Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 4 - Loosening the treaties of fate

In Part 3 of this series, I argued that organisms really do think about what to do, really do come to their reasons by reasoning, and really do make decisions, in ways that cannot be pre-determined.   If the neural computations are causally sensitive to semantic content, rather than detailed syntax, and those semantics relate to organism-level concepts, and all that information is integrated in a hugely contextually interdependent way, and is used to direct behavior over nested timescales, in ways that cannot be either algorithmically or physically pre-specified, based on criteria configured into the circuits derived from learning, which embody reasons of the organism and not any of its parts, then I would say that just is the organism – as an integrated self with continuity through time – deciding what to do.   I also argued that more fundamental principles of indeterminacy and emergence and organisation are the things that enable organisms themselves to come to be in charge o

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 3 - Where do intentions come from?

In his book Determined , Robert Sapolsky argues that our intentions arise in a completely deterministic fashion from the combined effects of all the prior causes that have acted on us, right up to the moment of action. He contends (i) that our intentions determine what we do, and (ii) that we have no control over their formation – they just appear when we are confronted with each successive situation we encounter. Referring to a classic turn-back-the-clock kind of thought experiment, he says:   But no matter how fervent, even desperate, you are, you can’t suc­cessfully wish to have wished for a different intent . And you can’t meta your way out— you can’t successfully wish for the tools (say, more self- discipline) that will make you better at successfully wishing what you wish for. None of us can. (page 46, original emphasis)   Here, Sapolsky seems to be arguing for psychological determinism . Your behavior at any moment is fully determined by the sets of reasons that you brin

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 2 - assessing the scientific evidence

In Part 1 of this series, I explored the different philosophical premises that Robert Sapolsky and I bring to the question of free will, in our respective books, Determined and Free Agents . Here, I will examine the scientific evidence that Sapolsky marshals to make his argument that all our decisions are fully determined. Part 2   No, but yeah, but no – assessing the scientific evidence   Sapolsky presents an array of experimental evidence from studies of various kinds to support his claim that we are completely driven by all the causal factors in our past or intervening on us in the present. The word study appears 163 times in the text, in fact, and it felt a bit like being pummeled into submission at times. I’m all for providing experimental evidence to support one’s claims, but in this case, much of the supposed evidence is completely unreliable. The fields that are cited the most include social psychology, especially social “priming” experiments, ca

Undetermined - a response to Robert Sapolsky. Part 1 - a tale of two neuroscientists

Free will is in the air. Among neuroscientists at least, the question of whether we are in control of our actions has been attracting renewed attention of late, driven in large part by the successes of the field in laying bare the neural machinery of behaviour. It’s thus not a total coincidence that two books by neuroscientists on this topic – Determined , by Robert Sapolsky, and Free Agents , by yours truly – have been published so close together (both in October, 2023). What may be more surprising to readers is that we reach such divergent conclusions on the topic. With thanks to Bill Sullivan   That we can survey the same evidence and interpret it so differently may suggest to some that the question of free will is not really an empirical one at all. Of course many of the issues are metaphysical, but both Prof. Sapolsky (Sapolsky hereafter) and myself think that the science of decision-making is at least relevant to these philosophical discussions. In short, he thinks that science