Determined by Robert Sapolsky

Book Review: “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will”


The only way humans have survived amid being able to understand the truths about life is by having evolved a robust capacity for self-deception.” This might be true. In “Determined :A Science of Life Without Free Will.” the author Robert Sapolsky agrues for desterminism and that our ability for self-deception definitely includes our belief in Free Will.

Video Review and Summary of “Determined” by Robert M. Sapolsky

Video Review and summary of “Determined” by Robert M. Sapolsky – Booklab

About Robert M. Sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky, he is an American neuroendocrinology researcher. He’s also a professor in several subjects from biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. In “Determined,” he tackles the timeless question of Free Will and lands in the conclusion that it doesn’t exist—a quite natural conclusion if you have read his previous book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” This book describes how things that we have absolutely no control over dictate our behaviors on scales from 1 second ago to 1 hour ago, 1 month ago to 100,000 years ago. Robert Sapolsky aims to show us in this book how determinism works and how biology, over which we have no control, and the environment, over which we have no control, made you the one you are.

The Illusion of Free Will

To convince us that Free Will doesn’t exist, “Determined” gives us a crash course in biology in this book. Sapolsky also shares some really interesting and often haunting experiments that confirm the deterministic findings of biology. On top of that, it takes all the most plausable arguments for free will, dissects them and breaks them apart, to shows us how it can’t be so. And what Sapolsky concludes is quite drastic: “Because the world is deterministic, there can’t be Free Will. And thus, holding people responsible for their actions is not okay.” This view on Free Will is called The deterministic view since there is no will; hence, we can’t take any moral responsibility for our actions.

The Influence of Upbringing and Luck

If the idea of not having free will makes you feel uncomfortable, then you’re probably one of the lucky ones. You’re in the lucky minority. It probably means that you have a job, you probably were brought up in a good neighborhood where you had things to say yes to so you could say no to, let’s say: drugs. You’re probably healthy, and your mother probably didn’t work two different jobs while she was pregnant with you.

Sapolsky’s Critique of the evening out of luck

So you might argue that it’s not luck; I actually have been very dedicated. You have shown a lot of grit in your persuits, you have worked myself up. You deserve this. And this is also the stance of a person that is not really Robert Sapolsky’s favorite, Daniel Dennett. Dennett argues that even if you have some luck in the beginning — it tends not to matter in the long run. Life is not a race, but it is a marathon, and that small advantage in the beginning will even out over time.

Childhood Experience and Life Outcomes

Robert Sapolsky doesn’t agree with Dennett’s stance. Sapolsky asks, “So if you’re born a crack baby, does society then run in and make sure that you have the best possible chances of overcoming your developmental problems?” Probably not, right? And this statistic really blew my mind, and it really had me rethink a lot of things. It’s the amazing correlation between childhood experience and luck in life as we can see from The ACE test.

The ACE Test: Adverse Childhood Experience

There is this test that you can do. It’s called the ACE test, the Adverse Childhood Experience Index. And for every point that you get on this test, you have a 30% increase in having problems in life, basically. So how lucky was the childhood that you were handed? What’s your score? Did you experience any of these three things: abuse (psychological, emotional, or sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), or household dysfunction? Do you have an incarcerated relative? Do you have mental illness, divorce, substance abuse, or violence? For every every point you get on this test, you have around a 30% increase in adult antisocial behaviors, including violence and poor prefrontal cortex development, problems with impulse control, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, unsafe sex, and other risky behaviors. You also have increased vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and maybe most of all, your life expectancy goes down quite drastically.

Sapolsky’s Conclusion: “Luck doesn’t even out”

So Sapolsky says, “No, luck doesn’t even out. If you are born poor, you are likely to stay there.”

Will we run amok if Free Will doesn’t exist?

Another interesting question raised by “Determined” is “what will happen to people if we believe that we don’t have free will? Will we run amok?” The fact is that we kind of will.

Psychological Impact of Rejecting Free Will

Experiments have shown that people who are prompted with ideas of free will not existing, compared to control groups and other people who are prompted with ideas that Free Will does exist, the group that doesn’t believe in free will has some negative consequences in terms of their morals. They’ve shown that they show less effort in performing tasks. Free Will skeptics also are less helpful; they cheat more. They showcase more antisocial behavior and are more aggressive. They exhibit less gratitude, find less meaning in life and less belonging. Lessening people’s belief in free will also makes them feel that they have less sense of agency over their life.
With these results in hand, Sapolsky asks us readers to burn this book after reading it so that we don’t corrupt future readers morals.

Adapting to the Absence of Free Will

A second interesting question spawned by the conclusion of this book is how can we then change? How can we adapt to the idea that we don’t have free will? How does the piling evidence of the lack of free will impact how we treat people that may have committed a crime, for instance?

Society’s Evolution in Handling Determinism

And this book actually has some really good examples of how society has moved closer to the idea that Free Will doesn’t exist when it comes to how we treat criminals and people who have mental problems. “We have done it before, over and over in various domains. We have shown that we can subtract out our belief that actions are freely willfully chosen as we become more knowledgeable, more reflective, and more modern. And the roof hasn’t caved in. Society can function without our believing that people with epilepsy are in cahoots with Satan and that mothers of people with schizophrenia cause the disease by hating their child.” Schizophrenia being caused by the mother hating the child is, of course, an old idea from Freud.

Book Verdict – “Determined”

Is this a good book? “Determined” is a masterpiece. It provides successful arguments against all aspects of Free Will, which leaves me in a pickle. I want to believe in human agency; it’s comforting, right? And the absence of free will naturally leaves me in a position where I have a lot of brain work to do. I need to update all my values and my political views in order to take this into account. If everyone is just a result of biological chance, environmental circumstances, and cultural influences from 1 second ago, one week ago, 1 month ago, 10,000 years ago, then who am I to run a book blog talking about grit, philosophy, how to live the good life? But, of course, I will fail to adjust to and live in accordance with this understanding. It’s just an all-too-human thing to do. I will probably still condemn a criminal that commits a heinous crime. I will still be proud of my accomplishments and probably still blame myself for my failures.

Determined on the Great Books List

A book like Determined deserves a place on my Great Books List, and I’m actually going to replace “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our best and worst” which was his previous book, with this one because this book contains the most important bits from that 800- page thick book.

Lasting Impact and Continued Reflection

Determined forced me to re-evaluate my ideas about human behavior and my political stance. That’s what great books do, and this is one of them. I’m still thinking about this book every day, and it’s been almost two months since I finished it. So that’s the sign of a great book. You really need to pick this one up. It’s quite complicated at times, but I think it’s worth the effort. I listened to “Determined” as an audiobook, and if you join Audible, for instance, you get one audiobook for free. I think it’s easier to consume these books that can get quite complicated at times as audiobooks because I can zoom in and out depending on if the part interests me or not.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ out of 5

Find more great books to read on my the Great Books List
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