Are we products of our culture, slaves to our genes and upbringing, or free agents? Long before neuroscience and genetics, philosophers and theologians grappled with the concept of free will, with many concluding it was an illusion.
As science emerged and matured it became obvious that the way the world worked could be explained by natural laws – even if we do not know all those laws as yet. “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws,” declared Darwin, while Einstein was in no doubt that “everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control”.
With neuroscience and genetics, the case has hardened further. Neural firings or inherited genes decide for us what we will do – by the time we “choose” fish over steak from a menu, our brain has already anticipated the move.
And yet, everyone feels as if they do have free will, notes Baggini. Indeed, a sense that we are capable of making choices for ourselves and shaping our futures is central to how we think of ourselves and the world around us.
And if this is not the case, what, he asks, does that say about questions of responsibility? If all our actions are beyond our control, how can we hold anyone morally responsible for anything they do?
Baggini acknowledges that the commonsense definition of freedom is not now fit for the purpose. In this excellent and highly accessible book, he explores the concept of free will from every angle – cognitive science, philosophy and sociology. He considers the artists, the addicts, the psychopaths – are they no more than decisions made in their brains over which they have no control? And if this is so, why can an addict, with his compromised free will, sometimes reform himself?
In answer he declares a notion of a “reformed free will”, that shakes off the libertarian idea that our choices are completely undetermined by the past. Instead, a realistic view of our free will should take into account exactly how much is not of our own choosing.
To Baggini, freedom begins with human experience and it concludes as something we earn, a positive account of a freedom that is worth wanting.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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