I can live without God, but I need free will. Without free will life makes no sense, it lacks meaning. So I’m always on the lookout for strong, clear arguments for free will. Christian List, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, provides such arguments in his succinct new book Why Free Will Is Real (Harvard 2019). I met List in 2015 when I decided to attend, after much deliberation, a workshop on consciousness at NYU. I recently freely chose to send him some questions, which he freely chose to answer. –John Horgan

Horgan: Why philosophy? Was your choice pre-determined?

List: I don’t think it was. As a teenager, I wanted to become a computer scientist or mathematician. It was only during my last couple of years at high school that I developed an interest in philosophy, and then I studied mathematics and philosophy as an undergraduate. For my doctorate, I chose political science, because I wanted to do something more applied, but I ended up working on mathematical models of collective decision-making and their implications for philosophical questions about democracy. Can majority voting produce rational collective outcomes? Are there truths to be found in politics? So, I was drawn back into philosophy. But the fact that I now teach philosophy is due to contingent events, especially meeting some philosophers who encouraged me.

Horgan: Free-will denial seems to be on the rise. Why do you think that is?

List: The free-will denial we are now seeing appears to be a by-product of the growing popularity of a reductionistic worldview in which everything is thought to be reducible to physical processes. If we look at the world solely through the lens of fundamental physics, for instance, then we will see only particles, fields, and forces, and there seems no room for human agency and free will. People then look like bio-physical machines. My response is that this kind of reductionism is mistaken. I want to embrace a scientific worldview, but reject reductionism. In fact, many scientists reject the sort of reductionism that is often mistakenly associated with science.

Horgan: Would you describe your belief in free will as faith? Do you ever, perhaps in the dead of night, doubt that free will doesn’t exist?

List: No, I wouldn’t describe it as faith. As I explain in my book, there are rational arguments in support of the view that free will exists. But this is not a dogma. If new scientific developments were to vindicate strict determinism in psychology, rather than physics, then this would be evidence against free will. But, as of now, there is no support for a deterministic picture of psychology. Do I ever have any doubts about this? Not in my day-to-day life. But as an academic, it is my job to ask critical questions and to scrutinize my views. That’s why I take the challenges for free will very seriously and devote much room to them in my book.  

Horgan: Can you give me the cocktail-party version of your free will argument?

List: I am not sure whether this would work at a cocktail party. It would depend on the cocktail party… But here is a summary. My goal is to argue that a robust form of free will fits into a scientific worldview. How do I show this? Well, there are two ways of thinking about human beings. We can either think of them as heaps of interacting particles, and thus as nothing but physical systems, or we can think of them as intentional agents, with psychological features and mental states. If we tried to understand humans in the first, reductionistic way, there would be little room for free will. But the human and social sciences support the second way of thinking, the non-reductionistic one, and this, in turn, supports the hypothesis that there is free will. 

Specifically, I accept that free will requires intentional agency, alternative possibilities between which we can choose, and causal control over our actions. But unlike free-will skeptics, I don’t look for these things at the level of the body and brain understood solely as a physical system. Rather, I argue that agency, choice, and control are emergent, higher-level phenomena, like cognition in psychology and institutions in economics. They “supervene” on physical phenomena, as philosophers say, but are not reducible to them. 

References to agency, choice, and control become indispensable once we think of humans in this way. We would not be able to make sense of human behavior if we didn’t view people as choice-making agents. It would be impossible to understand people at the level of the gazillions of molecules and cells in their brains and bodies. And even if we could describe human behavior at that level, we would fail to pick up the beliefs, preferences, and other psychological features that most naturally explain their decisions. This supports treating agency, choice, and control as real.

Credit: Harvard University Press

Now, you might ask, isn’t this incompatible with physical determinism? My answer is that when we understand human beings as intentional agents, they shouldn’t be viewed as determined. There is a perfectly intelligible sense in which they face forks in the road, namely when they make decisions. This may sound counterintuitive, but indeterminism at the level of agency is compatible with determinism at the level of physics. 

The issue is a little subtle, but the key point is that the distinction between determinism and indeterminism is a level-specific one. It doesn’t make sense to ask whether a given system is deterministic or indeterministic simpliciter. The question becomes meaningful only once we specify the level of description at which we are asking the question. A system can be deterministic at a micro-level and indeterministic at a macro-one. While some would interpret this as merely “epistemic” – due to our lack of information about the micro-state – I give arguments in my book for interpreting it as a real phenomenon.  

There is some room for debate about the best interpretation here, but others, too, have recognized that when we move from a lower level of description to a higher one, we may see a transition from deterministic to indeterministic behavior in a system. Jeremy Butterfield expresses this point by saying that a system’s micro- and macro-dynamics need not “mesh”.

Horgan: Free-will deniers claim that Benjamin Libet’s experiments undercut free will. Why are they idiots?

List: They are certainly not idiots! They have made important contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying voluntary motor actions. What they show is that when experimental participants are asked to perform spontaneous movements at a time of their choice, some brain activity can be detected before they feel the conscious intention to act. Libet and others take this to be a challenge for free will. I do not deny the experimental findings. The issue is how to interpret them. 

Contributors to this debate do not always define precisely what they mean by “causation”. For instance, if we define a cause as a systematic difference-making factor for the resulting effect, then it’s not clear that the neuronal readiness potentials measured by Libet would qualify as causes of the actions. As Libet acknowledges, subjects can still abort an initially intended action after the neural activity has begun. Libet describes this capacity as “free won’t”. Others, such as my London colleague Patrick Haggard, have shed further light on how this capacity is implemented in the brain. 

I argue that if we apply the theory of causation that is most suitable for the human and social sciences – namely the so-called “interventionist” or “difference-making” theory – then we have reasons to conclude that the most systematic causal explanations of human behavior won’t always be lower-level, neuronal ones, but can involve higher-level, psychological variables. The psychological – not just neuronal – level remains hospitable to causal regularities.  

Horgan: Does free will require consciousness? 

List: Free will and consciousness are conceptually distinct. Free will, as I define it, requires intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions. Consciousness – especially “phenomenal” consciousness – requires the presence of subjective experience from a first-person perspective. There must be something it is like to be a particular agent, as Thomas Nagel famously says. Whether free will requires consciousness depends, among other things, on whether agency itself requires consciousness. I don’t explicitly build a consciousness requirement into my definition of agency. This is because I want to keep my concepts modular, and I think there can be intentional agents without consciousness – corporate agents, for example, on which I have worked with Philip Pettit. It could still turn out that, as a matter of fact, most or all agents with full-blown free will also have consciousness.  

Horgan: Speaking of consciousness, can science ever explain it?

List: The hard problem of consciousness, as David Chalmers calls it, is due to the fact that phenomenal consciousness involves first-person experience. It is inherently subjective. Science aims to give us an objective picture of the world. And although scientific objectivity is a contested idea, the sciences usually describe the world from a third-person perspective – that of an observer studying phenomena from the outside. It is therefore not clear whether a purely third-personal scientific approach can fully explain consciousness, in a way that will satisfy those who are interested in the nature of first-person experience. 

I think the most promising scientific approaches to consciousness are those that take first-person data seriously and seek to accommodate them, perhaps by formulating psycho-physical hypotheses: hypotheses about how physical processes are associated with subjective experience. Integrated information theory, developed by Giulio Tononi and others, is one promising approach, though there is no consensus yet about whether this theory is right.  

Horgan: Can non-human animals, like chimps or dogs, have free will? What about robots?

List: My theory clarifies what is at stake in answering this question. To figure out whether a given entity has free will, we must determine whether that entity has intentional agency, alternative possibilities to choose from, and causal control over its actions. In the case of many non-human animals, I would be inclined to give a positive answer. Chimps don’t have the same agential capacities as humans, but they arguably meet the requirements of agency. Our best theories of their behavior may well attribute to them the ability to make choices, together with a certain level of control over those choices. They may then count as having a certain kind of free will. Similar things might be said – to a lesser extent – about other mammals. In the case of robots and AI systems, we can talk much about how advanced they will become in the foreseeable future, and whether they are best interpreted as intentional agents. But, conceptually speaking, future complex robots and AI systems might well satisfy the three requirements for free will. That would raise important questions about responsibility.

Horgan: Will we ever stop arguing about consciousness and free will?

List: These are perennial questions, which every generation is likely to grapple with. But even if we never reach a consensus, there can still be philosophical progress. We now have a much better understanding of the relevant conceptual terrain than earlier generations did. Thinking about philosophical questions can help us clarify our concepts and categories and make our worldview more coherent. This is relevant to the sciences and to public debate. Remember that the issues we are tackling here are not merely intellectual: they inform our views about publicly relevant notions such as responsibility and personhood.

Horgan: You’ve written about democracy. How do you think democracy is holding up? Do you have any ideas for improving it?

List: Like others, I’m concerned about increasing political polarization, the erosion of trust in democratic politics, and the rise of populism. Many factors have contributed to this. The high levels of inequality that we are seeing in many countries are one factor, and the changes due to globalization another. The public sphere has been transformed by social media and the use of big data. The solution to this perceived crisis of democracy cannot be a backward-looking nationalistic turn or a rewinding of the clock to an earlier era. To reinvigorate democracy, we must tackle inequality and achieve a more deliberative democratic culture that places more emphasis on civil and respectful debate instead of simplistic soundbite politics. To do so, we should explore new forms of political communication such as citizens’ assemblies and invest in education. The media, including high-quality journalism, also play an important role. Democracy cannot be reduced to majority voting alone. Voting must be preceded by a period of thorough and inclusive public deliberation about the relevant issues, based on the best available information and a careful consideration of the reasons for and against the various options. 

In my social-choice-theoretic work, especially with the political scientists James Fishkin and Robert Luskin, we looked at how group deliberation affects participants’ political preferences. We observed that while – unsurprisingly – deliberation doesn’t generate a consensus, it can generate something we may describe as a “meta-consensus”: a shared understanding of what the disagreement is about. This meta-consensus can help us generate support for compromise positions.

Horgan: You also write about economics. Are we stuck with capitalism?

List: I’m not sure whether we are, but I’m certainly not alone in thinking that the status quo requires major improvements. I’d like to see smart forms of regulation that reduce inequality and improve environmental sustainability, a reinvigorated democratic culture, and extensive international cooperation. I find a democratically governed, internationally collaborative, and socially and environmentally regulated market economy far more attractive than insufficiently constrained forms of capitalism.

Horgan: Steven Pinker and John Gray have been battling over whether everything is fine and getting better (Pinker) or everything is terrible and getting worse (Gray). Where do you stand?

List: I’m not convinced that we can have a single unidimensional measure of progress. On some dimensions, things have been getting better, on others worse. There is still large-scale inequality and poverty, both across countries and within countries; insufficient respect for human rights; massive biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and climate change. These are matters of grave concern.Against this background, it’s difficult to be fully optimistic, yet too much pessimism is unhelpful too. Clearly, urgent action is needed to tackle the many challenges humanity is facing.  

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

List: “Utopia” is ambiguous between “no place” and “ideal place”. In his classic 1516 book, Thomas More used this label to refer to a fictional “optimal” island republic, and he imagined a society with norms and customs quite different from the familiar ones at the time. More’s “Utopia” was in fact one of the first works of political philosophy that I read – I think when I was still a teenager. Although utopias are intellectually fascinating, I think that, rather than pursuing some unrealistic and, in the worst case, dangerous utopian vision, we should focus on the problems we are facing here and now.

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback)

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem (includes posts on free will)

Meta-Post: Posts on Poverty and Other Social Problems. See also List's article on social choice theory in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

See Q&As with Scott AaronsonDavid AlbertDavid ChalmersNoam ChomskyDavid DeutschGeorge EllisMarcelo GleiserRobin HansonNick HerbertJim HoltSabine HossenfelderStuart KauffmanChristof KochGarrett LisiTim MaudlinPriyamvada NatarajanNaomi OreskesMartin ReesCarlo RovelliRupert SheldrakeLee SmolinSheldon SolomonPaul SteinhardtPhilip TetlockTyler VolkSteven Weinberg,  Edward WittenPeter WoitStephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.