G’Day World #324 – Dr Susan Blackmore on Free Will

You’ve heard me say I don’t believe in free will. Well tonight I’ve got world famous author, speaker, psychologist and memeticist Dr Susan Blackmore on the show to explain why SHE doesn’t believe in free will either. We discuss the reductionist perspective, what neuroscientists she’s interviewed believe, and how to live your life once you’ve discarded the idea of free will completely.

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51 thoughts on “G’Day World #324 – Dr Susan Blackmore on Free Will

  1. I haven’t believed in free will since I was about 16 but I still think there is a paradox somewhere here. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’ll think about it.

    Very interesting interview. Just ordering the Meme machine now.

  2. As I’ve said to Cameron many times (to no avail) he and anyone who takes this stance on free will is simply confusing free will with omnipotence, or “magic” as it was called in the show. An easy mistake to be sure-because of the infinite qualities of imagination or the “mind- but non the less; free will happens when a conscious observer understands it’s own thoughts within the framework of cause and effect and adjusts them accordingly (aware even of these adjustments). Nothing magic about it..just the thinker tinkering with thoughts. It could very well be that once a person decides they have no free will, they in fact don’t, but they did have it, and used it to destroy it! How interesting!

    See also: “the chinese room” or Ludwig Wittgensteins second works: philosophical investigations. And last but not least: “I think therefore I am” René Descartes (1596 – 1650) not just the end, but his journey to that most famous end.

    He or She which asks the questions, and or creates the definitions, controls the answers. jtb 2008

  3. I believe that any choice one makes is the only choice one could have made given the chemical, electric and physical properties of the brain, and the available input (knowledge, empirical data, past lessons) at that time.

    I still find it relevant to discuss whether or not you could have made a better decision. This is kind of hard to wrap my mind around. However, this doesn’t contradict the concept of not having free will. But I do strive to make as good decisions as possible in life. Its really interesting to see that there is a real scientific debate on this, didn’t think that many believed in the absence of free will.

    Does anyone have some literature on the subject that they can recommend outside those mentioned in the podcast?

  4. Thanks for the interesting interview.

    Look, you guys done your homework. But I wish Dr. Blackmore addressed certain things. Not so much about free will, but about telepathy, psychic ability.

    For example:

    Where is the acknowledgement of unexplainable things like synchronicity & meaningful coincidence? Psychic flashes? These things happen to me ALL the time, and I find it impossible to dismiss it as random coincidence.

    Last week I had an unbelievable experience: I ran into someone I dated 4 years ago after thinking intensely about her for a week. It was as if I manifested her just by thinking about her. The odds of bumping into her were unbelievable, because she lives a half hour away in another town. I hadn’t a shred of doubt that “God” – or whatever you want to call it – law of attraction, spiritual intent, whatever – made the moment happen.


  5. Thanks Cam – I’m listening now. She’s really delightful.

    What I’m hearing is – she can’t prove these paranormal experiences exist, yet she doesn’t dismiss them either. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    Curious to know your thoughts about the example in my previous post. You think of a friend you haven’t heard from in forever, and then bam – they call. Etc.

  6. Mark, I think her position is that she wanted the paranormal stuff to be true but found no evidence to support it. As she’s a scientist, I’m pretty sure no evidence = doesn’t exist.

    As for your example, I think those sorts of things can be explained easily as co-incidence. We probably think of old friends a lot and they *don’t* call, but we don’t remember those instances, we only remember the times they *do* call and think WOW!

  7. Thanks Cam. You raise a good point about selectively choosing those Wow moments – because they certainly don’t happen everyday. However, despite the fact that both you and Dr. Blackmore are infinitely smarter & more well-read than myself, I know what I’ve experienced, and no amount of research or lack of evidence can sway me from believing that my experiences – however occasional – are uncannily, unexplainably, magical.

    If there is a God, or Universal Intelligence, perhaps – like Alan Watts suggests – it’s like a wiggly cat that can’t be tamed or grasped. Or like grabbing a fistful of water. You can never get at IT. Maybe it won’t allow itself to be figured out, much the same way, as Watts says – you can’t taste your own tongue.

    How do you explain it when you’re humming an old song to yourself as you walk into a store, and that very same song is playing when you get inside?

    How do you explain it when you leave a message for a friend you haven’t spoken to in a month, and a minute later they call you back, and you assume they’re returning your call, but after talking for an hour you come to realize they never knew you called – never heard your message – they thought they were calling YOU first.

    These are minor examples. I don’t know what meaning to give them. All I know is, when they happen, it feels like, unquestionably, some sort of wink from God, or at least, a telepathic connection beyond mere coincidence.

    I guess I’m like Mulder – I want to believe! But no – my experiences cause me TO believe.

    Keep up the good work – and thanks for introducing us to Blackwell!

  8. Excellent show again Cam.

    Many years ago after reading How to Win Friends and Influence People I realised that we are all the way we are due to the events and circumstances of our lives. I then choose to be more compassionate to others and myself as we all can’t help but be who we are at any moment. That includes our ability to change or remain as we are.

    This like in your summation in the show has given me great relief in accepting myself and others as we are. I’ve since gleaned a little of Buddhism where to observe the mind and to accept all things as they are in the moment removes the issues of the never present mind.

    I see what your saying here to be in harmony with those points. The new concept that I’ve been skirting around all these years but not identifying is that I don’t have any free will.


  9. Mark, as we said in the show, sticky memes! I always am amused when people INSIST on believing in things, even when there is no evidence to support their beliefs. Why such memes are so hard to people to let go of fascinates me.

  10. Cam – I understand the sticky memes of religion, bro. I get that.

    But the experiences I mention above have nothing to do with memes as I understand them. They are simply experiences I have. I don’t go “looking” for them. They happen, much to my astonishment!

    Another example:

    I recently went on a cruise to Turkey. On the ship, I met someone I clicked with instantly. We kept bumping into each other on the ship – 3 times in 24 hours in various locations. We finally ate dinner together and realized we had a billion common interests – instant chemistry, like old friends.

    Then we didn’t see each other for a few days.

    Then one day the ship docked in a Turkish town. I spent the day exploring alone. I stopped for lunch at a busy cafe in a bustling neighborhood with countless shops and dozens of cafes.

    5 minutes after I was seated, the waiter brought someone over to share my table since no other tables were available. IT WAS MY NEW FRIEND from the ship. We couldn’t believe it, yet we could, because we’d already acknowledged our “spiritual” connection.

    What are the odds that she would choose THAT cafe, at that time, in that section of town, and that the waiter would seat her at MY table?? (and no, she wasn’t stalking me.)

    Evidence? That moment was self-evident. No other evidence was needed, or necessary, for me to believe that something pulled us together. I didn’t ask for it to happen. It happened.

  11. Mark, sure, these are you experiences, but the idea you have that there is something “spiritual” or “uncanny” going on, something supranatural, THAT is your sticky meme.

    When something like that happens to me, I don’t feel the need to create a mystical explanation for it. I grok that out of the millions of thoughts I have every day, and the millions of experiences I have every second of every day, the odds that “weird” things are going to happen every now and again are actually quite high.

    Think about it. If you have a thought every second you’re awake – and that’s probably a conservative number – then in a day you have 86,400 thoughts. In a month you have 2,592,000 thoughts. Even if coincidences only happen .01% of the time, that would still be 259 coincidences a month.

  12. I hear ya. And it all sounds perfectly right and logical.

    I guess I don’t think everything in life is logical. Not everything can be explained. When these moments happen to me, it’s staggering. Yes, I think they’re supernatural – beyond logic or reason or odds. The timing is too precise. The odds too great. Just because the odds of a coincidence happening are good doesn’t make it any less of a “miracle” when they do. (I’m using that word because we use words to label things and experiences, right? Seems appropriate to me.)

    One last story:

    I once met a girl in a bar in Boston – Aimee. We exchanged phone numbers, and after I called her she blew me off and shredded my number. Not interested. A week later I bumped into her in an art supply store in a town a half hour away from Boston. Unbelievable odds, right? Gets better: We had lunch that day. Fun enough to go out again. But the second date was a disaster. We bickered the whole time and it was clear we weren’t a love-connection. We knew we’d never go out again.

    The next day a friend I hadn’t seen in months called asking if I wanted to grab dinner. We went to a restaurant in town, the waitress seats us, and BAM – there’s Aimee walking past me. We locked eyes – disbelieving.

    Cam – we kept running into each other. In different towns. Within 1 weeks time. Can you explain that?

    We chose to see these coincidences as meaningful.

    We’ve been friends now for six years. She’s improved my life in many ways.

  13. You can see them as meaningful if that’s your programming. 🙂

    But with 2 million thoughts and events happening in your life every month, you should allow for at least 2 “one in a million” chances occurring by pure coincidence. 🙂

    If you don’t think “everything in life is logical”, then I guess we’re not going to agree on having a rational, scientific approach to understand the world around us.

    Everything we’ve learned about how the universe works in the last few thousand years, without fail, shows us that the universe is VERY logical. Whenever we investigate something, we find extremely logical reasons for its occurrence.

    Even scientists like Sue, who *wanted* the paranormal to be true, who was inclined, from her personal experiences, to believe in it, couldn’t find any evidence to support it.

    How much evidence that the universe is logical do you need before you think you can give up the desire to hold out for magic? 😉

  14. Ha ha. This has been fun, bro. And you could be right. I guess the only evidence I need is my direct experience of these events that I describe. I could never reproduce them in a lab.

    When this shit happens (to “me”) yes, I consider it beyond the bounds of numbers and logic and reason. I’m talking particularly about “telepathic” or “psychic” moments where the timing of my thought(s) aligns precisely with some physical manifestation of it, despite immense, even impossible odds. I think you’re forgetting the TIMING bro.

    A last example: I happened to meet Bruce Springsteen in a coffee shop two weeks ago. The odds of that happening are pretty slim, maybe one in a million since we weren’t in New Jersey. I chose NOT assign meaning to this or see it as a supernatural occurance – after all, Bruce has to be somewhere. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, but I chocked it up to mere coincidence and good luck.

    What DOESN’T seem like a coincidence is when I run into the girl I dated briefly 4 years ago – who I haven’t seen since then – who I spent the previous week thinking about rather intensely for no good reason. Even if there’s some rational explanation for it, like mere coincidence, I think the odds of it happening are so great that, yes, I’m going to call it magic, or…telepethy…or gasp…GOD giving me some sort of sign. What that is, I have no freekin’ idea. But frankly I think it is foolish to NOT assign some sort of meaning to these events. 😉

    Logic and reason – I’ve tried applying this to falling in love with someone. “There are a hundred logical reasons why I should love this person!!” Doesn’t work!

  15. “I think it is foolish to NOT assign some sort of meaning to these events”… what kind of meaning? Again, all of the evidence points to the universe being 100% mechanistic (and I include QM in that, because QM obeys laws, even though they seem strange to us). What “meaning” do you think these events have and who or what is meaning them?

    There is no evidence for God – in fact, the evidence all points to there being NO God, certainly not of the ‘interfering with the universe’ kind of God. If there were, there would be startling exceptions to the laws of physics – and none are found.

    So follow your own thought train through – if there is “meaning”, from who or what and meaning what? Where does it lead?

  16. Jason – found your comment – Akismet thought it was spam. 🙂

    Here’s where you are wrong – you say the thinker “adjusts” their thoughts and you are giving them credit for that adjustment. What you fail to see is that the “adjustment” is, itself, a thought, and that this “adjustment” thought arises spontaneously, just like every other thought. You don’t go “Oh I think I’ll think a thought”. It just happens. You are not in control.

  17. Stian, just found *your* comment in the Spam folder as well!

    Re literature – I’d recommend “I Am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj or “Pointers” by Ramesh Baksekar. Neither are scientific – both are from the advaita school of hinduism. Also check out The Advaita Show on TPN.

  18. Cam, as I’ve told you before, the adjustments are a SERIES of thoughts..so right there you’re argument fails. The fact that free will requires more than one thought may really help you overcome this issue. Secondly, you’re forgetting what thoughts are to us as THINKERS…you keep saying that thoughts are just chemicals and electricty etc..but thay are more than that to the thinker, they are ideas with meanings…this is the dimention where free will exists, it’s beyond the physical, it’s called the “mental”.

    Also, most recent studies of brain activity show that conciousness exists within mind “states” literally states of mind…so the science your relying on to make your judgement is not really the right type of experiment to prove or disprove free will.

    I Just listened to you rant for an hour about the CIA. You were engaging in a self dialogue, refering to memories, maybe accessing a book, feeling emotions, reacting to those emotions, all while being aware of doing this…then…adjusting accordingly. This is the will being free. Again, it’s not omnipotant, but it is a type of freedom.

    I can tell you that I can control my thoughts..can you disprove this? of corse not..so lets get on to more important issues…oh…you are!

    Good for you Boy! Keep up the good work.


  19. I think I was on to something before when I said…and I quote myself (lol) “It could very well be that once a person decides they have no free will, they in fact don’t, but they did have it, and used it to destroy it! How interesting!”

    By this I mean to state that by the nature of “free will” or what we mean when we say “free will” one can, by that definition, brings ones own free will into and out of existence…This is the paradox Charlie was looking for. [above]

    Wow bloging to myself about my thoughts is fun.



  20. In the mind, we can travel through time….we can look into the past, and we can attempt to predict outcomes far into the future..this is the part of the paradox that allows for free will in the now….

    What do you think?


  21. Jason, you’re still missing the point.

    You keep saying that you can “adjust” thoughts. But these “adjustments” are themselves thoughts. Do you decide to think these “adjustment” thoughts?

    I’ll try to break it down for you as simply as I can (although I know from our lengthy email conversations that no matter how simply I break it down, you will spin off into other tangents):

    Thoughts appear spontaneously in your mind. You don’t think “I’m going to think a thought now” – and then think a thought. They just happen. Even these so-called “adjustments” that you refer to are just thoughts that appear spontaneously in your mind. You don’t have a prior thought to think them. And those prior thoughts don’t have prior thoughts. If you tried to make that argument, you’d end up with turtles on top of turtles.

    1. Cam, I think you are missing Jason’s point.
      What he is trying to say is this;
      Thoughts do come randomly, correct, but then to chose one thought, out of a series of thoughts, or to chosoe / establish a sequence of thoughts out of a long series of available thoughts, is free will. “Free Will” is not a single thought. Individual thoughts may be random, or they can be “planned” by “training” your brain in certain way. We all know that new axons do generate and new synapses between axons can be created by training one’s brain in certain way, and we also know that the “degree” of one neuron’s action and the action of one neuron can also be modified by various means, for example, changing the chemical that works on synaptic junction or by inducing the excitatory or inhibitory influence of other neurons on the same synaptic junction or by changing the permeability or by changing the number of available receptors etc. So by first creating a new circuit in your brain, you can make it possible for your brain to provide you certain thoughts (yes, these thoughts would not be accurately or perfectly shapped but due to the certain synaptical circuits developed in your brain, thes ethoughts would still be within certain limited domains), then you can assess / analyse those available thoughts and by various processes (for example, negative deletion, selection etc etc) you can find, and then use, your “free will”. The process of assessing / analysing / selecting etc etc, is not completely random, it is “modulated”, and anything that is “modulated” works within certain domains only and is not infinitly variable.

      1. Sal, the problem I have with your description of free will – and this is where most people get stuck – is that you haven’t provided an explanation for how you “chose one thought”. You talk like there is “you” and there is “your brain” and the two things operate separately, when really your brain *is* the thing that is doing the choosing. And the brain, like every other part of your body, is made of chemicals which obey the laws of chemistry. Therefore your thoughts also obey the laws of chemistry – cause and effect. To claim free will, you have to provide a reasonable explanation for how your thoughts subvert cause and effect and the laws of chemistry. If you can’t, then you must accept that your decisions are subject to cause and effect and therefore aren’t “free”.

  22. Cameron,
    Great interview. I’m a Sue Blackmore fan myself, and have read a number of her books, as well as most of the postings on her website. She has a gift for making often complex subject a lot clearer and a lot simpler.

    Re IAO131’s post, I’m not sure, but I think he’s referring to recent work by John-Dylan Haynes and his team, which suggests that a decision to do something occurs up to 7 seconds before we’re aware of it. A recent issue of New Scientist mentioned it briefly:


    That, plus Libet’s work plus cause-effect plus the absence of a separate self that have uncaused thoughts, has led me inexorably to believing that we don’t have free will.


  23. I can agree that free will has little intellectual basis but like many others still act asif it exists. However, if one rejects free will how can any sort of deterrent to bad behaviour make any sense?

  24. If you reject free will (and I don`t dispute that bit) how can any deterrent to bad behaviour be possible?

  25. Brian, I think we touched on this during the podcast. Giving up the illusion of free will doesn’t have to mean that we abolish all laws. People who are dangerous to others still need to be removed from society and rehabilitated. We do that today for people who commit crimes but who we don’t think were in control of their actions – people with serious mental illness, for example. This is no different.

    And “no free will” also doesn’t mean people don’t learn or can’t be dissuaded from doing something if faced with consequences. The brain still grows new neuronal connections. All we’re saying is that you don’t consciously CONTROL those connections, they happen autonomously.

    1. Cam, I think what you just wrote in second para above is exactly what Jason was trying to say, EXCEPT that he thinks that those connections are not completely “out of control” and they do not develop JUST automonously, but, as they can be “modulated”, they will behave in certain pre-determined way, and as you can influence on the final shape of these connections, so you can control the out put of these connections to a certain level. I think Jason believes that “that control” is “free will”.

  26. Great Show, Cameron- I would recommend another way to formulate your and Susan’s philosophy of free will. Which is that there is no atomic free will (as per your arguments about physical causality, etc.), but we effectively have psychological free will, purely by way of ignorance of our internal processes. Not knowing where all our motivations and influences are coming from amounts in the end to the illusion of free will. If we did know where they all came from, and were perfectly self-conscious beings, then we would feel like computers rather than free beings. It is that free feeling that people value, and if it is due to the outward-directed design of our mental systems.. our internal ignorance, then so be it.

    This works beautifully with the legal/penal system as well, since that is one more source of memes and influences that shape our behavior, and which we in turn cultivate and engineer in order to reach whatever goals other influences inspire us to seek, etc and so forth…

    Best wishes!

  27. Burk, glad you liked the show!

    I agree with you that we seem to have the illusion of free will UNTIL – you stop and think about it. Then it’s readily apparent that we don’t. Even the slightest observation of how thoughts appear in our consciousness will reveal that they appear spontaneously – we don’t “ask” them to appear. And I also agree with you that people seem to value this apparent free will but this is, IMHO, another mistake. Living without the illusion is FAR superior to living with it. There is less stress, less guilt, less fear, less anger – surely that’s a better way to live!

  28. Well, there is a problem of motivation and responsibility if, as you and Susan maintain, you no longer experience guilt. I think what you really have done is to, in the buddhist way, distanced yourselves somewhat from your actions and recognized that there is no “self” within. All laudable perspectives, but I’d rather you did feel guilt when that person who is you performs some less than laudable action. (Speaking hypothetically, of course!). One would think that a fan of Ayn Rand would have some problems in this area as well, devoted as she is to the will.

    Incidentally, you will love the very ending of War and Peace, where Tolstoy gives a somewhat turgid, but ultimately eloquent and, I think philosophically sound, exposition of the idea that we have no free will.

  29. Burke, there’s no problem. If free will doesn’t exist, how can you feel guilt? That isn’t to say that if my actions cause someone pain (and trust me, they sometimes do) that I don’t feel sad for that person and wish it wasn’t so. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t analyze what happened. We can learn, develop into ‘better’ people, but again we do all of those things because of our ‘programming’.

    Of course, as you say, this is just one of the things that I differ with Ayn Rand on. 🙂

    I’ll have to go read the ending of War & Peace! Being a Napoleon fan, I’ve never been able to get very far into the book. 🙂

  30. RE: “I think her position is that she wanted the paranormal stuff to be true but found no evidence to support it. As she’s a scientist, I’m pretty sure no evidence = doesn’t exist.”

    However, “no evidence of black swans” does not equal “evidence of no black swans” (The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

  31. Freebooter, of course you’re right, lack of evidence doesn’t mean something doesn’t exist – however, from a practical perspective, if you go looking for evidence of a phenomenon, and don’t find it during 20 years, I think you’re pretty safe in saying it doesn’t exist. And we’re not talking about Higgs-Boson particles here. We’re not talking about something that we might be able to find evidence for if we have better equipment or better mathematics or bigger supercomputers. We’re talking about phenomenon that people claim to have happen to them every day.

    The set of things which “might be true but we don’t have evidence to support them” is infinite. The only practical way to decide what is LIKELY to be true is to find the ones that are supported by evidence. Otherwise, we have to believe that ALL of the things which MIGHT be true are equally true. And that’s not only nonsensical, it’s would mean we would run around in circles.

    1. “Otherwise, we have to believe that ALL of the things which MIGHT be true are equally true.”
      Not really. Some of us may choose to believe that all of the things which might be true, are “might be true”, full stop.
      Nothing wrong with running around in circles until you have found the right place to stop. (and it is alo possible that one may never find the right place to stop!) But still it is better than stopping at a wrong place just to avoid from running in circles.
      All the “true” things that were not supported by evidence a hundred years ago, and were eventually supported by evidence later on, were they not true? or where they not true back then and later on became true? Was depression not a depression when it was not evidenced as being the result of serotonin’s action (or lack of it)? Was the earth not round sometime ago? Were fight or flight not a true phenomenon before the discovery of sympathetic nervous system and catecholamines?

  32. Yes, free will is an illusion. My article on the web called “The Cinderella of Science” (Kurt Forrer) reviews Michael Barnsley’s 20 year nightmare which led to his invention of image compression software. The nightmare set the problem 20 years before it finally offered the solution. Without this Barnsley would not have invented what he did. The studies by Libet of the University California supprot my contention. Dreams are the blueprint of our waking time.

    1. You may also like to explore an about 200 years old India based spiritual fellowship called “Radha Swami”. Although they have divided in two major groups, one in Punjab and the other one in Agra, their philosophy reckons non existance of free will. “Philip’s notes” is one of a book by a Western scholar, explaining philosophies of this faith. Apart from that, a number of sufi saints and various spiritual and even some religious sects have expressed and explained these ideologies for thousands of years, mostly in Indian/subcontinental and Eastern parts of the world.

  33. No evidence of black swans doesn’t equal evidence of no black swans. But then possibility of black swans does not equal existence of black swans.

    1. Existence of free will or lack of it – both may be illusory. The “degree” of its existence or otherwise, may be the case. That may also help explain the “responsibility” question. That will surely help explain the evolution of social laws.

  34. With all due respect to very erudite opinions here, how is existence or othwise of free will is going to address the issue of un necessary occurance and continuance of existace?

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