Can we save the world without free will?

Protest Balck Lives Matter

Many articles on environmental topics are secular homilies, bristling with shoulds and shouldn’ts. Don’t use a gasoline-powered leaf blower. Buy an electric car instead of a gas-powered car. Eat organically grown food. Use less water. Put solar panels on your roof. Recycle your old stuff, and be sure to put it in the right bin. If you don’t behave right, we will all go to climate hell.

But what if we humans actually don’t have free will—the ability to act without constraints of circumstances, necessity, or fate? Is it possible to organize mass behavioral change in its absence? Those are the questions I’m asking myself as I read Robert Sapolsky’s new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.

Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. You may know him as the author of the bestselling Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worstwhich summarizes what science has revealed about why people do what they do.

In Determined, Sapolsky takes on possibly the thorniest question in philosophy, psychology, and behavioral science: does free will exist? Having spent decades thinking about this question in the light of evidence from the relevant disciplines, Sapolsky has landed firmly in the “no” camp. And his book makes the case with thoroughness and style. I won’t try to reproduce the details of his argument here; if you’re not up for a slow walk through a 400-page tome, here’s an article that offers a good summary.

Sapolsky is a clear thinker and an accessible writer, and he’s ideally qualified to ruminate on the question of whether free will exists. Nevertheless, his argument against free will has to swim upstream. Most people, including many philosophers and psychologists, refuse to share his view. Even when their own evidence and reasoning take them to the verge of concluding there’s no free will, they typically stop short. “Nah,” they say, “there’s got to be free will somewhere, even if we can’t find actual evidence for it.” Religions and criminal justice systems are built on the assumption that we each have a little decider perched in a control room in our skull, capable of overriding hereditary, environmental, and social influences, and signaling our bodies to do the right thing. We choose our behavior, and we therefore deserve the rewards and punishments that society bestows as a result.

Indeed, if you want to make even mild-mannered people so angry that they shout at you, just start a conversation about free will over dinner and take Sapolsky’s position. In discussions with friends and colleagues about Determined, I’ve yet to find anyone who fully agrees with the book’s unwavering position. Maybe humanity’s widespread belief in free will is determined by tradition and social necessity—in which case Sapolsky’s dissent could be an example of free will in action. Ugh! This whole subject gets wickedly convoluted the more you think about it.

Sapolsky describes at length the difficulty in showing that a little decider is really there. Quantum indeterminacy, complexity theory, and chaos theory have been proposed as possible ports through which a decider can enter into our neurological machinery, but Sapolsky finds no escape hatch from determinacy in these abstruse fields. We do what we do because of where we come from, what’s happened to us, and our momentary brain chemistry.

Nevertheless, Sapolsky writes, “. . . my goal isn’t to convince you that there’s no free will; it will suffice if you merely conclude that there’s so much less free will than you thought that you have to change your thinking about some truly important things.” Since the author has, in effect, given me (as a reader) an out, I prefer to remain agnostic on the question of whether there’s any free will at all in the absolute sense—if only to keep from alienating friends. Toward the end of this essay I’ll explain my agnosticism further. But I agree with Sapolsky that a great deal of what we do individually and as societies is determined, and that the hunt for biological or behavioral evidence for the source of intent—free will—is frustratingly difficult and complex.

Does Society as a Whole Have Free Will?

I’ve been inching toward the “no free will” view for the last decade or two, but by a different route than Sapolsky, and without the benefit of his immense knowledge of neuroscience. His argument is pitched mostly on the scale of the individual, via behavioral studies, genetics, and brain function. He would argue that your choice of whether to have cereal or eggs for breakfast this morning was determined by a long chain of constraints starting with biological evolution and ending with your momentary mix of neurotransmitters.

I’ve taken a societal-scale route, as I’ve tried to better understand why humans adopted agriculture, hierarchies of inequality, colonialism, and fossil-fueled industrialism. Many other writers, like me, see these as ultimately disastrous developments, and have tried to boil them down to one or more bad ideas that mistakenly caught on with certain people back along the way. In The Chalice and the BladeRiane Eisler proposed that some folks living in the Near East thousands of years ago chose the idea of “power over,” or the “dominator model,” as opposed to the then-universal “power with,” or “partnership model.” The rest is bloody history. Similarly, Daniel Quinn, in his book Ishmaelattributed our species’ fateful shift toward animal domestication, and then agriculture and war, to the rise of “takers” over “leavers.” But why did these perilous ideas and behaviors take hold? Why there, why then? Presumably, these people’s free will led them astray.

No, in my view there was an inevitability to it all. Once this happened, that almost surely followed. Given our species’ linguistic and tool-making abilities, and a bit of help from a stabilized climate, it was certain that we humans would occupy more and more territory. Then, once tribes started bumping into each other and competing for choice foraging land, it was inevitable that, in some places at least, weapons would become more sophisticated and groups would get bigger and more hierarchical. Then the biggest groups with the best weapons would overtake the rest. Add capitalism (itself the result of a determined causal chain) and fossil fuels, and soon we have overpopulation, a massive toxic chemicals crisis, and climate change. It didn’t take “bad” people to do any of this. All it took was “good” people responding to necessity using the mindsets that past experience had given them.

The most prominent recent book to advance the idea of societal free will is The Dawn of Everythingby David Graeber and David Wengrow (by the way, all three of the books I’ve just mentioned, by Eisler, Quinn, and Graeber/Wengrow, are worth reading and make some excellent points). The assumption that we have free will—at both the individual and societal levels—permeates every page of Dawn. We can choose to be hierarchical or egalitarian. We can choose to have democracy or tyranny. We can choose whether or not to have slavery. The overall shape of society is entirely malleable; we get to decide.

It’s an inviting idea. But Dawn has been criticized by several expert reviewers for ignoring key evidence and mishandling much of the evidence the authors do cite. Specifically, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the rise of economic inequality in early human societies was essentially just a choice by some people to take advantage of others, whereas the evidence instead suggests that inequality emerged through intergroup competition as humans spread across more territory—i.e., that inequality emerged as a solution to problems, and was determined by circumstance. This evidence has been discussed at length by, for example, James C. Scott in Against the GrainBut Graeber and Wengrow deal with this evidence by mostly just sidestepping it. In short, rather than having an enormous palette of choices to pick from at any time, each human society faces options that are constrained by environment, history, and neighboring societies.

An example I often cite has to do with consumerism. Environmentalists have long argued against unbridled consumption, given that we live on a finite planet with limited natural resources and ever fewer places to dump waste. Often, consumerism is regarded as a personal failing, of the kind that drug addiction is often assumed to be. The solution? We just have to become better people, ones who buy only what we really need.

But the history of consumerism paints a very different picture. It arose as a strategy on the part of government and industry leaders to solve the problems of underinvestment and unemployment during the Great Depression. Society faced a crisis—idle factories and millions without work. The answer was obvious: encourage more consumption through advertising, consumer credit, and planned obsolescence. But once society began to depend on the constant growth of consumer spending, other options—for individuals and for society as a whole—were cut off. So, today, no American politician will publicly argue for degrowth, even in the face of rampant environmental destruction, because stopping the consumerist juggernaut would likely lead to mass unemployment, an even bigger explosion of government debt than we are already seeing, and widespread business failures. Yes, there are ways to degrow the economy that might avoid some of the worst of those effects, and the economy will eventually shrink anyway due to environmental limits. But, for now, we’re tied to the manic, accelerating conveyor belt of consumerism; it is a thoroughly determined characteristic of the American economic system. Consumerism isn’t just an aberrant mindset that some people adopt as a result of watching too many commercials; it’s a way of organizing the economy that solves real problems and that will therefore be difficult to dislodge—until it no longer solves problems, including the rapidly worsening problems it self-generates.

The more I know, the more I tend to see the world this way. Why are American politics so polarized and dysfunctional? It’s the result of a chain of causes and effects explored brilliantly by complexity scientist Peter Turchin in his recent book End TimesI sympathize with those who ask, “Can’t we Americans all just be nicer to each other and listen more?” But such calls for free-will-based changes of heart are likely to fail until we better understand the causal chain that got us to where we are.

Societies evolve the way species do, as E. O. Wilson and other scientists who study both humans and other species have tended to conclude. Species can develop surprising abilities and admirable characteristics; but sometimes they evolve into a cul-de-sac of collapse as a result of maladaptation. The same with human societies.

But where does that leave us when we need to persuade lots of people to quickly do something to stop climate change? Should we just clam up and accept our collective fate?

Determined Minds Can Change

It’s natural to assume that if people believe they have no free will, they will feel less responsible for their actions. They will be more fatalistic and less motivated to change their own behavior in order to help society as a whole. If that’s true, then Sapolsky’s book could not have come at a worse time.

But Sapolskly argues that there is little reliable evidence that disbelief in free will is incapacitating. There does seem to be some statistical correlation between disbelief in free will and clinical depression (tellingly, Sapolsky reveals that he’s dealt with depression for decades). However, he cites studies showing that people suffering from depression often have a more accurate view of reality than those who see the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Change is certainly possible without free will. Organisms change all the time, even when their actions can be shown, through detailed knowledge of causal chains involving neurons and neurotransmitters, to be entirely predictable and determined. After all, the environment is always changing, and organisms must adapt quickly, moment by moment, to take advantage of opportunities and minimize risks.

So, free will isn’t required for us to alter behavior on a mass scale so as to minimize climate destabilization and other existential environmental threats. In theory, new information about the worsening impacts of global warming and the loss of wild nature, or better ways of spreading that information, could cause millions or billions of people to shift their behavior rapidly even if they don’t have little independent deciders in their skulls.

Some of us will be primed by genes, experience, and brain chemistry to understand the situation and respond sooner than others. Others will deny what is happening because genes, experience, and their internal cocktail of neurotransmitters have set them up to do so.

And that’s the situation in which we find ourselves: some of us argue for strenuous action to avert the worst, while others don’t even believe there’s a problem.

So, What’s the Difference?

Disbelief in free will may not make it easier or harder for us to stop climate change. But it does make a big difference in our attitude toward others. If we believe that other people do things we disapprove of because their internal deciders are perverse, we may feel that punishment is in order. If these people persist in their wrong-headedness, we may regard them as evil and worthy of contempt or even extermination. Whereas in reality we are all just responding to the cues of our past and present environment, using the biological equipment with which we’ve been supplied. That’s why Sapolsky thinks a world without belief in free will would be a more compassionate world.

Many societies emphasize retribution. People sometimes behave terribly, and many of us get pleasure from seeing bad things happen to people who act in ways we don’t like. Historically, punishments were often far more gory and painful than the behaviors that were being punished. But gradually, here and there, people have come to see that harsh punishments aren’t very effective in deterring bad behavior, but instead turn the punishers themselves into monsters. As an example, Sapolsky cites the history of capital punishment—from horrific medieval public spectacles of drawing and quartering, to public hangings, to private hangings, to executions via electric chair, to lethal injection, to abolition of the death penalty. He points out that, in regions that are less religious and where people tend not to believe so much in free will (e.g., Scandinavia), sentences for crimes are less retributive and more geared simply to protecting the public and providing the offender with positive reinforcement for prosocial behavior. Moreover, crime rates remain lower in those countries than in ones that practice retributive punishment, like the United States. Even if we know that a serial killer was acting as the result of terrible abuse in childhood, it still makes sense to stop him from doing more harm. But the more we know, the less we feel what Sapolsky calls “the joy of punishment.”

The same goes for rewards. If we believe in the little internal decider, then we are more likely to heap honors and riches on individuals who do something admirable. If we don’t believe, we’re more likely to think of those individuals as fortunate for having had the genes and experience that led them to do the admirable thing. But we’re less likely to think that the fortunate person deserves even more fortune. Therefore, a society that doesn’t believe in free will may be less likely to tolerate economic inequality, while a society that does believe may be more likely to think that extreme inequality is simply evidence of people getting what they deserve (caste systems that assign people privilege or poverty based on their circumstances of birth are even more unfair, but require a separate discussion since difference in social status is not tied to people’s behavior).

The case against free will isn’t a case against morals: it still makes sense to teach children in ways that will help them be more compassionate, creative, happy, and successful. That’s part of their conditioning, and you’re more likely to raise kids that way if you were parented similarly.

I write environmental books and articles, drive an electric car instead of a gas-powered car, have solar panels on my roof, eat organically grown food, and recycle old stuff as a result of genetics, environment, and experience. I don’t deserve a medal for any of this. But, by the same token, the next person doesn’t deserve censure because she instead drives a giant gas-guzzling SUV, takes jet vacations to Las Vegas, and goes online every day to buy lots of stuff she doesn’t really need. She is who she is because of her own unique mix of genes and experiences. The kinds of behaviors just mentioned will need to be systematically discouraged by society, if we’re to survive this century’s polycrisis. But it’s nothing personal.

Identifying others as villains and seeking to punish them may be a successful strategy for organizing a coup, insurrection, or revolution—i.e., for taking power from others who currently have it. But it’s a lousy strategy for building a better society or solving a problem like climate change, because it alienates and possibly injures lots of people and turns you into a self-righteous punisher.

A Useful Illusion—Sometimes?

Now, back to my professed agnosticism regarding free will. I’ve taken Sapolsky’s side in this discussion because I think his position deserves an airing. However, as I’ve mentioned already, there are plenty of philosophers and psychologists—even neuroscientists—who disagree with him. In his critical review of Determined, philosopher Nikhil Krishnan makes some good points, based largely on matters of definition and degree. Krishnan and others say we need at least the illusion of free will in order to maintain our “moral vocabulary.” Maybe Sapolsky is right in the science (his critics can’t point to how, when, or where free will enters our neurocircuitry), but we needn’t be thoroughly convinced; maybe it’s enough for his evidence to expand our compassion for others. Full determinism may be too far a shore for society as a whole. Moreover, we should perhaps keep an open mind simply because science is a work in progress.

I’ve argued that it’s a mistake to lavish as much attention and wealth on the fortunate few as we do today, especially in America. But sometimes we need inspiration from others who seem to overcome all the barriers that life puts in their way. One of my heroes in this regard is Louis Armstrong, who grew up in abject poverty amid harsh racial discrimination, but went on to become one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians and a cultural icon—by all accounts a generous, hard-working man who gave millions joy while breaking racial barriers on behalf of himself and others. Was he an example of free will in action? His life story shines brighter when we assume so—even if it’s possible to point to a few key early mentors and benefactors who may have made the difference between a life of achievement and upliftment, and one of degradation and failure.

Finally, to address the question that is the title of this article: can we save the world without free will? In principle, yes. But time will tell just how much of the world actually can be saved at this point. Those of us who understand the situation must, and will, continue warning others. We can’t help ourselves; that’s what we’re primed to do. I, for one, will use every persuasive technique I know to change as many minds as I possibly can. However, on a mass scale, minds will probably change only as circumstances change.

That may not be a satisfying answer to my question. But reality isn’t required to conform with our desires, whether they’re freely willed or not.

Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He has authored hundreds of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature and The Wall Street Journal; delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences on six continents; and has been quoted and interviewed countless times for print, television, and radio. His monthly MuseLetter has been in publication since 1992. 

Originally published in

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