Why a Stanford professor’s claim that science disproves free will is flawed

Why a Stanford professor's claim that science disproves free will is flawed

The concept of free will has long been debated, with many people believing that they have the ability to make choices. However, Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s recent book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, argues that science shows this belief is an illusion.

Sapolsky presents the idea of determinism, which suggests that our actions are determined by various factors such as our environment, upbringing, genes, and culture. According to determinism, we are not truly free to make choices, as our actions are predetermined by these external influences.

One of Sapolsky’s controversial claims is that nobody is morally responsible for their actions. While murderers can be locked up for the safety of others, they do not deserve punishment according to Sapolsky’s viewpoint.

However, only 11% of philosophers agree with Sapolsky’s position, while 60% believe that determinism and free will can coexist. This raises the question of whether Sapolsky has misunderstood free will or if the philosophers have failed to grasp the science behind determinism.

The debate centers around the definition of free will and responsibility. Some argue that having alternatives and the ability to choose between them is essential for free will. However, counterexamples suggest that lacking alternatives does not necessarily mean lacking free will. The key factor is how the decision is made.

Sapolsky’s arguments are criticized for lacking a clear argument for why his definition of free will is correct. Compatibilists, on the other hand, believe that humans are agents who act for moral reasons and are responsible for their actions, even if those actions are determined by external factors.

Compatibilists argue that being constrained by determinism is not the same as being physically constrained. Failing to save a drowning child because of physical restraints is an excuse, while failing to save them because of a lack of care is cause for condemnation.

Some readers may still find themselves unconvinced, suggesting that even the decision to stay in a room or ignore a child is influenced by factors beyond their control. However, this assumption does not prove that having alternatives or being undetermined is the only way to have free will.

The debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists revolves around whether lacking alternatives undermines free will. Incompatibilists argue that it does, while compatibilists believe that as long as the decision comes from the individual in a relevant way, free will is still present.

Sapolsky’s mistake seems to be approaching the question purely from a scientific perspective, without considering the metaphysical and normative aspects of free will and moral responsibility. Philosophers have been exploring these questions for centuries, and interdisciplinary work is valuable, but it requires engaging with existing arguments rather than picking a definition and attacking others for not meeting it.

In conclusion, the debate surrounding free will is complex and nuanced. Sapolsky’s book raises important questions, but it is essential to consider all perspectives and engage with existing arguments before drawing conclusions.

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