I expect some of you recognize the title of this post as one of the great lines from The Princess Bride. It seems to me Vizzini’s thought process bears on something that today has some currency as a “big question”, namely: Free will.
Many of you doubtless think of this not as a big question, but as an old one. I learned in high school about the Reformation and predestination and my teenage self, inasmuch as I devoted any thought to such topics, considered the case closed. Of course we have free will because if we don’t, by definition there’s not much point in debating about it, right? I suspect most people see themselves as making choices every day, using the power of volition, the aspect of consciousness that may be influenced by conditions and experience but is not bound by it.
And of course there’s the point that without free will, there’s no moral responsibility, and without that we’re just NPCs in a really complicated videogame.
But there’s a few things lately that bring this question back on the table. The first is exemplified by a new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, by Robert M. Sapolsky; I haven’t yet got Determined but I read and got a lot out of his previous book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Sapolsky makes a “hard” determinist case for there being no free will – in his view every single thing we do is a product of our genes, our conditioning, and our hormones, whether we feel we have volition or not.
I don’t expect I’ll get the book and go through all of Sapolsky’s argument but from what I can find about it seems largely circumstantial, citing a lot of behavioral experimentation: There are many, many studies that show behaviors aligning with specific neurological and physiological triggers. But this seems circular – just because a metric coincides with a result doesn’t mean the metric fully and solely caused the result. I’ll come back to this.
The second thing that brought me to this subject is some recent articles about the US economy and what people think about it. It’s certainly no secret the overall national mood is poor, Pew Research has a representative study. While it would not be helpful to just declare everyone is wrong – yes, rent and some food costs are high – there is still a lot to be puzzled about here. Republicans seemed to have thought that things were perfect during the Trump administration, with 80% saying things were “excellent”; the facts were the first part of his administration was just a continuation of the Obama declines in unemployment, while the second half was typified by a disastrous pandemic response that saw unemployment reach 14.7%, as well a quarter-million preventable COVID deaths. But Democrats and Independents also see the economy as continually worsening since 2020 – all while consumer spending is surging in these “tough times”.
To me at least, an indicator of this cognitive dissonance is the trend called the silent depression, that (again, to me) astonishingly claims that our economy today is worse than that of the 1930s. Really? I must have missed the breadlines or the 5 million homeless people – that’s how many we would have at the same rate of homelessness in 1930. Today’s number is a tenth that.
There’s a lot of posts on Tiktok using recycled arguments on how today is worse than 1930. Just one of those arguments cites a figure for average income in 1930 of $4800 – $85,000 in today’s dollars. When we look at the average income today, of $56,000, you would think, “How unexpected, income is 35% less compared to 1930!”
Here’s the problem: That $4800 average income figure comes from citizens who filed tax returns. However, in 1930 only 10% of all citizens filed tax returns; the whole process was still new and so many people had such low incomes. The real value for average income is closer to $700, about $12,500 in 2023 dollars. Hopefully we can agree that $56,000 is a bigger number than $12,500. Or maybe not, as despite considerable debunking of the silent depression, there’s still 1000s of posts on Tiktok tagged or titled “silent depression”.
Coming back to free will, it’s hard for me not to avoid the thought that these silent-depression advocates are predictable, deterministic automatons, acting how they’ve been programmed to act; after all social media rewards contrarians. But that’s a slippery slope, two-way street, you chose the cliché. The political Right version of this is sheeple, people who unquestionably accept progressive dogma. On reflection maybe we should just accept that people all have views and we should just accept them and not try to undermine the thought process behind views we don’t like. But on reflected reflection, aren’t those people and their views trying to change the world where I live? How can I not question views that pose danger to me? Then again, on fourth-order reflection it seems …
This infinite recursion, turtles-all-the-way-down, “i know that you know that I know that you know …” logic trap occurs both in analyses of politics, and in analyses of free will. There’s got to be a better way, where people aren’t dismissed by some authority, but neither are falsehood and flawed reasoning allowed to control our collective destinies.
In closing, coming back to Sapolsky, I see two big issues with his arguments as I’ve understood them. First, he advocates for things like dispensing with prisons and criminal penalties – since the person who committed an offense really didn’t choose to do so, it makes no sense punishing them. But that’s another circularity, isn’t it? By his argument, we don’t choose to punish anyone, that outcome is determined. If he wants prisons abolished, he better send a harsh note to his genes, conditioning and hormones.
More seriously, Sapolsky’s argument is invalid because he is unable to describe evidence that would disprove his case. Of course the universe is deterministic: gravity is the same for all objects, at constant atmospheric pressure water boils at the same temperature everywhere, and hormones can make animals, including humans, lethargic, amorous, or cranky. None of that precludes the possibility that our consciousness – which is the product of physical laws – includes a capability to exert volition, the power of situational choice. The external predictability of those choices is beside the point, they are still choices that could be different. We cannot hold that the only proof of free will is people making nonsensical or random choices.
That’s all for today, I now choose to go work on my golf swing – no! my book – no, maybe the golf. After all, I clearly cannot choose the cup in front of me.