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Is free will an illusion?

Head to Head, Series 3 Episode 3 of 5

Edward Stourton continues to revisit passionate broadcast debates from the archives - exploring the ideas, the great minds behind them and echoes of the arguments in the present day.

In the third episode, the very notion of free will is up for question - do we have it? B F Skinner was an American behaviourist and one of the most influential psychologists since Sigmund Freud. To confront his quite controversial views on the human condition was an equally brilliant Donald Mackay, who in 1971 when they met on US television, was a British academic at the cutting edge of a new discipline called neuroscience.

Skinner had just published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he set out his contentious blueprint for a utopian society. He believed that if human beings were prepared to give up their freedom, which was an illusion anyhow, their behaviour could be controlled in such a way that would solve some of the greatest challenges of our times, such as climate change and crime.

The mass social experiments that Skinner proposed met vehement opposition from Mackay. Is Skinner's bleak determinism, his assumption about our inability to follow our own intentions, just plain wrong? Today, the discussion continues - the latest research on the mind has yielded surprising results. Experiments that measure activity in different regions of the brain have shown that what we feel to be a conscious intention, a thought that is put into action, is in fact sparked by the unconscious part of the brain, which is beyond our knowing control.

In the studio are Angus Gellatly, professor of cognitive psychology at Oxford Brookes University, and Frederick Toates, who is professor of biological psychology at the Open University.

Producer: Dominic Byrne
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.

Release date:

15 minutes

Last on

Tue 23 Aug 2011 09:30