I must live under a very dense, thick hedge. This event was sold out, and I had never heard of Julian Baggini. With a PhD in Philosophy, founder and editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, TED talker, author of many books on philosophy for a non-academic audience, in other words the likes of you and I, Baggini is a one-man non-stop-entertainment system.
This was another highly entertaining session. For 45 minutes he talked non-stop, running rings around most of us as we tried to follow his wide ranging intellect while he pondered the nature of free will – the subject of his latest book Freedom Regained. He did mention at the beginning of the session that his job is to decomplex the complexity, but that he is also aware that people leave his sessions feeling more complicated than when they sat down. This was actually quite reassuring, because there is a lot more to free will than our thinking that we are the masters of our own destiny.
Do we have free will? Like most things to do with being human, it is not a black or white answer, hence Fifty Shades of Grey Matter. Experiments tracking brain patterns show that decisions are made by us before we consciously register that we have decided to do something. So this decision making process would seem to come from learned behavior, a fundamental set of values that are laid down in our formative years. In other words, we learn from the world around us, and those who live in it. But we do have free will in that we are able to make a conscious decision, because we have awareness of what happens if that choice is not taken.
Baggini talked a bit about absolute responsibility and where on the political spectrum differing degrees of this sit. Extreme conservatives, for example, would say that we are all totally responsible for our actions, and so should be prepared to take full consequences for any bad/stupid decisions we may make. The more left wing of us would bring up mitigating circumstances such as lack of education, poverty, abused childhood etc for contributing to the decisions that people make in their lives.
He showed us how political dissidents are considered the ultimate practitioners of free will, as advocates of freedom as we see it. But often these people say that they don’t in actual fact have a choice in the paths of activism they take. He gave the example of the hotel manager in Rwanda during the brutal massacres in the mid-1990s who sheltered and hid nearly 1300 refugees in the hotel. The hotel manager claims he didn’t have any choice, as he would have been haunted for the rest of his life if he had walked away without helping his fellow countrymen. Our fundamental values often don’t allow us to have free will. It follows from this that the more complex the issue, the less free will we have. For example, the choice between tea or coffee, what to have for dinner, organic vs inorganic are not particularly complex issues for us to deal with.
So free will would appear to be a matter of degree. We have a degree of self-responsibility and control over life, but this is shaped by our upbringing and fundamental values.
It was a most enlightening session, and I was determined to buy one of his books, many of which are available to buy at the festival. Despite the choice and my will being free to choose any of these appealing books, I am not sure how much free will was involved in my choice. Coming from a long line of excellent home cooks and providers of family meals, and having to make my first ever dessert for a diabetic, I chose The Virtues of the Table – How to Eat and Think – the decision making processes of why we eat what we do. A conscious or an unconscious choice?
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
The Edge of Reason, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300208238
Freedom Regained, published by Granta Books, ISBN 9781847087188
The Virtues of The Table, published by Granta Books, ISBN 9781847087157