‘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.


Meditation, Spirituality, Enlightenment?

Do you meditate? If so, why? Is it because you are spiritual? Do you hope it may lead to enlightenment? What is enlightenment anyway? Does it even exist? In this article I discuss these questions in the light of my experience of two methods of meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Buddhist insight meditation (mindfulness). Read the article.

It’s also available at the Secular Web.





John Horgan on The Templeton Foundation

I just came across John Horgan’s piece on The Templeton Foundation. In 2005 he was invited to be one of the first batch of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. This involved spending several weeks at Cambridge University, listening to scientists and philosophers talking (‘pontificzting’) about science and religion. As an added inducement he would receive $15,000 in addition to all expenses.

Understandably, he accepted. The article tells us what happened and also how he feels about the organisation now.

Although there were no conditions attached to his attendance at least one offcial thought that some reciprocation was implied.

She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~— given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~— I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

If, like me you’ve always wondered about the foundation, you will find this article interesting.

Horgan’s site has a lot of other interesting articles; well worth exploring.


New Scientist on free will

The current issue of New Scientist  gives pride of place to place to an article by Tom Stafford with the title: ‘It’s not an illusion, you have free will. It’s just not what you think’.

Libet’s research

Stafford refers to the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (see Freedom Evolves by Danel Dennett and The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel M. Wegner). Libet seemed to show that brain activity precedes conscious choice by an appreciable interval and many have take this to mean that free will is an illusion. But Stafford disagrees.

These results aren’t the great challenge to free will that they might seem at first. Their apparent force relies on misguided intuitions about what it means to have free will…. The misconception arises because we have difficulty comprehending causation in complex systems.

In a complex chaotic system, Stafford says, you cannot predict the outcome because there are innumerable possibilities, and human beings are so complex that they will always be unpredictable.

To illustrate this Stafford has created an interactive essay which you can tweet; a bot will then allow you to explore “your own unique path through the story, following the areas that most interest you”. This will convince you that “we are free to make real meaningful choices”.

Yes, our thoughts are caused by our brains, our environment and our history, but this causal mix is unique to each individual at each moment. That explains why human behaviour is so difficult to predict.


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