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The Forum
16 Nov
Susan Blackmore, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Max Du Preez


Listen to the programme

A conceptual meeting point for this week's three ideas, by Emily Kasriel
The Forum, the BBC World Service programme which boldly crosses boundaries: scientific, creative and geographic, presented by Bridget Kendall.

Meet the guests

British psychologist Susan Blackmore argues that free will is an illusion, and the sooner we rid ourselves of the idea, the happier we'll be.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican electronic artist whose work explores complex and poetic ideas about public space, surveillance and audience interaction. His latest work in London's Trafalgar Square aims to reconnect people to the city where they live.

South African commentator Max Du Preez is renowned for his bold and brave investigative journalism. His most recent writing delves into the multiethnic past of South Africa, offering a shared history for a divided country. On The Forum, Max invites us to pick the ancestors of our choice, regardless of whether they are our blood relatives.

Listen to the 60 Second Idea To Change The World

Each week one guest presents an idea to enhance the world. This week it's the turn of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.

Listener comments...

Show excellent as usual. Max is making the mistake of applying a process of critical thought to the issue. People who commit these acts have been indoctrinated to believe that blacks/jews/muslims/christians are sub-humans and can be killed off without qualm. They are not thinking critically. Voltaire knew what he was talking about when he said, "Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

While an undergraduate at college in the USA I took a course in 'Free Will and
Determinism' based on a book by Sidney Hook called Determinism and Freedom.
The essays in this book convincingly presented both sides of the arguments
for and against by the best thinks of that time (1960s) and I decided that
free will was mostly an illusion. Then I read Erich Fromm's book 'The Heart
of Man' and changed my mind after reading the last chapter called 'Freedom,
Determinism, and Alternativism' which convinced me that while perhaps most
decisions are 'caused' in some formal sense', much is not. Fromm presents a
complex and detailed argument which cannot be summarized here, but might
be reduced to a theory of inclincations and possibilities where we are unfree
and free at the same time, but to different degrees depending on the situation
and person.
New Jersey

I was pleased to hear Max du Preez confront Susan Blackmore with the reality of life in the world. Whatever the physiological basis of identity and action, in the real world individuals are aware that they have a choice whether or not to perpetrate genocide.

Any decision making machine that has to weigh incomplete and sometimes incorrect information against a set of perhaps mutually incompatible goals will often, in retrospect, make the wrong decision. The decision is wrong because after the fact we discover some information was incorrect (the road was clogged after all) or we find that some benefit was overrated (the scenery isn't all it's cracked up to be).

The inputs to our decision making process are already heavily pre-processed by subconscious brain modules. The emotions we base decisions on are already pre-cooked and stripped of the objective facts that underlie them. As a result we can hate someone so much we don't realise they're human. The fact that our decision making process is mechanical does not imply it's rational.

Marvellous discussion; highlighted by Susan Blackmore's contribution.
Peter Retallack

My brain says there is no such thing as 'free will'. The little man inside of me is an illusion borne out of the complexity of our brains (the most complex thing in the universe). My brain reckons the words "I think" should be deleted from the English language because we do not actively decide to 'think' - it is an illusion. We should use the words "It occurred to me" instead. If we all adopt this premise it occurs to me that humanity might, at last, take the next giant step in its evolution.
Jim Taylor

I have been listening with great interest to your discussion about free will this morning on the Forum. I think that Susan Blackmore is wrong, as I think all determinists are wrong in their assessment of the human condition. As someone who teaches philosophy, I am familiar with the arguments for determinism, libertarianism (or incompatibilism) and soft determinism. Apart from other reasons for rejecting a deterministic view of human beings, there is the problem of moral (and legal) responsibility: if all our actions are determined, as Susan Blackmore's thinking implies, then we cannot be held morally responsible or our actions; in some cases, this may lead to the absolution of individuals in serious criminal cases.

What is important in the argument between defenders of determinism and free will respectively is the notion of sufficient evidence for the belief that we have free will. Although sufficiency doesn't approach the requirements of necessity (which would one have for analytic statements), it justifies our belief in free will because of the immediate and direct evidence of sense experience. The latter, although fallible (and corrigible), is something which we can accept as being beyond reasonable doubt; if the experience of making decisions, i.e., of conscious deliberation, is rejected by determinists because it may be deceptive in some way, then they would have to reject any evidence whatsoever which is based on sense experience. The consequence of this would be that no valid or certain judgements and decisions could ever be reached about ourselves and our world. For this reason, a deterministic view is utterly impracticable, and a belief in free will is justified.
Dr Reynaud

If Susan Blackmore separates her concept of herself in order to make decisions, surely part of her self is still making those decisions, but is she also in danger of creating a multiple personality disorder? If she regards herself like a machine, well consider a fully functioning car, it is useless until some outer agency starts its ignition. Perhaps our essential Self is like the agent which creates the essential spark that actually gives 'life' to the car, as well as being the driver!

Following on from Susan Blackmore's argument: If she sees herself as a choosing machine, does it mean that sophisticated computers/computing systems can be considered to be human? Should Dualism just be dismissed out-of-hand?

The important thing with freewill is that, while we are determined, we also play our part in determining. Just as a prism refracts light entering it, so we refract influences (genetic, social, etc.) that enter us. As light leaves the prism redirected & modulated, so these influences leave us similarly altered. By the way, Aquinas has some interesting things to say about free will not being undermined by God's perfect knowledge of past, present & future.
Richard Tagart

I've listened to my second download of your programme (this one about 'notions of self') and am full of admiration for the intelligence of your work. What a great, great piece of broadcasting! I'm hooked. I'll go on a download gorge.
Martin Duffy

Just discovered your program about six weeks ago and have been enjoying the discussions very much and particularly admire your wise chairing. This week's program, with Susan Blackmore, was most stimulating. Congratulations on your fine work and thank you.
Fin Keegan

I would not normally take the time to write an email about a radio program - in fact I never have - but I really have to say that the most recent forum dealing with personal definition was amazingly good. When I heard the intro prior to the news, I thought the combination would be too odd and the show would make for a long hour. I ended up stopping other things I was doing and simply listening to the show. The moderator did an exceptional job of making the show flow well and at the same time challenging the guests.
Again, very very good! Thank you.
Greetings from Graz,
Nathan Ingvalson

The free will is the ability to will freely, the capacity to will freely, and the setting into motion, stopping, changing or not enjoying or possessing the object of the action after action has been concluded. Free willing means that the one who wills freely and acts freely is not compelled by another person, but not by a motivational (aprori or aposteriori) or motive (aprori) stimulus.

The motive force that determines willing may be the intellectualisation of a thing and the value attached to the intellectualisation which I call the appertainment. A stimulus may also be one's emotion or appetite, in which case man acts more like and animal.

No one can will outside of the functions of his intellect, emotions or appetites. The part these play in willing does not mean that one does not will his action because one may decide to resist acting, stop acting, change the course of action after action has begun, conclude and abandon the enjoyment or possession of the object of one's action. It is fallacious as circularisation, fatism or determinism to say that whichever is carried out is caused by another other than the person.
Prince Awele Odor
Lagos, Nigeria

After listening to today's edition of the forum which talked about free will, I have decided to send you a few lines of my own thoughts. I very much agree with Professor Blackmore that free will is an illusion. I do agree that any future decision one makes is very much predetermined by the context of our upbringing. Here, I will suggest the reading of the novel THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr.

I also believe one is capable of taking any decision which in the present consciousness might seem alien to their selves. And this brings me to the point where I want us to consider the question which the South African journalist on your programme posed to Professor Blackmore that whether she was capable of committing genocide. Max said there was no way he could ever commit genocide. I beg to differ. Anyone is capable of committing genocide. Anyone who is given the same set of circumstances of upbringing and the same set of experiences that those who commit such horrendous acts are given, will commit genocide. So one must never say that they will never commit a crime because there is no free will. We are guided by circumstances towards or away from all actions.

Since I was a teenager I've had growing suspicions that free will does not exist in the classical sense.
Unless we imagine a kind of magic spot in our heads, that seemingly levitates above the physical world and passes magical judgement upon all it observes, we have no free will.
Punishment, persuasion by others, jail and other social influencers have a strong role to play in influencing what we do and guiding our behaviour.
I think the concept of free will is part of a cultural inheritance and language that we are all taught from birth. If it is difficult to imagine life without the concept of freewill it's simply because we have it drummed into us all our lives and it is difficult to express yourself without reverting back to the concept.So refreshing to hear Susan speaking some common sense on your programme.
Paul Doeman

You asked for comments on Suan Blackmore's free will theory. My only comment can be that I can't comment. I couldn't figure out what she was talking about. When she came to the two different routes in her car how did her body react to turn the steering wheel one way or the other? Ms Blackmore kept referring to "she". I couldn't figure out if she believed in some biological autonomical response or whether there was some kind of other personality controlling what Ms Blackmore's body did.
Neil Anderson
Glasgow, UK

My floors stay clean now since I only listen to you while cleaning! Tonight I found that your guests were at such different levels of abstraction, that communication was not really possible. The psychologist was talking about the death of the philosophical subject and Max du Preez was rightly offended that his ego could not be allowed to choose his life. Of course both are right. We have many self-narrations that either allow us to/or choose us. Thanks, it made me formulate my own theory.
Lianne Barnard.

I so enjoyed this program! I was especially fascinated - as a social psychologist - in the idea of 'Ubuntu' raised by Max and in the idea of "the we that make me" that Rafael spoke about in terms of the idea of self in Jamaica. I wonder whether i could somehow get a reference for this idea - just if Rafael was able to let me know any source for this idea.
Thanks so much - a great 'Forum'
Anna Clark

I agree with Susan but telling this kind of thing is really hard especially where I'm from. I for one have discovered that my philosophies even as a child (19 now) were cumulative products. For instance, I had a great love for philosophers, scientists like Socrates, Einstein, Aesop etc so I tended to be against the grain most of the time till I found reason in unfounded taboos and the like.

I think the notion of "will" (which you stumbled upon while discussing later in the programme) probably hints at the notion that "free will" very probably exists, but very probably at a very low level.For sure we can all agree that a large part (95% ?) of our decisions are actually not 'ours' and just roll off the "decision making processes" that are running all the time in our brains and heavily depend on biochemical processes that go on unchecked in our bodies and our brains.

Now about the remaining 5% (or 0.05% ?). Maybe 4.95% of our decisions just come from our sociological set-up or environment. But surely sometimes some brains that are characterised by a particularly high level of 'rebellious' component will "want" to go against the mainstream and so open tiny spaces of free will, where experiencing the 'trauma' of contradicting emotions will sometimes throw up a decision that does go against what "should" have happened.

Free will may probably be the marginal activity that takes place at the margins of the 'tectonic plates movements' that happen in our brains and determine most things happening. I see an analogy to the way capitalism and "free society" started at the margins of very rigid and closed societies back in the 13th or 14th century.

One thing we probably should consider is that free will probably exists at different levels in different societies at different times... Say, the range of free will might be from 0,000005% to 0,5% of decisions, depending on whether you're a woman in a strictly religious and economically backward society or a male leader in the west...

The piece on "free will" was the most hilarious philosophical exchange I have heard for a long time.The argument against free will boiled down to a classic straw-man grilling session; clearly there is no physical homunculus pulling the reins. This is not news.
The dogma "it is just not allowed by science!" is also not news, but it was amusing to hear this tired old saw ground against the branch all scientists sit on again.
Thank you!
Michael Hopwood

Regarding free will, doesn't Susan Blackmore think that even the suggestion of free will into a mind which doesn't have it a good thing to wedge into the new animal as it forms the basis of our social system. I prefer to think of the mind as coming in many different bottle shapes.

I was slightly disappointed to hear that the cause of predetermination in moral decisions was championed by someone who seemed not to fully grasp the concept or perhaps was simply unable to express it fully. Other than that, I did enjoy the program as normal. Do the presenters research the subjects they discuss thoroughly? It wouldn't take long to gain a rudimentary understanding of the argument between free will and predetermination and convey it better than the guest "expert" on tonight.

Regarding free will, doesn't Susan Blackmore think that even the suggestion of free will is a good building block to form a society around?
Stephen Gates

Susan Blackmore makes at least ten logical fallacies in her argument that a the 'free self' does not exist. I will tackle the one I think is most pernicious- one cannot rule phenomena in and out of reality by whether they fit with a materialistic scientific discourse: As far as I'm aware there is no formula for humour, does this mean jokes do not exist?
Rory Dillon

The notion that free will is an illusion is not a new theory, but it is a disproved one. This idea leans upon determinism, that our actions are already scripted by molecular and biological cause-and-effect. However, at a quantum level, there are no certainties, energy behaves randomly. Furthermore, by suggesting that you can only decide within the framework of what 'your parents gave you', you are ignoring the role that socialisation, experience, memory, and emotion has in the decision process

Delighted to find your program during a bout of sleeplessness. As i listen to it again this morning, I am wondering if there is a contradiction in Susan Blackmore's statement that she can choose not to be like her mother. I share her view point totally on freewill, but she seems to me to undermine her very premise.
I wish there was more programs like yours. Thank you.
Corinne Carr

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