Dialogue — March 2024

March 2024

Reading time min

Dialogue — March 2024

Free Thinking

Our December cover story delved into Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s latest book, in which he contends that a multitude of factors drives our decisions, leaving no room for free will. 

There is much in Sapolsky’s discussion of free will and moral responsibility that are not essentially scientific questions, and that I find seriously problematic from a philosophical point of view. I develop these concerns in my review of Sapolsky’s book in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here, I will be content to note something striking about the science Sapolsky invokes to establish his conclusion. There are many pitfalls in such research, including difficulties with replication, publication bias (in which there is a preference for provocative conclusions), and so forth. The many theories and their applications to which Sapolsky points are particularly worrisome in these and related respects, rendering the science as dubious as the philosophy, in my opinion.

But here’s the most puzzling and concerning thing. Why did the adolescent Robert not believe in free will? He could not have invoked the copious evidence from myriad disciplines presented in the book to yield this result. (Much of it wasn’t even in existence back then.) Somehow, for reasons totally different from those he brings forward in the book, Sapolsky did not believe in free will (and, presumably, moral responsibility). He then approached the analysis of the scientific evidence, throughout his life, with this antecedent view. (He does not report that he ever changed it, and evidently it became stronger as he proceeded.) A famous scientist is still a human being subject to well-known tendencies toward motivated belief and confirmation bias. Even the most sophisticated among us overvalue positive, and undervalue disconfirming, evidence. We need to evaluate Sapolsky’s conclusions in this light. Not to do so, and simply to accept his extraordinary conclusions without a skeptical eye, would be, if I may put it this way, irresponsible.
John Martin Fischer, ’75, MA ’75
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
UC Riverside

The moment that Sapolsky had his “epiphany” that there must be no free will is essentially identical to a moment of religious revelation described by fanatics through all of human history as the moment they received their “message from God.”

We humans are barely out of the trees. Our understanding of the universe is primitive in the extreme. This may indeed be a vast, indifferent, empty universe, but the sad fact is that we don’t even know if we are but one universe or one of an infinity of universes. A little humility here would be very much in order.
David E. James, ’62, MS ’63, PhD ’67
Nashville, Tennessee

My graduate studies taught me that humans willfully manipulate materials and technologies to create a more desirable future. When done well, the design of shelter, transportation, communication, apparel, and a vast array of products and services can—should—improve the human condition. Design is a creatively optimistic pursuit that has, at its essence, the exercise of free will.
Steven McCarthy, MFA ’85
St. Paul, Minnesota

We humans have many layers of decision algorithms. The experiences that condition us can be real or imaginary—stories, ideologies, cultural imperatives—as Sapolsky would agree. We can be so physically constrained—imprisoned by literal bars or by a dysfunctional body—that the best that free will can manage is wishful thinking. Our biological constraints—hunger, sleep deprivation, addiction—wax and wane, imprisoning us at their worst or releasing us to choose our course when they are assuaged.

When we are not immovably imprisoned, we will weigh the results of our decision algorithms, rerun them with different inputs, discard some and magnify others, and dither at length while we do so (unless in imminent danger, and sometimes even then). Finally, we decide. This is the process of human free will.
Eric E. Sabelman, ’68, MS ’69, PhD ’76
Santa Rosa, California

As a physicist, I am also in the strict determinism camp, though at a more fundamental level than Sapolsky’s fascinating analysis. I find it amusing to consider that his campaign—to treat those who commit heinous acts as simply broken people destined to commit crimes, and to put them into recall status—is itself an effort predetermined by his own upbringing (which was predetermined). Further, society’s response (likely to continue to punish such people) is itself predetermined. It is like a stage production. Sapolsky is destined to undertake this quixotic mission and society is destined to ignore him (or is it?). Such logical loops can quickly make one mad, which is why I choose to pretend my decisions and behaviors are, at least to some degree, made willingly. Like writing this letter.
John E. LaSala, MS ’74, PhD ’87
Wilmington, North Carolina

What is doing the choosing is the unique personal brew of every biological, physical, chemical, and psychologic process or structure that has ever pertained to you. But what is “you” if not that extended biological and experiential universe? I maintain they are one and the same. In which case, saying you have the ability to act or choose is the same as what Sapolsky says. I guess he has a different definition of an individual. I vote with the jury on this one; without [free will] we’ll be living in a world of pain.
Martin Gelbard, ’72
Sherman Oaks, California

I chose to write this letter. The reasons why are unimportant. Whether they were a choice made from free will or predestination is irrelevant. They could be fascinating topics for a philosopher or theologian, but they have no business in a court of law. Sapolsky’s own thesis presumes that part of the environment driving a person’s decisions is society and its rules and repercussions. Those rules aren’t random.

People form societies by agreeing to live by shared rules, some encoded in law precisely to emphasize their significance. As a feedback mechanism we examine the more extreme failure cases to decide—by choice or predestination—both how to respond in the specific case and how to evolve the rules. The predestination of the criminal act, true or not, is not part of the law, because it does not usefully contribute to the outcome. The legal process is predestined to ignore it.
Donald Woods, PhD ’81
Los Altos, California

Asserting that there is no human free will and never has been or will be is something like trying to read a story or a novel backward. You might be able to do it, but it’s hard to grasp how anyone would ever enjoy it!
Kurt Pocsi, MA ’63
San Francisco, California

Professor Sapolsky’s theory isn’t just a poor belief system to set up for anyone facing difficult challenges, it seems a terrible example for our kids. It suggests there’s little point in learning from history, or trying very hard to master lessons our parents or professors try to teach, and that when undecided about how to deal with difficult times, we might as well just shrug. It also seems pretty insulting to the accomplishments of people who overcame so many hardships to contribute so much to humanity. I could go on, but I choose not to.
Bernie Lahde, ’72
La Quinta, California

Philosophers should have no fear that determinism is a school of philosophy but rather just a simple history of every one of our lives. Free will, on the other hand, will be grist for the philosophers for a while to come. The concept is nothing but humanity’s effort at self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. It is also a construct to soften the anxiety of the mystery of life and death, and to counter mankind’s feebleness. 
Myron Gananian, ’51, MD ’59
Menlo Park, California

Do we have free will? 
Here’s what you said:

Chart that show's results of survey if we have free will. Yes is 43.5%, No is 15.9%, and In Some Ways 40.6%


If there is no free will, then there really are good and bad people—something we no longer admit.
Bob Avakian, MS ’70
Tulsa, Oklahoma

I strongly believe we are God’s favorite creation, and one of the greatest gifts—with the most responsibilities—we were given is free will. We have amazing capabilities to go beyond our personal current circumstances. 
JB Blackwelder, ’93
Middleburg Heights, Ohio

In Some Ways

To make a clumsy analogy to particle physics, I think that deterministic factors can map the probability space of human behavior similar to how one would map the probable location of an electron, but there is some element of randomness or conscious choice that ultimately determines what choices we make. While I will not rule out some ultimate explanation of all behavior, I personally think the mystery of free will makes consciousness terrific to experience and contemplate.
Stephen Galdi, MS ’18, PhD ’22
New York, New York

Life is not a level playing field. However, we should exercise our apparent free will to believe we have free will for at least two pragmatic reasons: [If] we do, then we have profound moral responsibilities, and if we don’t, nothing has been lost; and even if we have only a smidgen of free will, as we see in chaos theory, tiny factors can have unimaginably disproportionate effects.
Bennett Barouch
San Francisco, California


We ascribe to “free will” those behaviors that we do not understand. We often do not understand why other people act the way they do, and the easiest explanation is that their behavior is something intrinsic to their character, not a complex mixture of external influences over which they have no control. 
Matthew Pauly, ’21, MS ’22
Stanford, California

We are chemical machines: nothing more, nothing less. 
Pierre Beynet
Houston, Texas

About the ACC

A December story covered Stanford’s and Cal’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. It included a reference to Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels, whose blunder once cost the Golden Bears a Rose Bowl victory. 

My father, Roy Riegels, whom I characterize as famous rather than infamous, played against Georgia Tech in the ’29 Rose Bowl. With Cal and Stanford in the ACC, Cal finally will have the opportunity to again play Georgia Tech and to avenge its narrow Rose Bowl loss.
Dave Riegels, ’65, JD ’68
Sacramento, California

Beyond the common knowledge that it is football revenues that dominate the rationale, there are other compelling criticisms of the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The first is the obvious geographically absurd fact that Stanford will compete with 15 schools well east of the Mississippi and only two others that are not. No well-educated sports fan will overlook this incongruity. Of more significance is the toll on the athletes themselves in time and travel, which the article mentions but attempts to minimize and justify on the basis of “competing against the best.” Furthermore, in an age where travel by jet airplane is a major cause of carbon release leading to the current climate crisis, multiple Pacific Coast teams flying routinely to Atlantic Coast campuses places the athletic program at odds with emerging climate, energy, and environmental policy.

There are ways to remedy this blatantly irrational move: Allow most sports to continue competing in western athletic conferences; other West Coast campuses do exactly that. Let the football team’s donors pay for the extra air travel to the ACC campuses. And finally, why not advocate for change to the now absurdly named Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and ACC, and name them after the television and media corporations which, in truth, drive such decisions about who should compete with whom? Perhaps honesty is the best policy, even in sports.
Robert Thayer, MA ’71
Davis, California

One of the mitigation measures described is to hire more sports psychologists to help student-athletes deal with the stress of extended travel across multiple time zones. Is that really going to be our new recruiting pitch? “We’ve got more sports psychologists than any other school.”
Robert H. Ellis, MS ’73
Carmel Valley, California

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.