Leading neuroscientist on free will

recently read an interview with Robert Sapolsky. He discussed free will. Here is a quote from that interview:
The perspective I take on all of this — and not surprisingly, I study the brain; I study hormones; I study genes; I think about evolution; I don’t have a whole lot of belief in free will. And to be honest, I don’t think we have any free will whatsoever. I think we are the outcomes of the sheer random, good and bad biological luck that each of us has stumbled into.

And in that regard the criminal justice system makes no sense at all. In fact, some years ago I got the MacArthur Foundation to fund this whole network and the proposal I sent to them was entitled something like, “Why the criminal justice system should be abolished.” And I actually meant it.
How does a Christian feel about such statements? Doesn’t this call into question faith in God? Thanks!

This train of thought has been around forever, long before Robert Sapolsky. I have always found it to be steeped in the vanity that while most individuals are rats running around the skinner box in their little deterministic strait jackets, that somehow the enlightened have slipped the surely bounds of earth and ascended to some higher plane of self awareness.

If individual behavior is determined, then society which is a collective of individuals, is also so as much or more. Conversely, the rules and mores of such a determined society play back to our determined individual behavior and attitudes. If the individual is not responsible for her behavior, then neither is society even if meting out the most sadistic of sanctions. Whatever the merit of the free will debate, as a practical matter society can only function where both the individual and society as a whole are held accountable in as humane, fair, and effective fashion as is possible.


thanks for the answer. it bothers me a lot that most neuroscientists say that we have no freedom at all, all our decisions are nothing more than an illusion. Doesn’t this challenge Christianity?

I do not think so myself, but others will disagree. I have never thought there any difference that I select chocolate over vanilla ice cream because I was determined as opposed to predestined. Chocolate it is either way.

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From Vert Dider’s interview with Sapolsky, [Robert Sapolsky: Justice and morality in the absence of free will | Full [Vert Dider] (Dec 27, 2020)], I think Sapolsky would say that it should challenge a person’s belief in God, choice of faith community, and search for purpose. But I don’t believe in Free Will, and I currently have more gratitude to God our Father and to my Lord Jesus Christ than I have ever had in my life. Go figure …


I’m not sure it’s true that most neurologists hold such a view. Of course many would want to qualify what is meant by free will to take into account the qualified free will which most of us enjoy. But I think even philosophy majors get over such far fetched ideas as living in a totally deterministic world by the end of the sophomore year; at about the same time we give up the notion of living a purely subjective world.


Robert Sapolsky

  • Sapolsky was born in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrants from the Soviet Union. His father, Thomas Sapolsky, was an architect … Robert was raised an Orthodox Jew and spent his time reading about and imagining living with silverback gorillas. By age 12, he was writing fan letters to primatologists …
  • Sapolsky describes himself as an atheist. He stated in his acceptance speech for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award, “I was raised in an Orthodox [Jewish] household, and I was raised devoutly religious up until around age 13 or so. In my adolescent years, one of the defining actions in my life was breaking away from all religious belief whatsoever.”

Does anyone else find this to be an extremely dangerous view to be held by the ‘intelectual elite’? No? Just me? Ok, thanks


Hmmmm. Why would it make a Christian question faith in God do you think?

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Definitely “breathtaking”, anyway. I have no idea what he proposes as an alternate to it: rolling dice? Anybody know? or do I have to do my own research?


Hi. what about sin? if our choice is just an illusion and there is no free will, then we cannot choose to sin or not.

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here is the link to the full interview

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Also faith in God. If I don’t choose to believe in God or be an atheist, then who chooses? Maybe God is just a construct in the brain, just an illusion?

Aah. Thanks for explaining. Well, one guy’s thoughts don’t influence me much. Like MarkD mentioned the idea that our thoughts or will are all determined is quickly abandoned by most students early on.


I think there are some real brain differences that make faith easier or harder. I’d like to think differently on that one, but someone like Temple Grandin (she is autistic and famous for her humane work with farm animals and insights into their understanding of their environment) have talked about their own ability or inability to understand faith at all.

Personal observation of friends and relatives with brain injuries has also convinced me that we are not as in control of our Selves as we wish we were, and are to a large degree dependent on the bodies we live in.

While I don’t think we are merely brains on a stick, our individual physical brains do make an enormous (and to me mysterious) difference in what and how we understand.

But I don’t believe that our Selves are independent of God and God’s grace. How God works in and through us is something beyond my understanding, and how God moves a person to belief is not clear to me at all. However, I have a great deal of comfort in Ephesians 2: 8&9 that by grace I have been saved through faith, and this (the article “this” points to the entire situation of God’s grace saving me through faith, not just grace or faith) is not of myself but is a gift of God…All of it. The grace, the faith, the salvation are a gift from God. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t choose anything.
So, I’m not convinced of an entirely “free will” either. But I have no way of explaining the mechanism that brings faith about. (and I lose no sleep over it, either)

Peace to you, ARus.


If there is no free will in the way that Sapolsky and others like him claim, then his proposal to eliminate the criminal justice system is pointless - as Ron pointed out, it implies that society has no free will to choose to get rid of the criminal justice system. I doubt that Sapolsky would appreciate it if I claimed that my lack of free will caused me to bop him over the head with a two by four in an attempt to knock some sense into him.

The reality is that physical events can be interpreted as deterministic or as free will. People like to claim that science supports whichever one they favor, but the reality is that science does not tell us that. In particular, evolution gets invoked as supposedly supporting free will and as supporting determinism. In turn, free will and determinism both get invoked as supposedly better supporting one’s political stances.

The version of determinism promoted by Sapolsky is a rather naive version, functioning primarily as an excuse. Much more sophisticated determinism exists, but this echoes the “new” atheists justifying their poor philosophy by attacking philosophy in its thorough lack of knowledge joined to pretensions of authority.


LOL! I found “an answer”… in the transcript that @ARus provided a link to, to wit:

  • LEVITT: O.K., but wait, let me challenge you a little bit on this. So I don’t know enough about biology to say anything about free will, but I still don’t get the leap towards abolishing the criminal justice system because I can think of three reasons why we might — I’ll use the word punish but I’m using the word punish quite broadly — three reasons why we punish criminals.
  • And one of them is retribution or moral outrage. And clearly, given your arguments, you would say that is not deserved, that these are people who couldn’t have made different choices and we shouldn’t have any sort of moral outrage towards them.
  • But there’s also incapacitation, the fact that these are dangerous people, we want to take them off of the streets. Or deterrence, that even if they don’t deserve to be thought badly of, it is still true that many of these people respond to incentives, and so they might do less crime when facing punishment. Do you disagree with that characterization of the world?
  • *SAPOLSKY: Not at all. Organisms can have their behavior pretty dramatically shaped by reward and punishment under certain circumstances. It’s a tool. Deterrence also for society looking at, wow that would be a drag to be locked away forever after. I was using a word for this a number of years ago that nobody paid any attention to, but which now has its own special edge to it, which is we need to be thinking of a quarantine model.
  • Somebody has a terminal disease which makes them dangerous to other people, and it’s not their ■■■■ fault and we can’t cure it, and what you want to do is give them the most normal life possible, the most unconstrained one, where nonetheless, they are not able to damage anybody or themselves in the process. And what those pieces put together wind up omitting is exactly the first one you said, which was retribution.
  • So if you’re going to go out on a limb and say if we really are going to recognize that we are nothing more or less than biological organisms, not only do you need to abolish the criminal justice system, you also need to abolish every high school graduation having a valedictorian. Because not only will blame and punishment make no sense, but praise and reward doesn’t either, it’s just ■■■■ luck.
  • We need a massive rethinking about both reward and punishment because none of us are anything more than our biological luck. And if that sounds totally absurd and ridiculous — like, “how in hell you’re supposed to think that way?” — what we need to do is reflect on 400 years ago.
  • If you were the most thoughtful, reflective, educated, civic-minded bleeding heart liberal, and you were asked to explain why every now and then somebody’s eyes would roll up and they would suddenly shake, and fall to the ground, and spasm, and have a seizure, you had a scientific explanation for it, which is the person had consorted with Satan. And there was a medical intervention at the time, which is you burned them at the stake.
  • And it would have been inconceivable at the time for somebody to accept that someday you would think completely differently about that. And it only took us about 300 years to do that with epilepsy. Only took us about 50 years to figure out that lousy, heartless, cold mothers were not the cause of schizophrenia, and it only has taken us about 30, 40 years to figure out that laziness and lack of motivation is not the explanation for dyslexia. We’ve totally subtracted out the notion that Satan has anything to do with an epileptic seizure and society hasn’t fallen apart.
  • And no one is saying it’s easy, but the more we learn about the biology of us, the more it’s clear that we have to get that mindset. And I can’t do it most of the time. I hear about some appalling mass shooting and I’m thinking, “fry the bastard.” And then I, two seconds later, have to say, “Wait a second, I’m working on a death penalty case right now with a guy with a history of frontal cortical damage. What am I doing saying ‘fry the guy?’” It’s a hard thing to do.
  • And we have to accept the fact that whatever our views are about blame and reward and all that stuff now, somebody’s not that far in the future is going to be looking back at us and being appalled at the confidence with which we made decisions amid our ignorance.
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Don’t think so. Regardless life is already happening. The game is afoot and you can’t just freeze the game and come back to it later. Even if someone actually believes it is illusory we do actually think we are making decisions and we think we actually work with others toward decisions regarding public policy and the law. Perfect or not we already have them in place with enforcement mechanisms. Nobody much cares if a few starry eyed sub-sophomores don’t think it is fair or justified. We will proceed with our supposedly unjustified societal actions which the same idealists probably don’t think is even possible anyhow.


P.S. I found and quoted Sapolsky’s answer. Whether or not I buy into is is another thing. I note that he acknowledges the effectiveness of reward and punishment “under certain circumstances”. And, IMO, jail and prison sentences serve as quarantines. I was just curious what his “answer” might be.

I note that, like Sam Harris, he uses the the word “luck” a lot.

I’m still as much a determinist as I was, but I agree with you: we humans tend “to actually think we are making decisions and we think we actually work with others toward decision regarding public policy and the law.” I just think the notion of free will muddies monergistic theology: we aren’t as much “masters of our fate and captains of our soul” as William Ernest Henley fans would like folks to believe.

On the other hand, I did learn stuff about baboons that I didn’t know and, more importantly, about Adverse Childhood Experience (A.C.E.) Test Scores.

  • SAPOLSKY: …and this is this whole world of trying to quantify just how awful somebody’s childhood was, what sort of adversity they experienced, and it has been formalized now into what is an A.C.E. Score, and that’s Adverse Childhood Experiences. And this is a metric of: were you witness to abuse, physical, psychological or sexual? Were you a victim of poverty? Did you witness violence? Was there a substance abuser in your home? Was there somebody incarcerated? Was your family unstable?
  • And essentially, what you see there is for each additional point you get on your bad news A.C.E. score, there’s an increase in your likelihood of various stress related diseases, of having a history of antisocial violence. If you were female, a likelihood of a teen pregnancy. A likelihood of substance abuse and dependency.
  • And when you look at the kids who are coming in with A.C.E. scores that are through the roof, P.T.S.D. is the most gentle way of describing the mess that they are, and it’s a mess of constructing a brain that has to conclude nothing is ever safe, and nothing is ever reliable, and don’t plan for the future because getting through right now is going to be big enough of a challenge.
  • Combat trauma is a way in which like 15, 20 percent of people come back with P.T.S.D. I think the study suggests that kids with high A.C.E. scores they’re coming in with much higher rates of P.T.S.D. And for them, that’s having survived their childhood, the coping skills they had to acquire pathologically.

I just answered the 10 questions and scored “0”, which explains why I’m such a pleasant, well-adjusted guy, I guess.

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Sapolsky is obviously right with regard to freewill, free… thinkers have always known this. When he’s got a superior, feasible system to criminal justice he should let us know. Theology is even far less justified fiction than criminal justice of course: All the stuff we make up about damnation from a few ancient metaphors.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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