Is Reading This Column Really a Choice? And Does That Matter?

Her Own Free Will (1924) - 1

Maybe I didn’t really want to write this column. According to Robert Sapolsky I just couldn’t help myself.

Sapolsky, a Stanford biology professor and author of Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, argues that everything we do is pre-destined. Not by an all-knowing and completely controlling god, but by biology. Our brains work in certain ways and we do as they command, not vice versa.

I’ve not read the book yet, but look forward to it and have read reviews and listened to some of Sapolsky’s interviews. Maybe I’ll learn differently, but his main point seems to encapsulate well in a quote from the Los Angeles Times:

“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 … We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there.”

If we’ve got no free will, can ANY human conduct be “fair” or “unfair?” Aren’t those doing the rewarding and the punishing just as constrained by biology to do whatever they’re doing as those being rewarded or punished?

If the philosophers who have expounded throughout history on systems of ethics grounded in notions of free will had no free will themselves, how would that invalidate those systems? After all, they had no choice in the matter. If free will doesn’t exist, their explicit and implicit claims that it does, and the systems based on those claims are … well, predestined!

“A difference which makes no difference,” as psychologist William James pointed out, “is no difference at all.”

We either HAVE free will, or are doomed to believe we have it, and to act AS IF we have it.

Naturally, I find it comforting to believe that I have free will: That I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

Perhaps I believe that, and find it comforting, because all those chemical reactions in my brain require me to, rather than because it’s true … but I believe it and find it comforting either way.

Why do I not lie awake at night pondering the particular question of free will versus predestination?

Well, maybe that’s because I have no choice as to what I lie awake pondering.

Or maybe it’s because I understand that the answer to the question is a difference that makes no difference.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.