List’s Free Argument

We are constructing the concept as we try to answer; and since it is bound to so many different features, we construct answers that fit those that the question makes most salient. [1]

This is a schematic on Christian List’s argument that free will is real.  This philosopher’s attempt was brought to my attention by Scientific American.  This will be helpful to anyone interested in following the posts on free will.  It is probably the most thorough and well-argued case on free will although I haven’t sampled everything.  For me, List reinforced the importance of objective relativism.

Free Will in the everyday sense means we can:

  • choose certain courses of action (free will),
  • maintain the choices over time (will) and
  • in the face of contrary desires (willpower),
  • and then act upon them.” [1].

Free Will in the everyday sense is equivalent to intentional agency:

  • is an agent’s capacity to choose. [alternative possibilities]
  • and control his or her own actions. [causal control] [2]

How to Show that Free Will Is Real: List claims that any believable Free Will argument has to include all three

  1. Intentional Agency – the capacity to act in an intentional way
    1. problem: whether or not intentional agency is a real phenomenon
    2. List tries to demonstrate that it is real by showing the following:
      1. indispensable to the fields of social and behavioral psychology
      2. it is an emergent property of the physical level not reducible to it
      3. it is a real phenomenon according to the philosophy of realism
  2. Alternative Possibilities – I could have chosen otherwise
    1. we have to show that there are at least two options open to us
  3. Causal Control – actions are caused by intentional mental states
    1. show that intentions cause actions and are indispensable to science

*Note that Christian List assumes that intentional agency is an appropriate model for free action.  So then he just has to show that intentional agency is indispensable to psychology and independent of the physical level.

The Problems Encountered Are Real

  1. Reductionism – science is reductionistic and prefers mechanisms over intentions
    1. Problem:  science claims that the intentional level can be reduced to the physical level 
    2. Solution: show that we cannot reduce the intentional level to the physical level 
      1. prove not equivalent by imposing tests and conditions to be met
        1. the concept in the physical must also occur in the intentional level
        2. this concept must substitute as having scientific explanatory power
        3. note: equivalence is not one of semantic equivalence
        4. e.g., temperature and kinetic energy mean different things but equivalent
      2. fails since intentional understood in terms of semantic and logical senses and physical in causal.
      3. prove that it’s not just a conceptual difference but that they both are logically independent
  2. Physical Determinism – physical events are determined by prior causes that make a chain-of-events
    1. Problem: we can’t say free will exists because our choices would be predetermined
    2. Solution: show that there can be physical determinism without intentional determinism 
      1. show that the physical level is conceptually not compatible with the intentional level
      2. claim that intentional level is indeterministic which is random and not predetermined
      3. provide a buffer claim that indeterminism is neither necessary nor sufficient to free will
      4. prove the independence of levels with the concept of “supervenience with multiple realizability”
      5. use the philosophy of realism to argue that intentional level is a real phenomenon
  3. Epiphenomenalism – all intentions are really just physical phenomena needing to be explained
    1. Problem:  which causal hypothesis best explains the regularities and patterns of human agency?
      1. intentional states (beliefs, desires, preferences) or physical states (various mechanisms)?
    2. Solution: show that intentions are caused by intentional mental states not physical ones
      1. show that it is a mistake to think that cause and effect is exclusive to the physical level
      2. show that cause and effect really isn’t the cause and effect that we know it is
      3. show that mental states are emergent phenomena and supervene physical states
      4. show that the intentionality level is indispensable to social and behavioral science
      5. use the philosophy of realism to show that higher-order causation exists

* Note that science means neuroscience.  Also note that not all social and behavioral scientists would agree that we can’t or shouldn’t explain agent-like behavior by more fundamental mechanisms, like at the level of neurotransmitters and so forth.


i) Objective relativism is just another category like anything else, but it reminds us that what may be true within one framework, paradigm, frame, or reference point, may not be true in another.


[1] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[2] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”

Intentionally Rational

The intentional agency concept, which means humans act in accordance with their goals and is a restatement of rational choice theory, is typically thought of as an acceptable way of showing, in both a philosophical and scientific sense, that we have free will, and is also a way of predicting behavior using means-end rationality.  There can’t be any dispute that we act in goal-oriented ways, but the exact nature of how we reason when making choices and how much control we think we have affects how fair free-will is.

The utilitarian person, for whom rationality is economic rationality—the maximization of utility—does not exist.  Real human beings are not, for the most part, in conscious control of-or even consciously aware of-their reasoning.   People seldom engage in a form of economic reason that could maximize utility. [1] (i)

What I have learned is that when we are using intentional agency to reason with we can’t reduce down to the physical-level and talk about causes that involve neuroscience or biochemistry.  Trust me I have tried.  The physical and intentional are fundamentally incompatible.  This is because the concept intentional is understood relative to other concepts by logical and semantic relationships not causal.  So this is a way that philosophers maintain that intentional agency will never be reduced to the physical level.

A system of propositional attitudes must inevitably fail to capture what is going on here, though it may reflect just enough superficial structure to sustain an alchemylike tradition among folk who lack any better theory. [2]

Materialists and reductionists, which are scientists, would love to do away with intentional agency.  I am giving intentional agency a chance since Christian List claims that it’s “indispensable to the social and behavioral sciences”, and I explain it below and test with inputs.  But if it is wrong in a fundamental way on human nature, then perhaps it doesn’t capture the essence of free will.

Intentional Agency 

Despite claiming that rational choice theory—a sophisticated version of intentional agency—falls short of describing how we think and behave, intentional agency is not to be dismissed because it has practical value.  It, however, has its limits in what it can explain.  “Intentional agency” constitutes a form of free will, and thus shows its existence.  But that is not good enough since we would have to show that we have “alternative possibilities” and that we are the cause of our acts or “causal control” [2].

Free will is a lot of things, but one popular way of conceptualizing is with intentional agency, which is the capacity to act free and purposeful.  To be an intentional agent, we must have beliefs (representational states) on how things are, desires (motivational) on how we want these things to be, and have the capacity to interact with our surroundings to attain these things [2].  Beliefs are propositions that are assumed true that we act on by means of our desires.  These beliefs are about something and have meaning.

We just defined a simple model.  For the model to meet the condition of instrumentally rational, then the system’s beliefs must be consistent, the beliefs respond coherently with the information received, and its actions are effectively guided by its desires, given its beliefs [2].  This requirement of being instrumentally rational of course does not always happen as we often harbor inconsistent beliefs, and we don’t always respond effectively to our desires.  The point here is that we have the intention to do something.

Intentionality Works

We can test if an agent is an intentional agent if we can hypothesize what its intentional states (beliefs, desires, and preferences) are but assume that they will be instrumentally rational.  If they act in a rational way, then we made a correct prediction.  We must use caution because a thermostat would qualify for an intentional agent (it’s actually best modeled as a negative feedback system).  If we want to be exclusive, then we impose conditions to meet like it having to be indispensable for explanatory purposes [2].

To illustrate, suppose we believe that we can get our car washed.  We believe that we can get our car washed is an attitude reflected in reality.  Since we believe that it is true that we can get our car washed, then we are probably also motivated to do it.  So we can explain the car washing act, which is what psychology does—explains actions in terms of beliefs, desires, and preferences—by saying that the agent believed that they were capable of getting the car washed, wanted to do it, and therefore act to meet a need.

For a test on robustness, I will give a more complicated but real example.  Let us say we believe that all people are self-interested and have a desire to not share gossip.  What if we are in a situation where we spill the beans and gossip come pouring out?  This happens to people a lot, and they claim that they have no control over it.  Some social and evolutionary psychologists theorize that it has survival value to our species when we share the status of others, which may create a conflicting desire to share gossip (ii).

We can’t have two conflicting motivational states though because it wouldn’t be consistent and the model wouldn’t work — that is, the real inputs that I gave would not work with instrumental rationality.  I need to put some more thought into this because philosophers claim that it is off-limits because we can’t import neuroscience into it.  They then use it to prove free will.


i) Intentionality, which is what people do when they maximize their benefits in life, seems to imply that we have conscious control over our beliefs, desires, and preferences.  We don’t have the perceived control that we think we do.  This is not a threat to intentional agency as it is only saying that we don’t reason, which results in action, in a kind of way that is portrayed by economists.

It is not suggesting that we aren’t self-interested, but it is saying that there is more to human nature than self-interest.  We certainly are rational in the sense that we respond to consequences, tradeoffs, incentives, and can act in a purposeful way, but intentional agency does not seem to do justice to the nuances and complexity found with real human reason and behavior.

It is no surprise that the cause of a subject’s action in a psychological experiment, such as his or her hand movement, is not a conscious intention but some underlying physical, neural state. Libet’s experiments, it appears, merely confirm what theoretical considerations imply already—namely, that we do not have the intentional control over our actions that we conventionally think we have. [2]

ii) I said not to gossip is the desire because we have the belief of being self-interested.  If people are self-interested, then they will use the gossip in a way that serves their interests.  But social science says we may have a conflicting belief to share gossip because it has survival value.  So we have competing desires which the system doesn’t like.


[1] Lakoff, George. Philosophy in the Flesh.

[2] List, Christian.  Why Free Will Is Real.

Free to Detangle

This is an intro to the problem of free will.  I want to compare my approach, which is about illumination, to other philosophers’ approaches in hopes of highlighting the many facets of free will.  Others’ approach to the problem reflects their keen insight (i) that the understanding of free will must be framed in terms of what we value and not get “lost in the ivory tower of irrelevancies.”

After reading most of Daniel Dennett and other philosopher’s material, they have convinced me that making a case for free will is not about needing it to exist but that there is a scientific case to be made that it does exist.  At first glance, it appeared to be motivated by a need to be pragmatic—it works for the legal system and makes sense—and to only assert to have a scientific basis.

But there was more to it as a lot of it corroborated with my understanding of how social and personality psychologists understand free will.  I will argue that belief in free will can result in indignation once we realize that ninety–five percent of our thoughts are unconscious and that, as Sam Harris puts it, “we are not the conscious source of our thoughts and actions”(ii).

Philosophers talk of intentional agency, but this model leaves out details.  There are facts from academia that will tell us how much control we have over our actions that matters to how fair free will is.  I can’t argue that free will doesn’t exist because I have the freedom to “act” and “I” am “I”.  But we can’t stop there because of how much free will and in what sense matters.

Even if my choices are entirely determined in advance, I still make decisions, and my decisions are still caused by who I am and what I know—my thoughts and desires and personality—just as they must be if I am to be “free” in any sense that matters.  And because I am still their cause, I can still be praised or blamed for them.  [1]


i) We must start with the everyday sense of free will because it only has value when understood in that sense.  Free will is important to us because it has the ability to either punish or reward us.  It is so obvious that it takes thought to figure this out.

ii). This is in desperate need of clarification and warning.  It makes no difference if we feel that we are not the author of our thoughts and feelings.  The mind projects a sense of self that is like a third-party observer and our intuitions appear to come from nowhere.

If it is not “I” receiving the intuitions, then who is it?  We simply cannot argue that it is not us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t argue that the existence of free will makes us feel indignation.  But this is a different kind of question, no longer an ontological one.

“Harris shrinks the me to a dimensionless point, ‘the witness’ who is stuck in the Cartesian Theater awaiting the decisions made elsewhere. That is simply a bad theory of consciousness.” Indeed.  – Daniel Dennett


[1]  Carrier, Richard.  Sense and Goodness Without God. Apple Books.

I’ll cite more references when I get the chance this evening.

A Simple Choice

Free will justification is fundamentally the inability to admit that others have been, or will be, less lucky in life than you. Belief in free will means never having to acknowledge your own great good fortune, or recognise the far greater misfortune of others.

It should surely be sad enough that some have forced upon them the losing hands in the lottery of birth and upbringing, while many of us—generally the wealthier, the better-educated, the more attractive, the lighter-skinned—coast though life with barely a hiccup. [1]

Free will exists from the standpoint of our legal system but not from some neuroscientists.  Here, I am ambivalent if free will exists or not, but in the next post, I have decided to argue that it doesn’t exist.  I am sure that my hypothesis that “it exists for all practical purposes and that we should believe in it”, will be confirmed.  But depending upon how we circumscribe what “choice” is and what “you” and “I” as agents are, I believe a case can be made that it is but an illusion that is used primarily for social control. (iv)

Free Will and Self-Interest  

Free will is a self-serving concept.  Theologians use it as a tool to make their religion work, and we use it to hold others accountable.  Free will is shorthand for blameworthiness—we blame others—or creditworthiness—we take credit for our smart decisions.  The quote spells out the other problem with its belief—as in we end up ignoring the luck (v), good or bad, that biology bestows upon us.

After all, we are rational individuals, which makes us superior, and deserve credit for our good decisions and behaviors.  To say that it was luck is to say that it wasn’t us, or worse, it is to say we are superior.  By contrast, to admit to bad luck is to admit to inferiority.  The bad decisions and behaviors in life?  Well, they were irrational.  They were irrational because we are supposed to be rational.

The Will of Adam and Eve

Free will is having the ability to choose.  In everyday use, that is what it is left at and is where philosophy starts from.  That is how Catholics can condemn us to eternal damnation.  Catholics say that we have a choice to love God or not.  If we don’t, then it was our choice.  But love is not a choice made but a phenomenon to be explained—an either-or decision only to those who serve to benefit.

What about the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis where they made a choice to not obey God (i)?  They made a conscious choice to disobey God and took from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  According to Augustine of Hippo (ii), this was “the fall” of humankind and the “original sin”.  What thoughts do you think Adam and Eve had before they took from the tree of knowledge?

They must have been flooded with dopamine and endorphins over the excitement as the tree sounds tempting.  The nagging voice of fear of God’s wrath, if their minds were working well, would seep in but at the young age they were at, decision making isn’t as rational (iii) as the economists want you to believe.  There are details in-between a causal chain of events of a choice that matter.

The pleasure center, which consists of the dorsal striatum and nucleus accumbens, has a high density of dopamine receptor sites when we are young, making us hypersensitive to pleasure and allure.  So we are on an unequal footing when young.  Was it fair for God to give youngsters a choice like that?  He must have understood the concept of the pleasure center as he is all-knowing.


i) No, I do not view Genesis as something that literally happened!  These are fictional characters meant to tell a story about Israel’s beginnings in a very symbolic way.

ii) Most old testament scholars believe that the author did not intend this act to be the original sin, passed down to other generations, nor is there any mentioning of the term “The Fall” in the text.  This is Augustine’s interpretation.

iii) If by rational we mean that we respond to incentives, trade-offs, and consequences, then, yes, we can be rational.  But not in the sense that is used by an economist when they discuss homo econonomicus.

iv) Of course it is used for good things too, as it is all about morality, but that is no fun now is it.

v) Luck is both biology and other chance factors.


[1] Miles, James B. The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality.