This page contains a list of the six best books on free will. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on free will” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on free will. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on free will. Here are the best books on free will in no particular order:
Free Will: A Very Short Introduction – Thomas Pink
Publisher description: Every day we seem to make and act upon all kinds of choices: some trivial, others so consequential that they change the course of one’s life, or even the course of history. But are these choices really free, or are we compelled to act the way we do by factors beyond our control? Is the feeling that we could have made different decisions just an illusion? And if our choices are not free, is it legitimate to hold people morally responsible for their actions?
Thomas Pink looks at the fundamental philosophical question of free will, critically examining the claim: If our actions are causally determined by events beyond our control, that means that we can never act freely, and so can never be held responsible for our actions.
A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will – Robert Kane
Publisher description: Accessible to students with no background in the subject, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will provides an extensive and up-to-date overview of all the latest views on this central problem of philosophy. Opening with a concise introduction to the history of the problem of free will–and its place in the history of philosophy–the book then turns to contemporary debates and theories about free will, determinism, and related subjects like moral responsibility, coercion, compulsion, autonomy, agency, rationality, freedom, and more. Classical compatibilist and new compatibilist theories of free will are considered along with the latest incompatibilist or libertarian theories and the most recent skeptical challenges to free will. Separate chapters are devoted to the relation of free will to moral responsibility and ethics; to modern science; and to religious questions about predestination, divine foreknowledge, and human freedom. Numerous down-to-earth examples and challenging thought experiments enliven the text. The book is an ideal addition to introduction to philosophy, metaphysics, and free will courses.
Four Views on Free Will – Fischer, Kane, Pereboom, & Vargas
Publisher description: Focusing on the concepts and interactions of free will, moral responsibility, and determinism, this text represents the most up-to-date account of the four major positions in the free will debate.
- Four serious and well-known philosophers explore the opposing viewpoints of libertarianism, compatibilism, hard incompatibilism, and revisionism
- The first half of the book contains each philosopher’s explanation of his particular view; the second half allows them to directly respond to each other’s arguments, in a lively and engaging conversation
- Offers the reader a one of a kind, interactive discussion
- Forms part of the acclaimed Great Debates in Philosophy series
Free Will – Gary Watson
Publisher description: The new edition of this highly successful text will once again provide the ideal introduction to free will. This volume brings together some of the most influential contributions to the topic of free will during the past 50 years, as well as some notable recent work.
The Oxford Handbook of Free Will – Robert Kane
Publisher description: This second edition of the Oxford Handbook of Free Will is intended to be a sourcebook and guide to current work on free will and related subjects. Its focus is on writings of the past forty years, in which there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional issues about the freedom of the will in the light of new developments in the sciences, philosophy and humanistic studies. Special attention is given to research on free will of the first decade of the twenty-first century since the publication of the first edition of the Handbook. All the essays have been newly written or rewritten for this volume. In addition, there are new essayists and essays surveying topics that have become prominent in debates about free will in the past decade, including new work on the relation of free will to physics, the neurosciences, cognitive science, psychology and empirical philosophy, new versions of traditional views (compatibilist, incompatibilist, libertarian, etc.) and new views (e.g., revisionism) that have emerged. The twenty-eight essays by prominent international scholars and younger scholars cover a host of free will related issues, such as moral agency and responsibility, accountability and blameworthiness in ethics, autonomy, coercion and control in social theory, criminal liability, responsibility and punishment in legal theory, issues about the relation of mind to body, consciousness and the nature of action in philosophy of mind and the cognitive and neurosciences, questions about divine foreknowledge, providence and human freedom in philosophy of religion, and general metaphysical questions about necessity and possibility, determinism, time and chance, quantum reality, causation and explanation.
Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting – Daniel C. Dennett
Publisher description: In this landmark 1984 work on free will, Daniel Dennett makes a case for compatibilism. His aim, as he writes in the preface to this new edition, was a cleanup job, “saving everything that mattered about the everyday concept of free will, while jettisoning the impediments.” In Elbow Room, Dennett argues that the varieties of free will worth wanting―those that underwrite moral and artistic responsibility―are not threatened by advances in science but distinguished, explained, and justified in detail.
Dennett tackles the question of free will in a highly original and witty manner, drawing on the theories and concepts of fields that range from physics and evolutionary biology to engineering, automata theory, and artificial intelligence. He shows how the classical formulations of the problem in philosophy depend on misuses of imagination, and he disentangles the philosophical problems of real interest from the “family of anxieties” in which they are often enmeshed―imaginary agents and bogeymen, including the Peremptory Puppeteer, the Nefarious Neurosurgeon, and the Cosmic Child Whose Dolls We Are. Putting sociobiology in its rightful place, he concludes that we can have free will and science too. He explores reason, control and self-control, the meaning of “can” and “could have done otherwise,” responsibility and punishment, and why we would want free will in the first place. A fresh reading of Dennett’s book shows how much it can still contribute to current discussions of free will.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Free Will
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Free Will
If you’d like to learn more about Free Will, check out this collection of beginner friendly resources on Free Will.
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