Yesterday afternoon, acting on a recommendation by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, I sat down and listened to a 43-minute Scientific American podcast featuring Stanford biology professor and hard determinist Robert Sapolsky being interviewed by Robert Mirsky, on the topic, “Your brain, free will and the law.” Suffice to say that I was underwhelmed. I had high expectations, as Professor Sapolsky is not only a well-published author (whose most recent work is Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst), but also a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. I was both disappointed and amused with what I heard: disappointed with the complete absence of any rigorous argument against the existence of free will, and amused by the fake history related by Sapolsky, in the course of his interview with Robert Mirsky. By the way, for those readers who are looking for a critique of the doctrine of free will that’s both hard-hitting and substantive, I’d recommend the online writings of physicist Sabine Hossenfelder – in particular, her articles, How to live without free will, Free will is dead, let’s bury it and The Free Will Function: Free will from the perspective of a particle physicist (but see also the conclusion to her prize-winning 2018 essay, The Case for Strong Emergence, in which she acknowledges a gap in her argument). [Full disclosure here: I have previously critiqued Dr. Hossenfelder’s arguments against free will, and although I continue to find her case less than convincing, I would now acknowledge her general point that top-down causation alone won’t rescue free will.]
Back to Sapolsky. Since he’s a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery, I had hoped that he would at least attempt to summarize the biological case against free will, but he didn’t. He alluded to experiments by Benjamin Libet, noted in passing that there were multiple interpretations of these experiments, and then proceeded to his central argument: the “shrinking pie” argument, which relied on a very heavy dollop of fake history. In a nutshell: science has already shown that we are not responsible for X, Y and Z, so in time, science will show that we are not responsible for any of our actions. (By the way, Sapolsky is a hard determinist, who has no time for compatibilism and who eschews any notions of personal responsibility for our actions: as he puts it in his podcast, “We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do… We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”)
So, what’s wrong with the “shrinking pie” argument? Everything.
First, the central metaphor is profoundly flawed, and for much the same reason that socialist critiques of the free market are flawed. The argument that free-market capitalism is bad because it simply results in the rich getting a bigger slice of the pie ignores the fact that the size of our economic pie is much larger than it was 200 years ago: items that everyone can afford now would have been unimaginable luxuries even for the rich, two centuries ago. Capitalism is what enables the pie to grow. Likewise, the argument that science inevitably results in determinism explaining an ever-increasing percentage of our actions ignores the fact that science itself is continually enlarging the scope of our actions – and, by extension, the scope of our freedom, by providing us with more choices.
Sapolsky is blind to this realization. In the early part of his podcast, he asserts that free will is getting more and more hemmed in, and concludes by wryly observing that while he can’t absolutely rule out the existence of free will, its scope (if it exists) is likely to be limited to such trivial matters as your decision whether to floss your top or bottom teeth. But that invites the further question: Is flossing really necessary? And the answer, according to the Editors in Chief at Harvard Women’s Health Watch, is that it’s not as cut-and-dried as one might think: apparently, there have been no randomized controlled studies of flossing, to ascertain whether those who flossed had lower rates of cavities and gum disease. Nevertheless, research has shown that food particles attract the bacteria that form plaque (which results in tooth decay and gum disease) and that flossing helps to remove plaque, which is why “[m]ultiple experts and organizations, including the U.S. Surgeon General, the CDC, and the American Dental Association (ADA), continue to recommend using dental floss — or another device — to clean between teeth at least once a day.” The article concludes by recommending interdental brushes or devices that stream water or air between your teeth, as possible alternatives to dental flossing, for those who don’t happen to like flossing. In other words, it offers the reader choices which they may never have considered before, without attempting to bias their decision, and additionally, it invites the reader to engage in an exercise in meta-cognition, and critically reflect on their reasons for provisionally accepting the scientific hypothesis that flossing is beneficial to dental health, despite the absence of clinching evidence. The Harvard article is thus a perfect illustration of how science can actually enlarge the scope of our freedom, both intellectually and volitionally.
Now, Professor Sapolsky might respond that my choice of whether to floss or not to floss, as well as whether to believe what the experts say on dental flossing, was ultimately determined by my genes and my environment. Well, of course, he’s perfectly free to say that, but where’s the evidence? Sapolsky begins with a long spiel about how our choices may be affected by everything from bad smells (which make people more conservative) to hunger (which makes judges more vindictive) to hormone levels (which make teenage males more aggressive) to the development of the brain’s frontal cortex during early childhood (which constrains people’s abilities to handle stress) to prenatal epigenetic effects (ditto) to the honor code of the culture in which you were raised (which may require you to respond forcefully to any perceived slights). While some of the findings are interesting (conservative commentator Rod Dreher has something to say here on the research finding about bad smells), most are old news: it should surprise no-one that judges hearing a case on an empty stomach are likely to be grouchier, that over-hormoned teenage males can act like aggressive apes, that some people’s brains fry under stress, and that being brought up in a Mafia-run neighborhood makes you more less tolerant of being dissed. (Sapolsky has little patience with free-will defenders who cite stories of people brought up in bad neighborhoods who didn’t succumb to temptation: for him, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.) However, the point overlooked by Sapolsky is that most of us, most of the time, don’t engage in the kind of anti-social behavior he describes in his examples: seeking revenge on people who slight us, cracking under stress, and picking fights – or (in the case of the court judge), pronouncing overly harsh sentences on people who do these things. These are marginal cases: at best, they show that a substantial proportion of criminal (or deviant) behavior turns out to be excusable, once the background causes are fully known, and that many people (including judges) have knee-jerk responses to crime. What these cases fail to show is that most (or all) human behavior is determined by causes beyond our control. That’s a much larger claim. One could concede Sapolsky’s point that most criminals shouldn’t be in jail, while rejecting his argument that we are all automatons.
Sapolsky then proceeds to cement his case by offering his audience four little historical vignettes about the ever-advancing ability of science to explain our choices in purely medical terms. I shall present them without further ado; below, I’ll explain why they’re basically “fake history.”
(1) Epilepsy. 500 years ago, if you displayed symptoms of epilepsy and you were living in Western Europe, the wisest people in the land would have said that you’d been sleeping with Satan and were demonically possessed. The cure was burning at the stake. Tens of thousands (no, make that hundreds of thousands) of people suffering from epilepsy were killed during the Inquisition. Only in the 19th century, in France, did people eventually figure out that epilepsy was actually a disease, and not a case of demonic possession. In other words, science has now medicalized epilepsy.
(2) Medieval animal trials. There were many case of animals being put on trial during the Middle Ages. In 14th century France, there was a famous case of a pig and her piglets who were brought to trial for killing a boy. In a major breakthrough for science and reason, the court, while condemning the pig, made the enlightened decision that the piglets were not responsible for their homicidal actions.
(3) Witchcraft and hailstorms. Back in the 16th century, changes in the Earth’s magnetic axes triggered a worldwide cooling event now known as the Little Ice Age, causing hailstorms and famine. People at the time believed that witches were causing the hailstorms, which led to a whole outburst of burnings. Thanks to the onward march of science, we now know it’s not in anyone’s power to control the weather.
(4) Witchcraft and tear ducts. In the Middle Ages, one of the tests for someone’s being a witch was whether they shed tears of sympathy, during a reading of the Passion of Our Lord: if they didn’t, they were clearly in league with the devil. Then a doctor wrote a book saying that while Satan was real, and witches were real, it was also true that in some old people, the lachrymal gland atrophies with age, making them unable to weep. The doctor begged Inquisitors not to condemn these elderly people for their inability to cry, and to spare their lives. Despite its deferential tone, the doctor’s book was roundly condemned, and banned by both the Pope and by the leaders of the Reformation. We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we?
And now, here’s why Sapolsky’s potted history of the march of science is utter bunk.
(1) Epilepsy. As far back as the fifth century B.C., epilepsy was recognized by the Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (460-370 B.C.) as an entirely natural ailment. He noted that “[i]ts origin, like that of other diseases, lies in heredity,” and added: “The fact is that the cause of this affection, as of the more serious diseases generally, is the brain.” Other Greek and Roman thinkers held various opinions on the causes of epilepsy, but the vast majority of them viewed it as an organic illness, nonetheless: for instance, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) taught that vapors from the food entered the veins, ascended to the brain and descended during sleep, causing epilepsy, while Galen (131-201 A.D.) distinguished three different kinds of epilepsy, all of which were linked to the brain: “In all forms, it is the brain which is diseased; either the sickness originates in the brain itself, or it rises in sympathy into the brain from the cardiac oriﬁce of the stomach. Seldom, however, it can have its origin in any part of the body and then rises to the head in a way which the patient can feel,” he wrote. The views of Aristotle and Galen exerted a very powerful influence during the Middle Ages; sadly, however, “religious and magic beliefs regarding epilepsy continued to exist, obstructing the progress of Science” (Diamantis A, Sidiropoulou K, Magiorkinis E. Epilepsy during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Journal of Neurology, May 2010; 257(5):691-698). Even in the New Testament, epilepsy is differentiated from demonic possession (Matthew 4:24), although the story of Jesus’ healing of an epileptic boy by exorcism (Mark 9:17-29) suggests that the two categories were viewed as sometimes overlapping. In any case, medieval physicians were well aware that epilepsy was a disease with a natural origin, according to Medieval Medicine: A Reader (Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures) (University of Toronto Press, 2010), edited by Faith Wallis. Thus, the medieval physician Arnau of Vilanova (1235-1311) wrote in chapter 22 of his Breviary of the Practice of Medicine (Brevarium practicae medicinae), “I hold that epilepsy is an occlusion of the chief ventricles of the brain with loss of sensation and motion; or epilepsy is a non-continuous spasm of the whole body,” while his contemporary, Bernard of Gordon (1250-1318), writing in his Lily of medicine (Lilium medicinae), Part 2, chapter 25, declared: “Epilepsy is a disease of the brain, removing sensation, motion and erection from the whole body, accompanied by a very serious disturbance of movement, because of an occlusion made in the non-principal ventricles of the brain” (quoted in Wallis, pp. 264-266). So much for the popular myth of Hippocrates as the lone voice of science and reason, whose views on epilepsy were silenced by the superstitious people of the Middle Ages. In short: we didn’t need modern science to figure out that epilepsy had a medical cause. Educated people have known this for 2,400 years. In addition, Sapolsky’s claim that hundreds of thousands of people suffering from epilepsy were killed during the Inquisition is patently ridiculous. First, the total number of people killed by the Inquisition for any reason was less than 10,000. The Wikipedia article on the Spanish Inquisition cites the estimates of several historians (including the Spanish Marxist historian Henry Kamen), and argues for a total of between 3,000 and 5,000 victims altogether, over a 300-year period. There were other Inquisitions in addition to the Spanish Inquisition – the medieval, Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions – but these were far less bloody than the Spanish Inquisition. Thus an overall figure of 10,000 for the total number of victims of all the Inquisitions put together would appear to be a prudent one. I might add that the Spanish Inquisition, at least, generally maintained a skeptical attitude towards witchcraft, dismissing it as a superstition without any rational basis. Second, although the infamous Malleus Malleficarum (Hammer of Witches), a widely influential text composed in 1486 by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer, declared that “there is no bodily infirmity, not even leprosy or epilepsy, which cannot be caused by witches,” the view of most physicians at the time was that epilepsy was an organic disease, and that any cases of epilepsy caused by witchcraft were the exception rather than the rule. I would therefore question whether the Inquisition killed any epileptics, in the absence of supporting documentation by Sapolsky.
(2) Medieval animal trials, which mostly took place in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, were both ridiculous and barbaric, but contrary to what Sapolsky would have us believe, even in the Middle Ages, jurists were well aware that animals were not rational agents and were thus not responsible for their actions – including the killing of people. The belief that did the damage here was not free will, but the medieval belief that demons were real and were capable of possessing animals, at will. As E.P. Evans informs us in his magisterial work, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (William Heinemann, 1906), “It is laid down as a legal maxim by mediæval jurisprudents that no animal devoid of understanding can commit a fault (nec enim potest animal injuriam fecisse quod sensu caret). This doctrine is endorsed by the great theologian and scholastic Thomas of Aquino [Aquinas]” (1906, p. 55). In the case cited by Sapolsky, the reason why the six piglets were acquitted was not, as Sapolsky would have us believe, because of some startling new insight that immature piglets were inculpable for their actions (for no animals were believed to be morally culpable for their actions), but rather, due to “lack of any positive proof that they had assisted in mangling the deceased,” a five-year-old boy killed by a sow in 1457. The sow who killed the child was convicted of “murder flagrantly committed” and hanged (1906, p. 153). Why, the reader might ask, was the sow found guilty? Evans explains that homicidal animals were thought to be controlled by demonic agents: “It was also as a protection against evil spirits that the penalty of death was inflicted upon domestic animals. A homicidal pig or bull was not necessarily assumed to be the incarnation of a demon, although it was maintained by eminent authorities, as we have shown in the present work, that all beasts and birds, as well as creeping things, were devils in disguise; but the homicide, if it were permitted to go unpunished, was supposed to furnish occasion for the intervention of devils, who were thereby enabled to take possession of both persons and places” (1906, pp. 5-6). The reader may scoff at the gullibility of medieval people; but what I find most most telling is an observation made by Evans, near the close of his Introduction (1906, p. 14). “It is a curious fact,” he writes, “that the most recent and most radical theories of juridical punishment, based upon anthropological, sociological and psychiatrical investigations, would seem to obscure and even to obliterate the line of distinction between man and beast, so far as their capacity for committing crime and their moral responsibility for their misdeeds are concerned.” Perhaps, in blurring the line between man and beast, it is we moderns who are displaying our ignorance.
(3) Witchcraft and hailstorms. Did educated people in the Middle Ages really believe that hailstorms were caused by the wrath of God, as Sapolsky alleges? Probably not. According to the article on “Meteorology” in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey and Faith Wallis (Routledge: New York and London, 2005), people favored naturalistic explanations for bad weather:
“In general, Aristotelian concepts were prominent in medieval writings on meteorology, although they were frequently adapted, altered, and transformed. In both antiquity and the Middle Ages, naturalistic explanations for the weather were favored. As a result, the idea that lightning or thunder had Divine origins was widely rejected or ignored.” (2005, p. 343)
As for the Little Ice Age, the temperature decline in the Northern Hemisphere from 1400 to 1800 was relatively modest (around 0.5 to 1.0 degrees Celsius). According to a 2015 online lecture titled, Climate Changes:Past and Future by Frode Stahl of the University of Oslo and Redina L. Herman of Western Illinois University, “Several causes have been proposed: cyclical lows in solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, changes in the ocean circulation, an inherent variability in global climate, or decreases in the human population” (p. 24). The reader will note that changes in the Earth’s magnetic axes are not listed as a possible cause: as usual, Sapolsky has got his facts mixed up. He may possibly be confusing changes in the Earth’s magnetic axes with the hypothesis that orbital forcing (changes in the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt) was responsible for the Little Ice Age. (Volcanism was proposed as an explanation in 2012; more recently, land clearing by Europeans in the New World, after many of the native inhabitants had died out, has also been suggested as a possible cause.) Finally, the widely held notion, repeated by Sapolsky, that the climatic changes occurring around this time prompted people to blame witches has been soundly debunked by two economists, Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, in their 2017 article, Witch Trials (The Economic Journal, 128 (August), 2066–2105. Doi: 10.1111/ecoj.12498). The authors write:
The best-known explanation for European witch trials, sometimes called the ‘scapegoat hypothesis’, blames bad weather (Behringer, 1995, 1999). According to it, in historical Europe, colder-than-expected temperatures often led to hardship and people who experienced hardship looked for scapegoats. Popular European belief saw witches as capable of controlling the weather, so those scapegoats were witches. The early modern period experienced the worst of the ‘Little Ice Age’, driving down temperatures in Europe. The result: a flurry of witchcraft accusations and persecutions.…
Table 6 presents the results of our evaluation of the bad-weather theory.…
The bad-weather theory does not fare well. In every column, in both panels, using both the Oster and Oster + Germany samples, considering weather by itself and together with confessional battles, weather’s estimated effect on witch-trial activity is statistically insignificant from zero...
The statistical insignificance and much smaller magnitude of weather’s estimated effect on witch-trial activity in Table 6 does not ‘disprove’ the bad-weather hypothesis… Nor do these findings deny that many early modern Europeans accused of witchcraft were accused of manipulating the weather. They do, however, cast doubt on the importance commonly attributed to bad weather, the ‘Little Ice Age’, in particular, in explaining the great age of European witch trials. (2017, pp. 2086-2088)
It turns out that the persecution of witches wasn’t due to medieval barbarism, either, but to a battle for the “market share” of Christians, by Catholics and Protestants competing for converts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – which explains why it intensified after the Reformation (1517) and died down after the Peace of Westphalia (1648), long before the end of the Little Ice Age, and why so many witches were put to death in Germany, where the battle for converts was fiercest, while hardly any were killed in Spain and Portugal. (See also here for an interesting discussion of this theory.) As Leeson and Russ explain it: “Leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of Satan’s evil.” Nor was the number of victims in the millions, as is popularly alleged (Sapolsky, for instance, speaks of “hundreds of thousands” of epileptics being killed as witches); the current scholarly consensus for the total number of victims killed by Catholics and Protestants as between 40,000 and 60,000. Lastly, Sapolsky appears unaware that the early medieval Church denied the very existence of witches, dismissing it as a pagan superstition – a position enshrined in the Church’s own canon law. Indeed, between 900 and 1400 the Christian authorities had refused to acknowledge that witches existed, let alone try someone for the crime of being one.
(4) Witchcraft and tear ducts. Professor Sapolsky finally manages to get his facts half right in his brief discussion of Johnann Weyer, a Dutch physician and demonologist who was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. Although (as Sapolsky correctly notes) Weyer affirmed the reality of demons, he denied the reality of witchcraft (contrary to what Sapolsky claims): in his best-selling book, De praestigiis daemonum (On the Tricks of Demons), he depicted women who confessed to being witches as deluded, and is said to have been the first person to use the term “mentally ill,” in reference to women who were accused of witchcraft. (He also made the medical observation about the lachrymal glands of elderly people, as Sapolsky correctly notes.) Weyer’s stance was indeed a courageous one. As Cornell University notes in its 2017 online exhibition, “The World Bewitch’d,” critics of the sixteenth-century witch hunts were putting their lives and their reputations on the line:
“It took real courage to speak out, and those who did were often attacked. Prominent demonologists, such as Heinrich von Schultheiss, warned that “he who opposes the extermination of the witches with one single word cannot expect to remain unscathed.” Some critics delayed publication (Johannes Meyfart, Herman Löher) or first published anonymously or under a pseudonym (Friedrich Spee and Hermann Witekind). Others were punished for their efforts, such as Balthasar Bekker, who was defrocked and expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church. Johann Weyer was forced into exile when the Catholic Church placed his book on the Index of prohibited books. Cornelius Loos, a Dutch priest, had his manuscript De Vera et Falsa Magia (On True and False Magic) confiscated. He was imprisoned, exiled, forced to recant his beliefs, and died in prison awaiting more severe punishment. His manuscript was rediscovered three hundred years later by A.D. White’s personal librarian, George Lincoln Burr.”
Sapolsky is right to decry superstition, but I cannot abide his smug version of “Whig history.” The history of the world isn’t a one-sided struggle between “good guy” enlightened scientists and “bad guy” unenlightened religious bigots. Reality is a lot more complex than that. What Sapolsky ignores, for instance, is that many of the early critics of the witch trials, such as Catholic priest Cornelius Loos, Calvinist pastor Anton Praetorius, Catholic inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías, Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee, Dutch minister Balthasar Bekker and British minister Francis Hutchinson, were themselves clergymen, who were motivated by a genuine desire to save innocent lives. As Spee, who was present as a Jesuit confessor during sessions of torture and executions, wrote in his Cautio Criminalis (published anonymously in 1631):
“If the reader will allow me to say something here, I confess that I myself have accompanied several women to their deaths in various places over the years and I am now so certain of their innocence that I feel there’s no effort that would not be worth my undertaking to try to reveal this truth.” (Question (Dubium) XI, Reason (Ratio) III, p. 50.)
Sapolsky summarizes his views in the pithy maxim, “We are nothing more than the end product of all the biology,
and all of the environmental influences upon that biology, that’s come before us.” And to be fair, he is honest enough to acknowledge that he has absolutely no idea how the legal system will cope with the radical changes he is proposing. But in the end, his position is a self-defeating one. For if we are merely the product of our biology, then we cannot hope to transcend it – which is precisely what we need to do, in order to solve problems that require us to continually reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a species, as we grapple with the unexpected challenges that modern life throws at us. So long as we think of ourselves as nothing more than hairless, big-brained great apes, we don’t have a hope in Hades of tackling a problem like global warming, for instance. We need to stop putting ourselves in a box, and consider radical changes to our lifestyle and the way we view ourselves as human beings. Our freedom is what enables us to step outside ourselves, and take a cool, hard, critical look at the way we do things, and reflect, until we figure out what we need to do. That’s why freedom is so important.
For the benefit of those readers who are curious, the situation in Japan appears to be pretty stable, as the Worldometers information page on Japan shows. Most people (including myself) wear masks in public, disinfect their hands many times every day (about 20-30 in my case), try to observe social distancing (not always possible on trains) and take their temperatures every morning, before going to work. No-one will shout at you if you don’t conform, but most people are willing to co-operate. The Prime Minister has tried to follow the consensus of his medical advisors, in deciding when to lift the state of emergency. I spent some of the “lockdown” at home, but got back to work as early as possible, not wishing to remain cooped up within four walls. Naturally, I’ve been observing precautions. The total death toll in Japan is less than 900, and the number of active cases is falling rapidly: it’s now down to what it was it the end of March. Right now, we’re all keeping our fingers crossed. I hope everyone reading this article is keeping well. Cheers.