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.”


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we do stuff on purpose which implies free to act

    I don’t think anybody seriously doubts that. The “free will” question involves what sets our purposes, and the proposal that “we do” immediately triggers an infinite regress, among other problems.

    • musing says

      Thanks. I appreciate this comment. You will have to elaborate some more on the infinite regress problem. There have to be many different ways to set the boundaries of the problem, but I am still just viewing it in the everyday sense and then breaking the terms down into scientific terms to see if it works. I realize that it may seem that no one doubts that we do things on purpose but neuroscience claims that it is but an illusion because events are already in motion before we make a choice. The neuroscientist’s argument seems more like an argument on perceived control than on the ontological status of free will.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    If the universe is, at the level of fundamental particles and their interactions, deterministic, I would love to see how it could possibly become indeterministic at another level (whether you call it macroscopic, or psychological, or whatever) without introducing the supernatural.

    There is no doubt that, in going from fundamental particles to complex molecules or large numbers of particles, principles emerge which are not at all obvious at the lower level. If that is not simply a question of complexity, I’ve yet to see a compelling argument.

    The fixation on notions like free will seems to me to be a hangover from theology, rife with vague, badly defined terms. A major motivation seems to hinge on the question of responsibility. Again, I don’t get that. Consider the sentence ‘I don’t want to be murdered’. The terms ‘I’ and ‘want’ are certainly loaded, complicated, emergent terms, but they certainly don’t negate determinism. And if someone commits murder, we put them where they can’t do it again. And we call that ‘taking responsibility’. More loaded terms, but again, saying nothing either way about determinism.

  3. musing says

    I don’t know if everyone gets out of the determinism problem, as Christian List does, by creating a buffer to a rebuttal and say that indeterminism is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to prove free will is real and then say, by the way, the higher-level is indeterministic. I don’t know how everyone solves this problem. It may not even be a problem too. We model a lot of higher and lower-order phenomena with probability density functions, which are based on the laws of probability and chance. If the model works and predicts, then you use it.

    I think this notion of deterministic is mainly a philosophical one. By philosophical I mean they just try to fit stuff into categories by necessary and sufficient conditions. It is what it is. List also tries to water-down cause and effect and say that it isn’t what we think it is in order to appeal to the type of causes on the intentional level will be slightly different than the ones on the physical level. But he doesn’t need to do this. Because I agree with him that cause and effect is just a concept that may take on a different meaning depending upon the level of description we are using it at.

    I don’t know where the concept of free will originated from, but I’m sure it goes back far and everyone relies on it not just religion. But that is a good point that religion in particular gets out of a lot of stuff by making life’s decisions a binary choice. As far as being loaded, you will have to elaborate with an example of what you mean by that. On the topic of responsibility, namely punishment, studies do show that we are more likely to perceive that we did something on purpose if the outcome was morally bad as opposed to good [1]. That is an area that would be interesting to explore. We will also hold people accountable with or without the concept of free will because we naturally see agency in one another.

    As much pressure neuroscience is placing on free will, I don’t, however, think the legal system seriously has or ever needs to engage in the ontological question of free will from either a scientific or philosophical perspective. The reason is that the legal system has practical aims. Think about criminal law’s justifications for punishment: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. Most of these could care less if free will exists since it is about keeping society safe and balancing the moral checkbook. I don’t know if this is representative of all lawyer scholars on criminal law, but here is an opinion, a dated one, that could be correct by Herbert Packer.

    Very simply, the law treats man’s conduct as autonomous and willed, not because it is, but because it is desirable to proceed as if it were.

    This topic is feeling worn to me, but I wanted to see for myself. Philosophers do make a good case that it exists and for all practical purposes it should, but it seems like just an academic or philosophical exercise to show that it is real, which it is. The question is how much-perceived control do we really have once we factor in the influences, such as what is found within our social environment and temperaments. That is probably where I will turn next after this philosophical obsession dissipates. I also want to explore through social scientists and neuroscientists how much of it is but an illusion of control. Even this doesn’t matter because the illusion of control obviously has benefits that outweigh the costs otherwise we wouldn’t still have it.

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