Comments on Free Will

In the 500th edition of the programme, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophical idea of free will.

Programme information and audio


  • 1. At 09:27am on 10 Mar 2011, WEastaway wrote:

    As a Christian, I have to believe in free will. After all, if everything were predetermined, why would it have been necessary for God to send his son to Earth to teach people how to live?

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  • 2. At 09:34am on 10 Mar 2011, James Carey wrote:

    Paris, France
    Free will. I am totally frustrated by the comments of your female contributor in particular. It is very simple.
    ALL events are interconnected. No event can be different unless ALL other events are different. For any one event to occur, ALL other events (not only those preceding it) must also occur as determined from the beginning.
    We are ALL driven - totally - by the circumstances of our lives - past and present. You react to events because of what you are and the forces that are acting on you.
    Free will is an illusion. Whether this affects our "responsibility" is irrelevant. You are merely rationalising in order to assuage your "feelings". EVERYTHING is explained - fully - by the determinist view. The "randomness" in science is due to errors in the theory. E.g. the "Uncertainty Principle" is due to our current lack of understanding. Free will is just the sensation we get as we witness the unfolding of events. James Carey.

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  • 3. At 09:40am on 10 Mar 2011, Mike K wrote:

    I find this helpful:

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  • 4. At 09:51am on 10 Mar 2011, James Aston Whitworth wrote:

    In spite of the attemps of some of the philosophers to put their uncertainties in a quantum context they fail to understant that at a Quantum level both choices exist (See the single slit experiment for a single photon) therefore for a chioced to be made a choice has to be madwe. That is until a positive choice is made both options exist (this is also clear to Shroedingers cat though in his case the outcome may be said to be free of the cas free will it is not made until the experimenter takes the decison to open the box which implies free will for an individual but his can affect the options for others. (If Idecvide to drive my car into you to kill you it is not a choice of your free will but mine. But free will stillexists for both of us until you die. Thjink of the patients at the Stffordshire hospital killed by the management or the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the choices and misinformation givenby Tony Blair. Free will exists.So, for Tony Blair , does the future opportuniyty for Hell.

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  • 5. At 09:51am on 10 Mar 2011, tomattic wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 6. At 09:58am on 10 Mar 2011, Ian Johnson wrote:

    You said at the end of the programme that you wanted suggestions for future programmes. I cannot find where to make a suggestion so I am putting it here.

    Can we explore "the influence of Islam on the Reformation in Western Christendom"? Most of the leading reformers possessed the Quran translated into Latin and Islam was popular in Southern Italy and spain and there must have been a comnsiderable influence.

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  • 7. At 10:00am on 10 Mar 2011, bahzob wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 8. At 10:02am on 10 Mar 2011, MyCatsCanType wrote:

    I can't believe you had a discussion on determinism without mentioning Gödel, an omission which invalidates the entire exercise.
    For the benefit of James Carey above, Gödel's incompleteness theorem proves that for any axiomatic system (which a deterministic universe certainly would be) then if that system is provably consistent then it is necessarily incomplete (and that if the system is provably complete then it is necessarily inconsistent). Result: determinism collapses like a house of cards - and there is no room for experimental error, it is a purely mathematical proof (or, more accurately, meta-mathematical).

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  • 9. At 10:29am on 10 Mar 2011, bahzob wrote:

    Congratulations on the 500th edition of the best programme on radio (or anywhere else).

    Its a shame about this programme though. Free will is a topic that goes far beyond philosophy. It would have been so much better to mark the event with a slight break from the norm and get experts from complementary fields to discuss.

    For example Roger Penrose could have given a real insight into what the indeterminacy at the heart of our understanding of, say snooker balls, has to say on simplistic determinism

    And Steve Jones would have been fascinating. The discussion opened with an example or raising your arm. Which begs the question of what is the difference,in terms of free will between when you raise your arm and a chimp raises his? (and prof Jones could have explained the reason why you may choose to turn down £100 to stroke a spider)

    Indeed had you also added say Gemma Calvert to give a perspective of what is happening in the brain when we exercise free will it may have been possible to have a philosopher free discussion of free will. Now there's a thought, the conclusions would have been interesting.

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  • 10. At 11:25am on 10 Mar 2011, malusi wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 11. At 11:45am on 10 Mar 2011, malusi wrote:

    mycatscantype comments usefully on Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. This is compatible with the Christian view that man is not confined in his nature to a closed material universe in which God has determined all events in a cause and effect system. Into this system God has introduced man with a capacity for free choice, "Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God" (the Calvinistic, Westminster Catechism). The freewill problem cannot be resolved by presupposing reality is a closed system, which is what the professors were assuming. They unfairly dismissed Augustine and Calvinists for purely personal reasons (aren't we all hypocrites at heart?).

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  • 12. At 12:35pm on 10 Mar 2011, tony wrote:

    free will in any circumstance is obviously within the limitation of the awareness of the individual as the field of choice in the formation of predilection, as beyond that awareness there is no availability of choice, there is only ever limited free will....

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  • 13. At 1:03pm on 10 Mar 2011, Ganymede wrote:

    I felt I had no choice but to listen

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  • 14. At 1:18pm on 10 Mar 2011, Valadon wrote:

    This was really frustrating programme – three philosophers, who all seemed to agree with each other, endlessly talking about determinism / non-determinism as absolute, simplistic positions, with ‘proof’ offered through very specific examples (along with a mention that it is unprovable anyway). It felt like listening to three members of the same sect talking about religious diversity. I suppose I believe in determinism at a very close distance (the snooker ball), but just as forces recede dramatically as distances increase, I suspect the same is true here. But no hints of randomness or complexity or variations in degree were allowed in their argument. Free will was actually talked about rather little, with nothing emerging from Melvyn’s suggestion at the start of the programme about new insights from neurological research. There was no mention of consciousness, and their seeming dismissal of phenomenological issues (implying that our perception of the world bears no relation to their conclusions) was odd - will is a phenomenological experience, after all - though it did briefly spark at the very end. What discussion there was about free will focused on whether we should punish people, which is not really about whether free will might exist, but what legal status it should have. So much promise, and ultimately so dull.

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  • 15. At 1:47pm on 10 Mar 2011, johno wrote:

    I am a determinist who has written a book (Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will of whether I was always going to write this book). I have not yet listened to this hopefully fascinating programme. I felt compelled (!) to comment becuase some people seem to think Godel's Incompleteness Theorem (GIT)invalidates determinism. This is simply question begging. If GIT is true as you claim, then determinism has been proved false. However, no serious philosopher or mathematician claims this. Uou simply cannot apply GIt to the universe. I am no expert in this field, but "Godel’s Proof is valid only for mathematical formal systems and is not generally applicable to the superset of “all systems of rules”." Here is a great discussion of your claim:

    So realistically, determinism still holds. Moreover, every bit of neuroscience, genetics, behavioural psychology coming out these days supports determinism.

    Moreover, as most philosophers accept, the definition / idea of free will is nonsensical and fundamentallly flawed. As of the Philpapers 2009 study some 13.6% (or something) of philosophers adhere to libertarian free will.

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