Why emergent levels will not save free will (1)

Photo: Rene Böhmer / Unsplash

Christian List, a German professor in the London School of Economics, is one of the most prolific and intelligent authors in the new generation of philosophers of social science. He has authored and co-authored a formidable number of extremely interesting papers in areas like social choice, formal epistemology, judgment aggregation, deliberative democracy or political philosophy, and will with all security become one of the “classics” in many of those fields for the younger generations. I have admired his work since I started to know it more than fifteen years ago, and have most often felt persuaded by the cleverness and sophistication of his arguments. It was an intellectual surprise for me, hence, to discover that there was an issue in which we are in radical disagreement: the topic of free will, on which, as you shall probably remember, I have expressed my skeptical views on this very same website.

List has recently mounted a systematic attack towards skeptic positions like mine, most importantly in his recent book Why Free Will Is Real, 1 of which you can see a summary by List himself here. He starts by explaining that real free will presupposes the existence of the following properties:

  • intentional, goal-directed agency,
  • alternative possibilities among which we can choose, and
  • causation of our actions by our mental states, especially by our intentions.

His argument mainly consists in trying to proof that contemporary science is compatible with (if not directly acknowledges) the reality of these three things. In a nutshell, skeptics

“argue that intentional agency, alternative possibilities, or mental causation cannot be found among the fundamental physical features of the world. Regardless of whether you consult particle physics, biochemistry, or even neuroscience, you won’t get around the fact that human organisms are collections of physical building blocks, all of which are ultimately governed by the laws of physics. And this, it seems, leaves very little room for intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control over our actions (…) Some arguments claim that intentional agency is an illusion. Intentionality does not fit into the physical universe. The idea that humans are agents with goals and purposes is a remnant from folk psychology, to be replaced by a more mechanistic understanding of the human organism as a bio-physical machine (…) A second set of arguments claim that if the laws of physics are deterministic, meaning that the past state of the universe – say at the time of the Big Bang – already pre-determined everything that was going to happen thereafter, then human beings could never have any alternative possibilities to choose from (…) A third set of arguments, finally, assert that it is illusory to think that our actions are caused by our intentions. When I act, it is my brain that makes me do it. Any consciously experienced mental state to which I might intuitively attribute my action is only an epiphenomenon accompanying the real, physical cause – a byproduct”.

List calls these three arguments “the challenge from materialism”, “the challenge from determinism”, and “the challenge from epiphenomenalism”, respectively.

Basically, List strategy to defend free will from these challenges is to resort to an ontological view of emergent levels of reality. It often occurs that we just cannot explain what happens at one “level” (for example, the biological level) using merely information referring to a “lower level” (for example, the level of chemistry, or of particle physics). That is completely right: nobody (perhaps not even a Laplacian demon) could know anything about, say, flowers, if she had all the possible information about fundamental particles or chemical molecules, and nothing else. And, of course, we can indeed explain lots of things about the biological properties of living beings by using biological concepts in addition to physical and chemical concepts. So, List says, biological concepts have a truly explanatory force, which means that biological causes have real causal force in the natural world. Flowers and pollination are totally legitimate inhabitants of the physical universe, though they are ‘irreducible’ to quarks and electrons. They just happen to inhabit a different, higher, emergent “level” in that world.

The same happens, according to List, to the concept of intentional causality: I can explain the behaviour of the taxi driver (to use List’s own example) by his intention to keep me to the place I told her (and by my intention to get there), though I would hardly find within her brain the specific facts that make her drive through some streets instead of others. I.e., though the taxi driver’s intentions are in a sense a ‘realisation’ of her brain’s neurological state, we just cannot track the ‘causal chain’ that makes her brain makes her drive this or other way, whereas it is perfectly simple, legitimate, and more important, empirically and pragmatically successful, to point to the ‘causal chain’ in which her driving is caused by her intentions. Causal intentions, hence, are not ‘eliminated’ by modern science, any less than flowers are. Botany is a perfectly legitimate part of our scientific view of the world, as many branches of psychology and social science (including sociology, economics, history…), in which intentional causation plays a fundamental role, are. It simply happens that flowers and intentional agency belong into different emergent levels of our complex and rich natural world.

It is important to emphasize that, for List, these levels are not only “epistemic” (in the sense that they would be just “levels of description”, so to say), but “ontological”, in the sense that flowers, pollination, and my willing to go by taxi to Trafalgar Square, are indispensable elements of our explanations of what happens in the world, and, since they are indispensable, they must refer (or we need to assume they refer) to some real elements in the world.

So far, so good. My own doubts about the reality of free will did not depend at all on the question whether “intentions are real or just epiphenomenal”: I totally admit, for example, that we really make decisions, and that decisions have real effects in the world (as well as real causes, by the way), so that decisions are not just “epiphenomenal figments”, or something like that, as I equally admit that we respire and have hair (some more than others), though lungs and hair are not describable in terms of electrons and quarks. Perhaps an author like Alex Rosenberg (whose last book 2 crazily tries to show that 99% of the science of history is wrong, because it essentially depends on the “unscientific” concept of “intentional action”) would be appropriately defeated by arguments like those of Christian List, but I don’t think that the most serious arguments against free will are touched by what I have summarized in the previous paragraphs. And the reason is not other that the key notion underlying the idea of free will is one about which we have said almost nothing yet: the existence of “alternative possibilities”. But I shall have to leave that discussion for the next entry.


  1. List, Ch., Why Free Will is Real, Harvard University Press, 2019.
  2. Rosenberg, A., How History Gets Things Wrong. The Neuroscience of Our Adiction to Stories. The MIT Press. 2018.

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