Does everyone wonder
about free will? Certainly the world’s great thinkers have struggled
with the problem, as have the scientists, philosophers and
psychologists gathered together in this delightful collection.
Indeed free will is said to be the most discussed philosophical
problem ever. But it’s not a problem we should leave to
philosophers, for it concerns us all, tangling as it does with
issues of morality, wisdom and the meaning of life.
In fact I suspect that
at some level everyone who thinks at all must have asked themselves
questions such as Who am I? Why do I end up doing things I didn’t
want to do? Is everything inevitable, and if so why should I bother
doing anything at all?
To my surprise I
recently discovered that even my Dad does.
My father is not an
educated man. He left school at fifteen, fought in the Second World
War, came home to take over his father’s printing business and, as
far as I know, never read a book the rest of his life. He did not
share my mother’s strong Christian faith, which provoked endless
arguments between her and me, nor did he enjoy discussing life, the
universe and everything. Looking back I see him as a
straightforward, honest and kindly man, a father I could admire, but
not one I could share my ideas with – not someone I thought would
have anything to say about free will. But I was wrong, as I learned
one evening, having a drink by the fire with him before I set off to
give an evening lecture.
“Where did you say you
were going dear?” he asked for the third or fourth time.
“To Sharpham House.
It’s a Buddhist centre near Totnes”.
“Why are you going
“I’m giving a lecture
on free will.”
“Free will? What is
there to say about that?”
How do you explain the
problem of free will to a man of ninety who has advanced dementia,
just about knows who you are, and whose world consists of not much
more than a bed, a fireside chair, and the daily paper he can no
I did my best. I said
that it seemed to me that my body and brain are clever machines that
can function perfectly well without there being any inner me, or
spirit or soul, to direct them. So there’s a problem – I seem to be
in control but I cannot really be. This is, I said, what I was going
to be talking about.
To my complete
surprise this set him alight. He was quite sure that he had, or was,
such an inner spirit; it stood to reason, he had to be. I asked him
where this spirit came from, and he said from God. I protested that
there was no God, and that spirits controlling a body would have to
be magic, and he came back with a comment I have never forgotten.
“If there is no
spirit, then why do we want to be good?”
He didn’t ask why we
are good, or argue about good and evil, he simply asked “Why do we
want to be good”.
This struck me so hard
because I, too, have come to this point in my own, very different,
struggles. I have long assumed that free will is an illusion and
have worked hard to live without it, but doing this provokes a
simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all
moral values and do terrible things? What indeed are moral values
and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is
responsible? I’m sure I don’t need to go on. I suspect that this
natural fear is the main reason why so few people sincerely try to
live without free will. Like my Dad, they want to be good, and fear
that if they stop believing in a self who chooses to do the right
thing then they will run amok and all hell will break loose.
Is the fear justified?
I suspect not. Evolutionary psychology provides reasons why we want
to be good, such as nurturing instincts shaped by kin selection, and
the desire to earn brownie points in the game of reciprocal
altruism; memetics provides other reasons, showing how altruistic
memes can spread so successfully; and most of us have been trained
since early childhood to behave at least reasonably decently. So it
may just come naturally to us to want to be good, even though we so
often fail. If this is true, this common fear is no excuse to carry
on living in delusion.
Arguably some of our
most cruel and selfish behaviour is caused, or at least exacerbated,
by clinging to a false sense of an inner self who has consciousness
and free will, in which case we might even behave better, rather
than worse, if we could throw off the illusion. So it is by no means
obvious that giving up believing in free will must be morally
Another deep seated
fear is that we will fail to do anything at all, and lose all
motivation. I have frequently had students who thought this way,
“Why would I ever get up in the morning?” they ask. I suggest they
try the exercise and see what happens. What happens is that they lie
there and get bored. Then they need to go to the loo, and once in
the bathroom it seems nicer to have a shower and clean their teeth
than go back to bed. Then they get hungry. And so the day goes on
and things get done. In fact, if you keep practicing this way it
becomes increasingly obvious that the physical body you once thought
you inhabited does not need a driver or a ghostly supervisor.
Distributed through its multiple parallel systems are the instincts,
memories, control systems and skills of a lifetime that will ensure
its coordinated actions and appropriate responses. It really is OK
to trust in the universe and in one’s own spontaneous actions. Then
the feeling of free will simply loses its power.
My Dad stopped at his
question about goodness. Many people cannot accept his answer and
want to go further. But in my experience – and I’ve asked many
scientists and philosophers, as well as my own students – most
intellectually reject the reality of free will while carrying on
their lives “as if” it exists. Indeed, I have often been told that
it’s impossible to live one’s life without the illusion, and that
everyone who lives happily and sanely must live ‘as if’ they are
Whether you agree with
them or not, you will find this little book packed with exciting and
challenging thoughts on free will, from some of the greatest minds
of our time. Read it right through, or dip into it when you feel the
illusion of free will creeping over you, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy
it as much as I have.
'Living Happily and
Morally' (49-51), my contribution in the book, is a reprint of my
to the 2005 annual Edge question
on free will.
Buy this book