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 Real. Now 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.