Arguments for Free Will

Years ago I wrote a post on my previous blog where I briefly outlined some arguments, off the top of my head, for free will. More recently I was approached by Christian Vision, an organization based in the UK, and asked if I could clean up the article and allow them to showcase it in English on their website, and put up a translation of it into Arabic as well. I decided to leave the previous (and relatively poorly written article) as it is, and to, here, provide a revamped version of the article which I will allow Christian Vision to use with proper acknowledgement of the source. Enjoy.


In this article I want to run through some of the arguments for libertarian free will which I feel provide a powerful cumulative case for belief in free will. The usual alternative to belief in free will is belief in determinism, and as such my arguments will be addressed to determinists. I wish, nevertheless, to acknowledge at the outset that there are some other positions one might adopt, such as so-called ‘soft-determinism’ or complete indeterminism; my arguments, though directed at determinists, should be palatable to anyone of any philosophical perspective. It is worth observing that in suggesting that free will is a genuine alternative to either determinism or indeterminism many are inclined to see a contradiction. The terms ‘determinism’ and ‘indeterminism’ are antonyms, logically excluding one another, and what one affirms the other negates. In such cases the predicates are generally thought to be disjunctively exhaustive; either something is determined, or it is not-determined. However, our grammar betrays us here. What we usually mean by ‘determinism’ (and what I will mean in what follows) is that every event is pre-determined. What we mean by indeterminism is that no event is determined. What we will mean by suggesting that freedom is an alternative to these doctrines is that a free act is determined by the individual, without being pre-determined.

What I mean by libertarian free will, often also called ‘categorical’ free will, is the notion that our actions, insofar as they are free at all, are not merely the consequences of their causal antecedents. Note that I use the very broad term ‘causal antecedents’ in order to anticipate even bizarre forms of determinism (for instance, versions of determinism which might appeal to future events causing past ones, so that causal and temporal antecedence don’t go hand-in-hand). However, in addition to a free action not following deterministically from (temporally, or logically) prior causes, we must also say that a free action must be volitional, intentional, and that it arises from the individual who is free. It would do no good to argue that determinism is false, and then end up with merely random indeterministic events (none of which can be free for the same reason causally pre-determined ones cannot be free). What we want is a decision determined by individuals, without being pre-determined by anything either within or outside of the individuals. A rough, somewhat technical definition would look something like this:

S is libertarian free =df  S has at least one choice between at least two options A and B, where no causal antecedents to S’s choice determine that S chooses either A or B, and S’s choosing of A or B is an intentional act of causally determinative volition on the part of S.

So, if a person is free in this sense then we can imagine that, if they in fact chose A given options A and B, there is a logically possible world in which that person chooses B instead, even given the exact same set of causal antecedents (whether temporally prior or not). Here we must simply be careful to understand ‘choose’ as an action of the will. We need not commit ourselves to the view that a libertarian free agent could literally have acted any differently than she did, but only that her action wasn’t causally coerced. This caveat is intended to evade the problems posed by ‘Frankfurt style counter-examples.’ Briefly, a Frankfurt style counter-example runs something like this:

“An agent S is in the process of deciding which of n alternative acts A…,Ak…,An to perform. He believes (correctly) that he cannot avoid performing some one of these acts. He decides to perform, and, acting on this decision, does perform Ak. But, unknown to him, there were various factors that would have prevented him from performing (and perhaps even from deciding to perform) any of A…,An except Ak. These factors would have “come into play” if he had shown any tendency towards performing (perhaps even towards deciding to perform) any of A…, An except Ak. But since he in fact showed no such tendency, these factors remained mere unactualized dispositions of the objects constituting his environment: they played no role whatever in his deciding to perform or in his performing Ak.”[1]

At minimum we need to maintain that an agent S’s choosing Ak is not causally coerced, though I think there is room to argue that S should have been able, at least initially, to will otherwise.

In this article I will not spend much time arguing for the coherence of libertarian free will (since plenty of excellent philosophers have already done this work, and because it would detract from my purpose here to distract myself with such a task). I will simply presume it’s coherence, and offer arguments for its truth.

What reasons have we for believing in the categorical freedom of the will? Well, first and foremost we can observe that it enjoys a strong prima facie plausibility – at face value, it seems to accord with our experiences of ourselves. Children believe in free will. They may not be able to articulate that belief with any philosophical sophistication, but, then again, most adults who don’t study philosophy can’t articulate any of their beliefs with philosophical sophistication. People in general naturally believe in free will, at least until they are persuaded to believe otherwise. An old philosophy professor of mine once joked that if you wake a determinist suddenly from his sleep he finds himself believing in free will, at least until he comes back to his ‘philosophical’ senses. The joke is anecdotal (of course), but it highlights the point that if there is such a thing as a ‘default’ position in this matter, it would be the belief in free will, and not determinism.

Determinists are, nevertheless, often under the impression that determinism is the default position, and so they forget to offer any arguments for its truth. Indeed, arguments for determinism are rare, and none of them are, all things considered, very persuasive. Somebody may think, for instance, that determinism would follow from the theses that (i) materialism (in particular about human beings) is true, and (ii) that physics operates deterministically. However, the second thesis is seriously undermined by advances in quantum mechanics which suggest to many that, at least at the quantum level, physical events occur indeterministically. The first thesis is in even worse shape, for, no matter how earnestly one may search, there is a deafening absence of any arguments for materialism in the philosophical literature. What is worse, materialism about the human mind is today considered the Achilles’ heel of materialism itself. Back in the 1960’s materialists (like J.J.C. Smart and Herbert Feigl) were optimistic about reducing the mind to the brain, but all attempts to work out this reduction failed miserably and quickly. As one materialist philosopher laments:

“For many of us who, like me, went to graduate school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smart’s and Feigl’s materialism was our first encounter with the mind-body problem as a systematic philosophical problem. Their approach sounded refreshingly bold and tough-minded, and seemed in tune with the optimistic scientific temper of the times. It was an intriguing and exciting idea that mental events could just be brain processes, and that scientific research could show this, just as science showed us that light was electromagnetic radiation, and that genes were DNA molecules. But the identity theory was unexpectedly short lived – its precipitous fall began only several years after its introduction.”[2]

Reductive materialism about the mind fell still-born from the academic presses, and even today the mind and mental properties (such as intentionality, and ‘qualia,’ which seem immune to materialistic reduction) pose the greatest problem for materialism in general, not to mention materialism about human beings in particular. What other arguments are there for determinism? Not many. What arguments are there for free will? Many.

To begin with, belief in free will seems epistemically justified. I already noted that it enjoys a prima facie plausibility, but now I want to go further and suggest that belief in free will is an example of what philosophers call a properly basic belief. The notion of proper basicality employed here comes from reformed epistemology, according to which a properly basic belief is a belief which we are rationally justified in maintaining even in the absence of what would normally qualify as ‘evidence,’ and which we would be irrational to reject in the absence of some overwhelmingly good reason to think we were wrong about it. Commonly used examples are belief in the external world (i.e., that we aren’t ‘in the matrix’ or just dreaming), or belief in other people’s minds (i.e., that solipsism is false). My favorite example is the belief in the reality of the past – there is no way to prove, or even provide evidence for, the belief that the past is real as opposed to the belief that the world popped into existence moments ago with the appearance of age (eg. with fossils in the ground from creatures which never lived, or food in your stomach from a meal you never ate, or even memories in your head from things you never did). There is no way to prove any of these beliefs by appealing to evidence, for no evidence counts in favor of these beliefs and counts against their alternatives. It is because of beliefs like this that many philosophers appeal to the notion of proper basicality.

A properly basic belief, then, is one which we are rationally justified in maintaining without having any demonstrative arguments for it, and which we would be irrational to abandon unless and until presented with some overwhelmingly strong argument(s). Properly basic beliefs are usually ones which we naturally come to believe, and which enjoy a strong prima facie plausibility; but belief in free will is exactly like that, and therefore seems to be a properly basic belief. Therefore, in the absence of any overwhelmingly good reason(s) to doubt that we have free will, we seem to be rationally justified in maintaining our belief in free will even in the absence of any additional arguments.

I anticipate one obvious objection to this, which is that this ‘reformed epistemology’ is just one option among many different theories of epistemology (i.e., theories of how we can know anything, where ‘knowing’ means something like having a true and justified belief). However, whatever epistemology one appeals to, there are certain beliefs which are so basic, so universal, so intuitive, and so natural to us (like the belief in the reality of the past), that if one’s epistemology doesn’t allow us to rationally maintain those beliefs we may as well take that to be a reductio ad absurdam of that epistemological system. However, as I have argued, belief in free will is one of these kinds of beliefs. Therefore, any epistemology that won’t allow, in principle, for belief in free will to be justified ought, by reason of that (if nothing else) to be abandoned.

If one accepts reformed epistemology, then this first argument alone should be enough to rationally satisfy anyone’s need for a persuasive argument for free will. If one merely adopts an epistemology which allows free will to be satisfied, but rejects (or at least does not as of yet accept) this notion of ‘properly basic’ beliefs, then one remains open to more arguments. In what follows, then, I will provide a number of other arguments.

Another epistemological argument attempts to show that we must have free will. Consider a textbook case of an epistemically unjustified belief, such as believing in God simply because you flipped a coin and it happened to land ‘heads’ instead of ‘tails’ (where you previously determined that if it landed heads, you would believe in God, and if not, then you wouldn’t). Your belief could be correct, but even if it were it wouldn’t be justified. Why isn’t it justified? Because the method you used for your belief-formation doesn’t aim reliably towards the truth. To have a ‘justified’ belief means, at least in part, having formed a belief in such a way that the belief-forming processes in principle aim reliably toward the truth. However, suppose (for reductio) that determinism is true. This means that everything each of us believes is entirely the product of deterministic processes. Whether we believe in God or not, whether we believe in the deliverances of science or not, and even whether we believe in determinism or not, is all a matter of strict determination. This means that our belief-forming processes all operate deterministically, but it also means (given the obvious and wide variety of human beliefs) that this process does not reliably aim towards the truth. Thus, if determinism is true, then our belief-forming processes do not reliably aim towards the truth, and we have good reason to doubt all of our beliefs (including our belief in determinism). In other words, if determinism is true, then none of our beliefs can be trusted, none of them can be rationally justified, including our belief in determinism, which ultimately makes determinism, as a philosophical hypothesis, appear self-defeating. Notice that the same argument can be run against indeterminism, so that strict determinism, or random indeterminism, will lead either way to the same philosophical rut. It is only, in principle, if our belief-forming processes involve some measure of freedom of the will, that we can begin to speak meaningfully about epistemic justification (note that freedom here doesn’t make justification inevitable, but it does make it possible, and that’s the point).

A more radical point can be made about determinism’s implications not only for epistemic justification, but for rational thought itself (and the same point can be made, by way of parody, for indeterminism). Consider the following words from H.B.W. Joseph, from his compiled lectures at Oxford published under the title Some Problems in Ethics (for ease of mind we can imagine the following to be addressed to somebody who holds a familiar form of determinism – namely, scientific and physicalistic determinism – but the general point can be made to apply to any form of determinism with little amendment);

“If thought is laryngeal motion, how should any one think more truly than the wind blows? All movements of bodies are equally necessary, but they cannot be discriminated as true and false. It seems as nonsensical to call a movement true as a flavour purple or a sound avaricious. But what is obvious when thought is said to be a certain bodily movement seems equally to follow from its being the effect of one. Thought called knowledge and thought called error are both necessary results of states of brain. These states are necessary results of other bodily states. All the bodily states are equally real, and so are the different thoughts; but by what right can I hold that my thought is knowledge of what is real in bodies? For to hold so is but another thought, an effect of real bodily movements like the rest…. These arguments, however, of mine, if the principles of scientific [naturalism] … are to stand unchallenged, are themselves no more than happenings in a mind, results of bodily movements; that you or I think them sound, or think them unsound, is but another such happening; that we think them no more than another such happening is itself but yet another such. And it may be said of any ground on which we may attempt to stand as true, Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum. [It flows and will flow swirling on forever].”[3]

Thus, if all our thinking is the result of a deterministic process then we have no ultimate control over our thoughts, any more than we do over our actions (a point to which we shall return below when examining the moral argument). Our beliefs cannot be the product of rationalization, and to that extent cannot be genuinely ‘rational,’ where that word implies the ability, in principle, of the human mind to move itself in such a way as to recognize the truth. There is no such ‘ability’ at all on determinism, for even if the mind happened to reflect the right stuff in the right order, it wouldn’t be doing so by any internal principle, but merely by accident. The laws governing the activity of the mind on this view are not ‘rational,’ but physical, and ultimately indifferent to truth. How great and ridiculous a charade it is when a determinist pretends to participate in a rational exchange of arguments in order to persuade an interlocutor – for, on their view, those who believe in free will are determined to believe in free will, just as the determinists are themselves determined to be determinists. This thought itself, should it occur to them, is also determined. There is absolutely no way for a determinist to make room in their account either for the rational selection of beliefs, or even for the rational content of beliefs themselves (since beliefs, on this view, are merely brain-states, and mere brain-states, as such, cannot be about anything, anymore than any physical object, as such, can be about anything). Thought is controlled by physical processes ultimately indifferent to the truth, and beliefs are merely physical states of the brain, and as such can neither be true nor false.

I am not alone in making this observation. It is, in fact, well documented in the philosophical literature. Robert P. George (who lectures at Princeton on the philosophy of law, and related areas) puts it nicely;

“Christian philosophers such as Germain Grisez, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Olaf Tollefsen have rigorously shown, however, that the denial of free choice is rationally untenable, because it is a self-referentially contradictory claim, a self-defeating proposition. No one can rationally deny free choice, or claim as illusory our ordinary experience of freely choosing, without presupposing the possibility of free choice. To deny free choice is to claim that it is more rational to believe that there is no free choice than to believe that there is. But this, in turn, presupposes that one can identify norms of rationality and freely choose to conform one’s beliefs to those norms. It presupposes that we are free to affirm the truth or falsity of a proposition, our desires or emotions or preferences to the contrary notwithstanding. Otherwise, the assertion of no free choice is pointless. The person who says people can’t freely choose presupposes that there are reasons for accepting his claim, otherwise his act of asserting it would be pointless. But our ability to understand and act upon such reasons is incompatible with the idea that one is caused by his desires or by outside forces to accept or not accept such claims. So someone who denies free choice implicitly contradicts his own claim.”[4]

Another argument comes from our moral experience. In our everyday life we encounter certain moral predicaments, and we accept moral realities as readily and firmly as we accept physical realities. In fact, belief that the world involves a certain moral structure, and that some things are really good, whereas other things are really evil (as opposed to being simply pleasurable or displeasurable as a matter of taste) is also a properly basic belief. It is a belief which we form naturally, and in which we have no good reason to doubt. One Christian philosopher named William Lane Craig has gone so far as to note that any argument one might give against moral realism can be parodied into an almost identical argument against belief in the physical/external world. His point is that we have no more reason to doubt one than we have to doubt the other, and his observation seems to me to be a very perceptive one. If he is right, then we have good reason to be moral realists. However, moral responsibility makes sense only with the assumption of freedom. As Peter van Inwagen puts it;

“But why should anyone care whether we have free will or whether determinism is true? [the answer is that:] we care about free will because we care about moral responsibility, and we are persuaded that we cannot make ascriptions of moral responsibility to agents who lack free will.”[5]

One is morally blameworthy for a wrong act only if they were not causally compelled to commit the act. Otherwise, to blame a person for their actions is as senseless as blaming a mountain for having an avalanche at the wrong time. Even if somebody were to insist that a serial killer is morally culpable because their actions weren’t unintended (i.e., they acted in accord with their desires, and so intended to kill people, which is quite different from the case of a person who accidentally kills somebody), still, on determinism, the problem is that the serial killer couldn’t help but want to kill people. Perhaps the determinist will argue that the killer didn’t even want to not want to kill people, but this is also out of the killer’s control. On this view, nothing is in the control of the individual in a way that will allow, in principle, for moral culpability. All this is to say that, on determinism, nobody is ever truly morally responsible for anything they do. Their acts may be good or evil in some abstract sense, but they are no more morally responsible for them than the ocean is responsible for tsunamis.

Does such a view comport well with our moral experiences? No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t do justice to our feelings of guilt, or our feelings of admiration for the morally upright. If we ever do anything for which we are morally responsible, then we must have free will. However, we do do some things for which we are morally responsible. Therefore, we must have free will. The cost of denying the conclusion is to deny one or both of the premises, but they both seem as solid and immovable to the mind as almost any other belief which we would, under ordinary conditions, never give up. In fact, belief in moral responsibility also qualifies as a properly basic belief, so that those who accept the plausibility of reformed epistemology will have gained an additional reason for affirming the freedom of the will.

A similar point can be made concerning the philosophy and nature of law. In law, there are distinctions between intentional killing (i.e., murder), and unintentional killing, and even in cases of intentional killing the law recognizes a difference between somebody who is insane intending to kill somebody, and somebody who is ostensibly sane intending to kill somebody. In both cases a ‘killing’ took place, and in both cases it was intentional (making the act murder), and yet the person who is insane does not receive as severe a legal penalty as the person who was sane. Why not? Because the presumption is that the person who was sane exercised a greater degree of freedom with respect to their actions than the person who was insane. The insane have less genuine freedom than the sane. Such a distinction, recognized implicitly by jurisprudence, also betrays the assumption of freedom in law. Free will is as much a basic assumption of law as the assumption that light travels at a constant rate between any two points is a basic assumption of relativity theory in physics. A law which punished the insane and the sane alike without distinction would plausibly be unjust, but the distinction only makes sense if people have free will to begin with (otherwise the distinction seems arbitrary and absurd, and therefore not an expression of justice). Just law, therefore, presupposes freedom of the will. This argument is ultimately a footnote to the previous argument, since the concept of legal justice is ultimately bound up with (and is in fact an extension of) the concept of moral justice, and so to deny moral realism will ultimately lead to nominalism about legal justice. However, often different arguments resonate with different people, and so I submit this argument for those who have a strong commitment to legal justice, even if they have confused intuitions about richer philosophical notions of morality.

Another argument for free will, or at least against determinism, comes from our modal intuitions. What philosophers mean by a modal intuition is a rational intuition about things which are possible, impossible, contingent, incontingent, actual and necessary. On determinism, everything is ultimately a necessary fact. However, we all have a strong rational intuition that there is a distinction between necessary facts, such as that 2+2=4, and contingent facts, such as that you are now reading this sentence. The former could not have failed to be true, whereas the latter could quite easily have failed to be true. Even scientific laws are stated as counter-factuals, about what would happen, ceteris paribus, under certain conditions – but such statements ultimately make no sense on determinism because they are conditional statements, and the antecedent of the conditional, if it fails to be true, makes the whole conditional statement ‘true’ in a meaningless sense. That antecedent of the conditional, if it fails to be true, is necessarily false according to the determinist, so that determinists have to rethink even how we generally conceive of scientific laws. Scientific statements presuppose modal commitments. Despite the strength with which such rational intuitions about modality come, however, determinism threatens to collapse all of our modal distinctions. This gives us tremendously good reason to doubt determinism. One is left with having to affirm either freedom of the will, or else indeterminism, and freedom of the will is at least more plausible than indeterminism. Moreover, indeterminism would propose that all facts are ultimately brute facts (i.e., non-necessary truths for which there are no explanations at all). Those who share, with me, a strong commitment to the intuition that every contingent fact must have some explanation in reality (even if we cannot or do not find it), will find it just as difficult to swallow the doctrine of indeterminism as they do the doctrine of pre-determinism. I will not here go through the arguments for thinking that free choices can be ‘explained’ even if they aren’t ‘entailed,’ but just note that, so far, the doctrine of free will holds the best hope of satisfying our modal intuitions.

There are other relatively obvious arguments which can be adduced for free will, such as arguments from authority. One can point out that the majority of the greatest thinkers in the history of the (at least western) world have believed in free will, or that the vast majority of mankind believes in free will. We can point to certain other authorities like the Catholic Church, or Jesus of Nazareth (or others, which we can select as we please). Ultimately arguments from authority rarely change anyone’s mind. Most people who would be moved by them, are already persuaded, and most people who aren’t persuaded already are not likely to be moved by them. Nevertheless, it is worth noting the existence of such arguments for at least two reasons: (i) some people, at least, really are moved by such arguments, and (ii) even when somebody isn’t moved by such arguments it helps them put their own view in perspective – when a person can see that they hold the view of a fringe minority they become implicitly more skeptical about it and desire to find good arguments for it. The determinist, however, is not likely to find any such arguments, which will help at least dislodge in her mind the delusion of determinism’s plausibility.

Finally, hearkening back to modal intuitions and free will, it seems that, upon deeper reflection, every argument for God’s existence can be taken as providing an additional implicit argument for libertarian free will. The thinking goes like this. First, the existence of the world is not a necessary fact, but a contingent one. Second, it is contingent, but not brute (unexplained). Take ‘the world’ here to signify what Copleston defined it as in his debate with Bertrand Russell: “the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason of their existence.”[6] In this way we avoid inviting the confused response that there might be a multiverse ensemble that could explain our universe’s existence, since the multiverse itself will stand in need of an explanation, and it will, if it exists, be included in our concept of ‘the world’ as it is here used. If the world is both contingent and explained, then it seems it must be the product of free will. The only other options are to explain it deterministically, or to account for it indeterministically, but the latter is not an explanation at all, and the former threatens to collapse modal distinctions between the merely possible and the necessary. In fact, this argument could be run in reverse and made into an argument for God’s existence (even entailing that God must be a person, since only persons can exercise free will), though what we care about here is only arguments for free will. If our worldview includes a being like God (i.e., a maximally great transcendent creator), then God, at least, will need to have free will (on pain of either determinism or indeterminism – modal collapse, or brute facts). Thus, as soon as one admits that God exists, one can see another argument for free will on the philosophical horizon.

This list of arguments is by no means exhaustive. One could imagine an argument from miracles (eg. (i) if miracle M occurs then Christianity is true, (ii) if Christianity is true then we have free will, (iii) M occurs, (iv) therefore, we have free will), or even a Moorean-style argument (i.e., one where we suggest that we are more sure that we have free will than we can be that any argument to the contrary is sound), and I’m sure there are other arguments I haven’t considered. However, this collection of arguments seems to me to establish the overwhelming plausibility of the libertarian account of our actions, and seriously undermines the most popular alternative to libertarianism (i.e., determinism).


[1] Peter van Inwagen, “Ability and Responsibility,” In The Philosophical Review (1978): 202.

[2] Jaegwon Kim, Mind in a Physical World: An essay on the mind-body problem and mental causation, (MIT press, 2000), 2.

[3] Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald Keith Tacelli, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. (Ignatius Press, 2009): 72.

[4] George, Robert P. “A Clash of Orthodoxies.” First Things no. 95 (1999): 38.

[5] Peter van Inwagen, “Ability and Responsibility,” in The Philosophical Review (1978): 201.



17 thoughts on “Arguments for Free Will

  1. Pingback: Defining Libertarian Freedom | Tyler Journeaux

  2. I have a problem with “pre-determined” because it suggests a conscious being mapping out a future for everyone. I know that is not how you intend it. The word “determine” when used synonymous with “cause” (as opposed to “discover”) implies its own “pre-“, making the prefix redundant.

    For example, “the height of the pot above sea level determines the boiling point of water”, describes the fact that you need less heat to cause the water to boil at higher altitudes (has something to do with less air pressure keeping the bubbles in the water, I think).

    Determinism can be nothing more and nothing less that the belief in the reliability of cause and effect. It is the universal reliability of cause and effect that logically leads to the conclusion that everything that happens is inevitable.

    However, the fact that everything happens inevitably does not conflict with the fact that we actually choose for ourselves what we will do next. Deterministic inevitability must include ALL relevant causes. And that mental process we use to choose which option becomes inevitable and which options remain mere possibilities is called free will.

    We have two facts that both qualify as what you call “a properly basic belief”.

    One fact is that things happen for a reason. Every event has direct and relevant causes that inevitably bring about the effect that we observe. And, since each cause is itself an event, each cause has its own causes that inevitably bring it about. Collectively, they are a causal tree of inevitability bringing about a new state and its events from the prior state and its events.

    The other fact is that we are autonomous causal agents, deciding for ourselves what we will do next. By a mental process of evaluating our options and choosing the one we believe is best, we get to determine which option becomes inevitable and which options remain mere possibilities. This mental process is the operational definition of free will.

    If we reflect upon our decision process, we can see that there was a point at the beginning where we could honestly say “I could choose A or I could choose B, but I don’t really know yet which it will be.” At the end of our process, if we feel certain that we have made the right choice, then we may recognize that it was the only choice we could have made. We had valid reasons for rejecting our other options and we had convincing reasons for the option we chose. We may even say it was our “inevitable” choice at this point.

    “Inevitable” typically implies “beyond our control”. And that is what is confusing to everyone who thinks about universal inevitability. But the presumption of “beyond our control” obviously does not apply when the decision is authentically our own decision, based upon our own reasons, our own feelings, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic dispositions and our own experiences.

    We cannot be said to be “compelled against our will” when it is authentically our own will acting upon our own reasons and feelings, that is making the choice.

    The choice is both inevitable and made of our own free will. Both are truly facts of our real world.

    Determinism cannot deny free will without become a false version of determinism. Free will requires a deterministic universe if the will is to implement its intent. Neither may deny the other.

  3. There were some other miscellaneous points I wanted to mention.

    The future cannot cause past events without introducing a loop.

    I think we agree upon the “volitional” and “intentional”. However intent is a motivation and a cause. Therefore one cannot be free from cause without also being free from intent. The claim to be free of causes cannot hold.

    For example: When you said, “”What we want is a decision determined by individuals, without being pre-determined by anything either within or outside of the individuals.”

    Don’t we find both intent and volition “within” the individual?

    When you say, “We need not commit ourselves to the view that a libertarian free agent could literally have acted any differently than she did, but only that her action wasn’t causally coerced.”

    Those causes which operate from within us cannot “coerce” us, even if they deterministically cause our choice. To be “coercion” it must act AGAINST our will. That which is us, which includes our own reasons and feelings, beliefs and values, et cetera, cannot be said to “coerce” us. It actually is us.

    Your reasoning in the section “However, suppose (for reductio) …” is based in the presumption that a deterministic universe contains no purposeful causal agents. A purposeful causal agent will seek to satisfy its real or perceived needs. Also, since you are merely supposing a deterministic world, but believe in a world guided by free will, then your argument that the actual existence of a variety of true and false beliefs proves anything against determinism could equally prove it against free will.

    Regarding: “”One is morally blameworthy for a wrong act only if they were not causally compelled to commit the act. Otherwise, to blame a person for their actions is as senseless as blaming a mountain for having an avalanche at the wrong time.”

    We do in fact blame the mountain. That’s why we put up signs in areas warning people to stay away from areas where the mountain is known to “misbehave”. The idea of “blame” and “holding responsible” operates to identify a cause or causal agent that caused harm, so that the cause may be corrected (as in a “correctional facility”).

    The event of harm (whether the avalanche or the serial killing) deterministically causes us to take steps to prevent future harm.

    We need to clarify a “just penalty” to deal with the comment that “A law which punished the insane and the sane alike without distinction would plausibly be unjust,”

    The point of justice is to protect our rights. A “just” penalty (a) addresses the rights of the victim by repairing the harm when feasible, (b) addresses the right of society to be secure against harm by correcting the behavior of the offender and by (c) restricting the offender’s liberty until his behavior is corrected, and finally (d) protects the rights of the offender to a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

    The manner of correction would be different for a sane offender (prison) than for an insane offender (mental institution).

  4. Hello again Marvin Edwards. Here, as with your previous set of replies, I see a variety of problems which may be worth addressing. Let’s start with the one about time, since my thesis will be on God’s relationship to time (and thus, philosophy of time is extremely interesting to me). You say that you think that any causes from the future would create a causal loop. However, this isn’t true (at least if by a loop you mean what philosophers call a ‘vicious circle,’ where we explain A in terms of B, and B in terms of A). Imagine, for instance, that in the future a time machine is created and people in the future send a goat back in time to a pre-historic tribe of nomads. The goat has a sign around his neck with the English words: “in the year 2056 we create the time machine.” Now, the prehistoric nomads witness a goat popping out of thin air with this sign they cannot read tied around the goat’s neck. They kill the goat and eat it for supper, and that’s the end of that. Now, clearly the goat’s popping out of thin air in front of a tribe of nomads was caused by events in the future. Clearly, it also doesn’t make a causal contribution to the invention of the time machine in the future. Therefore, here is at least one example of a cause from the future bringing about an effect in the past in such a way as not to create a causal loop.

    You also write: “When you said, “”What we want is a decision determined by individuals, without being pre-determined by anything either within or outside of the individuals.” Don’t we find both intent and volition “within” the individual?”

    Yes, and I’m comfortable with saying that intent/volition is causally determinative. What I maintain is that the intent/volition acts as a kind of ‘first-cause’ in instances of free will. It doesn’t act without impetus, but that impetus doesn’t determine the act – just as the ball on the dome (in an example I gave you earlier in another set of comments) has an impetus to roll down the dome in a number of directions, but may roll down in any one direction (or not roll down at all). In short, I maintain that intent/volition is determinative, but isn’t pre-determined (that prefix is where I locate the problem).

    “We do in fact blame the mountain.”

    We, in fact, do not. There is an inveterate tendency in man to anthropomorphize even inanimate objects, but that never goes as far in a mature mind as the imputation of moral blame or accountability to them. Not in law, not in ethics.

    “The point of justice is to protect our rights. A “just” penalty (a) addresses the rights of the victim by repairing the harm when feasible, (b) addresses the right of society to be secure against harm by correcting the behavior of the offender and by (c) restricting the offender’s liberty until his behavior is corrected, and finally (d) protects the rights of the offender to a penalty that does no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).”

    This is a common misunderstanding of jurisprudence among secular humanists. Go and look at the way the laws are actually written (in Canada, for instance) and you will find that one of the purposes of the legal system, in addition to correcting behavior where possible, is to actually seek out and punish the guilty. Years ago I conceived of the nature of law much as you apparently do, and I was very surprised to be shown by a friend of mine (who was studying to become a police officer) that Canadian law is explicitly founded with the purpose of punishing the guilty, in addition to correcting behavior and safeguarding society from harm. If you believe that the law should be merely about your (a), (b), and (c), then you will find that you disagree fundamentally with every (as far as I know) legal system the modern western world has.

      • For instance, when a criminal escapes to a foreign country, and we have good reason to believe they will never return, the authorities will still seek, if possible, to bring her to justice. This is neither for society’s protection (the society under the jurisdiction of the authorities) , nor is it a political example of international altruism. It is, at that point, simply for the sake of justice.

      • Okay, you could have just as easily said, “I really don’t know why we punish the guilty.” To say that “justice requires it” begs the question, “Why does justice require that we punish the guilty?”

        I’ve given you a rational explanation of how justice and penalty work in human society. Ideally, the penalty will correct the offender so that she might be redeemed and return to society making better choices than she did before.

        Your exception of the offender leaving the country does not hold, because the offender is a potential threat to whatever society she is in, that’s why nation’s have extradition treaties.

        In my context there is a reasonable limit to the penalty: to do no more than is reasonably necessary to repair the harm, correct the offender’s behavior, and protect society until the offender’s behavior is corrected.

        In your context of a “penalty that justice requires” you have yet to provide a reason why you are punishing or what justice may or may not require. Unless there is some point or purpose to the penalty, how do we know when the penalty is either too little or too much to accomplish that purpose? See the problem?

  5. My problem with the phrase “because justice requires it” is that it puts punishment over rehabilitation. You can punish someone all you want, but if you don’t give them a corrective path they will keep doing whatever causes you to punish them (e.g. repeat theft offenders). More worrisome is the notion that punishment is needed just because something bad happens. This is mentality that gets 11 year-old kids locked up because they slipped on ice while skiing and accidentally killed someone. Lastly, whose justice are we talking about here?

    • You say “My problem with the phrase “because justice requires it” is that it puts punishment over rehabilitation.”

      Not necessarily. All I am trying to do is to distinguish punishment from rehabilitation. They shouldn’t be conflated, even if rehabilitation is, in many contexts, more important than punishment. Justice, however, is not primarily about rehabilitation, but about accountability, as I explained. Moreover, nobody is suggesting that punishment is needed whenever something bad happens (at least not if punishment is taken in its normal sense, though if you do conflate punishment with rehabilitation then perhaps there should always be punishment when something bad happens – but it seems obvious to me that this is just to play with language).

      • But you are equating “accountability” with “punishment”. You are essentially saying if someone does something wrong they deserve to be punished, because punishment somehow corrects the balance in the account. Your approach to accountability seems to suggest “an eye for an eye”, when other approaches might result in a better outcome for everyone.

      • I think what is lurking in the background here is really a debate over ethical systems. Based on your comments so far, I would wager that you are a utilitarian. However, not only is utilitarianism not self-evident, it is also evidently problematic, not to mention alien to classical western political science, and jurisprudence. ‘Justice’ literally doesn’t belong to a utilitarian vocabulary, and that might be the root of the problem here. I hope to, in future, write a post where I will collect various arguments against Utilitarianism, but if our discussion is (as I suspect) heading in that direction, then it might be better to wait until we can get to the heart of the matter than to continue our discussion under another heading.

      • I’m not a Utilitarian because I do not believe that pleasure and pain are moral guides.

        One of the points of religion is to help us to feel good about doing good and being good. One must first have a means of determining what is in fact “good” and “bad” before one knows whether one should “feel” good or bad about it.

        My ethical system follows from Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest principle?”, and Jesus said the first principle is to love God and the second principle is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

        A Humanist translation would be to love good, and to love good for others as you love it for yourself.

        But Jesus said one more thing, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, this is the source, the rationale, the reason, the “Why?” behind every rule and every right. It is the criteria by which all other principles, ethics, and rules are to be judged.

      • First, more sophisticated versions of Utilitarianism substitute ‘pleasure’ (which has a hedonistic connotation) with ‘human happiness’ or ‘human well-being’ or something like that. I could be wrong, but from the sounds of it you do take human well-being to be an indicator of the moral character of acts/dispositions.

        Moreover, while the humanist ‘translation’ of Jesus’ rabbinic interpretation of the Shema is not theologically unsound (since, on Christian theism, God is generally taken to be ‘the Good,’ so that the metaphysical anchor of goodness just is the metaphysically necessary nature of God), it is missing an insight – namely that God’s nature, being paradigmatically good, is also paradigmatically just. God, being ontologically and wholly good, cannot abide any evil (and this is the logic behind the doctrines of purgatory and sanctification by infusion), so that God cannot but hold people morally accountable for their (free) actions.

        Finally, the point of religion is not (in the view of those who are religious) to help us feel good about doing good and being good. The point of religion is to know what reality is like, and to live in accord with that reality. Religion is more like science than like psychology.

      • Yes, the Christian religions I was raised on generally insisted upon God’s perfect goodness. I remember Oral Roberts having a rousing chorus, “For God, is a Good God…” and then there was the positivism of Norman Vincent Peale. The Salvation Army also taught God’s goodness, especially God’s forgiving nature as in the “lost sheep” and the “prodigal son”. But it also taught of Hell as a place of everlasting torment.

        I suppose as a deterrent it is pretty effective. I remember alter calls and the song “Almost Persuaded”.

        But when my father killed a woman he had become obsessed with and then killed himself, the idea of Hell was no longer an abstraction that only applied to “other” people. And after giving it long thought, I concluded there was nothing anyone could do in a finite time on earth that could justify eternal torture. Such a God MUST NOT exist.

        I didn’t hate my religion though. I believe it was, overall, a positive influence on my moral education. There is very little to argue with about Christian beliefs regarding how we treat others and the possibility of being better persons.

      • That’s very heavy – I am sorry to hear about that horrible event in your life, and I am glad that you feel welcomed here and comfortable enough with me to share such a deeply personal story with me. There is a tremendously important distinction, often forgotten by all too eager apologists, between a philosophical problem of evil, and a personal/emotional problem of evil. What you have brought forward here seems to me to be a very personal and emotional problem of evil, and I can well understand how it might make the doctrine of hell, to you, seem completely in-credible. I can imagine the incredulity I would feel regarding the doctrine of hell if the events of my life had gone so differently that I too bore the baggage of a terrible story hitting close to home. Clearly, there isn’t anything I can say to take away from the horror or tragedy of what you’ve described. However, I would like to share with you (hopefully with delicacy) a thought or two about using this personal tragedy as a reason for rejecting the doctrine of hell, or the existence of the Christian God.

        First, if you’ve read my post on the paradox of hell and justice then you will have seen that the model of hell I adopt as the most plausible model allows both for an eternal and endless period of separation from God, and a finite-boundary for the subjective experience of the pains of being thus separated from God. This version of hell is at once entirely orthodox, and yet it does not present what you envisioned (which is an everlasting period of potentially infinite subjective experience of the pains involved in being separated from God). This may not entirely mollify you, or assuage your incredulity, but what it does do is show that the caricature (or at least the ‘model’) of hell which you identified with the Christian faith isn’t necessarily the one proposed by the Christian faith. Moreover, I think that this model has more plausibility and appeal than may, at first blush, be appreciated. When we compare it, for instance, with other possible answers to the question of what happens when one physically dies, we find that it is less incredible than these other answers. Consider, for instance, the belief that once a man dies, he simply ceases entirely to be. This answer, when fully absorbed, causes such existential nausea that one cannot but become a genuine nihilist. As C.S. Lewis very insightfully observed when reflecting on his own grief at his wife’s passing:

        “If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, HarperCollins: 2009, 28).

        The very concept of a person doesn’t fit into the naturalistic story, except in an ad hoc, depressing, and most implausible way. What other options are there available to us? There is, of course, the notion that a person who dies ceases to be a person per se, and is subsumed by the ultimate reality (whatever that is), becoming one with it. This answer, however, fails to make room for genuine individuality, which is the presumption of every genuine human relationship. It also suggests that our actions (however morally good or evil) are of no ultimate significance or consequence – since whatever we do, it’ll all come out the same in the end, one wonders why we should bother at all with the moral life, or even with religion as such.

        Alternatively we have ‘universalism’ (the idea that, eventually or immediately, everybody does get to heaven, they do all spend eternity enjoying the fellowship of God who is goodness itself), and this view may seem very attractive. However, there are a few points I feel compelled to make concerning this last view. First, universalism doesn’t seem to do justice to our free will as such, for it seems to propose (and is often taken to propose) that even those who freely choose to reject God in their hearts will eventually be spiritually seduced by him nevertheless. God, instead of allowing us to choose whether to love him, simply overpowers our ability to resist him indefinitely and eventually makes us fall in love with him. On this view, however, there seems to be no point in having given us free will in the first place (and thus, no good explanation for why the world consists of so many moral evils). The point of free will, after all, was to allow us to love God genuinely (for ‘forced’ or ‘auto-matic’ love are much less valuable, if they can even be called ‘love’ at all), of our own accord. Second, it is logically possible that God exist, and that the classical doctrine of hell is true, and that universalism is true (since it is logically possible that, although hell exist, not a single person goes to hell in fact). This logical possibility seriously undermines any argument from the horror of hell (as you imagined it) to the impossibility that the God of Christianity exists. As an aside, it is worth noting that, in the Catholic tradition, presuming that anyone in particular (however bad) is in hell is just not an acceptable attitude. Instead, Catholics are enjoined to pray for the dead (since God is outside of time, the prayer’s efficacy may manifest temporally prior to the prayer). Although there are some people whom we cannot presume are in heaven, there is nobody in particular whom we can presume is in hell. Thirdly, if one appeals to the idea that God can perform ‘supertasks’ and accomplish universalism even if everyone were to go to hell, everyone would have subjectively experienced an infinite amount of pain – and this is clearly not preferable to the view of hell I proposed (much less, preferable to the view you had in mind).

        Other views of hell carry similar problems. First, annihilationism is, while not as existentially nauseating as the naturalistic story, still relatively disconcerting when it comes down to it, since it would mean that some ‘persons’ really aren’t ultimately the kinds of things we took them to be while we knew them (i.e., ends in themselves with eternal significance). Moreover, annihilationism doesn’t seem to take freedom of the will seriously any more than universalism does, (since, in neither case will God allow you to affirm your denial of him in your heart resolutely).

        Thus, if God respects our freedom, and if we are ‘souls’ in the classical sense (i.e., of being singular, individual, metaphysically simple entities which do not pass away because of the decomposition of the body), then something like hell seems inevitable. Moreover, if there are any persons who do freely reject God, the most plausible view concerning what happens to them in that case-scenario is logically compatible with the classical Christian doctrine of hell (as I have argued). There is nothing essentially in the doctrine of hell per se which should give you, or anyone else, any good reason for thinking that the God of Christianity could not exist. This is so both because the doctrine of hell is compatible with universalism (the view that nobody actually goes to hell), as well as compatible with the more plausible view that, while some do go to hell, hell doesn’t involve the kind of everlasting and potentially infinite, indefinite, vivid and horrifying torment you imagined. Moreover, as I have hinted at already, there is no good (enough) reason for you to presume that your father is in such a state of separation from God, and my Catholic instinct is to invite you to pray for him in the (non-presumptuous) hope that God, who can reach through anything, could have drawn your father to himself in his final moments (in accord with your father’s heart, if he, indeed, did not reject God ultimately and irrevocably).

        I hope I have left you with some food for thought, and I want to say again that I appreciate your interaction with me so far. Thank you for taking the time to consider my thoughts.

      • I’m now 69 years old and my father was in his 40’s when he died (I’m now old enough to be my father’s father!). So there’s no delicacy required as my emotions regarding his death have long since settled.

        My position on death as a Humanist is that I believe in death after life. My condition after my existence ceases would be similar to what it was prior to being born into existence, pretty much irrelevant to my current life. And I think this is the fact of how things are for everyone.

        I used to go to the Unitarian Universalist church and sang in the choir. After my 94 year old mother needed assistance and came to live with me, I began taking her to the Methodist church. She liked the small group discussions and we met with a group on Thursday nights. They were accepting of me and I of them. But one of them asked what would happen after I died and discovered I was wrong. I told them I’d simply say to Peter, “I believe the price of my admission has already been paid”, and if he doesn’t get it, I’ll call Paul over to explain it to him.

        But I do not believe that eternal life is necessary for a moral life. I wrote a post on this that I’ll share here with you:

        God and Good

        We are born into a world of good, which we did not create. Not just material things, but ideals, like justice, liberty, and equality. And spiritual values, like courage, joy, and compassion.

        We benefit from what others, in good faith, have left for us. In return, we sacrifice selfish interest when necessary to preserve this good for others. For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we seek to understand, to serve, to protect, and perhaps, humbly, to enhance this greater good.

        It is an act of faith to live by moral principle when the greedy prosper by dishonest means. It is an act of faith to stand up for right when the crowd is headed the wrong way. It is an act of faith to return good for evil.

        We have seen Hell. We have seen gang cultures whose rite of passage is an act of mayhem or murder. We have seen racial slavery, persecution, and genocide. We have seen revenge spread violence through whole communities.

        We envision Heaven, where people live in peace and every person is valued. It can only be reached when each person seeks good for himself only through means that are consistent with achieving good for all.

        If God exists, then that is His command. If God does not exist, then that is what we must command of ourselves and of each other. Either way, whether we achieve Heaven or Hell is up to us.

        The point of God is to make good sacred. We trust that, each time we put the best good for all above our own selfish interest, the world becomes a better place, for all of us, and our children, and their children.

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