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Determined summary

Robert M. Sapolsky

Life without Free Will

4.2 (507 ratings)
18 mins
Table of Contents

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    Your life is determined by biological and cultural factors beyond your control

    If you’re anything like most people, you probably wouldn’t be too happy to hear that every decision you’ve made and action you’ve taken, from choosing a life partner to sneaking the last doughnut, has absolutely nothing to do with your own free will and absolutely everything to do with a complex set of biological and cultural cues which are completely outside your control.

    So, let’s start on a lighter note, shall we?

    Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, the famous philosopher and psychologist William James was giving a lecture on the nature of the universe. One attendee, an elderly woman, approached him after the lecture to tell him he’d gravely misunderstood the whole thing. The world, she informed him, was balanced on the back of a giant turtle. Bemused, James asked what the turtle was balancing on. “Another turtle,” responded the woman. Well, what was that turtle balancing on? Exasperated, the woman replied, “Don’t you see? It’s turtles all the way down!”

    It sounds preposterous, right? And yet there’s a logic to it. Because, preposterous as it is to believe that the world is balancing on a sequence of turtles, it’s even more preposterous to believe that at some point that sequence of turtles just stops, leaving one turtle floating in mid-air. If you accept that the world is balanced on a giant turtle, you also need to accept that those turtles continue downward forever.

    So, back to our central argument that everything, including all human action, is governed by factors outside of our individual control – an argument which in a scientific context is referred to as determinism

    Basically, when you behave a certain way, it’s because your brain generates that behavior. And why, you might then ask, does your brain generate that specific behavior and not a different one? Well, it's because the neurons in your brain acted a certain way seconds before the behavior in question. Which they did so because of a thought, emotion, or stimulus stored in your brain. Which was stored to begin with, because of the way your hormones shaped that stimulus, along with how sensitive your brain should become to it. Which they did so because of formative experiences at times when your brain was in different phases of development, like adolescence, childhood, and even in utero. All of which, in part, are a result of your genetic inheritance and to the cultural influences of the society you were born into, which is itself shaped by the ecological and evolutionary pressures that created culture in the first place…

    In other words, it’s turtles all the way down.

    You might think it’s silly to say that the world balances on the back of a series of turtles which extend infinitely downward. But it’s even sillier to suggest that, at some point, the turtles just stop and some other support system randomly comes into play. 

    Think about it – you probably accept some iterations of deterministic theory. For example, you probably accept that things like learning disabilities and clinical depression occur because of a mixture of brain function and genetic predisposition. You probably accept that no one chooses whether they’re left-handed or right-handed. You probably accept that people who are abused and neglected as children may grow up to be abusive and neglectful themselves.

    Essentially, there are scenarios in which you’re prepared to concede that free will doesn’t come into play. How can you – or more accurately “we,” as the belief in the existence of free will is close to universal across all groups and cultures – accept that some behavior is biologically determined, but not accept that all behavior is biologically determined?

    The next few sections will argue that free will doesn’t really, in any meaningful sense, exist; what’s more, they’ll show why accepting this proposition might actually be a good thing.

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    What is Determined about?

    Determined (2023) argues that free will is an illusion – all human behavior stems from biological and cultural factors we don't control. Through scientific research and case studies, it lays out the argument in favor of determinism, and aims to persuade why rejecting the notion of free will might be a positive step.

    Determined Review

    Determined (2018) by Robert M. Sapolsky is an insightful exploration of the biological and environmental factors that contribute to human behavior, offering readers a deeper understanding of what drives us. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Through in-depth research and comprehensive analysis, it reveals the intricate interplay between our genes, hormones, and the environment, shedding light on the complexity of human behavior.
    • With a fascinating blend of scientific studies, real-life examples, and personal anecdotes, the book presents complex concepts in an accessible and engaging manner.
    • Its thought-provoking exploration of topics such as addiction, stress, and aggression challenges conventional thinking, offering readers fresh insights into the human experience.

    Who should read Determined?

    • Philosophers interested in free will, determinism, and human agency
    • Neuroscientists and psychologists studying decision-making
    • Anyone curious about what guides human behavior and choices

    About the Author

    Robert M. Sapolsky teaches biology and neurology at Stanford University and is a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. He has written extensively on human behavior and biology, including the books Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Behave.

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    Determined FAQs 

    What is the main message of Determined?

    The main message of Determined is that our lives are shaped by a complex interplay of genetics and environment.

    How long does it take to read Determined?

    The reading time for Determined varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Determined a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Determined is a thought-provoking read that offers insights into the science of human behavior. It is definitely worth reading.

    Who is the author of Determined?

    The author of Determined is Robert M. Sapolsky.

    What to read after Determined?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Determined, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Hidden Potential by Adam Grant
    • How Trust Works by Peter H. Kim
    • Behave by Robert Sapolsky
    • Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
    • The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade
    • Take Back Your Power by Deborah Liu
    • Free Agents by Kevin J. Mitchell
    • How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes
    • Third Millennium Thinking by Saul Perlmutter
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear