1. The Naturalistic Case for Free Will: The Challenge

This is the first post in a series discussing some key ideas from Why Free Will is Real (Harvard University Press, 2019). Many thanks to John Schwenkler and the Brains Blog for giving me this opportunity.

Skepticism about free will has become ever more prominent. If one browses the popular science section of any large bookshop or flicks through recent popular science magazines, one is likely to come across some books or articles arguing that free will is an illusion: a left-over from an outmoded, pre-scientific way of thinking that has no place in modern science. The authors typically cite some influential neuroscientific studies that appear to undermine the idea of free will by showing that human actions are caused not by our intentional mental states, but by physical processes in the brain and body. More broadly, if everything in the universe is governed by the laws of physics, and our actions are part of that universe, then how could those actions be free? This line of reasoning, in turn, puts pressure on our traditional notions of responsibility. How could it make sense to hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions weren’t done out of this person’s own free will?

Such skepticism about free will is not yet the mainstream view among the general public. Nor is it the mainstream view among academic philosophers, the majority of whom are “free-will compatibilists”: proponents of the thesis that free will – perhaps after some definitional tweaking – is compatible with a law-governed, even deterministic universe. But free-will skepticism is on the rise, as illustrated by Sam Harris’s best-selling book, Free Will (2012). Many free-will skeptics have a noble moral motive, alongside their scientific motivation: they find the present criminal justice systems in many countries unjust and wish to argue for criminal justice reform. But one can certainly agree on the need for an overhaul of our criminal justice systems and advocate a more rehabilitative and less retributivist approach, while still thinking that it is a philosophical mistake to throw the notion of free will out of the window. Moreover, the idea of free will is central to our human self-understanding as agents, independently of its relevance to criminal justice. How, for instance, could we genuinely deliberate about which course of action to take – say, when we choose a job, a partner, or a political cause we wish to endorse – if we didn’t take ourselves to be free in making this choice?

In my book, Why Free Will is Real (2019), I offer a new defence of free will against the growing skepticism. Crucially, I do not proceed by denying science or watering down the definition of free will. Rather, my aim is to show that if we understand the lessons of a scientific worldview correctly, the idea of free will – in a fairly robust sense – is not just consistent with such a worldview but supported by it. In short, I argue that there is a naturalistic case for free will.

In this series of blog posts, I will first describe what I take to be the main challenges for free will from a scientifically informed perspective and then explain what my strategy is for answering those challenges. And I will illustrate this strategy by zooming in on the most widely discussed challenge, namely the challenge from determinism. Of course, I will only be able to sketch some key ideas relatively informally; more detailed and precise arguments can be found in the book itself, as well as in some of my earlier articles (available on my webpage).


Let me begin with the overall challenge. Free will can be defined, on a first gloss, as an agent’s capacity to choose and control his or her own actions. Free-will skeptics argue that there is no room for this capacity in a universe in which everything is the result of physical processes. The challenge can be made more precise in terms of a general argument scheme. The skeptics typically assume that free will requires some precondition – call it property P – which might be one or perhaps all of the following:

  • intentional, goal-directed agency,
  • alternative possibilities among which we can choose, and
  • causation of our actions by our mental states, especially by our intentions.

Then they claim that science shows that there is no such thing as property P. In particular, they argue that intentional agency, alternative possibilities, or mental causation cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the world. Regardless of whether you consult particle physics, biochemistry, or even neuroscience, you won’t get around the fact that human organisms are collections of physical building blocks, all of which are ultimately governed by the laws of physics. And this, it seems, leaves very little room for intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions. For this reason, the skeptics say, property P – whichever one of the three it is – is at best a convenient fiction of our pre-scientific way of thinking. It is not an ingredient of our physical universe. And so, since property P is required for free will, there is no free will. 

Different arguments against free will target different substitution instances for P. Some arguments claim that intentional agency is an illusion. Intentionality does not fit into the physical universe. The idea that humans are agents with goals and purposes is a remnant from folk psychology, to be replaced by a more mechanistic understanding of the human organism as a bio-physical machine. On this picture, the traditional psychological understanding of humans as intentional agents will ultimately be replaced by a more reductionistic, neuroscientific understanding. I call this the “challenge from radical materialism”. 

A second set of arguments claim that if the laws of physics are deterministic, meaning that the past state of the universe – say at the time of the Big Bang – already pre-determined everything that was going to happen thereafter, then human beings could never have any alternative possibilities to choose from. When I chose to have coffee rather than tea this morning, to give a trivial example, I could not have acted otherwise. My choice was fixed by the world’s initial conditions, as was your choice to read this blog post. I call this the “challenge from determinism”. It is, by far, the most widely discussed challenge for free will.

A third set of arguments, finally, assert that it is illusory to think that our actions are caused by our intentions. When I act, it is my brain that makes me do it. Any consciously experienced mental state to which I might intuitively attribute my action is only an epiphenomenon accompanying the real, physical cause – a byproduct. I call this the “challenge from epiphenomenalism”.  

Unless we are prepared to say that intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and mental causation are not all needed for free will, the success of even just one of these arguments poses a massive challenge for free will. Furthermore, although the popular science versions of these arguments have perhaps received the most attention in recent years, there are more academic versions too. These include, but are not restricted to, Patricia and Paul Churchland’s arguments for “eliminativism” about intentional agency (1981, 1986), Peter van Inwagen’s “consequence argument” for the incompatibility of free will and determinism (1975), Jaegwon Kim’s “causal exclusion argument” against certain non-reductive forms of mental causation (1998), and Benjamin Libet’s and other scholars’ experimental results on the neuronal activity underlying voluntary motor actions (1983).


How should we respond? One response is to conclude that there is no free will. That’s what the free-will skeptics say. I find that response unsatisfactory. My view is that we should abandon such a central tenet of our commonsense understanding of the human condition only if the arguments against it are truly compelling, and I don’t think they are, as I will explain. A second response, which is given by many free-will compatibilists, is to suggest that free will doesn’t require all of the things I have mentioned – or that it requires them only in a weaker form. In particular, one might say, it is not necessary for free will that we have alternative possibilities to choose from. What matters for free will is merely that we endorse the choices we make, not that we could have acted otherwise. We might then be able to bypass some of the challenges I have summarized. I am not convinced by that response either, because it comes at the cost of watering down the notion of free will. It’s not clear that such a weakened notion can do all the work we expect the notion of free will to do, as a basis for our self-understanding as responsible agents capable of deliberating about what to do. 

My own response is different. I concede the skeptics’ starting point and accept that free will does indeed require intentional agency, alternative possibilities to choose from, and causal control over our actions. And I also concede that if we look at the world solely through the lens of fundamental physics or even that of neuroscience, we may not find agency, choice, and mental causation. But I argue that this observation does not show that these properties are unreal. Rather, free will and its prerequisites are emergent, higher-level phenomena. They emerge from physical processes, but are not reducible to them. They are in the company of other emergent phenomena, from organisms and ecosystems to economies. These phenomena, too, would be hard to see if we were to look at the world solely through the lens of (say) physics or chemistry. We would see only particles and molecules, fields and forces, but no organisms, ecosystems, and economies. They are irreducibly higher-level phenomena, but that makes them no less real. 

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose someone claims that there is no such thing as unemployment. Why? Because unemployment does not feature among the properties to which our best theories of fundamental physics refer. If you consult quantum mechanics, for instance, then you won’t see any unemployment. But it would be absurd to conclude from this that unemployment is unreal. It is very much a real phenomenon, albeit a social and economic as opposed to purely physical one. And of course, this verdict is supported by our best scientific theories at the relevant level, such as sociology and economics. Those theories recognize the reality of unemployment, and it features as an explanans and an explanandum in social-scientific explanations. Like the skeptic who mistakenly searches for unemployment at the level of quantum mechanics, the free-will skeptics, I argue, make the mistake of looking for free will at the wrong level, namely the physical or neurobiological one – a level at which it cannot be found.  

This was just a first quick sketch of my response. In my next post, I will explain my strategy for defending free will in more detail, summarizing the core of my argument.

Author’s note

My defence of free will as a higher-level phenomenon goes back to my paper “Free will, determinism, and the possibility to do otherwise”, posted on my LSE webpage on 14 June 2011 and on SSRN on 12 July 2011, later published as List (2014). I also build on my work with Peter Menzies on mental causation (List and Menzies, 2009, 2017), with Marcus Pivato on determinism and chance (List and Pivato, 2015), and with Wlodek Rabinowicz on alternative possibilities and intentional endorsement (List and Rabinowicz, 2014). For brevity, I omit detailed literature references in the present blog posts; for full references, see my book. The two closest precursors to my account of free will are Anthony Kenny’s account in Freewill and Responsibility (1978) and Daniel Dennett’s in Freedom Evolves (2003). Both recognize the higher-level nature of free will, but neither develops the idea in the way I do. Sean Carroll has also defended a levelled understanding of free will online and in The Big Picture (2016); my 2011 paper predates his contributions. Other fellow travelers in the quest to defend free will against scientific challenges include Jenann Ismael, Alfred Mele, Eddy Nahmias, and Adina Roskies. See, for example, Ismael (2016), Mele (2014), Nahmias (2014), and Roskies (2006).


Churchland, P. M. (1981). “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.” Journal of Philosophy 78(2): 67–90. 

Churchland, P. S. (1986). Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, MA (MIT Press). 

Carroll, S. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York (Dutton). 

Dennett, D. (2003). Freedom Evolves. London (Penguin). 

Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. New York (Simon and Schuster).

Ismael, J. T. (2016). How Physics Makes Us Free. New York (Oxford University Press). 

Kenny, A. (1978). Freewill and Responsibility. London (Routledge).

Kim, J. (1998). Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem and Mental Causation. Cambridge, MA (MIT Press). 

Libet, B., C. A. Gleason, E. W. Wright, and D. K. Pearl (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential): The Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act.” Brain 106: 623–642. 

List, C. (2014). “Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility of Doing Otherwise.” Noûs 48(1): 156–178.

List, C., and P. Menzies (2009). “Non-reductive Physicalism and the Limits of the Exclusion Principle.” Journal of Philosophy 106(9): 475–502.

List, C., and P. Menzies (2017). “My Brain Made Me Do It: The Exclusion Argument against Free Will, and What’s Wrong with It.” In Making a Difference: Essays on the Philosophy of Causation, edited by H. Beebee, C. Hitchcock, and H. Price, 269–285. Oxford (Oxford University Press). 

List, C., and M. Pivato (2015). “Emergent Chance.” Philosophical Review 124(1): 119–152. 

List, C., and W. Rabinowicz (2014). “Two Intuitions about Free Will: Alternative Possibilities and Intentional Endorsement.” Philosophical Perspectives 28: 155–172. 

Mele, A. R. (2014). Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. Oxford (Oxford University Press).

Nahmias, E. (2014). “Is Free Will an Illusion? Confronting Challenges from the Modern Mind Sciences.” In Moral Psychology. Vol. 4, Freedom and Responsibility, edited by W. Sinnott-Armstrong, 1–57. Cambridge, MA (MIT Press). 

Roskies, A. L. (2006). “Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and Responsibility.” Trends in Cognitive Science 10(9): 419–423.

Van Inwagen, P. (1975). “The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism.” Philosophical Studies 27(3): 185–199.


  1. “Rather, free will and its prerequisites are emergent, higher-level phenomena. They emerge from physical processes, but are not reducible to them. ”

    Unarguable if you define ‘free will’ as an emergent, higher-level, phenomena that is not observable to any lower-level phenomena; since free-will then becomes a subjective experience that cannot, even in principle, be unequivocally shared with an other on the basis of a common, evidence-based, yardstick.

    But not as illuminating as defining ‘free will’ in terms of our conceptual metaphors of those physical phenomena which—at the lowest quantum level—can be both expressed unequivocally, and communicated categorically, in a mathematical language in terms of arithmetical functions and relations that are deterministic, but not predictable, by common, evidence-based, definitions .

    • Raul Villuendas

      I agree Bhupinder but we should not “play” with the concepts. “Free-will” has a long history as a concept and is well defined by our ancestors.
      If you change the terms you change the concept so you better change the word you use. In science free-will is sterile, it is more useful to use concepts and terms like uncertainty, information, collapse of the wave-particle function, etc.
      If not we risk getting trap again and again in our naif intuitions like the ones we observe nowadays from quantum mechanics, where new-age schools of though are projecting observations in quantum mechanics using our pop-folk intuition to generate scientifically-sterile systems of believes playing with parallelisms between quantum mechanics and the way our mind works, etc etc….

  2. Raul Villuendas

    I agree free-will is a concept that emerges and it emerges from complex social-systems. The concept of free-will (my feeling of choosing freely what I do or even how free I feel in my society) is an implicit contractual agreement between every human being and the sociocultural context he/she is growing in.
    Trying to understand free-will outside a social context/level is sterile.
    The concept itself of free-will is anachronistic and not helpful and we can say it is an illusion or naif intuition when we move outside social levels of discussion and get down to serious philosophical or scientific discussions.
    Nature is about manipulation, and we’re technically able to manipulate more and more human behavior. Hetero-phenomenology shows us that we can “cheat” the self and the sense of agency and what a human is feeling as done via a free-choice can be conditioned from the outside via chemical substances or subliminal inputs. We can/could even implant memories and change the sense of agency for things that were done in the past.
    Net, is an individual we’re conditioning to buy or to do something free of doing it? If you ask him he will tell you YES, I DECIDED! if you ask the “manipulator” or the “scientists” making the experiment they will tell you that they induced him the behavior and that the final decision is probabilistic and asking about free-will makes no sense and should be moved out of the equation to better understand what is going on.
    Again, trying to give to free-will a universal or absolute value and a transcendental ontology is anachronistic and sterile. Note that free-will “mental-object” is psychologically very beneficial and powerful and historically the system of believes like religions were based on this free-will “mental-object” to control and manage societies that would have been a big mess otherwise.

  3. i

    Agree with your characterisation of current scientific arguments and attitudes. Don’t agree with having the slightest respect for them. They are outrageous – scientifically.

    1. There is *no evidence whatsoever* for human/animal determinism. In 400 years, millions of scientists have managed to produce *zero* laws of voluntary behaviour. Zero. They’ve identified zero consistent patterns of deterministic decisionmaking.

    IOW science is in its own terms a total failure when it comes to voluntary behaviour – just hasn’t got off the ground. The physical sciences got off to a flying start with Newton’s laws of motion (of inanimate matter). The mental sciences have produced no laws of the conscious mind’s motion.

    2. The actual evidence is all the other way. Take any area of human behaviour – any activity – work, eating, exercise, sex et al – and you find that humans, faced with much the same decisions, decide contradictorily over and over – .i.e. do go either way throughout their life. In religious terms, we all oscillate repeatedly – and freely – between being saints and sinners in our decisions – and have major, systemic problems in sticking to any consistent regime in any area of behaviour. How come, if we’re so determined?

    3. The arguments being presented are logical and not scientific at all. Essentially it’s *if* matter is determined, so must life be – but it doesn’t follow scientifically at all.

    Physics – and here I take exception to your approach – is really irrelevant. The real issue is how and why could the human and animal be in some way programmed to decide either way. Most scientists AFAIK do accept that computers represent a partly acceptable if somewhat to highly flawed paradigm of the mind’s working (in which case mental causation is not a problem at all to other than philosophers). And since computers are already “nondeterministically programmed”, however primitively, the main problem is to understand the why rather than the how of free will.

    4. Science ‘s worldview does not actually apply to the conscious self and mind. There are no machines that are bicameral like us, only unicameral computers/robots. Science cannot actually explain the existence of and necessity for the conscious self and mind at all, including emotions, conflicts, willpower, nagging conscience, and the entire human drama of life. Current machines have none of these and offer no reasons for having them. Rational computers function much like the unconscious mind, (wh. also has none of the above), but not at all like the conscious mind.

    None of technology’s rational machines however can work *without* a human conscious self and mind there to drive and operate them. Rational science and technology have completely failed to take the conscious self and mind “out of the [technological] loop”. This would suggest that the conscious mind is a radically different and opposite kind of machine to our present ones – possibly one for wh. free will is not a luxury but a necessity.

    5. Science has never studied the inner drama/monologue/dialogue of human decisionmaking – even though dramatic artists have been studying it for the last 400 years since Shakespeare.

    It was “ridiculous” pace Crick, not to study the conscious mind. It is equally ridiculous – and obscenely unscientific – not to study the conscious self in action, in the process of decisionmaking.

    6. Conclusion: science when it comes to voluntary behaviour is quite, quite mad – literally out of its and our conscious mind. It has no evidence or paradigmatic basis for opining anything about human/animal free will/determinism or the conscious self and its autonomy/automatism.

    What it should be doing is profusely apologising for completely ignoring the evidence of actual decisionmaking and having no paradigm that applies to the conscious mind – and generally being such a failure when it comes to laws, patterns and predictability here.

    In general, it seems to be a principle of science that the less is known about an area, the more dogmatic and assertive scientists tend to be;. The area of free will is a classic example.

    • Raul Villuendas

      Hi I, I didn’t say anything about determinism. Determinism as free will is an illusion. If you read carefully I talked about probabilities, not certainties.
      Your reasoning is too binary.

      Nevertheless, I disagree, consciousness and the self are finally being understood thanks to science (i.e. read Dehaene).

      Remember brains have not changed in thousands years. The only progress we have made is thanks to the technology created from the scientific discoveries.

      • i

        Perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly. Science generously decided to start studying *consciousness* 20-odd years ago. It still does not study *the conscious-self-in-action* – engaged internally and externally in its main business – decisionmaking (as dramatic artists have studied it for centuries). That’s like studying “driverness” and ignoring the *driver*. Ridiculous. And scientifically obscene. A full-frontal lobotomy that automatically invalidates more or less anything science has to say about free will – free/deterministic decisionmaking. The scientific facts are that science has produced no laws of voluntary behaviour ever.

        When you and others talk about free will etc and “illusions” you are offering an opinion based on no real evidence . One experiment by Libet on one very dubious kind of decision does not count as serious evidence about the millions of very different and diverse kinds of decisions humans and animals make. The facts are, as I said, that humans demonstrate their ability to go either way on all kinds of decisions, over and over – and their corresponding extreme difficulty to inability to be [deterministically] consistent in more or less every main area of decisionmaking.

        You have to produce evidence about actual decisionmaking.

  4. “Again, trying to give to free-will a universal or absolute value and a transcendental ontology is anachronistic and sterile. Note that free-will “mental-object” is psychologically very beneficial and powerful and historically the system of believes like religions were based on this free-will “mental-object” to control and manage societies that would have been a big mess otherwise.”

    “In general, it seems to be a principle of science that the less is known about an area, the more dogmatic and assertive scientists tend to be;. The area of free will is a classic example.”

    Both observations are well-founded apropos current paradigms of scientific thought. However, the paradigms they protest are not! So perhaps we need to make sure the baby is not in the bathwater we may inadvertently flush.

    In a thought-provoking Opinion piece, `Desperately Seeking Mathematical Truth’, in the August 2008 Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Melvyn B. Nathanson sought to highlight the significance for the mathematical sciences when unjustifiable authority is vested by society—albeit tacitly—upon academic `bosses’ (a reference, presumably, to the collective of reputed—and respected—experts in any field of human endeavour):

    `… many great and important theorems don’t actually have proofs. They have sketches of proofs, outlines of arguments, hints and intuitions that were obvious to the author (at least, at the time of writing) and that, hopefully, are understood and believed by some part of the mathematical community.

    But the community itself is tiny. In most fields of mathematics there are few experts. Indeed, there are very few active research mathematicians in the world, and many important problems, so the ratio of the number of mathematicians to the number of problems is small. In every field, there are “bosses” who proclaim the correctness or incorrectness of a new result, and its importance or unimportance.

    Sometimes they disagree, like gang leaders fighting over turf. In any case, there is a web of semi-proved theorems throughout mathematics. Our knowledge of the truth of a theorem depends on the correctness of its proof and on the correctness of all of the theorems used in its proof. It is a shaky foundation.”

    The challenge Nathanson highlighted is not whether to commit , or to not commit, to a concept that is well-defined by our ancestors or accepted paradigms.

    Rather, the challenge is to clarify what they might have meant, and what we mean, by a ‘well-defined’ concept; and whether we are interested only in expressing a concept in subjective terms that an individual intelligence can recall and comfortably treat as unequivocal, or whether we are also interested in refining from such a concept that which can, further, be communicated unequivocally to an other intelligence so that that intelligence, too, can comfortably recall and treat the communicated concept as unequivocal.

    See, for instance the following excerpt:

    ‘Three Categories of Information and a Case for Professors of Stupidity’


    It is unfortunate that current scientific paradigms have mistakenly concluded from Kurt Goedel’s reasoning in his seminal 1931 paper on formally undecidable arithmetical propositions that unequivocal communication is, in principle, unfeasible.

    The challenge, then, is to embrace an evidence-based paradigm which will ensure that we are all referring in our discussions to a common, well-definable (in some precise sense), concept.

    Otherwise we would all be subject eventually to the judgement by fiat of the ‘bosses’—so decried by Nathanson—on concepts that are expressed in languages of common discourse.

    The absurd extent to which such languages need to tolerate ambiguity; both for ease of expression and for practical—even if not theoretically unambiguous and effective—communication in non-critical cases amongst intelligences capable of a lingua franca is highlighted by the universal appreciation of Charles Dickens’ Mr. Bumble’s retort that `The law is an ass’ (see http://www.shazbot.com/lawass/); a quote oft used to refer to the absurdities which sometimes surface in cases when judicial pronouncements attempt to resolve an ambiguity by subjective fiat that appeals to the powers—and duties—bestowed upon the judicial authority for the practical resolution of precisely such an ambiguity, even when the ambiguity may be theoretically irresolvable!

    • Raul Villuendas

      I have the impression you refer to theoretical science. This is just one step of the process… the science I like is the one that is pragmatic and that translates into technologies that transform our world: physical and mental.
      Theory and speculation is an important part of the scientific method but is not all.
      Nevertheless the consequences of last centuries discoveries have dramatically change our lifes and our philosohy, the way we live and the way we think and feel….
      Look at this forum, we don’t know each other and we’re exchanging opinions because we have a contemporary “model- of-the-world”. Someone from a century ago could not understand what we are doing.
      Technology is transcendental as it opens new worlds of possibilities.

  5. Actually, the distinction I make, and refer to, is between:

    * The natural scientist’s hat, whose wearer’s responsibility is recording—as precisely and as objectively as possible—our sensory observations (corresponding to computer scientist David Gamez’s `Measurement’ in [Gam18], Fig.5.2, p.79) and their associated perceptions of a `common’ external world (corresponding to Gamez’s `C-report’ in [Gam18], Fig.5.2, p.79; and to what some cognitive scientists, such as Lakoff and Nunez in [LR00], term as `conceptual metaphors’);

    * The philosopher’s hat, whose wearer’s responsibility is abstracting a coherent—albeit informal and not necessarily objective—holistic perspective of the external world from our sensory observations and their associated perceptions (corresponding to Carnap’s explicandum in [Ca62a]; and to Gamez’s `C-theory’ in [Gam18], F, p.79); and

    * The mathematician’s hat, whose wearer’s responsibility is providing the tools for adequately expressing such recordings and abstractions in a symbolic language of unambiguous communication (corresponding to Carnap’s explicatum in [Ca62a]; and to Gamez’s `P-description’ and `C-description’ in [Gam18], Fig.5.2, p.79).

    We could broadly view this distinction as seeking to address the questions of:

    * What we do in scientific disciplines;
    * Why we do what we do in scientific disciplines; and
    * How we express and communicate whatever it is that we do in scientific disciplines.

    I would further view the above as providing merely the means by which an intelligence instinctively strives to realise its own creative potential within the evolutionary arrow of the, perpetually-changing, environment that not only gives birth to, but nurtures and encourages, a species to adapt to survive unforeseen and unforeseeable challenges.

    [Gam18] David Gamez. 2018. Human and Machine Consciousness. Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK. https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0107

    [LR00] George Lakoff and Rafael E. Nunez. 2000. Where Mathematics Comes From. Basic Books, NY, USA.

    [Ca62a] Rudolf Carnap. 1962. Logical Foundations of Probability. Second Edition 1962. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

  6. If Free Will is defined, even just on a “first gloss” as “an agent’s capacity to choose and control his or her (or its?) own actions”, then surely it does exist – even for an agent as simple as a programmed light switch (which chooses whether to switch on or off depending on what it perceives by way of motion and/or warm objects in its environment). So the “Free Will” that is denied by some must certainly be more than this (though rather than deny its existence, I would rather say that I have never seen a coherent definition of it).

    What neither the light switch nor the human agent possesses is the capacity to change its own programming for past decisions. A human, or even a suitably programmed learning agent, can of course modify the part of its “program” that will make future decisions, and even may modify its own learning algorithm; but neither he, she, nor it has the capacity to modify the program with which it started.

    What is relevant for ethical and legal discussions though is not some mythical mystical property that is possessed uniquely by humans but rather the property of responsibility – by which I think we should mean the capacity to modify ones future behaviour on the basis of responses (praise, censure, punishment, reward, etc.) that one receives, or perceives as being received by others as reactions to past decisions.

  7. Shawn

    Well, of course, if free will is based on emergent properties that do not supervene on brain processes or states then that answers why we don’t have empirical support for such a property. But that seems to be the crux of the issue: how does something that is non-physical (i.e. mental processes or states) cause physical actions? It seems you need the supervenience in order to get rid of the dualism, but then need some kind of downward causation to move the physical state along. The dependence relation is backward if we are talking about causation, because the cause is dependent on the effect. In order for this to work, intentionality has to be a physical property. That’s how free will can be naturalistic.

  8. Sir, I believe you didn’t make any reference to a two-stage model. In my opinion, this approach is coherent with cognitive theories such as the free Energy and Bayesian mind, especially when applied to self-awareness.
    In the early phase, humans analyze the world with all its randomness and potential futures. This indeterminism creates possibilities to select out alternative strategies or second thoughts, through the process of creativity, and ‘write scenarios’ that fit best with our inner models. We integrate, through our Bayesian mind, these uncertainties and select probabilistically the scenario that best explains away incoherence with our inner models.
    In other words, in this first step, humans aren’t victims of the prior state of affairs because there is often more than just one interpretation that blends in with their model of the world. Then in a second step, when we set our course of actions, there is determinism, as we’ll choose the action that we estimate must generate the less free energy to disambiguate our model. It means that, though there could be a random generation of alternative considerations, the selection process of the scenarios and the set of actions, which follow to check the validity of the model, are determined.

  9. There are a number of problems with most of the determinist accounts of free-will. Firstly, and it was Patricia Churchland that pointed this out to me, they use a definition of free-will that is contra-causal. Such a definition is totally unworkable and uninteresting because it is all or nothing: we are either completely free (even from our own emotions) or we are completely determined. Nonsense.

    Second they link determinism to reductionism as though reductionism can tell us everything we need to know about the universe. Any biologist will tell you this is bunk. To study a living things, dissection and reduction to elements is not enough. You have to study a living organism as a system, i.e. using ideas and methods involving anti-reductionism or emergentism. Also an organism is never in isolation, but always in complex relationships with echelons of ever more complex systems.

    What we might call 2a is the heavy reliance on the published work of Ben Libet. But Libet was wrong. His colleagues at the time raised questions and his finding have since been discredited by experimentally and theoretically. The trouble with many physicists is that they stop reading when they find a biology result that accords with their worldview.

    Furthermore for all the insistence on determinism we cannot even accurately describe a deuterium atom using quantum mechanics because 3 particles is two many. Most physics of systems involves simplifying assumptions to make the maths work. The theoretical implications of being forced to make approximations in order to do anything at all in the macro world seem to be lost on many scientists. Determinism is a theory that is not testable. We don’t know that macro systems are deterministic in the same way that single particles are because we have not way of testing such a proposition.

    Once we eliminate the ridiculous objections then all kinds of possibilities open up.

    The key is to use the theories and methods of reductionism where they are suitable, to the study of substance. But to use the theories and methods of anti-reductionism when studying structure.

    Another useful outcome of this view is that by any useful definition structures are real: the exist, persist over time (despite substitution of identical parts), and are causal agents. We are not stuck in the ideology that only the lowest level of structure is real; we no longer privilege the microscopic. Everything is real from quantum fields to the universe as an all encompassing system.

    What I don’t get is why this is even a controversial subject any more. I think philosophers are trained to disagree and that physicists tend to be religious reductionists and it stymies all attempts at sensible discussion.

  10. It always seemed to me that the determinists were operating in “the ruins of theism” to borrow a phrase from Alan Watts. That is, the will, in order to be free, had to be God-like. In other words, completely and utterly free from materiality. I think Stuart Kauffman’s work will become applicable here: First, the universe is not a mechanism. This is the the understanding that is old and outdated. To use Kauffman’s example: Predict all of the uses of a screwdriver in order by applying a algorithm. It can’t be done. There is an organic, open-ended nature to the universe that undermines determinism re: Kauffman’s “adjacent possible” idea.


      Yes, Kauffman was stumbling towards something important here – but doesn’t quite get there. It can be made relatively simple. Rational activities are and/or can be seen as deterministic. Creative activities aren’t and can’t be. They’re free. The former are all activities which follow lawful, formulaic scripts, like those of logical, mathematical and algorithmic systems, (as performed by both computers and humans). Mathematical calculations can be and are normally performed deterministically. If you have to put numbers together mathematically/rationally – to calculate a sum like 22+22 – the process, including every decision at every point, is both ideally and normally, in psychological practice, deterministic. There is only one single solution/decision at any given point. And the final solution is 44. Period. Creative activities, however, are v.v. demonstrably nondeterministic/free and potentially *INFINITE*- solution/decision at any given point. Take the perfectly contrasting creative activity of putting numbers together in collages. Say you have to put together a companion, follow-up collage to this:
      Analyse the possibilities at any given point of your collage, and you will find they are infinite. Which number should you use at the top, which number system(can you introduce Roman or other numerals), how large, which orientation, which font, which overall form, shading, edging, colouring etc – the possibilities are endless. 2 and 2 and 2 and 2 can be creatively juxtaposed in endless forms and combinations not just one. The reality is that if you keep going, you can and will endlessly produce new and different number collages. All or most of them valid collages. There are infinite final as well as intermediate solutions. As in all creative activities the only rule ( or law) is that there are no rules. And no formulae. Very demonstrably there is and cannot be any kind of script. In all classic creative activities, artists (and scientists) start from a blank page rather than a pre-existing script, and write the script as they go along. And faced with continuous series of free, multi-choice, rule-free decisions, all creatives, having to rely on their “creative judgment,” suffer the “creative agony” of creative decisionmaking. (It’s rather sick of deterministic philosophers to tell us we have no choice, when the reality is we are endlessly agonising about what decision/choice to make, Chance would be a fine thing).

      My number calculation/collage opposition should be seen as having *universal* application to all rational/creative activities. Turing realised with his Turing machine, that numbers could be used to represent any activity whatsoever – any kind of action on any kind of object. From maths to conversation or cleaning a room. What he didn’t realise is that humans don’t and don’t have to just put numbers/actions/objects together rationally, deterministically in artificial, predetermined sets and predetermined combinations. In the same old collocations. In the main, humans put actions and objects together creatively/freely in constrained but undetermined and evernew and changing sets and combinations. In evernew and different collages. Conversations, sex, watching tv, browsing the net, & all the other activities of human life are in the main creative collage activities.

      Creativity is synonymous with “creative licence”. Aka creative freedom (of decisionmaking). Aka free will.

      • Thanks Michael. Well stated. Your Turing example made me think of Bergson’s critique of Zeno’s Paradox: Zeno underscored movement with fixed spacial points that don’t really exist, creating a problem in theory but not in reality.

  11. Garret Merriam

    I suppose the bottom line objection I have to this argument is this:

    Why on earth should we call this ‘free will?’ List claims he’s not ‘watering down’ the definition, but he’s certainly changing it. Radically, even. I don’t think that most proponents or critics of free will over the centuries would have defined it thusly.

    I agree what he’s talking about is real. But it strikes me as a terrible mistake to call it ‘free will.’ We’ve moved on, we’re talking about something VERY different than what Plato, Augustine, Locke and Kant were talking about. Leave the old terminology behind, and many of these old criticisms will be left behind with it.

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