Why Free Will Is Real

[Amazon Link]

If you've been paying attention to my reading history (and, don't worry, there's not the slightest reason why you should), one recurring topic is the controversy over whether "free will" exists. This latest book—you may have inferred from the title—is pro-existence. The author, Christian List, is professor of political science and philosophy at the London School of Economics.

With the typical philosopher's care, he dissects "free will" into three components:

  1. People are "intentional agents", whose intentions support actions;

  2. In relevant cases, people face multiple alternative actions, and each is a genuine possibility;

  3. And the resulting action is the result of appropriate mental states, reflecting the actual intention of the agent.

Anti-free willers object to at least one of these components. Respectively:

  1. There's no room in neurophysiology (let alone in the underlying physics) for "intention"—it's just atoms and their electrons flying around synapses, firing off hormone releases and causing muscle proteins to contract. I oversimplify, but no amount of further detail will get to "intention".

  2. The universe is essentially deterministic. You might think you have alternate choices, but that's an illusion; only one action will actually happen, governed by the biochemical processes described above.

    (But what about quantum uncertainty? Well, yeah: some of the dice-throwing wackiness described by the inherently probabalistic Copenhagen interpretation of nanoscopic processes might get manifested in macroscopic outcomes. But that coin-flipping doesn't put you in control.)

  3. The last objection is subtle: "you" might think "you" are in control of your actions, but in fact your consciousness is merely a helpless observer along for the ride. The famous "Libet experiments" are invoked: the ones that allegedly show that your body has already made its "decision" to do something milliseconds before you "think" you're deciding yourself.

List discusses each objection, hoping to refute each one. And to my mind, he's successful. He argues that "free will" is an emergent property of our complex nervous systems interacting with the rest of our body. It is no less "real" than (say) life itself, or consciousness. His argument is language-heavy, and (frankly) difficult for a dilettante like me to grok in fullness, but I think I got the high points.

But (for me) the knock-down argument for free will is one adapted from Caltech physicist Sean Carroll: tomorrow morning when you want to get dressed, go stand in front of your closet and try saying: "Well, I'll just stand here and let the atoms in my body do whatever they were deterministically going to do anyway." Wait as long as you need to before you're convinced that that the atoms in your body aren't gonna get that clothes-picking job done for you. Or go to work in your jammies. Your call.