The Hell You Say!

Fellow unbelievers: I don’t think we rip on hell often enough or stronly enough. The disgusting dogma of eternal punishment is still accepted doctrine for most “mainstream” denominations, and certainly for all the fundamentalist ones. Below is what I say back to two recent defenders of hell, Peter Kreeft, S.J. and Ronald Tacelli, S.J. It is slightly modified from my essay “Why I am not a Christian” on the Secular Web:

Many modern Christians have cooled the fires of hell, often interpreting hell as purgatorial or even as merely metaphorical. However, more orthodox thinkers argue that rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell is tantamount to the rejection of the entire Christian revelation. For instance, Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, insist that the exact same grounds for believing that God is love, Biblical revelation, also teaches the reality of hell (Kreeft and Tacelli, 1994, p. 285). So, Kreeft and Tacelli throw down the gauntlet to someone like me: Either I accept Christianity and the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell or I reject hell and Christianity too. If that is my only choice, I reject hell and Christianity too.

The problem is that when Kreeft and Tacelli come to defending the traditional doctrine, their arguments are woefully weak. They claim that God is not to blame for the pains of hell since hell is freely chosen by those who go there. The obvious rejoinder is that anyone who consciously chooses eternal punishment over eternal joy would have to be insane, and lunatics clearly need treatment, not punishment. The reply of Kreeft and Tacelli is astonishing:

…the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and truth….Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane (p. 290).

However, if an act is insane it is not a deliberate choice; this is entailed by the meaning of the words “deliberate” and “insane.” Is the bizarre behavior of the schizophrenic deliberately chosen? Does the paranoiac freely opt to believe that the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission, Jewish bankers, the CIA, and the Martians are persecuting him? Maybe Kreeft and Tacelli intend something different by “insane” and “deliberate” than what those words normally mean, but one hesitates to accuse two distinguished philosophers of such blatant humpty-dumptyism.

Even if sin is freely chosen, it is God who decides what the consequences of that choice are. It is God who decides that unrepentant sinfulness must bear the consequence of eternal pain. The obvious objection is that finite and temporal sin, no matter how gross, do not merit infinite and eternal punishment, and so hell contradicts divine justice. Kreeft and Tacelli reply (a) that eternity is not endless time but an entirely different dimension than time, so there is no problem of endless punishment, and (b) that hell’s punishments are eternal but not infinite; there are degrees of joy in heaven and degrees of misery in hell.

Unfortunately, these replies raise far more questions than they answer: If hell is not endless suffering–indeed, if it lasts no time at all–why should we fear it? What would it be like to experience “eternal” as opposed to “endless” suffering? Is eternal suffering worse than endless suffering? If so, the problem of apparent injustice arises again. If Kreeft and Tacelli argue that these questions are out of order since eternal suffering is strictly incomparable with temporal suffering, I begin to wonder about the intelligibility of their concept of hell. The only kind of suffering which I have experienced or can imagine is temporal suffering, so Kreeft and Tacelli’s hell, with its concept of eternal, atemporal punishment, is utterly incomprehensible to me.

Kreeft and Tacelli seem to suspect that they have moved beyond rationality and intelligibility here since they conclude this section with the remark “To refuse to believe [in hell] is to measure God’s thoughts by ours (p. 300).” Allow me at once to plead guilty to “measuring God’s thoughts” by my own! As I see it, I have no other choice. If my intellect and my deepest moral convictions tell me that hell is a monstrous dogma, unworthy of belief by decent human beings, then it would be a grave sin for me to accept such a doctrine. It is a sad but edifying spectacle to see how intelligent defenders of the indefensible tie themselves in ethical and conceptual knots.

It is easy to see why Kreeft and Tacelli are loath to give up the concept of hell despite the conceptual gerrymandering and ethical contortionism it requires of them. Hell is Christianity’s most powerful instrument of control. Religious instruction ensures that the fear of hell is implanted in the mind in early childhood. When that fear is planted deep enough, the adult cannot entertain honest doubts without catching a whiff of brimstone. Dr. Johnson said “knowledge that one is about to be hanged clears the mind marvelously.” Fear of hell has the opposite effect; rational thinking becomes impossible when that fear is strong.

Remember, you cannot escape hell by being good; for Christians, everybody is bad. No matter how hard you strive to live a virtuous life, if you lack certain beliefs, you go to hell. That is what makes hell such a pernicious doctrine. Hell is the penalty for disagreeing with Christians! It is hard to imagine a more potent tool for propaganda, or one more subversive of rational thought. An appeal ad baculum is an attempt to persuade by intimidation or the threat of force. Hell is the ultimate ad baculum: Believe or suffer consequences too horrible to contemplate. In short, the doctrine of hell is Christianity’s campaign of psychological warfare against the human mind.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12293267201235767904 Christian UberCynic

    You have hit on the most powerful argument against a loving God. Although the Old Testament spends little time on the subject, the NT builds out a reasonable idea of what it is like thanks to Jesus’ descriptions of the place. Yes the big man himself speaks more of hell than everyone else in the bible combined. As a 33-year veteran of evangelical Christianity (pronounced: f n d -m n tl- z m ) let me tell you this issue is the show-stopper. The fact that Kreeft does one of the best jobs of talking about the issue, only demonstrates how thorny this problem is.

    The argument goes something like this: God created Hell for the devil and his fallen angels. Then man rebelled and God decided to put them in Hell. Unless the receive salvation. Here is the problem most Christians never address:

    The God of the bible has the ability to create a place different from hell for rebellious human souls to inhabit eternally. But he doesn’t. Satan and his angels rebel with the highest degree of knowledge of who God is and what his rules are. In fact Satan had more intimate contact with God than even the other archangels. But God sends human souls to be tortured by Satan and his angels in hell. Humans that have a couple of orders of magnitude less knowledge of God and his rules than Satan and his angels do.

    For more detailed descriptions of hell as experienced by humans there are many accounts of near-death incidents where people describe going to a place of great torture. You can track these accounts down and find an eerie consistency about them. Still Xians see no inconsistency about God being loving. Hmm. I guess no one accused us of being bright.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    Apologetics is such a disgraceful enterprise.

    These guys use familiar words, assign new unintelligible definitions, and then make ad hoc arguments using this meaningless jargon to defend their received dogma.

    My non-belief is strengthened the more I'm exposed to apologetics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12293267201235767904 Christian UberCynic

    I would be okay with the idea of hell if God would allow the rich man in Luke to go back to his family and warn them. Choice is predicated on knowledge. Here man has no knowledge whatsoever. Catholics and Mormons solve this problem by shipping everyone to a waiting place where they get significant knowledge about the choices and slightly different ways of making those choices. Kudos to both groups for solving the problem. However, the very scriptures that give them the foundation "supposedly" for their respective religious views does not support their notion of a waiting place. Hebrews 9:27 "Life's a bitch and then you die" oops that's the cynics version. " Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,"

    Remember that you don't have freedom not to sin. After Adam all are born into sin. So you have been sentenced to hell before you were born and given little info about the place and even less evidence that it exist. My point, since I am a Xian, is that we should apprise people of these thorny issues and that stop throwing words like loving, and just, fair, as adjectives of God. The God of the bible is very different, scary, awesome, and mostly unknowable. He almost never shows up when his people need him, he blesses the wicked, he robs widows of justice, he kills his own people and leaves the bad guys alone. Jesus starts riots, and strikes people who aren't doing what he wants them to do (temple cleansings) breaks jewish religious rules that He put in place in the OT. xians need to understand who their talking about and stop doing a PR rewrite on their Boy every time they engage the public on a thorny issue.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    UberCynic:

    If you are pulling a Poe, you got me.

    Otherwise, what does it mean to believe something that is unknowable? What do you believe about God, and why do you believe it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris W

    My point, since I am a Xian, is that we should apprise people of these thorny issues and that stop throwing words like loving, and just, fair, as adjectives of God

    Except the only reason we use those adjectives is because they are in the bible. 1 John 4.7-8 says God is love. 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 gives a pretty good breakdown of what love is supposed to be like. To say God's ways are not our ways is a copp out, considering the plain language the bible uses to desribe him.

    So, yeah, I'd say your stuck with those adjectives. And you're stuck whith reconciling them with everlasting fire. Good luck.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Well, evangelical Christians who think the Bible is the basis of all understanding of metaphysics tie themselves in knots. So what else is new?

    Actually I think there is a good argument that God (understood as a person of perfection) and hell (understood as a place where some people will suffer for ever) cannot both exist:

    1. If God exists then no gratuitous suffering exits.
    2. Suffering in hell is gratuitous.
    3. Therefore God and hell cannot both exist.

    For a Christian the obvious or easiest implication is that hell does not exist. Indeed that is the view of one of the oldest and probably the most powerful Christian theodicy, namely the Irenaean theodicy especially as developed by John Hick. Not to mention there is a lot of text in the Gospels which can be interpreted as saying that all will be saved (so scripture can be interpreted in different ways – again, what else is new?)

    The other possibility is to rethink what hell is, for if hell is not a place of gratuitous suffering then it can co-exist with God. That’s the alternative that Richard Swinburne’s chose (I’ve read about this in Lindsey Hall’s “Swinburne’s Hell and Hick’s Universalism”). Swinburne’s idea, as I understand it, is that hell is a place of suffering only from the point of view of a believer but not from the point of view of those who are there. The idea is that the life we have now is not so much a place where a choice must be made, but rather a place of cognitive and experiential self-transformation. So people who find the idea of a God-based reality meaningless transform themselves into people who would not understand and not feel well in a world where God exists. For them the best possible afterlife (which is the one an all-good and all-powerful God will give them) is one of a perpetual godless experience, in which they can marvel at the beauty of the natural universe, create art, be with friends – in short lead the kind of life an atheist most values. According to Swinburne they will also have the possibility of ending their existence (i.e. dieing for good) if they so choose. That’s the so-called “hell”: the place of the best possible personal existence without God. Now other people will in this life transform themselves into beings for whom only life in a godly universe makes sense; God will give them the best afterlife possible for them and they will go to heaven where they will directly experience the presence of God. Swinburne (interestingly enough a convert into Eastern Orthodoxy) also embraces the Catholic church’s idea of purgatory. The idea is that those people who in this life have not irreversibly transformed themselves either into godless or god-filled will go to a third kind of place, not dissimilar to the current one, where the presence of God is ambiguous and where they may continue the process of self-transformation. In short Swinburne's idea is that God has given us the power and the freedom of self-realization, of creating for us the kind of personal existence we want.

    Incidentally and speaking of Eastern Orthodoxy, which happens to be my church, some of its views about hell may surprise a Westerner. First, even though hell is supposed to exist and to be a place of really bad suffering (lake of fire, etc) it’s not for us to judge whom God will send there, or even whether God will send anybody there. Secondly, hell is not really supposed to be a place of endless suffering because prayer (by people in this life or in heaven) has the power to pull people who are in hell out of it – the unsaid implication being that even if some people go to hell in the end they will all probably be pulled out of it by the love of everybody else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17093711439992855042 UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/18/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    I live in Texas, and, as everybody knows, we are big on the death penalty in these here parts (Yee Ha!!). They say that when prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, their most powerful persuasive tool is simply to recount the nature of the crimes perpetrated. When someone is guilty of, say, kidnapping, sodomizing, and murdering a child, a sentence of death seems to be the only one adequate for our outrage. Likewise, the best argument for a punitive hell has always been that some people are so incredibly rotten that hell seems to be their only proper destiny. What about the child molesters and drug lords, not to mention the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots? Many such people escape earthly punishment and die defiant and unrepentant. Isn't it only justice that they should suffer for their sins in the afterlife?

    I guess the answer you give depends on your view of justice as retribution. In my young, idealistic, and self-righteous days I was horrified by the idea of retributive justice. Following Mill and Bentham I held that all suffering per se is bad, and is justifiable only to prevent greater suffering or actualize some redeeming good. Now, in curmudgeonly late middle age, I'm not so sure.

    The sheer depravity and maniacal avarice displayed by some of the corporate malefactors and white collar criminals of recent years has made the idea of retribution much more appealing to me. I saw a news clip once on Charles B. Keating, the maestro of the savings and loan debacle in the '80's. He was leaving the courtroom and a little old lady–could have been your mother or grandmother–stepped in front of him. "Mr. Keating," she said in a quavering voice, "I trusted you with all my life savings. Now it is all gone and I have nothing." Keating did not deign to speak to so lowly a creature, but simply sneered, waved her aside, and proceeded. At that moment I thought "Gee. In some ways it is too bad they got rid of the rack. I could see giving Mr. Keating a few good turns of the screws myself." Keating, still serving a lengthy sentence, has never admitted to any wrongdoing.

    Still (sigh) I would have to come down against torturing Mr. Keating or sending him to hell. What would be the point of torturing the Keatings of the world, either in this life or the next, assuming that it achieved no redeeming utilitarian good (e.g., bringing the sinner to repentance or setting an example to discourage such behavior)? The retributivist would have to say that the suffering was justified purely because it was deserved. Full stop. But this notion of desert seems to rest on some very dubious assumptions, like the idea of (metaphysically) libertarian free will and the concomitant notion of agent causation. If so, the price of gratifying ourselves by torturing Mr. Keating is to invoke bad metaphysics as our justification. Of course, most people do not give a damn about bad metaphysics, but rational people should.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    DG
    1. If God exists then no gratuitous suffering exits.

    CARR
    So how many abortions do there have to be before God does not exist?
    The Damned is an interesting interview where Adolf Eichmann (!) blanches at the thought of the damned.

    What the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust was bad, but even Nazis blanched at the thought of what Jesus was going to do with Jews who reject him….

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    DG
    it’s not for us to judge whom God will send there, or even whether God will send anybody there.

    CARR
    Yes, religion can provide the answers to those questions that science can not.

    Religion's answers are usually 'None of your business' 'We don't know', or 'We can't judge'.

    But without religion, mankind would be left with science to answer questions, and then where would we be?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04954333625436885757 NotMyGod

    Hell sounds like a lot more fun than Heaven.
    I've heard Muslim extremists say that God created heathens like you and me so that he could send us to hell. See? He does it for fun, too!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris W

    Keith,

    I've long thought that freethinkers should be much more foreceful in asserting the incoherence of libertarian free will when talking about hell. I'm talking about getting the message out to the common man. I know many sensitive Chrisitans who are indeed bothered by the problem of hell and cling to the notion that the damned "could have done otherwise" to help them sleep at night. Without the belief in free will, they'll have to retreat to a really hard Calvinism (which many evangelicals already dismiss), or give up the faith.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. Most people don't want to give up free will. But knowing that it doesn't exist destroys any rational justification of hell. And while that might not be an airtight "proof" against the existence of god, it will win over many hearts and minds, which is what matters.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    ChrisW: Getting rid of libertarian free will doesn't eliminate compatibilist free will and its sense of "could have done otherwise."

    (Cf. Dennett's account in _Elbow Room_ and extended in _Freedom Evolves_.)

    I'd also avoid arguing for determinism, since that seems to involve disregarding quantum physics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Stephen Hawking said the universe was not deterministic.

    Which raises the question – Was he programmed to say that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris W

    Dennett's compatibilsm is nothing like libertarinism. Sure, Billy could have accepted Jesus if he had desired to or some motivaton or circumstance was different (all of which are out of Billy's control). A libertarian would say that regardless of desires or inclinations Billy was fully capable of accepting Christ. This is nonsense. The "sense" that Billy could have done otherwise is meaningless.

    As for quantum physics, does it matter? Libertarianism is incoherent regardless of the truth of determinism. How does randomness get you freedom?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Chris W:

    "Dennett's compatibilism is nothing like libertarianism."

    Right.

    "Sure, Billy could have accepted Jesus if he had desired to or some motivaton or circumstance was different (all of which are out of Billy's control)."

    Right, up until the parenthetical remark, where I think you go a bit awry. On a compatibilist picture, we do have the ability to indirectly change things like motivations and beliefs and intentions. We don't have direct voluntary control over what we believe, but we can change habits about how we seek information that indirectly affects our beliefs. There is a system of feedback and change here, and the compatibilist identifies some way of distinguishing between internal and external causes, of factors that count as my actions and those that count as external forces, without appealing to anything magical or denying that there are external causes beyond the proximate internal causes.

    "A libertarian would say that regardless of desires or inclinations Billy was fully capable of accepting Christ. This is nonsense."

    I'm not sure they'd say exactly that, but yes, they would advocate something like agent causation by which people can make choices to do x or y from the same state, and, depending on how they make that claim, it may well be nonsense.

    "The 'sense' that Billy could have done otherwise is meaningless."

    I disagree. There is a meaningful notion of "could have done otherwise" for the compatibilist–even if it is only an epistemic notion.

    "As for quantum physics, does it matter? Libertarianism is incoherent regardless of the truth of determinism. How does randomness get you freedom?"

    It matters if you are advocating determinism, because then you're advocating something that's false. I agree that the advocate of libertarian free will faces a tough dilemma between determinism and indeterminism–but they don't tend to advocate randomness as their answer, rather they try to formulate a notion of agent causation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Chris W said: “ I've long thought that freethinkers should be much more foreceful in asserting the incoherence of libertarian free will when talking about hell.

    That’s interesting. What do you think is incoherent in libertarian free will?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jim Lippard said: “ I'd also avoid arguing for determinism, since that seems to involve disregarding quantum physics.

    Actually that’s not so. According to quantum physics it’s physical phenomena which are not deterministic. So for example if you repeat many times exactly the same two-slit experiment you’ll detect photons sometimes going through the left and sometimes going through the right slit. But this observational fact does not necessarily imply that the objective reality that produces the observed phenomena is also not deterministic. Indeed, rather surprisingly, we now know of at least two naturalistic interpretations of quantum mechanics which describe a deterministic reality (namely Everett’s many worlds, and Bohm’s). They are both wildly fantastic descriptions (but then again that’s how naturalistic descriptions of reality tend to be nowadays). How fantastic? Well, according to Everett’s description of reality, every time you perform the double slit experiment the entire universe, including yourself, is split into two copies: In one copy you observe the photon go through the left slit and in the other universe you observe the photon go through the other slit (actually far more copies are produced, but never mind). So the result of the experiment is deterministic, for you always get the same result, get it? Now, one might think that such ideas are just nonsense, but it turns out that this particular interpretation of quantum mechanics is one of the most popular among naturalistic physicists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris W

    Jim: I shouldn't have said that the sense of compatiblist free will is meaningless. It certainly means a lot to me! And I'm not even arguing for or against a deterministic universe. The rather small point I was originally trying to make is this: anything less than libertarian free will- even compatibilism- takes a big bite out of the justification of hell. We don't, as you say, have direct voluntary control of what we believe, as in, "I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead," but we do have control of what information we take in that shapes our beliefs. I would just push the question back further and point out that the act of seeking information has to be based in the desire to seek that information. And that desire is involuntary, though we do, in the compatibilst sense, "freely" follow it. It's a feedback loop, as you say. So yes, we do have some sort of "control." But if you believe we are created by God, then our desires are also created by God. And when you consider God makes a people with the desire the "choose" eternal pain, well, that doesn't sit right with many people.

    Calvin thought it was ok. I don't. I know many Christians don't either. To justify eternal fire, they really need libertarian free will. Compatibilism won't cut it.

    That's all I'm saying.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris W

    Oh and one more thing.

    "I agree that the advocate of libertarian free will faces a tough dilemma between determinism and indeterminism–but they don't tend to advocate randomness as their answer, rather they try to formulate a notion of agent causation."

    Yes, they do try, heh, heh. But I haven't read anything convincing. As Peter van Inwagen says, "Free will is still a mystery."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13481147678066302280 Terence

    The idea of hell can be a strong tool of control.

    Being a doubting Christian myself, there are times where I comtemplate the idea of leaving the religion or leaving the church. However, one of the first thoughts that came to me was the idea that I might spend eternity in hell.

    Of course, that frightened me. Until now, the idea that God could send somebody to hell because of believing in the wrong doctrine or religion still baffles me.

    I actually wrote a blog post about hell. You guys can read it here: http://irreligiously.blogspot.com/search/label/Hell

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    As I understand the libertarian concept of free will it entails that there can be two worlds, W and W*, that are identical in every respect, except that in W, free agent S chooses to do P, where P is some morally culpable act, and in world W* S chooses to do ~P, that is, to abstain from doing P. P, for instance, could be the act of shoplifiting an i-pod.

    One problem is that, according to advocates of metaphysical libertarianism (ML), S is to be held responsible for his choices. In particular, by choosing to do culpable act P, S comes to deserve punishment for his wicked choice. Yet we do not morally sanction people for their choices, per se, but because of the presumptive bad intentions behind the choices. Someone who chooses to steal an i-pod intending to sell it for food to feed his starving family would deserve our sympathy, not censure. This is why, in a court of law, the alleged perpetrator's state of mind is so often a key issue in determining culpability.

    Yet, on the assumption of ML, we are presuming the identity of worlds W and W*, inlcuding all of S's intermal states, except for S's choice to do or not do P. This means that S's internal states (e.g., his beliefs, desires, intentions, values, etc.)–as well as the state of the physical universe–are identical in the two worlds at all times prior to or coincident with S's choice to do or abstain from P. In this case it is impossible that S's choice to do P is blameworthy whereas, his choice to abstain would have been laudable. Ex hypothesi, S's internal state in W prior to occurrent with his choice of P is identical with his state in W* prior to or occurrent with his choice of ~P.

    This is one problem of incoherence with ML. Its advocates want choices to be both free and responsible, but it is hard to see how they can be both. If NOTHING determines my act–if it is conceivable that my external conditions and internal states can be identical yet I can make either of two incompatible choices–then my choice either way is not due to my aims, beliefs, desires, values etc. Yet it is precisely these things that we praise or blame in holding someone morally responsible.

    Perhaps I am caricaturing ML, and its advocates would say that when S chooses to do P rather than ~P, there IS an internal difference of aims, intentions, values, etc., but that these only incline S to choose one way or another without determining that choice. Yet, to say that these states "incline" S one way or another seems to bring in a form of probabilistic causation. Worse, where do the bad intentions come from? To say that we freely choose our bad intentions seems to put us on the path to an infinite regress since we then have to ask where our choice to have bad intentions comes from (Was it, in turn, chosen or caused?) If we stop the infinite regress by saying that our bad intentions have causes, then we give up total freedom.

    So, it does seem that advocates of ML are tied in some pretty nasty logical knots.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    PARSONS
    As I understand the libertarian concept of free will it entails that there can be two worlds, W and W*, that are identical in every respect, except that in W, free agent S chooses to do P….

    CARR
    Yes, the libertarian concept of free will is that there are two worlds identical in every respect, both containing an omniscient being with knowledge of whether free agent S chooses to do P or does not choose to do P.

    How these worlds can be identical in every respect when the contents of the knowledge of this being are different in the two worlds is a question for proponents of libertarian freedom, which they do not like to address or even acknowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    According to the more direct naturalistic interpretation of quantum mechanics it is actually the case that two possible worlds W and W* can be identical up to point t, but then diverge. Nothing incoherent so far. Now I agree with Keith Parsons’s analysis concerning the case of free actions, but I notice that in this analysis he assumes naturalism, for only on naturalism is it the case that given the identical state of a person S (including his beliefs, desires, etc) if S acts differently in different worlds it can only be attributable to some random effect. Therefore the problem of incoherence in respect to personal responsibility Keith points out is a problem of naturalism. Actually Keith’s analysis is a very good demonstration of that problem.

    That on naturalism personal responsibility is an incoherent concept should be quite clear: Consider a reality that consists of bits and pieces in a state which evolves by blindly following mechanical laws of some kind (deterministic or probabilistic it doesn’t matter). A particular subsystem in that world, which we call a human being, can no more be said to be personally responsible for its behavior than any other particular subsystem, say an erupting volcano, can. One may object that only the human subsystem is conscious and knows what it’s doing, but whatever “conscious”, “knows”, and “doing” exactly mean within a naturalistic reality, the fact remains that what ultimately causes both the human’s and the volcano’s behavior is the cumulative effect of their constituting bits blindly moving according to mechanical laws. So it’s clear that the human subsystem could no more refrain from its actual behavior than a volcano could refrain from erupting. On naturalism, all talk that gives the appearance that there is something fundamentally different in a human’s behavior is just “folk psychology”, as Daniel Dennett has well put it.

    So, using Keith’s analysis but not assuming naturalism, and knowing that our choices are not random, we see that there must be something other than the state of the world which causes S to choose P in one world and ~P in the other. But what exactly? Well, S’s free will of course. Indeed that’s precisely how we experience our free will: That no matter the world’s state, including our own state (our beliefs, desires, etc), and no matter how much it influences us, we are not completely subject to it but have the power to transcend it and affect the future in a fundamentally new and creative way. And that therefore, as long as there are free agents around, the future is not captured by the past, the future is not just a mechanical evolution of the past. The way we experience life the future is not just a unknown country to be discovered but also a new country to be created. At this juncture the question may arise: But isn’t S’s free will part of the world? Yes, but it is not part of the state of the world; rather it represents the creative impulse present in the world, it is what makes the world capable of growing beyond any intrinsic limit and what makes it a really interesting place, indeed a poetic place.

    That’s our sense of free will, and there is nothing incoherent in it. Nor is there any problem accounting for personal responsibility. Quite on the contrary in fact: personal responsibility makes sense precisely because our actions are not fully reducible to our previous state. There is more to us than our previous state, we have free will and it is because we have it that we are responsible for our actions, and indeed for our own evolution. Free will does of course directly contradict naturalism and its mechanistic understanding of reality (never mind determinism). Which implies that either our experience of free will is illusory or else that the mechanistic understanding of reality, i.e. naturalism, is wrong. What’s clear is that our sense of free will fits extremely naturally with the theistic understanding of reality. Indeed, on theism the only causal principle that fundamentally exists is free will (mainly God’s but also ours).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'According to the more direct naturalistic interpretation of quantum mechanics it is actually the case that two possible worlds W and W* can be identical up to point t, but then diverge…..'

    So the state of affairs that exists at time T is identical regardless of whether I choose X or not X?

    So the state of affairs that exists at time T does NOT include a being (not necessarily God) who knows whether or not I choose X or not-X?

    As that would be a different state of affairs, and DG has spoken and said those worlds are identical….

    DG
    But isn’t S’s free will part of the world? Yes, but it is not part of the state of the world; rather it represents the creative impulse present in the world…,

    CARR
    Of course, this is just meaningless verbiage.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steven Carr said:

    Yes, the libertarian concept of free will is that there are two worlds identical in every respect, both containing an omniscient being with knowledge of whether free agent S chooses to do P or does not choose to do P.

    How these worlds can be identical in every respect when the contents of the knowledge of this being are different in the two worlds is a question for proponents of libertarian freedom, which they do not like to address or even acknowledge.

    I am not sure what your point is. Above Keith Parsons proposes an analysis with the purpose of showing that libertarian free will (or free will for short) reduces the concept of personal responsibility to incoherence. If your point is that given God’s foreknowledge this analysis does not get off the ground (because there can’t be two previously identical worlds) then you end up weakening Keith’s argument.

    But perhaps your point is that free will is incoherent given God’s foreknowledge of peoples’ choices, because people will not be free to choose otherwise. If that's your point then it reflects a misunderstanding. The traditional theistic claim of God's foreknowledge is based on the view that God is eternal, in the sense of existing outside of time (the way, say, mathematical objects exist). So God knows today how people will choose tomorrow, because being outside of time God has already observed how people freely chose tomorrow. God's foreknowledge is thus experiential knowledge based on observing peoples' choices and in no way contradicts or restricts their freedom of will.

    And in any case God's foreknowledge is not entailed by theism. Indeed several theists (e.g. John Hick) do not believe that God knows now how people will choose. Perhaps they consider that God's personal experience takes place in time in which case, given the nature of freedom, it's logically impossible to know how free agents will choose. Or perhaps it is possible to have foreknowledge but God chooses not to have that knowledge. Also Irenaean theodicy does not entail God’s foreknowledge. Neither does process theology.

    So I still don’t see any incoherence in the concept of free will, neither in the conjunction of free will and responsibility, nor in the conjunction of free will and theism. If anything there are several distinct theistic worldviews compatible with free will.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis says that my comments on metaphysical libertarianism (ML) presuppose naturalism. Not so. I am pointing out that, according to ML, two world-states can be identical, yet a free agent S can choose to do P in one world and ~P in the other world. There is absolutely no assumption of naturalism here. For the sake of argument, I might say that S’s disembodied Cartesian soul does the choosing. In this case, S’s choice to do P or ~P is not determined by anything, not even his internal states (intentions, beliefs, desires, values, etc.), which we are supposing identical in the two world states. However, I also point out, drawing on our ordinary, everyday moral intuitions and practices—not naturalism—that we do not pass moral judgments on people for their choices per se, but for the intentions, beliefs, desires, values, etc. we judge to be behind those choices. Why did a co-worker write anonymous letters to my boss falsely accusing me of stealing company property? Because he has harbored a longstanding grudge against me since I was promoted over him. When I discover that he is the bearer of false witness, and judge that his motivation was bitter resentment, I regard his act as reprehensible.

    I submit that in our everyday, ordinary, commonsense ethical judgments this is precisely the way we reason. We ask why somebody did something, and are told that it was because he had various reasons, desires, and motives. Further, reasons, desires, and motives are kinds of causes, or, at least, that is how we ordinarily think of them. If we did not think that reasons, desires, and motives affected people’s choices, much of what we frequently do would then be bizarrely inexplicable. For one thing, the whole advertising industry would be wildly irrational, since the whole point of advertising is to change people’s buying choices by manipulating their desires and instilling motivations. Hey, aging Lotharios, if you still want to score with the hot young bikini babes, use Grecian Formula to get the gray out! ML, however, holds that choices have no causes, not even one’s internal states, and prima facie, this makes it inapt to pass moral judgment on such choices. So, again, ML wants choices to be free, in the sense of uncaused, yet morally significant, and it is hard to see how they can be both.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis says:

    “That on naturalism personal responsibility is an incoherent concept should be quite clear: Consider a reality that consists of bits and pieces in a state which evolves by blindly following mechanical laws of some kind (deterministic or probabilistic it doesn’t matter). A particular subsystem in that world, which we call a human being, can no more be said to be personally responsible for its behavior than any other particular subsystem, say an erupting volcano, can.”

    So, on naturalism, Dianelos thinks, my eruption of bad temper at the faculty meeting (as has, on occasion, occurred, I must confess), can no more be a matter of personal responsibility than the eruption of a volcano. The crucial difference is, I think, apparent. People can think before they erupt. They can learn self control, perhaps by seeing that eruptions are counterproductive, don’t get you what you want, and only make you look loutish. People are capable of deliberation, volcanoes are not. Holding people responsible for their choices is one of the main ways to get people to pause before they act and to consider not just their feelings at the moment but the likely long-term consequences of their actions. When we hold the teenager responsible by grounding him, we are attempting to mold his character, to teach him that there are consequences of bad behavior and get him to think about choices rather than act impulsively. All of these practices of holding people responsible make perfect sense on naturalism. Holding someone responsible for their actions does not suppose that their acts are uncaused. On the contrary, we assume that they are caused and hope that by holding people accountable, we might causally incline them towards the making of more rational and responsible choices. No incoherence here.

    Dianelos Geogoudis says:

    “Indeed that’s precisely how we experience our free will: That no matter the world’s state, including our own state (our beliefs, desires, etc), and no matter how much it influences us, we are not completely subject to it but have the power to transcend it and affect the future in a fundamentally new and creative way. And that therefore, as long as there are free agents around, the future is not captured by the past, the future is not just a mechanical evolution of the past.”

    Such asseverations always amaze me. I guess the only reply I can make is to put my hand over my heart and swear solemnly that I have never had such an experience. My experience is that my choices are free precisely because they are determined by my desires, my beliefs, and my values and are not compelled or constrained by any other internal or external factors. I cannot imagine anything more paradigmatically free than that. The closest I have ever come to experiencing the kind of “freedom” Dianelos seems to be talking about is when I do something impulsively or irrationally, and I certainly don’t think this is what we mean when we speak of acting freely.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    DG
    Above Keith Parsons proposes an analysis with the purpose of showing that libertarian free will (or free will for short) reduces the concept of personal responsibility to incoherence. If your point is that given God’s foreknowledge this analysis does not get off the ground (because there can’t be two previously identical worlds) then you end up weakening Keith’s argument.

    CARR
    No, it simply points out that libertarian free will is incoherent as libertarians say that at time X, there is a being who knows what a person will freely choose, and yet the worlds in which a person chooses X and the world in which a person does not choose X are also alleged to be identical up to the moment of choice.

    So proponents of libertarian free will contradict themselves, as worlds cannot be identical if the content of the knowledge of a being is different in the two worlds.

    DG
    Perhaps they consider that God's personal experience takes place in time in which case, given the nature of freedom, it's logically impossible to know how free agents will choose.

    CARR
    So this omniscient god has no idea what it itself is going to do next?

    Libertarian free will is the doctrine that the actions of Christians are not determined by rational thought.

    They also claim never to be able to know what they will do next. It must be interesting living with such people….

    DG
    That no matter the world’s state, including our own state (our beliefs, desires, etc), and no matter how much it influences us, we are not completely subject to it but have the power to transcend it and affect the future in a fundamentally new and creative way.

    CARR
    DG might really deeply desire and believe he should not murder people.

    Thankfully he can still murder people, even if he never has the slightest desire ever to butcher somebody in cold blood.

    No matter how much DG's desire never to murder people might influence him, he can still freely choose to run amok with a chain-saw, despite never wanting to.

    In fact, he has no idea whether or not he is going to kill somebody in the next 5 minutes.

    He claims it is logically impossible for him to know that he will refuse to kill somebody if offered a dollar for everybody he kills.

    That is why he is a morally responsible person as he cannot answer no to the question 'Would you kill somebody if I offered you a dollar?'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “ There is absolutely no assumption of naturalism here. For the sake of argument, I might say that S’s disembodied Cartesian soul does the choosing. In this case, S’s choice to do P or ~P is not determined by anything, not even his internal states (intentions, beliefs, desires, values, etc.)

    On ML it is true that our choices are not determined by our internal state, but this does not imply that our choices are “not determined by anything”. On the contrary, and as I tried to express in my previous post, the way we experience life is that our choices are influenced by our internal state (beliefs, desires, etc) but not fully determined by it. That’s why we call them free. In my previous post I called the place where that freedom comes from “creative impulse”, and you here call it “soul” which is fine with me.

    Keith Parsons said: “ However, I also point out, drawing on our ordinary, everyday moral intuitions and practices—not naturalism—that we do not pass moral judgments on people for their choices per se, but for the intentions, beliefs, desires, values, etc. we judge to be behind those choices.

    True.

    I think I now understand Keith’s argument. It uses two premises I agree with, namely:

    1. ML entails that there are two possible worlds W and W* which are identical until time t when S freely chooses P in W and ~P in W*. (Of course the state of the world includes S’s internal state.)

    2. The moral value of choice P is not only a function of the choice itself but also of S’s internal state (such as his beliefs and desires).

    And the argument proceeds thus:

    3. If we assume that the choice P is caused by S’s internal state then W* is impossible, which contradicts #1 and reduces ML to incoherence.

    4. If we assume that the choice P is not caused by S’s internal state then the concept of moral value as per #2 becomes incoherent, because if S’s internal state does not cause P then that internal state should not affect the moral value of P either.

    5. So in either case the conjunction of the concepts of free will (ML) and moral value is incoherent.

    6. As the concept of moral value is clearly not incoherent, it can only be the case that the concept of free will is incoherent.

    I think the error here resides in only considering the two extreme possibilities: Either choice P is fully caused by S’s internal state, or else S’s internal state has no causal effect whatsoever on P. But both such extremes conflict with our everyday experience of free will. As I wrote in my previous post: “Indeed that’s precisely how we experience our free will: That no matter the world’s state, including our own state (our beliefs, desires, etc), and no matter how much it influences us, we are not completely subject to it but have the power to transcend it and affect the future in a fundamentally new and creative way.” I wonder whether Keith Parsons agrees with this description of how we experience free will. For that’s the sense of free will I claim is not incoherent, and indeed gives substance to moral responsibility. I am not interested in defending the coherency of definitions of free will which are alien to my experience of life.

    Keith Parsons said: “ Further, reasons, desires, and motives are kinds of causes, or, at least, that is how we ordinarily think of them.

    I agree of course. I have never claimed that our choices just pop into existence independently from the past.

    Keith Parsons said: “ ML, however, holds that choices have no causes, not even one’s internal states [snip].

    Not according to my commonsensical understanding of free will. (Actually I wonder who claims the above. I have heard of a naturalistic theory called epiphenomenalism according to which mental states, including desires and beliefs, have no causal power – but even epiphenomenalism does not claim that actual choices have no causes.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In a previous post I argued that on naturalism our actions are nothing more than the cumulative effect of our constituting bits blindly moving according to natural laws, and that therefore on naturalism the concepts of freedom and responsibility make no sense. I also said that our experience of life is that we are not completely subject to our desires and beliefs but can actually to some degree transcend them and affect the future in a fundamentally new and creative way. To which Keith Parsons responds:

    Such asseverations always amaze me. I guess the only reply I can make is to put my hand over my heart and swear solemnly that I have never had such an experience. My experience is that my choices are free precisely because they are determined by my desires, my beliefs, and my values and are not compelled or constrained by any other internal or external factors.

    And I in turn am amazed by Keith’s asseverations. They sound to me exactly like a clock saying that it is free to move its hands precisely because the movement of its hands is determined by the wheels and springs it has inside and by nothing else.

    I submit that most people would agree that if there is no possibility for one to have behaved differently than one actually did then 1) one’s behavior is not free and 2) one is not responsible for one’s behavior. That’s why one does not consider a volcano or a clock either free or responsible for their behavior. Keith says that there is a difference between a volcano and us, in that we think before we act. But then again there is a difference between a volcano and a clock, in that the clock's wheels move before its hands do. The point I am making is that on naturalism we could not have thought differently than how we actually did, as the clock’s wheels could not have moved differently either. So that to say that our actions are free because they are determined by our thoughts, beliefs, desires etc only serves to hide the problem one level deeper.

    Now, to be precise, on the most direct naturalistic interpretation of quantum mechanics it’s not quite correct to say that human bodies could not have behaved differently than how they did, for on quantum mechanics the behavior of systems is probabilistic. Speaking of clocks, on quantum mechanics it is possible albeit extremely improbable that a clock will by itself start moving backwards winding itself up. But given the complexity of the human brain the probability that it would think or choose differently than it actually did is probably so small as to be zero for all practical purposes. But suppose I am wrong in this and that the brain’s wavefunction has several non-trivial peaks which imply that in a given situation there are several alternative possibilities for thought or choice. Even then, which of these possibilities will become actual is fully random, and does not in any way depend on the brain’s previous state. In other words, the brain’s state only determines the wavefunction but not the actual value in which this wavefunction will collapse. This naturalistic ontological view comports better with how I claim our experience of freedom is, i.e. that our internal state influences but does not fully determine our free choices. But it still does not comport with our sense that our freedom is not random. Nor does it comport with our sense of personal responsibility, because if there are several possibilities for thought or choice, and reality is such that one of these is randomly picked, then one cannot be considered to be responsible for one’s thoughts or choices, any more than one can be considered responsible for the value of the dice one has just thrown.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis’ objection to my argument against metaphysical libertarianism is that I consider only two extreme possibilities: “Either choice P is fully caused by S’s internal state, or else S’s internal state has no causal effect whatsoever on P.” Actually, I am just trying to present ML, and its concomitant doctrine of agent causation, as fairly and accurately as I can.

    Owen Flanagan quotes Roderick Chisholm, a defender of ML, on agent causation:

    “If we are responsible…then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain things to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.”

    Simon Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines “agent causation” as follows:

    “A presumed special category of causation whereby agents initiate sequences of events when they act, without the initiation being itself causally determined.”

    So, as I read it, agent causation holds that agents possess a special, perhaps supernatural, power to act as an uncaused cause, i.e., to choose to act where such choices are basic actions that are not caused, not even probabilistically, by any external conditions or even by psychological states internal to the agent. Rather, the agent exercises a pure faculty of choice, a purely self-determined act of will, such that the agent S’s freedom to do P or ~P at t is not determined, or even probabilistically influenced or constrained, by the state of the world (encompassing both external conditions and S’s internal psychological states) prior to t. If this is not what proponents of ML and agent causation are saying, then, mea culpa, and I’ll happily accept correction.

    Dianelos argues that our internal states influence our choices without determining them. He also denies that our choices are independent from the past. In other words, he is saying, I think, that our internal states are probabilistic causes of our choices but do not strictly determine them (influences are causal factors—right? Isn’t that what we mean by an “influence?”). Now, if this is what he is saying, I’m not sure whether it is consistent with what most defenders of ML assert, but I’ll leave that to him, since he is obviously free to stake out whatever position he wants.

    Still, he has not addressed my objection against ML, namely, that defenders of ML want our choices to be capable of moral significance, i.e. worthy of praise or blame, yet our commonsense, everyday moral practice is to assign praise or blame for choices based on our understanding of the causal antecedents of those choices. Suppose that S decides to commit an act of theft at t. His choice can be blameworthy, excusable, or even praiseworthy depending upon the causal history of that choice. For instance, if the choice was motivated by greed, it was blameworthy; if it was motivated by the desire to take a valued item back from a thief and return it to the rightful owner, the choice can be praiseworthy. In other words, if motives, desires, etc. are causes—and Dianelos accepts that they are—then the causes of choices appear to determine their moral significance, contrary to ML, and in accordance with our ordinary moral practices and intuitions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis says that he is, in turn, amazed by my comment that I have never experienced the sort of freedom of choice he alleges, and that my most paradigmatically free choices are the ones I make when, under no internal or external compulsion, I choose on the basis of my desires, my beliefs, and my values. He comments:

    “They [my remarks] sound to me exactly like a clock saying that it is free to move its hands precisely because the movement of its hands is determined by the wheels and springs it has inside and by nothing else.”

    But this is silly (Sorry, Dianelos, but I have to call it as I see it). Clocks have no ability to contemplate alternative courses of action, weigh them according to their moral or likely pragmatic value, project outcomes, anticipate difficulties and complications, compare them to analogous cases of their prior experience, ask advice from more experienced or wiser persons, or introspectively ask themselves what they really want or what they really believe. I can do all those things, and frequently do in making important decisions. When the decision I make is in accordance with my deepest values and strongest beliefs, it is quintessentially mine; it is MY choice, and I do not see how I could have or want one freer. Of course I do not choose my beliefs or values. I value what seems valuable to me, and what seems valuable to me is not something over which I have control. Likewise, I believe what seems true to me, and what seems true to me is not something over which I have control. Now, of course, I might be convinced that my values or beliefs are wrong, but something will have to persuade me; I cannot simply alter my deepest values or beliefs by an act of volition—and if I could it would be wrong to do so. I submit that what is so for me is so for everyone. We have no control, at least not directly and as a matter of volition, over our deepest values and beliefs. Can you make yourself, by an act of will, cease to value what you hold most dear or stop believing what seems obviously so? If you say “yes,” I have to think that you are simply deluding yourself. The alternative, to say that our choices are free precisely when they are NOT determined by our own beliefs and values, sounds simply bizarre to me, and I find it hard to think that anyone would say this if not in the grip of ideological infatuation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Perhaps Keith Parsons and I have been talking at cross-purposes. I am not defending a “doctrine” of freedom of will, nor “staking out a position” on freedom of will. I am not claiming or arguing for anything, but rather describing a major aspect of my experience of life: That I make choices, and that my choices are influenced by the past (including by my beliefs, desires, values, emotions, etc) but are not fully determined by it. In other words I experience that there are possible future worlds representing choices open to me and that I have the power to actualize one of them. I call that aspect of my experience of life “freedom of will”, and I believe that’s what most commonsense folk calls it – but how one calls it is entirely irrelevant. The fact is that’s how we experience life. And this is significant, because what is given is our experience of life. That’s all we have to reason about how reality is, or about anything else. That’s all the data we have.

    Now the fact that we experience life as if there are possible futures representing different choices we can make, and that we have the power to actualize one of them, does not imply that it is so in reality. Indeed perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps determinism is true and there is only one possible future world. Or perhaps the future is a probabilistic expression of the past, and at each instant the universe randomly picks and actualizes one particular reality in that probability distribution. Or perhaps reality is best described by a mixture of such ideas, say, the universe does not throw dice but looks up the next few digits in the decimal expansion of pi and uses them to pick which future is actualized (so that reality looks probabilistic but is really deterministic). All these metaphysical views of reality contradict our experience of life, but this does not mean that they are false. Perhaps our experience of free will is an illusion, as many naturalists think (see for example Daniel Wegner’s “The Illusion of Conscious Will” – incidentally Wegner believes that reality is deterministic). Curiously enough a significant percentage of theists also think that free will as experienced is an illusion. I think it’s not difficult to see what motivates such views: Some theists find that free will as experienced would go against God’s “sovereignty”, or against God’s omniscience in respect to so-called middle knowledge. And naturalists quickly realize that, as we saw, a mechanistic understanding of reality (whether deterministic, probabilistic, or some mix of the two) is not compatible with free will as experienced.

    Given this situation, instead of saying “free will is an illusion” some find it preferable to use a different definition of “free will” (and the related concepts of “choice” and “responsibility”) in a way that is compatible with determinism. So, for example, one can say that free will simply describes the fact that we choose using our own heads and without being compelled by anybody else or by some external factor. Which is true enough. Another possible definition is that “free will” describes the fact that when we choose we have some reason. But all such definitions do not change the fact of how it is we experience life, nor change the fact that some ontologies are not consistent with how we experience life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “So, as I read it, agent causation holds that agents possess a special, perhaps supernatural, power to act as an uncaused cause,

    The presence of an uncaused cause or an unmoved mover does not imply supernaturalism. The most natural interpretation of quantum mechanics is that deep down most of what happens in the physical universe is uncaused. For example there is nothing that causes a photon to pass through the right rather than through the left slit. Where we notice causality in our experience of large objects it’s just the summation of many such uncaused effects. Incidentally, whereas freedom implies an uncaused cause, the converse is not true. A mechanistic world may be full of uncaused causes but contain no freedom of will.

    Keith Parsons said: “ i.e., to choose to act where such choices are basic actions that are not caused, not even probabilistically,

    Ah, but this does not at all follow. There is a huge distance between determinism and randomness – and what lies in between is probabilistic distributions. So, for example, if you throw two dice the sum of the values is neither deterministic nor random, but rather displays a probabilistic distribution, where, say, 7 is much more probable than 12. The two dice are each random, but by throwing them you cause the sum 7 to actualize much more probably than the number 12. But whatever values you get, they haven’t been your choice nor are you responsible for them.

    In the context of free will the following I think is a good description of how it is: When I consider the choice of whether to do or not to do what I think is the right thing, it can be the case that given how I am (my beliefs, desires, etc) the probability of picking the former is 0.2 and the probability of picking the latter is 0.8. These probabilities are real, in the sense that if you wanted to place a bet on my future choice you couldn’t do better than assume this particular probability distribution. So far our experience of free will is consistent with a mechanistic understanding of reality (such as the one apparently described by quantum mechanics). Where the difference starts is this: Whereas according to the mechanistic understanding of reality which choice we make is not in any way up to us (what’s up to us is the probability distribution only) but is randomly determined by the universe (which, say, randomly picks a number between 0 and 1 and if that number is less than 0.2 we make the good choice and if not we make the bad choice) how we experience life is not like that. Rather it seems like it is us who independently and freely make the choice which of the two (or more) values in the probability distribution to actualize. And it is precisely because of how it feels that concepts such as “choice” and “responsibility” have their common meaning. For, after all, if it’s the universe which chooses which value in the probability distribution to actualize then in what sense do I have any choice, or carry any responsibility in the matter? Perhaps because my nature determines the probability distribution? But it’s the universe which throughout the past has chosen my nature too and I had no say in the matter either.

    Keith Parsons said: “If this is not what proponents of ML and agent causation are saying, then, mea culpa, and I’ll happily accept correction.

    Well, I think I am not the only one describing our condition in this way. John Hick writes: “That we are free beings cannot mean that we are unconditional, but that within the limits set by all the conditioning circumstances of our pedigree and environment we are nevertheless able self-creatively to exercise a certain energy of our own”. And Keith Ward writes: “Man must be free, not just in the weak sense that all or some of his acts proceed from his own character and are not externally compelled, but in the stronger sense that either of two or more alternatives may be chosen, and the choice cannot be predicted in advance by any knowledge even of the agent’s nature.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “Still, [Dianelos] has not addressed my objection against ML, namely, that defenders of ML want our choices to be capable of moral significance, i.e. worthy of praise or blame, yet our commonsense, everyday moral practice is to assign praise or blame for choices based on our understanding of the causal antecedents of those choices.

    Well, I did say I agree with this premise. I agree that one needs to know a person’s character (beliefs, desires, values, etc) before judging how blameworthy or praiseworthy a particular choice is. That’s indeed the premise behind a well-known objection to the argument from evil: That the atheologian has failed to show that, given God’s perfect character, God does not have morally sufficient reason to allow evil to exist. Indeed a major part of any theodicy is to argue what God most values. If it is the case that what God most values and wants to bring about is such that the existence of evil becomes necessary – then one has an explanation of why evil exists.

    Incidentally, here is how I understand the premise above works: Let’s take two people facing the same moral dilemma. The character of the first determines a probability distribution of 0.1 for and 0.9 against doing the right thing; if that person nevertheless chooses to do the right thing then there is a lot of merit. But if the probability distribution is 0.99 for and 0.01 against doing the right thing and one chooses the right thing then there is very little merit. For example, there is little merit if a billionaire finds a purse with 200 dollars in it and returns it to its owner. Similarly there is little merit if an adolescent refrains from stealing an ipod if she believes that she will almost certainly be caught.

    Keith Parsons said: “Clocks have no ability to contemplate alternative courses of action, weigh them according to their moral or likely pragmatic value, [snip]

    I never claimed that the mechanisms that determine a clock’s behavior are similar to the mechanisms that determine a human’s behavior (under the naturalistic understanding of reality). I used the analogy to make the point that as long as an entity’s behavior is determined by a mechanism – any mechanism – it can’t reasonably be called “free” under the common sense of “freedom”, nor do concepts such as “choice” or “responsibility” really apply. The behavior of the AI computer program SHRDLU written in the early 70s was determined by a mechanism that is much nearer to what Keith writes, including contemplating different alternatives of action, weighing their pragmatic value (say their economy), comparing them to previous actions, etc. Nevertheless I submit SHRDLU was not any closer to possessing free will or being responsible for its behavior than a clock is.

    Keith Parsons said: “I value what seems valuable to me, and what seems valuable to me is not something over which I have control.

    I disagree. For example if one has chosen to study philosophy one will come to value philosophy more. If one has chosen to learn music one will value music more. If one has chosen to help a person one will value that person more. It follows that one’s values greatly depend on the choices one has made in the past.

    Keith Parsons said: “ Likewise, I believe what seems true to me, and what seems true to me is not something over which I have control.

    Again, and for similar reasons, I disagree: If one has chosen to study science one will end up holding different beliefs than if one hadn’t so chosen. It seems to me that not only our values and beliefs greatly depend on our previous choices (and that therefore we are responsible for them too), but that the very way we experience life depends on our past choices. So, to use a trivial example, one who has chosen to study Spanish will experience spoken Spanish very differently than one who hasn’t. One who has chosen to help the poor will experience looking at luxury cars differently then one who hasn’t. And so on. In many ways our past choices make us what we are.


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