I haven’t believed in free will for decades, so I didn’t need the first half of this book to convince me that it’s a joke, but it was still a great read for the neuroscience point of view—there’s nothing in the way the brain works that makes free will possible. Sapolsky’s description of the levels of causation in making any decision is an education in itself—it’s determinism all the way down. He also does a good job of unraveling the rat’s nest of philosophical views on the subject.
In the second half of the book, Robert goes through the history of our understanding of witches, epilepsy, schizophrenia, etc., to show how, as our understanding of these things changed, our attitudes changed, leading to the suggestion that as our understanding of free will changes, our attitudes about it will change. In the case of free will, though, he is not convinced that such changes will happen easily, if at all. He spends several paragraphs talking about the difficulties involved, coming to the conclusion in this note:
“ . . . we are all destined at times to blame, be blamed, hate, be hated, feel entitled, and suffer the entitled.” (p. 512).
I am more optimistic. We are not destined to blame, to hate, to feel entitled, any more than we are destined to believe that the Earth is flat, or that it’s the center of the universe. We can learn how our brains work in the same way that we have learned how the solar system works, and our attitudes can change accordingly. We can rid ourselves of beliefs based on free will, and lower our corticosteroid levels at the same time. We just have to retrain the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), to teach it that blaming and hatred are based on false information—free will—and to teach it how wonderful it will feel to get rid of them.
Robert does a great job of showing how free will ideas are false, but in the matter of how it will feel to reject them, he admits that his experience is limited. He seems not to have learned how good it can feel to be free of blaming, hatred, anger, entitlement, and the stress that accompanies them.
I had a much different life than he did—took all the drugs he didn’t—and spent 9 years in Alcoholics Anonymous learning how to be happy without them. From there I launched into a study of Buddhism, and as a result of all that, my personality has been shuffled around a lot. I’ve learned to hold on to my identity rather loosely.
For me, the process of recovering from free will started with paying attention to my emotions. Whenever I noticed one of those that are based on free will—pride, anger, superiority, inferiority, blaming—I would tell myself, “Wrong!” with no further justification required. Eventually those feelings stopped arising.
At the same time that I was pruning away my wrong-headed feelings, I learned how to feel love for anyone or anything that came to my attention. It’s a brain trick anyone can learn, and it’s a great replacement for anger.
As a result of all these transformations, I’ve learned that being a fully determined human being doesn’t “blow” (p. 386); it’s actually a pretty good deal. Evolution has given us some enjoyable perks, like food, sex, perception—a cool breeze on a warm summer day—and the possibility of making those pleasures available to everyone. Understanding determinism is a big step in that direction.
Ultimately, we can come to see ourselves impersonally, as the cumulative adaptations of a brain to an environment that gave it some bad information about itself. As the brain gets better information, it can improve its adaptations, and we can learn how amazing it is to be human, alive, and aware.