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Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2018. Can We Be Free-Willing Robots? On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World,
URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/metaphysics/free-willing-robots.html>.

This text is an edited transcript of Leslie Allan's address to the Atheist Society on Tuesday 10th July, 2018 at the Unitarian Church Hall, 110 Grey Street, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Presenter: Leslie Allan

Photo of Leslie Allan addressing the Humanist Society of Victoria

For those who don't know my history, let me say a little about my background. I took an interest in the various sciences from a very early age. My first interest was astronomy. I was fascinated by stars, galaxies, supernovae and planets, as many young people are. My interest then progressed to chemistry, as I wondered about how a small number of elements combined to make the multitude of materials we see. My next inertest, in electronics, became my first career. At the Institute where I was studying electronics, I often got into debates on the big questions of life with a very religious colleague of mine. I remember him always ending the conversation with the advice that I should read so-and-so. My interest in philosophy was so piqued that I studied philosophy and history formally at La Trobe University throughout the 1980s. My main study interests were in two key fields. The first was ethics and religion. The second area of study was epistemology, especially the sub-discipline of the history and philosophy of science.

In the meantime, I was also working full time. I eventually migrated away from an electronics career and focused on training and organizational development. In 2003, my partner and I set up our own company, developing products and servicing businesses. A couple of years ago, I mostly retired. Now that my business responsibilities have diminished substantially, I'm able to devote time to my primary loves; science and philosophy. Much of my time is now absorbed in contributing to my local secular humanist chapter, the Humanist Society of Victoria. I currently manage the web site and social media presence. I'm also busy publishing essays to my Rational Realm web site and short videos to the Rational Realm YouTube channel.

Book cover: The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle

You may be wondering how this talk came about. When I was studying at University back in the 1980s, I subscribed to a view called 'hard determinism'. I'll explain in a moment what that view entails. One tenet of that view is that human beings never exercise 'free will'. At the time, I believed that is what a scientific understanding of the universe and our place in it leads a rational person to believe. As I progressed beyond first year studies, I got to appreciate that the hard questions in philosophy are hard for a reason. I came to appreciate nuances in the debate that had escaped me in my novice years. Now that I'm mostly retired, I spend a fair amount of time engaging with fellow naturalists, humanists and atheists. Seeing many of them fall into the same traps that I did as a novice prompted me to write a defense of free will from a determinist's perspective. This talk is based on an essay I wrote in mid-2016 titled Free Will and Compatibilism. You can find the reference to my essay and to other pertinent references on free will in the final section of this transcript.

Copyright © 2018

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