of another turtle. And he says, well, madam, but where does that turtle stand? And she said, it’s no use, Professor James, it’s turtles all the way down, which we loved and suggest, okay, why did things happen just now? Because of what happened before. And what happened before was because of what happened before that and turtles all the way down and sort of the whole point of the book is that sounds ridiculous to have this sort of how we become the way we are. And before you know it, you’re back to the big bang, just proceeding, proceeding. And my point is it’s a lot more ridiculous and scientifically incorrect to say somewhere down there, there’s a turtle that can just float in the air that we can do things without any causes whatsoever, this mythical thing that we call free will.
Jim: Interesting. And you also then to warm us up a little bit, say that there’s no single answer in any one discipline that rules out free will, but you believe you can paint a picture by looking at the question from multiple disciplines and multiple perspectives that closes off every little escape valve. Is that a fair way of categorizing your argument?
Robert: Yes. Although that leads one step further to sort of the, what I think is the nail in the coffin. Okay, why did somebody do what they just did? And it turns out to make sense of it. You got to know what was going on in their brain just now. But you also need to know, are they tired, stressed, hungry, delighted, euphoric, whatever today? Because that’s good to affect how their brain is working. What were their hormone levels this morning? Because that’s good to affect how sensitive their brain is to all that stuff going on in their life.
What happened in previous months? Because if it was trauma, if it was wonderful, but your brain will have changed its actual workings during that time. And then before you know it, you’re figuring out what happened to adolescence and childhood and when you were fetus, because that had a huge effect on what kind of brain you constructed back to your genes. And then even seemingly nutty stuff like, so what kind of culture were your ancestors inventing?
And what sort of ecosystems were causing that to happen? Because that shaped how your mother was raising you within minutes of birth. So not only is it, if you want to understand why we do something wonderful or something appalling or something in between, not only do you have to think about all those disciplines and stuff that came like a second before, up to a million years before, but they’re actually not all different disciplines. It’s not that each plugs up each other’s whole, but they’re all the same thing. Like if you’re talking about your genes, you’re talking about their evolution over millions of years.
If you’re talking about your genes, you’re talking about the proteins that they made this morning and that are doing this or that in your brain right now. It’s one continuous arc of influences there. And my notion is you look at that arc closely enough and there is not a crack anywhere in there in which you can shoehorn in a kind of free will that requires you to invoke magic.
Jim: Or something else.
Robert: Or something else.
Jim: Well, we’ll probe on that a little bit later.
Robert: Oh, good.
Jim: I have one possible crack that all work when the time comes.
Robert: Oh, good. OK.
Jim: But you do lay the putty on a whole bunch of them. The general critique. I don’t necessarily buy this per se, but they call this the general critique, which is that, OK, lots and lots of things have influence on what we do, but they’re not necessarily determinative of what we do. I think one of the people you quote, called them urges, I think.
Jim: And so that all these things going back to the Big Bang and the exact ratio of any matter and matter and hydrogen four versus hydrogen three, all those things have some ever so slight impact on whether I want a chocolate milkshake or a strawberry milkshake, but they are only unbelievably small influences. Maybe they all add up to point seven in my decision, as opposed to one. And so there’s point three left. What’s your response to that general class of argument?
Robert: Well, for one thing, just before we like admire it in the Big Bang, which I understand absolutely zero about, I generally use loose steam back to try to figure out why we evolved brains instead of being perfectly, like happy to be whatever invertebrate things that have done fine for billions of years. And so at some point, like, yeah, physics, but no thanks. OK, the whole notion is when you really, really look closely, it’s flabbergasting the things that are going on that underline our behavior.
OK, let me give you three examples just from that whole one second ago to millions of years ago that just floored me when I first learned this stuff. OK, one second ago, you take a bunch of volunteers and they fill out a questionnaire. They go into a room, each one, and they fill out a questionnaire about their political views, their social politics, their economic views, their geopolitical, whatever. If they’re doing it in a room that smells of stinking garbage and you can actually go buy a little vial from one of these companies, a stinking garbage, like, odorant that you can release in the room.
And they’re sitting there and it smells terrible. People become more politically conservative. They become more socially. It does nothing to your economics. It does nothing about how you think we should be having, like a trade agreement with like Swaziland or something. It just makes you socially because the part of your brain that’s saying, oh, disgusting smell is the same part of your brain that does. Ha, that’s interesting. They do stuff totally different from me. That’s kind of weird. No, that’s actually kind of disgusting and it’s bad, bad, bad.
Put somebody in a room that smells of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and they become more generous when they’re playing a competitive game. So that’s occurring in like the seconds before you’re making your decision and you haven’t a clue. Next example of things you haven’t a clue about back when you were a fetus. A fetus like one of the great myths is environment starts when you were born.
Environment starts nine months before that. And what’s going on in mom has a tremendous effect on you. One example of this. So suppose mom is chronically stressed because she’s poor and is working three jobs while being pregnant because she’s a refugee because whatever horror she’s going through. And as a result, 24 seven, she has elevated levels of stress hormones in her bloodstream which get through the placenta and get into your fetal circulation and get into your brain. And those stress hormones have all sorts of effects on how your brain is being constructed.
For example, this part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s about fear. It’s about anxiety. Somebody shows you a scary face for a tenth of a second. You’re not even sure if you saw that your amygdala knows it activates immediately. And what happens if you’re exposed to a lot of these stress hormones when you were a fetus? You grow up to have a bigger amygdala than average. It’s got more neuronal connections. It gets hysterical more easily. And like the easiest way to show that is you show somebody a picture of a face that’s kind of neutral, doesn’t look friendly, doesn’t look threatening. You ask him what it looks like and everyone says kind of neutral. The bigger your amygdala, the more likely you say that’s a really threatening face.
They look like they’re really coming after me. So when you were a fetus, but let’s make this like third example, even more crazy, go back 400 years to who your ancestors were and ask, like, how much trouble did like the population they belong to their culture back when? How much trouble did they have with infectious disease? What was the infectious disease load? Because it turns out if you’re living in a group somewhere, I don’t know, middle ages or whatever, and you have constant problems with infectious diseases. You don’t like strangers because who knows what they’re bringing in from where they came from. And 400 years later, now cultures all over this planet, the bigger the infectious disease load, the ancestors had 400 years ago. The less happy immigrants make you now, the more you are hostile and xenophobic to newcomers, the less you like novelty.
Whoa, how’d that? Because from your first moments of birth, you were being trained in your home as to how scary a different face is and what counts as a different face and what you do about it. And whether something new is exciting or if it makes you feel a little bit queasy and nervous or so. And whoa, what they were up to 400 years ago was playing a role in how your brain was being constructed when you were a year old and figuring out which faces look different and scary. So from one second ago to four centuries ago and everything in between, that had something to do with it.
Jim: But again, just playing with this, I absolutely agree. Everyone of those has some effect, but do they add up to one? Right? And so for instance, see, who are my people? My people are Irish, Polish and German plus a bunch of other random stuff. And possibly 1% Siberian, according to the more likely American Indian, but some such and the Irish certainly are clannish, xenophobic. At least they were back in the old days. And my mother was a lifelong Republican who left home when she was 14 and had, I’m sure, all kinds of adventures that she didn’t like to talk about too much.
And he had those two things. And if I were sitting in a room that reeked of garbage, Allah, let’s say, Jonathan Haidt or Read Montague, who are two interesting researchers who understand that disgust and conservative go together. I don’t give a damn how rancid the garbage. I’m still not voting for Donald Trump, no matter what.
Robert: OK. Hey, me neither. I don’t care if there’s like a rotting corpse on the table and I’ve got to like it close up. So what we see here is that each one of those influences contributes a certain amount of predictability. Okay, so you’re all over that one as well. You should be. Which is saying, okay, so do you have 100% predictability? Absolutely not. What determinism helps a whole lot more is explaining how we got here, then where we’re going to wind up. But here’s where I become a total pain in the rear to people who are like arguing professionally with me about this, when they say, okay, but can you explain everything? Can you explain everything? And in effect, what I then say, can you explain anything and identify anything which is not as follows? Okay, you do some like incredibly simple behavior. You take your index finger and you flex it. And in the process of flexing it, you pull a trigger on a gun.
So this is consequential big time. And go look up at the brain and here’s the five neurons that in your motor cortex that told your finger to do that at that time. We now say so why did those five neurons that are in this little cluster?
Why did they do that? And the challenge for me at that point becomes show me those five neurons would have done exactly the same thing then, regardless of what the other 80 billion neurons in your brain were doing at that moment. And as soon as that’s done, tell me they would have done the exact same thing, whether or not you were scared at that moment, stressed, sleep deprived, happy, tell me the same regardless of how much of 11 different hormones were in your bloodstream that morning at breakfast. And regardless of what your last four months were about, and regardless of whether your adolescence is spent in a prep school or in some neighborhood where you were in a gang, and regardless of your childhood and your fetal life and your genes and your culture, show me that everything single one of those things could have been different. And those five neurons still would have done the same thing at that same moment. And if you could do that for my money, you have just proven free will and you can’t do that.
Jim: I agree with you. I agree with you. Of course, there’s so many contingencies in life. And it’s just like the science fiction stories, I think you actually referenced one of them where you go back in time and you accidentally step on a daisy or something. And then 200 years later, the whole world’s different. So any deflection early produces a giant result later most of the time.
Robert: Or at least more of the time than anybody could have anticipated. Wait a second, like the currents in the amniotic fluid in my mother’s body or something at some point back when like had some random little brownie in motion, whatever, so that this sperm made it to home plate instead of that sperm. And as a result,
Jim: all the rest is history, right?
Robert: All there. Yes.
Jim: Without a doubt, all those things are true. All right, before we dig in a little deeper, let’s back up a little bit and frame kind of the different styles and positions about this question. I’m thinking here about your four examples varieties of positions about free will, the compatibilist incompatibilist, etc. Yeah. How would you segment the domain of this argument and the points of view that people have into four buckets or thereabouts?
Robert: Okay, well, the first two I pay virtually no attention to because I can’t really figure out how it works. And in both of those is paying saying that it’s a completely undetermined world, like atoms have nothing to do with like what we’re made of. It’s an undetermined world and either choice A, and we’re free. We’re completely free in all our actions, what are called libertarians and not political libertarians, philosophical ones. And I don’t think I’m being too snarky. If I say that like 98% of philosophers thinking about this stuff pay no attention to them. And then even weirder are the ones who say that somehow there’s no determinism at all, but somehow it makes sense to be held responsible for your actions and they make even less sense to me. Okay, who are the 95% those are the people who in contrast to me where I say it’s a totally deterministic world. And as a result, there’s no free will.
And as a result, the notions of responsibility make no sense at all. They say, Okay, okay, you got me, we’re made of neurons. There’s things like gravity, there’s laws to the physical universe. There’s like biological reality. It’s true. But somehow, here’s where you still get to pull free will out of the hat. And practicing philosophers, there’s been studies of it 90 to 95% of them are able to reconcile free will and responsibility with this being a deterministic world in their minds, they’re compatible. Like virtually every philosopher out there is a compatibilist. And as a non philosopher, I count as a non compatibilist, they can’t go together either you believe the world is made of things like electrons, and put all those pieces together. And we are biological machines, really, really fancy ones that we are never going to fully understand. And there’s lots of explanations for that. Either you believe that, or you believe there’s free will that like those five neurons can suddenly get into their head to do that, no matter what else happened.
And you can’t put the two of them together, they’re incompatible. And that puts me I would guess in the small majority of brain scientists who generally don’t talk about that because they’re mainly figuring out how this fish learned how to do this instead of that and what three like neurotransmitters were, I don’t really think about this much because, like mostly what we do is concentrate on ridiculously tiny things. But my guess is like by a small majority, that’s what most brain scientists think. And like maybe 2% of philosophers think and that’s where we have a major conflict. So my stance is we’re nothing but determinism, there’s no free will, and thus responsibility makes no sense at all in theory.
Jim: And then because that’s the third step is then responsibility, we’ll get to that later. But let’s also talk about determinism and then free will before we move on. I would call the position that it’s all protons and gravity and quantum electric effects, etc. as naturalism as opposed to determinism. Because there is then a big argument around quantum mechanics on whether the universe is fundamentally deterministic or stochastic.
And even though people think it’s been proven that it’s stochastic, it actually hasn’t been, there is still live quantum foundations theories that are deterministic. Now I would say that Bell pretty much slayed localism. But contrary to what a lot of people think, he did not slay determinism. It’s possible the universe is actually a Laplacian clockwork. And it’s also possible that it’s not we don’t know. I assume you’re using determinism in a slightly different flavor because we will talk later about your views on quantum mechanics. But I might have called the position that it’s all lawful physics at the bottom naturalism rather than determinism.
Robert: Well, I get as far and understanding quantum and determinism enough to know that the people who think it’s really still deterministic, at that point say something like there’s multiple universes going on at once. And that’s when I lose it and check out. But in the book, I devote six chapters to taking on three of these incredibly trendy revolutions that have changed every quantum indeterminacy, chaoticism, and emergent complexity. And even though I’m scared of the quantum indeterminacy and don’t understand the other two, I kind of on top of the bit. And they’re totally cool. And they explain amazing things about the world. But as soon as you grasp them, it turns out that is like this magnet that pulls for all sorts of people to say, aha, that’s where we get our free will from.
And I, I attempt to like unpack it. Okay, so I’ve been going on with this notion free will is like when there’s five neurons do something just because they got it into their heads and nothing, most people intuitively have a much more specific notion of free will. And it’s one that’s like at the crux of what I’m like a crank and complaining about. And it’s the one that’s the backbone of like the entire legal system, you got somebody sitting there at the defendant’s table, somebody with orange hair or an orange to pay, for example, but you got somebody sitting at the defendant’s table. And the key questions that keep getting asked, there’s three of them. Did they intend to do the rotten thing that they did? This is once you figure out that they actually did it. Did they intend to do it? Did they understand what the consequences were likely to be? And did they know they could have done something different? Did they have choices?
And if the answer is yes to all of those, that’s it. They had free will. They knew what they were doing. They chose, they knew they could do something else. And they’re culpable and responsible in case closed. And this gives me apoplexy. And much of the book is about how this is like so far from what you should be paying attention to. And the metaphor that I use is this is trying to do a review of a movie where you’ve only seen the last three minutes of it. Because you’ve left out a critical question that they never, ever ask at this point, and that most people are satisfied not asking, saying, okay, so he intended to do that. Where did that intent come from?
And it came from one second before and one year before and one century before. And that’s that whole thing. Intent, that’s the least of the things you want to know about. Where did that intent come from? Because that’s where it’s all that stuff to make that person who they were at that instant, where they formed the intent to do this instead of that. And that’s the only level on which if all you want to know about his intent, you’re understanding nothing about whether or not we have free will, where the intent come from.
Jim: All right, that’s good. Let’s go back one half a step and then we’ll go forward, which is to contrast free will with the concept of agency. People talk fairly freely in the sciences about agency, for instance, that even quite primitive animals are thought to have agency. They make decisions that have consequences. Information is the difference that makes a difference, right? In some sense, I would say that agency is choices that make a difference. Do I eat this or that plant? Do I turn left or do I turn right? Do I fight or flight, etc. And we least informally think that even quite primitive animals have agency. What’s the notion of agency and the notion of free will? And are they just confusions of equivocations? Or is there a reasonable way to disentangle them?
Robert: Well, there’s agency responsibility in this physical sense of, okay, I’m walking along and I trip it in the process, I bump into somebody. I’m responsible for that. My corporeal reality is what hit that person. That’s why that occurred in a purely physical value-free sense. Okay, so I was responsible for that. But when you’re getting to our intuitive notions of agency, even though philosophers split hairs like crazy, I see that as synonymous with free will. Were you the captain of your ship at the time? And my theme is not only were you not the captain, there is no captain. All we are is the end product and the example you bring up, like you turn on your fight or flight response, you didn’t have a choice in that matter.
Like the tiger is coming at you, you’re not going to prevent that. You’re going to have an increase in your blood pressure. You find yourself falling off a cliff and there’s no way you could not have that increase. Or you’ve been conditioned by experience and what experience has done to your brain to look at the face of one of those people. And your heart starts beating faster. And you didn’t decide at that point that you were going to be conditioned to have a stress response in the face of one of those folks. You didn’t choose any of those.
Jim: In the extreme case, correct, right? The tiger sprigs, you run, right? On the other hand, perhaps those extreme cases make bad law, right? As a lawyer would say. I’m getting a little old now. But when I was a little younger, I was a fairly aggressive guy, right? And if people tried to rob me, I would make a careful assessment. Could I take them or not? Right? I didn’t either surrender, I didn’t fly, but I made an assessment. What are my odds? And sometimes I counterattacked. And that period of discernment and working in at an abstract layer of risk, reward, and of course, culture, you know, I come from an honor culture, family of Marines and cops, basically, right?
With God damn someone to go to try and rob my ass on the street. And some of that’s there. On the other hand, I’m a person who believes in law and order and injustice and all that. So all these abstractions, which aren’t physics really at all, they’re, you know, emergent phenomena of a sort are being balanced in my mind before I decide to hand over my wallet or punch the guy in the face and try to take the knife away from him. And I’ve gone either way on that one, as it turns out. So that would say that, yes, there are extreme cases where we are reflex arks, essentially, but there are also cases where it certainly looks like we’re doing something. some careful discerning on things, particularly humans, in the abstract realm. And your baboons too, you know, where do I sit in the dominance hierarchy?
Is it really worth stealing that baboon’s bone or is his buddy’s gonna get together and kick my ass, right? So there are many of those cases that are in the middle that don’t appear at least to be over determined.
Robert: Okay, so let’s dissect that. And by the way, if you consider that to be something that didn’t count as a big deal of an experience, you’re from a different planet than me. I last had a fistfight, which lasted about three seconds when I was in seventh grade. So that strikes me as a big deal. Okay, so there’s two people, you both grew up in the same neighborhood, you know, all sorts of similarities, and you both find yourself in the exact same circumstance and you do what you did, you analyzed it, and your conclusion was, this guy, I’m gonna punch. And the other guy analyzes circumstance and decides, this guy I’m gonna run away from.
What went into that? What went on in the second before you decided to go for the, well, you say you analyze the circumstance. Where do you get the idea that what you do when you have to make a tough decision in life is first think about it instead of just acting out a reflex? That didn’t come from nowhere. Somewhere you decided that was a good thing to do. What did you weigh going on in your head at that point? Well, am I going to get killed? In which case, that’s not a good thing. So maybe I shouldn’t do this. Well, am I going to get caught and go to jail? Maybe I shouldn’t, that’s not a good, am I going to lead to more heartache and violence on this planet by punching this jerk? Well, I gotta consider that. On the other hand, do I have all sorts of notions in my head about how this could be a more peaceful planet?
Which one is good? Even thinking about, what made you think about, like jail at that point, all sorts of people at a juncture like that don’t think about the consequences. And you can show if this or that happened to them when they were five years old, they’re more or less likely as an adult to think about it at that point. And once they’ve thought about it and reached the conclusion, now I better not. I shouldn’t punch them.
Maybe they still punch them because they’ve got no impulse control. And where’d that come from? And there’s a whole world of starting with what variants of genes you’ve got to fetal life, to childhood, et cetera, et cetera, which is how likely are you to do something tough that’s the right thing to do when nonetheless, like your emotions are going out of your mind. Okay, so you’re sitting there. Where do you decide to value to think? How do you wind up being able to think rationally instead of how do you be able to reach a decision that could involve something where you then control yourself?
You decide the rational thing to do is punch this guy instead of run for my life. Any other, what made you decide that like, okay, in this moment, yeah, Gandhi was cool, but this son of a bitch is just gonna come back at me the next time if I don’t do anything. Why do you decide that that was the most important thing? Why were you brought up that way? You were in a culture where they said, if the guy comes and steals your camel and you do nothing, next he’s gonna come and steal all your camoos and your wife and your daughter, as opposed to being brought up in a culture where it says turn the other cheek.
Where’d that come from? For this very simple reason that you’re identifying, so you did a cost-benefit analysis and you brought a lot of experience to the table and some nice careful thinking and rationale and you formed the intent to punch the guy instead of the intent to run away. Where did that intent come from?
Jim: No doubt about it, you’re right, that there’s lots of cultural antecedents. All that stuff. From a military police family, right? With a fairly strong honor system and also a disdain for dirt balls, right? That come from that kind of culture.
Robert: But on top of that all, if you had gas at that moment and you’re like innards, we’re like making you feel like you’re more likely, that’s got something to do with it. How many hours has it been since you’ve eaten a meal? Whoa, where does that go? Because that determines your blood glucose levels, which determines how well your brain works because it’s the hungriest part of your body, which determines how there’s one part of the brain called your prefrontal cortex, which is the hungriest part of the brain.
How good is it going to be at saying, you know, I wouldn’t do that if I were you? Saying to all the neurons ready to send your muscles flying, it’s the one that gets there in time and says, believe me, this seems like a good idea right now, but you’re going to regret this one for the rest of your, and if you’ve got lower blood glucose levels, it doesn’t work as well. You’re more likely to do some dumb ass impulsive. Wait, so whether I make this decision right now and part has to do with like how much sugar I have in my bloodstream, all of this going into that.
Jim: Great question is, does it add up to one? We’ll see.
Jim: All right. Now, talk about the PFC. You can’t have a book about free will and neuroscience without bringing forth Phineas Gage. So
Robert: Phineas Gage.
Jim: So tell the audience about Phineas Gage and how this works into your tail.
Robert: OK, so Phineas Gage, if you’re a neuroscientist, it’s almost required by law that you think about naming your children after Phineas Gage, because he’s like so central to like our worldview. Phineas Gage. Phineas Gage was a railroad construction crew foreman in the 1840s in Vermont. Obviously a together guy. If he was a foreman, he showed up for work every day. He was God fearing.
He didn’t drink much or at all. He just guy who had it together. And somebody made a mistake and left some dynamite someplace where they shouldn’t have and sort of Gage had this three foot long iron pole that you use to tap the ground. And I have no idea why you do that when you’re laying train tracks or something. And he happened to tap the thing of dynamite that somebody had not dug out from under the ground and it exploded. And this three foot iron pole went flying into one of his eyes and out the top of his brain.
Jim: Ouch. That would ruin your whole day.
Robert: Yes, yes, indeed. And it landed 30 yards away and you can actually still see that iron pole in Harvard’s Medical School Museum along with Gage’s skull. So OK, it goes flying out and along with it, it takes what is called Gage’s prefrontal cortex, the very front part of your brain. And it’s the coolest part of the brain. I spent 40 years of my life studying a different brain region and I regret every minute of it now because the prefrontal. We’ve got more of it than any other species. It’s the most recently evolved. It’s the last part of our brain to fully come online, not to about 25 years old or so. And what is it? This is the part of the brain that says I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
You’re going to regret it. It does impulse control and gratification, postponement. And if you’re sitting there and you’re on a diet and there’s a bowl of M &Ms in front of you and you manage not to have some. It’s because your prefrontal cortex had it together enough at that moment to override, you know. So OK, so Gage’s prefrontal cortex is now splattered all over the front yard there. And like everyone comes running over, the amazing thing is this metal shot through at such a high speed that it just cauterized all the blood vessels there. He just has this hole there. He like stands up and says, what the hell? And like all his buddies come over and like look up in the eye sock and say, whoa, Gage, you got an empty gaping hole in your brain there.
And pretty soon he walks, he walks to town a mile and a half away with a couple of his co-workers and goes to see the town doctor who like skilled diagnostician looks at it and diagnosis and says, whoa, Gage, you got a big hole in your brain there, though. And that’s about all anybody knew at that point. And he lived three years afterward. And from that moment on, in the words of that doctor who studied him for the rest of his life, Gage was no longer Gage. He became this abusive, alcoholic, bully, sexually disinhibited. For years afterward, he was not able to hold a stable job. And that doctor like summarized the state of Gage in this like ridiculous. Oh, my God, this is like pre-scientific. He said that part of the brain apparently rains in our animal urges. And 180 years later, that’s still a pretty good definition of what that part of the brain does and blow that out.
And Gage was no longer Gage. And this was the first example that not only could you be damaged in some part of the brain after a stroke and you can’t move your arm anymore. So that, whoa, damage a part of the brain like that. And you become a different person. Your moral system changes, your self discipline changes, everything about you changes. And all we’ve learned since then is you don’t have to blow like all of somebody’s prefrontal cortex out, you know, all over the lawn there in order to have this happen, get somebody because they were exposed to a lot of stress hormones when they were a fetus.
And on the average, their prefrontal cortex is going to be less active metabolically than somebody else’s. And thus at those critical moments, less able to make you do the right thing. Grow up in a neighborhood where it’s full of violence. And there’s about a 35 percent chance that your prefrontal cortex is going to have fewer synaptic connections, grow up in poverty. And by the time you’re five years old, you already have a smaller prefrontal cortex on the average than everybody else. It doesn’t take a metal rod shooting through your skull there. All the one seconds before and the million years before all come together to explain why you in this moment are or are not going to be able to control your emotions. And that’s not dramatic. That’s subtle.
Jim: Yeah. And it’s always humbling to realize as much as we might think well of our cognitive abilities or what have you, they are subject to disruption in a gross way. Anything from taking LSD to case I know of a person had young adult onset schizophrenia that completely devastated. I was very glad to see you debunk some of these people talking about the nobility of schizophrenia. What the hell’s wrong with those people? But it does fundamentally change who you are.
Robert: And in a sense, what people are now learning is, as you said, schizophrenia, it’s typical onset is late adolescence, early adulthood, which is when you’re doing your last push of constructing your prefrontal cortex. And the best evidence is schizophrenia is a neuro genetic disorder where something goes wrong during that period. And your prefrontal cortex, which, among other things, saying, no, no, no, it makes don’t do that, don’t punch that person. It also does stuff like say, OK, so you’re telling a story and going logically from A to B to Z, that’s like what you should be doing. Don’t go from A to W to H kind of thing. That makes it’s not good at doing that at like logical, linear, non-tangential thought. And you get this disease where you make no sense. And yeah, that’s another one of the prefrontal cortex. And the point is these are much more subtle cases, although you can’t get much more unsettled than poor Phineas Gage.
Actually, you know, I teaching at Stanford, I’m from the Bay Area. And in one of those bizarre things, as I know, gauge is skull is at the Harvard Med School Museum, along with the rest of gauge is in a grave a couple of miles away from where I sit right now. That was the outcome of that one. But really, the key thing is somebody does something dumbass and disinhibited. And it seems brilliant at the time. And they’re going to regret it for the rest of their life. And you ask them, why did you do that? And they’re not going to say, because I had low blood glucose at the time, they’re not going to say I had this particular variant at the monomine oxidase alpha gene, because I had this particular prenailer, because I got raised in a culture of honor instead of among a whole bunch of Buddhists, because no one’s going to say that. They’re going to say because like that jerk, he just needed it.
And I guess I shouldn’t have done that because this jail term is going to suck now. But we are subject to things. And what we then do is a lot of the time we’ve got to make up an explanation for why that was a perfectly logical thing to do. Like if you have somebody and you stick in a room with a bad smell and as one of the things that was shown in the first of these studies, you come out the other end more hostile to gay marriage than you would have been if you had sat in that room smelling of chocolate chip cookies. You’re not going to say that’s why.
They’re going to say, whoa, that’s weird. You know, we gave you that question a couple of weeks ago and you said you were OK on a scale of six to ten with gay marriage. And today you said two on that scale. Why? What’s the difference there? Yeah, because this putrid smell of garbage changed how this part of my brain work. No, you know, I’ve been thinking about it. And in college, I took this philosophy class or God knows what you come up with. You’re just trying to explain something you had no control over.
Jim: And of course, the confabulation is quite an interesting study of itself, like Mike Kazanaga and his split brain war.
Jim: Where the right hand did something, the left hand can’t remember, I don’t remember which one’s left, which one’s right. But the left side will just make up the most ridiculous stuff that’s coherent in its own way, but not at all related to the facts. And that seems to be a human superpower, particularly our left brain.
Robert: Yes. And he does hysterical sort of demonstrations of this in his lecture. So you got a split brain patient and like you tell the part of the brain that’s not verbal hop on your left leg. And the person’s doing that. And then you ask the separated hemisphere that does language stuff. And you say, Hey, that’s interesting. How come? Why are you jumping on your leg like that? And the person looks confused and they suddenly sort of slap on their calf and say, Whoa, Charlie horse. And when it comes down to you are who you are because of your blood glucose levels and whether your ancestors were farmers or hunter-gatherers and everything in between and you sit there and try to come up with an explanation for why you turned out the way you are. That’s not what you’re going to site.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. Indeed. So to land this argument back to free will, I suppose we could say that 98% of us think we have free will. And that may well be in the same sense that we think that we fought instead of ran because of whatever honor culture, but it was really low glucose. And so our ability to do metacognition ain’t what we think it is basically.
Robert: Yeah, it’s mostly trying to come up with something plausible that doesn’t disagree with your values and who you think you are and presents to the world. So that, yeah, why did you do that? I can’t tell you why. But I, oh, here’s why. As soon as somebody is saying, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. When those people do something like that, you’re watching someone who hasn’t figured out how to rationalize after the fact.
And it’s just running on this implicit stuff. And when they come back three weeks later and saying, you know, I was reading this article and it’s right. Whoa, I stick by that. You’re just seeing somebody trying to put the pieces together afterward in a way that’s not going to strike them as too contradictory.
Jim: That sounds like the commentators on cable TV news.
Robert: Yes, indeed. Indeed.
Jim: That’s a shit they say. It’s quite amazing, right?
Robert: Oh, good. I’m glad this is the sort of programmer I could now agree and say yes, the shit they say, both in terms of saying it that way and thinking that way. Yeah, exactly.
Jim: I am known to my listeners as Salty Jim for good reason.
Robert: Oh, good.
Jim: I did check and you did manage to drop the F-bomb three times, which if I was writing the book, it would be more like 27, right?
Robert: Fortunately, I had an editor with more prefrontal cortex than I have. So 24 of those wound up in the cutting room floor. But that’s exactly that. That’s what editors are for saying. This seems like a good, you don’t want to do this. Trust me. And what I’ve learned is you usually want to trust your editor.
Jim: Yeah, your book is pretty spicy and sharp, though. You don’t pull too many punches. So I’d love to read the unedited version. So we talked about Phineas Gage. Let’s go on to the next, like super famous result. Benjamin Libet. Tell us about the Libet result.
Robert: Him. I devote the second chapter of the book saying if you read any book on free will right around here, they’re going to mention him. Or if you read any like review paper in a scientific journal right around the sec on free will right around the second paragraph, they’re going to bring him up. And I bring him up here because I wanted to vote this chapter to why everything that people have been fighting about with him for 45 years is boring as hell. And I don’t want to pay any attention to it. This was the study. Interestingly, it was done about three blocks away from where I sit right now in San Francisco near UCSF Medical Center.
What he did, lots of people have heard about this version of the study. You take a test subject and you sit them down. And there’s a button on the table in front of them. And you wire up their brain so you can tell what they’re doing. And you wire up their muscles so you can tell exactly when their little finger starts moving and you tell them, you know, whenever you feel like it, press that button. And here’s a big giant clock with like it’s a two second clock. So you could see the second hand sweeping and tell me the exact instant you decided to press that button. When did you form that intent? And what he showed was you can tell from the brain monitoring stuff about six tenths of a second that the person was now about to press the button six tenths of a second before the person said, that’s when I decided to do it.
Whoa, people got blown out of their seats. Your brain decided before you think you decided it. Oh my God, there’s no free will at all. And since then people have gotten this was the 1980s that gotten fancier brain imaging stuff. And there’s parts of the brain where I think the record now in one of these studies is nine seconds before you press the button. You can see, aha, this part of the brain just decided and is telling that part, which is telling that part and that part. And now let’s see 3.2 seconds from now. That muscle is going to get a command to move. Whoa, your brain decides and people have been at each other’s throats about this ever since. Okay, did you really form the intention to do that? Or was that just an urge? Okay, was it the case that your brain decided to do that before you form that intent? But could you have stopped yourself in the last second? Are we barking up the wrong tree here?
Are we looking at free will when we should be asking about free won’t? And people are still fighting about that. And I’ve been to conferences where people make snide comments about each other based on this. And like last year, there was a paper entitled something like Benjamin Libet had his head up his rear. What, like 40 years after somebody publishes a scientific paper, people aren’t still trying to say you were wrong. They don’t even remember your name at that point. They’re still fighting over it. And at that point, I say this is totally boring. You know, it’s cool stuff in terms of like things going on in milliseconds in your brain, but this has nothing to do with whether or not there’s free will because you’re not saying rather than which millisecond did that intent form and which millisecond did that person become conscious of? Where did that intent come from? Why did they volunteer for that experiment? Why aren’t they sitting being a goat farm or somewhere in like the Southern Sahel dealing with intestinal parasites?
Why is it that they didn’t steal the scientist’s laptop on the way out of that? Where did that particular intent? And yeah, Libet and the judge deciding whether or not the person, the defendant intended to do it or not, that’s judging somebody. That’s doing a movie review based on those last three minutes. That’s exactly the point. And people are still fighting over that and whether or not that disproves free will. Who cares? Where did that intent come in the first place? Why didn’t that person at that moment instead scream loudly about how they’re hearing voices? Well, probably they didn’t have the genes in the environment that made them schizophrenic. Why didn’t that person, that whole song and dance again? God, those last three fractions of a second, that’s got nothing to do with it. When they were little, did they learn to be scared of the world? At what point did they learn if they had efficacy? At what point did like this gene begin to tell this part of the brain to form this way? It’s that. It’s always that.
Jim: And then you also point out, it was new to me. I hadn’t really looked at this literature in a while, probably in 15 or 20 years, that we now seem to think that the readiness potential may not be as decisive anyway, that it’s maybe only 60 or 80 percent predictive as opposed to, you know, initially thought to be one to one correlation.
Robert: Yeah. Exactly. And thus they keep fighting. And like that was a great talk and some really hostile questions afterward. And let’s all take a break and go out to the lobby and have some Danish and donuts, and then we’ll go back at it again as to like, at what point does probability become predictive? And again, that’s cool stuff. It’s got nothing to do with that question of where did that intent come from?
Jim: On the other hand, now let’s move forward from Libid to the future. A little bit, you know, 300 milliseconds or something to consciousness. You had a little preamble about how you hated writing this section. Now listeners of Jim Rutt Show know that I am actually utterly fascinated with the science of consciousness, though I don’t know a goddamn thing about the actual answer. I have read a lot. And we’ve had people on like Christoph Koch and Antonio de Masio and Neil Seth, Bernard Barr, Yasha Bach and a bunch of others. And so.
Robert: Exactly the folks.
Jim: So we’ve heard plenty of stories about consciousness. And I just sit there and go, there’s a lot of interesting stories about consciousness. So where does consciousness fit in your tail?
Robert: Well, first of all, I didn’t want to write that section. I find consciousness exactly as fascinating as you do. And I can’t understand what it’s about. And about once every 10 years, I eat my vegetables and I read reviews by all of those guys as to where consciousness neuroscience is at at that point. And I still can’t understand what’s going on. And mostly if I really think hard about like, how does that happen? And do goldfish have consciousness? And why do I have different consciousness than a baboon problem?
Mostly I just get sort of creeped out and queasy because it’s like weird and so interesting. And that’s great. But the reason why I didn’t have to like write much of a section on that is it’s got nothing to do with whether we have free will or not. If you consciously decided to do this or if you did that because the room smells or if you did that because you’ve got this gene there, whatever, consciousness is cool. But a lot of the time what it’s doing is trying to explain why did I do that just now?
Jim: I’m going to come back to revisit this question later when we talk about emergence. But for now, let’s pass and take your view that it is irrelevant to the question. And then before we move on a little further, let’s talk a little bit about one of the interpretations of is it Libit? I always call it Libit. Libit sounds like a better prevency.
Robert: I don’t actually know. I never pay attention.
Jim: So I have no idea if I’m right either. So we’re both in the same indeterminate boat. It’ll be good. We get we talk about quantum mechanics. We’ll get back to you. And that is you mentioned it kind of the shrunk down version of free will, which is free won’t talk about free won’t and how that may or may not be related to the Libit result and consciousness and free will and all that good stuff.
Robert: OK, so that’s one of the dodgers where people come in and say, OK, OK, maybe free will stuff blow out somebody’s frontal cortex or whatever. But the ability at the last moment or after some reflection to say, yeah, I want to do that, but I’m not going to free won’t. That’s where you really get it. By the way, OK, tomato, tomato is a Libit, Libit or whatever. I bet if one of us at some point was terribly, terribly insecure about mispronouncing words or not having a good reading level or their parents had an accent or whatever, as soon as this is done, would go and try to figure out, OK, once and for all, is it Libit or Libit? Because I don’t want to be embarrassed that way as opposed to who cares? What if that didn’t come from nowhere? But anyway, back to free won’t.
It’s the same issue. OK, a neuron says to this muscle, pull the trigger. And what we’ve just been analyzing is why did that neuron do that and show me it? Nothing that came before had anything to do with it. Blah, blah, blah. OK, so now instead, that neuron tells your finger to pull the trigger. But here’s this other neuron, which twenty seven and a half milliseconds before got there first and told the muscle, don’t listen to that neuron. You’ve had a preemptive inhibition. Did that second neuron use free will at that point? Did that neuron do what it did independent of blah, blah, and what’s Sunday morning sermons and if you like are hungry and all that.
No, it’s the same exact building blocks. Show me. Don’t do that neuron. And you’ve got just as much to explain as with a do that neuron, because it’s the same exact stuff going on in your brain. And it’s the same exact show me it would have done that if the world was completely different and you can’t. So free won’t is just like a different way. I am going to study is a free will seeming statement. I am going to get falling down drunk with my roommate is another one. I’m not going to get falling down drunk and go study again. That’s a free won’t not going to waste my evening study again. I’m going to play beer pong with my room. They’re the same thing. It’s just how you frame it and it’s the same nuts and bolts.
Jim: Though, I suppose you could argue that at least in some cases, not many, because you could just linguistically turning them around. But let’s say the idea of going robbing a liquor store, you spent the whole day planning it and then you get out of the car and you say, no, can’t do that. It’s a more atomic, simpler transaction. So if there is any gap in the gods there, you don’t need as big a gap to support free won’t, at least in many cases, as you would free will, because it’s a simpler transaction.
Robert: Okay, so we’re sensing there that this guy like managed to stop himself and that was there was more agency in that. Let’s I said why did he say I’m not doing that and why his buddy next to him went in there and maybe the buddy valued their gang membership more. Maybe their buddy was more upset about coming home that night and not being able to like get food for their family because they’re unemployed and they need some cash maybe, maybe, maybe. Same thing again, at those junctures that person free-wanted. I’m not going to get out of the car seemingly under their own control and it’s just as easily described as they had a mythic sense of free will at that moment. I am going to invest in my future instead of like doing something that will get me in jail. You know, it’s just the wording but it’s the same where did that come from? Where did that intent come from?
Jim: Then the argument is turtles all the way down, right?
Robert: Exactly, exactly.
Jim: All right, let’s move on. Having a great conversation here but some other cool stuff we want to get to. You had a section on the myth of grit. Grit has been a big topic in the educational psychology and certain kinds of social psychology for the last 25 years or so. Maybe you could tell the audience what the theory of grit is and what we think we know about it now and how that relates to free will.
Robert: Well, this is where all sorts of sensible people fall off the cliff and decide they’re seeing free will in action because grit and tenacity and amazing self-discipline, they’re incredible. Best sellers, Angela Duckworth is totally inspiring and like somebody who’s got everything going for them and do exactly the opposite, they’re just an indulgence underachiever. We heap scorn on them because we’re carrying this magic dichotomy in our heads. Okay, okay, most people are willing to say we don’t have complete free will. There’s some stuff you had no control over. You’ve got good hand-eye coordination and that’s why you’re a better basketball player.
You’ve got something or other going on with this neurotransmitter and that’s why you’ve got a better memory than the next person. You’ve got, you know, this or that in the construction of your larynx and you’ve got a beautiful voice with a potential to be really accomplishing. Okay, that’s the stuff we’re handed. That’s the biological stuff and we’re grit and backbone and soul and measure of you as a person and all of that comes in is what do you do with those things that you are handed? Do you show admirable tenacity when the going gets tough? Do you get going or do you decide screw it? I’m just going to go like indulge in all that stuff. That stuff’s made of magic. That stuff is made of how you judge a person, all of that.
And the key point there is that’s a totally false dichotomy and that’s where most people intuitively get pulled back into believing that there’s free will. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you had nothing to do with the fact that you’re seven foot four and that’s got something to do with the fact that you’re in the NBA. But look, look at Muggsy Bogue. He was five foot three inches and he played in the NBA. Oh my God, the tenacity of that guy. Like, you don’t feel inspired by somebody who’s seven foot four because like there’s some biology stuff going on there. But whoa, five foot three and isn’t that amazing?
And I’d love to be like him and all of that. This is where the false dichotomy comes in. The stuff we’re naturally good at or not good at or our natural propensities towards like liking this ice cream over that whatever, that’s the biological stuff we were handed. And what we do with it, that’s made of fairy dust. And the whole point is, it’s exactly as biological, like at any given points, you know, you show a moment of tenacity or a moment of like total self indulgence. And in the process of this thing, this really like stop you in your tracks, like article and Forbes analyzing 70% of American families that are independently wealthy lose their fortune by the second generation. Oh my God, talk about the difference between what you’re handed from dad and the will and what you do with it.
Yeah, what you’re handed, that’s biological. But what you do with it, that’s made of all this magical stuff. And it’s made of the exact same stuff. Because it’s made of your prefrontal cortex. Are you going to keep pushing against the pain? Are you going to feel like you’ve got to prove to the world you can do this? Are you going to say screw it? I want to go play or would add. Why? Why do you form that intent and not that? Because of what came a second before in your prefrontal cortex in an hour and a million years before, it’s made of the same stuff. And that’s this dichotomy that people fall for. And where it’s like relevant in education, like every neurotic overachieving parent on earth, at some point realizes or learns this rule, your kid does something great at school, they get a great grade on an exam or whatever. Don’t say to them, wow, that’s great. You must be so smart.
Say to them, wow, that’s great. You must have worked so hard. Because you’re appealing to their grit in the latter case. And what you see is, wow, you must be so smart the next time around, the kid is less willing to work hard. And you get the kid where you say, oh, you must have worked so hard, they put in even more effort next time. You’re seemingly saying working hard is made out of magic. And I’m praising you for that matter. It’s made of the exact same stuff. And when you sit there, and you say, wow, that was great. You must have worked so hard as a result, two and a half neurons in that kid’s prefrontal cortex just did something or other so that they’re going to work a little bit harder next time. So it’s really good to use as like an instrumental tool to praise people for like the supposed agency and tenacity they showed, or to tell people, wow, you just blew away all this potential to maybe make them change with it.
But it’s made of the same exact stuff. It’s just to get them to be a little more or less likely to do whatever the next time, because their brain is now a little bit more or less this way instead of that.
Jim: And maybe before we move on to the next topic, there’s some relatively new update to the famous marshmallow test.
Robert: The marshmallow test. This is totally cool. I love this. The marshmallow test was this psychologist, a guy named Walter Michelle, who actually was in Stanford, but was gone before I got there. So I never got to meet the guy and often buy him a marshmallow. You take a five year old kid, put him in a room, and there’s a marshmallow in front of them on a plate. And you say, Hey, here’s what we’re going to do. I got to go out of the room for a while. Then I’ll come back. When I go out of the room, if you want, you can have the marshmallow. But if you wait until I come back, you can have two marshmallows.
How good of a five year old prefrontal cortex do you have at that point at long term gratification and, you know, impulse control, all that stuff. And like you could go to YouTube and look at these fantastic videos of like kids now going through contemporary versions of that. And you see the kid who the person isn’t even out the door and the kid’s already eating the marshmallow. And then you see the kids who hold out for the second marshmallow.
And you see what their strategies are. And this kid looks the other way sits backwards in the chair. This kid puts the marshmallow under the plate. Okay, see two kids at age five, one of them could hold out for eight and a half hours until the person comes back and gets the second marshmallow. And the first one eats it within seconds. And the first amazing thing is you can already show with brain imaging, their prefrontal cortex is working differently.
That’s why they differ with that. But what’s even more amazing is come back to that kid decades later. And how long they waited for that marshmallow is a predictor of whether they’re healthy as a 60 year old, whether they smoke, whether they’ve drunk to excess, what their lifelong earnings were, did they finish high school, did they finish all of that is already predictive of what kind of stance you’re going to make for the rest of your life when doing the right thing is the harder thing. 60 years later. And we even know stuff now like, Okay, so how did that kid have a different prefrontal cortex at age five? And how did that increase the odds of it looking like this half a century later? Totally amazing.
Jim: And as you said, in one of your sections, you just said it doing the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do. That seems from a naive citizenship perspective, a very high figure of merit. Those are the kind of people that we admire that we built statues to, or at least say, Hey, that’s an exceptionally good person who does the harder thing when it’s the harder thing to do.
Robert: Yeah, we love them.
Jim: There’s no really merit there is no different to being seven foot four.
Robert: Exactly. Because when you poke around in their background versus the person who just jumped into temptation, both feet first, you’re going to figure out why they turned out to be different people. And this is where like all of this, there’s no free will stuff gets all preachy and like some major societal implications. We run the world on the notion that the person who couldn’t prevent themselves from doing the impulsive thing is less deserving is less great is less praiseworthy is less admirable, all of that than the person who pulled it off. And it’s just because of one second before in a billion years before that they wound up with different brains at that moment. But that’s where we see volition and agency that isn’t there at all.
And again, it’s instrumental. If you say to the person, wow, that’s great that you did that. And as a result, they’re more likely to do it again. Yeah, maybe that was an effective thing to do. But don’t really believe they have a better soul. And if you tell the whole world, wow, that was amazing when they did that. And all sorts of other people say, wow, maybe I should try to be more that way. If this person could do it, so could I. You’ve done something useful instrumentally, but don’t think it’s their souls that sat there and said, whoa, inspire an example. I want to be more like him next time. No, it’s the same stuff going on in your brain.
Jim: Now there is a step back, an argument I’ve heard, I believe you mentioned in the book, which is that, okay, yeah, at the end of the day, the decision we make our experiences determine a whole bunch of it. However, we choose to be who we are by choices that we make from time to time. The classic one, I went to a working class high school where about 20% of the people went on to four year college. And I made a decision in ninth grade, and it was a near call to go to college or not. And I chose the college boy route and took algebra. That was sort of the decisive moment that we had to make that decision.
And that led to a whole bunch of different experiences and exposures and turned me into who I was to us fairly substantial degree, obviously, lots of other things, genetic endowments, family backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, clannish Irishman 600 years ago, they all have their impact and the ratio of H three to H four at the big bang. But that was a bigger one than any of those I’d be willing to bet. And so maybe if our free will just lets us make those few key cusp decisions in our life, then we do have some responsibility for who we are, because we made the decisions that led us to have the experiences that we had that then made us who we are.
Robert: Nah, not for a second. It’s the same thing again. Why’d you come up with that and 80% of your peers there didn’t? Did you have the right teacher? Did you sit there and didn’t nap and instead stayed awake for the right sermon one Sunday morning? Did you hate your parents and wanted to do exactly the opposite of them? Did you love your parents and weren’t inspired? Whatever. Did you have like a genetic makeup that makes you go for short term gain? Yeah, this doesn’t happen by chance and a great way of framing that. But as a result, okay, you went to college and that’s given you all sorts of new choices in life that wouldn’t have been open to you.
That’s you exercising that and once again, it’s that same pattern. You know, take somebody much like some inspiring movie that Hotel Rwanda, it’s getting a little dated by now, but this totally inspiring movie during the Rwandan genocide. And this one guy who had never done anything heroic in his life. And he, while doing something incredibly heroic and to any save like a thousand people’s lives. And you come out of it. And maybe you say, wow, I feel so inspired, or you come out of it and say, eh, crappy cinematography, or you come out of it and say, God, that was whatever.
And you come out of it. And why is it that you said so inspiring second before a billion years before? And at that point, the fact that you were set up to be the sort of person who was inspired by that, you’re now more likely to say, you know what, I want to learn something about the Armenian genocide. Now, why did you wind up being somebody who was not only inspired, but decide, I can generalize this, I can think about this in a different context. I like books.
I have a lot of respect for knowledge. Why that path? Why not the path that you were inspired and said, you know, I’m going to start volunteering for doctors without borders. I’m everything else brought you to that moment so that the inspiration over which you had no control then took you down that path over which you had no control.
Jim: You are absolutely relentless. It’s turtles all the way down
Jim: He does not give
Robert: No, no
Jim: So let’s touch on very briefly two things that I think you and I both agree don’t matter much. The first being deterministic chaos as a complexatorian, you know, former chairman of the Santa Fe Institute, etc. I’m well aware of the mathematics of deterministic chaos and Lorenz and all that sort of stuff. And for the audience, most of whom probably know this, but deterministic chaos essentially means that in complicated systems, they don’t have to be complex, but sufficiently complicated systems, just something as simple as three orbiting planets. The evolution is highly dependent on the initial conditions to an exceedingly fine degree so that even if you had a universe of solid computronium, you still couldn’t calculate how a oak tree would grow, right? Because there’s just too many initial conditions that even the slightest difference in measurement will make your model not work. It’s why weather forecasting, they’re throwing a lot of computation at it and at inches, it’s better, you know, a little bit at a time and they figure it ain’t never going to get better in about 21 days, right?
Within, I think it’s 80% symmetric. They say, we don’t think it’ll ever get better than that. It’s because of deterministic chaos. Even if you assume an utterly Laplacian deterministic universe. And I don’t see how that has any bearing on free will and you demolish the argument. So we’ll just move on there. Right.
Robert: Thank God.
Jim: I agree with you there.
Jim: And also it’s a much more subtle argument, but I also agree with you that quantum indeterminism, if it exists, and I do like to point out that it’s still an open issue. Not only do we have many worlds, which actually I wrote a funny joke for that. I’m gonna have to recreate the joke because I can’t find my thing. I call it Mako. That’s a Mako theory. And the people say, what’s a Mako? And I say it’s Occam spelled backwards. That I’m not ready to accept many worlds because like, what the hell? I mean, you know, what kind of explanation is that for anything? Right?
Robert: Yeah, because the first thing you got to grant them, if they’re going to go with it is that time runs backwards. Give me a break. Okay, I’m out of here. Yes. Exactly.
Jim: And I will also point out, most people don’t remember this or if they probably haven’t studied it, is there are other legitimate unrefuted theories that are deterministic, one of which is quite respectable is the Bohm-De Broglie pilot wave model, which is a fundamentally different way of looking at quantum phenomena that is unrefuted. And it does a particularly good job of explaining the Bazaar to slit experiment, which is one of the best probes at the quantum phenomena out there.
So I wish I’d remind people that a lot of people think determinism has been refuted at the quantum level, but it actually hasn’t. But probably non-locality. But anyway, neither here nor there, you dig into it. And it’s really hard to make a cogent sound argument how that gives room for free will. In fact, I would argue the opposite, actually.
Robert: Right. Exactly. OK, we are fellow travelers. And as a result, there’s been an amazing number of arguments for free will there that are not cogent and that are gibberish and make no sense at all. OK, soon as stuff in the universe is just intrinsically unpredictable. Whoa, that’s where free will comes from. We harness. Always the word harness shows up at that point. We harness quantum indeterminacy, and that’s where free will comes from.
Three reasons why this is idiotic. The first one is like this is subatomic particle stuff for that little quantum event in that little subpart of a quark or whatever it is, kind of thing to have done that to have influenced like what one molecule in your body did, let alone what one brain did. The best estimates like all these MIT mathematicians, like 10 with 23 zeros after it, it’s got to be more impactful than it normally is. And even if it did, all of them, all of those little subatomic particles would have to have been doing that same thing at the same time. OK, so suppose somehow they do that. And the second big problem is it would not produce free will.
It would produce randomness. Exactly what you said. Like we’re not trying to explain why, like at a critical moment, you instead of like saving the child from the burning building, you hop around and like recite Jabberwocky or something. We’re trying to explain why it is that we have our stable characters and our stable moral system. Quantum indeterminacy is just going to make you behave randomly if it actually bubbled up to that level, which it can’t. So then the third Hail Mary argument that people then try to pull off at that point is somehow you, the you that’s floating up above all this, the you that’s made of consciousness and back. Somehow you were able to reach down. And here’s the word harness again. You’re somehow able to reach down to the subatomic level and harness the indeterminacy there.
Tame it vaccinate it, teach it to be housebroken. And now you can use it for the benefit of free will. And none of this makes sense. And all of it requires a basic rejection of how this stuff functions.
Jim: I just get a laugh until I sometimes get mad about new age quantum bullshit. Right. There’s an amazing amount of it out there. It’s like, what the hell? Yep.
Robert: And it’s always built along the same sort of lines, which is learn how to parentheses, send me your money, learn how to harness your quantum indeterminacy to move backwards in time or show the man that you can do. Or it’s always absurd and it’s always expensive.
Jim: Now, on the other hand, I think you also are like me having a pretty strong reaction against the more reputable version of that. Those like Penrose and Hammerhoff, right? You know, my take has always been the same as Teckmark, essentially. Cells are too hot and too slow moving, too viscous. That the probability of any quantum mechanical effects that actually are accidentally captured by biological systems seems exceedingly unlikely.
They could propagate through the heat, the wetness and the viscosity to have any impact at the macro scale. And there’s so many words of magnitude between them. And then we also have the fact that of the tens of thousands of lab psychology experiments, they all seem to show that mental phenomena are on the order of milliseconds and quantum effects happen Gazillion orders of magnitude faster. And we would be seeing faster brains if they were able to actually use quantum principles.
Robert: Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t work. That’s where it falls apart. And that’s a great phrase. You know, you get this quantum entanglement stuff. And if the entanglement could synchronize with all the other entanglements going on and they’re all pointing spinning in the right direction and it could go all the way up, the entanglement falls apart and decoheres because of that phrase that used this one made me like a little bit like seasick. The first time I heard the description, it’s because the brain is moist. It’s moist and warm and messy. And that’s not where quantum effects bubble up one order of magnitude, let alone 23 of them, because all of us have a moist thing in our heads.
Jim: We’re moist.
Jim: And that’s supposed to be the most disgusting word of English moist. That doesn’t bother me. But I’ve also heard that there may be a genetic basis to people who find the word moist, have negative connotations, or for me, it’s just a neutral word, which means a bit wet.
Robert: Yes. Probably it’s the same people who, as shown with some genetic influence, get kind of queasy when they see somebody licking an ice cream cone.
Jim: Huh. I like licking an ice cream cone.
Robert: Me too. It’s not a hobby to watch people doing it, but I don’t find it to be repellent, let alone morally repellent. And there’s folks out there who do.
Jim: Well, that’s interesting. Got a good one to know. That’s probably on the same thing. You know, as people who eat cilantro, it tastes like soap. I happen to be one of those, the 20% that cilantro tastes like soap. At least they did when I was younger. It seems to have gone away, probably from living in New Mexico for 10 years, where there was a lot of cilantro in the food out there. And I probably just got used to it. Anyway, let’s move on to the next one, where maybe we do have some things to spar about, maybe we don’t.
Jim: And that is around emergent complexity and free will. Tell us your take on that. You had two chapters on that.
Robert: Okay. I love this subject. I torture my students with this by going on and on about emergencies. The coolest thing on earth. You take one ant, you put it on ant, A-N-T, you put it on a table and it makes no sense what it’s doing. And you put 10 ants and it makes no sense what they’re doing. And you put a hundred and maybe they kind of start all doing something organized with a little piece of bread you put on the table. But you take 10,000 of them and they build a society. They build structures. They build air conditioning vents and their colonies and stuff.
And they’re nest, they’re totally amazing. And you take one neuron and can kind of do some stuff. But it’s not all that amazing. And you put like, I don’t know, a hundred thousand of them together and you get a fruit fly and instead you take the exact same type of neuron and you put 80 billion of them together and it invents aesthetics and theology and economic philosophy and all of that stuff. And the whole thing about emergence is you put enough quantity together and you invent quality.
That’s where stuff comes from. And the premise is like one ant and one neuron and one termite and one of those isn’t very smart. It’s got a few simple rules and all of the rules are about how it interacts with its immediate environment. And you put a whole bunch of them together with those simple rules and out pops a marching band. A marching band where each person there has a simple rule. They don’t know what the whole thing is supposed to look like, but out of it emerges a property that you could not predict or identify or define on the level of just what the tuba player was doing or what this one amp was doing.
Here’s like the perfect example of this. One molecule of water, H2O, one molecule of water cannot feel wet. Wetness is an emergent property that you only get when you get enough molecules of water altogether. When you have enough quantity of water, that out emerges this quality of this thing we call wetness. Everything about our brains is emergent on that level because we’re made at the same basic building blocks as everybody else. Every other creature out there with some kind of neuron stuff, fancy, amazing, adaptive, unpredictable stuff emerges when you throw enough elements together with simple rules. Okay, so that is totally cool.
I love that. I love that because ants can solve the traveling salesman problem using emergent simple rules and neurons in your cortex wire up to solve the traveling salesman problem using the same rules. And it’s totally incredible. And once again, this is where people just run amok on the playground saying, Aha, free will is an emergent property. And it falls apart. It falls apart for the very simple reason that every single version out there where once you throw enough of these little teensy things together, out comes emergence, which includes this thing called free will.
Every single one of those models requires something that doesn’t actually happen, which is as soon as all those little building blocks come together, each individual one gets smarter. It can do stuff that it couldn’t do before. The ant suddenly becomes trilingual. The neuron can suddenly fire action potentials backwards when they don’t normally do that. The individual pieces change as soon as they’re part of something bigger. A neuron can’t produce free will, but a bunch of neurons can because the neurons work differently at that point. And the entire point of what is amazing about emergence is those stupid little building blocks that know how to do three things in the world, like that ant or that neuron. There’s still just a stupid little building blocks when they’re now part of something making societies and philosophies. Every single model for free will requires the building blocks to suddenly be able to work differently. And they don’t work that way. It’s like saying, okay, so water, water, water molecule is H2O, but as soon as you put enough of them together, they change.
They become two oxygens and one hydrogen instead of the other way around. And that’s when water starts feeling wet. It doesn’t work that way. And then of course, another Hail Mary pass, which is the people who come in and say the big macro level, that’s when you can reach down and harness those little building blocks and make them work differently. And it doesn’t work that way.
Jim: Well, let me push on this one a little bit, right? As Mr. complexity man, kind of my job. There are other attributes of emergence, which is that entities at higher emergent levels have behavior and attributes which aren’t predictable from lower levels. Right. Let’s think about the fact that we are the ultimate emergent phenomena. You know, we are quarks at the bottom work our way up through atoms to molecules to peptides and on and on and on. But at some point we have developed our brains and we’ve developed cognitive abilities of some sort and we’ve created our cultures of co-created.
It’s actually a co-creation of concepts. And we talked earlier about honor versus law and order. Let’s say the universe doesn’t know anything about honor or law and order, right? There is no neuron in the brain for law and order. There is no subatomic particle that supports courage or honor. These are abstractions at a very high level in the stack. And further, they have an effect called downward causality.
Robert: Oh, that.
Jim: Oh, that. Right. I decide that in my confrontation with Joe Dirtbag that honor Trump’s law and order today. And so my arm moves forward and gazillions of atoms made a very unlikely trajectory. If I were just a pile of carbon and sulfur and oxygen and hydrogen, there is zero chance that all my atoms would jump together and jump out at that guy. But because I am manipulating very abstract emergent entities, it is possible for my for physics actually in some simple sense to be overridden. That’s a slight overstatement because physics has never violated as we know. But the atoms nonetheless do something that minus the emergent phenomena of consciousness and two concepts, honor and law and order, that’s something that’s exceedingly improbable otherwise. And that this puts us in a space where classic causal physics is actually not relevant. That’s the argument.
Robert: Good. Okay. In reality, you and I can live happily ever after because we’re in complete agreement. Downward causality is for real. Like you roll a stone down a hill and oh my God, the little electron orbitals in there are turning upside down and upside down and upside down.
And they weren’t before. Yes, you have exerted something on things down at that level by your decision to roll that stone down there. That’s not the same thing as deciding at that big macro level to harness the stuff down there and in the process make them work differently. Yeah, you were moving all sorts of cells and molecules and atoms in your arm when you reached the decision to punch the guy. But in that top down downward causality moment, you weren’t causing those molecules to suddenly become like atoms of lead so you could shatter the guy’s jaw.
Jim: Yep, not at all.
Robert: You couldn’t do that.
Jim: Yeah, can’t do that, but I can make it move. And also the point is these abstract concepts of honor and law and order are kind of fighting it out in my conscious brain or my unconscious brain or somewhere at the liminal edge between the conscious and unconscious because it all probably happened in 500 milliseconds. But those concepts which have no physical reality at all are emergent, operated at a level that’s above physical reality, where the eight were are able to influence the physical world and result in a fairly significant low probability downward causality.
This is where I get speculative and that the ability to shuffle these kinds of abstractions and use them for making decisions is where free will lives.
Jim: Again, this is a conjecture. I have no evidence. Conjecture, big C around this is that it can be manifested in one particular place and that is, have you ever done meditation?
Robert: Once for about 20 minutes and I thought I was going to go out of my mind.
Jim: Yeah, I managed to do it for like 30 days, but for about 20 minutes a day. But anyway, so I learned the basics of it. And I also have studied the mechanisms of attention. And so it turns out that what we attend to actually is very much who we become, right? If you attend to pornography, you become one kind of a person. If you attend to Renaissance art, you become another kind of person. And our attention is sometimes under what seems like our conscious control. I have a little experiment, which I’ll ask all the listeners at home to try. How many schools did you go to before university?
Robert: Three, three
Jim: Three. So I went to 5, one I only went to for only 3 months while the school was being built So I’m going to do this one at a time, you know, representative image for each one and then start to rotate them as rapidly as you can for about 15 seconds. And I’ll wait 15 seconds for the listeners at home to do this experiment.
Jim: All right, that’s that. All right, done prediction. When this podcast is over, go sit quietly in a chair for a few minutes. And I will guarantee it. If it’s not true, you can call me up and I’ll buy you a cheeseburger. You will start having a cascade of memories of your childhood, your teachers, your friends, the bullies you’re afraid of the girls you had a crush on the boys you had a crush on and didn’t even know it, you know, all kinds of things unbidden will come to your mind. And this is at the boundary between a willful application of attention and then cascading down through all the things you’ve been talking about all these accumulated layers to go all the way back to the big bang.
And so this is at least my conjecture where there is a sliver of room for a not what the layman thinks of as free will but something that may actually be like free will is that when you’re dealing with these abstractions and you are able to make the choice of what you put your attention on. And by the way, we often do not volitially control our attention. For instance, when you play tennis, if you’re good at it, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just doing it. It’s only when in the beginning when you’re learning tennis that you say, Oh, I want to put it in that corner, you know, blah, blah, blah, before it becomes automaticize I believe is the term of art. But when you’re operating in the non on auto auto auto that phrase, you are doing something when you allocate your attention that maybe is the little corner for free will.
Robert: Not a chance. By the way, I just noticed when doing that exercise, there’s probably no way even if your eyes are closed, that you could do that and rotate it in your mind without your eye muscles ever so slightly activating because you’re turning the thing around. You can’t not do it.
Jim: I just tried it, you’re right. You can feel the motion just a little bit.
Robert: Wow. Why downward causality I’m going to think about the play yard there and my eye muscles are going to do something now that I couldn’t prevent. But anyway, so why is that the case? Why does that pull that up? Wasn’t that like a sliver free will? Let’s take an example that’s not prompted. You walk into a room and there’s a smell and you haven’t smelled that smell since you were a kid. It’s the pastries that grandma used to make.
It’s the La page glue that you used to eat in kindergarten when nobody was looking and suddenly you’re back there more vividly than you could ever. And there’s a biological explanation. Your olfactory system is one synapse away from your memory system and every other sensory system is about a dozen synapses away. So whoa, smells can evoke stuff like that. And at that point, you could not have prevented that. You could not have prevented that association and that association being a good one or a traumatic one or a why?
Why did that happen? All the usual. But getting back to emergence. Okay, so we were in complete agreement that downward causality, making your molecules move because you decided to. That’s for real. And that’s you having like a decision way up on top on that macro level. And as a result, like molecules moved around. But where that’s a world of difference from the harnessing for three reasons. Damn, I said three reasons. three. Can I come up with three reasons? Okay, first one, you said you formed this big emergent thing that’s independent of the rules of like physical universe. No, that’s not the case. You just can’t predict them. They’re still made of the same stuff.
Jim: So we agree with that. There is no magic, right? But the argument is that the things at the higher level have their own rules that are different and additional addition to the laws, but they never violate physics. You know, this is where the no magic rule comes in, right?
Robert: Good. Okay. So we’re good on that. Second one is, yeah, downward causality, you could make that happen and molecules do, but again, you can’t make the molecules do things that the physical universe otherwise would preclude them from doing that whole thing.
Jim: We agree with that.
Robert: But the third one, and you’re gonna like, you’re so sick of me by now, I can tell where did the intent to do that come from in the first place, blah, blah, blah. Okay, this guy, yeah, tiresome ad nauseam, but it’s the same thing again.
Jim: Yeah. And I guess my question is, okay, no doubt about it, our past as a giant effect, but when we get to these levels of very high emergence, do the addition of all these effects equal one or don’t they? And I would say, I’m not sure, but I think you made a pretty good case for your side of the story. So let’s leave that there because I think we, that’s probably as far as we can go. And you actually said at the end of the book, I don’t expect I’m actually going to convince too many of you people, but I least hope you think about it a little bit more, right? And I think you have certainly done that with me even you’ve moved me a bit on it.
Robert: And the reason why I don’t think I’m going to convince people is 99% of the time I can’t believe this. I don’t really function this way. And like, yeah, no one said this is going to be easy. And like back to, you know, you say, okay, 70% predictability, when do we get 100% percent? And, you know, I’ve given all sorts of ways to sort of begin to visualize how it might turn into one. But here’s where I become a totally bad guest here. And I flip it around at this point and say, okay, at this stage, show me that 30% happened without those neurons being affected by anything that came before people who are so now yeah, balls in your court, fella. It’s the same thing again.
Jim: I’m not to think about this one. And if I come up with a good answer, I’m going to write it down and send it to you.
Jim: You can tell me where the holes are. They probably will be holes, right? Because this is something I just it’s sort of a hobby for me. And for you, you’ve spent a lot of many years thinking about this stuff.
Obviously. So one last thing before we go is I think you spent three chapters or four chapters on it, which is, well, maybe free will doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it’s just a hallucination. But man, if we didn’t believe in it, the world would go to hell in a hurry. Actually, I do call that sort of the noble why, you know, just like, for instance, like you, I am a absolute atheist, right?
Of quite severe sort. I think I came to it at 11, which was, I reckon. Whoa. And that was after two weeks of reading comparative religion books at the county library. Nice. And I said, this is stuff made up by humans for controlling other people. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.
Robert: And I salute you three years earlier than me.
Jim: Yeah, so you were pretty young too, who said, no, this makes no sense whatsoever, right? But nonetheless, you know, there are many arguments, which I call the Santa Claus argument, right? God must exist because God makes people good. Well, Santa Claus doesn’t exist, even though Santa Claus makes five year olds good.
Jim: Sometimes, right? At least for a month before Christmas, right? So anyway, we both agree on non-metaphysical bullshit, et cetera. But nonetheless, is it dangerous potentially if we were to convince people that free will wasn’t true?
Robert: Not in the slightest, in the world will be a better place. Okay, the first thing everyone says when you go over this is saying, oh, great, you’re just going to have murderers running around all over the place because they weren’t responsible for their actions. All of us could just run amok. And the answer is we won’t.
You do like all sorts of cool experiments where you prime people to believe less than free will. And they cheat more 20 minutes later when they’re playing a game. That’s a, whoa, there you go. That’s the collapse of civilization. No, when you look at people who’ve spent a long time believing, there’s no free will.
Exactly as when you look at people who have spent a long time believing there is no God, by every measure, and this has been studied out the wazoo, they are exactly as ethical as people who fully believe in the notion of responsibility, or people who fully believe there is a loving God who judges us all of that study after study has shown that. Why do they come out at the same place? Because you’ve thought long and hard about it. If you’ve been thinking hard about like, what’s the source of human goodness? And is does morality come from fellow humans?
Or if you’ve been thinking hard about it, it almost doesn’t matter at the end of the day, which of those conclusions you come to, statistically, you were likely to be way more ethical in your behavior than average. And it’s the people in between who say, whatever, yeah, I guess I’m religious, but it’s mostly for the kids or the holidays are great, or yeah, whatever, I don’t think there’s a God, but it’s not like I think about it. Get somebody who every single day is thinking about what God wants from them, or every single day thinking about there’s no God, they’re going to have thought about this stuff. So it’s not that one. The next one, everyone then panics over is saying, Oh, if there’s no free will, nothing can ever change.
Jim: I love this argument. So let’s let’s bring this argument. This was great.
Robert: We just spent an hour on that in some ways of saying, Whoa, I just saw the movie Hotel Rwanda. And as a result, I started learning more about this or that. Wait, if there’s no free will, that couldn’t have happened. I changed. No, you didn’t change. You were changed by the circumstances that put you in that place. And by the circumstances that made you respond to that place the way you did. So yeah, change happens. Amazing change happens. People get along with people who they never used to before, major transformations, all of that. But it’s not that you choose to change.
It’s because those circumstances that brought you to that moment caused you to change. Okay, but the real one at the end is like, what do we do with like dangerous people running around? Even if we get to the point that like, not every person who rejects free will is going to become a mass murderer. Still, we ought to do something about them. And the answer is, Yeah, we still have to do something about them. If your cars breaks, don’t work, you can’t drive it. It’s dangerous. It can’t be on the street. You’ve got to contain it. You’ve got to quarantine it. You got to put it in a garage and not drive it. And as a result, the world is safer from that car.
But you don’t do one smidgen more than that. You don’t decide that because the cars breaks don’t work. It needs to have its windshield broken. You don’t tell it has a bad soul. You don’t tell it, it doesn’t deserve to be able to drive in a park anymore on a nice Sunday afternoon. You have subtracted out that danger without invoking any agency, and the world is fine. And we do this with like bad behaviors. Here’s a type of human who is potentially really quite dangerous to those who are around them. And like, you really don’t want one of your loved ones to be affected by them.
And we have learned how to contain this without invoking agency. If your kid is sneezing a lot, you keep him home from kindergarten tomorrow. You quarantine them because they’re going to everybody else in class all sick or so. You keep society protected from this dangerousness. But you then don’t keep your kid home at that day and say, you know, because you’re sneezing, you know, you’re not a bad person, but that’s sneezing a bad thing.
So you can’t play with your toys today. No, you solve this on a level of you protect society from dangerous things. But you constrain the person from doing dangerous stuff, but not one smidgen more, and you don’t tell them they deserve to be able to not go to kindergarten tomorrow or whatever. And in the same way, you protect society from incompetent neurosurgeons. You make sure the incompetent ones are like locked up in the garage and never dare to do something to your grandmother’s brain tumor. But you don’t tell the neurosurgeon afterward that they have a better soul than everyone else or have better backbone or deserve more prestige or more. Yeah, you make sure like damaging people don’t do damage. And you make sure really competent people run the world, but you don’t leave them afterward thinking that they deserve what they got.
And you sure don’t think about them that way. And you know what happens when you do that enough, not only like you can still protect society from like your sneezing kid, but it becomes a more humane place because you sit there and someone for example, who’s morbidly obese, and they have tried every and every person around them says, what can I say lack of willpower. And then it turns out there’s a damn gene that codes for a receptor for a hormone called leptin.
And if you have a particular version of it in your family, all of you are going to be morbidly obese. And there’s not a damn thing you could have more like self discipline than Gandhi or who knows what, and that’s still going to be the case. And society judges you. And what a crappy world that is that as a result of that, you’re less likely to get hired for jobs on the average. People trust you less in a courtroom implicitly.
You’re less likely to have somebody love you, etc, etc. What a crappy, screwed world this is, that that’s one of those domains where we look at that and say, there’s some sort of agency going on there. And thus, it is justified that that person has a less happy life than somebody else does. And not only can you protect society from dangerous people and make sure your neurosurgeons are competent, but this is also incredibly humane and liberating. Bummer, there’s no free will. Wow, your advanced degree that you earned in grad school, maybe you didn’t really earn it.
Wow, that’s a bummer. For the most part, most of what’s going on in this planet is not people being rewarded for things they had no control over. It’s people being punished or made to feel bad about themselves or whatever over things they had no control over. Throwing out free will is going to be fabulous. It’s going to be a much more humane planet. It’s like a good thing that we threw out free will with a notion of hurricanes. And we don’t burn old ladies at the stake with no teeth because we think they’re a witch who caused it. It’s a better place that we subtracted free will out of that. And every single one of these, it’s going to be a better place.
So if that makes you feel a little bit queasy about like you getting paid a salary much more than everyone else, because maybe you didn’t earn it, suck it up. Overall, it’s a much better world because most people suffer rather than get unearned brownie points for the fact that we are held responsible for things we had no responsibility over.
Jim: Well, I want to thank Robert Sapolsky here for an incredibly interesting and wide ranging and deep conversation that will at a minimum make people think a little bit. Maybe we’ll change some minds. And if you are intrigued by what we talked about today, check out his new book Determined a Science of Life Without Free Will. I want to thank you Robert Sapolsky for coming on the Jim Rutt Show.
Robert: Well, thank you, sir. A vast pleasure this was a lot of fun. So thank you.
Jim: It really was.