Free Will, Agent Causation, & Metaphysical Naturalism: A consistent and plausible combination



It’s no longer uncommon for free will to be met with suspicion. This suspicion is even greater when it comes to libertarian free will, and overwhelming regarding agent causation. This belief is largely arrived at via the notion that agent causation or even free will in general is inconsistent with Metaphysical Naturalism. This attitude is mistaken. Here I propose to show that even an agent causal account of action is consistent with Naturalism, which implies that free will in general is. Finally, I’ll close by arguing that at least some people are justified in believing in free will.


Metaphysical Naturalism (MN) is a meta-philosophical position regarding the fundamental nature of Being, the world, etc. What it entails is largely debated, but I will be using two definitions that are generally accepted.

MN1: Everything that exists is natural. There are no supernatural entities or forces.

MN2: Reality is exhausted by space-time and its contents, or an ensemble of space-time manifolds.

MN1 is the most common version, but it’s largely uninformative because “natural” is left unaddressed. We’re merely left with picking out paradigmatic supernatural entities/forces such as ghosts, gods, magic, and the like, and asserting that nothing of the sort obtains. I prefer M2, but I think assuming the truth of either one of them is sufficient for what I hope to demonstrate.

Free Will

To understand why people assume agent causation is inconsistent with MN, we have to clarify what free will is. First, the will is the capacity to deliberate, make decisions, and translate those decisions into action1. I take the folk conception of free will to mean that persons are sometimes able to exercise their will such that they could have done otherwise. That is, at least some decisions aren’t necessitated by their nature and/or environment2

More clearly, an action is free only if it satisfies the following conditions:

Sourcehood: The agent is the actual source of ones action (e.g. no manipulation).

Intelligibility: The agent performs actions for reasons that are understood by the agent (e.g. a spontaneous jerk isn’t a free action).

Leeway: The agent is able to refrain from performing the action.

It’s often assumed that naturalism entails determinism, and that determinism is in conflict with the leeway condition, and by this very fact naturalism is in conflict with free will. But this entailment does not hold. There’s nothing about naturalism itself that implies that all causal relations are determinate (necessitated by the relevant antecedent conditions). All that’s required of causality on MN is that nature is causally continuous. Which means that there is only one metaphysical causal kind within the world (i.e. Dualism is false), and that there aren’t external non-natural causal forces affecting the natural world. For these would almost be by definition supernatural. Further, contemporary physics already admits indeterminism in at least six interpretations of quantum mechanics (three remain agnostic, and four are explicitly deterministic)3. So if one is going to reject free will in virtue of MN, it can’t be because of MN entailing determinism. One might object that indeterministic events don’t take place in higher-level settings, such as the firing of a neuron, so a naturalistic interpretation of human behavior will be deterministic. First, there’s nothing about naturalism in itself that requires this. Second, whether some events in the brain operate indeterministically is an empirical thesis that remains to be settled, and there are already models of how this might work4

Given what has been outlined above, we can make sense of an event causal libertarian account of free will fitting within MN. In these sorts of instances, one’s mental states cause one to act but in such a way that you could have done otherwise. That is, the features of yourself that cause the action wouldn’t necessitate the action. You could have refrained or performed an altogether different action. It’s also helpful to note that this model fits nicely with the reductive account of mind, where any token mental state is identical to a particular brain state. Most philosophers specializing in free will recognize event causal libertarianism as a possibility worth considering, even if they remain skeptical of its reality5.

Agent Causation & Substance Causation

This charitable tone tends to drop once agent causation is proposed. This is typically followed by accusations of anti-scientific and “spooky” metaphysics. This is primarily grounded in the assumption that agent causation implies substance dualism. They can’t imagine what this agent could be besides a disembodied mind that interacts with the body. I think the agent causal picture people have in mind is much like how Kant thought freedom of the will worked. Essentially, the physical world that we experience is fully deterministic. Everything runs like clockwork with the exception of human action. In addition to bodies, persons are also noumenal selves that transcend the empirical world, making sovereign unconstrained choices each time they deliberate and act. So on this picture, the world consists of two different sorts of causes, natural events and agents. Given this sort of description, it’s of little surprise that so few philosophers take agent causation seriously.

Before we contrast the previous description with how agent causation has been recently updated, it will be useful to offer a brief description of what event causation is supposed to be. Event causation essentially involves some complex state of affairs or process causing another. For example, a heart pumping causes the movement of blood or a brick being thrown causes the window’s shattering. Further, the way these events unfold are explained by whatever laws of nature happen to obtain, be they deterministic or probabilistic. Causation cashed out as event relations can either be understood as ontologically primitive or reducible to something more basic such as facts concerning the global spatiotemporal arrangement of fundamental natural properties or sequential regularity.

Timothy O’Conner offers two similar, but philosophically distinct analyses of causation which clearly sketch the relevant difference between event and agent causation6:

Event causal analysis: “The having of a power P by object O1 at time t produces effect E in object O2.”

Agent Causal analysis: “Object O1 produces effect E, doing so in virtue of having power P at time t.”

In the first case it is the “possessing a power”, an event, which is the cause of the effect; in the second it is the object. What’s of crucial importance here is that the agent causal analysis isn’t actually just one of agent causation, but is of the more general theory of substance causation. Substance causation is just the theory that substances or objects are what cause effects. So on this account, it’s not the throwing of the brick that causes the window to shatter; properly speaking, it’s the brick. Now this might sound absurd; how could the throwing of the brick not be a cause of the windows breaking? The absurdity drops once we consider the thrower. Really, the thrower and the brick jointly cause the windows shattering, where the throwing is a manifestation of a power possessed by the thrower. Powers theory is crucial to any plausible theory of substance causation. It’s not merely the object in itself that causes the effect, but the nature of the object that is constituted by the powers it possesses.

Most of the mysteriousness of agent causation disappears once we understand it as a species of substance causation. So take any ordinary substance, a rock, an electron, a water molecule, etc; any time any substance causes an effect on another substance, we have an instance of substance causation. What distinguishes agent causation from ordinary instances of substance causation is that there is an intention behind it. This entails that agent causation is fairly common place within the animal kingdom, which itself is good reason to believe that agent causation is consistent with naturalism.

A robust defense of substance causation is beyond the scope of this paper, but I can briefly sketch some reasons for accepting it. One is the numerous problems with alternative theories of causation. The constant conjunction or sequential regularity theory is currently one of the most popular and has been since Hume proposed it. On this account, for x to cause y is just for it to be the case that every time x occurs, y occurs. So on this view there is no intrinsic or necessary connection between the fire and the smoke that follows; this is just the way the universe happens to unfold. A contentious assumption on this theory is that all instances of causality are temporarily ordered. But we can make sense of non-temporal causation such as two cards propping each other up or a ball making an impression on a pillow that it’s been resting on for eternity(i.e. there was no prior time where ball was not affecting the pillow).

The other popular account reduces causation to counterfactual dependence, which is something like this,

1) If A had not occurred, B would not have occurred.

2) If A had occurred, B would have occurred.

3) A and B both occurred. “ (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 60).

So the throwing of the brick causes the window breaking because if you remove the throwing of the brick then the breaking would not have happened. One problem with counterfactual dependence is the infinite number acts of omission that are involved in any causal sequence. So my successfully walking across the street was dependent on not being crushed by an elephant, not being transported, the earth not blowing up, etc. Another issue that’s applicable to both theories is that both of them seem to get the dependence relation wrong. It’s because of causation that there is constant conjunction and counter factual dependence. They are symptomatic of causation.

Next, here is a simple argument in favor of substance causation7:

1. Some actual substances possess causal powers.
2. If a substance possesses a causal power, then it is efficacious.
3. If a substance is efficacious, then it can be a cause.
4. Some actual substances’ causal powers are manifested.
5. Therefore, some actual substances are causes.

The only premise I can imagine being rejected is (1). On the face of it, this might sound absurd; as if it means that nothing has the power to do anything. Though really the individual who rejects causal powers would have alternative explanations for why things do what they do. A not uncommon answer is that we only need appeal to the laws of nature to understand and explain how events unfold. This is problematic. On one hand, if you take the laws of nature just to be descriptions of regularity, then the laws themselves don’t do any explanatory work. On the other hand, if you take the laws of nature to be something that dictates and enforces the activity of things from the outside, then you’ve committed yourself to a form of platonism, where naturalism must be rejected. Finally, you can take the laws themselves to be the causal implications of the intrinsic natures that the substances possess, and in that case we’re back to powers theory.

Metaphysical Irreducibility

One might object to my earlier claim that agent causation is fairly common place because in reality there are no agents, merely matter in motion or atoms in the void.This is where the possible reducibility of macro-level objects becomes an issue. So a largely reductionist metaphysics will hold that much of what we consider ordinary objects are nothing over and above their parts. So what they are is wholly reducible to a set of fundamental constituents and relations. Another way to think of about this is that if we were to take an inventory of everything that really exists, much of what we take to exist would turn out to not. At its most extreme, the reductionist thesis holds that there’s nothing over above quarks, bosons, or whatever a complete theoretical physics takes to be fundamental. Ordinary objects will be described as simples (indivisible physical objects) arranged in a particular way. So to be a cat is just to be simples arranged cat-wise.

If one were both a reductionist and a substance causation theorist, then one could rightfully reject agent causation because there would be no agents in the relevant sense. In order for agent causation to obtain, the agent has to be a unique substance that’s not merely the sum of its parts. If agent causation were true, then agents would be irreducible substances whose persistence conditions are picked out by their higher-level causal powers(e.g. Purposiveness, narrativity, & self-reflection). That is, we are unique irreducible substances because we possess capacities that aren’t exemplified by our constituents. The constituents have come together in the right way; they are not merely a collection of them. A unique form is exemplified that puts constraints on the activity of its lower-level constituents. Which is an example of top-down causation if anything is. On reductionist substance causation, the lower level substances do all of the causal work.

A possible strategy for motivating a non-reductionist account mirrors the demystifying of agent-causation. That is, if irreducible objects aren’t special cases that are essentially restricted to persons, then there’s less reason to be suspicious of irreducibility in general. This does not mean that I think that all ordinary objects are irreducible substances. I take objects of artifice to be clearly reducible to their chemical constituents. So houses, cars, computers, tools, etc are reducible to their constituent parts. Edward Feser offers a clear description of the distinction I have in mindviii,

The basic idea is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior – the ways in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts – derives from something intrinsic to it. A nonnatural object is one which does not have such an intrinsic principle of its characteristic behavior; only the natural objects out of which it is made have such a principle. We can illustrate the distinction with a simple example. A liana vine – the kind of vine Tarzan likes to swing on – is a natural object. A hammock that Tarzan might construct from living liana vines is a kind of artifact, and not a natural object. The parts of the liana vine have an inherent tendency to function together to allow the liana to exhibit the growth patterns it does, to take in water and nutrients, and so forth. By contrast, the parts of the hammock – the liana vines themselves – have no inherent tendency to function together as a hammock. Rather, they must be arranged by Tarzan to do so, and left to their own devices – that is to say, without pruning, occasional rearrangement, and the like they will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock. Their natural tendency is to be liana-like and not hammock-like; the hammock-like function they perform after Tarzan ties them together is extrinsic or imposed from outside, while the liana-like functions are intrinsic to them” (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 182)8

I don’t commit myself to the idea that all natural particulars are irreducible or simple (without parts) or that only objects of human construction are reducible. For example, a rock made of limestone would reduce to a collection calcium carbonate, that may or may not have an irreducible intrinsic nature. The correct account of reduction/non-reduction relation is a severely under-explored issue in metaphysics. The hope here is merely that this example is useful in communicating an idea of what an irreducible relation/substance is supposed to be.

Final Arguments

Before summing up the arguments, it’ll be useful to explain what sort of advantage an agent causal account of freedom has over an event causal one. It stems from what’s called the “disappearing agent” objection to event causal libertarianism. The idea is that on the event causal analysis the agent-involving events (the particular mental states, preferences, reasons, etc) that non-deterministically cause the decision don’t actually settle which option is selected. The leeway condition is satisfied in that we could roll back the event and you could have otherwise but you, yourself don’t actually choose it. Your agent-involving states merely constrain which options are possible for you. Where it goes from there is a matter of luck. This can be thought of as claiming that an event causal view doesn’t satisfy the sourcehood condition for free will. The events, which do the work, merely flow through you, but you don’t really settle which option occurs. Agent causal theories have the advantage of saying that you certainly do play an explanatory role.

With this work behind us, we can abridge the essential story into a few brief arguments.

1. Substance Causation is consistent Naturalism.
2. The metaphysical irreducibility of certain substances (persons among them) is consistent with Naturalism.
3. If (1 & 2), then agent-causation is consistent with Naturalism.
4. Therefore, Agent Causation is consistent with Naturalism.

I think 1 and 2 are fairly straightforward in that nothing about my description of them implied that they transcend space and time, and 3 isn’t much more than the definition of agent causation.


1. The leeway condition is consistent with Naturalism (i.e. Nothing about naturalism implies that all causation is deterministic or that all causally relevant neural sequences are deterministic).
2. The sourcehood condition is consistent with Naturalism (since the most demanding form of satisfying it (agent causation) is consistent with Naturalism).
3. The intelligibility condition is consistent with Naturalism (I can’t say much more than I’d be completely puzzled if someone denied this, beyond maybe saying that all of our reasons for action are post hoc confabulations).
4. If (1,2 & 3), then Free Will is consistent with Naturalism (A priori true).
5. Therefore, Free Will is consistent with Naturalism.


1. Substance causation is a plausible theory of causation.
2. The irreducibility of certain biological substances is not implausible.
3. Indeterminism is plausible.
4. If (1,2, & 3), then free will is plausible.
5. We’re justified in holding independently plausible positions if they cohere with our background beliefs*.
6. Therefore, at least some people are justified in believing in free will.

Plausible: A position is plausible just in case it is coherent, contains sophisticated arguments or evidence in favor of it (ones that are aware of and address the relevant issues and objections that might undermine it) and is void of any obvious insurmountable objections.

*Epistemic axiom: We’re justified in believing what seems to be true unless we have sufficient reason to think it’s false.

*Phenomenological claim: Some of our decisions seem to be free, to at least some of us.

Without question, this is the weakest of the arguments I’ve offered. Plausibility is context dependent, which means many will find this unconvincing. Some of the most obvious candidates are committed reductionists, scientismists, eliminativists, determinists, and event causal theorists. Though this is not my target audience. My hope is that fence sitters, or anyone who’s just generally skeptical yet open to free will and agent causation might be persuaded to take the position seriously. No one should be moved to believe in free will merely based on what I’ve offered here, but it might be sufficient to motivate some to re-assess their position.


1 Franklin, Christopher Evan, Agent-Causation, Explanation, and Akrasia: A Reply to Levy’s Hard Luck, Criminal Law and Philosophy 9:4, (2015): 753-770.

2 I’m assuming incompatibilism, but even a compatabilist might find the agent causal argument interesting and useful. See

Markosian, Ned 1999: ‘A Compatibilist Version of the Theory of Agent Causation’. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 80, pp. 257–77.

——2012: ‘Agent Causation as the Solution to all the Compatibilist’s Problems’. Philosophical Studies, 157, pp. 383–98.


4 Peter Ulric Tse, Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation, MIT Press, 2013, 456pp.
-Christopher Evan Franklin, The Scientific Plausibility of Libertarianism’, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, eds. Ishtiyaque Haji and Justin Caouette. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013): 123-141.
-Indeterminism in Neurobiology. Marcel Weber. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 72, No. 5, Proceedings of the 2004 Biennial Meeting of The Philosophy of Science AssociationPart I: Contributed PapersEdited by Miriam Solomon (December 2005), pp. 663-674

5 For an excellent treatment of event causal libertarianism see:

Balaguer, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem. MIT Press, 2010

-Balaguer, Mark. A Coherent, Naturalistic, and Plausible Formulation of Libertarian Free Will. Noûs, Vol. 38, No.3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 379-406

6 O’Conner, Timothy. “Free Will and Metaphysics,” in David Palmer, ed., in Libertarian Free Will (ed. D. Palmer, Oxford), 2014

7 Whittle, A. (2016). A Defence of Substance Causation. Journal of the American Philosophical Association , 2(1), 1-20. DOI: 10.1017/apa.2016.1

8 Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Editiones Scholasticae, 2014, 302pp.

The Master Argument Against Free Will

It is difficult to find a more universally captivating philosophical issue than free will. Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a more perennial topic consistently commented upon by the scientific community. Readers of these scientific pronouncements will know that the notion of free will is usually met with skepticism or outright denial. Unfortunately, these judgments are almost always premature and lacking justification, given that the authors seldom understand the issues they are trying to evaluate. The problem is unsettled, but there are quality arguments that support the conclusion of free will deniers. I’d like to briefly describe the basic structure of the best argument against the existence of free will.

The trivial and uninformative version of the argument is as follows (this basic argument will be helpful in the long run):

1. If free will exists, it is either consistent with determinism, indeterminism, or both.
2. Free will is inconsistent with determinism
3. Free will is inconsistent with indetermism
4. Therefore, persons lack free will.

The very idea of free will is notoriously vague, but there is a general agreement among philosophers that free will is the capacity to make morally responsible choices. Or, free will is the control condition for moral responsibility. The most popular position in the community is called compatibilism. Compatibilism merely means that free will is consistent with determinism. Determinism  is the thesis that the past and the laws of nature causally necessitate the future.

There are two primary strategies for denying compatiblism. The first is that determinism denies agents alternative courses of action (disciples of Lewis ought to be reminded that it’s possible to have an ability, yet lack the opportunity to exercise it). This move leans on the intuitive Kantian idea that ought implies can; this Kantian principle means that we can only justify holding someone responsible for an act if they could have done otherwise. Technicalities aside, the objection is essentially that there’s no in-principle moral difference between being necessitated into an action by the causal structure of the world than by gun-point.

A recent popular alternative for affirming or denying compatibilism is the emphasis on sourcehood. This notion takes the idea of free choice to be a matter of being the genuine source of one’s actions. So in the compatibilists conception, you may be determined to make particular choices, but you are determined by your own nature, and as long as your aren’t the victim of responsibility undermining compulsions and conditions, your unique place in the causal chain supplies sufficient control to justify our ordinary moral judgments. The free will skeptic will counter that your position in causal space was entirely out of your control. Your capacities and preferences are the product of a very long chain of cosmic and evolutionary processes, in which you had no say. Essentially, if determinism is true, then local sourcehood never obtains; the source of any occurrence is wholly global.

Assuming these lines of reasoning work, the free will affirmer is afforded two alternatives. Either we have free will in virtue of our neural processes being partially indeterministic, or there is something called agent causation. In the first case, we have free will because we can make decisions that literally could go multiple routes; the causal nature of the universe doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome. Although it may seem plausible that free will is secured on this picture, this notion fades once we remember how free will is being understood – the capacity to make morally responsible decision. For example, let’s image a person positioned and ready to assassinate the popular scientist, Sam Harris. This man is annoyed and exceptionally frustrated with Harris’s facile arguments against free will and thinks it’d be better if this Ben Stiller clone took a few rounds in his insufferably smug face. What’s at issue is that if his decision making processes are partially indeterministic, then it is in a significant sense a matter of chance whether this person pulls the trigger. The problem is that this is inconsistent with our ordinary judgments of responsibility where we praise or blame an individual based on them controlling the outcome of their behavior. To make this clear, imagine two worlds, W1 and W2. In W1 the processes in the gunman’s brain end up sufficiently motivated to shoot, and in W2, the opposite happens. One goes to jail and the other lives his life in peace, but chance is the decider. Essentially, the problem is that this case has inherited all of the problems of compatibilism, but contains some indeterminism sprinkled within the neural systems of persons.

The other option is agent causation, which is in contrast to the normal conception of causation as events causing other events, and asserts that sometimes substances have powers that cause events. These are sui generis causal exercises. I won’t go into detail, but this option is wanting in that it doesn’t match up with our best scientific findings about the nature of persons.

To summarize, according to the basic strategy people lack free will because the sort compatible with determinism doesn’t secure moral responsibility and the alternatives to this either don’t enhance control or are highly implausible. It’s  important to remember not to straw man the arguments of the sophisticated free will skeptics. They still believe that people make choices and that these are an important and meaningful part of life. What they deny is that the causal nature of our choices is sufficiently structured to secure “basic desert.” Basic desert is the condition by which a person deserves praise, blame, or punishment in the strongest sense for particular actions, simply by virtue of being an agent who freely made the decision to act. So, being disgusted or resentful of others are unjustifiable attitudes because the attitudes assume a notion of control which is lacking persons. The arguments for and against any particular pro-free will position are much more complicated than described here, but the structure is basically the same. Personally, I’m still undecided. I’d wager that we probably don’t have enough control to justify our contemporary criminal justice system and the relevant moral attitudes; but a reformed responsibility practice remains a live and under-appreciated option.

Sam Harris on Free Will: A Criterial Critique

“Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” -Sam Harris

Harris is among the most popular authors contesting the viability of free will. The core of Harris’s claim isn’t so much that we lack free will; it’s that the very notion is incoherent. As stated above, according to Harris you must have complete control over the conditions that cause your actions in order to have free will. But of course, you can’t have complete control over all of the causal conditions of your actions because many of them precede your capacity for control in the first place.

Here is a formulation of Harris’s argument:

1. If one acts freely, then one has perfect control over the conditions that cause that action
2. No one ever has perfect control over the causal conditions of their actions (Incoherent).
3. Therefore, no one ever acts freely.

Perfect control means you’re able to dictate all of the causal conditions that lead to your actions. And with this notion of control in mind, it’s fairly easy to see why one would dismiss free will. No one chooses their parents, genetics, moral community, brain structure, country of origin, initial contacts, etc.; all which influence your decisions.

The problem is simply that Harris is loading too much into his conception of freedom. Straw structures are easy to burn down.

Much of  Harris’s error consists of conflating the idea of free action with morally responsible action.

Contrast the following conceptions* with Harris’s

S acts freely if and only if
1. S is the source of his action (no brain manipulation (mechanisms that lead to it are his own))
2. S wants to perform the act he does and has reasons for doing it
3. S could have done otherwise.

S is morally responsible for performing x if and only if
1. S wills x
2. S wants that she will x
3. S wills because she wants to will x (no manipulation)
4. S has the capacity to consider the sources of her desires
5. S knows that her willing x and wanting to will x have causal antecedents beyond her control.

Now does Harris have non-question begging argument for why we ought to prefer his criteria of free will and moral responsibility? If not, then Harris’s argument is unsuccessful. I think my accounts ought to be preferred because they’re both intuitively plausible and it means the majority of people aren’t massively deceived about themselves and the justificatory status of their responsibility practices. If I’m correct, then most people are suitable to sign contracts and are the proper targets of punishment for well-calculated acts of harm. If Harris is right, then were all just the victims of a sort of neural conspiracy.

Next time I’ll look at possible objections to both of these accounts and why I think they fail.

*This is Lynne Baker’s account of moral responsibility*

The Misframing of Theistic Debate

It’s difficult to find a more popular contemporary debate than the question of God’s existence. Here I don’t wish to weigh in on this issue, but the debate itself. The problems arise from how the problem if framed. For example, people still argue over evolution as if it’s relevant to God’s existence. This issue assumes that God only exists if both Christianity and Biblical literalism is true, which obviously doesn’t follow. The issue only gets more confused as the complexity and the detail of the analysis increases. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what is typically thought to count as evidence of God and where it’s mistaken, while at the same time assuming nothing about rationality of theistic or atheistic belief. In the end, I claim that the ontological argument is in principle the only thing that could be used to prove the existence of God as typically defined.

A (a)theistic debate will typically proceed in this fashion:

“What do you think this is all about, this reality?”

“It’s not about anything, it just is”

“Even with all of the mass complexity and magnificence of the universe, you don’t think there’s anything else going on, something deeper?”

“No, I see no evidence of purpose or design this world, nothing that would imply that there is a God”

“I can’t help but see a divine signature upon this world, everything seems to radiate the beauty of a cosmic plan”

“Well, I’m not sure that there’s not, but I would need to see real evidence, something falsifiable and repeatable; the kind of evidence that gets published in scientific journals. Then I think I could believe”

“Have you looked into the arguments for God’s existence. I find some of them fairly compelling”

“Yeah, a few of them, but they most seem like desperate attempts to prove what you’re already committed to. Besides, with amount of suffering in this world, a great being like God would have intervened by now to stop it. And since he hasn’t, I’d bet on his non-existence”

From here it’ll go on and on, discussing what evil entails about God, what’s evidence for design, the possible eternality of the universe, getting more abstract until were talking about the nature of causation, possibility and necessity, space, time, goodness, and how to even define God in the first place.

I’ll be using the following definition of God:

X is God iff X is essentially immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and necessarily exists.

This means that God has the power to do anything (beyond logical contradictions), knows everything there is to know, and is perfectly Good. By necessary existence, I mean that God has no explanation for it’s existence beyond itself. This doesn’t mean that God created itself, but that it’s the very nature of God to be. It would be impossible for God not to exist. This also means that everything’s ultimate explanation lies within God. God is the answer to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”.

The confusion arises once we start to ask for scientific evidence of God. The problem is that nothing under the domain of the scientific method could possibly come close. It’s not uncommon for an atheist to say something like “show me God and I’ll believe” or “if the stars spelled out in the sky ‘God exists’, then we’d have evidence of God”. Let’s take the first idea. What would it mean for God to show itself? Some people have the idea of an old man in white robes with a long beard descending from the sky with a show of power (lighting and fire emerging from his eyes and hands). What does this demonstrate? Is this evidence of God as defined above? No, all it shows is that some old dude has super powers. That’s it. And if this is what you have mind when considering God’s existence, you’re not even in ballpark of what most theists believe in. Or what about spelling “God exists” in the sky? All this shows is that someone either drugged us or is powerful enough to move stars around. Assuming the stars really do spell out “God exists” this only demonstrates great power. Were still along way from anything that entails God. Assuming some being were to cooperate with our tests, the most that could be proven via the scientific method, would be that some being is really powerful, really smart, and performs a lot of acts that increase the well-being of the population. Also, God is by definition immaterial (non-spatial). So it’d be mistake to ask for proof of God through a method that’s purpose is to discover facts about the physical world

Next, even if we were to grant some of the most popular theistic arguments, we’re still only given something god-like. Let’s assume that both kalam cosmological argument and the argument from fine-tuning are sound. This means that the universe had a cause and that this cause designed the universe. This still doesn’t prove the existence of God. For example, a possibility is that our universe is a simulation. This means our world is a sort of computer program. So even if our universe did have a minded cause, it could just be the science project of some of some experimenter in a different universe or it could be an immaterial, really powerful, really smart, and morally indifferent creature. The only argument that could possibly prove that there is a God is the ontological argument. This argument attempts to prove that a perfect being exists. It typically goes something like this:

1. Existence is greater than non-existence.
2. God is the greatest conceivable being.
3. Therefore, God exists.


  • A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
  • A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  • It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
  • Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  • Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
  • Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists

I’m not going to weigh in on the soundness of this argument because my aim here is not to discuss whether God exists, but only to discuss what counts as evidence/an argument for God’s existence. Additionally, I make no claim about the theist needing to be able to prove God exists with certainty in order to have a warranted belief that God exists.

Assuming I’m right about the limited scope of possible evidence for God, we’re left with a few questions.

1. Does God exist?
2. Is the ontological argument sound?
3. What is the criteria for a good reason to believe that God exists?
4. Are there good reasons to believe?
5. Is theistic belief properly basic?
6. Is belief/disbelief even the proper way to think about God?
7. What is the role of religious experience in theistic belief?

Sartre’s Existentialism: Radical Freedom and Bad Faith

Jean-Paul Sartre is often referred to as “the philosopher of sincerity”. He frequently accused people of living inauthentic lives in an attempt to cover up their true nature and the radical freedom it entailed. Here I’d like to take a look at why Sartre thought this and how it’s related to his philosophy as a whole.

Sartre referred to the attitude and practice of insincerity as bad faith. Sartre’s use is different in that the insincerity is directed toward oneself. Typically we understand people as insincere when they assert a lie or pretend to be something they’re not, often in hope of achieving some end; such as a person exaggerating his accomplishments in order to achieve acceptance into a group he respects. So how does one lie to oneself? What does bad faith look like? Sartre offers the example of a waiter,

“His movement is a quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little to quick. He bend forward a little to eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer… All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other…”

The waiter is playing the role of a waiter as if he is a waiter in the sense of identity. As if he was designed and processed to perform the role of a waiter. 

You might be asking, “what’s wrong with this, he’s just doing his job?”. Sartre’s going to accuse this sort of thinking as another form of bad faith, because it’d be making an excuse for the permissibility of a person pretending to be something they’re not. Although this still doesn’t answer why he is necessarily being insincere because it could be that he truly does see himself as a waiter, and that he freely choose this project as his identity. The problem is that on Sartre’s metaphysics, persons can’t wholly be anything. Persons don’t posses a wholly determinate nature (see my summary of Sartre’s account of persons). Sartre captures the impossibility of this strong sense of identity with the assertion, Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is.”

This notion arises out dual nature of persons entailed by Sartre’s metaphysics. Persons possess determinate characteristics as well as indeterminate ones. A persons determinate properties are referred to as the persons facticity, while that fact that a persons nature exceeds these determinate descriptions is referred to as transcendence. This leads to two possible forms of bad faith:

1. Wholly identifying with ones facticity, rejecting transcendence.

2. Wholly identifying with one’s transcendence, ignoring one’s facticity.

The former sense is definitely the most common variety. We’ve all been situations when we are asked why we performed a particular action and we’ll answer in a way that cites our nature. We may be asked, “why did you fail the test?” answering with “because I’m a failure”. Any answer to why have we have acted as we did that alludes to our nature is going to to fall under the first variety of bad faith. It is bad faith because we are radically free beings that lack a determinate nature, therefore are never necessitated by our facticity to act in any particular way. The human reality is not what it is because a description of one’s facticity doesn’t exhaust who one is. You are your facticity in a limited sense, in that you yourself own that, but there’s always more. There’s always the opportunity revise your self-conception in light of radical freedom entailed by the indeterminate nature of consciousness.

This identification is related to another part of the human reality referred to as being-for-others, which exists in relation to two other dimensions of persons. So within Sartre’s ontology there is being-in-itself, which is essentially identical to concrete matter or anything that’s essence precedes it’s existence. Next is being-for-itself, which is consciousness. It is for itself because there is a gap in it’s ontological structure which gives it the opportunity to be reflective of it’s own nature. The last is being-for-others. This is the phenomena of persons being made concrete by being the object of experience for another. When persons see and engage with each other, they don’t directly experience each others consciousness. We only see their behavior. This inclines us to see others as having concrete natures, or of being such and such a person. People will makes claims of others like “He is an unusual and quiet person” or “She is an independent thinker”.

This way of experiencing others is what inclines us to make same sort concrete attributions of our own nature. Caught in the act of shameful behavior, we’ll be inclined to see ourselves in the light of that persons experience of us, which is an object of shame. So it is idea that persons can be made concrete in the experience of others that leads us to the mistake thinking of ourselves this way. However this only a partial explanation of this mistake. Sartre would always make the claim that the deeper reason for denying our transcendence is crushing responsibility being entirely responsible for ones own self and behavior.

The other variety of bad faith is overt identification with our transcendence. This sort of bad faith can be witnessed in the hedonists who pretends he isn’t a hedonist because his nature always exceeds the totality of his hedonistic acts. The problem is that this person forgets that it’s not that persons lack an essence altogether, its that’s we are always in the context giving ourselves one. It can be revised in the light of new projects, but your past behavior is always going to be a part of you, even if you choose to see if differently later. A nice way of contrasting these two forms of bad faith is to see first sort as denial of one’s freedom, and the second as a denial of responsibility for one’s acts.

The question to ask here is how can one even be authentic? In strong sense you can’t because to be authentic, in the sense of being true to your nature, would be assume that you have a true concrete nature that you align yourself with. The only way to exemplify good faith is to take responsibility for you actions while recognizing the ultimate groundlessness of why anyone does anything. There is supposed to a sort of anxiety in taking this stance because you have to own up to every decision you make, while having no choice not to do so. Persons are condemned to be free. It’s not just the responsibility for oneself that’s overwhelming, it’s this in the context of never being able to truly authentically invest yourself into any identity. You have to juggle this reality of being responsible and free all while never being able to truly invest yourself into a concrete identity. It’s essentially seeing yourself as an ambiguous revisionary reality with nothing to stand on.

Now if this sounds strange and/or vague, I’m with you. A lot of Sartre’s work is vague and nearly impossible describe with total clarity. Part of this arises from that the subject matter is intrinsically ambiguous (according to Sartre), so by this very fact, total clarity is impossible in principle. I think upon closer analysis, Sartre’s account would lead to some sort of incoherence. Yet it least can be framed in a way that makes prime facie possible.

Sartre’s Existentialism: A Brief Summary

Some terms are used in so many ways they cease to have any real meaning. Existentialism being one of them. It typically refers to the writing of a few later 19th and early 20th century philosophers. Namely, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. However in the most concrete sense it refers to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Here I’d to clarify the central argument of his most famous work, Being and Nothingness.

The conclusion of his work is that we are radically free beings. We don’t have any sort of concrete nature that determines what sort of being we are or how we are going to act. He contrasts what we are to something like a pair of scissors. The nature of a pair of scissors was thought out and determined before any pair was actually constructed. That is, it’s essence, a device used for cutting paper in a particular fashion, came before any pair was there to be used for cutting the first place. Triangles are another sort of object that fit this category. The essence of a triangle, to be a polygon with exactly three sides, precedes the existence of any triangle in the world. He thinks humans are the complete opposite; first they come about, then they form themselves by making choices. For humans, existence precedes essence.

Sartre’s conclusion as described above is going to be included in almost any summary of the man and his work. Yet why he thought this is almost always left out. His argument seems to amount to little more than raw assertion if this is far as you dig into his thinking. There’s good reason for this lack explanation. His writing is unnecessarily complex and insufferably vague. Although I believe Sartre can be fixed up in a way that makes his argument at least comprehensible.

The point of Sartre’s work is to give a description of what a human person is, and to draw out some of the philosophical implications of his analysis. Accordingly, he’ll be talking a lot about us as minded beings and the nature of consciousness itself. Let’s start by looking at his definition of consciousness and unpacking it into something a little more manageable.

Sartre asserts,“Consciousness is a being such that it’s being, it’s being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself”.

We can do some work by chopping it up and rewording it’s parts, “Consciousness is a being such that in it’s being” could be rephrased merely as “consciousness”, and “it’s being is in question” as “is indeterminate”, and finally “in so far as this being implies a being other than itself” as “in virtue of it’s intentional nature”

So according to Sartre, consciousness is indeterminate in virtue of its intentional nature. Here Sartre is implying full blown ontological indeterminacy, not mere epistemic. Although he does think it’s also epistemically indeterminate. This means it’s not just that we don’t know what the nature of consciousness is; it’s that a constitutive dimension of consciousness is to lack a complete nature. He thinks that this is an implication of consciousness being intentional. Intentionality is the “aboutness” of consciousness. When we experience something, the thing experienced is the intentional content. So for example, when I see a pair of shoes, a sunset, a color, a table, or another person, these things are what my experience is about. But these things aren’t actually a part of my consciousness, they are represented by it. When I see the sun, the sun itself isn’t actually in my mind, it’s merely referred to by it.

Now, after we exhaust a description of the intentional content of any particular experience, we are left with the question, what is consciousness itself? This is a very difficult question, and Sartre didn’t seem to think that any sort of substantial answer was possible. Consciousness doesn’t seem to be anything at all. It’s just some sort of relational type entity that can’t be grasped as it is in itself because it is the very thing that does the grasping. This is where the idea of consciousness as a form of nothingness comes in. Some think that Sartre is fallaciously treating nothing as something, which nothingness can’t be because it isn’t anything at all. He refers to consciousness as a form of nothingness because of it’s lack of substantiality. A useful way of thinking about the Sartrean use of nothingness is “no-thing-ness:”. It exists but with a particularly weak form of concreteness. It appears categorically different than anything else we know of. This leaves Sartre with a sort of mind/body dualism, but certainly not substance dualism.

We have to be careful when referring to consciousness as ontologically indeterminate because that seems to mean that there is absolutely no fact of the matter about what it is, but this isn’t case. It obviously has properties like being intentional and being qualitative. Also consciousness doesn’t just occur in any old way. It’s exemplified by embodied beings. When consciousness does occur it happens in a way that is shaped by beliefs, desires, and volition which are constitutive of agency. Persons also have individual histories and cultural sensibilities. This is what Sartre refers to as the facticity of persons. We don’t have have any choice over these matters, but they remain part of who we are. These features constitute the boundary conditions of consciousness.

Now because of this lack of a determinate nature in consciousness, when we go about making decisions there is nothing about ourselves that necessitates that we perform any particular action. This contrasts with the typical picture that beings act according to their nature. With human persons it’s different. Persons lack a wholly determinate nature, and when we as agents make decisions, we are freely constructing our nature. We contribute to our already situated facticity. This makes sense of Sartre’s claim that existence precedes essence. Our essence is basically a history of our behavior and thinking. For Sartre, a person doesn’t run from battle because he is a coward, he is a coward because he ran from battle. 

We can now put Sartre’s argument in a premise/conclusion format.

1. Consciousness is intentional
2. If consciousness is intentional, then consciousness lacks a wholly determinate nature.
3. If consciousness lacks a wholly determinate nature, then conscious persons are metaphysically free beings.
4. Persons are metaphysically free.

There’s a lot more to Sartre’s theory than I have described here, and I’m probably wrong about some of it. The entire work is about eight hundred pages, which is too much to cover in a blog post. If you’d like to learn more about Sartre’s Existentialism, I’d recommend checking out Robert Solomon, Jonathon Webber, and The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Thinking about Free Will: The Dilemma of Determinism and The Problem of Randomness

I’d like to offer a sketch of why randomness doesn’t directly undermine free will. Free will has a lot of bad press as of late. Popular authors such as Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne outspokenly deny free will, with much of the internet’s philosophical and scientific communities doing the same. Most of the reasons offered in favor of their position reduce to The Standard Argument Against Free Will or The Dilemma of Determinism.

1. An agent’s action is either determined or not determined
2. If it is determined, then it could not have been otherwise, therefore not free.
3. If it is not determined, then it is random, therefore not free.
4. Therefore, necessarily, an action is never free.

The initial threat to free will has always been the notion of determinism. Determinism being the thesis that the past and the laws of nature necessitate one exact future. So if determinism obtains, then every causal event that does occur must have happened exactly as it did. From here it’s not that hard to see how this could be a threat to our ordinary sense of free will. Almost all of us feel as if we could have done otherwise for the majority of the decisions we make, but if this is merely an illusion, it’s difficult to say in what sense our actions are free.

Now as intuitive as premise 2 may be, most philosophers deny it. The denial of premise 2 amounts to a position known as compatibilism. Sadly, most of the popular critics of free will casually dismiss this option with no serious treatment. Compatibalism is a well respected and defended position, and a naive dismissal of it’s viability is little more than admission of not taking the problem seriously.

Personally, I think premise 2 is true, but this is not what I’d like to focus on here. Let’s return to premise three “If it is not determined, then it is random, therefore not free”. If our actions are undetermined, then there’s no fact of the matter about what we will do. And if there’s no fact of the matter, then it’s hard to see what sense that decision was really ours. J.J.C. Smart offers an amusing summery of the issue,

“Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug.”
(Atheism and Theism, 2003, p.63).

Two confusions arise here:

1. Conflating wholly random events with not wholly determined events.

2. Conflating free will with moral responsibility.

Contrast receiving a result from a truly random number generator, where the possible outcomes are 1-6, with getting a result from the same machine but with an infinite number of possible outcomes. In one sense, the outcomes of each round are equally random, but in another sense they’re not. The difference comes in the constraint of possible outcomes. I believe this is the right way to think about the randomness problem in free will. In terms of cognitive constraint.

Say I go to the store and I only have enough money to buy one bottle of gas station wine. I see they have four different kinds, but reject the Chardonnay and Burgundy because I believe they taste like ass. This leaves me with the Pinot Noir or the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both sound equally desirable, so I don’t really have much of a reason to prefer one over the other. After a moment of deliberation, I decide that I can’t resolve the conflict, so I just grab the Pinot and make my way for the counter. I’m stipulating in this example that I genuinely could have done otherwise. This means that some level of randomness was involved. Either way, I think it would be difficult to argue that this decision wasn’t free. It was free even if it was random because it was performed by a rational agent, with beliefs and desires that constrained which options were genuinely possible.

An objection naturally arises at this point, “That’s all well and good for buying bumb wine, but what about when the decision is morally loaded? For example, say some ne’er-do-well from down the street steals your prized chicken, and given your psychology you have equally good reasons/desires to punch or not punch this guy in the head, and it’s a matter of luck which you do. Or even worse, what if the possible options are murder or not murder, can we really hold this person responsible if the outcome is contingent on luck?”

I concede that this is a really important and troubling issue, but I think it’s a confusion as well. The problem mostly resolves itself once you separate the problem of free will from moral responsibility. For example, think about a toddler sitting at a table looking at a vase. After staring for a while, the kid knocks the vase over. Let’s say indeterminism took place in his brain in such a way that made it so he could have genuinely done otherwise. So yeah, he was free in the sense discussed above, but is he morally blameworthy for performing the act? Most of us are going to be hesitant to attribute something that strong to child in virtue of his limited cognitive capacities and lack of opportunity for moral growth. The same holds for animals. If this is the case, then you can be free in a substantial sense without necessarily being a morally responsible agent.

If the cases presented above are sufficiently persuasive that randomness does not by itself undermine free will, then I believe we are left with a few important questions:

1. Do we have free will?

2. What exactly makes one morally responsible?

3. If free will isn’t sufficient for moral responsibility, is it necessary?

4. If free will isn’t necessary, then why should we care about it?

These questions are beyond the scope of what I aimed to do here. And my treatment of the randomness issue oversimplifies the complexity of the problem. Either way, given the contemporary popular arguments, I think we have little reason to think that indeterminacy by itself is any sort of substantial threat to the possibility free will.

If you’d like to learn about more about the free will issue, the first book to grab would be Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Robert Dolye’s site, is also an invaluable resource.
Here are a few others:

Elbow Room – Dan Dennett
Free Will – Mark Balaguer
Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy – Robert Doyle
Free Will as an Open Scientific Question – Mark Balaguer
Living Without Free Will – Derk Pereboom
Persons and Causes – Timothy O’ Conner