Tuesday, March 26, 2024

"Determined" by Robert Sapolsky

 Robert Sapolsky is a great scientist with deep wisdom to share about humanity.  His recent book, Determined, is another must-read.  

The first half or so of the book details the many factors causing a given behaviour which are outside of what could be called "free will."  For example, hereditary factors, evolved traits, endocrine factors, social and cultural factors, childhood adversity, abuse, poverty, neglect, or discrimination, or on the other hand extreme enrichment through wealth and having good parents, home, and family; and the environmental conditions of the day or the hour.   Sapolsky reminds us, with evidence to back it up, how influential these factors are.  One chapter is dedicated to the Libet experiments, which demonstrate some degree of neural evidence of a decision before a person is subjectively aware of having decided, therefore calling into question whether our sense of making a decision is something like an illusion.  Other chapters are devoted to physics, such as about quantum mechanics and chaos theory; he argues that free will is not to be found in these areas.  

His strongest thesis, which he states a few times in the book, is that even if free will does exist, it is less influential than we believe it is -- that is, we underestimate the impact of other factors.  But often he strays from this strong thesis, into a state of denying the existence of any free will whatsoever, and then reflecting about the moral consequences of this.  

I think in many areas he is overconfident about findings that are quite debatable.  While the many genetic and environmental factors mentioned above are all indisputable, there could be a lot of debate (which he does not engage in) about the magnitude of some of these particular factors, or about the soundness or biases of the existing studies on these matters.  Just as in his previous book (also a great book), Behave, he quotes study data that really ought to be debated vigorously rather than accepted as the final truth on a matter.  In the current book, he even acknowledges these issues with Behave, but then he proceeds to do the same thing again anyways.  I'm not saying he's wrong about these claims, only that he overstates, at least through insinuation, the certainty of the evidence supporting them.  

 In quantum mechanics, for example, the most common view is that events in the quantum realm take place in a truly random fashion; such randomness eliminates the possibility of deterministic precision.   At the very least, there may be certain deterministic statements that are almost undeniably true (such as that you or I will die in less than 100 years; or that the sun will enter a red giant phase in several billion years), but there will always be a shadow of uncertainty around the specifics, or even the tiniest flicker of uncertainty about the event itself; some of this uncertainty is not due just to incomplete information to make a prediction, it is fundamental to physics itself.     Such quantum events I think are relevant to human events, as for example they could determine whether a particular DNA mutation takes place at a particular time, with very important consequences regarding an individual's survival, disease state, or passage of genes to the next generation.    Mind you, I discovered one group of physicists espousing an idea called "superdeterminism," which accounts for some of the peculiarities of quantum experiments (such as those dealing with Bell's inequality) by positing that apparently random quantum events are all completely determined, thus one cannot actually modify an experiment in a truly arbitrary manner, since the decision about the supposedly randomized experimental manipulation was already completely determined in advance.  Yet, I think we would have to agree that this is far from a settled matter in physics, and we would need to step back from making strong claims about this area.  

The strongest conclusion Sapolsky makes based on his thesis about determinism is that we therefore need to be more empathic and gently understanding about all human behaviour (of course, his thesis really takes away the possibility that we could somehow "choose" to be more understanding, since if this empathy occurred it all would have been determined in advance).  The best we could do to analyze this moral issue, while accepting his thesis of an absence of free will, is to consider an ideal moral code (in some kind of Platonic "realm of forms") which would have optimal fairness and justice.  This is in fact what moral codes, including those in the legal system, strive to do.  But in the light of our knowledge about free will, what changes if any would be best in terms of modifying moral or legal rules?  

He argues that dealing with criminal behaviour in a blaming or punitive manner is not rational, since the causes for crime have been determined not by the individual's "free will" but by genetic and environmental factors outside that person's control.  He similarly argues that praising people or celebrating great accomplishments is irrational, since the accomplishments, or capacity for hard work, etc. were also determined by factors outisde the individual's control.  So basically when we congratulate someone for a great accomplishment,  we are granting the person credit for factors that were really the product of millions of years of prior good luck.  

But of course, is this how we would really want to live?  To stop congratulating people after they do good things?  Or to always be meekly understanding when people do terrible things?  I agree with Sapolsky that improved scientific understanding about causality should prompt us to be more humble, and to be less inclined to reflexively blame or punish bad behaviour while motivated by reflexive emotions.   

But part of normal life involves congratulating people.  Admiring accomplishment is like admiring beauty in nature.   Maybe there should be a little bit of humble acknowledgement of those factors that contributed to the accomplishment outside of one's own "free will."  But this is part of the etiquette in almost any awards ceremony, though most people don't go into remote evolutionary causes for their good fortune--they tend to stop at family, friends, and teachers.  

Sapolsky cites various egregious examples of recklessly excessive violent punishments through history, leading to his own stance of advocating leniency in the justice system.  He has a very admiring tone around Norway's approach to having what most in the world would consider a shockingly lenient prison sentence for a notorious mass murderer.   While there is much to admire in Norway's civilization and justice system, I think this practice of strictly limited sentencing fails to address a massive component of consideration in criminal sentencing, which is the psychological impact of the sentence on victims, and families of victims (who are also victims) of the crime.  A reason to keep a mass murderer in custody permanently is to treat and prevent anxiety and distress among victims or families of victims.  It need not be motivated by our base (but highly evolved) urges to punish, or by irrational overestimation of subsequent criminal risk (scientific estimates of recidivism risk should obviously impact management of criminal offenders, though the accuracy of recidivism risk estimation is way less than 100%). It should definitely be influenced by considerations of the impact of the sentencing on the health and psychological well-being of victims.  

So all in all, a very important and impactful book.  I have to admit I find it disturbing to know that "free will" even if it does exist, is rather less complete in determining behaviour than most of us believe.   But in dealing with scientific findings, we need to be prepared to consider things if the evidence supports them, even if the findings might be disconcerting.

How does this book guide our understanding of mental health, or of therapies for mental health problems?  For one thing, we should be reminded to reflect on our tendency to be reflexively judgmental, or to blame people for what could be seen as failures of will.  If we do engage in judgment or blame, it should be guided by rationality, as to whether this would be helpful to improve the situation for all.  Often such blame or judgment is not actually helpful.  Arguably some forms of blame could be a normal motivational influence in humans, but probably we use this too often and too heavy-handedly.