Julian Baggini: Do we have free will?

PUBLISHED: 10:59 07 August 2015 | UPDATED: 10:59 07 August 2015

We all have the capacity to regulate our own behaviour; to act on the basis of things we believe and we endorse, and not just do what people tell us

We all have the capacity to regulate our own behaviour; to act on the basis of things we believe and we endorse, and not just do what people tell us


Katie Jarvis watches philosopher Julian Baggini fight an intellectual wrestling match before a packed crowd over the concept of free will

Julian BagginiJulian Baggini

People in the queue at the Cheltenham Science Festival – awaiting the ‘Do we have free will?’ event – are making inevitable jokes. “I only came here because my brain made me,” one woman says. “You’re lucky,” a man mournfully replies. “I came because my wife made me.”

And of course they are joking: because no matter the truths inherent in their jests, some inner voice assures them that they make their own decisions. We know this because we feel it: we are the authors of our own stories.

Then, just as the doors are due to open, there’s an announcement: a power-failure means the event is delayed. It’s out of everyone’s control.

Free will. It’s an interesting subject. I never questioned it – never thought to question it – until, one ordinary day, chatting to my mother. On the news was a distressing story about the actions of a paedophile. “I don’t understand how anyone could have such urges,” my mother said, disgusted.

And I suddenly realised that, no: thank god we didn’t understand. Precisely because we don’t have those urges. So do paedophiles choose to have them? Of course not. And then I wondered further: if there are two potential paedophiles, one of whom manages to control his urges and the other who doesn’t, in the same way does either choose that ability of control?

It’s not a question of forgiving or denying responsibility. It’s an attempt to understand and learn. (Just today, a headline reads: Study claims paedophiles are more likely to have physical deformities and be left-handed, postulating that drugs and alcohol ingested in utero could be responsible.)

When we finally get into the event – which is packed - we hear philosopher Julian Baggini wrestling with neuroscientist Patrick Haggard. In the blue corner, Baggini is fighting for free will. We misunderstand the concept, he says. “We need to go back to basics and understand what it really is.” His argument forms three strands:

'Freedom Regained', by Julian Baggini'Freedom Regained', by Julian Baggini

We identify free choice with conscious choice – wrong! “I’m talking to you now and I think I do it ‘freely’; but there is not a ‘me’ inside my head, typing out the autocue,” he points out;

We think free will means that we could have done otherwise at the moment of choice – wrong! As American philosopher Daniel Dennett put it: when a golfer fluffs an easy putt, it doesn’t mean he could have done otherwise at that moment. What we can say is that he has the skills and the ability to succeed in identical circumstances in the future;

Free will means we are 100 percent responsible for all we do – wrong! 
(In fact, the ultimate red herring.) We don’t choose our personalities (which would make no sense, anyway). All we need, to hold someone to account, is for them to have an ability potentially to behave differently in the future.

OK. But some might say science already has free will in a half nelson. All things are subject to physical laws and, like it or not, that includes human beings. Indeed, in the red corner, Patrick goes for the full grappling-hold. Showing a diagram of the brain, he points to ‘free will’. After stimulation of the supplementary motor area – a contributor to the control of movement – a patient will say, “I have an urge to move my right arm,” he explains.

In fact, experiments show that the conscious mind arrives rather late to the party. We begin to move, and then we ‘make’ the decision, post-rationalising why.

I’ve never met a philosopher before, though I’m an avid reader of Julian Baggini’s books. One of my constant companions, The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, explores mind-boggling thought experiments, such as the title question with its nod to Douglas Adams: Would it be wrong to kill and eat an animal that’s genetically engineered to want to be eaten? Even ‘worse’, would it be wrong to eat Tiddles, the family cat, after it had been run over; or would that simply be thrifty and practical?

He’s a philosopher’s philosopher - in 1997, he founded The Philosophers’ Magazine, with Jeremy Stangroom – but he also writes for general consumption. Here is no hermit-in-a-cave; he looks like the bloke you see out on his drive, washing the car of a Saturday morning: approachable, friendly, chatty.

Nevertheless, his latest book - Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will – takes some thinking about. Through its remarkably complete trajectory - history, religion, science, even interviews with political dissidents – he argues that free will (while a much more modest concept than we generally admit) is real. And it survives in our ability to regulate our choices and behaviour.

So, I begin: Let’s suppose I was offered a cup of tea or a cup of coffee. At first glance, I have freedom of choice. But let’s say that I hated coffee. I didn’t choose to hate it – so where’s my free will?

“People like to think they have free choice,” he says, “and I think they do. What we don’t have is some kind of magical ability to pluck choices out of thin air. To behave in ways which have nothing to do with our history or our biology or our society; that would be random. But we do have the capacity to regulate our own behaviour; to act on the basis of things we believe and we endorse, and not just do what people tell us. And that’s what freedom importantly is.”

Of course, when most Europeans believed in God, free will was a very different animal. For one thing, religion assigned responsibility without question: if you behaved in an unrepentantly evil fashion, you were damned; if your deeds were good, you were rewarded in the after-life. Social order was (almost) sorted.

One of Baggini’s points is a pragmatic one. Psychologists have proved that people who believe they have responsibility for their actions do, indeed, behave more morally – and vice versa. In the same way, perhaps, that Pakistani roads are among the most dangerous in the world because fatalism – not behaviour – is considered the determining factor in deaths, so people modify their actions according to beliefs in their own agency.

Baggini quotes the work of Shadd Maruna, a professor of criminology, who believes “that people who manage to stop offending talk about themselves as having more agency”. Similarly, Baggini explores the erosion of government ministerial responsibility. In a former era, ministers would resign even when something went wrong for which they were not personally responsible. While some people saw this as bizarre and unfair, Baggini writes, its erosion has fostered a responsibility-shirking culture.

But, I ask, couldn’t the opposite be true, too? I’m concerned at the tendency to dismiss Jimmy Savile as evil – in other words, as having agency for all his deeds – rather than looking at possible influencing factors: genetics, environment, possible sexual abuse in his own childhood. Surely, by calling him ‘evil’, we lose the chance to learn useful lessons?

I think it’s a good point,” Baggini agrees. “The problem is that people tend to go to one of two extremes. They either say, ‘Don’t make excuses for Jimmy Savile. He had the free will; he knew what he was doing; he could have done otherwise’, and that’s the end of the story. Other people say, ‘You’ve got to remember: he was a product of his genes; he was obviously some kind of pervert. Maybe he was abused himself, etc’, and so he had no choice whatsoever. I think you shouldn’t go to either extreme.

“Actually, in cases where people are addicts - or have paedophilic desires - what enables them nonetheless to act well in society is when they are given the tools to recognise that they still have a power of agency, and they don’t have to simply follow the desires that they didn’t choose to have.”

And that is the crux of the argument for me. Whatever we think of free will and its various definitions, there is a problem with purely punishing people for their actions. I saw a programme once on an American prison where inmates – who’d behaved like animals in the first place – were treated like animals. Understandable in terms of societal anger. But do we then expect them to come out of prison behaving like responsible, moral human beings? Cause-and-effect doesn’t work like that.

We talk about other aspects of the book, particularly the chapter on addiction - surely an ultimate example of the loss of free will. In the science festival talk, Patrick Haggard explained that people with brains that release more dopamine than normal are more likely to be addicts. Baggini argues that addicts do have a choice: it’s just a very hard one.

It’s a subject on which we could go round in educated, philosophical circles. Some examples seem to blow free will out of the water. Such as the normal American schoolteacher, quoted in Baggini’s book, who suddenly secretly began visiting child-pornography websites and soliciting prostitutes. He even failed to complete a Sexaholics Anonymous programme because he started making sexual advances to the women on it. But before he could begin his prison sentence, he was overcome by terrible headaches. Doctors found an egg-sized tumour on his brain. Once it was removed, his deviant behaviour stopped.

And it gets more complicated. In The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind, journalist Jonah Lehrer quotes the medical case of a patient who suffered brain damage to his orbitofrontal cortex. His rational processes seemed unharmed – he could endlessly provide perfect debates around choices: which would be the better radio station to listen to; where to eat lunch. What he couldn’t do was to choose. In fact, medics ultimately realised, the damage had wiped his emotions. As a result, his lack of preferences meant he could make no decisions.

What does that tell us about free will?

“David Hume said famously that reason is and ought only to be a slave of the passions. ‘Slave’ is a strong term; what he means is that you need some kind of emotive motivator in order to do anything at all. Reason by itself would merely tell you that, if you do this, this would be the result. And that’s no good for action.”

But we don’t choose our emotions?

“No, you don’t ultimately generate your emotions; but it doesn’t mean you’re not completely lacking in control of them either.”

I’m left with doubts. With uncertainties where once I was sure. Isn’t that the problem with philosophising, I ask him. That we’re left with a whole lot of holes?

“Yes, I know what you mean,” he says, “but I think you have to get over that.”

Philosophers, he points out, are ordinary people, who fall in love, go on holiday and have children. But they also tend more towards fairness and equality, and to disapprove of prejudices such as racism and sexism.

“So stick with it, I say, because it’s like the three little pigs. Our beliefs are like the house of straw. A philosopher comes along and blows it down. You try to put it up again and it stands up a little bit more. You end up with something that may not be made of stone but it’s certainly more solid. And that gives you more of a sense of security.”


The Cheltenham Science Festival lecture, Do We Have Free Will?, was sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will by Julian Baggini is published in paperback by Granta Books, priced £11.99

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