I almost never listen to podcasts or podcast-style videos simply because I can read faster than I can listen to people talk, and because podcasts are invariably about 1.5 hours long, which is TL:DL for me. But I didn’t listen to nearly all of the following video (the beginning isn’t relevant) as Michael Shermer sent it to me touting it as a pretty convincing argument for free will. Yes, it’s an hour and a half long, but you can skip the first hour and still get the meat of the argument.
The arguer is Dr. Christian List, a professor of political science and philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He’s just written a new book, Why Free Will is Real, and that’s what List and Shermer talk about in the podcast (click on screenshot below) and in the identical video (below that).
Here’s the description of the video, a descrioption which is pretty accurate. I’ll put a few comments below the video.
Philosophers have argued about the nature and the very existence of free will for centuries. Today, many scientists and scientifically minded commentators are skeptical that it exists, especially when it is understood to require the ability to choose between alternative possibilities. If the laws of physics govern everything that happens, they argue, then how can our choices be free? Believers in free will must be misled by habit, sentiment, or religious doctrine. Why Free Will is Real defies scientific orthodoxy and presents a bold new defense of free will in the same naturalistic terms that are usually deployed against it.
Unlike those who defend free will by giving up the idea that it requires alternative possibilities to choose from, Christian List retains this idea as central, resisting the tendency to defend free will by watering it down. He concedes that free will and its prerequisites—intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions—cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the natural world. But, he argues, that’s not where we should be looking. Free will is a “higher-level” phenomenon found at the level of psychology. It is like other phenomena that emerge from physical processes but are autonomous from them and not best understood in fundamental physical terms—like an ecosystem or the economy. When we discover it in its proper context, acknowledging that free will is real is not just scientifically respectable; it is indispensable for explaining our world.
I’m not going to pull any punches here: I think List’s argument is weak, bogus, and so opaque that it’s not clear what the sweating professor is trying to say. His argument is for “free-will emergentism”, which is not a form of compatibilism, but a real claim for you-could-have-done otherwise libertarian free will in humans. He’s not making the argument of Dan Dennett or Sean Carroll that, although our behaviors are determined by the laws of physics, there is a way in which we can sensibly speak of free will. Dennett and Carroll are determinists who are compatibilists, seeing that some conception of free will can still be useful in human society. As I’ve said, I see their arguments as largely semantic, and feel that the truly important thing to understand is determinism, for determinism has profound social implications while, at best, compatibilism lets use use the term “free will” and, according to some philosophers, including Dennett, provides an essential form of social glue without which civilization would fall apart.
List gives three criteria for true free will: intentional agency; causal control over one’s actions, so that you have alternative possibilities to choose from and could have chosen otherwise; and there are higher-level aspects of human behavior, including “choice”, that are not reducible to physics and chemistry. In other word, some form of true libertarian free will arises mysteriously between the molecules that make up our brain and the behaviors that emanate from that brain.
Sadly, I cannot find anywhere in List’s spiel where he say how this emergent free will arises, or how it manages to defy the laws of physics. He uses weak analogies, like saying that while the “weather” arises from motions of molecules in the atmosphere, meterologists use models that abstract from the microphysical to the macrophysical and are indeterministic, giving probabilities of weather events. But that’s a bogus analogy, for the macro-“weather” is certainly consistent with, and arises from, lower-level phenomena. True, “rain” is an emergent property, but it is absolutely consistent with the laws of physics. List’s free will isn’t. Were I to be uncharitable I would say that List’s “top-down” free will arises from the effects of a tinfoil hat.
Remember again: List is not a compatibilist but a true libertarian who accepts the kind of free will limned by the Abrahamic religions. His failure to explain the source of that free will is the big flaw in his argument, which, to my mind, isn’t worth dissecting further. As Hitchens’s Razor states, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
List has no evidence, just an assertion that some people find psychologically soothing.