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Younger Thinkers Now Argue That Free Will Is Real

The laws of physics do not rule it out, they say

Recently, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder insisted that the laws of physics do not really allow for free will. However, science writer George Musser, the author of Spooky Action at a Distance (2015), notes that the debate around free will and physics is changing—and not in the way that many would expect. Introducing a new book by Christian List of the London School of Economics, Why Free Will Is Real (2019), he notes that List is one of a newer generation of thinkers, including cosmologist Sean Carroll and philosopher Jenann Ismael, who do not see a contradiction between “a nuanced reading of physics” and free will:

Skeptics… rely on loose intuitions about causation. They look for the causes of our actions in the basic laws of physics, yet the concept of cause does not even exist at that level, according to the broader theory of causation developed by computer scientist Judea Pearl and others. Causation is a higher-level concept. This theory is fully compatible with the view that humans and other agents are causal forces in the world. List’s book may not settle the debate—what could, after thousands of years?—but it will at least force skeptics to get more sophisticated in their own reasoning.

George Musser, “Yes, Determinists, There Is Free Will” at Nautilus

List told Musser in an interview that he considers free will to be an emergent property, that is, a property that emerges at a higher level than the basic operations of the brain:

The neuroscientific skeptic is absolutely right that, at the fundamental physical level, there is no such thing as intentional goal-directed agency. The mistake is to claim that there is no such thing at all. Intentional agency is an emergent higher-level property, but it is no less real for that. Whenever our best scientific explanations of a particular phenomenon commit us to postulating certain entities or properties, then it is very good scientific practice to treat those postulated entities or properties as genuinely real. We observe patterns and regularities in our social and human environment, and the best way to make sense of those patterns and regularities is by assigning intentional agency to the people involved.

George Musser, “Yes, Determinists, There Is Free Will” at Nautilus

Choosing whether to admit an embarrassing truth or tell a convenient lie is an emergent property in the sense that the choice doesn’t really exist at the level of quarks and leptons. It only begins to exist in a maturing human mind that can be aware of the issues involved.

Christian List

Incidentally, List also believes that AI could have one day free will and hence, moral choice:

One can have long debates about whether current AI systems are sufficiently advanced, but there is no conceptual reason why sophisticated AI systems could not qualify as bearers of free will. Much like corporate agents, which we also think should be held responsible for their actions, AI systems ideally should display a certain form of moral agency and not just rigid goal-seeking behavior in the interest of profit or whatever else their objective function might be. As we employ more and more AI systems in high-stakes settings, we would like those systems to make ethically acceptable decisions.

George Musser, “Yes, Determinists, There Is Free Will” at Nautilus

The Southern Baptist Convention, which recently issued a Statement of Principles on artificial intelligence, takes a different view: Humans cannot shed moral responsibility for decisions that the artificial intelligences we develop make:

The entire point of the moral decision-making section is that moral responsibility always belongs to a human. That is, if an AI kills someone, the AI does not deserve the blame. AIs cannot be blamed, nor can they mitigate the moral responsibility that belongs to a human.

Jonathan Bartlett, “A critic of the evangelical statement on ai misunderstands the issues” at Mind Matters News

There are good reasons for believing that the sort of fully conscious AI List envisions cannot actually be built, as Eric Holloway notes:

… anything that can be as intelligent as a human being cannot be implemented with a Turing machine, computer program, or any sort of physical mechanism (including quantum computers). Because the field of artificial intelligence only deals with ways to copy human intelligence with physical machines, then this means that the goal of copying human intelligence with artificial intelligence is impossible.

Eric Holloway, “We need a better test for true AI intelligence” at Mind Matters News

In any event, if the trend Musser notes among younger thinkers persists, the philosophical discussions around AI are not making determinism seem necessary or inevitable. And that, when you think of it, is an odd fate for determinism.

Note: You can look inside Why Free Will Is Real. Previously, List published an open-access academic paper on free will as well (List, Christian (2014) Free will, determinism, and the possibility of doing otherwise. Noûs, 48 (1).pp. 156-178. ISSN 0029-462.)

Mind Matters News offers a selection of articles on free will by neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor on free will, including

Can physics prove there is no free will? No, but it can make physicists incoherent when they write about free will. It’s hilarious. Sabine Hossenfelder misses the irony that she insists that people “change their minds” by accepting her assertion that they… can’t change their minds.

Does “alien hand syndrome” show that we don’t really have free will? One woman’s left hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Did it? Alien hand syndrome doesn’t mean that free will is not real. In fact, it clarifies exactly what free will is and what it isn’t.


Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free?

Also: Do quasars provide evidence for free will? Possibly. They certainly rule out experimenter interference.

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Younger Thinkers Now Argue That Free Will Is Real