Bayesian Basicality

Suppose that you’re thinking of adopting radical probabilism,[1] or some more moderate form of Bayesianism, as your epistemology, but you’re hesitant because you think there are beliefs which are properly basic (including, perhaps, the belief in God), and you think that Bayesianism won’t make room for such beliefs. Reformed Epistemology,[2] after all, is an externalist epistemology, while Bayesianism appears to be an internalist epistemology. Here’s an obvious way to put these commitments together coherently.

As a preliminary note, I want to call the reader’s attention to the fact, of which I only just became aware while trying to articulate this idea, that Pruss has suggested that (objective) Bayesianism should be regarded as a hybrid epistemology, where belief-updating is an internalist epistemic procedure, but the particular calibration of prior probability assignments is potentially (un/)warranted given an externalist story.[3] I think this account sounds right. I have also been thinking, lately, about a way to fill out an epistemology such that it tells both an internalist and an externalist story (in other words, I’ve been thinking about how to articulate an epistemological commitment which bridges the internalist-externalist divide) and thus, if Pruss is right, it appears that Natural Law Bayesianism can commend itself to us (or to me) in light of this philosophical virtue.[4]

I am increasingly convinced that Natural Law Bayesianism is correct, but what I am about to suggest will hold for any version of objective Bayesianism (and, as we will see, perhaps even for subjective Bayesianism as well). Perhaps we should regard a belief as properly basic if and only if its prior probability is (and ought to be) set at higher than 0.5 (on a scale from 0 to 1). We can then say that we have a defeater D for some properly basic belief H iff:

  1. P(H) >0.5
  2. P(H|D) ≤ 0.5

Recall that a properly basic belief is a belief which one is rational to maintain even in the absence of inferential evidence or rational argument, so long as genuine defeaters are not forthcoming. Take inferential evidence and rational argument to be species of evidence in the Bayesian sense; something E is evidence in the Bayesian sense for hypothesis/proposition H if and only if the probability of H given E is higher than the prior probability of H (prior, that is, relative to the condition ‘E’). Thus, we might have some beliefs the appropriate assignment of whose prior probabilities is in the range 0.5 < x ≤ 1, and these beliefs we will be able to rationally maintain even in the absence of inferential evidence or rational argument.

In fact, if one has coherentist leanings (as opposed to foundationalist leanings), one could even talk about a form of proper-basicality for a coherentist using precisely this language, but just adopt a subjective Bayesianist account of the priors in place of the objective Bayesianist account (mutatis mutandis).


[1] See: Richard Jeffrey, “Radical Probabilism (Prospectus for a User’s manual),” in Philosophical Issues 2 (1992): 193-204.

[2] See: Peter Forrest, “The Epistemology of Religion” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edited by Edward N. Zalta, (June 15th, 2019):

[3] See: Alexander R. Pruss, “Internalism, Externalism and Bayesianism,” Alexander Pruss’ Blog, (June 15th, 2019):

[4] One might think to suggest that this is more a vice than a virtue, for perhaps an account which is both internalist and externalist inherits all the problems peculiar to either side of that divide. I think this is mistaken; the only way to have an epistemology which is adequate for answering both internalist and externalist concerns is going to be an epistemology whose framework allows us to address puzzles peculiar to each front, and no argument for the indispensability of internalism or externalism will stand as an objection to such an epistemology.

An Alledged Problem with (most) Religious Beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


The Ethics of (Dis)Belief

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
~ William Clifford, The Ethics of Belief

Years ago, in my first philosophy of religion class, as a fresh-off-the-boat undergraduate in my first semester of university, I was exposed to, and fascinated by, William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief, where he argued forcefully and persuasively that believing in anything upon insufficient evidence was morally criminal. Since that time I have always retained the conviction that deciding what one believes is a matter of serious moral gravity. This is, in fact, what I take to be Clifford’s key insight into the ethics of belief; namely, that no act of choosing to believe or disbelieve anything is truly a private matter. Human beings, by virtue of the human situation, are such inextricably communal beings that nothing we say, do, or believe, in public or in private, is really a matter of no public consequence. To draw any sharp line between the public and private lives of citizens seems to me to reflect an anthropological naïveté. Unless the distinction is meant to be a purely political or legal one, it seems flatly wrong; clearly, there can be no such moral line drawn up between public and private affairs.

C.S. Lewis put this point beautifully, as he often does, in Mere Christianity where he writes:

There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual—when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another. You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions. Or, if you like, think of humanity as a band playing a tune. To get a good result, you need two things. Each player’s individual instrument must be in tune and also each must come in at the right moment so as to combine with all the others. But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is trying to get to, or what piece of music the band is trying to play. The instruments might be all in tune and might all come in at the right moment, but even so the performance would not be a success if they had been engaged to provide dance music and actually played nothing but Dead Marches. And however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.
Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.[1]

The second element of the science of morals is, according to Lewis, directly concerned with apparently private affairs, and this is precisely because these private affairs are a matter of public consequence. William Clifford, who also adopts imagery involving a ship, illustrates his point with the following Gedankenexperiment (as the Germans say):

A SHIPOWNER was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
Let us alter the case a little, and suppose that the ship was not unsound after all; that she made her voyage safely, and many others after it. Will that diminish the guilt of her owner? Not one jot. When an action is once done, it is right or wrong for ever; no accidental failure of its good or evil fruits can possibly alter that.[2]

Clifford goes on to argue, convincingly, that one will not be able to evade this critique by arguing that this or that particular private belief is of no such consequence, for “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 some day explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.”[3] He is, in fact, more elaborate than this, saying:

Nor is that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it… 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.[4]

Therefore, “no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone.”[5] As a Catholic, I find myself in profound agreement with this point. In fact, turning to the Catholic Church’s belief in indulgences, we find Pope Paul VI outlining one of the basic suppositions underlying the doctrine as follows:

There reigns among men, by the hidden and benign mystery of the divine will, a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one also benefits the others. Thus the Christian faithful give each other mutual aid to attain their supernatural aim… This is the very ancient dogma of the Communion of the Saints, whereby the life of each individual son of God in Christ and through Christ is joined by a wonderful link to the life of all his other Christian brothers in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ till, as it were, a single mystical person is formed.[6]

The whole universe, as pictured by the Catholic faith, is infused at every turn with moral significance. This belief isn’t as difficult to make good sense of as it may at first appear. Consider, for example, that I choose today to sin in some apparently private expression of my freedom to do so; will it not be the case that I could have spent that same time praying for others and/or myself, which would have redounded to the salvation/sanctification of all men? My very failure to act well is a sin of omission. However, there is an even deeper sense in which my private sin obviously hurts mankind more directly. Consider that every sin I commit personally is an act by which I distance myself from God. However, sanctity is the most beautiful thing in the world, and people are moved more by beauty than by anything else (they are moved by truth or goodness only insofar as they perceived it so to be and, in addition, perceive its beauty). Beautiful things are, of course, called ‘beautiful’ precisely because they look like God; that is to say, something is beautiful just to the extent that it intimates the divine nature. Something is perceived to be beautiful just to that extent to which it is perceived (however confusedly) to intimate the divine nature. All this is simply to say that to the extent that I distance myself from God by sinning, I put others in the near occasion of damnation by failing to be holy, (i.e., by failing to be truly beautiful).

Many critiques of Clifford’s essay have already been offered in the philosophical literature. However, I will here give a summary outline of my objections or responses to Clifford’s provocative argument: i) first, his argument presumes doxastic voluntarism, and this seems difficult to reconcile with views like Naturalism, thus his argument can only be erected on some intellectual framework which allows for doxastic voluntarism, and this seems to undercut the family of views he means to invite us to; ii) his view is broadly consequentialist and, I think, Utilitarian, but even construed as Utilitarian there may be some cases where belief upon insufficient evidence is, on Naturalism, morally obligatory; iii) having ‘reasons’ may not qualify as sufficient evidence, and this could undercut all beliefs established by philosophical arguments (which, in turn, would undercut Clifford’s philosophical argument about the ethics of belief); iv) not all beliefs are inferred from evidence, and some beliefs, perhaps even some of the beliefs Clifford means to target, may be justified in a properly basic way; v) if every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe anything at all, including that there are any ethics of belief.

Clifford notes that ‘Belief’ is “that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, [and] is ours not for ourselves, but for humanity.”[7] This rational faculty, however, is difficult to account for naturalistically, especially if it is deliberative in any libertarian sense.

As Richard Taylor has done well to note;

I cannot deliberate about what to do, even though I may not know what I am going to do, unless I believe that it is up to me what I am going to do. If I am within the power of another person, or at the mercy of circumstances over which I have no control, then, although I may have no ideal what I am going to do, I cannot deliberate about it. I can only wait and see.[8]

To say that it is, in a given instance, up to me what I do, is to say that I am in that instance free with respect to what I then do.[9]

I deliberate in order to decide what to do, not to discover what it is that I am going to do.[10]

However, physicalism (a popular form of naturalism) makes very difficult the belief in free will, or doxastic voluntarism (i.e., free will applied to the deliberative faculty of belief). The idea that we have the ability to freely choose what to believe assumes, in the first place, that we have free will at all, and in the second place, that we have the ability to will to believe anything in particular (i.e., that this faculty of free will can be applied doxastically). Let us assume that if we have free will at all it isn’t implausible to think we can apply it to what we will to believe or disbelieve. Nevertheless, if we accept anything like physicalism, which is the view that everything which exists (including us) admits in principle of (exhaustive) physicalistic description, then there is no metaphysical space left to insert ‘persons’ (as libertarians conceive of them) into our world.

I could go further in this direction, but before I do perhaps I should stop right here and note that Clifford could legitimately respond ‘to heck with physicalism then,’ and there would be nothing wrong with this response in principle. Clifford’s ethic need not vindicate physicalism in order for there to be something right about it, and Clifford’s being a physicalist has nothing significant to do with his argument here. All I mean to show is that the view to which Clifford presumably means to invite us (i.e., Naturalism) is notoriously difficult to combine with any account of freedom sufficient for the kind of moral indictments he means to issue. His injunctions and censures are either mere expressions of taste, like the propagandistic emoting that A.J. Ayer advocated in moral discourse, or else at least they are groundless unless rooted in a view very remote from his own (and, ironically, perhaps much closer to the religious views he means to disabuse us of).

Moving to my second objection to Clifford’s view, I should note that while his view is broadly consequentialist, and consequentialism isn’t always utilitarian, utilitarianism is by far the most popular version of consequentialism. Briefly, utilitarianism is the view that in any circumstance C, an action A is morally right if and only if it results in an equal or greater-than ratio of pleasure to pain than any other action B in C would have brought about. This definition may seem somewhat crude and unfair, as there are versions of utilitarianism which replace ‘pleasure’ with some more dignified account of happiness (sometimes even ‘eudaimonistic’ Aristotelian accounts). However, in general it is just the view that an action is right to the extent that it results in more well-being than otherwise would have resulted, and this seems to me to be the underlying motivation for Clifford’s argument.

However, because moral reasoning often happens under conditions with time constraints, and these time constraints often don’t allow us to act with any reasonable confidence that what we do will lead to greater happiness overall, philosophers have defended utilitarianism by introducing a distinction between ‘Act’ and ‘Rule’ utilitarianism.

Act Utilitarianism: def. An Act is right if and only if it results in at least as much happiness on the whole as the alternatives.

Rule Utilitarianism: def. An act is right if and only if it conforms to a rule-set whose universal acceptance and application would result in the greatest happiness on the whole.

I introduce this distinction simply by way of clarification; I interpret Clifford’s argument to be cast in terms of Rule-Utilitarianism. The ship-owner did something wrong not necessarily because his action led to less happiness or well-being in fact, but because it failed to follow an epistemic rule which, if universally applied, would result in the greatest happiness on the whole. The ship-owner acted in contravention of the rule.

However, even on Rule-Utilitarianism (and Naturalism) there may be some cases where it is morally obligatory to believe upon insufficient evidence. I recall an example which, as far as I know, originally came from Sam Harris (though when I went digging for it I couldn’t seem to find the reference in his books). He asks us to imagine that we were being tortured by religious radicals who were attempting to either convert us or eventually kill us. Eventually they tell us, and we have reason to believe, that unless we bring ourselves to genuinely believe in their religion they intend to set off a nuclear bomb in our home country (wherever that is), killing hundreds of thousands, or perhaps tens of millions. Now it seems that, under these circumstances, we would be morally obliged to do everything within our power to make ourselves believe in their religion. We allow ourselves to be brainwashed, and force ourselves to accept indoctrination, or else we will have acted in such a way that we bring about a much greater amount of suffering and evil in the world. If we don’t at least try to accept their religion, under those circumstances, then we are acting in a manner which is antithetical to the utilitarian imperative. Therefore, we can imagine a situation where, on Naturalism & Utilitarianism, a person would not only have the right, but in fact the duty, to believe something upon insufficient evidence. This critique of Clifford of course presumes some things, such as that he would be happy with my interpretation of him as a rule-utilitarian, and that may be up for debate, but at least if he is a rule-utilitarian (and clearly a naturalist) then my critique here should be considered on-point.

Moving to my third objection I would like to ask, what, exactly, is ‘sufficient’ evidence? What epistemic standard do we adopt, and what norm do we follow? For any such epistemology, is there ‘sufficient’ evidence for it? Is there sufficient evidence for coherentism, or for classical foundationalism, or for reformed epistemology? What exactly is ‘sufficient’ evidence? If, on the one hand, ‘sufficient’ evidence means simply ‘on the balance of reasons’ then how can Clifford indict anyone of ‘balancing wrongly’ when it seems that there is no way to even prescribe a norm (i.e., an epistemology) ‘on the balance of reasons.’ In effect, what Clifford has done is smuggled in an epistemic norm without giving us any epistemology – and what epistemology could he give us if he couldn’t afford belief in it without sufficient evidence? If having some ‘reasons’ is sufficient to warrant belief, then nearly everything will be epistemically legal. Why imply that the Christian who believes in her faith on the basis of everything she knows, in addition to her experience of the Holy Spirit, is doing anything less prudential than the Naturalist who believes in Naturalism on the basis of everything he knows, in addition to his lack of any compelling religious or spiritual experiences?

If sufficient evidence means proof in the strongest sense, then not only do we need proof that such a thing as ‘proof’ exists (otherwise we have not the sufficient reason for believing there are any proofs out there), but we need also take inventory of just how great a cost adopting such a high standard would be. We would not only have no time to believe in the majority of philosophical positions, but we will have no time to have scientific beliefs either (for science adopts methodological presumptions which it is the province of philosophy to justify, like the reality of the external world, or the validity of inductive reasoning), not to mention common sense beliefs (such as in the reality of the past). We would, it turns out, not have the time to believe in the deliverances of science, which base themselves (as always) on secure but unproven (and often unprovable) assumptions. We will not have time enough to believe that planes will continue to fly, or that the sun will continue to rise in the morning. However, surely Clifford doesn’t want us to abandon all of these beliefs!

What kinds of reasons are sufficient to grant us the license to believe? If the evidences must be indubitable and/or incorrigible then almost all scientific and philosophical ‘evidence’ is inadequate. If, on the other hand, sufficient evidence means anything less than proof then we are left with an indissoluble quandary – what amount of evidence qualifies as sufficient? Are arguments from authority good enough? If even arguments from authority (i.e., based on trusted testimony) are inadequate, then most of us can’t afford to believe most of what we believe, even (and especially) about science and history. However, it now becomes clear that for any reasonable standard of ‘sufficient evidence’ religion will pass the test, and I’ll flesh this out in my following (fourth) criticism.

Bearing in mind the point I just made about some beliefs being unprovable, it seems clear that at least some of our most deeply entrenched beliefs are not inferred on the basis of evidence or believed on the basis or arguments. This last point segues into my fourth criticism, which is that the right ‘epistemology’ is something like Plantinga’s reformed epistemology[11] (which is a non-classical species of ‘foundationalism’). On this view a belief may be justified apart from arguments or inferential evidence on the grounds that it is what philosophers call a properly basic belief.

A belief which is properly basic is one which we are within our rational rights to believe even in the absence of any arguments or evidence, and which it would be irrational to disbelieve in the absence of any (strong) arguments and/or evidence against. Our belief in other minds, the reality of the external world, or our belief in the reality of the past are run-of-the-mill examples of ‘properly basic’ beliefs. We can’t prove either that the past is real (i.e., that the world didn’t come into existence moments ago with the appearances or ‘accidents’ of age, from the fossils in the ground from dinosaurs which were never here, to the memories in your head of the things you never did), or that the world is populated by other minds like ours (we apprehend ourselves immediately, so we cannot doubt that we exist as persons, but for all we know the rest of the world could be comprised of automatons who seem so personable that we confuse them for persons), let alone proving the existence of an external world at all. Yet, we believe these things naturally and strongly. Either we are justified in doing so, or we are all committing epistemic sins by believing in these sorts of things (assuming we do). However, the most plausible account of these beliefs being justified is reformed epistemology.

Here’s the rub; if this epistemology is at least approximately correct (i.e., it’s ‘on the right track’), then what counts as sufficient evidence may be satisfied in the case of the Christian religion. As Plantinga himself, along with other reformed epistemologists, has argued, belief in God, and even in Christianity, may be for some people a properly basic belief.

There is a wide variety of beliefs which fall under this same basic category – we all naturally believe them and don’t feel any need to give any arguments or evidence for them. We believe them not on the basis of a rational inference given some clever argument or some body of evidence, but rather we believe them because our experience of the world naturally forms in us a basic belief which we have no reason to doubt. Plantinga thinks that belief in God is like this, and although that claim usually raises a few eyebrows, I think he’s right. At least if God does exist, we would expect that a person’s cognitive faculties, if they are operating correctly, will recognize this fact. Aquinas recognized this point when he talked about the sensus dei, and Calvin did as well, calling it the sensus divinitatis. The claim thus amounts to saying that if somebody doesn’t recognize that God exists, their cognitive faculties have malfunctioned. This sounds somewhat pejorative, but it isn’t intended to be an indictment, it is simply a consequence of accepting this kind of epistemology along with accepting very plausible theistic assumptions. The atheist can, of course, accept the epistemology while remaining skeptical of Theism (as Tyler Wunder has done),[12] but they won’t be able to go as far as to claim that the theist is committing any epistemic sin when she believes in God.

Moreover, beyond the claim of Theism being properly basic, I think we can argue with success that Christianity may itself be maintained in a properly basic way. For instance, epistemologists (even including Wunder) who accept this general approach have argued that beliefs based on the testimony of others are also properly basic; in the absence of a defeater, you have every reason to believe my name is ‘Tyler’ if I tell you so, and you have no justification for disbelieving it after I’ve told you that is my name unless you have some very good reason to disbelieve it (what epistemologists refer to as a ‘defeater’). So it is with the witness of the Holy Spirit, whose testimony within us confirms that Christianity is true. In the absence of some defeater – some reason to suspect that testimony is false – we can maintain our commitment to the truth of Christianity in a properly basic way. The philosopher William Lane Craig has made this point elsewhere, and I’m really just repeating after him.[13] So, not only are some beliefs maintained in a justified way apart from arguments or inferential evidence, but some of the very beliefs Clifford means to attack are among the best candidates for beliefs of this kind.

Finally, the pièce de résistance, the definitive difficulty with Clifford’s ethics of belief is that it is self-defeating. If every belief needs to be justified by a serious appraisal of evidence, then nobody should have the time to believe in Clifford’s ‘ethics of belief.’ Unless Clifford provides us with some reasonable standard for ‘sufficient evidence’ which won’t cost us beliefs like the belief in the past or the belief that there are objective ethical values (concerning either belief or actions), he cannot hope to provide us with sufficient evidence for his own view about the ethics of belief.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 71-72.

[2] William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, fourth edition, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 99-100.

[3] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[4] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[5] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Indulgentarium Doctrina, Apostolic Constitution Whereby the Revision of Sacred Indulgences is Promulgated, Vatican Web site, July 29, 2014,

[7] Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” 101.

[8] Richard Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” in Reality in Focus: Contemporary Readings on Metaphysics, ed. Paul K. Moser (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 271.

[9] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 273.

[10] Taylor, “Freedom and Determinism,” 278.

[11] See: Alvin Plantinga, “Reformed epistemology,” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition (2010): 674-680.

[12] See this interview:

[13] William Land Craig, interview with Kevin Harris, Reasonable Faith, Podcast Audio, July 29, 2014,