Free will: just an illusion?

Sunday 21 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

Free will is at the root of our notions of moral responsibility, choice and judgment. It is at the heart of our conception of the human individual as an autonomous end in himself. Nevertheless, free will is notoriously hard to pin down. Philosophers have denied its existence on the basis that we are determined by the laws of nature, society or history, insisting there is no evidence of free will in the iron chain of cause and effect. Theologians have argued everything happens according to the will of God, not man. And yet, when we decide we want something and act on that, it certainly seems as if we are choosing freely. Are we just kidding ourselves?

Some of the most profound contemporary challenges to the idea of free will come from neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and biologists. They argue we are effectively programmed to act in certain ways, and only feel as if we make choices. Some argue, for example, that we can easily be nudged into certain types of behaviour if only the right stimuli are applied. It is widely believed that advertising can make us buy things we don’t need or even want. Stronger forms of this reasoning can be found in the idea that early intervention, usually before the age of three, can determine the sort of adult a child will grow up to be. Without such intervention, we are told, their future will be determined by genetics, by their environment, by the way their parents treat them.

Nevertheless, common sense still gives strong support to the idea that we have free will. We understand there are relatively large areas of our lives in which it makes sense to say we could have acted differently, with correspondingly different results. The law recognises this too: it is no defence to say you stole because your parents were cruel to you. We feel remorse at opportunities we could have taken but did not. And we do sometimes choose to do the right thing even against our own interests: in extreme cases some even lay down their lives for others and for ideals. Jean-Paul Sartre argued, ‘the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero’. Is the idea that we might be born cowards, or heroes, an excuse for not facing up to our moral responsibilities? Or is free will really an illusion, the by-product of a vain belief that we are all special?

Listen to session audio:

Download mp3 (Right-click and choose “Save link as”)

Joe Friggieri
professor of philosophy and former head of department, University of Malta; poet; playwright; theatre director; three-times winner, National Literary Prize

Dr Daniel Glaser
director, Science Gallery London, King's College London

Neal Lawson
chair, Compass; author, All Consuming; former adviser to Gordon Brown; co-editor, Progressive Century

Dr Ellie Lee
reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

Chair: Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Reducing gambling regulation will ruin more lives

MPs are wrong to suggest easing restrictions on an industry already causing massive damage to our communities

Rowenna Davis, Guardian, 24 July 2012

Ban outdoor advertising

We can choose the magazines we look at. But we've no freedom to walk down the street without facing the advertisers' assault

Neal Lawson, Guardian, 20 April 2012

The tyranny of parental determinism

The Lib-Con government is using junk neuroscience to claim that bad parenting causes all of society’s ills.

Ellie Lee, spiked, 24 August 2011

Neuroscience, free will and determinism: 'I'm just a machine'

Our bodies can be controlled by outside forces in the universe, discovers Tom Chivers. So where does that leave free will?

Tom Chivers, Daily Telegraph, 12 October 2010

All Consuming

Diamond-encrusted phones, waiting lists for handbags, 7-star hotels - in the summer of 2007, the UK economy finally reached its giddy peak. But it wasn't just celebrities and bankers wanting to spend, spend, spend. Whipping out our cheap credit cards, the whole nation developed one obsessive, unsustainable habit: shopping.

Neal Lawson, Penguin, 25 June 2009

Free will is not an illusion

The Enlightenment idea of conscious, freely acting individuals is worth defending against those who would reduce freedom to neuroscience

Raymond Tallis, spiked, 27 September 2007

Radical surgery for the NHS? What is a GP's role today

"I thought the Battle of Ideas was wonderful. Especially the extent and quality of audience participation. I can't imagine how I missed this exciting forum for exchange of ideas in the past. I will certainly not miss another one and look forward already to 2012 Battle of Ideas."
Professor Marilyn Monk, emeritus professor of molecular embryology, University College London

follow the Academy of Ideas

in association with