I knew you were going to say that

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University, has published a new book in which he upholds the doctrine of hard determinism, asserting there’s no such thing as free will. Which makes me want to say: “I knew you were going to write that book.” To which he could respond, “I knew you were going to make that bad joke.”

In any case, Adam Plovarchy has written a response to Sapolsky for The Conversation, “A Stanford professor says science shows free will doesn’t exist. Here’s why he’s mistaken.” Plovarchy, a philosopher, concludes:

“Showing nobody is responsible for what they do requires understanding and engaging with all the positions on offer. Sapolsky doesn’t do this…. Interdisciplinary work is valuable and scientists are welcome to contribute to age-old philosophical questions. But unless they engage with existing arguments first, rather than picking a definition they like and attacking others for not meeting it, their claims will simply be confused.”

I have a different, but related, observation regarding Sapolsky’s book. The question of free will vs. determinism gets so much traction in Western culture because of our intellectual history. Western thought has been dominated by Western concepts of a transcendent powerful deity (concepts which predate Christianity, going back at least to Aristotle). During the Enlightenment, John Calvin and others came up with the notion of predestination, a species of hard determinism that has had a major influence on thought in the United States. Given our Calvinist past, Sapolsky’s arguments are likely to have a great deal of emotional resonance for people in the U.S. — arguments for hard determinism are an integral part of Calvinism. No wonder, then, that his book is getting so much press.

This is actually unfortunate, because Sapolsky’s arguments play right into the arguments of the worst of popular Calvinism in the U.S. Our popular understanding of Calvinism has us believing that if you are prosperous and happy, that’s a sign that God has predestined you for heaven; if your life sucks, that’s a sign that God has destined you for hell. And there’s nothing to you can do about it, although those who are prosperous and happy are obviously the ones whom God has chosen to rule over all the others. Indeed, in a 2021 interview with Psychiatric News, Saplosky even says something quite similar to these pop-Calvinist notions:

“[Sapolsky] suggests that those of us who have received a lucky roll of the evolutionary, genetic, and psychosocial roll of the dice have little choice but to take up the task of repairing the world. ‘Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can fix something, make things better. But we have no choice but to try. If you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You have amply proven you have intellectual tenacity, you probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about … warlords or being invisible in your own world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.’”

Instead of the Calvinist God, Sapolsky substitutes an evolutionary, genetic, and psychosocial roll of the dice. Aside from that substitution, this sounds similar to popular U.S. Calvinism. If you wind up as a Stanford professor, you’re one of the lucky humans who gets to try to show others how to live. I guess you could argue that Sapolsky is, in fact, correct — he has been shaped by a psychosocial roll of the dice, so no wonder he winds up sounding like a pop-Calvinist. I just wish he would try a little harder to learn more about the intellectual heritage which has shaped him, apparently without much awareness on his part. Which is the point that Plovarchy is making — at least try not to be ignorant.

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