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Freedom: An Impossible Reality by Raymond Tallis

This issue we consider ultimate human realities as Raymond Tallis has the intention of proving free will.

In the subtitle of his highly intriguing new book, Prof. Raymond Tallis calls free will ‘an impossible reality’. Though presumably somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this phrase is appropriate in capturing something of what has fascinated philosophers about free will over the centuries: it seems it cannot be, and yet nevertheless it must be. Given that all events in the natural world seem to follow the unbreakable patterns which we call ‘laws of nature’, it might appear that our actions could not be free, at least in the significant sense of having genuine alternative options for action available to us. If all natural events follow natural laws without exception, our actions could never have been otherwise, and thus cannot be freely chosen. Such a conclusion, though, is antithetical to our cherished self-image as beings with genuine agency, and thus it seems to many to be unacceptable. If philosophy declares human beings to be unfree, then so much the worse for philosophy.

Rather than taking this path, Tallis seeks to establish a compatibilist position, which says that genuine free will can exist in a world entirely ordered by the laws of nature. One potential compatibilist strategy is to redefine the traditional notion of freedom, perhaps by rejecting the idea that free will requires alternate options. Tallis takes the perhaps more difficult route of embracing our conventional understandings of both the law-governed universe and free will, and arguing that the appearance of conflict between the two is illusory.

Intentional Agency

The overall argument of the book centres on the notion of ‘intentionality’. This is a philosophical jargon term that doesn’t mean what people normally mean by ‘intention’. We can understand intentionality as the ‘aboutness’ of a mental state: so, for example, my desire to have a cat as a pet shows intentionality in being about a cat, or my perception of the cup on the table is about that particular physical object. Intentionality requires a subject or agent, as these thoughts about something are for someone. After all, an object itself can represent something else without the ‘aboutness’ of intentionality, such as the way a painting can on its own represent a landscape. But it only becomes about a landscape when it’s observed.

Tallis argues that intentionality allows for genuine agency. Intentionality allows us to engage in forms of action that are best understood as “a kind of interruption in the otherwise uninterrupted flow of events in the material world” (p.8). Being able to think about other things (that is, have intentionality) opens up a reflective space or “virtual or non-spatial outside” (p.2) for us which separates us and our thoughts in some way from the constraining laws of nature and allows us to have genuine alternatives for action. Intentionality therefore demonstrates the potential for an agency that is not simply plugged into a physical causal framework that slavishly follows the laws of nature.

Here Tallis seems to need the key assumption that intentionality doesn’t form part of the physical world, or as he puts it: “While intentionality is a fundamental and universal feature of mental states or entities, no physical entity has this feature” (p.1). In order to meet the commitment to genuine alternative options for action for free will, the agent we are looking for must have some form of semi-independence from the determinate laws of nature. The task Tallis sets himself, then, is to identify the type of agency that could only stem from a subject who is non-physical and ‘virtually outside’ in the manner he suggests. So, can he find one?

After deftly outlining some of the challenges the physicalist picture of the world poses to the notion of free will in Chapter 1, and rightly rejecting experiments in neuroscience as having any bearing on this issue, Tallis begins his argument proper in Chapter 2 with a discussion of agency and scientific method. We can make a distinction between the ‘habits of nature’, and the ‘laws of science’ understood as our evolving conception of these habits. Tallis argues for our formulation of scientific laws as “not being identical with the inherent habits of nature… [It] must belong to a virtual space outside of nature, occupied by humanity” (p.29). To me this is a puzzling claim, for why would the partial understanding of nature encapsulated in our current scientific theories not be part of nature itself?

Tallis’s key argument here is that the way we scientifically study nature shows that our scientific understanding of it must lie outside of it. This independence is shown particularily by our ability to examine nature through the isolation or manipulation of variables, such as when we test Boyle’s Law concerning the relation between pressure and volume of a gas by keeping a constant temperature. This independence he says is evidence for free agency. Tallis writes that “preparing the experiment, carrying it out, repeating it on numerous occasions, and collating the results of endless repetitions, demonstrating it to fellow scientists to persuade them of its truth, do not look like an expression of nature’s habits” – it seems to be the work of “an agent, rather than a reagent” (p.40).

While we may agree that the behaviour in scientific experimentation makes it unlikely to be carried out by anything other than a free agent, it is not entirely clear to me why scientific behaviour is more evidence of our agency than any other sort. We could, on the contrary, argue that all aspects of our behaviour presuppose a partial and ever-changing understanding of the workings of nature, not just when we are controlling variables in the rather artificial atmosphere of a scientific experiment. Further, we may question whether behaviour per se can be used as part of an argument for free will in the strong sense Tallis is committed to. Any behaviour we could point to could arguably be manifested by an agent determined by the laws of nature as much as by an incompletely determined agent. A capacity to reflect upon and manipulate the workings of nature seems a neutral point of evidence concerning whether or not we could have acted otherwise, and so, freely.

Freedom An Impossible Reality

In Chapter 3 Tallis considers the important notion of physical causation. If all events in the material world are brought about by chains of causes, then it may seem that all our physical actions are constrained by what has come before. As Tallis succinctly puts it, “If causation were an intrinsic property of nature, a material necessity binding all the events in the material world, we might be justified in viewing our actions as mere links in a causal network that weaves itself unbroken from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch” (p.79). In order to safeguard our free agency, then, Tallis argues that causation is not an intrinsic property of nature; rather, it is a result of the way in which we view the world as free agents. Pointing out, quite rightly, that our identification of causes for particular effects often depends upon our practical interests (for example, I might say a house fire is caused by the relatively unusual circumstance of the electrical short-circuit rather than by the somewhat unavoidable condition of there being oxygen present) Tallis concludes that causation is a subjective structure projected onto the world in order to connect events that hold our interest.

However, our picking events as causes in a manner that reflects our interests does not necessarily imply the causal anti-realism Tallis advocates. Following something like J.L. Mackie’s account as offered in his classic work The Cement of the Universe (1974), we can hold that events arise out of a concatenation of circumstances or conditions that we understand as a general ‘causal field’ while allowing that we may want to pick out any particular condition(s) of an event as especially important from our own practical standpoint. In this way, we can both believe that causal necessity binds all the events in the material world in a manner that potentially threatens our agency, and agree with Tallis’s point that our identification of causes can be somewhat subjective. There is also the rather pressing challenge that Tallis faces of telling us how observers came about if there were no causation before observation.

Moving on to Chapters 4 and 5, we find a very interesting discussion of how our actions seemingly depend on a complex network of intentions, reasons for action, and relations with other agents. Tallis argues that we can see as an aspect of this complexity that our behaviour relies upon a kind of intentionality once again involving envisaged possibilities that mark out human minds as embodied subjects semi-independent from nature: “Actions that take place in the material world draw on the (physically) absent and yet [mentally] present past and are motivated by possibilities… that are located in the [physically] as yet absent future. To this extent agents are not solely the products of material events but requisition them… to bring about other events” (p.168 ff.).


As interesting as Tallis’s discussion is, the argument needs to go beyond what agency seems to involve. Both sides of the debate can agree that free choice is how agency seems to operate; but the free will sceptic will not thereby feel compelled to accept the reality of agency on that basis alone. In order to establish free agency, we need to show that freedom is not merely some cherished illusion we’re simply unwilling to give up.

The book illustrates well just why philosophers have found the problem of free will so difficult, but the arguments Tallis offers seem insufficient to justify his commitment to a strong notion of free will which involves having “several possibilities genuinely open to us such that we could have done or chosen otherwise” (p.12). The most obvious option to safeguard free will may instead be to offer a reduced notion of agency that does not involve a commitment to alternative possibilities. This is the alternative path many other philosophers have chosen to take. However, this may strike many as giving up on free will too soon, and it’s particularly problematic if it means that philosophers are no longer talking about the kind of free will that would be recognisable to a non-philosophical audience. If we offer such a reduced definition of free will, instead of saving free will, have we not simply abandoned it?

I highly recommend Freedom: An Impossible Reality to anyone interested in the free will debate. Many of Tallis’s arguments I have been unable to address in this short review. And although I think some of them don’t go far enough to convince free will sceptics, I would encourage them to read this very thought-provoking book and decide for themselves. I greatly enjoyed the food-for-thought on offer, always couched in Tallis’s entertaining style.

© Jonathan Head 2022

Jonathan Head is Lecturer in Philosophy at Keele University.

Freedom: An Impossible Reality, Raymond Tallis, Agenda, 2021, £25 hb, 280 pages, ISBN: 1788213785

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