Show

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Week of: 
Tuesday, 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?

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

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