The Problem of Free Will

Free will is something we feel we have. It is a conscious sense that we have that we control ourselves, choose to act in certain ways, have preferences which we can act on, and so on. It also seems helpful when thinking about morality. The idea of morality is helped by the sense that we choose what we do. That way we can be held responsible for our actions and punished accordingly. If we are not under control of our thoughts and actions then in what sense can be blamed for what we do? In fact we have an idea of diminished responsibility which we apply when people do bad things to reduce the punishment for an action. So, for example, if a person does bad things but it later becomes clear that the person had some sort of mental illness, then our attitude to them changes.

Determinism is the idea that we are not free, that our actions are the affect of previous actions. So we believe we are choosing white chocolate freely, over dark, but in fact this is not the case. Because of prior causes we were always going to choose white. Determinism is sometimes linked to fate. Fate is a supernatural sense that a certain thing was bound to happen. The happenstance I meet someone at a railway station, fall in love, marry and spend the rest of my life with this person. I look back and think, ‘it was meant to be’. Perhaps it gives some sense of meaning and significance to the meeting, some security to the anxiety that we might have missed each other and never met.

Religion is often linked to these discussions because religions have a sense of reward or punishment according to human behaviour. ‘Follow God’s law and be rewarded in heaven – break God’s law and be punished in hell’. If we are not in control of our actions, if they are decided by God, fate, or other uncontrollable forces, then how can a reward / punishment doctrine seem fair?

To hear a full discussion about this, search for the In Our Time Radio 4 programme entitled Free Will:

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