Neuroscience and Free Will

Sunday, May 20, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 19, 2015

What is it

We like to think of ourselves as rational agents who exercise conscious control over most of our actions and decisions. Yet in recent years, neuroscientists have claimed to prove that free will is simply an illusion, that our brains decide for us before our conscious minds even become aware. But what kind of evidence do these scientists rely on to support their sweeping conclusions? Is the "free will" they talk about the same kind of free will that philosophers have puzzled about for millennia? And could science ever prove that we lack the kind of freedom needed for moral responsibility? John and Ken free their minds with Daniel Dennett from Tufts University, author of Freedom Evolves and Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. This program was recorded live at the 19th annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Listening Notes

Can neuroscience answer the question of whether we have free will? Or is this issue best left to philosophy? John and Ken attempt to pin down what role, or lack thereof, neuroscience has in the discussion of freewill. Ken finds neuroscience to be extremely relevant, providing us with numerous experiments that appear to show the brain, and not our conscious selves, as behind our decisions. John considers this ridiculous, claiming that such evidence is completely irrelevant to the question, claiming that we already know our decisions are subject to causation, and it poses no threat to the concept of free will.

Our hosts are joined by Daniel Dennett, philosophy professor at Tufts University, to help them sift through what is important and what is not when it comes answering questions around free will.  Ken argues that neuroscientists are guilty of taking the "man on the street's" definition of free will, resulting in their misunderstanding of the topic altogether. However, Ken defends this definition, claiming that it is the notion of free will that most people hold - the "philosopher's" definition is what's irrelevant.  Daniel distinguishes between two different features of the layman's definition of free will, and argues that only one of them is truly important.

Members of the live audience are asked to join in on the discussion and contribute questions.  One audience member questions whether we can have free will at some times and not during others, to which Daniel responds sympathetically. We are quite familiar with situations like obsessions and cravings in which we feel our will being influenced. Rather than causation, however, what Daniel refers to as most important to him in the entire discussion of free will is the notion of moral competence. The show ends with our hosts agreeing somewhat more thabn

Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 7:12): Shuka Kalantari investigates the science of magic to see how our decisions can be influenced without us noticing.

60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:43): Ian Shoales explains his confusion with the idea of free will.



Daniel Dennett, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University


Bonus Content


Research By

Spencer Giel

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