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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Free Will

Whether human beings have free will is a question that elicits fierce debate not only in the realm of religious and philosophical doctrine, but also in the scientific world. One scientist in particular, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, might be the considered the godfather of determinism. In a recently published work, Determined, he lays out the case based on forty years of research and study.


Sapolsky is no rock throwing scientific anarchist, but a reasoned and thoughtful student of human behavior. He starts from a simple observation that would not elicit great controversy from the scientific community or anyone who has a passing familiarity with human biology. He reasons that it is impossible for any brain—and by inclusion, any single neuron to act without the influence of external forces beyond its control—however slight and of however small duration.


Most of us would concede the role of seemingly programmed responses—the surge of adrenaline in the face of a threat, the profound emotions stirred by oxytocin when we are embraced—just two examples of chemical actions that take place without conscious direction on our part. We also know that our genetic makeup pre-disposes us to physical attributes and liabilities—but does it also affect our behavior? Studies of twins separated at birth and brought up in differing environments offer suggestive proof that behavior—to a discernible degree is baked into us at conception.

Analysis of human behavior often devolves into a nature vs nurture debate between behaviorists and cognivists. It is difficult for us to accept the idea that our choices in life, career, or romantic partner among so many other decisions we make in our lifetime are fundamentally beyond our conscious control. Our tendency when confronted by evidence of the myriad of external influences that bear on our choices is to dismiss it, believing that it is psychological babble. It is made more problematic by the focus of psychology on affect rather than brain science, grounding our discomfort in the murky universe of emotion.


But consider whether we are really unpredictable blobs of protoplasm prompted by our Freudian associations or Jungian archetypes. How do we explain the uncanny ability of computer algorithms to predict our future actions based on our preferences and past decisions. More recently, some have been shaken by the eerie cognition of AI programs that seem able to anticipate our every thought. Are these highly nuanced conjuring tricks or genuine examples of the degree to which we are so subtly acted upon by factors beyond even our peripheral awareness?


What is at stake is a crucial—dare I say pivotal, issue that calls into question our very definition of self, and in the extreme confounds ethics, morality and law. It tears at the fabric of society and would rob us of the motivations that drive us to achieve. To say that our fate hangs on the balance is not, in this context, hyperbole.


If Sapolsky is at one end of the argument regarding free will, another neuroscientist, Dr. Peter Tse is an equally persuasive defender of our endlessly idiosyncratic behavior. He argues that while it is true we are constantly affected by external forces outside of our awareness or control, they act as parameters or boundaries. He argues that radically different responses to identical inputs whether in individuals or among entire populations demonstrate the fallacy of determinism. Those responses illustrate a range of possible outcomes reflecting a limitless variability of possible choices.

Ultimately the contentions of behaviorists and cognitivists collide when confronted by the possibility of a world in which humans have lost faith in free will. Would they devolve –engaging in every immoral, anti-social and unlawful act, or sink into profound apathy and self-destructive torpor bereft of the motivation to go on living? I’ll give Fredric Nietzsche the last word on this: “The strongest knowledge (that of the total freedom of the human will) is nonetheless the poorest in successes: for it always has the strongest opponent, human vanity”.

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