It's an academic philosophy tome -- fairly well-written and clear for such, but still possessing the dry and measured style that comes with that genre.
But the ideas are quite interesting!
Walter addresses the problem: what kind of variant of the intuitive "free will" concept might be compatible with what neuroscience and physics tell us.
He decomposes the intuitive notion of free will into three aspects:
- Freedom: being able to do otherwise
- Intelligibility: being able to understand the reasons for one's actions
- Agency: being the originator of one's actions
He argues, as many others have done, that there is no way to salvage the three of these in their obvious forms, that is consistent with known physics and neuroscience. I won't repeat those arguments here. [There are much better references, but I summarized some of the literature here, along with some of my earlier ideas on free will (which don't contradict Walter's ideas, but address different aspects)]
Walter then argues for a notion of "natural autonomy," which replaces the first and third of these aspects with weaker things, but has the advantage of being compatible with known science.
First I'll repeat his capsule summary of his view, and then translate it into my own language, which may differ slightly from his intentions.
He argues that "we possess natural autonomy when
- under very similar circumstances we could also do other than what we do (because of the chaotic nature of the brain)
- this choice is understandable (intelligible -- it is determined by past events, by immediate adaptation processes in the brain, and partially by our linguistically formed environment)
- it is authentic (when through reflection loops with emotional adjustments we can identify with that action)"
The way I think about this is that, in natural autonomy as opposed to free will,
- Freedom is replaced with: being able to do otherwise in very similar circumstances
- Agency is replaced with: emotionally identifying one's phenomenal self as closely dynamically coupled with the action
Another way to phrase this is: if an action is something that
- depends sensitively on our internals, in the sense that slight variations in the environment or our internals could cause us to do something significantly different
- we can at least roughly model and comprehend in a rational way, as a dynamical unfolding from precursors and environment into action was closely coupled with our holistic structure and dynamics, as modeled by our phenomenal self
then there is a sense in which "we own the action." And this sense of "ownership of an action" or "natural autonomy" is compatible with both classical and quantum physics, and with the known facts of neurobiology.
Perhaps "owning an action" can take the place of "willing an action" in the internal folk psychology of people who are not comfortable with the degree to which the classical notion of free will is illusory.
Another twist that Walter doesn't emphasize is that even actions which we do own, often
- depend with some statistical predictability upon our internals, in the sense that agents with very similar internals and environments to us, have a distinct but not necessarily overwhelming probabilistic bias to take similar actions to us
This is important for reasoning rationally about our own past and future actions -- it means we can predict ourselves statistically even though we are naturally autonomous agents who own our own actions.
Free will is often closely tied with morality, and natural autonomy retains this. People who don't "take responsibility for their actions" in essence aren't accepting a close dynamical coupling between their phenomenal self and their actions. They aren't owning their actions, in the sense of natural autonomy -- they are modeling themselves as NOT being naturally autonomous systems, but rather as systems whose actions are relatively uncoupled with their phenomenal self, and perhaps coupled with other external forces instead.
None of this is terribly shocking or revolutionary-sounding -- but I think it's important nonetheless. What's important is that there are rational, sensible ways of thinking about ourselves and our decisions that don't require the illusion of free will, and also don't necessarily make us feel like meaningless, choiceless deterministic or stochastic automata.