Life Without Free Will || Robert Sapolsky

October 16, 2023

Today we welcome Robert Sapolsky to the podcast. ​​Robert is professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. His research has been featured in the National Geographic documentary “Stress: Portrait of a Killer”. At age 30, Robert received the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. He is author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone and Monkeyluv. His latest book is called Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.

In this episode, I talk to Robert Sapolsky about life without free will. Humans like the idea of having control over their lives, but Robert asserts that free will is just an illusion. Life beyond free will may sound unpleasant, but Robert explains the profound consequences of this belief in reforming the justice system, meritocracy, and education. We also touch on the topics of philosophy, quantum physics, mindfulness, grit, and responsibility.

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/robertsapolsky/


  • Robert’s background and upbringing
  • Life without free will
  • Believing in free will
  • Responsibility and punishment
  • The future cannot be determined
  • Mindfulness – a form of free will?
  • The human experience
  • Abolish the justice system and meritocracy
  • Statistical guilt
  • Effort, grit and taking credit
  • Nobody is more “worthy” 
  • Life is worth living

Sponsor Information

Unlikely Collaborators

Today’s episode is sponsored by Unlikely Collaborators. Their mission is to untangle the stories that hold us back—as individuals, communities, nations, and humanity at large. Using the Perception Box lens, they do this through storytelling, experiences, impact, investments and scientific research. Unlikely Collaborators: The Only Way Forward is Inward.

Qualia Senolytic

On The Psychology Podcast we frequently talk about forms of wisdom and self-actualization that are often achieved in our 30’s and 40’s or even older.

But it can be frustrating to finally know what you want out of life, JUST as you start to lose the mental and physical energy to go get it.

A culprit of decreasing energy, slower workout recovery, and general “middle aged” symptoms that start showing up in our 30’s, is senescent cell accumulation.

Senescent cells are sometimes called “zombie” cells because they’re old worn out cells no longer doing their job in our bodies, but they linger on in us after we want them gone, wasting our energy and nutrition.

Qualia Senolytic is an amazing formula made by Neurohacker Collective, a company I really trust. I’ve known the folks at Neurohacker Collective for years now and they really are thoughtful about what they put into their products, always trying to be as science informed as possible.

Qualia Senolytic combines 9 vegan, non-GMO plant-derived ingredients that help your body ELIMINATE senescent cells. Personally, it helps me operate with the wisdom of a 40-something, with the mental and physical energy of a 20-something.

The best part is you take Qualia Senolytic just two days a month! It’s so easy, and SO helpful to the human aging process.

To try Qualia Senolytic up to 50% off backed by a 100 day money back guarantee, go to neurohacker.com and use code psychpodcast15 for an additional 15% off.

That’s Qualia Senolytic for better aging and PRIME energy deep into life, at Neurohacker.com/psychpodcast15.

5 Responses to “Life Without Free Will || Robert Sapolsky”

  1. B. Berger says:

    I really don’t understand why these discussions on free will keep popping up everywhere. While I appreciate a good discussion and SBK has a gift for being open minded, brilliant and respectful in his response and pushback, free will discourse seems to go round in circles. RS gave some of the best thought provoking explanations I’ve heard yet, but still fall short in my opinion. I don’t get the difference between free choice and free will but I’m not a professor. SBK gave a good example when he talked about addiction. Yes, lots of people live in difficult circumstances and make choices that get them in trouble, but so do people who grow up in good conditions. SBK, thanks for exploring this, but I’d rather hear more from people who live in a world where we are responsible for our thoughts and actions. Regardless of the biological forces at play. Until this can be proven, scientifically, let’s stop wasting our time. These discussions are so frustrating to listen to. Of course we have free will! That’s what makes us uniquely human. And pineapple does belong on pizza. End of discussion. Keep bringing us thought provoking discussions,

  2. Erin says:

    Although I get Dr Sapolsky’s assertions (I think), particularly when it comes to our approach to justice, I am not sure where that leaves us when it comes teaching our young people to take ownership and responsibility for their behaviours. At what point do we stop holding people to account? If we don’t hold people accountable, are we telling them that they have no control or agency? If that’s the case, they are more likely to be depressed, as autonomy, agency, and self-efficacy are correlated with mental well-being. That’s where I’m conflicted. 

    At the moment, I find Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett’s position most palatable. She acknowledges that she is not a philosopher, but being a world expert on neuroscience, her take is that while she can concede that there is no “magical free-will”, we can live as if we can take responsibility for what we do today (because we are the only ones who can) and create experiences today that change our brains and shape a more optimal tomorrow. Of course, that some people find it easier than others is not something they choose, but surely we can encourage them to do so, no?

  3. Pauline Albert says:

    I love the vast majority of your podcast and appreciate your rich discussions with many brilliant people. This discussion was a bit frustrating, as I am not sure we got to the essence of Robert’s thesis. To provide a different perspective, I recommend that you try to interview Kevin J. Mitchell on his new book Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. I think your audience would appreciate hearing both points of view. Frankly, I find Mitchell’s thesis more likely, though hearing Robert and you in dialogue was interesting.

  4. AbsGeekNZ says:

    To take a more mechanistic approach; RS makes some good points about there are no “causeless causes”, and because of this free will looks a bit shaky. If there is no cause without another cause then behavior can be predicted.

    But this seems like a very post-hoc rationalization of events to determine if free will exists.

    I posit that free will could be an emergent property of the incomputability of all of the factors that go into a choice; sure after the fact we can examine all of the things that went into a choice and determine all of the paths that went into that choice and thus declare that this was inevitable; but going forward in time the complexity of all of the factors and their chaotic interactions means that this is effectively incomputable, thus the decision that comes out is the chaotic emergent property of the 100’s or 1000’s of factors that went in.

    This is not to say that at any point there was a causeless-cause, but that the chaotic nature of consciousness ensures that free will exists. Going slightly further; without free will, there can be no consciousness, because without free will we are merely complex machines going about a pre-programmed instructions.

    In this model all choices and decisions become probability spaces rather than set points.

  5. Oliver says:

    Great interview! I like the idea that this could be a way to have more effective empathy for those who suffer and cause suffering as a result (for instance, the criminals who have been abused and traumatized themselves, and how we could reform/heal them without over-punishing them), but I would like to find out about the leeway we actually have as far as what science says neuroplasticity is capable of accomplishing, as far as rewiring our nervous system to have measurable change in our experience and outcomes. Is this an illusion as well?

    For instance, I know that taking personal credit for success or failure is an illusion in his view, but barring that, can we still employ neuroplasticity as a tool to rewire how we think, behave, respond to events, self-regulate, etc, or is that also useless? That’s where the personal agency question currently sits for me.

    Thanks, love the Transcend book, by the way, I bought it and keep returning to it!

Join the Discussion