Free will: just an illusion?

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Sunday 21 October, Barbican, London


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?

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

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