Is Free Will an Illusion?

Week of: 
March 29, 2005
What is it: 

We like to think of ourselves as enjoying unrestricted freedom of the will.  But modern science increasingly teaches us that our choices are causally determined by some combination of our genes, our upbringing, and our present circumstances.  Can the idea of freedom of the will be reconciled with the scientific outlook or is free will an illusion?  If we give up on the idea that we have freedom, what follows for our practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions and choices? John and Ken talk freely with John Fischer from UC Riverside, co-author of Four Views on Free Will.

Listening Notes: 

What is freedom? Ken proposes the definition that I act freely when I act according to my desires and could have acted otherwise. Determinism is the thesis that one event causally follows from another event. If our actions are already determined, then how are we morally responsible for anything? Ken introduces John Fischer, professor at the University of California at Riverside. Compatibilism is the idea that we have free will even if causal determinism is true. 

Fischer thinks that not all causal chains undermine free will. Some people think freedom is doing what you want to do while others think that it is being able to have done something besides what you actually did. Fischer thinks that an agent needs to own their desires and actions. To own an action or choice is take responsibility for those actions or choices. Does it make sense to punish people if causal determinism is true? Is our idea of a human agent just a fictional construction? Do we care about having free will or just having the illusion of free will?    

Fischer gives the example of a man locked in a room who deliberates and decides to stay in the room. Unbeknownst to him, the door was locked so he could not have left anyway. John distinguishes between randomness in the sense of being uncaused and randomness in the sense of a roulette wheel, deterministic but impossible for us to predict.

  • Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 04:20): Amy Standen interviews Hilary Bok, professor at Johns Hopkins University, about free will, moral responsibility, the Hitchcock movie Rope, and the Leopold and Loeb trial. 
  • Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies (Seek to 45:45): John and Ken discuss the free will issues in the sci-fi movie Minority Report.

John Fischer, Professor of Philosophy, University of California Riverside

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 10am, PST, KALW, 91.7 FM, Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual Downloads  via CdBaby or Itunes.  Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via Iamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • October 18 : The Logic of Regret
    A teenage girl decides, on a whim, to conceive a child. Even though we might say that this decision was irrational, she cannot regret it later,...
  • October 25 : In Praise of Love: Plato's Symposium Meets Bernstein's Serenade
    Plato’s Symposium is arguably the most memorable philosophical work ever written on the subject of love. It is also the inspiration for Leonard...
  • November 1 : Living On Through Others
    Imagine that the world will end in thirty days. Would your life have meaning anymore? Would anyone’s? It seems that there would no longer be any...
  • November 8 : Spinoza
    Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch philosopher who laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. He made the controversial claim that there is...
  • November 15 : Will Innovation Kill Us?
    Innovation, be it social, economic, or technological, is often hailed as the panacea for all our troubles. Our obsession with innovation leads us to...

Support Philosophy Talk


Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!