I’m listening to an episode of the Science Talk podcast entitled, “Your Brain, Free Will and the Law.” In order to attack the idea of free will, Robert Sapolsky creates a meaningless definition of free will and claims it does not exist. According to his definition,
Free will is what we call the things that biology has not explained yet.
Several times he says that if his choice was determined by “biological luck,” then “it wasn’t me,” implying that our identities are independent of our biology. He goes on to say that because there is no evidence of choices that are not determined by biology, the idea of holding individuals responsible for their choices is unscientific. This sounds like nonsense to me.
First of all, I don’t know where Robert Sapolsky gets the idea that free will has to be separate from biology. There may be some people who understand it that way. But for the rest of us, free will is not about the nature of the entity that determines a choice. Two questions determine whether someone has free will to make a choice:
- At the moment someone is confronted with a choice, is there any control over that choice within the person, or is all the control outside the person?
- Is there any probability that someone might make a choice different from what was expected?
You can define a person exclusively in biological terms. You can explain how the person’s upbringing had a predictable influence on the choice. You can show the probability that a person with identical biology, an identical upbringing, in an identical situation would make the same choice. As long as someone has control over a choice and others cannot be completely certain what that person will choose, that person has free will.
Secondly, we don’t hold people responsible for their choices because we think they are independent of biology and outside influences. We hold people responsible because we recognize that control over their choices lies within them, not outside of them. Our safety depends on being able to identify where control over a choice is coming from. People may wish to dissociate themselves from their biology when they have made bad choices, but unless there was nothing inside them determining their choice at the time they made it, they are responsible for it.
What responsibility has to do with punishment depends on the responsible person’s capacity to learn, the effects of punishment on others, and the need of victims and their families to see those who harmed them suffer appropriate consequences.
People who deny the existence of free will need to recognize what the rest of us mean by it. Even if free will is entirely biological, it is still worthy of respect. Responsibility can make life tragic, but it also makes life rewarding.