Christian List on free will

For many people, the idea of free will is bound up with the notion of “could have done otherwise”. By their lights, if only one future is possible for a person — that is, if the person cannot do otherwise — then free will is an illusion.

Philosopher Christian List — author of the recent book Why Free Will is Real — proposes an interesting species of free will based on the claim that while physics may be deterministic, behaviors at the agent level are not. Agents can do otherwise, according to List, and this is enough to ground free will even if physics is deterministic.

I think List is mistaken, but I’ll save my criticisms for the comment thread.

Readers can find List’s argument in this paper:

Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility of Doing Otherwise

See you in the comment thread.

298 thoughts on “Christian List on free will

  1. phoodoo,

    How does bag of chemicals decide? Based on what?

    The “bag of chemicals”, also known as a “person”, decides based on the available alternatives and his or her nature, desires, criteria, thought processes, etc. The choice isn’t independent of the person. It completely depends on the person and his or her current state. That’s free will, of the only kind worth wanting.

    Are you, as Walto is suggesting, removing materialism from the equation? If that’s really what you doing, then as far as I am concerned, that’s not determinism.

    Materialism/immaterialism is a separate issue from determinism/indeterminism. There’s no reason that immaterial entities, if they exist, cannot behave deterministically.

    because if you are also removing materialism, then the whole morality discussion can longer be had, because we have now invoked a higher authority.

    Now you’re confusing immaterialism with theism.

  2. walto, to phoodoo:

    I think Keiths has it that there are alternatives that one can pick in one sense (if one wants to), and one can’t pick in another (because we can’t actually control whether we can want to).

    Right.

    But which version(s) of ‘can’ are we using when we say that we can’t actually control whether we can want to? Seems like that’s the one (those are the ones?) that matter(s).

    Not for the issue of free will. Remember, you believe that animals have free will (and I agree), but I see no evidence that animals try to control what they want.
    They are free, nevertheless.

    He likes his determinism (like his epistemology and his ethics) toothless.

    That’s an odd accusation coming from someone who believes that no one is morally responsible for anything. That sounds ethically toothless to me.

  3. keiths: Not for the issue of free will. Remember, you believe that animals have free will (and I agree), but I see no evidence that animals try to control what they want.
    They are free, nevertheless.

    Animals want to eat and many species cache food for later consumption. Animals also patrol/claim/protect territory in order to, presumably, exert some control over available food/water/shelter sources. Seems to me there are examples of animals trying to control what they want.

  4. PeterP,

    I don’t see how those are examples of animals controlling what they want. Could you elaborate?

  5. Keiths,

    When I want something to eat I go to the fridge and grab something I have cached there for the sole purpose of consuming it at a time removed from the initial purchase/harvest/ect. Other animals are no different in controlling their food supply by caching or in some cases even farming/gardening/raising their food source. They, and we, do this not only for convenience but as a buffer against lean times.

    Animals control territory/real estate for some of the same reasons. In some instances it is to protect a reliable food supply or to ensure reproductive passage of their genes to the next generation. Some even kill the young of others in order to procreate their own genetic legacy. I don’t see much difference in humans doing it or if it is observed in other animals.

    I assume, that just like humans, these species do this as a means of exerting control over their lives and the things they need to get along on a day to day basis. Eating, drinking, sex, shelter all seem to be basic needs that animals exert control over humans included, obviously.

  6. PeterP,

    I think I see the disconnect. You’re misunderstanding what walto and I (and petrushka) are talking about.

    When we talk about “controlling what you want”, we don’t mean that you want some things and that you also want to control those things. We mean that you want to control your wanting of those things.

    Controlling wants, not controlling things.

  7. keiths: We mean that you want to control your wanting of those things.

    In that case I would say we just don’t know. Some animal behavior appears instinct/compulsion and others we don’t really know why the animals do what they do. We can, and do, speculate about the causal factors but we really don’t know what the motivations are behind their behaviors and if they are exhibiting control over their wants.

  8. Anyway, my point to walto was that ‘can’ in the sense of doing what we want is sufficient for free will. Controlling what we want is not necessary.

    In that sense, the phrase ‘free will’ is a misnomer. It’s really our actions that are free, not our wills.

  9. keiths:
    walto,

    There’s a horrible story — hopefully apocryphal — about Descartes vivisecting his wife’s dog after nailing it to a table.Animals are just automata, after all, according to Descartes.They don’t feel pain.

    Hadn’t heard that. Awful.

  10. keiths:
    walto,

    I’m saying that you and phoodoo are making the same mistake regarding “can”.Reread this comment, substituting bus taking for ball throwing.

    All i glean from that is that you meant, as i thought, epistemic possibility. I still have no idea what your point was.

  11. keiths:
    Anyway, my point to walto was that ‘can’ in the sense of doing what we want is sufficient for free will.Controlling what we want is not necessary.

    In that sense, the phrase ‘free will’ is a misnomer.It’s really our actions that are free, not our wills.

    This, i agree with–with respect to actions. I think some willings are free as well, though.

  12. keiths: That’s an odd accusation coming from someone who believes that no one is morally responsible for anything. That sounds ethically toothless to me.

    Disagree. What’s toothless is wanting your cake after you’ve eaten it.

  13. keiths: But which version(s) of ‘can’ are we using when we say that we can’t actually control whether we can want to? Seems like that’s the one (those are the ones?) that matter(s).

    Not for the issue of free will. Remember, you believe that animals have free will (and I agree), but I see no evidence that animals try to control what they want.
    They are free, nevertheless.

    No, you’ve misunderstood my point. I don’t care whether it’s true or not–i want to know what you think the ‘can’s mean in that sentence.

  14. This is what I’m disagreeing with:

    Seems like that’s the one (those are the ones?) that matter(s).

    The “can” that matters is this one:

    “I can do X” means that if I wanted to do X, I would do X.

    walto:

    But which version(s) of ‘can’ are we using when we say that we can’t actually control whether we can want to?

    It’s the same version of ‘can’. Look at the following two sentences:

    1. If Ursula wanted (overall) to fly to NH, she would fly to NH.
    2. If Ursula wanted to want (overall) to fly to NH, she would want (overall) to fly to NH.

    The first is true. The second is false. Ursula can fly to NH, but she can’t want (overall) to fly to NH.

  15. phoodoo: If you are throwing away materialism, and allowing people to chose, then what’s left in your determinism game? Now you are just entering the realm of philosophy word nonsense. There can be all kinds of crazy philosophers who end up in Encyclopaedias because they said something crazy just before they entered the mental ward, like Cantor, but that doesn’t really mean there are different infinities.

    So hostile! They’re just different. It’s like if I said, I know what protestantism is–it’s liking really ugly buildings. And then you said, ‘Actually those aren’t the same thing. There are some ugly buildings that aren’t protestant churches and there are some protestant churches that aren’t ugly buildings. And then I replied with this:

    “For fuck’s sake, architects are the biggest bunch of idiots I’ve ever heard of. They’ll create ugly buildings for anybody now, just to get famous and confuse people. The stupid shitheads aren’t fooling anybody though. Everybody knows that deep down the ugly buildings are all protestant churches!’

  16. walto,

    What’s toothless is wanting your cake after you’ve eaten it.

    I don’t.

    If you disagree, then please identify the inconsistency in my position re moral responsibility.

  17. walto,

    Also, phoodoo unwisely puts himself in Joe G territory with his Cantor denial. Not very promising.

  18. keiths: 1. If Ursula wanted (overall) to fly to NH, she would fly to NH.
    2. If Ursual wanted to want (overall) to fly to NH, she would want (overall) to fly to NH.

    The first is true. The second is false. Ursula can fly to NH, but she can’t want (overall) to fly to NH.

    If 1 is true she can fly to NH. (That’s the nice conditional.) The second is false if she can’t change her wants.

  19. keiths:
    walto,

    I don’t.

    If you disagree, then please identify the inconsistency in my position re moral responsibility.

    I didn’t say it was inconsistent.

  20. walto,

    I think it would be a safe assumption that if one is talking about determinism and how it relates to a true lack of free will and the morality involved in that, one pretty much would have to mean the material sort of determinism. Now, if one believes in a God based determinism, and not a physical one, then the whole discussion is sort of thrown out the window. If it is God based determinism, then it’s safe to presume the God has a morality. If you want to talk about a God based determinism, which includes a God which has no morality strings attached, well then you are going into a type of philosophical worldview shared by perhaps three people who ever existed. Who would debate about that rather twisted worldview? You would?

    So if we are dismissing those three people, what about the rest of the world, clearly if they are speaking of moral obligations and free will, they mean materialist determinism. In other words, if we are directed by physics, are we responsible for our actions?

    That’s what most of the world means when they speak of determinism.

  21. walto,

    I still have no idea what your point was.

    Here’s the history.

    I wrote this:

    “I can do X” means that if I wanted to do X, I would do X.

    You initially agreed, and then you changed your mind.

    I defended my statement thus:

    She’s [Ursula is] conflicted. The “loving daughter” part of her wants to fly to NH, but the “flying phobic” part of her does not.

    Crucially, the fear outweighs the desire, so in the final analysis, Ursula does not want to fly to NH.

    If the desire outweighed the fear, then Ursula would want to fly to NH, and she would proceed to do so.

    You responded:

    Suppose her bus doesn’t come.

    I replied:

    You’re making the same mistake as phoodoo.

    Her bus might not come even if determinism is false. So by your reasoning, no one should ever say “you can fly to NH” to anyone, regardless of the truth of determinism.

    The bus might not come, there might be a terrorist attack, the person might come down with a sudden illness, the TSA might detain them, a meteor might hit them 15 minutes from now, etc.

    [emphasis added]

    When we tell someone “you can fly to New Hampshire”, we don’t mean that there is no possible scenario in which the bus fails to come to take them to the airport.

  22. walto,

    If 1 is true she can fly to NH. (That’s the nice conditional.) The second is false if she can’t change her wants.

    Bingo. And it all fits with my definition of “can”:

    “I can do X” means that if I wanted to do X, I would do X.

    We can truthfully say that Ursula can fly to NH, but she’s afraid to. Her fear is what prevents her from wanting (overall) to fly.

  23. keiths,

    Ok, thanks, i see what you’re saying. I don’t think ‘can’ can be defined in terms of ‘would’ though. Too many available counterexamples.

  24. keiths: We can truthfully say that Ursula can fly to NH, but she’s afraid to.

    I wouldn’t say that. Sounds like she can, except she can’t.

  25. phoodoo,

    I don’t know whether most determinists are physicalists. It’s possible. But consider. There are a lot of people that think mental states (which they don’t deny exist) are CAUSED BY physical states. They aren’t materialsts because they don’t deny the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, and other mental entities. They may very well be determinists though.

  26. phoodoo,

    You’re conflating multiple concepts here.

    1. An immaterial determinism does not need to be God-based. It’s possible to be an atheist immaterialist (non-physicalist) determinist.

    2. If God existed, it wouldn’t mean that his morality trumped ours.

    3. You’re ignoring the possibility of a deistic God who winds up the world and lets it run without imposing any morality or making any moral judgments.

  27. walto: I wouldn’t say that. Sounds like she can, except she can’t.

    I mean would we say of someone who’s confined to a wheel chair that she can walk, but her legs don’t work?

  28. walto,

    I mean would we say of someone who’s confined to a wheel chair that she can walk, but her legs don’t work?

    We’d say that she can’t walk. Just apply my definition:

    “I can do X” means that if I wanted to do X, I would do X.

    The person would not walk even if she wanted to. Therefore she can’t walk.

  29. keiths: 2. If God existed, it wouldn’t mean that his morality trumped ours.

    If morality is knowable, an omniscient God would know everything there is about morality and every outcome of every action , seems like that would trump the finite knowledge of the subject by our primitive species.

  30. newton,

    That assumes that morality is objective. If you think that morality is subjective, as I do, then God’s morality does not automatically trump ours.

  31. walto,

    Ok, thanks, i see what you’re saying. I don’t think ‘can’ can be defined in terms of ‘would’ though. Too many available counterexamples.

    But again, by that reasoning, we can never legitimately say “You can do X” to anyone (unless they’re already doing X in that very moment). Something could always happen to prevent them from doing X, including a (literal or metaphorical) bolt from the blue.

    By that reasoning, for example, I can’t legitimately say “you can drive a car”, because for all I know you might be paralyzed in a freak accident before your next drive.

    That seems ridiculous to me. It doesn’t reflect what we mean by “can” in normal usage.

  32. keiths:

    If you disagree, then please identify the inconsistency in my position re moral responsibility.

    walto:

    I didn’t say it was inconsistent.

    Then I don’t see what you’re objecting to.

  33. newton,

    I should also mention the possibility of an omnisicent God who is evil by our standards. Would you argue that such a God’s morality trumps ours?

  34. walto, to phoodoo:

    I don’t know whether most determinists are physicalists. It’s possible. But consider. There are a lot of people that think mental states (which they don’t deny exist) are CAUSED BY physical states. They aren’t materialsts because they don’t deny the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, and other mental entities. They may very well be determinists though.

    I accept the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, etc., but I still consider myself a materialist/physicalist, because I think all of those are ultimately physical phenomena.

    I don’t think that’s an unusual position.

  35. That should have read:

    walto, to phoodoo:

    I don’t know whether most determinists are physicalists. It’s possible. But consider. There are a lot of people that think mental states (which they don’t deny exist) are CAUSED BY physical states. They aren’t materialsts because they don’t deny the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, and other mental entities. They may very well be determinists though.

    I accept the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, etc., but I still consider myself a materialist/physicalist, because I think all of those are ultimately physical phenomena.

    I don’t think that’s an unusual position.

  36. keiths:
    That should have read:

    walto, to phoodoo:

    I accept the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, etc., but I still consider myself a materialist/physicalist, because I think all of those are ultimately physical phenomena.

    I don’t think that’s an unusual position.

    But if you truly believe they actually physical phenomena , they how can one claim to actually control them? They can’t. What is controlling the physical phenomena, physical phenomena?

    Don’t you see the problem?

  37. keiths:
    That should have read:

    walto, to phoodoo:

    I accept the existence of ideas, wishes, fears, etc., but I still consider myself a materialist/physicalist, because I think all of those are ultimately physical phenomena.

    I don’t think that’s an unusual position.

    I don’t think so either. It’s quite common. I don’t know if it’s a majority view though. I was thinking last night that one could also be an idealist (in the sense of thinking that everything is mental) determinist. I don’t know of any, but i don’t know much about Hegel or his followers). And one also might be a dualist but have the two realms deterministic in entirely separate fashions. Some people interpret Spinoza that way, and I can also imagine some Freud works being interpreted that way. Most of his stuff completely ignores the physical, but it still pushes a largely deterministic view of ideation.

  38. keiths:
    newton,

    That assumes that morality is objective.If you think that morality is subjective, as I do, then God’s morality does not automatically trump ours.

    If all moral codes are subjective , are all equally valid?

  39. keiths:
    newton,

    I should also mention the possibility of an omnisicent God who is evil by our standards.Would you argue that such a God’s morality trumps ours?

    Objectively evil?

  40. keiths: I didn’t say it was inconsistent.

    Then I don’t see what you’re objecting to.

    It’s mealy-mouthed. We know but not really, this act is moral but not really, she can do it but it’s not really in her power.

    You can put in “ultimately” for “really” if you like. It’s an as-if philosophy, something somebody who has given up but doesn’t like to show it would make. Just have two homophones available if needed and kind of blink and pretend you’re not listening if someone wants to know if you think you know your own name, But hell, If it makes you happy, fine. It just doesn’t do much for me.

    Now, admittedly these problems are hard, and maybe saying “we don’t know and probably never will” in so many areas or just dumping morality as incoherent or saying we’re free but we can’t as I do doesn’t do much for you: you might say, “better to be mealy-mouthed than admittedly ignorant.”

    Different strokes, you know? Anyhow, I gotta get back to my book.

  41. newton: If all moral codes are subjective , are all equally valid?

    Why do you suppose nations abandoned theological and philosophical morality in favor of law?

  42. petrushka: Why do you suppose nations abandoned theological and philosophical morality in favor of law?

    Fine line, laws are often based on theological and philosophical moral premises. The rash of abortion laws ,while there are base political motivations, are derived from the theological.

  43. phoodoo: But if you truly believe they actually physical phenomena , they how can one claim to actually control them? They can’t. What is controlling the physical phenomena, physical phenomena?

    Don’t you see the problem?

    I don’t. What’s the problem? I’d say a computer with a robotic arm is a physical phenomenon, but a computer with a robotic arm(a physical phenomenon) can control an aircraft (another physical phenomenon).

    How would it be different if we posited a non-physical phenomenon like a soul was controlling our physical bodies?

  44. But if you truly believe they actually physical phenomena , they how can one claim to actually control them? They can’t. What is controlling the physical phenomena, physical phenomena?

    Don’t you see the problem?

    As Rumraket says, there is no problem. Physical phenomena routinely control other physical phenomena.

    Your computer schedules a virus scan for 3 AM. At 3 AM, the virus scan happens. It’s all physical.

  45. newton:

    Objectively evil?

    No. Note the bolded words:

    I should also mention the possibility of an omnisicent God who is evil by our standards. Would you argue that such a God’s morality trumps ours?

  46. newton,

    If all moral codes are subjective , are all equally valid?

    Equally valid to whom?

    If I thought all moral codes were equally valid, then I would have no particular reason to choose mine.

    The same goes for everyone else.

  47. newton: Fine line, laws are often based on theological and philosophical moral premises. The rash of abortion laws ,while there are base political motivations, are derived from the theological.

    That’s true. Which is why I phrased my inquiry as: why have nations abandoned religion as a rationale for laws. There are, of course, nations in which there is no delineation between religious and national law, but they are gradually changing. Anyone who examines the changes over a century or so can see the change.

    India, for example just recently outlawed sex with child brides. That may seem like a no-brainer, but progress is progress.

  48. walto,

    It’s mealy-mouthed. We know but not really, this act is moral but not really, she can do it but it’s not really in her power.

    You’re pulling a phoodoo here by ignoring perfectly good distinctions. You’re also not noticing that your criticism, if valid, would boomerang on you.

    Someone could just as easily say of your compatibilist view: “It’s mealy-mouthed. We’re free, but not really.”

    You would rightly reply that the distinction between libertarian and compatibilist free will is a valid one, and I can rightly reply that the distinction between proximate and ultimate moral responsibility is also valid.

    Don’t pull a phoodoo.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.