The College Graduate & The Garbage Collector
A Thought Experiment from Robert Sapolsky
The following thought experiment about a college graduate and garbage collector is taken from Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will by Robert Sapolsky.
We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there.
— Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky
“Imagine a university graduation ceremony. Almost always moving, despite the platitudes, the boilerplate, the kitsch. The happiness, the pride. The families whose sacrifices now all seem worth it. The graduates who were the first in their family to finish high school. The ones whose immigrant parents sit there glowing, their saris, dashikis, barongs broadcasting that their pride in the present isn’t at the cost of pride in their past.”
“And then you notice someone. Amid the family clusters postceremony, the new graduates posing for pictures with Grandma in her wheelchair, the bursts of hugs and laughter, you see the person way in the back, the person who is part of the grounds crew, collecting the garbage from the cans on the perimeter of the event.”
“Randomly pick any of the graduates. Do some magic so that this garbage collector started life with the graduate’s genes. Likewise for getting the womb in which nine months were spent and the lifelong epigenetic consequences of that. Get the graduate’s childhood as well—one filled with, say, piano lessons and family game nights, instead of, say, threats of going to bed hungry, becoming homeless, or being deported for lack of papers.”
“Let’s go all the way so that, in addition to the garbage collector having gotten all that of the graduate’s past, the graduate would have gotten the garbage collector’s past. Trade every factor over which they had no control, and you will switch who would be in the graduation robe and who would be hauling garbage cans. This is what I mean by determinism.”
“And why does this matter? Because we all know that the graduate and the garbage collector would switch places. And because, nevertheless, we rarely reflect on that sort of fact; we congratulate the graduate on all she’s accomplished and move out of the way of the garbage guy without glancing at him … It is the events of one second before to a million years before that determine whether your life and loves unfold next to bubbling streams or machines choking you with sooty smoke. Whether at graduation ceremonies you wear the cap and gown or bag the garbage. Whether the thing you are viewed as deserving is a long life of fulfillment or a long prison sentence.”
Let me know if you’re interested in a book summary, but until then, you can chew on this, the same piece I lifted these images from.