Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together? —Starbuck
*Rummages through notes.* Ah. Found it. Nearly five years to the month when I last debunked determinism. A columnist’s life really is a Sisyphean slog, refuting the same arguments over and over again. Some bad ideas never die. They’re kept on pneumatic life support, perennially postulated with puffing counterfactuals. Or as Orwell so elegantly put it, “some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” And never stop believing them. So here we are again: another knothead to knock down.
“After decades of study,” the Los Angeles Times informs us, one Stanford neurobiologist has provocatively concluded that “we don’t have free will.” Well, as long as this earth-shaking revelation came after “decades” of careful, peer-reviewed research…
Robert Sapolsky is convinced human autonomy is pure hokum, a dangerous delusion peddled by those who pathetically accept that we are anything more than complex chemical reactions.
From the report, which I suppose was drafted by ChatGPT because nobody can intentionally write anything: “After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has reached the conclusion that virtually all human behavior is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells, or the beating of our hearts.”
Get it? Your entire life, from scurrying around the playground, to crying for your mom over a scraped knee, to kissing your first girl, to deciding which college to attend, to flipping burgers for beer money, to falling in love, to getting married, to having children, to signing your life away to a 30-year mortgage—it’s all no better than a sneeze. If you thought you were in control, choosing everyone and anything from your best friend, your spouse, the dog that micturates in your house, the car you navigate your hour commute in, your slutified Halloween costume (I went as sexy George Santos this year, otherwise known as “Kitara”… kidding!), the shirt on your chest, the shoes on your feet, the color of your front door (actually your HOA may determine that), too bad. You’ve chosen nothing. Everything has been a cold series of uncontrollable synapses, or, as the Greeks proposed, a pump-cycle of four humors, or as the late philosopher and smut leafleteer Hugh Heffner (probably) thought, the sanguine pump in your nether region.
So, are you thoroughly depressed now? Your life hasn’t been, to paraphrase Toynbee, one damn choice after another. It’s been on a set track determined by bio-phenomena. Of course, in order to be thrown by such news, you’d have to retain the capacity for sorrow, which is distinct from joy, and choose to embrace despondency, which would prove that people do, in fact, exercise the autonomy to somewhat control their emotional state and thus…
Nevermind. The contradictions inherent to Sapolsky’s ‘falutin fatalism are too glaring to be taken seriously. The whole “no free will” argument has the air of a late-night ganga dorm sesh—three single guys with broiled brains pondering the vast questions of the universe before blowing their week’s allowance on a $200 Domino’s order. (“If you really think about it, we’re just, like, specks of dust in a vast, cold, uncaring universe.” *Shoves a baseball-sized chunk of cheesy bread down his maw.* “What is marinara sauce anyway?”)
Sapolsky’s navel-gazing could ordinarily be chalked up to college crank stuff espoused by a guy in Birkenstocks and silvery Princess Leia locks. But the implication of his anti-free will views can easily lead to societal declension. If you think I exaggerate for effect, look to Portland. Or San Francisco. Or Washington, DC.
The L.A. Times explainer reaches the logical outcome of Sapolsky’s intellectual jihad against choice: “This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane.”
That’s no mischaracterization, even by modern journalistic standards. Sapolsky heartily concurs: “The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over.”
The formula is simple: no choice, no free will, no mens rae, equals no culpability. Nobody is responsible for anything. Crime as a concept ceases to exist. Justice has no meaning without rational beings capable of contemplating fairness. “We mustn’t go too far back in anybody’s life… then nobody is to blame for anything,” said the wily cheat Keith Talent, excusing his own skimming lifestyle.
Just as the Nazis used shoddy racial science to commit mass murder, Sapolsky’s negation of free will can be an excuse to rip the cornerstone out from civilization. Without a will, without an understanding of basic morality, there’s no reasonable means to punish someone for wrongdoing.
Sapolsky enjoys the cozy cocoon of the college classroom to churn out his madcap suppositions. But were the real world to take his philosophy to heart, it’d be “The Purge” every day, all day. Every highbrow thinker dreams of the day his cogitations take over the globe. But I doubt Sapolsky would truly enjoy writing supplements to his treatise while being hacked to death by a doped-out meth head. He’d be just another Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party voter.
W.H. Auden wrote that “we live in freedom by necessity.” Even if we lacked free will, we’d still have to operate as if it we exercise control over our lives. Otherwise there’d be no conceivable reason for getting up in the morning.
One final, practical example to spike determinism for good. My wife’s 20-year-old Tabby cat kicked the can a week ago after a long life of freeloading off our generosity. It was a sad death, made sadder by my having to dig a 12-inch-deep hole in my back garden patch for burial. Through bitterly brisk November wind, I shoveled through hard Virginia clay, just to hollow out a decent decomposition bed. Every biological stimuli in my muscles begged me to stop, but I kept on, slicing through tree roots, until the resting pit was finished.
The task was pure will. Dr. Johnson famously refuted immaterialism with argumentum ad lapidem. Thereby I refute Sapolsky with argumentum ad terra.