Oct 15 • 41M

There is No Free Will

Speaker: Robert Sapolsky

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Larry Bernstein

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. 

What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, finance, history, science and politics. Today’s session will be on No Free Will.

Our speaker will be Robert Sapolsky who is a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford as well as the author of numerous books including Why Zebra Don’t Get Ulcers and Behave.  

Robert believes that you do not have any free will.  That instead your behavior is dictated by a complex combination of factors that include genes, environment, hormones, glucose levels, and epigenetic events.  It is complicated, but Robert will argue that there is no little man in your head making the decisions.

Buckle up.

I make this podcast to learn and I offer this program free of charge to anyone that is interested.  Please tell your friends about it and have them sign-up to receive our weekly emails about upcoming shows.  If you enjoy today’s podcast, please subscribe so that you can continue to enjoy this content.

Today’s podcast was recorded at Stanford in conjunction with an event to honor my old boss and close friend Myron Scholes, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics.  

Ok, let’s start today’s session with Robert Sapolsky.

Robert Sapolsky


Topic: There is No Free Will
Bio: Neuroendocrinology researcher, author, and professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences and neurosurgery at Stanford University
Reading: Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is here

Opening Remarks:

I published a few years ago a book called Behave: The Biology of Humans that Our Best and Worst. 

Like every other animal out there, we are aggressive; we are using the same exact circuitry in our brains. We're secreting the same hormones as any other primate. When we're empathic, when we're responding to somebody else in pain, we're using the same parts of the brain as when you see that in other species, whoa, we're just like them and whoa, we're completely different from them because we can do stuff that no chimpanzee on earth could ever do. We can feel the pain of somebody on the other side of the planet whose face we never see. We can watch somebody on a movie screen and feel badly for them, and there are a bunch of pixels. We can press a button and kill somebody on the other side of the planet with a drone.

We are, without question, the most miserably violent species on this planet. Chimps have the rudiments of organized warfare. We leave them in the dust. We are the most violent species, we're awful, we're miserable. And at the same time, we're also the most altruistic species and the most cooperative and the most compassionate.

How we can be both so awful and so wonderful and how so often the exact same behavior has such different meanings in different contexts. In one setting, you pull a trigger, and it is a horrific, violent, heartless act. In another setting, you do the same exact thing with your muscles and your motor cortex, and you pull a trigger. And by suicidally drawing fire on yourself, you save the lives of a whole bunch of innocent people. The behavior is absolutely the same, the context, a universe apart. 

Why did that person just do that? Because one second ago, this part of the brain activated, that part of the brain went silent. 

Why did those neurons do that just now? What happened in the previous seconds to minute? What sensory stimuli in the environment triggered those neurons to do that? What smells? What sounds what internal signals? And in the previous hours, days, what did hormone levels have to do with it? What your testosterone levels were like this morning? What did they have to do with how sensitive your brain would be to those sensory stimuli?

And from there, you're off and running, what has the previous months been like? Have they been wonderfully stimulating? Have they been boring? Have they been traumatic? Because this whole field of neuroplasticity, the very structure of your brain will reflect with the last half year has been like, and thus the sensitivity to hormones and sensory stimuli and all of that. 

And then you're back to fetal life. Environment does not begin at birth. Trauma dramatically begins the second you are an implanted fertilized egg because your mother's environment, what's in her bloodstream? Is she stressed? Is she frightened? Is she using a substance that's abusive? Is she healthy?

And then back to before you were fertilized. What do your genes have to do with it? Yep, all of these have to do with it. What kind of culture did your ancestors generate 500 years ago? And if you're asking about different types of cultures, you're asking about different types of ecosystems that make for different types of cultures. And then you're ultimately asking about evolution. Why is it that we are so much more cooperative than chimps are, but so much less cooperative than Bonobos are? Why is it that we're so much more pair bonding and monogamous than bonobos are, but we're less monogamous than South American primates are. 

Because of what happened a second ago and a minute ago and an hour ago and a century ago, and all of that to place it in a larger context, why did that behavior occur? Because of what just occurred before this and what just occurred before that?

Now let me give you a sense of what some of these influences look like and why it is that this led me to realize ultimately what this book is about is why we have absolutely, not a shred whatsoever of free will. And let me just give you some examples. And they're not meant to convince you of any of that if you find that to be ludicrous. To give you a sense of where these totally nutty biological influences on behavior are coming from. Okay? So, you are a judge.

I'm not specifying what country, what legal system, what type of judgment, who you're judging. But you're in a situation where you must make a judgment about something about the person in front of you who has done something violent, who you now have to decide are they going to do something like that again? Have they learned their lesson? Have they showed remorse? Can you free them now on parole? Do you send that back to jail longer? What things are going into your decision? And we all know what's going into it. It was freshman philosophy classes and which law school you went to and all sorts of stuff. Let me tell you a little bit about some of the other factors that will significantly influence what kind of decision that judge will make. First one, most acutely this has been studied, published in a prestigious journal some years ago, has been replicated. What's the single best predictor of whether this judge will send this person back to jail or parole them? How many hours it has been since that judge has eaten a meal.

Immediately after lunch, people had a 60% chance of getting parole, by three hours later, 0% chance. Same thing in the morning, top of the morning 60% chance, zero just before lunch.

What that's about is biology. Your brain is expensive. And when your blood glucose levels are low, your brain doesn't work as well. And when levels are low, the most expensive, most important, part of your brain, your frontal cortex is particularly bad at working. What does the frontal cortex do? It makes you control your impulses, to send this person back for another 10 years, to regulate your emotions, to do the hardest thing out there in some circumstances, to try to see the world from somebody else's perspective, to try to understand somebody whose entire lifetime has been utterly different from yours.

And as the minutes tick by, and the blood glucose levels go down, the judges take a shorter time to make a decision and they're less likely to grant parole. This is about energy. You do an experiment. Mid-afternoon you have them drink a sugary drink or one that tastes sugary and is filled with an artificial sugar that doesn't boost up your energy levels. And one group suddenly shows more compassion. One group suddenly is more likely to cooperate in an economic game, less likely to cheat. Oh my god, this is amazing. And you sit those judges down and you say, “Whoa, that's really interesting. A couple of hours ago you let that guy go free, but just now you sent this guy back and they seem to have done the same thing.”

You look at loan officers in a bank and the number of hours it's been since they've eaten a meal, the less likely they are to grant a loan. You look at people looking at CVs, deciding who to interview, and if it's the CV of somebody from an out-group, whatever your culture's equivalent is of an out-group, the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong whatever, as the hours go by, you spend less and less time looking at their CV, until it's lunch. And then you come back, and you are a humanitarian like you cannot believe for about 45 minutes afterward.

Why did that person just do that? Because of their blood glucose levels. So, you've looked at this judge just now who in some cases decides this person is terrifying, and I'm not letting them out on the streets, and in other cases, decide this person’s paid their price to society. What we've just seen is maybe differences in the thresholds of the brain as to what counts as menacing. 

Where'd that come from? And here's one of the significant factors, prenatal environment. Back when you were a fetus, if your mother was very stressed, stressed by socioeconomic stressors, stressed by refugee status, stressed by who knows what, she secreted a lot of stress hormones which got past the placenta, which got in your circulation, which got into your brain, and among other things, caused permanent changes in gene regulation. The incredibly trendy term for it is an epigenetic change. 

And a part of your brain called the amygdala. What's the amygdala about? Fear, anxiety, aggression driven by fear. And what is now identified is exactly which genes are turned on permanently and which ones are turned off. And as a result, if you were in the womb of a stressed woman, your amygdala on the average in adulthood is gonna be bigger than most other people's and more reactive to provocation and have a harder time turning off when it's over with and have a harder time telling the difference between a neutral stimulus and a threatening one. Wow. Why did you decide, this person who looks, prays, eats, loves differently from you is more of a menace than that other person is? Part of it is how your brain was being constructed when you were a fetus. How your brain was being planned for, is how threatening you find the world to be. 

Final example. So, we've got this judge making this decision, and so are they going to grant parole to this out-group member versus this in-group member? Are they going to grant clemency? Are they going to give asylum to these out group people fleeing, try to come into your country. Here's another significant predictor. What culture do you come from? What culture were you raised in 500 years ago? How much of an infectious disease load did your ancestors have? Because if they were dealing with a lot of infectious diseases, they didn't like outsiders, they didn't like people coming in and bringing in diseases. And for the last 500 years, they constructed a culture of xenophobia. One of the predictors across the world of how open people are to strangers is the infectious disease load of their ancestors five centuries ago.

What is going on here? This is the biology rumbling underneath the surface. Why did you do what you just did? It's got something to do with the culture you were raised in and your ancestors. It's got something to do with your blood glucose levels. It's got something to do with what your brain was being pickled in when you were a fetus. We’re biological organisms, and we are nothing more or less than the sum of our biology and the environment with which it interacted that we've had no control over. 

Free will is complete nonsense. There simply is no such thing as free will. We are being controlled by subterranean forces. When you look at our explanations for why we do what we do, they are post hoc. You ask somebody in a brain scanner to make a moral decision about something. And what you could see is the emotional parts of the brain make the decision seconds before the more cognitive parts. The cognitive parts are playing catch up to justify the emotional responses. You have all these sorts of studies showing that. So. my theme since then and a book that I am finishing, which is about how in God's name are we supposed to function, if we accept that there is no free will? How is society supposed to work? How are we supposed to do things so that the roof doesn't collapse in? And what most of the book is about is just clawing my way towards a very, very dismal science. And I don't mean economics. Does science tell us anything about how we're supposed to function? Once people accept that there's no free will, or at the very least that there's so much less free will, that you better rethink the way you make judgments about everything out there?

And the book has two themes. One is throughout history; we have managed to subtract blame out of how we assess some of the troubling things in the world around us. And not only has the roof not collapsed, but we’ve also made the world a more humane place, so we can do it. 

But the other point is some serial murderer is not responsible for what they did. It's going to be a million times harder to convince you that you are not responsible for your amazing resume and your good table matters and anything else that you've ever been praised for.

It's going to be hard to realize this stuff applies to some of the most frightening humans out there, but I'm convinced by now it's going to be much harder to convince us it applies to some of our best traits. So that's kind of what the book was about. And this is what the next book is going to be about. The title is Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.

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