Why You Don't Have Free Will: Your Breakfast Food, Biology, and Culture

We've all heard the line "free will is an illusion". But it may be much more an allusion—to society and culture and our surroundings—than we've ever given it credit for.

Robert Sapolsky: So somewhere in all of this studying the biology behavior, somewhere in there when you’re realizing activity levels in this part of the brain one second before this act: what you had for breakfast all the way back to like what culture your ancestors evolved to—All of these are influencing your behavior. Most of these variables we’re not even aware of. They’re subliminal. We never would have expected it. Inevitably somewhere in there you’ve got to sit down and start having the Free Will Discussion. So is there any free will in there?

And the polite thing that I’ve sort of said for decades is that “Well, if there is free will, it’s in all the boring places, and those places are getting more and more cramped.” If you want to insist that today you decided to floss your teeth starting on your upper teeth rather than your lower teeth, rather than the other way around, that that is an act of free will—Whatever, I’ll grant that one to you. That’s where the free will is.

In reality I don’t think there’s any free will at all. If you look at the things that come into account as to whether or not someone is going to do the right thing in the next two seconds amid a temptation to do otherwise, the variables in there reflect everything from whether they’re having gas pains that day because of something unpleasant they ate that morning—That makes us more selfish, more impulsive, et cetera—to what epigenetic effects occurred to them when they were a first trimester fetus.

When you look at the number of things we recognize now that are biological—organic—where 500 years ago or five years ago we would have had a harsh moral judgment about it. Instead we now know oh, that’s a biological phenomenon.

When we look at that, either we can say the last 500 years of realizing all of this biology is going to stop right here and there’s never going to be a new piece of knowledge in that area—Yeah, there’s areas of behavior we still can’t explain biologically. But if all you can do is see the logical direction we’re going with that is what we’re going to get to the point is recognizing yeah, we’re biological organisms.

This notion of free will, for want of a less provocative word, is nothing but a myth. What’s going to be really challenging though is to figure out how you structure a society that actually runs humanely built around the notion that we are merely biological organisms. And that one I haven’t a clue. If someone tells me, you know, “Oh, nice shirt you’re wearing today,” and I say “Oh gee, thanks!” I’ve just shown that on some fundamental level I have trouble accepting there’s no such thing as free will. No: actually I picked this shirt today because the culture I come from has these values and my visual, you know, color receptors told me that this shirt matches with this.

You know you still have a reflex to attribute some sort of free will and sort of tiny little domains. If that’s going to prove horrible and too difficult to overcome, that’s fine. Where we need to do the heavy lifting is when we’re making judgments about volition in areas where we harshly judge people. There we really have to do the hard work of thinking through that there’s not a lot of free will going on there.

'Societal conditioning' might sound like either a grim Orwellian brainwashing technique or a fancy new way to wash your hair, depending on how warped your sense of humor is. But your surroundings—from the breakfast cereal you eat to the very design of the streets you live on—might have much more influence on how you think than most have ever given it credit for. Robert Sapolsky posits that "I picked this shirt today because the culture I come from has these values and my visual color receptors told me that this shirt matches with this." It might be far fetched to some, but consider this: if the street you'd grown up on was wide (say, a Texas highway) and at age 30 you moved to a tiny cobblestone street, you'd feel cramped in. Apply this to everything around you and you'll get a sense of what Sapolsky is talking about.

Robert Sapolsky's most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

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