Once more: Why Christian List’s “proof of free will” fails

May 21, 2019 • 9:15 am

I’ve already written twice about the views of Christian List on free will, views called to my attention by Michael Shermer (see here and here). My interpretation of List’s views are that while he’s a physical determinist for molecules, he thinks that there is true libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will on the level of individual behavior. That is, at a given time a person has the possibility of deciding to make any of several choices, and is not constrained by the laws of physics to make only one. That kind of free will, List says, is an “emergent property” that arises in “agential states”: the state of a person contemplating an action.  List’s view is frankly dualist, lacking a convincing scenario for how free will arises in people’s behavior. One might also call it “compatibilist” because, he says, free will on a higher level (the “agential level) is compatible with physical determinism on a lower level.

But the difference between familiar compatibilists like Sean Carroll and Dan Dennett on the one hand, and compatibilists like List on the other, are that with List, determinism of molecules is compatible with pure indeterminism of human behavior. For nearly all other compatibilists, determinism of molecules is reflected in determinism of behavior, but the compatibilism arises when “free will” is construed as something other than libertarian free will (e.g., as Dennett’s “complex input-output relationships”), so that those compatibilists use “free will” in a sense different from how it’s construed by most people and all Abrahamic religions—dualism.

List and others have pulled what I call “The Feser Gambit” on me, though. Theologians like Feser, when you criticize an article they wrote, say something like, “You can’t criticize me unless you’ve read these 1000 pages of my previous writings, which will show you to be wrong.” Likewise, List and his supporters have told me that I can’t properly criticize him unless I’ve read his big paper on free will.

Well, I have. It’s called “Free will, determinism, and the possibility of doing otherwise“, and you can get it free at the link. It’s long and a bit complicated, and I have to say that it’s almost above my pay grade. (It was published in 2014 in Noûs, volume 48, pages 156-178.)

Having read it, however, I think there’s a central flaw in List’s paper that invalidates his argument for agential could-have-done otherwise free will.

Before I pinpoint that flaw, which I’ll try to do briefly, you will see from the paper that List really is a true free-willer of the libertarian stripe. That is, he really thinks that, with an agent in a given deciding state (he’s not clear about what an “agential state” is), under identical conditions, an agent could make any of a number of choices. Such an agent at the point of “deciding” does not make a single decision mandated by the laws of physics, but has the possibility of making different choices. List takes free will to mean that at a given time, there is the possibility of an agent—the “decider”, to use G. W. Bush’s jargon—to make more than one decision.

List’s “compatibilism” that leads to true libertarian free will depends on his assumption below:

Supervenience and multiple realizability: There exists a (many-to-one) mapping σ from S into S such that each physical state s in S determines a corresponding agential state σ(s) in S, but the same agential state s in S may be realized by more than one physical state s in S. [Bold vs roman characters represent given symbols.]

You’ll see below what he means by many-to-one mapping: it’s mapping from world histories of molecules onto “agential states” of behavior in a given situation.

But what is an “agential state”? It’s not clear what List means, even in this paper, but it appears to be the condition an agent is in when about to make a decision. I didn’t get much help from the definition below, as the parts I’ve put in bold are confusing:

Agential state. Let me introduce the term “agential state” to denote the state of an agent and his or her macroscopic environment as specified by the relevant higher-level theory of human agency. There are various ways of making this definition more precise; it may sometimes be useful, for example, to represent the agential state explicitly as a pair consisting of the agent’s intrinsic state and the state of the environment.But for the general purposes of this paper, I can set these details aside. What matters is that an agential state, while supervening on (being fully determined by) the underlying physical state of the world, is more coarse-grained than that physical state.

What he apparently means by this is that there are many “world histories”—the historical sequence of events that puts all molecules and particles in the universe in a given state—that can correspond to a single agential state. This is the crux of List’s argument, as given in both words and in a figure below. In other words, a given agent about to make a free choice could have arrived at that “agential state” by a number of conceivable world histories.  Because the agential state is “coarse grained” in this way, the underlying physical states could go their separate paths at the moment of  decision, somehow giving the agent the possibility to make two or more decisions as the world histories bifurcate, leading the agential states on new paths.

Here’s how List puts it (I’ve bolded the parts implying libertarian free will):

I will argue that free will, even when understood as requiring the ability to do otherwise, is compatible with determinism. Crucially, I claim that this is so even when the ability to do otherwise is interpreted modally, as the possibility of doing otherwise, rather than in some weaker conditional or dispositional sense. The key idea is that although determinism implies that only one future sequence of events is physically possible given the current fully specified state of the world, the more coarsely defined state of an agent and his or her macroscopic environment can still be consistent with more than one such sequence, and thus different alternative actions can be possible for the agent. The notion of agential possibility will be defined and defended in detail below. In particular, I suggest that this notion – and the notion of free will analyzed in terms of it – is no less scientifically respectable than other higher-level notions we routinely employ in intentional explanations, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. However, I will also identify conditions under which new scientific developments might force us to give up this compatibilist view. Notably, these conditions would challenge not only free will, but also our established intentional approach to explaining human behaviour.

. . . My main point follows immediately. Given the multiple realizability of agential states by physical states, it is perfectly possible for the many-to-one mapping σ from S into S to be such that determinism at the physical level is consistent with indeterminism at the agential level. While any physical history (in Ω) may have only one possible continuation at any time, namely the history itself, there can be two or more distinct agential histories (in Ω) that coincide up to time t but then branch out in different directions.

And here’s his figure, with an explanation, showing how he thinks this happens:

Figures 1 and 2 show a simple example. Figure 1 represents the physical level, Figure 2 the agential one. The dots in Figure 1 represent different possible physical states, and the lines connecting them different possible physical histories, over five time periods (t = 1 to t = 5). Thus S is the set of all the dots, and Ω the set of all the lines. It is easy to see that determinism holds: there is no branching in any of the possible world histories. Now suppose the agential state of the world supervenes on the physical one and is multiply realizable. Specifically, all physical states that lie inside the same rectangular cell in Figure 1 correspond to the same agential state. At time 1, for instance, the supervenience mapping σ maps the three left-most physical states to one agential state, and the three right-most physical states to another. Figure 2 displays all the resulting agential states and histories. Here the thick dots constitute the set S of possible agential states, and the thick lines (to be precise, all the linear paths that can be taken along the trees from bottom to top) constitute the set Ω of all possible agential histories. It is easy to see that there is no determinism at the agential level in the present example. The agential histories branch out in various ways. As this example shows, such agential-level indeterminism is entirely consistent with determinism at the physical level, jointly with supervenience and multiple realizability.

Note how three different world histories (the three dots in the third box from the left at t = 1) map to a single “agential state” at the same time. But then that agential state bifurcates, reflecting the different paths of the antecedent histories.  The bifurcations occur when the underlying world histories in an agent diverge to the point that a different choice is made. As List says, this confers true libertarian free will. (My emphasis below.)

However, as I have suggested and will defend further in the next section, this does not settle the question of what actions an agent can and cannot do. This is because the appropriate frame of reference for asking whether a particular action is possible for an agent is not the one given by fundamental physics, but the one given by our best theory of human agency, and such a theory employs a more coarse-grained state space than the physical one.

It’s not clear, either, what he means by “our best theory of human agency”. That is irrelevant to whether one’s “choices” are inevitable given the laws of physics.

The problem with List’s idea. While it’s conceivable that different histories of the universe or its constituent parts could produce someone in the same “agential state”: that is, a guy standing in front of an ice-cream counter trying to choose a flavor, this does not solve the problem—how to give that person libertarian freedom to choose different flavors. For at a given moment, a person about to make a “choice” is in only one physical state, not different physical states. And that one physical state, even if arrived at by different past histories, has only one future history: the history mandated by the laws of physics (with perhaps some slight differences due to quantum indeterminacy, which doesn’t confer agency). In other words, there is no way that an individual at a given moment, with everything held constant in the Universe, could have behaved otherwise. The bifurcations that List sees as corresponding to different free “choices” cannot occur, even if different past histories produce an identical configuration of the Universe.

And make no mistake about it: the possibility of different choices at a given moment by a given agent in a given situation are what most people think of free will. List agrees that this is indeed what free will is, and that it’s truly libertarian. But what we have here is not a series of histories that allow such coarse-grained bifurcations, but a single state, represented by a person in a situation where most people think “choice” is possible. For example, a robber with a gun points it at a cashier, who refuses to hand over money. That is a single situation represented by a single individual with a gun. Perhaps it’s possible that different conceivable histories could have produced the identical situation (and remember, by “identical” I mean “the configuration of the universe is identical at that moment”), though I see that as unlikely. But even if they could have, at the moment when the robber’s finger is on the trigger, it is the configuration of molecules in the Universe at that instant—the configuration of the particles in his brain and the cashier’s brain, in the surroundings, and so on, that determine what the robber will do. The past has become irrelevant: all that matters now is the laws of physics applying to the physical state we’ve arrived at.

And so—or so I think—there are no free choices possible, no bifurcations of behavior at that moment that can be selected by “agential” will.  List has erred, and has not given a credible account of libertarian free will on the individual level.

At the end, List describes two situations in which his theory could be refuted:

1.) “A successful reduction of psychology to physics—perhaps the dream of some neuroscientists—such that determinism at the physical level would imply determinism at the psychological level.”  Here he clearly shows that he thinks these two levels are only loosely connected. But even though we’re not yet able to connect psychology to molecules and physics, that is the only possibility we can think of save some spooky phenomena we haven’t yet understand. Sean Carroll thinks this is not possible: that we fully understand the physics of everyday life, and though Sean is a compatibilist in confecting a non-libertarian definition of free will, he (like Dennett) is still a pure determinist on the “agential” level.

2.) “A paradigm shift towards a deterministic theory of psychology, even in the absence of a reduction of psychology to physics.” While this sounds easier to attain, it is not, for it demands that we have enough information to predict with complete certainty what somebody is going to do, even if we don’t know the underlying physics. I maintain that we can’t attain such a theory without knowing at least lower-level molecular phenomena—the behavior of neurons, neurotransmitters, and so on—to arrive a near-perfect predictability of behavior and of choices.

While #2 seems unattainable, it follow immediately if goal 1.) is attained, and goal 1 is true according to our best knowledge of physics.

So I have read List’s Big Paper, and I am not convinced that it comes anywhere near giving evidence for libertarian can-do-otherwise free will. It “succeeds” by making a sleight of hand: an unwarranted claim that an agent in a given state could do otherwise because that “given state” could reflect different molecular histories. But a given agential state is a single configuration of the Universe, and its past is irrelevant. Once that state exists, its future is determined.

h/t: Matthew, Chetiya

149 thoughts on “Once more: Why Christian List’s “proof of free will” fails

  1. As far as I can tell, List is “not even wrong.” He’s talking about things he’s just made up without any justification I can detect. Our description of reality, including of “agential states” may be, of necessity, coarse, but there’s no reason to think reality is “coarse.” It feels like a “God of the gaps” argument without even the benefit of a “god.”

  2. “agential state” “agential level”: Poorly defined, made up terms just like those used by the spin meisters of theology. As you say, why should the past be relevant to choices made in the present configuration of the universe.

  3. “That is, at a given time a person has the possibility of deciding to make any of several choices, and is not constrained by the laws of physics to make only one.”

    No, that’s not what List believes. As I understand his thesis, there’s no way he’s a dualist. He’s not at all saying that our behavior and ability to act as an agent and have free will doesn’t follow the rules of physics.

    1. How do you know that your take on what List believes is right and mine is wrong. Did you read his paper?

      I’m sorry, but I disagree, and you can’t keep asserting what you’ve already said before. I’ve had my say once, above.

      1. I haven’t read his paper but I’m reading his book. My understanding of his thesis was established by Shermer’s interview. Everything he said seemed perfectly clear to me. Of course, this is due in no small part to his theory matching what I believe about free will. I’m sure you know the feeling when you agree with someone’s thesis though it is not presented quite how you would present it. Everything I’ve read of List’s since that interview does not conflict with my understanding of his theory.

        I wish that others like Sean Carroll would join the discussion so that I am not (mostly) the only one defending List here. Musser kind of disqualified himself by his initial comments. I didn’t get a strong feeling from his interview of List whether he really agrees with List’s theory or not.

  4. “You’ll see below what he means by many-to-one mapping: it’s mapping from world histories of molecules onto “agential states” of behavior in a given situation.”

    This is actually quite simple. When an agent has a certain identifiable state, that state can be represented in the implementation of that agent in multiple ways at the level of world histories of molecules. Take, for example, the thought that “I was married on May 28th” and how it is represented in my brain. It is highly unlikely that it is stored in a single, unique world history of molecules. If it was, the memory would not be very robust as a single disturbance due to a cosmic ray or whatever would change that memory. This is highly unlikely. Same is true for computers. When a memory cell contains 215, its representation uses a huge number of molecules and does not depend on a single world history.

      1. When people say that the brain is “massively parallel”, they are really talking about something else. Unlike our computers, which these days contain a fair amount of parallelism, the brain is thought to employ much, much more parallelism. One “proof” of this is that while a single neuron processes information slowly relative to a computer, it does so in billions of neurons simultaneously.

        What List is saying here is something else. Our computers represent a single bit of information using many, many atoms or electrons. This is partly to make it reliable and not subject to the unpredictable movements of single atoms and electrons. While a single computer bit IS subject to the laws of physics, by using many, many atoms and electrons to represent a single bit, it effectively insulates that bit from the world histories of single particles.

    1. So what? Yes, he’s a dualist but doesn’t use that term. The fact is that in a single agential state, the history going forth–the choice–is determined. List says it’s not, so he’s a libertarian and, yes, you could call him a dualist.

      1. Show me where he says that agents aren’t determined by the laws of physics. You claim that this is his position but I don’t read it that way. I wish he would say it more plainly and I do take issue with his use of the word, “indeterminism”. As I have said several times, risking your ire no doubt, he is claiming the model is indeterministic while the system being modeled is determined and follows the laws of physics. The description is indetermined, not the thing itself.

        1. But the free-will debate isn’t about the ‘description’ of an event; we are talking about what actually happened. And that’s determined.

          I don’t even understand what the alternative could be: every event ever observed by science has been either deterministic or stochastic; the free-will List is talking about is neither of those things, so logically it has to be something else entirely, something unique in the history of physics – an event that is neither random nor determined.

  5. The agent in the third box in line t=1 doesn’t have access to the many possible world histories, it only has access to one of them, and therefore can only move to one of the two possible boxes above. The only way to “choose” the other box in line t=2 is if the agent could change the world history of the underlying physics, which it cannot do in this scenario. The agent is still fully deterministic based on the assumption that the underlying physics is deterministic.

    1. The mistake in List’s argument is to ignore the point you just made.

      The mistake in your argument is to suppose that the physical state of an agent somehow constrains them. No, the physical state of a person is them!

  6. I still think that the crux of this controversy is that you are imagining he subscribes to some version of libertarian free will which denies determinism. I think his view is quite different.

    It is true that List claims that agents are indeterminate. However, what he means is that the way we characterize agents and analyze their behavior is indeterminate, not that they are not subject to the laws of physics. I believe this is a flaw in List’s presentation of his theory but not in the theory itself.

    This is easier to explain with his meteorology example. Weather is obviously subject to the laws of physics. However, our theory of weather does not base its predictions by deriving them directly from the positions and velocities of atoms. Instead, it operates at a higher level. List calls this indeterminism because it involves the behavior of very large numbers of atoms taken as a single object. It relies on statistics, not world histories.

    I believe List is wrong to call this indeterminism as it leads his audience into thinking he’s some kind of dualist. Instead, he’s calling our understanding of weather and human behavior (the model) as “indeterministic” while maintaining that the laws of physics (determinism) still control the universe (that which is being modelled). I think this is misleading use of the term but not wrong in what it says.

    1. what he means is that the way we characterize agents and analyze their behavior is indeterminate, not that they are not subject to the laws of physics.

      No, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Here is List:

      The key idea is that although determinism implies that only one future sequence of events is physically possible given the current fully specified state of the world, the more coarsely defined state of an agent and his or her macroscopic environment can still be consistent with more than one such sequence, and thus different alternative actions can be possible for the agent.

      It’s very clear to me that he’s not just talking about indeterminate analysis or knowledge of how an agent will behave, he’s saying the agent’s future behavior itself is indeterminate. Again, for emphasis, here is his words: “different alternative actions can be possible” And while he also states ‘this is consistent with determinism’, just saying that doesn’t make it so.

      Now, both mathematics and QM can provide some notional examples of how this could be so; an action that can truly have more than one outcome is like an equation (of state) with more than one solution. However, there are two really big problems with applying those examples to human brains and function:

      #1: He provides no evidence for his hypothesis that this is how brains function. Just coming up with a concept of choice that is ‘not impossible’ is NOT the same as showing evidence we should believe it to be true. He’s come up with a concept that is not impossible. He has yet to give any evidence that it’s true.

      #2 (and probably worse for free willers): in neither QM examples, nor in simpler mathematical examples, nor in List’s own descriptions quoted by Jerry above, does he explain how the selection of multiple outcomes is done by intentional choice. QM certainly doesn’t work that way; it’s stochastic. So even if his ‘more than one outcome possible’ idea was correct, he still has to justify his belief that the universe isn’t selecting randomly from among those outcomes, but rather that human cognition is doing the selection. In short, he’s lacking any sort of mechanism for intentional choice.

      So what we have here is a theoretically possible hypothesis that gets us from “fully determined meat robots” to “meat robots with a random number generator in them”. But he hasn’t provided any evidence for his hypothesis. And he hasn’t provided either evidence or hypothesis for substituting “intentional choice” for “random number generator.”

      1. In short, he’s lacking any sort of mechanism for intentional choice.

        Exactly what stood out to me as well. He’s devising explanations but he isn’t giving any reasons to suppose that they may actually correspond with reality.

      2. If I may:

        o There will be precisely one single inevitable future, largely because we have only one single past to put it in.

        o Within the domain of human influence, the deterministic mechanism by which that single inevitable future comes about will include a bit of mental processing we call “choosing”, in which multiple possibilities are considered, evaluated in terms a person’s own interests, and a single chosen “I will” is output.

        Choosing is the deterministic mechanism by which the single inevitable future is causally determined (within the domain of human influence).

        That’s just how it works. The mental process is, of course, a physical process taking place within the reality of the person’s own brain. Thus the person is the agent.

      3. No, he really is “just talking about indeterminate analysis”. He thinks that the important level of analysis is the agent level, ignoring micro-physical details. He might be wrong about that, but insisting that he secretly believes that the micro-physics is what matters, and therefore is a secret contra-causal libertarian, is just taking stubborn too far.

        1. THere’s nothing secret about it. If you think he’s saying the future is determined but not predictable, please explain to me List’s own comment, “…and thus different alternative actions can be possible for the agent.”

          1. Sure, let’s use a chess analogy. Let’s define “possible chess move” as one that follows the rules of chess. Moving my bishop from King’s Knight 3 to King’s Bishop 4 is a possible chess move; moving it to King’s Bishop 5 is not. Because chess is defined without regard to the detailed physical level of description, the former move still counts as a “possible chess move” even though my detailed physical state is such that I plan to, and definitely will, move my rook instead.

            List’s idea is like that, but with “agential” in place of “chess” as the important level of analysis.

          2. How does this not radically trivialize the concept of free will?

            If I hook robot up to a random number generator, doesn’t this provide the same agency as List’s? After all, it has several actions it can take. They are all possible “moves” that it’s internal electrical logic can select from.

          3. List’s nontrivial claim would be that “agential analysis” is useful to understand psychology, economics, etc. (Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher who denies that.) Agential analysis wouldn’t be useful on your robot, since it lacks desires and beliefs that affect its behavior.

          4. Think of the software that controls an autonomous car. It takes input from the environment and outputs commands to the steering, brakes, etc. Everything is determined because of the laws of physics. However, it still makes sense to discuss how it makes its decisions and how to improve its algorithms. And no one blames the fundamental laws of physics for how the program works, though it is responsible for it all. We can still talk about it making decisions in a meaningful way. I’m not saying an autonomous car has free will but in a way it does, at least until we override its actions. It has choices and we talk about it this way.

          5. To be meaningful, a cause must efficiently explain why the event occurred. To be relevant, a cause must be something we can do something about.

            Physics itself is neither a meaningful nor a relevant cause, so it cannot be held “responsible” for anything.

            Determinism itself determines nothing.

            Causation itself causes nothing.

            Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can be said to “cause” events.

            We happen to be one of those objects.

      4. Hi there, just wanted to point out that you leave out unbolded the key part of what he was saying: … the more coarsely defined state of an agent
        In my research (biomolecules) we often use the terms bottom-up and top-down approach to address a given problem, List seems to point out that we don’t have access to the former to describe agents’ behaviors (same for weather forecasting, as pointed out), so we ride with the top-down approach. About free-will, another way to put it is: FW is about psychology, not physics.

        1. “About free-will, another way to put it is: FW is about psychology, not physics.”

          That is almost the shortest possible version of List’s argument! Well done!

  7. It sounds to me like List is making things much more complicated than necessary.

    There are three kinds of causation: physical, biological, and rational. All three are implemented upon a physical infrastructure, but only physical causation can be considered explainable by the laws of physics. The laws of physics are never broken by biological or rational causation. The laws of physics are simply inadequate to explain biological and rational causation.

    Biological causation is the class of causes related to a deterministic mechanism found within DNA and the life forms it produces. They behave purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The laws of physics do not cover such goal-directed behavior.

    Rational causation is the class of causes related to the deterministic mechanism of thought. Thought models reality as a symbolic set of objects and events. It grants the biological organism an adaptability (and survivability) beyond what was possible through hard-wired instinct and reflex.

    Both life and thought run upon a physical infrastructure. But they cannot be explained by the laws of physics. Physics abandons life and thought to the other sciences, to the Life sciences and the Social sciences.

    Ironically, the “laws of physics”, as we know them, were deterministically derived by the operation of thought.

    To save determinism, we must give up the notion that all causes can be explained by the laws of physics.

    Instead, we may assume that both biological causation and rational causation are deterministic within their own domain.

    Rational causation can be reliably “deterministic” even when its conclusions are irrational, because the errors in thinking will also be reliable causes of the final result.

    So, determinism survives by the presumption that all events are reliably caused by some specific combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causation.

    Oh, and what about “free will”? It is just a matter of what we call things. Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”. Specifically, it is free of coercion and other undue influences. It is never “free of causation”.

    1. Why do you think the laws of physics do not cover the goal-directed behavior of biological entities? For example, how do you know there is not some deterministic chain of physical events caused by a deficiency of ATP molecules in an animal leading it to seek out and eat food?

      1. Perhaps I assume too much, but I’m pretty sure there are no laws of physics that describe an animal seeking out and eating food. Physics is unaware of living organisms. It has no rules covering their behavior.

          1. But physics is not flapping the wings. The bird is. Physics can supply no reason why the bird is flapping its wings, because physics doesn’t know what a bird is.

            To put it another way, the bird can use physics, but physics cannot use the bird.

          2. If you are saying that the atoms in my body do not know why I do what I do, of course I agree. Does anyone actually think that?

          3. We don’t use physics to ‘explain’ goal directed behaviour of animals, but only because a more effective, shorthand explanation can be found in other subjects. In principle we could explain goal-directed animal behaviour in physics terms but it would involve describing the motions of ridiculous numbers of particles. So we don’t.

            There’s no epistemic significance to the fact that we use different levels of explanation in different situations – the fundamental importance of physics isn’t undercut just because we use the biological shorthand ‘ape’ instead of listing and describing the relative positions of the 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms that make up said creature.
            The mundane truth is we just use the most convenient, tractable explanation wherever possible.

          4. “the fundamental importance of physics isn’t undercut just because we use the biological shorthand ‘ape’ instead of listing and describing the relative positions of the 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms”

            Exactly. That’s why it’s not inconsistent to talk of “humans making choices” and the “things we can do” without it contradicting the underlying physics.

            Note that our colloquial short-hands are only useful insofar as they can convey information – true facts on some level. Whatever description there may be at the level of sub atomic physics, “Ape” is used to identify something true about the difference between “Ape” and “fish.”

            This is the problem with the stance taken by some incompatibilists who say “even though we don’t REALLY have a choice…It’s false as a description when considering the underlying physics. But I like everyone else I’ll default to using that word anyway as an artifact of our language. ”

            No. The reason you can’t actually escape using words like “choice” is because those words evolved to convey information – and therefore “truth.” (Or at least potentially).

            The only reason we have language in the firs place is to communicate concepts, an important part of which is to pass information about the world between one another. When we talk about what “could” happen it conveys empirical inferences about the world that, insofar as they are accurate, help us navigate the world. “You COULD take that route if you want water, or you COULD take that route if you are seeking shelter.”

            When the waiter is offering you the “choice” of steak or seafood, he’s not making a metaphysical claim; he’s conveying information about what it’s possible for you to eat if you want to. Our normal use of “choices” and “possibilities” are fully consistent with determinism as they aren’t meant to convey information about metaphysical powers, but standard physical possibilities.

          5. Saul, you said, “In principle we could explain goal-directed animal behaviour in physics terms but it would involve describing the motions of ridiculous numbers of particles.”

            Another way of saying that is, “it simply cannot be done, and it never will”. So, we should, in principle, stop suggesting that it could.

            The brain is not capable of dealing with the atoms in a baseball. However, the brain is quite successful in dealing with the conceptual object of a “baseball”. And can even coordinate the swinging of a bat to hit the ball into left field.

            All of our concepts are symbolic representation of the objects and events we sense in the real world.

            Atomic physics has nothing to say about free will, nor the baseball for that matter.

            Besides, reductionism would suggest that physics is merely an “illusion” of objects which are actually macro-conglomerations of quantum objects. And, of course, quantum objects are merely macro-conglomerations of smaller parts. And they … and so on until you get to the theoretical “smallest part of the smallest part”.

            Choose your level and you choose your true reality.

          6. @Vaal: it IS inconsistent if you’re regarding those choices as things that you could have ‘chosen not to do’, which is how almost every single human being on earth understands them.

            Re. evolution of concepts like free-will, we’ve evolved to instinctively believe an enormous number of useless or harmful concepts too, so the heuristic argument that we should trust it because it’s probably adaptive isn’t one I’d go too far with, at least in general terms*.
            The reason we have science in the first place is because so many of our evolved beliefs are gibberish and need to be checked against reality.
            The most dominant, ubiquitous ones, folk-philosophy concepts like free-will, the flow of time, objective values, etc., those are the ones that are embedded so deep that we can barely get out of their way to have a look at them. They follow us around so tightly we lose perspective, but when we can get some distance and look at them dispassionately they have a tendency to turn to dust.


            “Another way of saying that is, “it simply cannot be done, and it never will”. So, we should, in principle, stop suggesting that it could.”

            No, that’s not another way of saying it. Besides, no reductionists are suggesting that we should describe the world in such a ridiculous fashion, by going through every constituent atom; that was my point. It was intentionally ridiculous.
            What we do say is that it is in principle possible to do so, but pointless and not desirable.

            “Choose your level and you choose your true reality.”

            No, I’m going to have to strongly disagree there; that’s Deepak territory.

            *However, a couple of weeks ago on WEIT I did ask the _one_ question that troubles me about free-will, that I’ve always wondered about, which is why it evolved in the first place if the world is deterministic.
            I heard some attempts at explanations but none of them really grasped quite how puzzling it is that we all instinctively believe it. It was in another article about free-will so I’m not going to go over it all again. It was exhausting.

          7. Saul, the ability to imagine more than one way to achieve our biological goal of survival improves our odds. With evolved intelligence we get imagination, evaluation, and choosing, which allows us to adapt to a great variety of environmental conditions.

            The ability to imagine travel, not just on four legs, but on four wheels, or two booster rockets enhances the quality of our lives (assuming we continue to use our imagination and choosing wisely to avoid overheating our planet).

            Growing up, we are also very conscious of having someone else making all our choices for us, and imposing their will upon us. So, the concept of free will (autonomy) is quite valuable to us.

            This again is the ordinary, operational, meaningful, and relevant definition of free will.

          8. Saul Sorrell-Till

            If when in Europe someone tells you: “You have various choices in how you could get from London to Paris. You could get there by taking a plane flight, or you could take a Ferry Boat, or you could get there by driving through the chunnel.”

            What do you think that person means when telling you “could” “choose” any of those options?

            What is the information content they are meaning to express to you?

            Would all such statements concerning alternative options and choices be rendered False on determinism?

          9. @MARVIN:

            “This again is the ordinary, operational, meaningful, and relevant definition of free will.”

            No it isn’t, that’s an absurd claim. Like I said you can invent your own new, highly specialised definition for ‘free-will’ but then you’re not talking the same language as the rest of the human race.

            As for your definition being ‘ordinary’… I googled the dictionary definition of ‘free-will’ and chose the first one that came up:

            “free will
            the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”

            Nor is your new definition ‘relevant’, since this entire argument rests on the normal definition of free-will, which is completely different from yours. Your new definition is in fact the opposite of ‘relevant’.

            ‘Meaningful’ is a stretch too, since the phrase ‘free-will’ stops having any meaning when it’s used as you and Vaal use it. It’s no longer free, and you don’t will it. Which is a bit of a flaw in the definition if you ask me.


            I think they mean what they say: that you can choose to get to Paris by any number of different routes. They just happen to be wrong, as a theist is wrong when they talk about the punishments I’ll receive in hell if I don’t do x, y and z.

            “Would all such statements concerning alternative options and choices be rendered False on determinism?”


            I’m still having trouble understanding where our disagreement even lies. Your previous comments suggest that you accept determinism, and if you accept determinism then you accept that the only kinds of events that can occur are either predetermined or random. And if you accept the truth of that then you don’t believe in free-will.

            As I’ve said, repeatedly, you and Marvin are welcome to invent a new definition of free-will that lacks any connection to what free-will has always meant, and your new definition will thus be immune from the consequences of determinism, but then you’re just doing what all those sophisticated theologians are doing when they redefine their god as the ‘ground of all being’ or whatever.
            You end up with a new definition of free will that’s impervious to refutation…but it’s also pretty much meaningless, and it actually _agrees_ with the main points underlying the determinist argument.

    2. The rules of physics are in principle adequate at explaining how biological causation works (and rational causation too,i think). The information requirements are just extremely high, making the use of a physics model impractical to the point of impossible.

  8. List isn’t talking so much about the physics of determinism as he is about how we think about free will. He’s making the case that how we think about free will at the coarse-grained agential level is consistent, sensible, and in some sense valid, even though on the surface it is inconsistent with determinism on the microscopic level. This is philosophy, not physics.

    1. Yes, though I don’t think “inconsistent” is quite right. List thinks it involves different levels of description and characterizes one as deterministic and one as indeterministic. Our sense of agency is not a deterministic manner of thinking. We don’t have a precise science that defines agents and how they interact that maps it down to fundamental, deterministic physics. He’s not saying that it doesn’t follow the laws of physics, just that they don’t matter in how we think about agents.

      1. Similar coarse-grained arguments are fundamental in justifying the Second Law of Thermodynamics. List is implying that arguing against free will is like arguing against dS>=0. 🙂

        1. Yet they are different arguments in a critically important way. Thermodynamics fits within the lower levels of physics while free will is in conflict with the lower levels. The problem is that List has not meaningfully addressed that conflict. He claims to be addressing it, but as Professor Coyne explained very well, his effort falls short, it fails.

  9. First, all praise Prof Ceiling Cat for doing the work of delving in to the “other side’s” arguments to give them a fair shake.

    With some trepidation…

    ”And make no mistake about it: the possibility of different choices at a given moment by a given agent in a given situation are what most people think of free will.”

    Yes, when deliberating between two possible actions, at any given time we think we actually could choose either option.

    But it’s not on the basis of magic or a metaphysical commitment to being “outside physics.” But rather more on a standard, everyday understanding of “what is physically possible.” I.e. assumptions/inferences about “what it is physically possible for me to do, if I want to.”

    Currently I’m deliberating between going out for lunch or staying home and making a ham and cheese sandwich. What is actually going through my head when I deliberate? Things like “do I have time to go out for lunch?” vs “If I want to stay in do I have the ingredients in the kitchen for a ham sandwich?”

    If I have the time to go out = “it’s possible for me to go out for lunch” and if I have the ingredients to make a sandwich = “it’s possible for me to make a sandwich at home instead.” And implicit in my deliberations are “It’s physically possible to go out for lunch and it’s physically possible for me to make a sandwich” – inferences from the fact I’ve done those actions countless time before, and there is nothing about my current physical situation suggesting I’m incapable of those actions.
    So to conclude “I’m capable of taking either action = either action is possible” is just standard empirical reasoning about what things can physically do in the world. It’s no different than saying “My car can be put in to standard drive or sport drive mode.”

    It would be very odd to say that no matter what empirical inferences or evidence I bring to the table I can not make the case that I could either go out for lunch or make a sandwich. If on determinism such empirical inferences about “possibilities” were ruled out as impossible …how can I reason about my options at all? How could any of our empirical inferences make sense? This is all solved by simply realizing we aren’t reasoning from metaphysically impossible models when deliberating about what *was* possible for us to do, any more than we are reasoning from metaphysically impossible models when inferring what we “could” do while making a choice.

    1. To finish (and beyond this I will not filibuster on the subject…others can take over…)

      So, naturally when you ask people “could you have done X instead of Y under the same conditions as when you made your choice” they will be inclined to answer “yes.” Because that IS what they thought under those conditions and in the manner they were thinking it was TRUE that under those conditions they had the ability to do X or Y. So results from some polls about free will aren’t surprising. (And it depends on how the question is posed). But it’s also for this reason that interpreting what is happening in those polls is necessary.

      The problem is that most people aren’t philosophers who think much more deeply about how this all occurs, so when you bring in another strong intuition – causation – and people try to make that intuition mesh with “I could have done otherwise,” they don’t do a good job of working this out. They tend to see a false dichotomy and go with one intuition over another “Since I’m sure I could have taken either option, I guess my decision was outside physics/causation” or “Since I can not deny the necessity of causation/determinism, it looks like I was WRONG to think I could have taken either option.”

      A “better” understanding of the assumptions we really make when deliberating preserves and explains the “freedom to choose” that we actually think we have, and do have, when making choices. With no violation of physics or determinism. People have the general freedom they think they have as “free will.” There are just better or worse theories accounting for this.

      1. Umm. . . the surveys that have been given do not show that people reject libertarianism when given a thoughtful choice. They are libertarians in the purest sense. And that idea needs to be dispelled. That’s the first step. Then the philosophers who think that we need some notion of free will can start making them up to preserve the social “glue” they think we need.

        The important thing is to admit determinism of our actions; though we think we had a choice, we really didn’t. People are curiously incapable of admitting that in this thread.

        1. The reason we think we “had a choice” is because we empirically observed ourselves considering two or more different choices, and then choosing the one we thought best.

          It’s not a subjective feeling. It’s a historical record of actual events.

          1. Sure it’s a subjective feeling. Our brains are regularly wrong about what they are doing. I empirically observe that there’s no blind spot in my sight…but there is. My brain is filling in the gap/ensuring my conscious mind ignores it. And giving me a feeling that there’s no such blind spot there.

            I empirically observe like I’m exactly the same person I was yesterday…yet in between, my conscious mind disappeared, and reappeared slightly differently the next morning, with some atoms in my brain and electrical connection having been changed. That feeling of continuity is something of an illusion; I am not the same person – not materially, not brain-electrical-patternly – I was yesterday.

            Eyewitness testimony is known to be very suspect, eyewitnesses empirically observe the crime…and many are highly confident that their memories can’t possibly be wrong. They feel they can’t possibly be wrong

            People who have visions empirically observe gods, angels, and the like. And like the eyewitness, their brains send them feeling of very high confidence (in this case, that their interpretation of their experience as a separate presence means a separate presence was there).

            Likewise, people who are abducted by aliens empirically observe the abductions. And they feel very strongly/with high confidence that their interpretation of experience is the correct interpretation.

            Look, I’m a scientist by training. As knowledge goes, empiricism beats the alternatives. But our brains also fool us. Regularly. Often. It gives us illusions of continuity, illusions of nonbias. Illusions of absolute or high confidence in memories. Given that physics provides no mechanism for choice, it seems very reasonable to provisionally conclude that free will is another such illusion; an illusion of choice. You are interpreting what your brain does as a choice, and you feel that with very high confidence. But the confidence means nothing, really; there are lots of very-high-confidence feelings that turn out to be wrong.

            [Aside, but this also provides insight into PTSD and similar trauma; your brain imparts an extremely high importance to events that it would frankly be more healthy for you to forget. You can’t escape your trauma, even if it’s long over with. Put another way, your brain is sending you an illusion of continued threat when there is none.]

          2. Good point Eric. The brain inputs sensory data and from it constructs a model of reality, and that is our only conceptual access to the real world.

            Since it is our only access to reality, whenever it is accurate enough to be useful, as when we navigate our body through a doorway, we call that “reality”.

            It is only when the model is inaccurate enough to prevent successfully navigating reality that we call it an “illusion”. An example would be when we walk into a glass door thinking it is open.

            One of the surprising results of split-brain surgery to treat seizures was that the patient usually felt no difference. (Michael Gazzaniga, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”). But they would move their head slightly to acquire missing visual data that usually was passed through the corpus callosum.

            But we don’t need to resort to subjective experience to demonstrate that people make choices in objective reality. Just walk into a restaurant and observe them browsing the menu and then placing their order.

            They are literally, actually, objectively, and empirically making a choice.

            “Choosing” is an operation in which multiple options are input, some criteria of comparative evaluation is applied, and the result is output as a single (and determinitically inevitable) “I will”.

            There should be no doubt that the choice was reliably caused (deterministic) and that the choice was made by that person.

            Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”. The constraints referred to by the term “free” are coercion and other forms of undue influence.

            The “free” never implies “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, because there is no such thing. The notion of freedom from causation is irrational, because reliable cause and effect is the very mechanism by which we are free to do anything at all.

          3. “Given that physics provides no mechanism for choice,”

            Whoa! That is one heck of a statement!

            The neurological structure of our brains is made of the stuff of physics. Brains are empirically observable, as are people-with-brains making choices.

            It is a truly muddled idea to declare “physics provides no mechanism for choice!”

            “You are interpreting what your brain does as a choice, and you feel that with very high confidence.”

            That’s because our brains ARE making choices.
            That’s what they evolved to do.

            Our brains create cognitive models of our environment, employ memory of past experience, notice various desires, produce goals and rationalize about which actions in our environment are likely to fulfill those goals. Then take the action decided upon via that process. THAT is how our brains “choose” options that arise from “reasoning.”

            It doesn’t go away with physics or determinism. It’s biology in action, based on physics! And you’d want it to be deterministic, or it wouldn’t be reliable. (In the sense of “a reliable method of survival”).

            If you want to say “choice doesn’t happen by magic” that’s one thing and I think it should be stated more clearly like that. But to say that physics and determinism rule out that we actually make “choices” is just, sorry, extremely sloppy and to me the “message” hard incompatilists often want to promulgate is characterized by that type of sloppiness. They start with “we couldn’t do otherwise in the magical ibertarian sense” and conflate that with “therefore we don’t really have a choice.”

        2. Thanks Jerry.

          the surveys that have been given do not show that people reject libertarianism when given a thoughtful choice.

          I would just re-iterate: that’s because they haven’t done a sufficient job of thinking the issues through. “Free Will” is the concept people apply to describe their daily experience of making choices. The mental conviction that “I can do either A or B” and the conviction afterwords “I could have done A or B” is at the experiential basis of what people think to be “free will.”

          Contracausality is just an explanation many people reach for, when trying to explain how it’s true “I could have done otherwise” in a world made of causation. So “Libertarian” magical accounts are the attempt at explanation, not the thing they are trying to explain. The freedom and ability to choose between options remains – the basis of what people take to be their free willed choices – even within determinism, when you throw away the wrong explanation.

          The important thing is to admit determinism of our actions; though we think we had a choice, we really didn’t.

          If you say “we didn’t have a choice” because our choices are determined then, since determinism applies to all our future choices, to be consistent you’d have to say “we don’t ever have a choice.”

          But then, how would you make sense of talking or thinking about our “choices,” “options,” “possibilities” “alternative actions” in the real world?

          As per a previous example, if you ask the waiter “what are my choices for desert?” is he to answer “I’m afraid no one really has a choice?” Obviously you won’t accept this demolition of our ability to talk about options and choices.

          So I’m curious: When a waiter says to you “for our desert menu, you have a choice between pecan pie or chocolate cake”…

          …what do you think the waiter actually means to convey when talking of that “choice?” Do you think that what he actually means, the information he is trying to give you, becomes invalid on determinism?

        3. You can’t use surveys in such a simple and direct way to find out what a word means. For example, if you ask people, “Is biological sex always binary: either male or female with no in between?” the vast majority will answer yes. If we then discover that a few humans are in-between, does that mean we’ve disproved the existence of sex? Or have we just discovered that some people have packed too many assumptions into their definition of sex?

          1. Yes Paul, it would be similar to doing a poll asking people to thoughtful reply to the question “what is morality?”

            Given much of the world is devoted to one monotheism or another, the replies would often take some form of “doing what God commands us to do” or “doing what God created us to do” or “morality is being Christ-like to others” etc.

            If God doesn’t exist, should we conclude from such polls that “morality doesn’t exist?”

            Of course not. Morality has been a subject of concern and discussion for everyone, not just the religious. That’s because when you look at the concept of “morality” you see it’s actually about a set of concerns that most people share. “Is there a way we ought to act toward one another? Is there really a right and wrong? And what would be the basis for right and wrong?”

            In other words: are there any REASONS for why something would be right or wrong?

            Then you can see that what you’d have in religious answers isn’t “morality itself.”
            It’s an explanation. People see a world of conflicting opinions yet feel “oughtness” about what seems the right thing to do. How to remedy this conflict? Appeal to magic – “God” as a source transcending mere human opinion. God provides the explanation for where the reason we “ought” to do X comes from.

            Same with free will. People are trying to find the grounds for their experience of being able to choose between alternative actions, while also having the intuition “everything that happens has a cause.”
            How to solve the dilemma? “We need magic to solve this – it must be our power to choose is exempt from physics, given to us by God!”

            I believe it is just as significant a mistake to conflate people’s magical explanation for morality with morality, as it is to conflate people’s magic explanation for free will, with the real-world experience they are trying to explain.

            And that can happen when we get too simplistic in interpreting polls by just taking the answers at face value.

  10. I am trying to construct an example. Suppose we consider a mental state that I call “happy.” I can accept that “happy” is a coarse-grained mental state in that there are many possible physical configurations of my brain that lead me to feel “happy.”

    Suppose that whenever I feel “happy” I want to dance or I want to stand on my head. I do one or the other. Is List saying that whether I do one or the other must be indeterminate? How can we know that perhaps “happy” is, in fact, not coarse-grained but that there are actually two types of happy—a dancing happy and a stand-on-my-head happy—and that, although they feel the same to me, they reflect differences in the underlying physical state of my brain?

    1. I think he’s saying that even the most fine-grained thought we have as agents maps onto many possible physics states. He’s not saying that there are multiple things that make one happy, for example.

    1. My rule of thumb is in the ROOLZ: about 15% of comments in a thread, or one out of six, is plenty for a single person. You can save your comments and compile them into one comment; my view is that a one-on-one discussion, or the same person commenting repeatedly, tends to turn off people. I’ve had complaints about the same people commenting over and over again.

      There is always the option of combining comments or taking the discussion to email.

      I’m sorry, but this is my informal policy, and if you don’t like it, you’ll still have to abide by it. I don’t always catch people dominating a thread, but when it gets too bad I remind them.

  11. Isn’t List saying that, because two or more physical histories can produce a given agential state (much as two or more configurations of pixels can produce a given scene on my TV), it follows therefore that a given agential state can give rise to two or more physical futures—depending on which particular physical history produced it? If so, I can’t disagree. But it still does not prove a causal role for free will. Specifically, it does not show why the particular physical future that an agential state “produces” would be decided by free will or, for that matter, by anything else other than the details of the particular physical history that happened to give rise to the agential state.

    1. It’s a nice philosophical thought, with pleasing symmetry, but it’s physically wrong.

      Consider a projectile with a specific position and vector; doesn’t matter how it got to that position and vector, it will behave in only one way now that it’s there. Many possible pasts; only one possible future.

      Not everything is like that; many states of matter are path dependent. But not all of them are.

      I like philosophy. I’m not a basher. Yet, it’s really annoying to come across philosophical claims about states of matter from professional philosophers that seem to not have known about basic information given in physics 101, chem 101, bio 101, or calculus.

      1. Luckily, understanding free will doesn’t require physics, chemistry, or math. While mental processes are indeed implemented upon a physical infrastructure (and will likely suffer when that infrastructure is damaged), choosing is performed using conceptual models of objects and events.

        These conceptual models have no stable physical state or location, other than existing independently as processes within each brain.

        Different brains, each with its own hardware platform, can communicate with other brains about these objects and events via audio/visual words and symbols.

        For example, you and I both understand what a “cup of coffee” is, yet the concept is uniquely stored in your neurons, independent of mine.

        Like the cup of coffee, “free will” is also a conceptual model.

        To my mind free will is when a person chooses for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or other undue influence (e.g., mental illness, hypnosis).

        If your mind conceptualizes free will as some form of “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, I would challenge that definition, because reliable cause and effect is present in all of the mechanisms by which I choose what I will do and then act upon that intent.

        1. You are a compatabilist like Dennett. Professor Coyne has already explained multiple times, I think convincingly, why he considers that to be a superficial semantic game that is rooted in redefining free will at the expense of hiding the significant philosophical implications of our not having free will as it is more commonly defined.

          1. I’m a compatibilist like me. I saw through the riddle as a teenager in the library, browsing the philosophy section. I think Dennett is about my age, so it is unlikely that I saw any of his writings on the shelves back then.

            I suspect I was reading something by Spinoza that raised the concern about my choices being causally inevitable. And I don’t know if I came up with this thought experiment myself, or if I ran across it reading one of the pragmatists. It goes like this:

            How do I make a choice that is not causally inevitable? Well, I thought, the next time I have a choice between A and B, and find myself leaning heavily toward A, I’ll just choose B instead, thus thwarting inevitability. Simple! Problem solved! But wait …

            My desire to escape the inevitable just made B the inevitable choice. So, to escape I must choose A instead … it’s an infinite loop!!

            No matter which I chose, inevitability would switch to match my choice. Hmm. So, who’s doing the choosing here, me or inevitability?

            Well, the concern about escaping inevitability was my own concern. It was the motivating factor behind the whole intellectual exercise. And if inevitability were an entity sitting there in the library, it would be laughing at how just thinking about it allowed it to control me.

            The conclusion I reached was that this deterministically inevitable event, where I make a choice that suit my own concerns and my own interests, is what we happen to call “free will”.

            It is “free will” because that is what events of that nature are called. Just like a furry animal with a whisker that purrs and meows is a “cat”, it is because that is what we call it.

            So, I didn’t give it much thought after that. I figured that since I could see through to the other side of the paradox everyone else could too. And it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I ran into the topic in on-line discussions, that I learned that a lot of people were still stuck in the paradox.

            So, here I am trying to help out.

  12. I am not paying attention to “The notion of agential possibility,” whatever that is.

    The big conflict in my view is that if a person makes a choice based on personal preferences (and nothing else), the determinist and the compatablist describe it differently.

    The determinist says “that preference is coded in neural connections in their brain, so they physically had to make that choice, so it is not free will.”

    The compatibilist says “that choice is based on the person’s personal preferences, which is just what we mean by free will.”

    It is the fact that personal preference must be deterministic that creates the conflicting views. There is no way to implement personal preferences, or anything resembling a self or identity, without having some determinism there to establish consistency.

  13. The idea that an “agential state” (whatever that may mean) is coarse-grained is utterly irrelevant. Underlying that agential state is a physical state. That is, the person or being in that agential state is still a physical being with a physical state. If there are different physical states that give rise to the same agential state and have different possible outcomes, that just means that the idea of an agential state is not well-defined. (Or that what appear to be identical agential states are not in fact identical.)

    Sure you could have two world histories that lead to the same state. So what? If they lead to the same physical state, then physics says that they will (modulo quantum indeterminacy) have just one path forward. If they lead to different physical states but the same agential state, then “agential state” has no meaning.

    1. You have provided us with a very concise and precise version of Professor Coyne’s argument. I find this argument very compelling. Thank you both.

      1. ‘Two world histories leading to the same state’ is essentially a description of quantum entanglement.

        Admittedly, I don’t think that List was thinking about the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics when he was writing.

        1. It is strange he doesn’t talk about Many Worlds when the splitting of world histories is what it is all about.

          He also doesn’t talk about statistical mechanics when explaining how a macrostate could correspond to many different microstates.

          His lack of reference to physical theories that explain his concepts better is alarming.

          1. I found that odd too. The similarity is staring him in the face. But the randomness of branching histories in the MWI doesn’t help his case at all so maybe that’s why he swerved it.

            David Deutsch talks about something very similar to List’s idea in The Beginning of Infinity, but he’s specifically talking about two or more identical(or rather ‘fungible’) universes diverging and become non-identical.

        2. The problem is that the laws of physics are time-reversible. Having two states lead to one state is identical to having one state lead to two, and that is forbidden.


  14. List should consider what his agency would be if he lived in 2000 BC rural Egypt. He’d have given no thought to determinism.

    Could people 4000 years ago have learned about quantum physics and evolutionary biology? I think so, but were they free to learn these subjects? I do not think so. Their agencies were determined not to know these subjects.

    List has yet to show that human agency has any more freedom than a grain of sand.

    1. If List were being honest, he would use the word “soul” rather than “agential state”.

      And he would call himself a theologian and not a philosopher.

      But an honest theologian is an oxymoron.

    1. Umm. . . .there are plenty of people who study it without that preconception, or any preconception. I never doubted free will until I read Anthony Cashmore’s PNAS paper denying its existence. I then read more about it and arrived at my present position. To imply that everyone discussing it as a “problem” has some kind of pre-existing bias is unfair.

    2. ‘It seems to me that free will is a problem only if you don’t want it to exist.’

      That statement is neither here nor there. Not everyone need have a preconception. Also, even if a person has a preconception, it is their argument that matters. For example, List may want free will to exist because he like it. But our pointing that out is not a valid objection to his basic argument.

    3. I think the overwhelming majority believe in free will. To me the vested interest lies more in that position. Without it, most religions collapse.

      1. “To me the vested interest lies more in that position [belief in free will].”

        Maybe so. But if we were all fine with free will either existing or not existing—rather than “I have to accept free will or my theism collapses” or “I have to reject free will or my materialism collapses”—I can’t help thinking that the nature of the discussion would be very different from what it is. I’m not sure any issue can be discussed intelligently when, as you say, “vested interest” is so strong on both sides.

      2. I do not see that. Several religions are based on predestiny. Also, if you buy the story that the universe we know, including all life forms in it, were encoded somehow in the big bang, one could argue God encoded it (how can you prove that wrong?), and therefore the Creationists are right.

        1. You can show that this is unlikely to get one wants – there’s no reason to suppose initiation of hubble expansions requires any special powers (“baby’s first hubble volume”?) and in all likelihood, the next state of the expansion obliterates the “t=0” state. (Vic Stenger wrote about this years ago.)

          1. I don’t understand your comment, so I will do the usual and repeat mine. 🙂

            If the universe is deterministic and is causally playing conditions that were present at the big bang, or the latest big bang, then there is no creation in the universe except at the time of the big bang. For example, humans were actually created at the big bang and pre-ordained—it just took a long time for them to be realized. This invites religious folk to say God did all of the creation including humans at the time of the big bang. There has been no creative things happen since.

            FWIW, I prefer to think the universe is contingent and continuously creative. The only way this could be, I think, is Darwinian. Random variations, perhaps because of quantum indeterminacy, create new possibilities and then selection occurs. For example, stable forms survive and unstable forms vanish.

            Just a thought.

          2. The point is that the big bang is not special – there are lots of big bangs (or rather origins of hubble expansions), and there’s also (weaker) a fair case to be made that all one could ever to do is initiate one (not interact “on the inside” in any way). So no god even in that weaker sense for both reasons.

  15. Levels again. Really need specific definitions to avoid reifying them. Same with coarse-grained and fine-grained. I regard them as a means of smuggling preconceptions in without justifying them (consciously or unconsciously).

    The map is not the terrain. Maps of different scales are not the terrain either.

  16. Since some here question the validity of talking about levels of description, you might get a kick out of this relatively famous paper from 1972, “More is Different: Broken symmetry and the hierarchical structure of science” by P.W. Anderson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist:


    It’s a short 4 pages. My favorite line:

    “The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.”

    1. Oddly enough, I had mentioned the book of essays “Facing Up” of Steven Weinberg very recently. As it happens you’ll find several references to Anderson in the index.

      In particular, from pp.14-15, in the essay “Newtonianism, Reductionism, …”:
      “…Mayr’s…the notion that other sciences will…all be absorbed into elementary particle physics—-the notion that progress…at..the level of elementary particle physics is needed to make progress in other sciences…I don’t believe that either—-it seems to me that in their attacks on reductionism, Mayr, and also physicists like Anderson…are missing the point…different levels of fundamentalness…even Anderson calls DNA the ‘secret of life’…What is it then about DNA that is fundamental to biology?..about particle physics that is fundamental to everything?…there is a sense of direction in science, that some generalizations are ‘explained’ by others….”

      This quote is very skeletal, and the rest needs to be read.

      Your quote from Anderson is at best naive, at worst a kind of general sliming of some physicists with attitudes they don’t have. Anderson was, however, successful against Weinberg politically, in blocking funding for a particle collider which would have been more powerful and earlier than the
      European LHC. Otherwise, maybe the USians would have had credit for Higgs, and possibly have also discovered supersymmetry experimentally.

      1. How do you get “sliming” out of that quote? There’s no mention of anyone. I don’t know about the battle between Anderson and Weinberg but I don’t see how that is relevant here. Certainly not enough to follow the thread you suggest.

        1. The article you mentioned by Anderson has been famous for decades. It says enough to make it clear that Anderson was accusing many of that kind of naive version of reductionism.

          e.g. just after your quote he calls it “the constructionist hypothesis”. A hypothesis comes from people, in this case, supposedly particle physicists. Soon after that you’ll see Anderson’s phoney quotation, i.e. quote marks around a non-quote: “But this hierarchy does not imply that science X is ‘just applied Y’. At each stage entirely new laws…”.

          The supposed person who supposedly said ‘just applied Y’ is a kind of general sliming, I’d say of fundamental physicists, which Weinberg has clearly (and more politely than me!) made plain. Mainly, it is, and would have been 45 years ago, physics fan-boys, if anybody, with that simplistic a ‘knowledge’, not scientists.

  17. The problem with “the problem with List’s idea”: Yes, at any given moment a person is in only one physical state, but that is the state of the person. So any future action caused by that state is caused by that person. The rest of the universe, minus that person, was not sufficient to bring about the action. Only the person could do that.

    Deterministic scientific laws imply future actions only when combined with the actual physical state at a time – which includes the person whose action it is. Therefore, they don’t constrain the choice made by the person: laws don’t make people do actions. People make actions happen and physical laws are what enables that.

    1. We do not get to the “Therefore, they don’t constrain the choice made by the person from any of your premises.” from anywhere inside your argument. That particular therefore lacks a logical connection to the rest of the contents of your argument.

      1. I’m assuming that “constraint” implies something outside of and independent of the thing that’s constrained. Like a wall, or a handcuff, or a lack of resources. Can you think of a counterexample?

  18. Who even wants to have a free will that is an emergent property of “agencial states”? Free will is only a good thing if there is a God that will make justice in the afterlife. Otherwise free will is the worst curse ever -it means that I am morally responsible for every bad thing that happened as a consequence of every thing that I did, or I didn’t do, in my life. It means, in other words, that we really are monsters, and that the world is a lot more unfair than we thought.

  19. The only thing I can conclude from this is that List’s presentation is confusing, possibly self-contradictory.

    In his definition of “agential state”, he states that it is a coarse-grained description, which tells me that the free will he has in mind is the word-games of Sean Carroll and the others. (Sorry Sean.) This would correspond to multiple t=1 dots in figure 1 corresponding to one t=1 dot in figure 2 (as the figures seem to indicate).

    However, if reduction of psychology to physics is capable of refuting his theory, it seems that his conception of free will is contracausal, libertarian free will, which we know is impossible.

    This is perhaps how the confusion came to be. I have no idea which is the accurate representation of List’s idea, and I doubt he does either.


  20. I’ve never understood what the word ‘choice’ is even supposed to mean when considered in a scientific context. Set aside everything else – what is supposed to happen at the instant that someone ‘makes a choice’? If it’s a physical event – and what else could it be? – then it’s caught in a chain of previous events that _entirely_ constrain it. There is no room for any microscopic ‘choice goblin’ to move, to do anything besides what the previous events tell it to do.

    We know that every event ever encountered in a laboratory has been either deterministic or stochastic. So if the moment when we make a choice isn’t either of those things, then what is it? Is it a new kind of science? Because that’s what it would have to be.

    1. >Is it a new kind of science?

      It’s the soul Saul; It’s the soul. It’s the old kind of non science.

      1. Then I’d rather people like List came out and admitted that that’s what they’re fighting for instead of conjuring up these exquisitely arranged edifices of irrelevance.

        I was curious, I looked up some of the philosophical terminology used in the paper. I did my best at figuring out what List is actually talking about…and unless I’ve missed something enormous and critically important his idea doesn’t make any sense at all.

    2. “I’ve never understood what the word ‘choice’ is even supposed to mean when considered in a scientific context.”

      Why would a “choice” be something different in a “scientific context?” You could only be confused if you end up *changing the meaning of the word* in the scientific context in to something that isn’t used that way, and isn’t useful, and therefore becomes confusing.

      As I wrote earlier in the comments, our brains evolved to make cognitive models of our environment, to retain information and experience via memory, to formulate goals based on our desires, and to deliberate about which actions are most likely to fulfill our goals. The end result of a deliberation is a “choice.”

      We both agree all of that is happening from a biological, physical system. So what is so confusing about the fact our brain makes “choices?” It’s a deterministic process, just as we’d want it to be in order to be reliable.

      And why would goblins even be part of the conversation?

      I’ll infer that you are harboring some metaphysical confusion about “choice” as that word is typically used in the case of “An act of choosing between two or more

      The error, I would argue, is to think when we are saying “I can choose to do A or B” that we are making a metaphysical claim about “possibilities.” No, it’s just a normal claim about physical possibilities. To say “I could choose to purchase a sandwich from a store OR I could choose to make one at home” is just an understanding of what is physically possible for us to do, if we want to. No magic necessary, no magic doing any of the heavy lifting in our normal reasoning about what choices are “possible” for us.

      1. “So what is so confusing about the fact our brain makes “choices?” It’s a deterministic process, just as we’d want it to be in order to be reliable.”

        If it’s a deterministic process then the brain isn’t making choices is it? I could stop there to be honest, because talking about choices in a deterministic system is just incoherent. If each and every step in the causal chain is constrained by antecedent causes how was it ever possible that a choice was made?
        Of course you can keep saying they’re ‘choices’, you can redefine ‘choice’ so that it’s a part of a deterministic system, but that just means you’re using the word in a way that’s not relevant to the dispute. It’s semantic legerdemain.

        1. Saul,

          You are simply begging the question every time you assert that “choice within a deterministic process is incoherent.”

          I just laid out a coherent explanation of choice within a deterministic context – explaining how the brain “chooses” via deterministic processes, and explaining why “choice” conveys normal empirical claims.

          Do you have an argument to counter this?

          The assertion that the normal use of the word “choice” necessarily entails physically impossible metaphysical claims is not only obviously wrong from any number of usage cases – it leads to total incoherence for our language.

          First, in terms of how “choice” is used in normal language, notice that even people who you would take to have a metaphysical commitment to our having a “soul” and libertarian magic free will, use the term “choice” to normally describe differences in “physical possibilities” rather than “metaphysical.”

          Say a Christian is eating at a hot-dog stand and you ask why she ordered a hot dog instead of a hamburger. She replies “I didn’t have a choice, hot dogs were the only thing they sell here.”

          Do you think she has just meant to make a metaphysical claim? Of course not. She doesn’t mean to imply that she “didn’t have a soul” or “that her metaphysical contra-causal free will” suddenly vanished at the hot dog stand. She simply means to convey what anyone else conveys: it’s a physical situation where only one option was available to her. If they offered hamburgers as well, her answer would change due to that physical fact, not to metaphysical claims about being outside causation in one instance, but not the next.

          This is why you will see even committed libertarian free willers saying “we had bad seats for the concert because due to booking too late, we didn’t have a choice” or “My boss gave me no choice to do X or Y” or any of countless instances where they talk of choice. They can not be talking of metaphysical characteristics blinking in and out of existence but rather pointing to differences in physical scenarios.

          A christian will say someone chained to a chair “doesn’t have a choice” to leave the chair” but “does have a choice” if unchained.
          Are they saying his metaphysics changed? No, like everyone they are pointing to physically different scenarios that limit someone’s ability to “do what he wants” or “perform different actions if he wants to.” Since these scenarios are meant to identify physical constraints on someone’s ability to do what he wants, not magic, they are all perfectly compatible with physics and determinism, which is why we’d go on using “choice” if we accept determinism.

          If you actually decide that determinism entails our making “choices” to be incoherent, how in the world do you solve that problem? How would you suggest we talk about “possibilities” in any sense, especially for deciding our actions. You’d have essentially burned human rationality to the ground. Which should be a hint of how badly you’d have gotten something wrong along the way.

          1. “I just laid out a coherent explanation of choice within a deterministic context – explaining how the brain “chooses” via deterministic processes, and explaining why “choice” conveys normal empirical claims.”

            The fact that you have to put the words ‘chooses’ and ‘choices’ in quotation marks every time you use them suggests that you are clearly not using them in the normal way they are used. You are implicitly admitting that the normal way human beings think about choice is complete gibberish, which is very simply my point.
            And your explanation is not “coherent” if it involves redefining the way people talk about choice, which brings us onto –

            “First, in terms of how “choice” is used in normal language, notice that even people who you would take to have a metaphysical commitment to our having a “soul” and libertarian magic free will, use the term “choice” to normally describe differences in “physical possibilities” rather than “metaphysical.””

            Yes, true. So? This is an example of incoherence in their worldview. It just shows that in some circumstances they rightly* accept constraints on their free-will, but in other circumstances they, wrongly, don’t. It doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that they accept constraints on their choices in the way that determinism suggests they must.

            “If you actually decide that determinism entails our making “choices” to be incoherent, how in the world do you solve that problem? How would you suggest we talk about “possibilities” in any sense, especially for deciding our actions. You’d have essentially burned human rationality to the ground. Which should be a hint of how badly you’d have gotten something wrong along the way.”

            I don’t know of any determinist who would be crazy enough to suggest that we simply stop using the language of choice. It’s embedded in us, it’s embedded in the grammar of the words we speak. But so is the concept of the flow of time, and that makes no sense scientifically speaking either.
            A concept’s ubiquity doesn’t make it true, and the difficulty of excising it from human discourse isn’t an argument against its validity.
            I think it would be hugely difficult, probably impossible and possibly undesirable to remove the language of choice from everyday life. But if you’re going to start making a sociological argument against accepting determinism then that’s a different matter altogether.

            I’ve repeatedly answered your questions, and I don’t think you’ve answered a single one of mine, so finally I’ll ask this: if the ‘choices’ you talk of aren’t determined, and they aren’t random, then what are they? Because afaik those are the only kind of physical events that exist in reality and neither of them allow for choices to be made.

            *although for the wrong reasons

          2. If I may, a choice is the deterministic outcome of a choosing operation. The choosing operation actually happens in physical reality and we happen to be one of the species that routinely performs this operation. The fact that the choice is deterministic does not alter the fact of its origin, namely us.

          3. Saul

            And your explanation is not “coherent” if it involves redefining the way people talk about choice,

            But I have just shown that the way people DO talk about choice doesn’t normally make claims that conflict with physics or determinism. My examples are evidence that I’m not “re-definiing” the way people talk about choice.

            Yes, true. So? This is an example of incoherence in their worldview.

            The point is that we’ve been discussing what “choice” could, and does mean, given determinism. You are claiming that I’m “re-defining” what “having a choice” on the basis that what people normally mean is a metaphysical claim about being excepted from the laws of physics.

            But I have given examples to show that common usage of the word “choice” does not mean this metaphysical claim, but rather what people clearly mean is to describe PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES in scenarios.

            Since your objection rests upon your claim of what people “mean” when talking of choices, you can’t just wave this away counter examples showing you are wrong by saying “well then they are being incoherent.” That’s just begging the question – asserting rather than demonstrating your case. I’ve given reasons, with examples, to accept my case.

          4. Saul…also…

            I don’t know of any determinist who would be crazy enough to suggest that we simply stop using the language of choice. It’s embedded in us, it’s embedded in the grammar of the words we speak.

            Imagine if a scientist came on here and said “Well, my team has done extensive experimentation on human reasoning and we have come to the conclusion
            that human reason is completely unreliable! I’m afraid this is just an uncomfortable fact.”

            What’s the obvious problem there? It’s incoherent; self negating. The scientist has declared human reason to be totally unreliable…while having reached that conclusion using human reason! Incoherency is an obvious a sign that someone has gone off the rails somewhere in their reasoning, and incoherency is why we don’t accept arguments. Replying to these problems with “Well, so much the worse for coherence, reason is just an artifact of the human brain embedded in us, so we’ll keep engaging in that illusion anyway” is clearly just waving away the depths of the problem, not to mention it simply avoids that no one should be accepting an incoherent argument.

            This is the incoherency I’m essentially getting from you. “It’s just a fact when you think about it that ‘choice’ can not make sense given we are deterministic…but so much the worse for our reasoning when speaking of possibilities and choice! We’ll keep using that concept anyway…without bothering to fix or replace it.”

            But literally every thing you reason about doing, and every time you try to understand “what is physically possible” in the world, you are using the concept of “alternative possibilities” that you have just denied. You have made everything you deliberate upon irrational and incoherent. Including producing your argument. But…whatever…we’ll just keep moving along.

            If the concept of “choices” were an illusory artifact whose truth you can see behind, you could demonstrate this by replacing “choice” with language that does not presume “alternative possibilities.” But you can’t do this because it’s impossible. You’ll find the notion of “possibilities” and “alternatives” wedded in to “choice” are inescapable ways of understanding the world an rationalizing any action. But this won’t really sink in until you decide to put in the effort of replacing “choices” and discover the indispensability of “alternative possibilities” to our actually making sense of the world and of our actions.

    3. Saul, the practical meaning of words can be derived from the operations where they are used.

      Choosing is an operation that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice.

      Once you understand the operation, you understand the meaning of the words.

      The operation of choosing is performed by all intelligent species (and I suspect it helps distinguish between intelligent and non-intelligent species, which rely only on hard-coded instincts and autonomic behavior).

      Free will identifies a choice that an adult of sound mind deliberately makes. It is reliably caused by their own purpose and their own reasons (it is deterministic).

      The output of the choice is an “I will”, as in “I will have the chocolate rather than the vanilla ice cream”. The will is one’s intent for the immediate (ice cream) or distant (“last will and testament”) future.

      The “free” refers to the absence of meaningful and relevant constraints upon the choosing, such as coercion (the guy holding a gun to our head) or other undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command, or any other extraordinary influence that effectively removes our control).

      Deterministic inevitability is neither a meaningful, nor a relevant constraint. It is not meaningful because what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to what we would have done anyway. It is not relevant because there is nothing one can do about it, so, why bring it up?

      Deterministic inevitability is logically derived from reliable cause and effect. And reliable cause and effect is logically necessary to our ability to do anything at all. It is the mechanism of all our freedoms. So, “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is an irrational concept, and should be discarded.

      Free will is not “freedom from causation”, because nothing is. So, hard determinists should stop trying to make something of it.

      1. “Free will is not “freedom from causation”, because nothing is.”

        Yes, that was my entire point(that’s the point of every determinist), I just take that point to its logical conclusion, ie. ‘therefore free will doesn’t exist’. You otoh say that the phrase ‘free-will’ now means something different.

        And I don’t think it’s particularly fair to chide me for saying exactly what you’ve just said, and then imply that your and my extremely specific, subtle, psychologically alarming and societally revolutionary definition of free will is one that’s shared by the general public, or even, y’ know, dictionaries. It simply isn’t.

        It seems the only way that you have of critiquing the scientific arguments for determinism is…agreeing with them, but then changing the definition of ‘free will’ so that its new definition escapes those critiques. In doing so you have a free-will that you admit isn’t free-will.

        It’s so reminiscent of the tactic of sophisticated theologians: “of course I don’t believe in _that_ kind of free-will – gracious me, no-one really does’.

        Well fine – believe in your version of free-will-that-isn’t-actually-free-will, but it doesn’t actually bear on my argument.

        1. We do have two definitions of free will. And I find both definitions listed in most dictionaries. For example:

          Free Will
          Mirriam-Webster on-line:
          1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
          2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

          Short Oxford English Dictionary:
          1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
          2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

          1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
          2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

          The first is what I call the “operational” definition, the one that most people apply to questions of moral and legal responsibility. I paraphrase it as a choice “free of coercion and undue influence”. And I’m sure you recognize this as the one that ordinary people ordinarily use. It distinguishes an autonomous choice from a choice imposed upon someone by coercion or mental illness.

          The second is the one that you and I agree is a logical and physical impossibility. It is referred to in Wiki as the “philosophical” definition. However, seeing as it is an impossibility, we would be irrational to use it as the definition of anything.

          So, my question to you is this: Why choose the irrational definition rather than the operational definition?

          1. “The first is what I call the “operational” definition, the one that most people apply to questions of moral and legal responsibility. I paraphrase it as a choice “free of coercion and undue influence”. And I’m sure you recognize this as the one that ordinary people ordinarily use.”

            No, I don’t recognise it as such, sorry. The first link I clicked on after googling ‘people’s views on free-will’ was https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1948550617713254.

            This is the relevant excerpt that addresses the proportion of people who believe in an indeterministic universe.

            “The studies following classic experimental philosophy paradigm looking at free will typically present participants with two types of hypothetical universes—a fully deterministic universe in which all life including human behavior is determined, and a universe in which human behavior is an exception and is not fully determined (Nichols, 2011; Nichols & Knobe, 2007). In these studies, participants are asked to judge which of the two universes better represents reality (realism) and then asked to rate attributions of moral responsibility under a specific universe (usually the deterministic universe, to assess compatibilism). In the majority of the studies that have employed this paradigm, most of the participants (over 90%) typically indicated the indeterminist universe as more likely representative of reality”

            They believe in an indeterministic universe, and since you(seem to) admit that your strange, bloodless definition of free will operates in a deterministic universe, then they don’t believe in your definition either.

          2. Saul, I’d like you skip down to the section in that article with the heading: “Experiment”. In that section, scan down to where it says, “The deterministic and indeterministic universes were described as follows:”

            Now, read the descriptions of the Deterministic Universe and the Indeterministic Universe.

            Note that the experimenters have presented an incompatibilist’s version of both determinism and indeterminism.

            In their description of the deterministic universe they say this, “Like everything else, this decision was completely caused by what happened before it.”

            And then, when they describe the indeterministic universe, they suggest that such a universe is required for John to have control over what he will have for lunch. In the indeterministic universe, “He could have decided to have something different.”

            The compatibilist description of a deterministic universe would include John’s choosing process as the final prior cause of his choice. John’s choice was reliably caused, but it was not caused by any other object in the physical universe than that physical object that goes by the name of “John”.

            So, if you’re going to prep your test subjects with a biased, incompatibilist definition of determinism, then your results will also be biased, and invalid.

            By the way, a causally indeterministic universe cannot exist. No physical objects could exist without the basic physical forces reliably holding them together.

          3. The compatibilist description of a deterministic universe would include John’s choosing process as the final prior cause of his choice.


            The way incompatibilist just skip over the roll our actual choice-making plays in an outcome, making it invisible in their causal explanation, is really bizarre to me.

            “If prior causes led up to our choosing, then we really didn’t choose” is just a non-sequitur.

          4. Quite. Someone used the term “bypass” which is what they seem to be claiming, that causes prior to us can magically leapfrog over us and bring about the event without our active participation.

            It’s an abandonment of objective reality for the sake of an abstract argument. And it is supported by metaphorical thinking and figurative language.

        2. Saul, as to your argument, when you say that there is no choice, you are speaking “figuratively”.

          For example, when you go into a new restaurant to eat dinner, you “literally” (actually, objectively, empirically) have a menu of choices. And you literally choose your meal and place your order. And, having done so, you will be held responsible for paying the bill handed to you by the waiter. That is how these words actually work in operation.

          Choosing is a physical process that takes place within the neurology of your brain. It is an actual event in the real world.

          All that you really can say is that, if your choice is causally inevitable, then it is as if you had no choice. And that is speaking figuratively.

          The only problem with a figurative statement is that it is always literally false.

          1. “For example, when you go into a new restaurant to eat dinner, you “literally” (actually, objectively, empirically) have a menu of choices.”

            No, I have a menu with a number of meals, one of which I am pre-determined to eat. Or not – maybe I storm off in a huff because the music’s too loud. I don’t know until it happens.

            “And you literally choose your meal and place your order.”

            Just like Charles Manson is ‘literally evil’, just like time ‘literally flows’, just like Scotland is ‘literally to the north’? The fact that we use these concepts on a regular basis doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever on whether they make a lick of sense.

            This is all setting aside that you now seem to be making the direct opposite of the argument from your previous comment, which was that we _don’t_ “literally, actually, objectively, empirically” choose anything, and no-one really believes we do anyway, etc.

            So I’ve no idea what your actual position is any more and this is exhaustingly unrewarding.

          2. Saul, you’ve simply given several examples of people’s confusion over the difference between literally and figuratively. I was assuming, apparently incorrectly, that you were sufficiently educated to know the difference. You might want to look them up.

            My position is that choosing is a physical operation, performed by physical processing running upon the neural hardware of the brain.

            Choosing inputs multiple options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single chosen “I will”.

            Are you denying that this operation happens in the real physical world?

  21. I’ve read the paper and the conclusion I came to was the same as Robert in comment (2) above, “Not even wrong.” My conclusion is harsh but I will endeavor to stay within “Da Roolz!” I will also only concentrate on one premise as the others I found were either dealt with in the original post or by other commenters.

    By invoking a “Many Worlds” interpretation of a classical system List makes a category error that – with the most kind interpretation of his intent – could only interpreted as failing to research the applicable physical theories prior to using them in his thesis. What the physicist Murray Gell-Mann would call “quantum flapdoodle.”

    First, I’ll agree with List that even in a classical system, different histories over time can result in the same system state at a given time. But that is where the similarity with a quantum system ends as applicable to his argument. Think of a game of eight ball in billiards. There a many different ways I can wind up the only two balls left on the table in a given position, but in ALL of the ways, I could classically calculate the position and momentum of each ball and how they wound up in the same position, and thereby accurately predict the result of applying a given force to the next shot. At the quantum level, not so much so. That is where a summation of histories over time can yield a set of probabilities of how the system will behave but cannot tell you how the system actually behaved without disturbing it via a measurement.

    Physicists have actually done the calculations to show that the mass-energy of human brain puts it firmly in the classical realm (see Stenger, The Unconscious Quantum). Once this category error is eliminated, I was left with nothing that wasn’t already contained in “Freedom Evolves.” That is to say, nothing original.

    1. “..I’ll agree with List that even in a classical system, different histories over time can result in the same system state at a given time.”
      This sounds strange to me, but perhaps I fail to understand. It sounds as though it is disputing the uniqueness of ‘backwards in time postdiction from final conditions’ of classical differential equations which have determinism, i.e. have unique ‘forwards in time prediction from initial conditions’. False of course, but perhaps something else, like incomplete, ‘smeared’, conditions is what is meant.

      1. Yes, I could see how the billiard analogy could lead to some confusion. My intention was to allude to a series of pool matches where from the initial rack of the balls, many different combinations of individual turns could result in the same outcome of position of the final two balls left remaining on the table.

    2. Microscopic quantum effects are constantly amplified into macroscopic effects. The human eye can detect a single photon, a microscopic quantum effect if there ever was one.

      There is also the possibility of macroscopic interference, though that would also likely lead to our swift demise’s.

  22. This comment isn’t about List’s thesis, which I find weak. It’s about my objection to determinism.

    If you take quantum field theory as your fundamental ontology then you have to believe a few things. One nanosecond or less after the big bang the following things were implicitly encoded, to deterministically unfold:

    – The contents of the Library of Congress, including Why Evolution is True

    – World War II

    – the oeuvre of Marcel Proust

    – Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem

    – every product of evolution, down to the position and state of every atom and every mutation in every organism

    I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. Those are things you have to believe if you take modern physical determinism as your ontology.

    I find this implausible. I’m aware that an argument from incredulity is a weak argument, but argument from incredulity is the argument why I’m not a theist.

    I think there’s something fundamental that physics is missing. I have no idea what it is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not God stuff. Whether this bears on the free-will dispute is unclear, but I think it does.

    1. I understand Stephen. See my posts above. If you accept the story that the universe is completely deterministic and playing out initial conditions fixed 13.8 billion years ago, then you might as well accept “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” In my philosophy, the universe must be contingent and creative.

      That said, I think our brains are probably deterministic and that free will is perfectly consistent with that fact.

      1. So where does this contingent and creative drive come from? It’s not from quantum field theory. That’s the question.

          1. In quantum field theory there is no randomness. Quantum fields are deterministic but indeterminent — a subtle but crucial distinction.

          2. The wave function is deterministic but outcomes are not. Unless you accept the many-worlds interpretation. Even then, it is as good as random from one’s own history.

          3. My understanding of indeterminate, which is admittedly naive, is that we can’t know or measure the exact quantum state. The quantum state is a probability distribution. Research the measurement problem.

          4. I know about the measurement problem, but why do you think outcomes (say, where the electron lands in the double slit experiment) are not probabilistic (i.e., random.)

          5. One has several choices: nonlocal influence (with a subquantum realm), Smolin’s answer. Retrocausation/relational time – Stenger in one version. Or the dice throw in one of several versions (e.g., Storrs McCall’s branching time, or others).

          6. Literally, causal indeterminism would be the opposite of reliable cause and effect (determinism). Cause and effect would be totally unreliable in an indeterministic universe.

            I’ve described it this way in my post:

            Imagine we had a dial we could use to adjust the balance of determinism/indeterminism.

            We start by turning it all the way to deteminism: I pick an apple from the tree and I have an apple in my hand.

            Then, we turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism: now if I pick an apple, I might find an orange or banana or some other random fruit in my hand.

            Turn the dial further toward indeterminism, and when I pick an apple I may find a kitten in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or a glass of milk.

            One more adjustment toward indeterminism and when I pick an apple gravity reverses!

          7. The randomness is fully described by the Born rule. What you will get is determined randomly by taking the modulus squared. If that wasn’t true we wouldn’t be able to know anything about quantum mechanics. We only know about the relative magnitudes of the probability amplitudes associated with each state, because the results of our experiments conform with the Born rule.

          8. Yes, that is my understanding too. How does that relate to my speculation that random quantum outcomes can be the raw material of a creative contingent universe?

          9. Because the randomness isn’t determined by any mind or will. It is just something that happens. If the state is in a superposition described by (√1/2 + i√1/2) and you measure it you get one of the states with 50% probability each. There is no more creativity than if it was 100% one state or another.

            You can never know how the state of the universe will evolve even in a perfectly deterministic classical universe, due to lack of information, so from an observer’s perspective nothing has changed with regards to creativity.

            Randomness isn’t creativity,

            I can randomly generate a field of pixels with a computer program. Is that more creative than the works of Jan van Eyck? If I used quantum algorithms to create a provably random field of pixels is that more creative than a pseudo-random number generator creating that field?

          10. I don’t think randomness is determined by the mind or will. It is determined by whatever determines what we measure in a quantum experiment. My point is unrelated to free will, it is OT. It is about whether hard determinism (the belief that all that exists is a causal result of the conditions at the big bang) is true.

            Randomness is not creativity, but randomness plus selection is. That is how new species come about, the central point of Darwin’s theory.

          11. @darwinwins

            I would just suggest looking up more about pseudo-random number generators and chaos theory. You don’t need actual randomness for variation to occur. That our universe has that randomness on the subjective level as per the terribly named https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will_theorem means nothing for creativity or evolutionary biology. Things would be the same for a totally deterministic, but extremely complex system.

            Complexity is just another name for randomness. See

            The “free will” theorem should really be called the randomness theorem, since all it proves is that measurement outcomes must be random.

    2. I don’t see how this is a problem. That is a consequence of determinism, which all our theories seem to suggest. Unless someone has a better suggestion I don’t see how it’s possible for that to not be the case.


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