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Free will or a no choice universe?

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5

Aims

To explore the idea that free will does not exist.

Preparation and materials

  • Download and have the means to play during the assembly the three-minute film at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww-gnKkw9ZY (If you are unable to show the film, an adapted script is provided below.)

Assembly

Show the film or use the script below to explain and explore the idea that we do not possess free will. Note that the script expands a little on the film’s quotes fromEinstein and Professor Strawson.

Film script

There are many theories about the universe we live in. Here’s one  . . .

Many scientists and philosophers believe that the idea we have freedom of choice is an illusion.

For example, Albert Einstein said (in Mein Glaubensbekenntnis (My Credo), August 1932), ‘I do not believe in free will.’ He found comfort in Schopenhauer's idea that, 'Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants.’ This, he thought, prevented him from taking life and himself too seriously.

Philosopher Galen Strawson of the University of Reading says, ‘As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day.’

One argument that supports this idea goes like this.

Imagine you’re watching a film of a falling apple, then pause the action. How do you know what will happen next?

Experience tells you that the apple will continue to fall until it hits the ground. Our understanding of the laws of physics tells us it has to be that way. The behaviour of falling apples on planet Earth is predetermined.

And, the argument suggests, what goes for apples goes for everything else in the universe. The unstoppable and unchanging laws of nature mean that everything behaves the way it should.

That includes the natural processes which made your brain and all the interactions in it giving rise to your thoughts and actions.

So, according to this theory, you have no free will. You don’t choose an apple, a satsuma, pear, orange or pistachios from a fruit bowl – it was always going to be that way since the very start of the universe. Everything you ever do or will do was all set at the big bang and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Of course, if you disagree, it’s because you are preprogrammed to.

Not all philosophers and scientists think this way. Other equally eminent thinkers do believe in free will, so perhaps the most important question is  . . .   what do you think?

Time for reflection

What do you think? Can you really make choices or is free will an illusion?

What do you make of Professor Strawson’s idea that as a philosopher he does not think free will is possible, but he ‘can’t really live with this fact from day to day’? Is it possible to live with beliefs that you do not live by in everyday life?

Publication date: February 2014   (Vol.16 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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