‘Beyond Belief’ (BBC R4) debates free will

I’ve been fascinated (obsessed?) by the free will paradox for about 70 years, ever since as the recipient of a Catholic upbringing I realised  that it was a serious problem for religion. I seldom bypass any opportunity to scratch the spot, so I made a point of listening to the BBC Beyond Belief discussion broadcast on 22.7.2019. The participants were Rev. Sharon Grenham-Thompson, an Anglican vicar; Prof. Rasjid Skinner, a Muslim consultant clinical psychologist; and Dr Richard Christian, a philosopher.

As usual, the discussion was introduced by Ernie Rea in the chair. He got off on the wrong foot, to my mind, by focusing in the idea that our actions are caused by brain processes and these are deteministic. I agree with the philosopher Galen Strawson that this isn’t the point. Even if brain deteminisn isn’t true, this doesn’t alter the fact that our actions are the result of everything that has gone before.

Sharon, on the other hand, started off well. She said that “we choose what we want, and the question is, what determines what we want?”. This is exactly right. As Schopenhauer said, we can do what we choose but we can’t chose what we choose.

Perhaps predictably, things strted to slip when Sharon brought God into it. Actually, she didn’t like the term ‘God’, preferring ‘Love’ or ‘Divine Mystery’. I didn’t find this helped much.

I also didn’t find much illumination in Prof, Skinner’s contribution. He seemed to be saying simultaneously that predestination was true and freedom was true – the ‘with one bound Jack was free!’ answer to the conundrum.

The secular philosopher, however, got it right, at least for me. As a matter of fact there is no free will but we cannot ad should not escape from the intuitive conviction that there is.  “Free will is a necessary myth.”  This position seems to be quite similar to that of Galen Strawson as set out in his book Freedom and Belief,  which I recommend to anyone who finds this question as intriguing and perplexing as I do.

If our actions are not random, they arise from our mental state and our character. How we are determines what we do. But we cannot choose the sort of people we are. True, we can decide to become better people, as we are constantly urged to do by preachers and moralists, but this only shifts the problem back in time. We can only try to change ourselves according to principles which we have already accepted. So the quest for self-determination lands us in an eternal regression. We can never get beyond our given nature and disposition.

Note that this does not imply fatalism. We can act, Strawson says, and our actions do have important effects. “We can indeed be self-determining in the … sense of being able, by our own action, and in the light of our necessarily non-self-determined characters and desires, to determine to a very considerable extent what happens to us.” What we cannot do is to choose our own character.


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