More about Christian List’s confusing views of free will

May 17, 2019 • 12:45 pm

Yesterday I analyzed the free-will ideas of Dr. Christian List, a professor of political science and philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In a long conversation with Michael Shermer, he expressed what I saw as his belief in libertarian free will that was still compatible with pure physical determinism of molecules. (Libertarian free will means a form of free will independent of physical causality: a kind of free will that says, at any given moment when you face making a decision, you are not constrained to make a single decision. You could have done otherwise.)

This was not compatibilism, in which determinism is accepted all the way from molecules to behavior, so that one has no ability to act other than as one does, but a form of dualism in which true you-can-do-otherwise free will of humans is somehow a “top down” emergent property that comes out of molecules.

Some readers seemed to think that List’s views didn’t suggest libertarian free will, but were simply compatibilist in the same way as Dan Dennett’s or Sean Carroll’s views are compatibilist. Both of these latter guys accept determinism on the behavioral level, agreeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise than what you did, but add that one can sensibly speak of a form of “free will” as a useful linguistic device in some situations. (For example, you can say you had “free will” because you made a “choice” without the coercion of a gun to your head.) But all compatibilists are determinists in the same way I am. Indeed, the very term “compatibilism” means that its adherents accept some form of free will that is compatible with pure behavioral determinism.

If what List was saying, then, was simply the same kind of compatibilism promulgated by Dennett, Carroll, and others, then there would be nothing new in it, and no need for him to have published his new book Why Free Will is RealNow reader Michael has pointed me to a new interview with List in Nautilus (a Templeton-funded web magazine). You can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:

The interview, conducted by George Musser, contains several statements by both the interviewer and interviewee that suggest that, on some level, List really is suggesting a form of libertarian free will. I’ll just put down the places where libertarianism is suggested.

Here’s Musser’s take on List’s views in his introduction (all emphases in this post are mine):

List accepts the skeptics’ definition of free will as a genuine openness to our decisions, and he agrees this seems to be at odds with the clockwork universe of fundamental physics and neurobiology. But he argues that fundamental physics and neurobiology are only part of the story of human behavior. You may be a big bunch of atoms governed by the mechanical laws, but you are not just any bunch of atoms. You are an intricately structured bunch of atoms, and your behavior depends not just on the laws that govern the individual atoms but on the way those atoms are assembled. At a higher level of description, your decisions can be truly open. When you walk into a store and choose between Android and Apple, the outcome is not preordained. It really is on you.

If the outcome is not preordained, then it is a form of libertarian free will and not determinism. Period.

Here is List suggesting true libertarian free will, for he rejects standard forms of compatibilism:

Benjamin Libet found that the conscious decision to press a button is not the beginning of the causal sequence that initiates the process, but there is first a certain pattern of unconscious or subconscious brain activity, and he interpreted this as a challenge for free will.

These arguments have considerable force. One way to respond would be to water down the notion of free will so that one or several of the properties I’ve mentioned are not required. For instance, maybe it’s good enough for free will that I endorse my action and it’s not necessary that I could have done otherwise. Or maybe we must redefine what we mean by alternative possibilities. It might be that I was always going to choose coffee rather than tea, but if hypothetically the world had been a little bit different, I would have made a different choice.

But that’s not a strategy that I find attractive. 

Again, here we see him pushing for a form of you-can-do-otherwise free will: libertarian free will.

Below he screws up by using an analogy of the weather being truly indeterministic—”higher level” emergent phenomenon despite the determinism of air molecules. Likewise, he says, our behavior can be truly indeterministic despite the determinism of our brain molecules:

The jury is out on whether the world is fundamentally deterministic—it depends on how we interpret quantum mechanics—but suppose it is. This does not necessitate that the world is also deterministic at some higher level of description. Indeterminism at the level of psychology is required for free will and alternative possibilities. That is entirely compatible with determinism at the fundamental physical level.

Think about weather forecasting. Meteorologists are interested in higher-level patterns and regularities. In fact, the very notion of weather is a higher-level notion. At the level of individual air molecules, there is no such thing as weather. Perhaps the system at that very fine-grained level of description would indeed behave deterministically according to classical physical laws, but as you move to a more macroscopic description, you abstract away from this microphysical detail. That is not driven by ignorance on our part, but by the explanatory need to focus on the most salient regularities.

When you consider the macroscopic weather states, the system is not deterministic, but stochastic, or random. We can attach probabilities to different scenarios, but it’s not the case that the weather state at the present time fully determines the weather state in a few days’ time. Multiple different trajectories are entirely possible.

Likewise, to describe the complete state of a human agent, we do not describe the full microphysical state of every elementary particle in the brain and body. That would be the wrong level of description. If our best theories of human agency compel us to postulate forks in the road between which agents can choose, then we’ve got very good scientific reasons to take alternative possibilities at face value. If you ask psychologists, cognitive scientists, and economists, they will give you different theories of how human choice-making works. But they all treat human beings as agents who are faced with choices between different options, so all these theories assume alternative possibilities.

Sorry, Dr. List, but the weather is deterministic, not “fundamentally indeterministic” or “stochastic” or “random” unless there are quantum-mechanical phenomena at play (and those, of course, give no purchase on human agency). Once again I see List as proposing a fundamental indeterminism of human behavior that has nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

There is more, but I think you’ve got the gist. There are only three possibilities for List’s beliefs, and he doesn’t make them clear. And I’m not going to go the theology route and read his book to figure out what he’s saying, as he could have made his views clear in either or both of the articles I’ve highlighted. Here are the possibilities for List’s ideas about free will:

1.) List accepts libertarian free will on the behavioral level, saying that we could have chosen other than what we did, even if he’s a determinist on the molecular level. Somehow agency emerges as a kind of miracle.

2.) List is simply a compatibilist of the Dennettian or Carrollian stripe, and thinks that we could not have done other than what we did but that “free will” can be construed in other than libertarian ways. What he says does not suggest he believes this alternative.

3.) List is confused about what he’s saying, or deliberately trying to make us think he’s saying something new when he isn’t.

I favor #1, but #3 is possible as well. He says he’s not down with #2. But in all of these cases, we have one lesson: List hasn’t conveyed his views in a way that the average science-friendly person can understand.


152 thoughts on “More about Christian List’s confusing views of free will

  1. If the world is fundamentally indeterministic (as quantum theory suggests), that still would not give us the kind of ‘free will’ that libertarians want. It would just make our choices random. This is why ‘you couldn’t do otherwise’ is not a necessary condition for arguing against free will.

    If quantum processes, or their possible amplification in the brain by chaos (sensitivity to initial conditions), would allow us to do other than what we actually did, does that give us free will? No- it just makes our choices random or unpredictable.

    1. I’m having some trouble understanding the difference between having “free will” and making choices that are merely “random and unpredictable.” You say that the latter would not give us the kind of “free will” that libertarians want, but neither would it give us the kind of determinism that determinists want. I pretty much despair of understanding any of this, but could you perhaps clarify at least the point you’re making here?

      1. I think the point is that whether the universe is entirely deterministic or is also random, it removes any form of ‘control’ from the agent. Of course,if genuine randomness exists then it negates the thought experiment theory that if you could rewind the universe entirely then everything would re-run in exactly the same way. Even so, you have no way of affecting the random events.

          1. I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘control’. The whole point of determinism is that an almost infinite number of influences act on the agent, who has the delusion that it is making the decision. The thought processes (though these themselves are only neurological impulses) of the agent are one of those influences, and that maybe interpreted as some form of control, but I’m not convinced I accept the point.

          2. “who has the delusion that it is making the decision.”,

            I always find this very odd from free will skeptics, the way they seem to make our actual decision-making process essentially invisible.

            It’s no “delusion” that we are making decisions. That’s what are brain is for. That’s what our brains do.

            All the causes, environmental or otherwise, leading up to the point you start cogitating on a decision can’t “make decisions.” The weather today can’t form mental models of your environment for you, survey your desires, consider options, rationalize about which actions are most likely to achieve the results you want, then act on them. Whatever the causal chain leading up to you, only YOU can make the decision for yourself; it happens only when you deliberate between options, and would never happen without you doing the work.

            “The thought processes (though these themselves are only neurological impulses)”

            Again, with this weird downplaying of important characteristics. What could “only neurological impulses” mean?

            Let’s say someone hammers you on the hand and you scream in pain “what the hell are you doing?” The person holding the hammer says “Oh, well I was going to hammer this nail over here, but decided to hit your hand instead. What’s the problem, what you felt are “only neurological impulses.”

            Or what if you were building a camp fire with someone, all of you throwing wood on the fire, and you stop someone just about to toss a small child on to the fire. They say “What’s the big deal, the kid is ONLY made of atoms, just like the wood!”

            We never allow this type of absurd reductivism in everyday life because it’s just fallacious. That you can identify “what something is made of” or identify a similar characteristic between two things – rock and child made of atoms – would be to miss all the differences that we actually care about.
            Yeah a child and a rock are both made of atoms. But the atoms in the form of the child are doing VERY DIFFERENT THINGS than the atoms formed as a rock. And it’s precisely those differences that make all the difference in the world.

            So it just seems weird to me to special plead only when we are talking about human brains and choice-making, and start acting as if identifying “what we are made of” and making all our cognitive processes essentially irrelevant and invisible.

          3. Excellent points, Vaal.

            If we presume perfect determinism, then it is reasonable to believe that all human concepts already subsume reliable cause and effect, because this is the nature of the universe in which we evolved.

            The logical fact of causal necessity/inevitability is made irrelevant by its own ubiquity. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.

            The rational mind simply acknowledges it, and then ignores it, because it never makes any difference to any practical issue.

            For example, if inevitability is used to excuse the thief who steals your wallet, then it also excuses the judge who chops off his hand.

            So, we use other concepts to deal with the practical matters of everyday life.

      2. The cat in Schrödinger’s gedankenexperiment isn’t alive or dead until someone looks in the box, but that doesn’t give the person who looks in the box any choice/”free will” over the fate of the cat.

        By the same token, if you flip a token the outcome is indeterminate (though probabilistic). That doesn’t confer any free will over the heads-or-tails outcome on either the token or the person who flipped it.

        1. I certainly understand that I have no choice/free will over whether the coin toss comes up heads or tails, but can’t see that this applies as well or in the same way to my having any choice/free will to flip or not flip the coin. Ditto for having any choice/free will about the fate of the cat versus having any choice/free will about looking in the box. Not arguing here, just not getting it.

        2. That’s mostly true most of the time. But sometimes you can carefully manipulate the quantum wave function so as to increase the probability of some outcomes in a way that makes no classically causal sense. That’s how Shore’s algorithm works for example.

          It’s still hard to see how you could get free will out of this. But caution is still advised.

          1. … you can carefully manipulate the quantum wave function so as to increase the probability of some outcomes …

            Can you give some examples where this has been demonstrated?

          2. Well, I gave Shore’s algorithm for factoring large numbers as an example. Nobody has implemented a large version of this yet because quantum computers are hard. But it is clearly a prediction of quantum mechanics.

            At its simplest I guess violating Bell’s inequality is the best example. No classical causal system can do this. Simple randomness cannot do it. And this has been tested over and over again.

            Even superconductivity cannot be achieved by just adding randomness to a classically causal system.

          3. My impression is that even in QM theories where consciousness plays a part in collapsing the wave function, it cannot control the outcome that is a function of the fixed probability distribution.

            If we imagine that we can choose an outcome (or increase its probability) in a QM collapse, what is it that is choosing that outcome and how does that choosing entity work? Maybe that entity would itself just be deterministic.

      3. Speaking as a determinist, I don’t necessarily ‘want’ it to be true, I just think it is. There’s no particular emotional attachment to the idea for me, and if tomorrow someone comes up with a real good physical theory that implies indeterminate free will, I expect my most likely response would be ‘pleasantly surprised.’

        This is why I’m perfectly comfortable with quantum indeterminacy, both on the subatomic level and in weird cases where it intrudes on the macro scale (simple example: measure the lifetime of a single radioactive atom. Tell your lab partner the value you measured. Congratulations, the macro-level action of ‘telling your partner the value’ was indeterminate).

        But, as YF said, that’s not free will, because it doesn’t allow for any type of control over the indeterminate result.

        1. “Speaking as a determinist, I don’t necessarily ‘want’ it to be true, I just think it is. There’s no particular emotional attachment to the idea for me, and if tomorrow someone comes up with a real good physical theory that implies indeterminate free will. . . .”

          Sorry to be replying to this so late, but it’s hard not to notice that you say a “real good PHYSICAL theory,” which would suggest that you’re being a determinist precludes your being open to a NON-physical theory. In that sense, at least, I’d say you DO have some a priori emotional attachment to both materialism and determinism.

          1. Okay, if you mean that I am a naturalist, then yes, I see no alternative beyond the laws of physics. Have I always been one? Not consciously. If you want to say that my views aren’t well considered because I’m biased, well, that seems to be what you’re suggesting.

          2. My reply was to Eric, Jerry, but I suppose it applies to any determinist. Incidentally, I know you prefer “naturalist” to “materialist,” as does Sean Carroll, whose The Big Picture I’m reading at your suggestion. My problem with that is that it begs the question—the question being whether everything in nature is material. By simply substituting “naturalism” for “materialism,” Carroll’s already answered that question without providing any evidence at all. Maybe Carroll will clarify this, but he hasn’t so far.

  2. All these arguments are just getting more weasely.
    But who or what is it that might or might not have free will? If, as many of us here seem happy to agree, there is no self then what is it that could have free will? What does free will even mean? Every so often for a split second I feel I have a handle on this conundrum. But now, it being 4o’clock I think freely or simply because it is 4o’clock the thought arises, that I will go and dispense a glass of homemade apple wine.

    1. Jeeze, Cicely, it is only 2:00!

      And what is the difference between apple wine and hard apple cider?

    2. “If, as many of us here seem happy to agree, there is no self then what is it that could have free will?”

      People agree we have no self? That is news to me. It may not be what we think it is, but isn’t there something there we can call self?

      1. There is no dividing line between the atoms that make us and all the other atoms in the universe. Perhaps some can be labelled as “self” at an instant of time but will later move elsewhere. The self/not-self label is a human construct. It’s all in our heads.

        I think this is just another example of what List is talking about. At the atomic level, membership in a human is not a useful explanation. At the same time, when we talk about human behavior, the location and position of individual atoms is not useful. However, that in no way declares that humans aren’t made of atoms. Similarly, free will belongs to the domain of human agency. Determinism may or may not be true but, either way, it is not a useful part of the level of description to which free will belongs.

        1. Since you said “It’s all in our heads,” I will agree that it is indeed so, and it is called our brain.

          My particular arrangement of neurons, and the connections between them, and the strength of each of the synapses that connect them, is in my head. Together, they make up me, myself, and I.

          Also they are separated from the rest of the universe by my skull, at least to a reasonable first approximation, no?

    3. “All these arguments are just getting more weasely.”

      With all due respect to weasels, this is inevitable when an argument comes down, as this one does, to “subjective” versus “objective” reality. Unlikely as it may seem, these terms were introduced into English by a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who imported them from his reading of certain nineteenth century German philosophers. (He also introduced “esemplastic”—having the ability to shape into one—which fortunately never took.) The painter John Ruskin considered “subjective” and “objective” two of the most insidious terms ever foisted upon the English tongue, calling them “a combination of German dullness and English affectation.” The bottom line is that materialists denigrate the subjective in the same way that idealists denigrate the objective, whereas the reality of neither admits of strict proof. Where one prefers to land may simply be a matter of temperament.

      1. “a combination of German dullness and English affectation”

        Sounds like a collision between a Volkswagen and a Jaguar. 🙂

  3. List says:

    “At a higher level of description, your decisions can be truly open.”

    This seems to me the prime evasion, somewhat along the lines of Sean Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” view that speaking of free will is valid as a “way of talking about” voluntary behavior and choice-making. Descriptions of and ways of talking about human action don’t alter the underlying determinism, which is what compatibilists like Dennett and Carroll generally seek to downplay and what List seems bent on denying. Too bad!

      1. Right, that was Musser. But List says:

        “Likewise, to describe the complete state of a human agent, we do not describe the full microphysical state of every elementary particle in the brain and body. That would be the wrong level of description. If our best theories of human agency compel us to postulate forks in the road between which agents can choose, then we’ve got very good scientific reasons to take alternative possibilities at face value. If you ask psychologists, cognitive scientists, and economists, they will give you different theories of how human choice-making works. But they all treat human beings as agents who are faced with choices between different options, so all these theories assume alternative possibilities.”

        List is wrong about this. Our best theories of human agency will explain why we choose the option we do, which counts against the claim that we could have done otherwise in an actual situation. No adequate theory of agency will have it that the agent could have chosen otherwise given the circumstances that obtained in the actual situation. The alternative possibilities List talks about are what might have transpired had conditions been otherwise than in the actual situation.

        1. List is not saying we could have done otherwise in the sense you mean it. He doesn’t deny determinism. I believe he is saying that “could have done otherwise” has other interpretations that are compatible with determinism. He talks about this in his papers and his book, both of which I have just received and am about to read.

        2. “The alternative possibilities List talks about are what might have transpired had conditions been otherwise than in the actual situation.”

          I think this is how most people interpret “could have done otherwise”. If conditions or their mental state had been different, they might have decided differently. Only a physicist would consider reproducing a decision with no change in the state of the universe. Such a thing has no meaning in everyday life.

    1. List thinks that the concepts “could have acted otherwise” and “couldn’t have acted otherwise” in contexts like moral responsibility assessments *only apply* at the agential level. He doesn’t deny the underlying particle physics-level determinism. You can get an unpaywalled copy of his paper here.

  4. In “The Mysteries of Nature” by Noam Chomsky, Chomsky addresses the consequences of the scientific legacy of “contact mechanics” and its poorly defined understanding of ‘matter’ which is partly due to the impact of Cartesian Dualism on the history of science. We’re now in a stage of searching for a new language of how to talk about human experience. The Western epistomological tradition is no longer viable; neuroscience, in part, will lead the way to a new vocabulary to address how we function as humans. I find the question “Is a stone solid?” quite provocatie in this regard.

    1. Chomsky is wrong here, I think. We have a great understanding of matter now that we have established conservation laws. (Which Descartes did not know of.) For example, everything that is real possesses energy (or the referent of the energy-momentum 4-vector, or whatever.)

      One doesn’t need “contact mechanics” to do this – just the notion of a field, which may in itself reduce back – depending on one’s view of continua.

  5. ‘When you walk into a store and choose between Android and Apple, the outcome is not preordained. It really is on you.’

    Given the above statement and his acceptance of microscopic physical laws, I think #1 applies to him.

    The Shermer interview suggested to me that he was not saying anything new.

    These positions are not all that difficult to express, so I wonder why he muddles things.

    1. Like the phrase ‘other ways of knowing’ I react poorly to talk about ‘levels’ or ‘higher levels’.

      Although it may be useful to talk and think of ‘levels’ and ’emergence’ as a way of recognising regularities you first have to ask the question ‘do levels actually exist in the world’?

      *If* naturalism is true then ‘levels’ don’t exist, only more complex organisations of ‘flat’ parts. Determinism rules.

      But *if* you hanker after the supernatural (theology) or the primacy of abstract reason (philosophy) then ‘levels’ are comforting. The allow room for your beliefs to find purchase against the flat world.

      1. Ok, but the levels List is talking about are not isolated from each other in nature, only in how we choose to talk about them. Many here seem to think that talk of emergence and levels are an attempt to avoid the laws of physics. List is not doing that.

        1. It is not that the laws of physics are ever broken, but rather that the laws of physics are insufficient to explain the behavior of living organisms, much less intelligent species.

          Physics is fine for explaining why a cup of water rolls downhill. But it is clueless to explain why adding a little coffee to that cup of water enables it to hop into a car and go grocery shopping.

          1. Yes, but physics does underlie my coffee, hooping into a car, and grocery shopping nonetheless. They are different levels of description. One still depends on the other but we have no access to the relationship in sufficient detail to be useful.

          2. Exactly. In order to describe the trip to the grocery store we must first evolve DNA (an object that reproduces itself), then a living organism (a purpose-driven object that is animated to survive, thrive, and reproduce), and then an intelligent species (one that can imagine many different ways to achieve that biological purpose, like inventing a grocery store and the car to take us there).

            The new objects require new sciences (like the Life Sciences and the Social Sciences) to observe their behavior, note any persistent patterns, and express those patterns as “natural laws”.

            Physics can’t describe the behavior of these objects because it simply does not observe them. Thus its laws are “incomplete”. Which is how it should be.

            The human brain is relatively large, but it is still incapable of accounting for the positions of each atom in a baseball in order for the batter to hit a single into left field. The batter’s brain just knows the ball, the bat, and what she wishes to accomplish when she swings.

            The brain models reality at a higher level for efficiency.

        1. That’s true in a sense but perhaps misleading here. Newtonian physics actually gives wrong answers in some domains. So they are levels but of a different kind than the ones List is talking about. He’s not saying that human agency is a useful approximation to what fundamental physics tells us about human agency. Instead, he’s saying that fundamental physics tells us nothing about human agency, even though human agency (and everything else) is built out of fundamental physics processes.

          1. I said classical physics, not Newtonian physics. He expressed doubt about levels in the physical world. Standard ideas of cause and effect prevail in the world of classical physics but not always at the quantum level. Seems like two levels to me.

          2. Bunge has a plausible theory of levels based on emergent properties – see (e.g.), vol 3 of the _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_ or the later _Emergence and Convergence_.

  6. Vita206: Basically it comes down to the issue of whether the mechanistic paradigm – that is to say, cause-and-effect with stochastic quantum variability – describes nature in general and living things in particular. This question is not quite decided yet but is certainly empirically decidable in principle – a biologically accurate computational simulation of a single cell at the level of atoms would be pretty clinching on the cause-and-effect side, for instance.

    Such questions are indeed provocative but the intellectual prospects of our era look to be darkening rapidly. Aristarchus formulated his centuries before Ptolemy and yet his insights were buried and forgotten for centuries. I worry that the path to true understanding may be closed off by some new Ptolemaic dogma.

    In this regard the involvement of an organisation like Templeton that wears its religious and political prejudices on its sleeve is deeply alarming.

    1. Vomaz, I figured it out as a teenager in the public library. I think it was Spinoza’s letters that introduced me to the determinism “versus” free will paradox.

      It bothered me that all my choices and actions were causally inevitable. So, I set my mind to figuring out to to beat it.

      It occurred to me that all I needed to do was to wait till I had a decision to make, say, between A and B. If I found myself leaning heavily toward A, I would just choose B instead! Problem solved!

      But wait…my desire to thwart inevitability now made B the inevitable choice! So, I had to choose A, but then … it’s an infinite loop!

      It seemed that no matter which I chose, inevitability would switch to match my choice. Hmm. So who is doing the choosing, me or inevitability??

      It turns out it was still me. After all, I was the only object in the library that was concerned about the issue. So, it was my interests and my concerns that were the meaningful cause, even while my choice was inevitable.

      Aha! So, free will is just another deterministic event. We call it free will when it is me doing the choosing. The fact that my choice was inevitable does not change the fact that it was still me making the choice.

      The illusion was never “free will”. The only illusion was the “versus” between determinism and free will.

  7. First, I think that Musser went wrong in the introduction:

    “You may be a big bunch of atoms governed by the mechanical laws, but you are not just any bunch of atoms. You are an intricately structured bunch of atoms, and your behavior depends not just on the laws that govern the individual atoms but on the way those atoms are assembled.”

    This sounds very close to saying humans are special and contain some sort of woo that gives them free will. I don’t think this is at all what List is saying.

    The second point I want to make is that List’s leads his audience astray by declaring that weather may be deterministic at the micro level but is indeterministic at the macro, meteorology level. This sounds like he’s declaring that determinism doesn’t apply at the macro level but I don’t think that’s what he means. He’s simply saying that meteorology studies weather phenomenon AS IF it was indeterministic (ie, using statistics and such). I get what he means but I’m not sure it is a reasonable use of the term. He’s not saying that the micro level doesn’t determine what happens at the macro level, just that we ignore it at the macro level — we have no access to it, can’t make predictions with it. Even if we could access it, its the wrong kind of description for the meteorologist’s purpose.

    1. ‘This sounds like he’s declaring that determinism doesn’t apply at the macro level but I don’t think that’s what he means.’

      So he is not denying that determinism applies to the macroscopic level, but he also thinks we have free will? So is this a sense of free will that is compatible with determinism?

      1. Yes. List doesn’t deny determinism. In fact, based on his definition of free will, it wouldn’t matter if the universe was determined or not. To consider determinism relevant to free will is a category error.

        1. It is not a category error given that the majority of people think of free will as libertarian free will, and it’s certainly the view of free will that pertains to the Abrahamic religions.

          Please stop making pronouncements about what free will is without realizing that most people completely disagree with you.

          1. Not sure what I did to turn my comments into “pronouncements”.

            “… the majority of people think of free will as libertarian free will …”

            I am not sure that’s true. I will admit to not knowing precisely what libertarians believe but when I google “libertarian free will”, it says that they do not believe in determinism. Most people who believe we have free will, religious or not, wouldn’t know determinism one way or the other. They conclude they have free will because it feels like they do. It’s not a deep analysis, of course, but that doesn’t mean they all derive free will from God-given woo and/or determinism denial. It’s certainly not my position.

            Both Carroll and List believe in free will and determinism. Carroll says he doesn’t believe in libertarian free will in his “Free Will Is as Real as Baseball”. List calls himself a libertarian emergentist but he certainly is not claiming that humans have some sort of special essence that allows them to escape the laws of physics. His interviewer, Musser, may be hinting this in his introduction but it isn’t part of List’s thesis as far as I can tell.

            I’ve just gotten List’s book so I am going to read up on it. It would be interesting to talk to List directly on all this.

          2. I am going to retire from this thread with this comment 🙂

            List accepts macroscopic determinism and states that free will exists.

            The working definition of free will that I was using was not compatible with determinism.

            However, I cannot conclude that List’s free will is compatible with determinism because that statement is rendered vacuous by his category distinction. As you said: ‘To consider determinism relevant to free will is a category error.’

            At this time, the category distinction seems arbitrary. It seems like he imposes a category distinction to escape a contradiction.

            So I should read his book if I want to figure this one out one way or the other.

            For category errors that I appreciate, I can understand the nature of the mistake in terms of the things involved.

            I had not cared at all about free will until the List post, but now I can’t get it out of my mind. I wish it would go away and leave me alone 🙁


          3. For some part of history most people thought of whales as really big fish. It would still be a category error to use the absence of gills in a certain set of creatures to argue for the absence of whales.

  8. The article is fairly limited in scope so perhaps the book contains more information, but the basic gist I’m getting is this – “There are lots of complicated, high level, subjective, very human things involved in ‘will’; ergo our ‘will’ does not look like that of a a wind-up toy or simple machine, ergo our ‘will’ is ‘free’.”

    If I’m interpreting that correctly, I think this is simply another misunderstanding of what is meant by free will. As Sam Harris said, even the existence of a human soul would not prove free will – one’s soul no more decided to be there than one’s earthly, materialist processes. The same can be said of anything else. Subjective experience, the always mysterious factor of consciousness, human goals, complex-beyond-belief emergent properties, feedback loops with the environment – those are all interesting things, they all mean our human brains are unfathomably complex, but none of them speak to self-authorship… a homunculi in one’s head that chooses to choose to choose to choose to choose (ad infitum) what it chooses.

    It seems to me that the idea of ‘no free will’ just brings the idea of ‘wind-up toy’ to people’s minds and then there are endless straw men (unintentional straw men, but straw men nonetheless) arguments about why this can’t be so. Arguments against free will are in no way arguments about how simplistic the processes by which ‘will’ emerges are.

    I say this every time the topic comes up, but I think it is still true – the problem with ‘free will’ is that, if such a thing existed, it would be a mystic concept and there would be no way to express it in words or talk about it anyways. Our brains understand the link between cause and effect in about three ways: 1. Deterministic, or ’caused’ 2. Random or 3. Nonexistent, or occurring in proximity with no relationship. If there is a fourth category of ‘free willed’ relationships in there, our brains would have absolutely no way of distinguishing this from plain old causality / randomness / coincidence. (If such a category existed, perhaps the ‘chose to choose to choose’ ad infimum example wouldn’t even apply, perhaps it would have special ‘free will’ properties that would be outside this deterministic paradigm – but it’s very very difficult to make a case for something that literally doesn’t exist semantically or conceptually. There’s nothing to say about it because it doesn’t exist in words, nothing to think about it because it can’t be conceptualized.)

    1. Bravo!

      Free will is a red herring that can’t be rationally defined. The real mystery is consciousness itself. At first, this also seems to be something that we can’t really talk about rationally.

      But would unconscious beings, philosophical zombies if you will ever talk about a consciousness that they do not possess?

      1. Agree… and I would say consciousness, even if illusory, is the one thing that we can be certain exists.

    2. “I say this every time the topic comes up, but I think it is still true – the problem with ‘free will’ is that, if such a thing existed, it would be a mystic concept and there would be no way to express it in words or talk about it anyways.”

      Why think that? Philosophers have been talking about it for thousands of years!

      Here is one expression of the concept of Free Will (taken from Wikipedia):

      Free will is the ability of agents to make choices unimpeded.

      “Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained.”

      What is so mysterious or inexpressible about that?

      I was capable of writing this post if I wanted to. And I was capable of refraining from writing this post if I wanted to.

      I wasn’t in a physical situation restraining me from either choice, e.g. hands tied up. Nor was anyone forcing me to fulfill their desire over my own, by threatening me with violence. (I wasn’t “coerced.”) I was in a position where, if I’d willed to not write this post, I could have not written it.

      So it was a free-willed choice to make this post.

      Determinism doesn’t change any of those facts.

      1. Vaal, what you are describing is not free will, but a subjective experience (which, I agree, is very mysterious in its own way.)

        Regarding the ability to make choices unimpeded – a river can flow unimpeded, the wind can blow unimpeded. We do not attribute free will to them. Letting something run its natural course does not equal free will.

        When you wrote this post, you had a subjective experience of thinking “Hey, I want to write a post.” But there is nothing logical to suggest that this subjective experience was not part of a long chain of cause and effect, which ultimately started before you were born and is the same cause and effect we see working everywhere else in the world. Presumably, it was the same ‘ol cause and effect we see everywhere else that caused the thought “Hey, I want to write a post” to be created.

        Now let’s say that it wasn’t cause and effect that caused this thought to come into your head, and caused you to act on it. Let’s say it was ‘free will’. How would you know the difference? How would “that happened because of cause and effect” look different to your eye than “that happened because free will made it happen”? What features would distinguish those two things?

        My point is that if such a thing exists, it would really be indistinguishable from cause and effect, randomness, or coincidence to our human eyes anyways. To our eyes ‘free willing’ something into being would look identical to a cause and effect relationship anyhow.

        1. Hi Roo,

          I thought maybe you might be familiar with my position as I’d written about it a lot at one point here. But that’s ok. I’m not going to go in to depth as I have before, but in a nutshell:

          But there is nothing logical to suggest that this subjective experience was not part of a long chain of cause and effect, which ultimately started before you were born and is the same cause and effect we see working everywhere else in the world.

          Of course. I’m a compabitilist: such a chain of cause and effect is a given. Since it doesn’t make sense to think “I could have done otherwise at *precisely* the same time/circumstances,” the question remains whether there is a workable understanding of “I could have done otherwise” GIVEN determinism. And our everyday notions of “what we could do” and “what we could have done” actually fulfill that role.

          When you wrote this post, you had a subjective experience of thinking “Hey, I want to write a post.”

          No I wasn’t describing mere subjectivity. I was describing my very real capabilities. It’s an empirical fact, in principle discoverable by anyone who wants to test me, that I have those capabilities.

          It’s the same when anyone describes his capabilities….what we can *do* in relevantly similar conditions. If you are at dinner with someone she can tell you about her capabilities such as “I’m multilingual. I could speak Italian to you, or I could speak french, or I could speak Japanese.’

          Another way of expressing this information is “I could HAVE spoken Italian (or french, or Japanese) to the waiter if I’d wanted to.”

          It’s not a metaphysical claim about being outside the causal chain. It’s simply a normal if/then counterfactual way of conveying our powers in those types of situations.

          That’s the normal way we convey real – not illusory but real! – information about “what it is possible for us to do” and it’s how we cogitate about our own choices “what am I capable of doing?”

          So when I think now about my options I think “I could complete writing this post if I want to, or I could leave it and go outside for a walk if I want to.” That’s as true a description of my nature and abilities under determinism as any empirical description about anything.

          If we did not in fact use this if/then and counterfactual reasoning “If I want to do X I can do X and If I want to do Y I can do Y” then our deliberations would be totally irrational. We could never consider “possible actions” or even understand “what is possible” about anything in the world to make decisions. You can’t rationally deliberate about taking options you don’t in fact have.

          This method of reasoning is compatible with, determinism and we naturally use it to navigate the world because it’s necessary, given determinism. It makes normal, empirical, testable claims about my abilities in the world.

          There’s a snapshot of my view. Cheers.

          Anyway, that’s a snapshot. I’m not going to belabor that part of my view.

          1. So when I think now about my options I think “I could complete writing this post if I want to, or I could leave it and go outside for a walk if I want to.” That’s as true a description of my nature and abilities under determinism as any empirical description about anything.

            You are physically capable of making doing those things, yes. However, water is physically capable of freezing, evaporating, or flowing, depending on the conditions. It still doesn’t have free will.

            When the moment of truth arrives and you make a decision – write a post or go for a walk – there’s nothing to suggest that this conclusion didn’t appear in consciousness via causality. The causal factors can be many things, from the clearly material (a bit more of this neurotransmitter than that) to the more ethereal (a bit more subjective preference for this thing than that). But all of those causes are in fact causes and, in turn, arose from prior causes.

            To my mind, one needs sufficient justification to use the term “free” in free will. Just as if I said I did something “by magic” and then described my decision making process, you would rightfully want to know what part of that process I though justified the use of the word “magic”. I just don’t see anything that justifies the use of the term ‘free will’ in arguments about how complex decision making. Those arguments speak to complexity, not freedom.

          2. Roo,

            It seems there is a No True Scottsman-type thing you have going here in your claim.

            Free Will Skeptic:” If Free Will existed “it would be a mystic concept and there would be no way to express it in words or talk about it anyways.”

            Compatibilist: Expresses a concept of Free Will that is not mystic.

            Free Will Skeptic: “That’s not free will; free will is mystical and can not be expressed.”

            Well one is just going to beg the question then it’s not going to be a terribly interesting conversation. 😉

            When the moment of truth arrives and you make a decision – write a post or go for a walk – there’s nothing to suggest that this conclusion didn’t appear in consciousness via causality.

            Yes. Again, I’m a compatibilist. That was assumed in my argument, so repeating that our decisions are causally determined wouldn’t be a reason to reject my argument.

            “You are physically capable of making doing those things, yes.”

            So, you agree it makes sense to say “I could do X or Y in the sense ‘those things are within my power to do, should I want to do them?” If so, it seems you would grant my argument that this common sense way of thinking about options isn’t incompatible with determinism.

            However, water is physically capable of freezing, evaporating, or flowing, depending on the conditions. It still doesn’t have free will.

            Yes, because water doesn’t have a “will.”
            Though we can reasonably apply the term “free” to water to describe certain conditions – e.g. “the water is running freely” (after the blockage in a pipe was fixed). We apply the term “free” like this all the time to describe physical differences that do not undermine determinism.

            It starts to make sense in talking about “will” when talking of people. People have desires, goals, things they want to do, and can select from among the various things they want to do, decide how to do them, then select the action most likely to get what they want. If I “will” to do something, that means I want to do something and it makes sense to ask if I’m capable of doing it, or if there are impediments to getting what I want. I was “free” to do as I willed (wanted) in making this post.

            So I’m taking the term “free” as it is commonly used – to describe differences in physical situations that exist in the world -and applying it to human choice-making in the way that we actually DO care about human-choice making when worrying about “Am I free to do X or Y?”

            We want to do things, want to know if we are capable of doing them, and the normal inferences about our capabilities to do them don’t contradict determinism at all. No magic. Nothing mystic. And I’ve supplied reasons to accept this position.

            If the reply amounts to “well, since that’s not a magic account I’m not going to accept it as Free Will” that’s not really an argument to accept that counter claim. The idea “I could do otherwise in precisely the same conditions” and the alternative idea “all my decisions are caused” don’t do essentially ANY of the heavy lifting in the way we normally deliberate our options. They couldn’t.

          3. I like your conversation between the Free Will Skeptic and the Compatibilist. There’s a lot of this kind of argument being made here. The Incompatibilists have a hard time getting past this circularity. In their minds, if you believe in free will, you’re pretty much a dualist or a looney.

          4. Ironically, it is often the hard determinist whose argument rests upon dualism. They will put “me” in one corner of the room, and then put all my parts, my genetic disposition and prior life experiences, my brain and neurological processes,and all the other things that make me uniquely “me” in another corner of the same room. Then they suggest that I am being controlled by my parts, and thus I have no control. The problem is that one of those two corners is now empty.

          5. Magic Skeptic:” If Magic existed “it would be a mystic concept and there would be no way to express it in words or talk about it anyways.”

            Magician: Expresses a concept of Magic that is not mystic.

            Magic Skeptic: “That’s not magic; magic is mystical and can not be expressed.”

            Sorry, maybe that’s bordering on obnoxious, but I’m just saying – you can play with the semantics all you want, and you do not get libertarian free will. You can say “I’m not talking about libertarian free will, I’m talking about a version of free will as defined by me”. And I can say “I’m not talking about fairy tale magic, I’m talking about a form of magic as defined by me.” Same difference.

            If you want to use “free will” to mean “agency”, then ok, of course we have agency. You can define anything into existence. In this particular thread, however, I’ve specified that I’m following up on what List said and talking about libertarian free will, so I don’t understand the importance of emphasizing that some people use “free will” to mean “agency”.

            It’s like when people talk about the literal truth of religion and people jump in to say “But God means pure love to me!”. That’s great, I’m glad, but if the original topic was the truth value of the Old Testament, clearly they weren’t talking about your version of religion to begin with. To jump in and say “But my religion – a God of Love – does have truth value!” and imply that this means the Old Testament is literally true by association is twisting semantics to distort the truth. So to be perfectly clear – I am talking about libertarian free will. A free will that isn’t self-authored or free from causation, is, to my mind, simply “agency”, and there’s no need to make up a new term for it.

          6. That seems totally unfair to me. You are implying that if you believe in something called “free will” then you also believe in magic, regardless of your definition of “free will”. Some definition of free will may include magic but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.

            Sounds like you don’t believe agency is a valid concept. If so, perhaps that is a better place to focus your arguments.

          7. Wait a minute. I’m pretty sure that everyone uses free will to mean agency. The problem with hard determinism is that it assigns agency to prior causes rather than to the current cause. The problem is that this is not valid, because all prior causes also have prior causes. So if you use the “absence of prior causes” as a requirement for causation, the whole causal chain gets disqualified.

          8. I think you are right but the Hard Determinists deny we have agency and, therefore, free will. They have been called hyper-reductive, or something like that. They seem to want to follow every causal thread down to fundamental physics and nothing in-between is worth looking at. The whole idea of separate levels of description is alien to them.

          9. Roo
            The problem is that Free Will Skeptics/Hard Incompatibilists tend to reject both Libertarian accounts of free will AND compatibilist accounts of free will. And they often do so by presuming the Libertarian version is the only ‘real’ version of free will, and hence compatibilism is just a word game not worth taking seriously.

            IF that’s what you were doing, then it just begs the question against the compatibilist account for Free Will, as I have suggested.

            But if instead you are ONLY saying the magic Libertarian explanation for Free Will is ill-defined or incoherent, hey that’s fine. We agree.

            But if you think no other account of Free Will can make sense, or that compatibilism isn’t talking about the freedoms people are concerned about with Free Will – as if “that’s not REALLY Free Will” – then that’s a conversation to be had, and we shouldn’t beg the question against the other side’s argument.

            The compatibilist claims that people really could “have done otherwise” and really do have the general freedoms they think they have, and actually care about, when making choices. So it’s simply a better, more coherent account for Free Will, not some completely different, made-up version of free will.

          10. It’s yet another version of the “if you aren’t with us, you’re wrong” argument. 😉 I agree, Vaal. The Hard Incompatibilists believe that their only opposition are Libertarians. If you oppose them, then you must be a Libertarian and believe what they believe.

          11. Too many comments to respond to, so I’ll wrap up by saying this – if you asked me, I would say that I think some version of “God” might exist. I very specifically would not use that word if I didn’t want to imply something beyond ordinary love, day-to-day reality as we know it superficially, time and space as they appear to us, etc. Why would I? We have plenty of words to talk about those things already. To say “I believe God exists” when I mean “I love my cat” seems like adding a lot of baggage for no reason at all.

            Perhaps there are people who use the word “God” simply to mean “love”. Perhaps people use “free will” simply to mean “agency”. I will just say, this is the crux of our disagreement then, because I cannot wrap my head around the desire to do this. This is where we lack common ground. If I say “God”, I want to convey something above and beyond the ordinary world that is already captured in our lexicon. If I suddenly decided I had “free will”, again, I would not choose to resurrect an ancient religious concept to convey my sentiments on the very common sense topic of agency – I would use that word to convey something beyond what our language already describes. I would have a specific reason for using it.

            After hearing people adamantly say that they really wish to use the term “free will” instead of simply “agent”, I will cede that perhaps this is just an area where we have no intuitive common ground. Unless there is something specific to the original concept of free will that one wishes to convey, I just don’t relate to the need to use that term, although again, others appear too. So I’ll say, this is an area where I just don’t understand your sentiments, but I do understand that I don’t understand.

          12. Ok Roo, for my last reply then:

            “If I suddenly decided I had “free will”, again, I would not choose to resurrect an ancient religious concept “

            But that is only a relevant comment insofar as “Free Will” is strictly an ancient religious concept. It’s not. First, it’s not even a “religious concept” in terms of one found in The Bible. The Bible doesn’t really mention “free will” and doesn’t seem to care much about it. It’s only later that Christians worried about “free will” in a religious context.

            But “free will” was already a subject of inquiry since the Ancient Greeks and earlier, with incompatibiist and compatibilist stances being staked out.

            And when we talk of “Free Will” we are really caring about what we, now, think of as “Free Will.” And if the compatibilist is correct, then his account DOES describe the “free will” people are concerned with.

            So, again, it seems begging the question to say that you’d never use the term “Free Will” because it’s an ancient religious concept (and therefore magical). And therefore may confuse people. I’d say it’s more confusing to tell people “you don’t have free will” and leave all the messy questions hanging in the air, about how to understand our decision-making and concepts of “possible actions.”
            Better to produce a better theory for free will so the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater, letting people know “you DID have the ability to do otherwise…but the explanation isn’t magical, the explanation is perfectly compatible with physics, science, causation etc.”


          13. Vaal, I believe that telling people “they could have done otherwise” actually is libertarian free will.

            Regarding who has historical rights to the term – there may have been other, purely deterministic uses of the term throughout history. There were many uses of the term “God”, after all. But color me suspicious if someone says they really need to use the term “God” because historically, someone somewhere meant something philosophical rather than metaphysical by it. Again, why not pick another word with far less baggage, unless there is some aspect of that phrase in particular that you feel must be preserved? And if that’s the case, why not specify what specifically that aspect is?

          14. “Could have done otherwise” does not imply belief in libertarian free will unless you define it that way. List does not. Nor do everyday folks in normal conversation. When we say that, we don’t mean repeating the same event with the universe in the exact same state. That’s impossible to do as time always moves forward but, even if we could do it, it’s not what people mean. When I chose coffee but claim I could have chosen tea, I’m saying that I could have done it if I had wanted to. Meaning if conditions and/or my preferences were different, I might have chose tea instead of coffee.

          15. Roo, I too find it irritating when people suggest that free will has something to do with God or the supernatural. Both free will and responsibility are secular issues, and have pragmatic secular definitions that do not include or require anything supernatural.

            Free will is operationally defined as “a choice we make free of coercion or other undue influence”.

            Free will is irrationally defined as “a choice we make free of causal necessity”. I say “irrationally” because “freedom from causation” is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. Without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all!

            The operational definition is the one that everyone understands and correctly applies to most practical scenarios.

            The “philosophical” definition results in a lot of nonsense, because it is paradoxical, and leads to a lot of misconceptions and mental errors. The first of these mental errors is the suggestion that free will is incompatible with a world of reliable cause and effect (determinism).

          16. @Paul… I think Sam Harris summarized this as something like “If things had been different they would have been different.” No argument there.

            @Marvin… I don’t know what to tell you, free will features extremely prominently in Christian morality (the only people who I’ve ever actually heard use the term, conversationally, were my priests, but since I love them I didn’t get into a debate on the topic with them). I didn’t create that historical association, it is what it is. If people pick up the term now, they’re choosing to fight for it with all the baggage that comes along with it – something that, to my mind, they would not do unless there was some shade of metaphysical meaning that they didn’t wish to preserve. It would be easy enough to describe the whole process of decision making using other words.

          17. Roo, Christianity uses the concept of free will to excuse “God” from responsibility for all the bad things that happen in the world. As you pile on omni-this and omni-that (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence) you increase “God’s” control over, and thus his responsibility for, all events, good or evil.

            So, they use free will to give “God” a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

            But in secular courts of law, legal responsibility for one’s actions follow the sane adult’s decision to deliberately commit the crime. If the person was forced against his will to commit the crime, then the person exercising that force is held responsible instead. If the person had a mental illness or impairment that compromised his ability to choose a legal action rather than an illegal one, then psychiatric treatment or monitoring is used instead.

          18. Roo

            Since you asked…

            “Again, why not pick another word with far less baggage, unless there is some aspect of that phrase in particular that you feel must be preserved? And if that’s the case, why not specify what specifically that aspect is?”

            I’d already alluded to this in a previous reply. Humans, unlike non-sentient objects, have a “will” so talking about being able to do what we will to, and when we are, or are not, free to do as we will, makes sense.

            The problem in replacing the phrase Free Will is that, since most of what is important in that concept is preserved by a compatibilist account, we’d just have to be using words that mean essentially what that phrase entails, and we’d be stuck with precisely the same issues to untangle. For instance, say we replaced the phrase “Free Will” with “Free Choice.” Well, pretty much the same issues are wrapped up in what people mean by “choice” which involves deliberating between truly possible alternatives. Then since “choice” has so much “baggage” we’d have to replace it with another word…which essentially means the same thing, and hence we’d still be stuck working out exactly what we are demystifying when talking of Free Will. So, very little would seem to be gained.

            And since Free Will is already in currency, and comprises what people are concerned with anyway, may as well use it and explain how we don’t need magic in order to have it.

            I think Sam Harris summarized this as something like “If things had been different they would have been different.” No argument there.

            Many opponents to compatibilism have characterized the compatibilist account that way and it’s mostly an attempt to brush it off as if it were a mere tautology and hence uninformative: “Meh? So what? It’s a tautology that doesn’t bring anything of interest to the table”

            But it isn’t a tautology and it IS informative – it conveys exactly the type of information necessary to navigate the world. To say “I stayed home this weekend, but if I’d wanted to I could have run in the company marathon instead” isn’t tautologically true because it’s possible that I COULD NOT have run in the marathon if I’d wanted to. I may have been too out of shape, been ill, or had a broken leg etc. So to say “I could have” carries real information about my capabilities at that time, or in a similar situation. And if I “could NOT have have done otherwise” that is could not have run in the marathon due to some physical constraint making it impossible, then that is informative too: it would explain why I didn’t run. Also, I couldn’t be reasonably censured by my boss for not running in the company marathon.

            So to speak of “what I could do, or could have done, if I wanted to” is an indispensable manner of understanding and conveying information of many kinds.

          19. Good points Vaal.

            The tautology actually turns out to be causal necessity. Determinism asserts perfectly reliable cause and effect, such that every event from the motion of the planets to the thoughts going through our heads are causally necessary from any prior point in eternity and inevitably must happen.

            Because deterministic inevitability always applies in all cases, it is unable to make a meaningful distinction between any two events. It becomes irrelevant by its own ubiquity. And it is useless to any practical issue.

            Free will, as freedom from coercion and other undue influence, makes a meaningful and useful distinction in matters of causation and responsibility.

            Free will, as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, is the misnomer. And philosophy ought to stop confusing “freedom from causation” with free will.

            One definition is operational. The other definition is irrational.

          20. Well, thanks for the discussion, it has been thought provoking, although unsurprisingly, no one’s views have changed on the topic of free will.

            On my end, any reason that compatibilists give – humans respond to very minute changes; isn’t it silly to think of the world in reductionist vs. emergent terms anyways; we have the subjective capacity to envision our plans that a rock does not, etc., etc., just sound like special pleading to me (computers could also hypothetically respond to incredibly minute changes; emergent properties do exist but they need to be self-evident to be discussed – the idea that a table is a table and not ‘a bunch of atoms’ is self-evident to me, the idea that the will is free is not; subjective states only speak to subjectivity and not freedom, etc.).

            On the compatibilists end, I suspect that the existence of free will appears self-evident, and so such justifications sound like descriptions of the obvious (I should note that I have spent a fair amount of time in meditation and on retreats, where one essentially trains to look at things through a more reductionist lens, which may explain why this intuition no longer resonates with me. I see it not only as an illusion, but as a potentially harmful illusion that arises from a lack of understanding as to how our consciousness actually works. Decisions seem far less ‘free’ when you spend hours and hours examining every thought, impulse, sensation, etc., that simply floats out of consciousness unbidden and contributes to them.) I understand that what sounds like special pleading sounds like common sense if you feel the end result is common sense – again, using an example that is common to us both – the idea that a table can be called a table and not “a swirling mass of atoms”, I can see how what looks like special pleading in one case seems sensical in another. Yes, it does seem unnecessarily reductionist to refer to a table as “but really it’s atoms!” at all times. We do judge something as having ‘table-ness’ based on how it functions and relates to us as human beings, not based on solid empirical properties. One does need to have subjectivity to understand the concept of ‘table’, ‘furniture’, etc., and that subjective-linguistic understanding does shape our world in some very ‘real’ way.

            So, perhaps I have a better idea of why explanations that seem inexplicable in one case can seem sensible in another. I just don’t share the intuition that ‘free will’ is a distinct enough process to merit its own nominal reality. To my mind the Buddhist analogy of mental outcomes being akin to weather formation works much better. We don’t have a special designation of ‘freedom’ for the process of weather formation, and I don’t think we particularly need one for mental formations either.

          21. Every use of the terms “free” or “freedom” must either implicitly or explicitly refer to a meaningful and relevant constraint. A constraint is meaningful if it prevents us from doing something. A constraint is relevant if it can be either present or absent.

            Here are a few examples of meaningful and relevant freedoms (and their constraints):

            o I set the bird free (from its cage),
            o The First Amendment guarantees us freedom of speech (free from political censorship),
            o The bank is giving away a free toaster to anyone opening a new account (free of charge),
            o I chose to participate in Libet’s experiment of my own free will (free of coercion and undue influence).

            Reliable causation is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint.

            It is not a meaningful constraint because (a) all our freedoms require reliable causation and (b) what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

            It is not a relevant constraint because it cannot be removed. Reliable cause and effect is just there, all the time, as a background constant of reality. Only specific causes, such as a mental illness, or a guy holding a gun to our head, can be meaningful or relevant constraints.

          22. Roo

            ”On my end, any reason that compatibilists give – humans respond to very minute changes; isn’t it silly to think of the world in reductionist vs. emergent terms anyways; we have the subjective capacity to envision our plans that a rock does not, etc., etc., just sound like special pleading to me .”

            This should strike you as a startling thing for you to write, given how inconsistent it is with what you actually, normally think.

            If someone were throwing wood in to a campfire, and “John” was about to throw a woman, Marsha, in with the burning wood, imagine his excuse being “why are you attempting to distinguish anything of relevance between Marsha being used as kindling and the wood we’ve been throwing in the fire? THAT just seems to me to be Special Pleading. In she goes!”

            You can’t seriously side with “John” in this craziness, can you? Of course you don’t. You never would. The question then is why you feel the need to special plead and imagine, ONLY when we talk about human decision making and free will, that identifying differences between people making decisions and rocks are “special pleading.”

            Can you see hot grossly inconsistent this is?

            On the compatibilists end, I suspect that the existence of free will appears self-evident,

            Not at all!

            Yes, like everyone else it feels like I could choose between options and do otherwise. But the question of “De we REALLY have Free Will” is a philosophical problem that arises because we also have the intuition “everything that happens has a cause for it happening.”
            When you put those two together, it’s not *immediately* self evident that we are “free to choose A or B.”

            It’s only in thinking through the implications of both causation and the concept “could do otherwise” that, as a compatibilist, I can see they are not in conflict and that the reasons I use to deliberate and “think I have a choice” never were in conflict with determinism.

            And that seems like a good news.

          23. Roo,

            Also, since I just listened to Sam Harris yet again make the same argument…

            I see it not only as an illusion, but as a potentially harmful illusion that arises from a lack of understanding as to how our consciousness actually works. Decisions seem far less ‘free’ when you spend hours and hours examining every thought, impulse, sensation, etc., that simply floats out of consciousness unbidden and contributes to them.

            Yes, and Sam Harris as you know makes similar claims, arising from his experience with meditation. The problem is, I would argue, you are making unjustly broad inferences from very specialized situations. Imagine someone taking a small rubber mallet, knocking below your knee, and your knee reflexively flexes and moves. They declare afterwards: “See how this demonstrates how humans really work. We really work ONLY via involuntary reflexes BEYOND OUR CONTROL!”

            You should recognize how terribly unscientific such an extrapolation would be. It may explain situations relatively similar to testing reflexes like that, but it doesn’t even come close to explaining the countless scenarios requiring complex deliberations.

            Similarly, the point of meditation is to essentially get yourself in to a mental mode where you are “NOT deliberating.” Well…of course thoughts may just “arise” in that case. As Greg said here once before with an analogy about driving a car: It’s like learning to let go of the wheel, and then noticing no one seems to be driving.” But that hardly accounts for when we ARE taking the actions necessary for driving!

            When you have to think on a more complex task, say, planning a vacation, calculating how much gas you’ll use, how much the trip will cost, deliberating about which places you can afford to stay in, which will be the most efficient route, etc this is NOT LIKE MEDITATING. The chain of thoughts are not just arising mysteriously, arbitrarily, inexplicably unrelated – if they were, human beings could never plan to do anything successfully! Nor could we transmit information between one another “here are the reasons THIS action worked out for me; you can use this information too.” If we didn’t have access to our non-arbitrary thought processes – why we did what we did, thought what we thought – all this would be impossible. And part of our deliberations is surveying our desires, thinking about how to achieve them, what we have control over, what we don’t, etc.

            I listened to Sam Harris’ recent Ask Me Anything podcast and used an example to make his point about the “mysteriousness” of our thoughts. He asks the audience “Think of a restaurant” and then asks them to notice how seemingly “out of the blue” the options arise, so you can’t really account for why any of them arose. But this is a particular form of question meant, like meditation, to bypass deliberation. “Simply observe what happens in your mind.” And it’s supposed to show how we don’t really have control, or access to the reasons why any thought arises. But if he’d merely changed the question to “Think about your favorite restaurant and explain why it’s your favorite” THEN that becomes an act of deliberation and understanding, and certainly I COULD explain why a certain restaurant arises to my mind, and I have access to the reasons why it’s my favorite restaurant. It’s not “a mystery” why that particular restaurant would occur to me! So this is a sleight-of-hand “example” from Sam which doesn’t remotely justify the larger inference to all our methods of thinking.

            I caution not to make the types of leaps-of-inference that you’d recognize as unprincipled anywhere else in science, going from results in certain circumstances of cognition, to explain “all circumstances” of reasoning.

          24. Yes, and Benjamin Libet’s experiments demonstrate that what we think is happening in our own brains is not a good guide to what is really happening. Introspection and meditation are useful but they aren’t reliable or scientific.

          25. Vaal –

            – Not agreeing with free will is not the same as saying you should throw someone on a fire. You know this. Saying that because I don’t see everything in reductionist terms means I have to believe in any emergent concept that someone else claims exists – or else I want to use people as kindling – is just silly. That’s an invitation to be so open minded one’s head falls out. Yes, some things are emergent. No, that does not mean it is immoral to not believe in every emergent concept that is proposed, on principle.

            – There is no one established ‘point’ to meditation. There are many types with many aims and many views on the topic.

            – On reflection, it occurs to me that what you call ‘free will’, I would call ‘communal will’. Probably the ‘free-ist’ will is whatever arises out of the ether in relation to one’s ego, whatever impulse one might want to act on. Communal will is a program we try very hard to download into the minds of all responsible citizens so that they learn self-restraint, not to act on every egoic urge, the laws and norms of the society, and so on. Typically when we morally tut-tut and say “You had a choice, and you chose to do this!”, we mean someone should be held accountable because they chose to act irresponsibly – for whatever reason, communal will was overridden by their own impulses. What we want is actually not for their will to be free-er, in particular, but for it to be more restrained by the presence of additional societal norms.

        2. Roo, I think there is a lot of confusion around the idea of free will as a subjective experience. In cases of moral or legal responsibility we are mainly interested in an empirical distinction. For example, did the bank teller hand the cash over to the robber because she wanted to, or did she hand him the cash because he pointed a gun at her?

          The empirical distinction tells us the cause, and knowing the cause tells us how to correct the behavior. If she was forced at gunpoint, then her behavior is corrected by simply removing the threat. The robber, on the other hand, was acting deliberately, so correcting his behavior will be a bit more extensive.

          Free will is basically an empirical distinction between a choice that one makes for themselves, versus a choice imposed upon them by coercion or some other undue influence (such as a significant mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, or other extraordinary influence that effectively removed their own control of the choice).

          1. I disagree that this constitutes confusion so much as a semantic disagreement over how the term should be used. (Confusion indicates that a correct answer has been reached and those not in the know are confused regarding the truth – debate indicates an unsettled issue.) I am in the camp that says ‘agency’ is sufficient for legal purposes and such, and ‘free will’ is essentially a mystic concept from religion that means ‘libertarian free will’. I understand that compatibilists generally disagree and wish to use the term ‘free will’ to describe ‘agency’, however. I think that’s more or less a semantic debate and that I essentially agree with the compatibilist view on free will (or our lack of it) overall. I don’t think this is what Christian List was discussing, however. I could be wrong, but I think he was arguing for something closer to libertarian free will, or at least a new justification for compatibilist free will (otherwise, I think he would have stated that he was just summarizing / restating prior arguments.)

        3. “Now let’s say that it wasn’t cause and effect that caused this thought to come into your head, and caused you to act on it. Let’s say it was ‘free will’. How would you know the difference? How would ‘that happened because of cause and effect” look different to your eye than ‘that happened because free will made it happen’? What features would distinguish those two things?”

          Roo, here’s a parallel construction concerning idealism:

          “Now let’s say that consciousness doesn’t create the illusion of material reality and makes you think objects are really out there. Let’s say material objects really exist. How would you know the difference? How would ‘material objects are really out there’ look different to your eye than ‘my consciousness creates the illusion that material objects are really out there’? What features would distinguish those two things?”

          Bottom line: neither strict materialism nor strict idealism is worth arguing about because neither can be refuted and both in fact stem from a deeper need to affirm or deny one aspect of reality.

          1. “. . .both in fact stem from a deeper need to affirm or deny one aspect of reality.”

            Either than or the sheer joy of defending an irrefutable position.

          2. Agree. I don’t think the topics are completely analogous, because libertarian free will is a circular square while idealism / materialism are trees falling in a forest with no one around (semantically impossible vs. something that we can conceptualize, while understanding it could never be answered in reality) – but again, agree in general with what you are saying.

      1. The concept of causation requires that the cause precedes the effect in time. The term “cause” identifies the preceding event and the term “effect” identifies the subsequent event.

        I don’t know why anyone would suggest anything else. Can you explain how time reversal works?

        1. It’s the scientific laws that are time-reversible, not necessarily cause and effect. If you want to define cause as the earlier of a pair of events, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend that therefore there is a real “flow” of time or that earlier events “force” later ones. The temporal direction of “cause” and “effect” is just imposed by your definition.

          The time-reversibility of the laws means that (if you also reverse electric charge and parity) any process that is physically possible in one time-direction, is also possible in reverse. For example, an electron-positron pair can be created from the breakdown of a high energy photon. And a high energy photon can be created by the annihilation of an electron-positron pair. See the Wikipedia article on CPT symmetry.

          It implies that from any state of a closed system, you can derive both its future states and its past ones.

          1. I have no idea what they are talking about in that article on CPT symmetry.

            The only thing I know for certain is that time is a measure of the “distance” between two events. And that if you reverse a series of steps (take 3 steps forward, now take 3 steps back), you’re still moving forward in time.

            So I have to presume that they are using “time-reversal” in some technical fashion that does not actually mean what the words literally mean.

      2. I have mused before that the only argument I can think of that might refute the idea that we don’t have free will is the idea of an infinite multiverse where all possibilities actually play out at once. In that case the idea that “you could have done otherwise” would become murky, as it would change to “you did do otherwise”. That wouldn’t prove we have free will, but it would change the “could have done otherwise” argument substantially.

    3. Roo,

      o The “choose to choose to choose” issue is not a real problem. Free will only requires that I consider an issue and make a choice. It does not require me to create myself from scratch. No cause ever causes itself, so the problem is not a real requirement.

      o As you suggest, our brains model events using the concept of cause and effect. If we presume perfectly reliable cause and effect, then it is logically true that every event, from the motion of the planets to the thoughts going through your head right now, were “causally necessary/inevitable” from any prior point in eternity.

      So, which of those infinite series of prior points shall we choose as the cause of a thief robbing the bank?

      We need a meaningful cause, one that efficiently explains why the event happened. And, we need a relevant cause, one that we can do something about.

      Assuming the bank robber was an adult of sound mind, robbing the bank for a rational purpose (having money to spend on things), we should consider the robber’s choice to rob the bank as the meaningful and relevant cause of the theft.

      It does no good to blame determinism, or the Big Bang, or causal inevitability, because there is nothing we can do about them. They are irrelevant.

      1. If a tree falls on you and breaks your leg, then yes, the tree is the proximate cause of your leg being broken and the Big Bang is quite distal. I’m not sure what this has to do with free will, though.

        1. It has to do with free will because the Hard Determinists want to take all decisions back to their ultimate cause, the Big Bang. It’s reductionism on steroids.

          1. Paul Topping,


            It’s special pleading, too.

            In no other realm of “explanation” or “cause” do we demand that a causal explanation is invalid unless we trace every cause back to the Big Bang.

            Imagine that an airline is experiencing one line of jets that keep going off course.
            Looking for an explanation, the cause, the engineers identify a certain fuse that has a flaw in it’s design, all but guaranteeing this problem when used in the construction of the jet’s guidance system.

            That “explains” or pinpoints the “cause” in exactly the way we find useful in everyday explanations.

            Imagine if the company supplying those defective fuses to the airline, now in hot water, announce “Look, nobody has truly identified our fuses as the cause for the jets going off course. Don’t you know the chain of causation leading to the production of our fuses stretches all the way back to the Big Bang? That being the case, identifying our fuses as the cause is just arbitrary and isn’t ‘really’ what caused the jets to off course.”

            That company would rightly be seen as bonkers in trying to let that excuse fly. But this is essentially what we are supposed to accept as a legitimate complaint only when it comes to identifying human decisions as the cause of our actions. “Don’t you know there are preceding causes back to the Big Bang???”

            When we seek to identify causes, seek explanations, we are always seeking useful information. If we had to have a causal history back to the Big Bang, we’d never have a useful explanation for anything. The reason why we would identify the defective fuse as the “cause” of the jet problems is that it’s “portable” information, able to give predictions. You don’t need the Ultimate Causal History to understand that, if placed in another jet, the fuse is likely to again be the cause of a failure.

            Identifying my decision to, say, refuse to eat meat at the restaurant due to becoming a vegetarian is valid and useful in the same way. It explains my actions, and helps predict them in future similar situations.

          2. Agreed. I think this is the biggest flaw in the Hard Determinist position. They want to take a criminal’s causes back to the Big Bang but no one else’s. They expect to go on making decisions just like the rest of us. I really don’t get it.

  9. Can we agree that, absent coercion, people do things because they *want* to? If I order a steak rather than a kale grain bowl in a restaurant, it is because I want to. This is a straight forward use of language.

    Recently, near Seattle, a young man robbed a convenience store. An elderly grandmother running the store gave him all the money she had and did not resist him in any way. Nonetheless, he purposefully shot and killed her at point blank range.

    I conclude that he killed her because he wanted to. He wasn’t forced to, so why else would he do it? I would also say he killed her of his own volition, or “free will” some would say. I am quite sure he did not violate any law of physics in doing so. He just did it, and I am sure that given identical circumstances he’d do it again. So how does knowing this change how we think society should deal with him?

    1. He killed her because he wanted to, but complex physical and chemical processes inside his brain made him want to.

        1. I may have misunderstood you. You seemed to imply that “he wanted to” implied something nonphysical. I agree that he wanted to, but he wanted to because of deterministic processes in his brain. Yes, we should blame chemistry, if you want to put it that way. I do not think any of us has free will, but (I forget who said this) free will is a good first approximation to our behavior. Deep down, Descartes and Skinner were right about animals being automatons, but they forgot that we are animals too. I have not worried about free will in a ling time, so I think that is all I will say for now. I have no choice.

          1. Quite so. In my opinion Centre of Gravity and Free Will are both useful fictions.

            They are also both ways of prediction future events. But they don’t exist separately from the context they appear in.

      1. “He killed her because he wanted to, but complex physical and chemical processes inside his brain made him want to.”

        I believe List would have no problem with that explanation. In his way of thinking (and mine), only the first part is called “free will” and we have it. The physical and chemical processes may be determined or not, it makes no difference since free will only refers to what happens in our brains as a result of those processes.

        1. It seems to me you have just said that we do not have free will, because we do not control the processes in our brains. Or am I missing something?

          1. You’re missing something. He’s defining free will to be what an agent is exercising when it makes a decision. It doesn’t matter that the decision-making process involves physics and chemistry, regardless of determinism. He’s saying (and I agree) that the term “free will”, that thing we all feel we have, is just what it appears to be. It is what it feels like to make a decision.

            Note that we can say this without positing any kind of magic abilities that give us free will. As far as I understand it, based on definitions online, this is not libertarian free will as they claim we have free will and, therefore, determinism is wrong. List doesn’t say that. He confuses the issue by calling his theory “libertarian emergentism” but that’s just a bad choice of label, IMHO.

          2. Yes. We are arguing definitions, in a sense. I do not consider that to be free will. Free will would not be determined, and we only feel as if we have free will. I do not consider the feeling of free will to be the same as free will, though I certainly agree that we have to act as if we truly had free will.

          3. You are right. We don’t have the kind of free will you are talking about. But I agree with Dennett that the kind List (and I) are talking about is the only kind worth having. Seems like perhaps you do too since you say that we have to act as if we had it. You don’t have to change your mind on how everything works, just the labels.

            Of course, we are bothered when we consider that everything we do is determined. We find it unsettling, much as we would if we discovered that the universe is a simulation on some alien being’s computer. But we would soon realize that the knowledge doesn’t really change anything. There’s no way we could use it to predict anything. Every state change in the universe is unique and can’t be revisited or known in advance. Right now we only think that it matters but it really doesn’t. Life goes on.

  10. At first I thought it was a list of confusing Christian views. Very confusing name, although very cool name though.

  11. your behavior depends not just on the laws that govern the individual atoms but on the way those atoms are assembled. At a higher level of description, your decisions can be truly open

    Maybe it’s in his book, but the biggest problem I see here is that he provides no justification to move from that first sentence to the second. Clearly emergence of higher-scale properties is not sufficient to produce free will, otherwise we’d be forced to say that water has free will because it’s wet.

    So what I’d say is: yes there is more to it than the laws governing individual atoms. Yes new properties arise from the way they are assembled. No this does not imply or justify the claim that human decisions are truly open. There’s an enormous missing step between “new properties emerge at larger scales” and “humans have free will,” for which he seems to have no hypothesis, no mechanism, no explanation.

    I almost wonder if he just doesn’t understand emergence in terms of the science, that he doesn’t understand the connection that’s missing in his logic. I’m no philosophy basher and I think it’s a useful discipline, but he probably wouldn’t be the first scientifically illiterate philosopher to speak about what some scientific concept means to philosophy.

    1. Hi Marvin,

      I read your essay on free will and really enjoyed it. I think it is the clearest and best explanation of compatibilism I’ve read. Cutting through all the distractions, it is really all ojust common sense. Thank you.

    2. I liked your essay too, but I still side with Einstein: Strictly speaking we do not have free will, but we act as if we did because that is the only way we can function. I do not think he was being inconsistent.

    3. Marvin Edwards,

      Your essay is pretty much a laundry list of why it is so frustrating (but fun) to talk to a compatibilist. Let’s take your deception #1 for example:

      “The initial deception goes like this: “If everything I do is causally inevitable, then how can it be said that my will is free?”

      Did you notice what just happened? The definition of free will just got switched from a choice “free of coercion and undue influence” to a choice “free of causation”.”

      No there has been no bait and switch. It only seems like that to you because you seem unable to grasp that we are asking very different questions. Yes, complex objects that respond to their environment in arbitrarily complex and seemingly rational ways can exist in a deterministic universe. Computer programs that play GO exist now and in the future maybe they will be doing string theory. But I don’t call that free will because that is not the question I’m asking. In fact, I see this as evidence that there is no free will. So when you say this is the definition of free will… frustration.

      The free will question is a deeper question about determinism, causality, computability and information.

      I’m going to define two different versions of determinism:

      1)Movie determinism. If you are watching a movie you see a sequence of events that look like people reacting to the world around them. But do the characters in a movie have free will?

      2)Contact determinism. Think of a string of dominoes. You push the first one and they all fall in sequence. The pattern of falling dominoes can be arbitrarily complex and you can even do calculations with them. Can a pattern of falling dominoes have free will if it is complex enough?

      Now a question. Is there any principled difference between movie determinism and contact determinism?

      1. o Well, if we count the forces between objects (gravity, electrostatic, etc.) as a form of “contact” then it is always contact determinism. And that’s what causal determinism is about. (I suspect that “movie” determinism would be an “illusion”).

        Determinism is the belief (-ism) that all events are brought about by the natural interaction of objects and forces via perfectly reliable (and quite ordinary) cause and effect.

        o The key distinction between us and a computer is that the computer is a machine that we have created to do our will. It has no will of its own. So, the issue of whether it has a “free” will is moot.

        o If “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is a reasonable definition of “free will”, then what does this “freedom from causation” mean? How exactly does such a thing work?

        My position is that there is no such thing as “freedom from causation”, because the concept is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. Because without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

  12. The difference with Libertarian free will, is that List’s free will doesn’t require a soul given by God, because it simply emerges from complexity. So, there are two kinds of Libertarian free will: supernatural and natural.

    1. FB, actually, when you consider purpose and reason as causes, any entity that chooses what it will do according to purpose and reason is behaving deterministically. And, in theory, the choice could be predicted in advance.

  13. Until the mind-body problem is solved there is no evidence that we have free will and how it possibly could work. Current believers in free will have to resort to some forms of dualism; f.i. explaining the problem away as an emergent property.

    Ironically libertarian free will is easier to defend but lacks also any evidence.

    Besides that there is only one area where the existence of free will really matters: moral responsibility. Those who are soft on crime but promoting the believe in free will are in fact promoting incoherent believes.

    Those who think the believe in free will is doing so much good forget how bad it often works out.

    Of course it works both ways, if you are tough on crime you better should believe in some form of free will, at least if you want to be somewhat coherent.

    1. Peepuk,

      o I found a good book on consciousness by neuroscientist Michael Graziano, titled “Consciousness and the Social Brain”. He posits that conscious awareness is a data set that tracks attention. He even locates its functional area within the brain. Injuries to those areas can result in a “hemispatial neglect syndrome”, where the patient is only aware of objects on one side of the visual field.

      o No one is ever punished for having free will. They are only punished for the harm they have done. Society uses punishment as a deterministic tool of behavior modification. So, don’t blame “blame” on free will. Both blame and praise are deterministic.

      The individual and social causes of crime are studied by psychologists and sociologists. They make us aware of the influence of social conditions that breed criminal behavior and that must be addressed if we are ever to successfully reduce crime. Ironically, they do not require or suggest that free will be denied, but rather that through rehabilitation we can provide the offender with better choices in the future.

  14. Nobody here is engaging with a central point both of my short article and of List’s book and papers: the need to ground discussions of free will in a broader theory of causation, rather than loose and often conflicting intuitions. List adopts a Judea Pearl-style interventionist approach and suggests that, on that view, there is no contradiction between microphysical determinism and macrophysical indetermininsm. And no, it is not faux indeterminism that is a result of ignorance of those details. It might well be termed “libertarian” but it is certainly not the traditional variety. May I suggest that anyone commenting first specify what their view of causation is?

    1. You seem to be new here, so take a listen: don’t tell us what we have to discuss about your article, nor that we have to meet your needs by defining “causation”. We’re not here to discuss things along the lines you want. And I still maintain that List writes and expounds his ideas so poorly that it looks like he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    2. Fair question, Musser. “Causation” is a concept we use to describe the interactions of objects and forces as they bring about events. The mass of the Sun, the mass of the Earth, the force of gravity, and the Earth’s original trajectory, “cause” the Earth to move in an elliptical orbit around the Sun.

      The thing to keep in mind here is that causation itself never causes anything. It simply relates objects and forces to the subsequent events. Only the objects and forces themselves can be said to cause events.

      In the same way that causation does not cause anything, determinism itself never determines anything. Determinism is neither an object nor a force. It is just a comment. It asserts that the behavior of the objects and forces is “reliable”, and thus, at least in theory, “predictable”.

      To attribute causation to determinism would be a reification fallacy.

  15. Musser,

    Great article.

    o I like to rescue determinism by noting that (a) there are three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational, (b) assuming that each is perfectly reliable in its own domain, and (c) asserting that every event is reliably caused by some specific combination of one, two, or all three.

    o The interventionist view of causation that you describe is key. To be meaningful, a cause must efficiently explain why an event occurred. To be relevant, the cause must be something that we can do something about. Neither the Big Bang nor causal necessity/inevitability qualifies as a meaningful or relevant cause of any current event.

    o Finally, it is not required that a person control their neurological processes in order for the person to control their choice. It is only necessary for the person to be their neurological processes.

  16. About the notion that “I could have done otherwise”…

    There is a mental error that we make when we confuse “can do” with “will do”. Because determinism says that the person will choose A instead of B, there is a tendency to jump to the conclusion that the person cannot choose B, and never could.

    This error ignores the contextual difference that separates these two concepts. At the beginning of the choosing operation we must have at least two real possibilities, for example, A and B. And we must also have the ability to choose either one: “I can choose A” is true and “I can choose B” is also true (even if “I can choose both A and B” is false). At the end of the operation, we have a single choice, setting a single intent, expressed as a single “I will“, that directs our subsequent actions.

    Whenever we speak of what we “can do” or “could have done”, our context is the beginning of the choosing operation. And whenever we speak of what we “will do”, our context is the end. At the beginning, we can choose either A or B. The fact that we will choose A does not contradict the fact that we could have chosen B. Each fact is true in its own context.

    1. Yes. To a compatibilist, saying “I could have done X” simply means X was in my availability set. I could have chosen it had I *wanted* to.

      1. But I don’t think it’s just about compatibilism. I think it’s baked into the language. When we use words such as “can” or “ability”, and “option” or possibility, we are always referencing, directly or indirectly, the choosing operation. And that is where they are operationally defined.

        An “ability” is not something that you are doing, but something that you may do in the future, if you choose to.

        The same “future reference” is even more obvious in the word “possibility”.

        One word from philosophy that I disagree with is the term “counterfactual”. I believe a more appropriate (and simpler) term is “conditional”. Anyone whose done any programming knows what a conditional statement is (e.g., “if x then y else z”).

        For example, the statement, “If I choose to address the term ‘counterfactual’ in this comment I can”. is true (as I’ve just demonstrated). It is not “counter to the facts”, but is itself a simple statement of fact.

        1. It would be counterfactual had you not chosen to address the term counterfactual. That you could have addressed the term remains true, but it is counter to the fact that you didn’t. The “you-couldn’t-have done-otherwise” folks seem fixated on the fact that making a choice rules out other alternatives, as if the fact one cannot simultaneously choose both of two mutually exclusive alternatives X and Y proves there is no free will. Maybe they think free will requires that we be like Schrodinger’s cat.

          1. And yet not counter to the fact that “I could have done either one”. If you’ve read me before, you might have heard this one:

            Waiter (a free will skeptic): “What will you have for dinner tonight, Sir?”
            Customer: “I don’t know yet. What are my possibilities?”
            Waiter: “There is only one possibility, Sir.”
            Customer: “Oh. Okay, then what is that?”
            Waiter: “How should I know! I’m not a mind reader!”

            (One cannot take the position that there is only one choice at the beginning of the choosing operation, without breaking the operation.)

            As to Schroedinger’s cat, it’s like the determinism “versus” free will paradox. I suggest we cremate the damn thing and scatter its ashes to the wind.

            But that’s just me.

      2. IMHO, this is how all people answer the question unless they are thinking about determinism at the time. Such phrases are a normal part of conversation.

        1. Yes, agreed with you Paul, and Marvin, darwinwins.

          The concepts – heuristics – that do the heavy-lifting when people deliberate between alternative actions have nothing to do with metaphysics or a completely unworkable “I could do otherwise in precisely the same state of the universe.” We have desires and goals, we care about being able to “get what we want” and “do what we want to do” and we rationalize about our capabilities in doing so.The very fact of being creatures helplessly passing through time means that our every empirical inference entails a “wigging” of conditions to get the information we need.

          If I’m pondering whether to run to the store for a bit of exercise, or drive instead to get there faster, I’m inferring my powers to “do either action” from previous experience to my capabilities now (either implicitly or explicitly). I can’t possibly be inferring “I could do so at precisely the same time/state of the universe as last time” because that’s impossible. What I’m doing is inferring from relevantly similar circumstances in which “I could do those things” to the one I’m in now. There will be some things relevantly similar – e.g. I still own my car, still am capable of running – others not – e.g. the world has moved on to a different overall time and causal state.

          “Could do otherwise in PRECISELY the same conditions” can never yield the information we actually seek and require so it never could form the basis of how we actually reason, intuitively.

          One of my main problems with the way hard incompatibilists speak is that they don’t seem to do a full check for consistency: checking for the coherency of their claims not only after a choice is made, but projected to future deliberations, so it becomes this incoherent mess of saying “No one could have done otherwise” (because the ONLY way that is to be understood is in the impossible contra-causal sense), and being committed to that, still having to recommend actions and deliberate…while trying to avoid admitting the concept “we could do otherwise.” It never works.

          You just have to ask when we are deliberating about anything, e.g. whether to drive or walk to the local park, “is it POSSIBLE for us to take either action?”

          If the answer is “no” that’s not an admissible proposition because only one choice is ultimately determined, then how can one make sense of deliberating between taking the two actions at all?

          Surely to make sense of our deliberations, we have to hold that it is possible for us to take either action. And before we make the choice, ask “well, what do we mean when we think it’s ‘possible’ for us to do either?”

          Surely even the hard determinist must agree that it’s some assessment of our capabilities
          to act in the world that makes sense of this. What we are physically capable of doing “if we want to do it.” And that is fully compatible with determinism.

          But then as soon as the choice is made, it would be inconsistent and bizarre to take that back and say “Sorry, wrong, we never REALLY could have chosen either action!”

          To do that means it was wrong in the first place to think we were capable of either action when deliberating, which makes such deliberations completely incoherent. It means after every deliberation we will say “I didn’t REALLY have the options I was deliberating about.” And the post-decision switch to “couldn’t do otherwise” just seems to forget the nature how we were assessing “I am capable of taking either action” in the first place.

          I go for compatibilism because it cleans up this mess, makes sense of the concepts our underlying our everyday language of “choice”, and does so without any need of magic and following libertarians down the wrong rabbit hole of “I could do otherwise must mean magic.”

          1. Perhaps I am repeating what you and others have said. If so, please forgive me.

            When Hard Determinists consider the “Could you have done otherwise?” question and its variants, they do it without specifying much context. This allows for an interpretation that they are talking about a decision made with a single state of the universe. Most of us agree that we couldn’t have chosen otherwise if nothing has changed. Of course, when we use this question in normal conversation, there is always a context and a perfectly normal interpretation and it never involves only one event.

          2. And if our choice turned out badly, we say “I could have chosen B instead”, which is how we learn from our mistakes and prime our future choice toward option B.

            The operation of choosing is the mechanism by which rational biological organisms causally determine the single inevitable future.

            In the “rewind/replay” it is always the case that we will make the same choice. But it would be false to say that we could not make the other choice.

            The words derive their meaning from the operation. We can assume that the operation evolved because it improved our specie’s chance of survival.

            And it would be the same for any species with sufficient neurological development for imagination, evaluation, and choosing.

    2. Marvin, I checked out your wordpress page. Your writing about free will was excellent.
      I found a lot to agree with in there!

  17. P.S. While I’m here I’d like to apologize to Jerry Coyne for the remark I made about his motivations many months ago. I got caught up in a discussion with someone on this website that got a bit heated and lost my cool. Coyne corrected me, which I appreciate, but I was banned before I realized my error, and was unable to apologize until now. Sorry.

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