Thursday, October 26, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will I

I finally received this new book by Robert Sapolsky and have read about a third of it so far. That section is largely a restatement of information that was provided in his last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, discussed earlier. Sapolsky looks closely at how the human brain develops and functions neurologically, and in this instance attempts to demonstrate how events prior to and after birth, over which an individual has no control, determine their behavior in various situations. At this stage in my readings, this was rather obvious to me, as was the idea that free will does not exist in a meaningful sense. In later chapters, he writes about the implications of these ideas for legal systems, which may expose their inadequacies by showing how individuals may have little control over their own behavior. 

As before, I am not a fan of Sapolsky's writing style. He often strains to sound un-academic and inserts too many frivolous footnotes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I think that he makes the material more difficult to absorb than it has to be. For example, I think that both Daniel Kahneman and Vinod Goel make the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain a little more understandable than he does, though they offer somewhat simplified models. Also, Sapolsky sometimes brings up specific research only to dismiss it a few pages later. He does this with the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that when a person makes a choice, their brain makes it before they are aware of it. That research has been claimed by some to demonstrate that people do not have free will. Sapolsky takes about twenty pages discussing this only to conclude that Libet's study is irrelevant to the topic of free will because it doesn't establish intent.

One section that I found more useful was his discussion of the effects of collectivist cultures versus individualistic cultures on individual behavior. Neuroimaging studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex activates differently in people from East Asian cultures from people in Western cultures. East Asians are activated equally by pictures of their mothers and pictures of themselves, whereas Westerners are activated more by pictures of themselves. East Asians are also more active in emotional regulation and understanding other people's perspectives than Westerners, who exhibit more emotional intensity, self-reference and capacity for strong emotional disgust or empathy.

In general, collectivistic-culture individuals prefer and excel at context-dependent cognitive tasks, while it's context-independent tasks for individual-culture folks....

East Asian collectivism is generally thought to arise from the communal work demands of floodplain rice farming. 

It appears that recent Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have been more independent than their population in general and self-selected to emigrate to the U.S. This type of self-selection can ultimately affect local gene pools, making them more collectivist or more individualistic.

Sapolsky's perspective on free will and determinism is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I usually read about determinism in terms of physics and astronomy. At this stage, Darwinism encapsulates not just organisms, but the entire universe. Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and galactic clusters all evolve, and the question is whether this is all predictable. Currently it appears that there are still random quantum events at the subatomic level, but I don't think that the existence of those events necessarily rules out rigid determinism. To me, this means that every event, at least since the Big Bang, was destined to occur. That may or may not prove to be the case, but I don't think at this point that we have the right tools to know the answer. On a much smaller scale, it is of some practical value to understand how human behavior originates. That information is essential for developing appropriate laws, social systems and governments. As I've been saying for several years, my ideal would be to develop a human-compatible program that manages the Earth's biosphere for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, due to the complexity of such an operation, AI would have to play a major role. I would argue that the traditional democratic republics now in place globally can safely be described as obsolete in light of the psychological research findings of the last few years. 

I will probably make at least two more posts on this book.

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