[In Our Time] Free Will (Summer Repeat)

Free Will (Summer Repeat)

12/09/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=80911939
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07n0lfy.mp3

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

Free will – the extent to which we are free to choose our own actions – is one of the most absorbing philosophical problems, debated by almost every great thinker of the last two thousand years. In a universe apparently governed by physical laws, is it possible for individuals to be responsible for their own actions? Or are our lives simply proceeding along preordained paths? Determinism – the doctrine that every event is the inevitable consequence of what goes before – seems to suggest so.

Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: “Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.” But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.


Simon Blackburn
Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge

Helen Beebee
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham

Galen Strawson
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading

Producer: Thomas Morris

Listen Date: 1 December 2019


  • This was cute – following up the St Augustine summer repeat with a Free Will summer repeat
  • But the unfortunate part is that between having to negotiate Chennai traffic, an incoming carb coma from sushi and yakitori don, the difficulty of the topic itself, and not writing notes down for more than a week, I barely remember anything about this episode. As with the episodes on very basic scientific concepts, on philosophy too, In Our Time seems to work best as an usher to the Wikipedia page or a reading list.
  • The one thing which did stick was the discussion about how determinism and free will are unprovable. Which then led me down the path of wondering – if that’s true, then shouldn’t we behave anyway as if we have free will? If we’re on a predetermined path, then we were predetermined to be deluded into thinking that we have free will. But if free will does exist, we should enjoy exercising it to the greatest extent we can. Have I just replicated Pascal’s wager for free will instead of God?
  • I now recall that Benatar’s antinatalism is also compared to Pascal’s wager.
  • Somebody’s done the “Pascal’s Wager of Free Will” argument here.
  • And somebody on stackexchange has linked it to the question of ethics.
  • I wish I had a greater depth of reading in philosophy than the dabbling that I do right now.


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