Approaching free will

6 May 2021

Professor Christian List works at the point where philosophy, mathematics, psychology and political science intersect. He holds the new Chair of Philosophy and Decision Theory at LMU.

Prof. Christian List | © LMU

What do we encounter at every fork in the road? A decision. But do we decide out of our own free will? Or do certain physical and neurological laws determine our actions? Philosopher Christian List is convinced that free will does exist. “Looking at it in the right context, we see that free will is indispensable if we are to explain the world in which we live.” Professor List was appointed to LMU’s newly established Chair of Philosophy and Decision Theory in January. In his capacity as Co-Director of the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, he works at the point where philosophy, mathematics, psychology and political science intersect.

Free will has repeatedly been a theme of his work, and his book Why Free Will is Real, published by Harvard University Press in 2019, unequivocally backs its existence. “In philoso-phy, free will – alongside consciousness and, say, intentionality – is one of the central concepts in our fundamental understanding of the distinctiveness of human actions and decisions.”

That said, “heated debates” are currently raging over the extent to which recent findings in neurology, psychology and physics challenge the conventional philosophical take on such topics as human responsibility. “According to one now quite influential school of thought, free will is a mere illusion, humans are a kind of biophysical machine that is 100 percent predetermined, and the way they work is an inevitable product of natural laws.”

Christian List thinks that if this school of thought were to prevail, that would have a major influence on what we understand by the concept of responsibility – not only in criminal and civil law, but also in everyday ideas about morality. “It would of course be intellectually dubious to ignore the insights gained by physics, the life sciences, neurology and social science,” List explains. “Over the years, however, my work has brought me to the conclusion that it is genuinely possible to argue for the existence of free will based on what we know about decision-making behaviors across every aspect of the humanities and the social sciences.” If one develops a sufficiently non-reductionist picture of human action, he goes on, arguments against free will can be robustly refuted.

List’s interest in science was kindled from an early age. Growing up in Germany’s Taunus region and attending high school beneath the fabled Lorelei cliff (in St. Goarshausen), he developed a “version of the Pascal programming language that featured object-oriented elements” for the Jugend forschttalent competition.

His involvement gave him more than just victory in the mathematics/informatics category: Above all, it also opened his mind to the sciences – “especially to the combination of mathematics and philosophy”. While studying for a bachelor’s degree in both of these subjects at Oxford, he nurtured a growing interest in questions of political philosophy. During his subsequent master’s course in political science, also in Oxford, he became fascinated especially by a subject called social choice theory. “A better name for it might be ‘collective decision theory,” List reflects, “which uses mathematical models to describe and explain collective decision-making processes such as election procedures in a very elegant, generalized form.”

Professor List was particularly excited by what are called “impossibility theorems”, which, for example, show that some of the requirements placed on an ideal democratic election procedure cannot be met simultaneously.

The doctoral thesis he wrote in Oxford, officially under the aegis of political science, again concerned itself with both mathematical and philosophical questions about collective decisions. Toward the end of his dissertation, he spent several months conducting research at the Australian National University in Canberra, followed by an academic year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, where he worked at the Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences. Postdoctoral fellowships in Oxford and Canberra were succeeded by a position as Lecturer and later Professor at the London School of Economics. With the exception of several visiting fellowships in the United States, Australia and Europe, he taught and conducted research there for 17 years. Focusing especially on individual and collective decision-making and the capacity for intentional action, List addressed issues such as Independence and interdependence in collective decision making: an agent-based model of nest-site choice by honeybee swarms (about decision-making processes among animals), Where do preferences come from? (about the structure of preferences) and Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents (about groups as actors).

Professor List took up his new post at LMU Munich in January of this year. One important factor in his decision to accept the chair was the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP), he says. “The center that Professors Hartmann and Leitgeb have set up is second to none in the world as a crystallization point in the field of formal and mathemati-cal philosophy.”

List was equally attracted by the Faculty of Philosophy’s broad orientation overall and its strengths in a wide range of research areas. Another – more personal – reason for his move was Brexit, “with its repercussions for the political and social climate in Great Britain.”

Alongside further research into free will, the professor’s core topics at LMU primarily include theories regarding individual and group decisions. “How can you describe them convincingly using mathematical models? And how do you explain the tension between our ideal, rational and actual actions?” the philosopher asks.

“For me, though, the central philosophical question is this: Where do human actions and decisions fit into the universe, nature, and the world against the backdrop of a worldview shaped by natural laws and science?” This phenomenon – mind and action – is as astonishing as it is surprising, he be-lieves. Despite the fact that we encounter it at every fork in the road.

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