An Alledged Problem with (most) Religious Beliefs

There is a common objection to religious belief which is often aired (with condescending tone) in something like the following way: “you’re only a Christian because your parents were Christians, but if you had been raised in India you would have been a Hindu, or if you had been born in the middle-east you would have been a Muslim, et cetera; therefore, your faith is false.” This objection clearly commits the genetic fallacy (i.e., trying to show a belief to be false or invalid by showing how it originated), which is philosophically clumsy. To see the problem consider other beliefs which we have, but wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t been born and raised where and when we were. For instance, perhaps I only believe in the theory of evolution because of the time and place in which I was born and raised; had I been raised a hundred years earlier, or in a (very) different geographical location, I very likely would not have believed that evolution is true. My belief in evolution can be accounted for, at least in part, by the time and place in which I was born and raised. Does this mean I have good reasons to reject the theory of evolution? No, clearly not. Does it mean I shouldn’t place any confidence in the theory? No, clearly not. Perhaps it means, at most, that if I haven’t looked at the evidence for myself, or investigated the theory to my satisfaction, then I shouldn’t have a solid confidence in its truth, but the fact that my belief was formed in response to an idiosyncratic environment is no mark against my belief as such. The psychological genealogy of a belief doesn’t (necessarily) tell against its truth or its plausibility. In fact, the sword obviously cuts both ways and the atheist or skeptic who voices this objection also falls under the shadow of its blade, for they would not have been a (self-identified) atheist or skeptic if they had not been raised in the modern West, and, in fact, they would not even think that the objection is an objection at all were they not infected with the culture of modernism.

This is all very obvious, but there is an implicit, deeper and more impressive objection to religious belief which lurks in the background of the general observation the atheist/skeptic is making. The deeper objection might go something like this:

  1. For any method of belief formation M, conclusions arrived at using M should be believed if and only if M reliably induces true beliefs.
  2. There is an MR (widely) used for forming religious belief which does not reliably induce the same beliefs in different people.
  3. For any M, if M does not reliably induce the same beliefs in different people then M does not reliably induce true beliefs.
  4. Therefore, MR does not reliably induce true beliefs.
  5. Therefore, conclusions reached via MR should not be believed.

This objection is certainly more sophisticated, and it has some prima facie appeal. It just looks right, on its face. However, there are a number of problems I find with this argument. First, one could question whether there really is a single method common to all, or even most, religious believers for the formation of their religious beliefs. I won’t go any distance in that direction, though, because I think it is plausible that there is such a method common to most, and that this method is i) learning it from one’s parents and culture, and then ii) thinking about it for oneself and affirming it (because it seems plausible). I think most religious beliefs are formed and maintained in this way (as a convert to Catholicism myself, I know first-hand that not all religious beliefs are formed and maintained in this way, but I think it’s reasonable to say that most religious beliefs, for most people, probably are – most religious people are not philosophers after all, for the same reasons most people are not philosophers). This method does produce a wide variety of results, and so cannot be said to reliably induce true beliefs; yet, this method is also used for forming all sorts of beliefs, including political beliefs, moral beliefs, scientific beliefs, and philosophical beliefs. How was my belief that democracy is the best form of government formed? Wasn’t it by first accepting what my parents, teachers, and other authority figures taught me, and then, upon thinking it through later in life, affirming it for myself more confidently? Isn’t that exactly the same method as somebody in China who believes that communism is the best form of government used? Is there something wrong with the method we used? Examples like this help to illustrate the deeper problem with this objection. The problem is that premise 1 is, counter-intuitively, false.

There is, in fact, a stunning way to obviate its falsity. Consider the methodology used by analytic philosophers for forming their (at least philosophical) beliefs. They practice critical thinking, conceptual analysis, and giving logical structure to their thought process. This same method is used among analytic philosophers of all stripes, and yet there is perhaps no method of belief formation which produces such wild and radical variety as this. Using this method some have come to believe that God exists, others that God does not exist, and still others that the question of God’s existence is meaningless. Some believe in libertarian free will, others in hard determinism, and others in compatibilism. Some believe in the dynamic theory of time, others in the static theory of time. Some are scientific realists, others are scientific anti-realists. Some are correspondence theorists (about truth), others are pragmatists, and others are coherentists. Some are skeptics, others are rationalists, and still others are empiricists. Some are idealists, others are materialists, and others hold neither of these extremes. Some believe in the revisability of logical laws, others do not. Some are moral realists, others are moral nihilists. I could go on practically ad infinitum, but a moment’s reflection suffices to yield enough examples of the same kind that there is no need. Notice the irony that this method produces even more variety than the method usually used for forming religious beliefs. If yielding a variety of conclusions is really a damning problem with a method, then we should be even more skeptical about critical thinking, conceptual analysis, and the logical structuring of thought, than we should be about the usual (perhaps naïve) method of forming our religious (and political, moral, etc.) beliefs.

This phenomenon of the variability of philosophical belief has not been missed by academic philosophers; for instance, the philosopher Peter van Inwagen, reflecting on this situation, writes the following:

“Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of. That is, it is not very usual for agreement among philosophers on any important philosophical issue to be describable as being, in a quite unambiguous sense, common. Oh, this philosopher may agree with that philosopher on many philosophical points; for that matter, if this philosopher is a former student of that philosopher, they may even agree on all philosophical points. But you don’t find universal or near-universal agreement about very many important theses or arguments in philosophy… Any why not? How can it be that equally intelligent and well-trained philosophers can disagree about the freedom of the will or nominalism or the covering-law model of scientific explanation when each is aware of all of the arguments and distinctions and other relevant considerations that the others are aware of? How… can we philosophers possibly regard ourselves as justified in believing much of anything of philosophical significance in this embarrassing circumstance? How can I believe (as I do) that free will is incompatible with determinism or that unrealized possibilities are not physical objects or that human beings are not four-dimensional things extended in time as well as in space, when David Lewis – a philosopher of truly formidable intelligence and insight and ability – rejects these things I believe and is already aware of and understands perfectly every argument that I could produce in their defense. Well, I do believe these things, and I believe that I am justified in believing them. And I am confident that I am right.”[1]

Peter van Inwagen goes on, shortly afterwards, to say that: “I don’t want to be forced into a position in which I can’t see my way clear to accepting any philosophical thesis of any consequence,”[2] calling this position “philosophical skepticism.”[3] The trouble is that if we take the argument I raised earlier seriously then we will have to affirm philosophical skepticism, and this constitutes a compelling reductio ad absurdam of the argument.

In fact, the problem is even worse than this. Consider that even if the argument (that for any method of belief formation M, conclusions reached via M ought to be accepted if and only if M reliably leads to true beliefs) is sound, it is presumably the result of critical thinking and analysis which is logically structured. However, the argument calls this method itself into serious question, so that the argument turns out to be not only self-undermining, but self-refuting (which is philosophically embarrassing, to say the least). The soundness of the argument cannot be rationally and consistently affirmed, and this provides a clearer and even more compelling reductio ad absurdam than simply noting that it leads to skepticism about the analytic method of philosophy.

By this point it should be clear that (and why) this argument against the average person putting any confidence in their religious beliefs should not be endorsed. I would like to end by offering a final thought on why this argument may have seemed intuitively appealing at first. Ever since the Enlightenment the western world has been (rightly) fascinated with the tremendous success of the scientific enterprise, and one of the features of the scientific programme which contributes to its success is that it has devised methodological procedures which yield (more-or-less) uniform and reliably verifiable results. The celebration of science and the scientific method has encouraged a philosophically problematic attraction to what is called ‘scientism,’ and I think this intellectual prejudice is ultimately responsible for making the argument I presented above look so appealing. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could find a philosophical method which produced the kind of uniform results we see in science, and so managed to facilitate consensus analogous to the kind of consensus scientific theories enjoy? At least it sounds nice until one thinks more deeply about it and realizes that producing uniform results would be no guarantee of its reliably inducing true beliefs, and may even give us grounds for suspicion on this score. The only method we have ever found to reliably produce the same philosophical beliefs in different people is called brainwashing. I want to say that brainwashing is bad, though my belief that it is bad is based in large part, of course, on the philosophically free exercise of my reason, so that I could be said to be begging the question. Nevertheless, I hope that most people agree with me that brainwashing is bad (in light of their moral intuitions, if nothing else), and that the free exercise of reason is even more valuable than intellectual consensus.

In this respect philosophy is harder than science. There is no consensus among philosophers which provides them the kind of collective confidence that scientists can achieve. However, far from being a peculiar feature of philosophy, this is the situation we are in in a wide variety of disciplines including psychology, political science, social science, art history, (English) literature and many others. We might even say that science is the peculiar one, and that it has the kind of methodological edge it does due to its very nature (i.e., the nature of the things which it investigates). Perhaps philosophy, due to its very nature (i.e., the nature of the questions it investigates), cannot (or should not) have a (dialectical) methodology which reliably induces the same beliefs in most people. This is no cause for pessimism or defeatism, since the questions philosophy investigates are extremely interesting, worth-while, and tremendously important, and there is no good reason to think that we cannot be justified in coming to our conclusions, or even to think that our conclusions aren’t likely to be correct (I don’t think that probability can be measured). It simply means that philosophy is hard, and we have to proceed with cautious optimism. Additionally one might point out that philosophy can take on a different character based not only on the method it endorses, but also on the purpose one has for using it. I am confident, in fact, that the person who uses philosophy with the sincere and unimpeded (by sin, for instance) desire to find the truth will reliably be led closer and closer to the truth, though that process may be long and arduous.

As a post-script, I want to acknowledge that there is an apparent antinomy between the argument I have just presented, and an argument which I have presented and defended in the past; namely, that because determinism implies that the process by which our cognitive faculties form beliefs does not lead reliably to truth it cannot be rationally affirmed. The structure of the thinking, here, is also analogous to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN), which I have tentatively endorsed in the past as a good (though not compelling) argument.

A few comments are in order here. First, this argument against trusting the conclusions arrived at via a method which doesn’t yield its results reliably seems to be of more concern to somebody wedded to an externalist epistemology than it is to an internalist. If we affirm internalism (briefly, this is the notion that if we know P then we are in a position to know that we know P – our knowing P is itself internally verifiable) then no such problem (necessarily) exists anywhere; not for the determinist, not for the naturalist who believes in evolution, and not for the Christian who originally inherited her theological beliefs from her contingent environment. Second, if we adopt externalist epistemologies like, say, reformed epistemology, then we can simply say that properly basic beliefs (including religious beliefs) are not necessarily defeated by this charge of unreliable method. Sure, this charge may provide some reason to lower our confidence in conclusions reached via this method, perhaps, but they may do so only negligibly in the grand scheme of things. In fact, if religious beliefs are formed as a result of proper functioning (and it is natural to believe that they are) and if we have no good reason to doubt that they are, then in the absence of a defeater they won’t be in any trouble here (and neither will our political, moral or otherwise philosophical beliefs).

The key point to bear in mind here is that determinism, like naturalism conjoined with evolution, is a belief, and not a method of belief formation. The argument I presented and dealt with above concerns itself only with methods, not with beliefs. Determinism and Naturalism conjoined with evolution face a fundamental problem because they are beliefs which, if true, undermine the very notion of proper functioning. According to an externalist, for a method to produce a justified belief it needn’t reliably produce true beliefs, it merely needs to be the case that the belief it birthed was formed as a result of the proper functioning of one’s cognitive faculties, where one’s account of proper functioning is a plausible externalist story about how the truth of the belief figures into the causal story of how it arose. The method of analytic philosophy, however much variety of belief it produces, does absolutely nothing to undermine the notion of proper functioning, which is what the externalist understands by justification.

For the sake of illustration, suppose I hold the belief that raping and torturing little girls to death is absolutely and objectively morally wrong. Does the fact that other people are moral nihilists give me any good reason to doubt my belief? No. ‘But,’ you may say, ‘they used the very same method of critical thinking (etc.) to come to their conclusions as I did to come to mine.’ Even so, no problem arises necessarily, for even if I should have marginally less confidence in my belief than I should have had if, all things being equal, there were no moral nihilists like Nietzsche, still my belief may be justified as far as I should be concerned. Assuming an internalist epistemology, I simply need to have reasons, accessible to me and internally verifiable by my rational faculties, for my belief, and so long as I have such reasons I can justifiably remain supremely confident of the truth of my beliefs. Assuming an externalist epistemology, my belief may be maintained as properly basic in the absence of a defeater, and the fact that other people come to believe differently, even using (ostensibly) the same method, just does not constitute a defeater. So, on internalism there is no problem for anybody (least of all for the religious person), and on externalism there is still no problem for the average (i.e., non-philosophical) religious believer who forms her belief using a method which does not reliably induce true beliefs.

The fact that a method of belief formation does not reliably induce true beliefs doesn’t mean that a belief formed using that method isn’t justified. It means, at most, that the method itself cannot be the locus of justification for the belief (i.e., what justifies the belief has to be something other than the unreliable method by which the belief arose as a matter of psychological history), but this is a far cry from the conclusion of the argument I’ve been considering.

[1] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” in Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, ed. Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 274.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” 274-75.

[3] Peter van Inwagen, “It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence,” 275.

An Argument for Analogy

I have heard some atheists and skeptics about God’s existence claim that the Thomistic doctrine of analogy (i.e., that we can only speak about God by analogy, since we form our concept about God under the influence of empirical impressions of creatures, and so cannot possibly form a univocal concept of God’s essence as such), cannot be right because there is nothing about which we can only speak by analogy. In other words, if we can speak about anything by analogy, then we can speak about that thing univocally as well (followers of Duns Scotus will often press this point).[1] In this post I want to explore a way in which I think the multiverse hypothesis, which is popular among naturalists today, implies that there are some things, after all, about which we can speak, write and think, only by way of analogy, or at least by way of analogy alone.

There are a few different definitions of the multiverse hypothesis, but I will here take the multiverse hypothesis to be the thesis that there is an ensemble of universes, including our own, all of which have their own entirely separate spaces and times. On this hypothesis other space-times exist, but, it turns out, their spaces and times are incommensurable with our own. Everything may seem fine so far, but an interesting thing happens when we reflect more deeply on this (hypothetical) situation. It turns out that, in a rather straightforward way, the space and time of any alternative universe isn’t really what we refer to as space, or what we refer to as time. It makes no sense to ask ‘how far away’ an object in the space of another universe is, or ‘how long ago’ an event in another universe was, precisely because those universes do not share our time, or our space. It makes no sense to ask how old another universe is compared to ours, or how large another universe is compared to ours, for they cannot stand in such relations to each other. Those comparisons break down at this level because they become semantically vacuous. Such relations simply do not obtain between different universes.

This makes clear that our time is what we refer to when we talk about time, and our space is what we refer to when we talk about space. We are, when conceiving of other universes, taking our concepts of time and space and saying of a reality actually incommensurable with our own that it is ‘like this.’ That, however, is just to say that we are using our concepts of space and time analogously, and this is precisely the way in which the Thomist thinks we can, and must, speak about God. These other universes do not literally or univocally have any space, or any time, where these words are understood in their literal senses. You can satisfy this for yourself by thinking through some obvious considerations; for instance, consider that anything extended in time is, by logical necessity, earlier, later, or simultaneous with all other events in time. In the case of another universe this is not so, for anything extended in the ‘time’ of another universe is not earlier, later, or simultaneous with all other events in time. The same can be said of space, since any two (non-identical, non-overlapping) things extended in space are, necessarily, some distance apart from each other, but objects extended in different spaces are no distance apart from each other. The only way to make sense of talk of spaces and times incommensurable with our own is by analogy; we can speak about other space-times only by adopting a propositional attitude according to which we recognize our statements to be predicated by way of analogy. Our terms are inherited from the world with which we are familiar, and we are using them to speak about realities which we otherwise (than by analogy) cannot speak or think about at all. Nevertheless, the multiverse hypothesis can be both coherent and even true.

If I am right, then what this shows is that analogous predication is coherent and legitimate after all, at least if the multiverse hypothesis is a coherent hypothesis (it may not be, of course, but at least the naturalist/skeptic who takes it to be a coherent hypothesis will not be able to turn around and say that the Thomistic doctrine of analogy must be wrong because there isn’t anything about which we can speak only by analogy). Perhaps the naturalist will recoil at this point and argue that even if different universes have incommensurable times and spaces, that doesn’t mean that there is no way to predicate anything univocally about these different universes. For instance, perhaps two universes can stand in some real relation (for instance of similarity) to one another, or perhaps we can say that both exist in exactly the same sense of ‘exist.’ In response, I want to say that I am doubtful that any two universes can stand in any real relation to each other at all (I think this is ultimately a linguistic confusion), and even if many different universes could be said to exist in a univocal sense, their spaces and times considered as such could only be described and conceived of by analogy with our own. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to point out, as well, that existence is not a first-order predicate anyway (a point with which the naturalist will almost certainly agree), so that the fact that it can be applied apparently univocally shouldn’t worry us precisely because it isn’t a property. As such, it contributes absolutely nothing to the idea of the thing in question, and the doctrine of analogy maintains that it is our idea of the thing which can be formed exclusively by analogy.

Another objection may be that space and time are complex ideas which are conceptually formed by putting together combinations of simpler ideas, each of which can, as it turns out, be used univocally as applied to our universe and to others. For instance, somebody could suggest that time is nothing other than the direction of increasing entropy, and that ‘entropy,’ ‘direction’ and ‘increasing’ are concepts which can be applied univocally across different universes.[2] I think that this is wrong for a few reasons. First, ‘direction’ doesn’t seem to be univocally applied across different space-times (maybe it is, but it isn’t clear to me that it is). Second, I see no reason to think that time is defined by the direction in which entropy increases. In fact, the only reason we think of entropy increasing over time is because as time passes we observe an increase in entropy, but had it been the other way around we would have defined time as the direction in which entropy decreases, and, indeed, there are presumably some (at least possible) universes in the multiverse in which, as time goes on, entropy does decrease – and if this is even possible, given the multiverse hypothesis, then time cannot mean merely the direction in which entropy increases. If time simply meant the direction in which entropy increases then a universe in which entropy decreases over time would be physically impossible, but that, as far as I know, is not the case (perhaps someone could raise a quibble here about the second law of thermodynamics, but that is articulated precisely with the presumption that it is about our universe). Moreover, if one simply defines time as the direction in which entropy increases then I think it follows trivially that in no universe is it physically possible for entropy to decrease over time, but there is no good reason at all to accept this definition of time, and there are some very deep philosophical reasons for rejecting such a definition.[3] In any case I think our concept of time is more primitive and basic than our concept of entropy; we discovered that entropy increases as time passes, but we did not and could not have discovered the reverse.

In conclusion then, it seems to me that the naturalist faces a dialectical dilemma here. Either analogous predication is coherent and legitimate, in which case we can countenance both the doctrine of analogy and the multiverse hypothesis, or else it isn’t, in which case we cannot. If the naturalist wants to appeal to the multiverse hypothesis, even as a merely coherent hypothesis (for instance, as a possible explanation of the appearance of fine-tuning), then they will have to concede to the Thomist that we can, in principle, speak about God by analogy alone (not to be confused with the concession that we can only speak about God by analogy).


[1] See: Thomas Williams, “John Duns Scotus,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edited by Edward N. Zalta,

[2] My thanks to a friend for bringing this point to my attention.

[3] For more on this topic please visit:


A Scientistic argument for Determinism, and some related thoughts

I would like to write a little bit, today, about Determinism. First, I want to try to give another argument for determinism which occurred to me recently (though I think it is a very poor argument, but may be worth mentioning if for no other reason than that it is some kind of argument for determinism). Following this I wish to draw on a thought experiment presented by Alexander Pruss to show that libertarian free will can be consistently combined with physical determinism.

What arguments are there for determinism? Let us take determinism to be the thesis that for any even E, E either follows of causal necessity from some prior (or posterior) event(s), or else from E every event follows of causal necessity. To avoid trouble, let us stipulate that no two events are both simultaneous and non-identical (i.e., events are complete states of affairs at a moment). Obviously the reason I used ‘causal’ necessity in the definition, as opposed to logical necessity, is that at any time t1, plausibly there is a future-tense (or past-tense) fact about any time t1+n (where n can be negative), so that at least one proposition at any time (and thus for any E) will logically entail every other proposition at every other time. Even the libertarian accepts that, so we should be careful not to conflate that with determinism.

I have said previously that I can think of one argument for a modest kind of determinism which would still be strong enough to rule out libertarian free will; 1) that human beings are entirely material entities, 2) that all material entities are governed entirely by deterministic physical laws, and therefore 3) human beings are determined to act and think exactly as they do act and think. I mentioned that this argument seems implausible to me for two reasons; first, that human beings are not plausibly entirely material entities,[1] and second that the laws of physics are not actually deterministic.[2] However, notice that this argument, even if it were sound, would not go as far as to entail that determinism per se is true (but only that physical determinism is true), nor would it give us any justificatory reason(s) for believing that determinism is true. Additionally, the restriction to physical determinism may actually undermine determinism per se. On determinism per se, even the universe is deterministically caused to begin to exist (assuming it does so), but on physical determinism there is no physical determinant responsible for the beginning of space, time, energy and matter. Physical determinism would, then, imply that materialism (and anything like it) is false, or that determinism per se is false. That’s a hard bullet for the champion of scientism to bite.

Here’s a more ambitious argument for determinism:

  1. Determinism is a necessary presupposition of the scientific method.
  2. The scientific method is the only, or in any case the best, avenue to genuine discovery (i.e., the finding of truth, since a discovery of something false is not a genuine discovery).
  3. Therefore, the presupposition of determinism is a necessary condition of the only, or in any case the best, avenue to genuine discovery (i.e., to the truth).
  4. For any P, if P is a presupposition necessary for the only, or in any case the best, avenue to genuine discovery, then P ought to be believed.
  5. Therefore, determinism ought to be believed.
  6. For any P, if P ought to be believed then P is true (i.e., nothing untrue ought to be believed).
  7. Therefore, determinism is true.

We might call this a presuppositionalist argument for determinism. If it were sound then it would provide us with a good reason to believe that determinism is true.[3]

Is this argument any good? Unsurprisingly, I think not. To start off, the first premise seems dubious, especially in light of the same points I made in response to the last argument for determinism which I examined – namely that quantum mechanics may not be deterministic (and yet clearly indeterministic theories of quantum mechanics are scientific, whether or not they are possibly true), and even Newtonian mechanics is certainly not deterministic (and yet, again, is clearly scientific, regardless of whether it is true, or even possibly true – scientific theories can suggest metaphysical impossibilities without ceasing to be scientific). The second premise is also problematic in my view, since it seems to me to simply enunciate the prejudice of scientism, which we have no good reasons for accepting, along with very good reasons for rejecting. So, I outright reject both of the first two premises of this argument.

I also think there are significant problems with the sixth premise which, even though I accept it, seems dubious on the assumptions of determinism and scientism. If determinism is correct, that seriously threatens the possibility of genuine ethics, including the ethics of belief, and if scientism is true then we have no good reason for believing that there are no false beliefs which we ought to adopt (for instance, if scientism and determinism are true, maybe I ought to believe that I am free in a morally relevant sense, even though, in fact, I am not and cannot be – or, paradoxically, if determinism/scientism are true, then, possibly, I ought not to believe that they are true). The whole reason for thinking that a belief ought to be believed if and only if it is true is based on a kind of metaphysical conception of truth on which truth, beauty and goodness are, we might say, ‘natural siblings.’ This makes perfect sense on the Christian way of seeing things, as well as many (perhaps most) other worldviews, but it does not make much sense on materialism or naturalism (which scientism enjoins on us). I’m not even sure it makes much sense on any non-materialist, but yet deterministic, view of the world (like the Calvinist worldview).[4]

Returning to the topic of physical determinism, I would now like to talk about an illustration I found in Pruss’ writing which helps to show that physical determinism is logically compatible with libertarian free will. Pruss uses the image of a cannonball flying through the air to clarify the difference between the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and what he calls the “Hume-Edwards-Campbell Principle” (HECP). According to the HECP, if each member of an infinite set could be explained in terms of the preceding member(s) then (i) every member of the set would be explained, and (ii) the set itself would stand in need of no additional explanation. The HECP is sometimes used as a response to cosmological arguments from contingency, for obvious reasons. Hume, for instance, writes:

Add to this that in tracing an eternal succession of objects it seems absurd to inquire for a general cause or first author. How can anything that exists from eternity have a cause[?]… In such a chain, too, or succession of objects, each part is caused by that which preceded it and causes that which succeeds it. Where then is the difficulty? But the whole, you say, wants a cause. I answer that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct countries into one kingdom or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts”[5]

This principle is, I believe, demonstrably wrong for several reasons, though my favorite demonstration is provided by Pruss who proves that an infinite series of successive explanations is logically equivalent to one great big viciously circular explanation. However, my interest here is not to find out whether the HECP is correct, but how thinking through the HECP can help make clear how physical determinism is compatible with libertarian free will.

To illustrate the difference, let’s imagine that there were a cannonball flying through the air in a logically possible world where there was no time at which the cannonball was not flying through the air. Every point in time at which the cannonball was in a certain place, going a certain speed in a particular direction, those facts could all be explained by pointing to facts about where a cannonball was (how fast it was going, and in what direction it was moving) at a preceding point in time (at least presuming the regularity of its motion, which is to say that its motion is governed by certain laws). For Hume (et al) it would make no sense to ask for an explanation over and above this for the fact that there is a cannonball flying through the air; we can explain why the cannonball exists, why it is moving as fast as it is, and why it is going in this direction rather than that direction, all by referring to facts about the laws governing its movement along with the fact that it existed, where it was, how fast it was moving, and in what direction it was going at some previous time. Where the HECP makes any further explanation unnecessary, the PSR demands that there be an explanation for why there is a cannonball at all, for the PSR demands that there be an explanation of any contingent fact.

Keeping this distinction in mind, let us imagine a logically possible world W which had no beginning, but was just stretched out temporally infinitely in its past, and in which physical determinism is true. At any point in time in W, W could be said to have existed for an infinite number of some unit of temporal length (hours, days, milliseconds, etc.), call this unit T, so that it had no beginning in the sense that there is no first T in W.[6] Now, for any state of affairs in W picked out by any time tn, all the facts about that state of affairs can be explained by the facts which obtain in W at a slightly earlier time tn-1. So, for any state of affairs at any time in W, there is an adequate explanation for that state of affairs in terms of some other state of affairs at another time which deterministically brings it about. In W, the HECP is satisfied by the facts we have laid out, whereas the PSR requires a deeper explanation for the existence of W, and for contingent facts obtaining in W. The PSR reminds us that such explanations are possible, and this will help us to see that libertarian free will possibly coincides with physical determinism.

Bear in mind that all we need to do in order to demonstrate the compossibility of two propositions is to show that there is a logically possible world out there which satisfies both propositions. In W, physical determinism is satisfied. If in/at W there is at least one libertarian-free act (or, technically, even just one libertarian-free agent), then the compossibility of libertarian free will and physical determinism will have been logically demonstrated. Clearly, however, it is logically possible that the existence of W is explained by the voluntary election of a libertarian-free divine agent (i.e., God). If God, in a libertarian-free capacity, chose to create such a world, then the world and all of its happenings would ultimately be explained in terms of God’s acting freely to create it. Thus, physical determinism is clearly logically compatible with libertarian free will. This is because God is, ex hypothesi, not a material entity. Suppose, further, that people are not merely material entities (i.e., the mind is immaterial), but that epiphenomenalism is true of all embodied people, and the mind, which persists after bodily death, becomes libertarian free once freed of the body. So long as this is logically possible its very possibility goes to show that physical determinism is demonstrably logically compatible with libertarian freedom.

However, there may be another way in which libertarian free will is compatible with physical determinism, at least on the B-theory of time. Suppose that there is a set of physical states of affairs P, consisting of {P1, P2, P3… Pn}. Now, suppose that any Pn+1 follows from Pn of causal necessity (for closed physical systems).  Every physical state of affairs in P is causally explained by some other physical state of affairs in P. Nevertheless, it is logically possible that the sufficient reason for a state of affairs in P involves the fact that a libertarian-free agent in that world makes a libertarian-free decision Fn at some time tn. Here, we might schematize this relationship as follows:

P1 → P2 → P3 → P4
↑↑↑↑       ↑↑↑↑
F1           F2

So, although P2 is physically-causally explained (i.e., HECP explained) by P1, P1 and P2 may only be sufficiently explained (i.e., PSR explained) by appeal to F1 (which itself is sufficiently explained just in case it is logically possible that facts about libertarian-free acts can be sufficiently explained).[7] It may seem strange to talk about libertarian-free acts which occur, in some sense, independently of their space-time context (for, if they occurred within that context, then physics, as we’re imagining it, would provide the context and impetus for the decision, along with determining the decision), but certainly that’s no stranger than thinking of God’s choices as libertarian free even though they are independent of any space-time context.

There is also, perhaps, a stranger way in which we can conceive of this relationship of free choices in a space-time context and a physically deterministic world. I should note that I’m not entirely sure whether this is coherent (it may run into unforeseen problems which more extensive analysis could tease out), but my suspicion is that it is coherent (and, therefore, logically possible). We might imagine that the context in which a libertarian free choice is made is physically under-determinative, but that, once a free decision is made, the result is that the world is supplied physical properties which make that decision appear physically determined. Here we have to imagine that free decisions occur with a limited space-time context (an under-determinative one), and that backwards causation is possible (i.e., events from the future can cause things in the past). Then, we might imagine that even though a temporally antecedent state of affairs P1 causally determines that P2 occurs next, a person’s free choice after the time at which P1 is the case, and before the time at which P2 is the case, is the sufficient reason P1 has the causally determinative features it has for bringing P2 about. On this view, a libertarian free agent makes a decision in light of an under-determinative slice of P1, and their making a decision has temporally backwards-reaching effects which supply P1 with all the physical features necessary for it to deterministically bring P2 about. On this view, a libertarian free decision can be the sufficient reason why P1 deterministically brings P2 about, even though P2 is HECP explained adequately in terms of P1 alone. This view is strange only because we generally think of causal sequences as parallel with temporal sequences, but, at least on the B-theory of time, there is no reason causal antecedence and temporal antecedence need to go hand-in-hand; my free decision may (atemporally) cause features of the past, and maybe those features physically-deterministically cause events in the future.

The Temporal Sequence: P1 → Fn → P2

The (atemporal) Causal Sequence: P1* → Fn → P1 → P2

In conclusion then, we still have no good arguments for believing either in determinism per se, nor in physical determinism. Moreover, even if physical determinism were true, we would have, it seems, no good reasons to doubt the fact that we are libertarian free, at least if we accept the possibility of temporally backwards causation (and, therefore, the B-theory). This can more easily be seen when we distinguish the HECP from the PSR, and note the two different levels of explanations which satisfy them. The PSR needn’t be true, but explanations of the kind it demands, if even possible, carve out a space for libertarian-free decisions even in a physically deterministic world.

[1] For further reading on this point, see Koons, Robert C., and George Bealer, eds. The Waning of Materialism. Oxford University Press, 2010.

[2] I cited the Copenhagen theory of quantum mechanics, as well as John Norton’s now famous example of a ball on a dome (in the comments section, in response to a reader), which illustrates that even Newtonian mechanics is not entirely deterministic. I could easily have added (though I did not think to) that Newton’s laws were all stipulated for closed systems anyway, and it is no part of those laws as such to stipulate that the physical universe as a whole is a closed system, so that his laws cannot imply physical determinism. Newtonian physics did not preclude God’s intervention in the world, for instance, and this is precisely why Newton was not being inconsistent when he maintained both that his laws were true, and that God occasionally intervened in the physical world (for instance by providing the planets with an extra ‘push’ every now and again). This demonstrates clearly that Newton’s laws, even if they were deterministic for closed systems (which the ball-on-dome example disproves), wouldn’t come anywhere near to entailing physical determinism.

[3] Not all sound arguments are good arguments, for the soundness of an argument is neither a necessary, nor sufficient, condition of the goodness of an argument (just as the goodness of an argument is neither necessary nor sufficient for soundness). I will discuss this distinction in more detail in an upcoming post. For now, however, observe that if this argument were sound, then it would give us good reasons for accepting its conclusion, or at least for accepting premise 5.

[4] Calvinism requires a compatibilist view of free will and determinism in order to allow normative statements about what one ought or ought not to believe, but I’m not convinced that such accounts are even coherent. In fact, I am convinced they are not.

[5] Pruss quoted a passage from Hume, but I have provided a more extended excerpt of the same passage from Hume. David Hume, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” in Modern Philosophy: An Anthology (Second Edition), Edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009), 622.

[6] At first I thought, in passing, that if somebody had trouble with the idea of an infinite past I could just say that there was a world W* in which temporally backward causation (i.e., causation from future events to past ones) is the only kind of causal relation which obtains, and where every event is deterministically caused by some posterior event, and although the world has a temporal beginning, it has no temporal end. However, one should only be concerned with actually infinite regresses of past events if one is i) an A-theorist, or ii) worried about infinite chains of causes. If one is an A-theorist, they will not likely accept the possibility of backward causation anyway, and if one is, like me, worried about infinite chains of causes, then they will have the same problem with W* as they had with W. If you, like me, do have a problem with accepting that W is logically possible then either suspend your modal suspicions here for the sake of argument, or just notice that any length of time can be infinitely subdivided, so that over any measurable length of time it is logically possible that an infinite number of causes are at play just in case it is true that there is no particular time tn at which no cause can logically possibly obtain.

[7] I strongly believe they can be sufficiently explained, and this is because I adamantly reject the assumption that all explanations can be reduced to, or expressed by, entailments. However, I will leave off giving an account of this highly contentious position for now; the reader who disagrees with me is invited to accept the weaker conditional claim that if facts about libertarian free actions could be sufficiently explained, then any combination of libertarian free acts might figure into a sufficient explanation for precisely why the physical states of the universe are precisely as they are. However, notice that, for the purposes of my argument, the PSR needn’t be true, it just needs to be possible that there be an underlying explanation which goes beyond the demands of the HECP.