Radio 4: Neuroscience versus free will debate

What are the implications of the latest discoveries in neuroscience for our belief that humans have free will? That is a live debate today and it was a live one back in 1971 when the American psychologist B.F. Skinner took part in a radio discussion with the British neuroscientist Donald Mackay.

Their encounter is the core of the latest programme in Ed Stourton’s series Head to Head. Is free will an illusion? was first broadcast this morning (23 August) and will be available via the BBC wesbite for the next week.

In 1971 Skinner had just published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he set out his blueprint for the perfect society. He believed that if human beings were prepared to give up their freedom, which is an illusion in any case, their behaviour could be controlled in a way that would allow them to live together harmoniously. The mass social experiments that Skinner proposed met vehement opposition from Mackay.

Also taking part in this edition of Head to Head are the current-day psychologists Angus Gellatly, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Oxford Brookes University, and Frederick Toates, who is Professor of Biological Psychology at the Open University.

As a critical psychologist I am clearly critical of Skinner's position that society can be studied by scientists as if this process somehow occurs in a social vacuum and argue that scientists can never be detached observers as science is not immune from political and societal pressures. Discussions surrounding the possibility of 'free will' touch on cherished beliefs (pre enlightenment) and science tries to lay bare such complex conceptual ideas. However this serves to make the point even further that there is an ongoing interplay between science and society.

Equally, as a critical social psychologist I would challenge that we ever have total free will as we are shaped by (and can only draw upon) the cultural in which we live, in order to make sense of ourselves.