Image of the book determinded

This is not an easy topic to discuss, and you are not going to like it. There are over 400 grueling, scientific pages in the book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will by Robert Sapolsky. Thoughtful, caring people would have stopped after the subtitle “Without Free Will”. But unlike most, I was determined to finish it.

I am determined to finish most of the books I start. You see, my brain is programmed with dopamine and other neurotransmitters to seek the pleasure of completing tasks. As such, I feel satisfied to finish a book, and defeated when I cannot complete a book. More importantly, I have a cerebral cortex that was molded by my genes, epigenetics, and environment to be able to plan for the future and eschew temptations and distractions. As such, I am programmed to have the ability to sit quietly, read books, and get satisfaction from finishing them. It is almost as if these qualities that were baked into my being were determined by tens of thousands of years of evolution, my childhood, and what is available in my environment.

This book hammers this point home. One of the running lines in the book is…

“We are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment.”

This is difficult to hear and even harder to believe. What about all the really difficult things I accomplish? What about all the things that make me think I am better than others? Can’t I decide for myself what my destiny is or at least what I am going to eat next?

According to Sapolsky, there is no “You” driving the ship. The “You” are a bunch of neurons and chemicals that have been affected by the second, minute, hour, day, etc. right before the “decision” is made. From brain scans, the people behind the computer can determine that your brain already made the decision before you first thought you made the decision let alone started moving your arm. If there are circuits in your brain firing before “You” even know what decision you are making, then what is causing those primer circuits to make the decision? If we could determine what is causing the primer circuits to fire, what is causing that thing before to fire to end in the chain of you getting the energy to get up and go to the store?

To step off this train for a moment, determinism doesn’t go so far to say that every event in the future is pre-planned. There is a sort of randomness to life, especially when you get to the scale of quantum mechanics. However, if you really studied someone’s brain such that you knew their genes tendencies, you knew their childhood up to this moment, you knew all the key memories that drives their emotions, and you knew their state leading up to a question, then the realm of possible answers they would give would boil down to just a couple answers and likely a predictable answer given what is known.

You could even know that the person likes to be coy and pick an unobvious response. Combing through their memories in their brain, there is likely a memory close by that is completely tangential to the discussion. From there, they will pick their nonsensical, random response. But there are only so many of those responses in recent memory that they would likely run out soon. Our brains are not infinite and we must pick something based on something we have seen or combined from past experiences.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:

“Sam Harris argues convincingly that it’s impossible to successfully think of what you’re going to think next.”

“It can be unsettling when a sentence doesn’t end in the way that you potato.”

“We are not captains of our ships; our ships never had captains.”

It can be depressing if you look at the negative side of not having free-will. But it can also be a life-changing perspective shift in the positive if you look closely. That person that is doing the thing you don’t like…it is not their fault. They are programmed differently and are acting according to the moment just before and the moment just before that. The alcoholic is not going to stop drinking because of will-power, but only if their environment and mind are shifted where they benefit more from not-drinking than drinking. We can remove the blame.

Having no free-will can also shift our focus to enjoy the ride. What if we started accentuating our natural strengths and tendencies and the natural strengths and tendencies of our friends and family instead of trying to change their weaknesses. We don’t try to make a bird swim since it got low scores on the swimming test. Let birds be birds, let fish be fish, and let humans be human. Our genes have enough generative-drive to keep studying, learning, and growing even if there is no free will.