13 January 2012

The Ghostly Illusion of Freewill

During my childhood I was fascinated by videogames. One game that stands out in my memory is Pacman. It wasn’t the gameplay that interested me so much as the behaviour of the ghosts. As you watch them roam around the maze, you get the feeling that they are intelligent. They seem to be making decisions about how best to catch Pacman. But how free are their decisions? One of the interesting things I noticed was that I could play exactly the same game over and over if I moved Pacman in precisely the same way each time.…Read

Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine’

Our bodies can be controlled by outside forces in the universe, discovers Tom Chivers. So where does that leave free will? By Tom Chivers (This article first appeared in ‘The Telegraph’ on 12 Oct 2011)

For a man who thinks he's a robot, Professor Patrick Haggard is remarkably cheerful about it. "We certainly don't have free will," says the leading British neuroscientist. "Not in the sense we think." It's quite a way to start an interview.

We're in the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Queen Square in London, the…Read

12 January 2012

Luck swallows everything

Are we free agents? Can we be morally responsible for what we do? Philosophers distinguish these questions and have all the answers. Some say YES and YES (we are fully free, and wholly morally responsible for what we do). Others say YES and NO (certainly we are free agents - but we cannot be ultimately responsible for what we do). A third group says NO and NO (we are not free agents at all; a fortiori we cannot be morally responsible). A strange minority says NO and YES (we can be morally responsible for what we do even though…Read

Are we Free or Determined?

The free will argument is complex and diverse. Both of us recognise that the debate about freedom can be responded to by arguing that we may be free and also determined.

Our debate will not attempt to cover all areas of this topic, but will simply offer two opposing answers to the question: ‘Are we free or are we determined?’

Luke - Libertarianism The debate over free will has developed into a web of arguments and counter-arguments. On the one side we have philosophers such as René Descartes, who once described the…Read

Philosophical Films: The Adjustment Bureau’s Will, Won’t Be Done

The question of whether or not human beings possess free will has kept philosophers out of mischief for millennia. The case for determinism may look neat, yet it's always been resisted. For if there's no free will, there's no moral responsibility and thus no basis for justice.

Accomplishments merit no praise, and love is devalued. Above all, our species loses the dignity we're so eager to accord it.

In this fight, Hollywood has had few doubts about which dog to back. After all, drama in which the antagonists were mere automatons…Read

Editorial: Rob Mason

“Professor, do we have a free will, or are all our actions determined by our unconscious mind?”

Everyone would agree that people have preferences of their own and these at least influence what we do. However the question of free will seems to depend upon whether our choices are influenced or determined by these preferences. A distinguished social psychologist, John A. Bargh in a recent book “Are We Free” frames this question as follows;

“Are our behaviors, judgments and other higher mental processes the product of free conscious choices, as…Read

22 October 2011

17 October 2011

Reading Fiction Improves Empathy

Burying your head in a novel isn't just a way to escape the world: psychologists are increasingly finding that reading can affect our personalities. A trip into the world of Stephenie Meyer, for example, actually makes us feel like vampires. Researchers from the University at Buffalo gave 140 undergraduates passages from either Meyer's Twilight or JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to read, with the vampire group delving into an extract in which Edward Cullen tells his teenage love interest Bella what it is like to be a vampire, and the wizardly readers getting…Read

Spinning Narratives, Spinning Selves

The ‘narrative self’ is now widely accepted by philosophers as an appropriate metaphor for the self. Philosophical interest in narrative as representative of human lives was strongly influenced by Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition.

In this book, Arendt, a political philosopher, proposes that the individual discloses his/her self to the world and to themselves through both action and speech: “Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked…Read


Plato refers to stories and myths that serve as a point of departure and exemplification for his abstract teachings, a tradition that continues in philosophy even today. Underlying this practice is the idea that the function of narrative is to provide concrete examples in support of conceptual arguments. Hegel formulates the insight that philosophical concepts can themselves only be understood as the end result of their own story (Plotnitsky, Arkady (2005a). “Philosophy and Narrative.” D. Herman et al. (eds). The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 427–28.2005a).


Husserl’s disciple…Read

Narrative and Identity

Identity and narrative agree well from a broadly Heideggerian perspective which argues the constitution of being through language. We could in fact go as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher, Parmenides if we find that a more general identification of being and thought is relevant to the subject, but one can easily get lost within such broad ascriptions especially when their relevance to narrative and identity is only implicit. Consequently I will concentrate on a line of thought which is more congenial to me, and one which I think is a more immediately relevant classical locus to ground…Read

Ideology and the Self

JOSHUA KNOBE, a pioneer in the field of "experimental philosophy" at Yale University has contributed a fascinating piece to the New York Times' online philosophy forum on the intuitions of ordinary folk about what constitutes the "true self" So what has this to do with politics? A great deal, it seems. Mr Knobe and his colleagues, the psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom, suspected that intuitions about the true self largely reflect prior ideological commitments. So they concocted scenarios designed to elicit different judgments from conservative and liberal subjects. Their "conservative items" describe a person changing in a way…Read

Don Quixote and the Narrative Self

Once upon a time a philosopher wrote an article called ‘Don Quixote and The Narrative Self’. He commenced by saying: In this essay, I will discuss the question of whether our selves are constituted by narratives, ie stories. Are we like Don Quixote, whose self was created by his reading of medieval romances: are we Homo quixotienses, the narrative self?

Or are we rather like the protagonist of Sartre’s novel Nausea, Antonin Roquentin, whose life did not form any narrative unity? Are we in other words rather Homo roquentinenses?

The idea…Read

To Thine Own Self Be True

But what did Shakespeare mean he wrote these words? He seems to imply that we have a permanent self, something to which we should always be faithful. In a recent article in the Economist, Will Wilkinson commented that he believed that “the sense of the self is an evolutionary construction with a certain social function.” he enlarged upon this by then saying, “ so we build a sense of self upon the shared moral ideology of our local culture.” Is this a true interpretation of Shakespeare’s words. We decided to ask some…Read

Editorial: What’s Your Story?

“All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.” -Shakespeare

I wonder if anyone else is haunted by the thought that if their life was made into a movie, it would get bad reviews. People often complain that their lives are dull, boring or just plain ordinary. Some decide to fight against this fate by making every moment count, embarking on adventures like base jumping, big wave surfing, risky entrepreneurship or war.

But perhaps movies and books are just an escape, and they must by necessity…Read

1 July 2011

Editorial: Tom McGuire on Pessimism and Prozac

A Dutch acquaintance recently asked me why New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. At first I was taken aback by this question. Suicide is a grisly issue that New Zealanders don’t really like to talk about much. It is discomforting to think that beneath our clean, green exterior of fun on the beach and barbeques at the bach lies a dark underbelly of depression and hopeless despair.

After discussing a few half-baked theories, neither of us could come to any satisfactory conclusion about why so many young…Read

Let the Happiness in and feel good

Action for Happiness – a new mass movement for social change founded by three pioneering thinkers, Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon was launched in the U.K on11 April 2011. It is based on one simple idea – that if we want a happier society, we've got to approach our own lives in a way that prioritises the things that really matter, including the happiness of those around us.

With families and communities across the UK facing difficult economic times, uncertain job security and savage spending cuts, it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about happiness.…Read

This Pursuit of Happiness Makes Me Queasy

Within the space of an hour, I'd been hugged several times, I'd been led through a short meditation and I'd been bombarded by messages such as "if you can't change it, change the way you feel about it" and "happiness is a decision". It was the launch of Action for Happiness and everyone else looked pretty jolly. So perhaps it works.

You have to hand it to them, Action for Happiness has fantastic chutzpah to launch a mass movement at the nadir of a grim recession. Given the media's need for surprises,…Read

Can We Be Happy?

CAN BEINGS DESIRE TO BE HAPPY! This seemingly simple proposition that may be accepted as definitive and certain. In fact, the desire for happiness seems paramount. Of course, happiness is subjective, and is interpreted differently according to each person’s understanding and the external circumstances. For some, the concept of happiness may be based predominantly on self: self-preservation, self-protection, self-satisfaction, self-promotion; for some, it may be focused on others – the well-being, safety, or joy of one’s loved ones, or even of mankind in general. Mostly these two elements of focus, self and others, are intertwined,…Read

Condemned to Joy

On August 21, 1670, Jacques Bossuet, the bishop of Meaux and official preacher to the court of Louis XIV, pronounced the eulogy for Princess Henrietta of England before the Prince of Condé. The Duchess of Orléans had died at 26 after drinking a glass of chicory that may have been poisoned.

At the threshold of death, the young woman had called on priests rather than doctors, embraced the crucifix, asked for the holy sacraments, and cried out to God. The wonder of death, Bossuet exclaimed, citing Saint Anthony, was that; “for the Christian, it does not…Read

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