Reading Time: 3 minutes By Dean Hochman from Overland Park, Kansas, U.S. (arrows) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes

This is a pretty good conversation between Michael Shermer and Dr Christian List of the LSE.

YouTube video

List sets out three conditions for his version of free will, which he argues humans ( and others to differing degrees have):

  1. Intentional agency
  2. Alternative possibilities between which we can choose
  3. Causal control over our actions

So only goal-directed, intentional agents can have free will. Well, there is nothing unusual here; we could agree, in principle, with this. But the idea set out here is that if you look at the level of molecular biology and synapses, you are not going to see free will. In the same way that unemployment is a higher phenomenon – and it is real – that emerges out of complex interactions of people at a smaller level of physical processes, free will (List states) is an ontologically real thing that emerges out of such physical and arguably determined complexity.

An intentional agent, he says, is an entity that has some representations of its environment, motivations as to what it would like to achieve in the environment, and then the capacity to interact systematically with the environment in the context of the first two. It has beliefs and actions. These can be relatively simple (a dog and possibly, at a stretch, a thermostat), or very rich indeed, such as with a human. All mammals are intentional agents, but humans are the apex of this group.

Interestingly, List also points out that corporations could be argued to be intentional agents (though he denies them human rights as he also would AI if it developed intentional agency).

The main source of List’s approach against causal determinism is that even if one can establish determinism at the microscopic level (say, atoms in the human body) this does not mean that the human is deterministic at the macroscopic level. He invokes the example of weather. Though he doesn’t use the term “chaotic system”, this is what he is talking about. It gets back to previous conversations we have had here concerning whether chaotic systems are deterministic or not. There are different ways of looking at and interpreting such systems. But, as Wikipedia states:

Small differences in initial conditions, such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation, yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction of their behavior impossible in general.[2][3] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[4] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[5][6] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. The theory was summarized by Edward Lorenz as:[7]

Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

Chaotic behavior exists in many natural systems, such as weather and climate.[8][9] It also occurs spontaneously in some systems with artificial components, such as road traffic.[10] This behavior can be studied through analysis of a chaotic mathematical model, or through analytical techniques such as recurrence plots and Poincaré maps. Chaos theory has applications in several disciplines, including meteorology, anthropology,[11][12]sociologyphysics,[13]environmental sciencecomputer scienceengineeringeconomicsbiologyecology, and philosophy. The theory formed the basis for such fields of study as complex dynamical systemsedge of chaos theory, and self-assembly processes.

From every source I can find, weather appears to be classically chaos-deterministic – deterministic but unpredictable to humans in a pragmatic sense. I am dubious when this is given as an example for free will in supposedly providing alternative possibilities to the outcome of identical initial conditions. But List and Shermer seem content with the explanatory value of saying “it’s just down to levels” or similar. I never get the sense that they explain this previous analogy and I think the concept of unemployment on a macro scale being different to molecules on a micro scale is a false differentiation and both can be determined.

It turns out that much of List’s issue with determinism is in light of pragmatism and having to shelve praise and blame and change our legal system. Yes. That is what it entails, but this should not interfere with ideas of veracity. I’m not sure I really get his “really strong case” for his “libertarian compatibilism”.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...