If Atheism is true, we ought to believe that Theism is true.

Years ago when I was struggling with whether I should become an atheist or not, several arguments dissuaded me from going that route. One argument which I had come up with for myself was a purely pragmatic argument which seemed, at the time, pretty good to me. In retrospect and with the advantage of a bit more maturity, I think the argument I had in mind was far from compelling. However, it was interesting nevertheless. I was unfortunately never able to track down certain miscellaneous quotes from Nietzsche with the use of which I wanted to frame part of the argument, but that may be because they were apocryphal to begin with. In any case, I will, in what follows, try to give the reader a decent sense of how this pragmatic argument is supposed to go.

In my youth I was committed to the project of truth-seeking; I felt uncompromising and optimistic. I recall, just by way of anecdote, that a professor of mine in a pre-university philosophy course asked the class which we would rather be: a happy pig or a miserable philosopher. I was one of the few (perhaps, actually, the only one) who said I would rather be the miserable philosopher, because the philosopher would be better able to ascertain the truth. This illustrated, I thought, my commitment to believing something – anything – in virtue only of its truth. This seemed to me, at the time, both right-headed and morally upstanding. However, there came a point where I began to feel myself sliding inevitably towards atheism, naturalism, empiricism and nihilism (a philosophical cocktail of bad ideas). I was slightly horrified by the thought that this collection of ideas may be true, and that perhaps intellectual sincerity would lead any inquiring mind (or, perhaps, at least mine) to affirm them. I reasoned that if they were true, however unpleasant I may find them, I ought to believe them.

It was only after a bit of reflection, coupled with sufficient exposure to two atheistic intellects (namely, Friedrich Nietzsche and William Clifford) that I began to recognize that I was illegitimately importing a sort of quasi-Judeo-Christian commitment into my ethics of belief. I realized that if atheism and nihilism were true, then there would be no robust ethics of belief at all, no moral imperative to believe that atheism is true. On the Judeo-Christian view, there is a sort of natural connection between truth, goodness and beauty. Beauty, on this view, is indicative of goodness, goodness of truth, and these relations are reciprocal. I had not previously considered, however, just how intellectually revolutionary atheism really is; there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no reason to suspect that the truth is either good or beautiful if atheism is true. The truth would just be whatever it is, however ugly or horrifying, however existentially disorientating and dreadful. In such a scenario, where is the moral value in believing in that which is true for no other reason than that it is true?

These ruminations led me to construct the following argument:

  1. Either theism is true, or atheism is true.
  2. If theism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
  3. If atheism is true, then I ought to believe that theism is true.
  4. Therefore, I ought to believe that theism is true.

Intuitively the most surprising premise here is clearly the third, but I think that there are some eligible reasons for thinking that it is true. Allow me a moment to unpack that, a little, by appealing to Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most stunning atheistic intellectuals of all time as well as one of the most perceptive avant-guarde philosophers (if he can be called a philosopher) to ever hold pen to paper. I have been fascinated with him at least since reading On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. His insights, in some ways, have the eerie quality of haunting the mind forevermore once they have been introduced. It is to him I appeal, partly, in setting up this pragmatic argument for belief in theism. Consider the following two passages from Beyond Good and Evil:

“All psychology so far has been stuck in moral prejudices and fears: it has not ventured into the depths. To grasp psychology as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power, which is what I have done – nobody has ever come close to this, not even in thought: this, of course, to the extent that we are permitted to regard what has been written so far as a symptom of what has not been said until now. The power of moral prejudice has deeply affected the most spiritual world, which seems like the coldest world, the one most likely to be devoid of any presuppositions – and the effect has been manifestly harmful, hindering, dazzling, and distorting… But suppose somebody considers even the affects of hatred, envy, greed, and power-lust as the conditioning affects of life, as elements that fundamentally and essentially need to be present in the total economy of life, and consequently need to be enhanced where life is enhanced, – this person will suffer from such a train of thought as if from sea-sickness. And yet even this hypothesis is far from being the most uncomfortable and unfamiliar in this enormous, practically untouched realm of dangerous knowledge: – and there are hundreds of good reasons for people to keep out of it, if they – can! On the other hand, if you are ever cast loose here with your ship, well now! come on! clench your teeth! open your eyes! and grab hold of the helm! – we are sailing straight over and away from morality; we are crushing and perhaps destroying the remnants of our own morality by daring to travel there – but what do we matter! Never before have intrepid voyagers and adventurers opened up a more profound world of insight: and the psychologist who “makes sacrifices” (they are not the sacrifizio dell’intelletto – to the contrary!) can at least demand in return that psychology again be recognized as queen of the sciences, and that the rest of the sciences exist to serve and prepare for it. Because, from now on, psychology is again the path to the fundamental problems.”1

A little later he writes:

“Something could be true even if it is harmful and dangerous to the highest degree. It could even be part of the fundamental character of existence that people with complete knowledge get destroyed, – so that the strength of a spirit would be proportionate to how much of the “truth” he could withstand – or, to put it more clearly, to what extent he needs it to be thinned out, veiled over, sweetened up, dumbed down, and lied about. But there is no doubt that when it comes to discovering certain aspects of the truth, people who are evil and unhappy are more fortunate and have a greater probability of success (not to mention those who are both evil and happy – a species that the moralists don’t discuss).”2

Nietzsche is, here, highlighting the point that there is no reason to believe there will be any correlation between truth and desirability, much less truth and goodness. If psychology, not physics, philosophy or theology, is the true queen of the sciences, then why the truth? Why not rather the lie?

There is, however, a caveat. Even if moral nihilism is ultimately true in the sense that there is no moral ontology, a naturalist, I thought, should still practice something like rule-utilitarianism, even if only out of self-interest (which, I suppose, makes it a form of ethical egoism). What I mean by that is that atheists can still have a rationale for adopting an ethics of belief; one which is admittedly not morally loaded, but which is nevertheless sufficient for practical purposes. They can appeal, for instance, to personal preferences for living in the context of a social contract. That is, in fact, what I was preparing to do if I became an atheist.

What does this atheistic ethic of belief come to? In answer to this I can turn to William Clifford, whose evocative essay, The Ethics of Belief, is the “locus classicus”3 for subsequent philosophical reflection on the ethics of belief. In that essay Clifford argued that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”4 He reasoned that beliefs formed upon insufficient evidence were liable to lead, in general, to otherwise avoidable suffering, providing some provocative thought experiments to illustrate his point. He insisted that beliefs are really just the chain-links between sensation and action, and that no bona fide belief has no influence over action. Perhaps I can be permitted to quote him at length;

“Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever. And no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live”5

To have beliefs which are formed upon insufficient evidence, then, is to be liable to act on misinformation, which, if it results in preventable harm, represents the fruits of a failure to properly discharge one’s social duties in forming one’s beliefs. I have treated more extensively of Clifford’s views elsewhere (and I refer the interested reader to another post here), so I won’t spend any time critiquing his views. What is significant, here, is that all the thought experiments Clifford provides make clear that he is a consequentialist, and, in particular, presumably a rule-utilitarian. That implies, though, that if there were a false belief which led, on its own, to no negative consequences (and perhaps even led to positive ones) it could be adopted without fear of failing to discharge one’s ethical duties with respect to belief-formation.

Clifford’s ethic may provide the atheist with an understandable motivation to eradicate religion. What, though, about theism? Theism and religion are not necessarily inseparable; there are atheistic religions (e.g., Buddhism) as well as irreligious forms of theism (e.g., Deism). So what difference does theism itself make? Well, it allows one to consistently avoid moral nihilism, for a start. It safeguards us against the overwhelming existential angst of living in a world in which our entire lives necessarily amount to nothing more than ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,‘ the effect of taking seriously is veritably crippling. Theism provides a rational basis for hope, a firm foundation for existential optimism. Theism seems more psychologically natural (consider the reasons evolutionary psychologists provide for why we have beliefs like theism at all), it is more epistemically conservative, it is in line with phenomenal conservatism. Indeed, if one is a pragmatist, then I think one already has good reasons to be a theist; theism, after all, adds nothing but philosophical elegance and existential optimism to one’s view of the world. Provide me with any naturalistic view of reality and I can create at least one theistic parody of it with the result that the view I provide will have no relevant differences save for improvements like having fewer brute facts, or being existentially more bearable (of course, it may also be slightly less parsimonious, but at an agreeable cost, and besides, it isn’t easy to see why parsimony would be valuable in its own right on atheism, even if it were,6 on atheism, indicative of truth).

One can easily imagine an old widow, living alone with only her faith and knitting needles to comfort her as she faces the prospect of death. Strip her faith of every element save for theism (and whatever one might have to add to theism to get existential optimism in the face of death); can anyone imagine a scenario where that belief alone contributes in any way to otherwise avoidable suffering? Does anyone really think it can be our moral duty to disabuse her of her belief in God? One might argue that the belief invites more of its kind, and it is, in kind, a belief based upon apparently insufficient evidence. However, there is a sub-kind of this kind which, I’m arguing, can be believed upon insufficient evidence with no possibility of negative consequences, and it is this ‘kind’ of belief about which Clifford must remain silent. After all, we don’t want to disqualify beliefs on the basis of arbitrary ‘kinds,’ and I have pointed to a significant difference in kind between beliefs like theism and the sorts of religious or superstitious beliefs to which Clifford’s attention is drawn.

Now, in reality, I think much more can be said by way of defense not only of religious beliefs, but of the proper basicality of beliefs like the belief that God exists. However, I am attempting to make religion (and controverted epistemologies) as peripheral to the argument as possible, and attempting to show how theism, at least, seems always and everywhere to be a beneficial belief, all things being equal.

How good, really, is this argument? Well, although I feel that atheism would be a metaphysical nightmare, and I agree with thinkers like Nietzsche (et alia) who recognize that atheism is anything but a desirable truth, perhaps some optimistic atheist would just disagree with this and insist that atheism is good news. Additionally the atheist may argue that it is our social duty to embrace atheism (or the agnostic argue that it is our social duty to embrace agnosticism) because either (i) I am wrong to think that theism in itself (conjoined with whatever auxiliary assumptions will license existential optimism) is a beneficial rather than harmful belief in general, or (ii) I am wrong to think that I can legitimately distinguish the ‘kind’ of belief theism represents and the ‘kind’ of belief Clifford warns us against, or both. Finally, the atheist can also argue that it isn’t so clear that if theism is true one ought to believe that theism is true (perhaps God rewards the intellectual honesty of disbelief). Premise two could, therefore, be called into question, but it will be hard to do so if, on theism, there really is a connection between truth, goodness and beauty (or, at least, a correlation between truth and ultimate desirability). The third premise is obviously the critical one; that if atheism is true, and assuming there can be an ethics of belief at all, it seems to follow that one ought to believe that theism is true in light of the clear psychological (existential, philosophical, et cetera) benefits of belief in God, with none of the potential negative consequences associated with other false beliefs. The only other way to get away from this argument which I can think of would be to deny the first premise by appealing to something like verificationism, logical positivism or non-cognitivism about the proposition “God exists.”

So the argument is, like all arguments, only as powerful for some subject as the premises are plausible to that subject. I can imagine numerous ways for the atheist to object to the argument. I, myself, cannot shake the impression that each premise is extremely plausible, but this impression hangs on the view that atheism would be a horrible truth, theism would be a comparably wonderful truth (which, if true, ought to be believed whether we are pragmatists or correspondence theorists, so long as we agree to have an ethics of belief at all), atheism provides no rationale for believing something merely in virtue of its truth, and that theism, as a belief, seems preferable to atheism even if atheism is true.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 23-24.

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, eds., Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2002): 37.

3 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/&gt;.

4 Chignell, Andrew, “The Ethics of Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/ethics-belief/&gt;.


Some Considerations in Favor of Moral Realism

I was pulled into a facebook discussion today about moral realism. I decided I should use that as an excuse to write a short blog-post outlining some philosophical considerations which, I think, should lead us to affirm moral realism with confidence.

First, if there are properly basic beliefs which are not analytic, it seems that the belief in moral realism will definitely be properly basic. If we adopt a purely pragmatic account of epistemic justification then it also seems as though moral realism will be preferable to its negation. In fact, on a variety of epistemologies it looks as though moral realism fares pretty well. What kind of epistemology would justify moral anti-realism? I think the epistemologies which come to mind seem more philosophically suspicious than their competitors. So, unless we have a defeater for moral realism, we seem to be well within our rights to accept moral realism.

What might that defeater be? I suppose one could argue that if Naturalism is true, the moral anti-realism is true, but Naturalism is true, therefore et cetera. However, what reason do we have for believing that Naturalism is true? In all my time as a philosopher I have still yet to hear an even half-way decent argument for Naturalism. I would invite Naturalists to offer arguments here, but experience and my gut both tell me that most Naturalists have, at best, a vague sense that Naturalism seems right, and a poorly thought out set of reasons for thinking that metaphysical naturalism is true. Nevertheless, I remain open to incoming arguments, should anyone wish to present them. I should note, however, that even on Naturalism one should do whatever they can to make room for moral realism, for instance by trying to work out an account of Moral Naturalism.[1]

Second, there is a reductio ad absurdam we can run against arguments for moral anti-realism, which, if I recall correctly, W.L. Craig has presented. The idea goes like this: any argument you could give against moral realism can be parodied with near perfect parity into an argument against belief in the noumenal external world apprehended through the empirical senses. In the case of the external world we apprehend through the five senses that there is such a thing, which seems mind-independent and experience-independent. We have, of course, never verified that the external world is there absent any experience at all, and this is why we occasionally run into philosophers who adopt subjective idealism and deny that there is any such thing as a mind/experience-independent world. We are in a similar position with respect to our meta-ethical beliefs. In our moral experience we apprehend (through experience) that there are moral duties, values and facts which appear to be as objective as anything else we apprehend by experience. We naturally conclude that we encounter, in and through our moral experiences, a moral reality, a world of objective moral facts. In fact, our belief in moral realism is closer in kind to our belief in the noumenal external world than are our beliefs in mathematical facts or modal facts. The latter are the result of the operations of pure reason, whereas the former are the deliverances of experience.

There is, we think, something objectively real about the rock we touch, but this judgment is as much an intellectual knee-jerk reaction as it is possible to conceive. We have the same kind of intellectual knee-jerk reaction when it comes to moral realism, and the reaction comes with just as much force. It takes equally extreme cunning to convince ourselves to believe in moral nihilism as it does to fool ourselves into accepting subjective idealism. Both are just forms of skepticism. In fact, if one puts the arguments down on paper and compares them it will become obvious that there is no reason to deny moral realism which won’t count as an equally good reason to deny the noumenal external world. The subjective idealist won’t be impressed with this reductio, but most people will be.

Third, we can argue in the spirit and fashion of G.E. Moore, whose famous response to the skeptic was “I have a hand!” G.E. Moore’s point was that he would always be more sure that he had a hand than he could be that any argument for skepticism was sound. He might think that all the premises seem true, and agree that the argument seems logically valid, but he would deny that this gives him good enough reason to think that such an argument is sound. The credence which an apparently sound argument for skepticism provides would always, according to Moore, be outweighed by the credence given by experience for the proposition that he has a hand. No argument for skepticism, however good, will justify embracing skepticism, because no argument can make skepticism more plausible than things like ‘that I have a hand.’

To illustrate this point with an analogy, let’s use a logical argument for being skeptical of logical entailment. Suppose a teacher tells her elementary students that they will have a surprise quiz next week. Susie, a young student and budding logician, figures that the quiz wouldn’t be a surprise if it were on Friday, since they would have gone all week without it and would, therefore, be expecting it on Friday. She concludes that the surprise quiz can’t take place on Friday. However, she reasons that since Friday has been logically eliminated, the quiz cannot take place on Thursday either, since, if it hadn’t occurred until Thursday, but the quiz can’t possibly be a surprise Friday, then it can’t be a surprise Thursday either. She continues this process of elimination and determines that there is no day next week on which it is possible to have a surprise quiz. She has not made any obvious logical error in her reasoning, and yet just imagine her surprise when she has a quiz on Tuesday! Therefore, logical reasoning doesn’t always lead from true premises to true conclusions, even if it starts off with true premises and at each step the logical structure of the argument is impeccable.

What are we to make of such an argument? Well, we could come up with very clever responses, but Moore’s point is that even if we weren’t clever enough to discern where the reasoning is going wrong, we would (and should) still not accept that the argument justifies skepticism about logic! I am, and always will be, more sure of modus ponens than I can be that an argument for logical contradiction is sound. This is Moore’s point, and it translates well to the issue of moral realism/anti-realism.

The Atheist philosophy Louise Antony put it nicely when she said “Any argument for moral scepticism will be based upon premises which are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values themselves.”[2] If she is right then it seems like the Moorean response works as well here as it does anywhere.


One popular objection to the second argument I presented, which I hear surprisingly often, is that in our empirical experiences we can achieve a reasonable consensus about what the physical world is really like, but our moral experiences are less conspicuous, less clear, ‘fuzzier,’ and are less conducive to creating consensus about the fabric and structure of moral reality. This, it is suggested, gives us at least one reason to think that we should place more confidence in our empirical experience of the noumenal external world than we should place in our moral experience. Our moral experiences are more suspicious because they are a great deal vaguer than our empirical experiences.

I have two responses to this. First, although not all scientific matters can be adjudicated by empirical experiments either (think, for instance, of empirically equivalent scientific theories in equally good scientific standing, such as the neo-Lorentzian view of relativity, and the standard view of relativity), I will grant (and not just for the sake of argument) that scientific consensus is more easily reached than moral/ethical consensus. However, I want to note in passing that nearly everyone (who is some kind of moral realist) agrees that it is wrong to (without a justifying reason) kick a pregnant woman in the stomach repeatedly for amusement. There is, I think, a great deal more moral consensus than people typically imagine, but I digress. Having admitted this point of disanalogy, it still looks to me as though moral realism is so nearly as well justified as belief in the noumenal external world that the disanalogy makes no practical difference; moral realism ought still to be believed in the absence of a defeater, or else, on pain of inconsistency, we will be putting our belief in the external world in the very near occasion of philosophical abandonment.

My second response is to say that I think this objection confuses moral realism with particular meta-ethical accounts, or normative accounts. The arguments presented are not suggesting that we should be able to discover, through moral experience, what is objectively morally right (or wrong) with as much clarity and consensus as we discover what is objectively scientifically right (or wrong). What is being claimed is merely that in our moral experience we are as sure that we are being confronted with some set of objective moral facts as we are that, in our empirical experience, we are being confronted with an external world. The point here is that moral experience leads us to be confident not in any particular moral theory (eg. Utilitarianism, Egoism, Deontology, etc.), but in moral realism itself, a presumption which all moral theories share in common, and on which their coherence depends.


[1] See James Lenman, “Moral Naturalism,” inThe Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N. Zalta, (2014). http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/naturalism-moral/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6WnliSKrR4

Foreseeing Problems with Engineering Optimized Academic Languages

I want to share some thoughts I recently had about the possibility of literally engineering languages optimized for academic research, and what consequences we might expect to follow from implementing the use of such languages as academically standard. The thought came to me in an example packaged with the intellectual accouterments of my own area of expertise (or at least area of academic focus), the philosophy of time, but the point generalizes (I think). Philosophy of time, perhaps especially as it exists within the Anglo-American or ‘Analytic’ tradition, requires key distinctions like the distinction between ‘time’ and ‘tense’ in order to get off the ground. Not all natural languages have developed in a way that allows one to make this distinction, however, and as a consequence some languages turn out to be more optimal for the study of such niche philosophical areas than others. Recently William Lane Craig pointed out[1] that French, for example, allows no room for the distinction between time and tense, since both ‘time’ and ‘tense’ are represented by one single word in French: ‘temps.’ He recalls that a French Graduate student in philosophy struggled to communicate his ideas to his academic peers:

“As a French speaker, he found it next to impossible to communicate to his colleagues his interest in tensed versus tenseless theories of time. Since in French the word for time and the word for tense is the same, namely, temps, he found himself quite a loss to how to communicate something like tenseless time. People didn’t even know what he was talking about!”[2]

This is (presumably) precisely why philosophy of time has been so stagnant in the French-speaking academic world.

As I was reflecting on this it occurred to me that some language might be maximally optimal for the study of philosophy in general, or for epistemology, or metaphysics. This will not sound unfamiliar to those who are well read in the continental tradition of philosophy (think of Heidegger and Hegel and their ilk who treat the German language itself as indispensable not just for their own philosophies, but for the world’s most pristine philosophy). However, what I have in mind is more radical than this. Given that some natural languages are better suited to certain intellectual pursuits, it seems entirely plausible (theoretically) that we could optimize a language for a discipline. I mean that we would literally engineer a language, from the ground up, to be optimized for a species of academic/intellectual pursuit. Presuming indefinitely many more advances to come in the worlds of cognitive science and linguistics I can see no reason why this suggestion is infeasible in principle (in fact, we need only presume a few more leaps and bounds forward in these areas, so we could even dispense with the ‘indefinitely many more advances to come’ optimism). Imagine having an artificial language which we specially constructed to be optimized for the study of philosophy, or for the study of psychology, or chemistry, or even linguistics itself. What would the academic world look like if we were to do this? If people in these fields all used a highly specialized language (not just technical vocabulary) then how good would it be for academia in general? Would there be such a thing as a maximally optimized language for a discipline (is there a ceiling to how optimized these languages might be, or would some disciplines have ceilings while others did not – and presuming that at least a few had ‘ceilings,’ would some be lower than others, and could we infer anything interesting from that)? Interesting questions.

I can, it is true, imagine such a project being an academic boon in certain respects, but I can just easily (perhaps more easily) imagine it being academically detrimental in other respects. For instance, if somebody who studies chemistry is (potentially) a brilliant chemist, but is no good at all with linguistics, wouldn’t they be disadvantaged if it became academically necessary for them to learn a new language to study in their chosen field? How many gifted prodigies would we disadvantage compared to the polymaths we would be advantaging? Moreover, we already have a problem with academic overspecialization and intellectual insulation; academics aren’t always good at keeping up with what is going on around them in other fields (political science, physics, social science, philosophy, musicology etc.), and it seems as though encouraging academics to speak in literally idiosyncratic languages optimized for, but peculiar to, their own fields, would only exacerbate this problem.

I can imagine specially engineered academic languages causing even deeper academic divisions. Imagine, for instance, that a political science student writes a thesis on how the specialized language of biology – say – were subliminally charged with a left/right-wing political ideology, or imagine that a gender-studies major writes a thesis on how the specialized language of physics is inherently and structurally sexist.[3] Such criticisms, which would be sure to come, would create not academic rapprochement but alienation and perhaps, in the worst case, even antagonism. In the end it isn’t clear to me just how helpful developing and implementing such specialized artificial languages would really be, and I suspect (for many of the reasons I’ve alluded to) that the payoff wouldn’t be worth the cost.

[1] William Lane Craig, “The Passage of Time,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-passage-of-time

[2] William Lane Craig, “The Passage of Time,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-passage-of-time

[3] For fun, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mg0CZZUFyeo

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.

Defining Libertarian Freedom

It may seem intuitive to define libertarian free will (LFW) as simply having the ability to choose between (at least) two options such that nothing compels you to choose either one (or any) in particular. Analytic philosophers like using heuristic tools like the conception of logically possible worlds, and in their preferred modal vocabulary the naïve version of the libertarian thesis would look something like this:

S is Libertarian Free if and only if S is given a choice between A and B in both logically possible worlds W and W*, where W and W* both have all and only the same causal antecedents to the choice in play, and S chooses A in W but not in W*.

This definition is rife with problems, however. For instance, if the mechanism responsible for S’s choosing A or B happens to operate indeterministically (as we might imagine the quantum vacuum does – or at least, as those who subscribe to indeterministic theories of quantum mechanics think it does), and S is at the whim of this mechanism, then S satisfies the above constraint, but has not exercised what we (libertarians) mean by ‘free will.’ Thus, we need to explicitly work into the definition that the choice finds it’s origin in the free and intentional movement of the will.

In a previous article I defined Libetarian Free will as follows:

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.

This definition is also problematic in a few ways. First, S might be libertarian free dispositionally, but S has not lived long enough to encounter even a single choice between at least two options A and B. We can imagine a child who, by nature, has the undeveloped potential to make libertarian free choices, but who, for whatever reason, doesn’t live long enough to realize that potential. We can also imagine a libertarian free agent popping into existence, and then, before she ever gets the chance to exercise her freedom, popping out of existence. In such cases we have imagined libertarian free agents, but they have never been given the opportunity to exercise their freedom (and so, on my proposed definition, would not be genuine, bona fide, examples of libertarian free agents). Thus, perhaps libertarian freedom needs to be defined dispositionally:

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

This definition is liable to run into problems with Frankfurt style counter-examples (depending on how one construes the word ‘choose’ in the definition). I previously dealt with this by providing a careful definition of ‘choosing,’ but the definition I put forward was at best ambiguous on its face.[1] Without the additional caveat, it isn’t evident whether to ‘choose’ meant to act in the manner willed, or simply to signify an act of the will (i.e., primitive deciding, which is prior to action). If the first, then Frankfurt style counter-examples are going to pose a problem for libertarianism, and if the latter then they probably won’t. In the interest of disambiguation, this further amended definition should be preferred:

S is libertarian free =df S has the dispositional potential to, if given at least one choice between at least two options A and B, decide to choose A where no causal antecedents to S’s choice determine that S decides to choose A, and S’s deciding to choose A would be an intentional act of causally determinative volition on the part of S.

To my mind there are only three problems which this definition might have, but I am not (myself) convinced that these are genuine problems (in other words, I am convinced that these are at best pseudo-problems), so that I am content to subscribe to the above definition. These three problems are (i) that libertarianism is semantically vacuous (i.e., logically incoherent), (ii) that Frankfurt-style counter-examples might be made to apply even to the act of deciding to choose, and (iii) that if it makes sense to talk about an intentional act of causally determinative volition, it might make sense to imagine that a person exercises such a capacity even without being given a choice between two alternatives. The first pseudo-problem is a popular one, but there is no compelling argument for it (says me). Those who cannot see the sense in it may be intellectually colourblind (to borrow from Alexander Pruss yet again),[2] and at least until they provide a convincing demonstration (convincing, that is, to Libertarians, and not just convincing to die-hard determinists), we are well within our rights to dismiss the claim with a measure of incredulity. The second pseudo-problem is not a real problem precisely because if one cannot even decide (in a causally un-coerced way) in favor of one option over against another (such as its negation), then we have lost sight entirely of the will as a free actor. The third pseudo-problem seems to me to be a clear pseudo-problem because even if we might perform an intentional act to realize A, if we had no genuine choice between A and ~A, then that intentional act is not causally determinative. It may be causally required (such that A could not have come about without the intentional act of the will), but it wasn’t determinative in the sense that it determined the outcome (the effect) – it would just be one more link in a causal chain running back in a line of succession before it all the way to a determinative cause.


[1] For a discussion of Frankfurt-style counter-examples, and how I qualified the definition previously provided, see my article: Arguments for Libertarian Free Will.

[2] Alexander Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment. (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 193.


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.

[6] http://www.biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/p20.htm

Courage and DCT

In the course of his review of Alston’s divine command theory, Dean Kowalski raises a very interesting objection to DCT which I would like to, here, briefly examine. According to divine command theory (as it is usually expounded) God’s nature is itself the paradigm of moral goodness. To be more precise, the DCT account runs approximately as follows: a property P is morally good just in case in having P a person/thing stands in a specified relation R to God. That relation is sometimes called one of imitation, though (due to my Thomistic proclivities) I will prefer to say it is a relation of intimation. Either way, to be good is to approximate to the nature of God in some respect, or in some (context) appropriate way. For example, God is essentially loving. A person who acts lovingly or who has the property of being loving is morally better than they otherwise would have been precisely because in so acting/being they are intimating the divine nature. Thus, for any property P, if P is a morally better-making property then God not only has P but acts as the paradigm of P, such that other things are said to have P only by standing in a relation ‘R’ of intimation to God.

Now, the objection which I would like to raise to our attention is discussed near the end of Kowalski’s paper, and has nothing to do with his more interesting challenge to DCT (which I will not treat here at all, though I may end up treating it elsewhere in another post). Whereas that objection occupied most of the space in his excellent little essay, this one took up less than a page. Since DCT requires that any morally good-making or great-making or better-making properties be grounded in God as their paradigm, they imply that if there is any property which is not found in God, it cannot be a morally better-making property. Kowalski then articulates his difficulty in the following words:

“Alston’s view entails that if God doesn’t exemplify a property, it cannot be good to possess or to approximate. This entailment becomes problematic with respect to moral properties which God cannot exemplify, most notably (perhaps) being courageous.
Courage is, or at least can be, a moral virtue for human persons. However, because being courageous requires (roughly) focused effort in the face of adversity when the resulting outcome is uncertain, it is very difficult to see how the omnipotent, omniscient, and existentially secure Creator could be courageous…
It thus follows on Alston’s account that being courageous cannot be a good property for us to possess or approximate. But this is simply implausible, and proves to be a serious counter-example to his view. Since it is, or at least can be, a good thing for us to be courageous, it follows that there are other sources (or grounds) of goodness besides divine exemplification.”[1]

I want to begin by noting, before examining possible solutions to which divine command theorists like myself may appeal, that, as opposed to most of the parities of the famous Euthyphro dilemma, this is actually a very good objection to DCT which deserves some applause. It is very clever, and involves no recycled mistakes.

Now, there are at least three (potential) solutions I can see for the divine command theorist. First, perhaps one could try to ground the moral goodness of courage in God by way of a counterfactual account. This may not be as implausible as it at first appears; after all, other properties God has seem to be counterfactual, such as omnipotence (omnipotence is not merely satisfied by being the most powerful being, but indicates having a maximal or limitless power – a power, in other words, to do anything were one to will it). On this account, although God is not actually courageous in fact, given that He has no occasion to be, nevertheless it is a true counterfactual about God that were He placed in some situation where He could be courageous, He would be. Some Christians may be tempted to introduce the example of the way Jesus faced the prospect of his own torture and death into evidence here, as though it could verity the truth of the counterfactual that God would act courageously if only He were given the chance.

The problem with this account is obvious; it is not merely a matter of fact that God has no occasion to act courageously, but it is a matter of metaphysical necessity. One cannot merely appeal to examples from the incarnation here, for although Christ may have been courageous, He also learnt new things, and both of these He did qua his human nature, and not qua the divine nature. Moreover, even omnipotence is constrained by the logically possible, but the present account suggests per impossibile that God would act courageously if only He were given the chance. The real problem here is that the antecedent of this counterfactual is impossible, making the claim what philosophers call a ‘counter-possible,’ and counter-possibles are meaningless even if granted truth-value assignments. This account, therefore, seems to lead straight to a philosophical dead end.

Alternatively, the second option would be to do away with courage as a morally better-making property altogether. However, this is a hard bullet to bite, and may provide a defeater for a DCT account of metaethics. It is simply too counter-intuitive to claim that courage is not morally virtuous. This second option, although coherent, is extremely unattractive, and any position which is extremely unattractive should be rejected just in case there is a more attractive alternative. Thankfully, in this case, there is.

The third alternative, and the one which I will tentatively endorse, is to suggest that the property of courage may be morally virtuous in some secondary or derivative sense, namely insofar as it is a disposition given which one is more likely to intimate the divine nature in an appropriate way. Thus, courage is not a morally better-making property in itself, but is morally virtuous insofar as it has a law-like tendency to facilitate or encourage acting, given some situation, in a way which more closely imitates (or more approximately intimates) the divine nature. An example might be telling the truth even when we may have good reason to be afraid of telling the truth. When little Billy breaks a lamp it takes courage for him to tell his parents the truth (rather than claiming that the dog knocked it over), but truth-telling is clearly morally virtuous since it is an appropriate expression of love to induce true beliefs in others. In this way the cultivation of courage as a disposition puts one in the near occasion of intimating the divine nature.

In conclusion, I think there are three potential avenues down which the divine command theorist can go in defending the coherence and plausibility of DCT against this objection, and I think at least one of these three options is eminently viable.


[1] Dean A. Kowalski, “Remembering Alston’s ‘evaluative particularism’.” In Religious Studies 47, no. 03 (2011): 280.