Free Will and Secular Orthodoxy

Robert P. George interestingly observes the following about free will (recently brought to my attention), which a secular humanist might be expected to dogmatically reject.

“Christian philosophers such as Germain Grisez, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Olaf Tollefsen have rigorously shown, however, that the denial of free choice is rationally untenable, because it is a self-referentially contradictory claim, a self-defeating proposition. No one can rationally deny free choice, or claim as illusory our ordinary experience of freely choosing, without presupposing the possibility of free choice. To deny free choice is to claim that it is more rational to believe that there is no free choice than to believe that there is. But this, in turn, presupposes that one can identify norms of rationality and freely choose to conform one’s beliefs to those norms. It presupposes that we are free to affirm the truth or falsity of a proposition, our desires or emotions or preferences to the contrary notwithstanding. Otherwise, the assertion of no free choice is pointless. The person who says people can’t freely choose presupposes that there are reasons for accepting his claim, otherwise his act of asserting it would be pointless. But our ability to understand and act upon such reasons is incompatible with the idea that one is caused by his desires or by outside forces to accept or not accept such claims. So someone who denies free choice implicitly contradicts his own claim.”
~George, Robert P. “A Clash of Orthodoxies.” First Things no. 95 (1999): 38.

I heartily agree, and think that to deny free will is to deny doxastic voluntarism and rational deliberation, but we all apprehend that our very denials of doxastic voluntarism or rational deliberation are done deliberatively and voluntarily. In response Josh Dever offers the following rejoinder:

“Prof. George’s further charge that secular orthodoxy
is committed to the denial of free will I also find
baffling, since the view that there is no free will is an
extreme minority position in philosophy. As I read
Prof. George, we secularists are supposed to reject free
will because it comes into conflict with “hard” or “soft”
determinism. However, the dominant (although hardly
universal) view among philosophers these days is
that there is no genuine conflict between determinism
and free will. Donald Davidson, for example, has said
that arguments for that supposed conflict are no more
than “superficially plausible.” Far from being “written
off as an illusion,” free will is alive and well under the
secularist orthodoxy.

The argument that the denial of free will is “rationally
untenable,” by the way, is fallacious. While it may
well be the case that, if there were no free will, there
would be no point in announcing that there is no free
will, or even that the nature of our subjective experience
is such that none of us can seriously doubt the
existence of free will, this does nothing to show that
there is free will.”
~Dever, Josh. “A clash of orthodoxies: an exchange.” First Things no. 104 (2000): 46.

I think this response is both lame and typical. First there is no rational justification possible for the denial of free will (to which Dever practically conceded), but the deeper point is that libertarian free will is antithetical to what has become the orthodoxy of secular humanism, and this is precisely (and obviously) the kind of ‘free will’ which Robert P. George had in mind.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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15 Responses to Free Will and Secular Orthodoxy

  1. Larry Myers says:

    I find the topic of free will to be quite a dividing one within me. I’m just not convinced on either side, and have yet to fully grasp the compatableist position either. But I do find a problem with the first argument, it appears to be off the mark a little.
    If I was to argue against free will, I wouldn’t suggest there were “choices” (options might be a better word) to be made, but that which “choice” you ended up going with was not a free choice, but one rather dependent on all past experiences of every party involved. In other words, if you were to relive the experience you will always make that choice.
    So saying that ” To deny free choice is to claim that it is more rational to believe that there is no free choice than to believe that there is. But this, in turn, presupposes that one can identify norms of rationality and freely choose to conform one’s beliefs to those norms” seems to be miss understanding the position. You wouldn’t “freely choose to conform to ones beliefs”, you would only make the choice but have no real control over making the choice.
    Any thoughts?

    • yeah, this reminds me of a point made by Richard Taylor about how there is a clear difference between deliberating such that we’re ‘deciding’ what to believe, and discovering what we in fact will end up believing. If we can ‘deliberate’ at all then that presupposes our freedom. If we cannot really deliberate, but only have an experience in which we apprehend ourselves to be in a deliberative state or to be participating in some deliberative process, then what’s really happening is that we are waiting to see what we will believe, just going with the motions. However, not only does that seem very odd (one would need some VERY good reason for thinking that was true), but even if true we couldn’t practically accept it since if we don’t imagine/conceive ourselves to be deliberating instead of sitting back and observing our own thought process, then we actually don’t come to a conclusion.

      To my mind, to suggest that we don’t have free will is at least as radical a skepticism as the claim that we are in “The Matrix” (and even the Matrix doesn’t take away our free will). I can recall a professor of mine once saying to me that he thought there was nothing more obvious in all of philosophy then that we have no free will. I think just the opposite. There is hardly anything more naturally and universally believed, hardly anything more obvious to us, then that we do have free will. I accept that it might be possible to have some defeater for free will hypothetically, but I can’t even imagine what that would be, since it would always, it seems to me, be less rational to affirm that we do not have free will than to affirm that we do. Without free will what are we to make of all the talk about epistemic justification, epistemic responsibility and moral responsibility? How do we explain that the illusion of free will is so powerful that we must proceed, for practical purposes, as though we did have free will? (Note that on a pragmatist’s theory of truth one might have grounds for saying that we do have free will even in a world where a correspondence theorist would be ‘right’ – by her standards – to say we do not).

      You know where I stand Larry. There is hardly anything more obvious than that we have free will (it is immediately apprehended upon introspection). What possible argument could one give to suggest that we don’t? The arguments either miss their mark, or else they are (in my estimation) extremely weak and indirect.

      • Larry Myers says:

        Yes it is hard to get over the almost anthropic idea that of course you have free will, we would be here asking the question without it, exactly how we have free will may remain a mystery to some (materialists) but that’s no reason to discredit it. But I do find for practical reasons there are times to apply either postion. “Without free will what are we to make of all the talk about epistemic justification, epistemic responsibility and moral responsibility?” Without free will you get to ask the question of how the rapist became a rapist, how the drug addict became a drug addict. And learn from those mistakes. Although this wouldn’t relinquish any resposibilty on the person it does allow for greater understanding.
        But what I find the most confusing about the question is that no matter what answer you give you end with that same practical result, liberterianism you have free will, determinism you act like you have free will, compatblism you also have some free will and act like you have the rest. So when question give different answers but end with the same result it makes me skepitcle of the question in the first place.

      • The worlds in which determinism are true are not nearer-possible worlds than the worlds in which libertarian free will is true. If determinism were true we would NOT expect to feel free. If the “Libertarian” proposal were correct we WOULD expect to feel free. Put differently, the possible worlds in which determinism are true consist of proportionally fewer worlds with the appearance of freedom then the worlds with the appearance of freedom which are a subset of the possible worlds in which libertarian freedom exists.

  2. Larry Myers says:

    On a quick side note, one of the funniest and some what strangely convincing arguments for the idea that we live a matrix was, of course we live in a world made by computer programmers, why else would anyone believe in Scientology. It’s just a joke the computer programmers thought would be funny.

  3. “I think this response is both lame and typical. First there is no rational justification possible for the denial of free will (to which Dever practically conceded), but the deeper point is that libertarian free will is antithetical to what has become the orthodoxy of secular humanism, and this is precisely (and obviously) the kind of ‘free will’ which Robert P. George had in mind.”

    I’ll never fail to get a quiet chuckle to myself whenever I’m reminded that our culture has progressed to a point where “orthodoxy” and “dogma” are hurled as terms of rhetorical abuse by Christians.

    And the complaint about some monolithic “secular orthodoxy” is demonstrably, empirically false in any case:

    Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
    Accept or lean toward: compatibilism
    550 / 931 (59.1%)
    Other
    139 / 931 (14.9%)
    Accept or lean toward: libertarianism
    128 / 931 (13.7%)
    Accept or lean toward: no free will
    114 / 931 (12.2%)

    So it looks like we have a more rarified incarnation of classical Conservative Victimology on hand. The percentage of working philosophers denying free will is less than (according to Habermas) the percentage of “New Testament scholars” who deny the empty tomb.

    • The number of Christian philosophers is greater than or equal to one of out six. Rounded up that about 16.7%. Obviously some Christians, like Calvinists, reject free will, but they are in the minority. I’m not sure how many Philosophers are 5 point Calvinists, but I imagine it’s low. Don’t you think that more-or-less covers the 13.7%? So, I don’t see the relevance of the statistic you cited at all. Maybe you see something I don’t? How could you take a survey of what a group of people including Christians, Secularists and others, claim that a percentage of them believe such-and-such, and then conclude that Secularists often or sometimes believe such-and-such. At least you’d have to know roughly how many of the group being polled were Secularists. However, what you presented looks irrelevant to me. Wouldn’t it be the same if I said most Muslims believe such-and-such and by way of refutation you cited a survey of what all religious believers in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism thought on the subject? It seems to me that if you want to make a point about what most secularists believe you have to poll the secularists. What were you thinking when you typed that point out I wonder… Moreover, I’m not sure that ‘orthodoxy’ is set by a majority vote so much as by entailments leading from the set of commitments by which we identify something like a school of thought (Secularism, Christianity, etc). So I’m not even sure if you polled secularists that it would mean very much (though it would obviously be more relevant than the statistic you presented.

      I should take a moment to note that I wasn’t using the term ‘orthodoxy’ pejoratively (the fact that you thought I was is perhaps just a function of your prejudicial inclination to think that the term ‘orthodoxy’ is most often used pejoratively). I simply selected the term which best describes the phenomenon. I dislike when Christians use terms like ‘dogma’ or ‘faith’ as pejorative terms, but even when they do they are usually reacting to a culture in which those terms have already become used pejoratively against the Church. It’s hard not to be reactionary sometimes. For instance, when you say that my concern reflects a”rarified incarnation of classical Conservative Victimology” it’s hard for me not to react to such an insulting claim. However, I think as we grow up and hopefully mature we begin to recognize the wisdom of being charitable and passive without being altogether dismissive. That’s at least what I’ve found, and that’s what I aim to be like, however imperfectly I achieve it from day to day.

      I want to reiterate again that I would be much obliged if one day you decided to take me up on that offer to chat one on one. That invitation stands, and I’m sure I could introduce you to others with whom you’d delightfully get along. Let me know if you ever change your mind.

      • So, I don’t see the relevance of the statistic you cited at all. Maybe you see something I don’t?

        You’re looking at the wrong statistic. Add compatiblism, “other”, and at least some of the libertarians (they do exist) and you’re looking at north of 80% who don’t deny free will, among a professional community which is overwhelmingly nontheistic. (I’m of the view that philosophy properly understood is intrinsically nontheistic, but that’s a matter for another post.) There’s just no plausible way to interpret this data as claiming free-will denial has even a plurality among philosophers generally or secular philosophers specifically. And no, counting what one’s opponents think “ought to be the entailments” of one’s view as their actual view is a nonstarter. You would be shocked to see what Catholic doctrine looks like if you let someone like me define it under those conditions…

        Tending to vindicate Dever’s “lame” response that the existence of anything like George’s free-will-denying secular “orthodoxy”, ignorant of the incoherence of its own presuppositions, is a boogeyman of George’s own invention.

        If there is anything even remotely like enforcement of ideological purity on this, it is distinctly in the opposite direction. When folks like Coyne loudly proclaim free will does not exist, the atheist “inquisitors” with even a modicum of philosophical awareness (rightfully) smack them down. At least, I’m sure it feels that way to the recipients of the criticism.

        I should take a moment to note that I wasn’t using the term ‘orthodoxy’ pejoratively (the fact that you thought I was is perhaps just a function of your prejudicial inclination to think that the term ‘orthodoxy’ is most often used pejoratively).

        George clearly was.

        It is a commonplace rhetorical move in our culture, deployed in a variety of contexts from people peddling crackpot weight-loss supplements to evolution-denial. The Weekly Standard just ran a cover story with the headline “The Heretic” literally depicting Nagel being burned alive by a cabal of cowled inquisitors, ferpeetsake.

        I hasten to add that it’s a good thing that over the last few hundred years, we’ve managed to invert the old connotations of these terms, by and large. In some moods I might even be tempted to say that keeping it that way is my central moral concern in these little internet skirmishes with religion.

      • Don’t you agree that compatibilists deny libertarian free will? Isn’t that the kind of free will I’ve been talking about?

  4. Then you shouldn’t’ve used the George quote, which claims secular “orthodoxy” denies freedom of choice, full stop, sans phrase, tout court.

    Which the data show to be demonstrably false. If there is anything like an orthodoxy on this issue, it is that free will is real.

    You might ignore the dozen times George uses cognates of the word “free” without any qualification, and focus just on his penultimate sentence. But that is simply a bald gainsaying of compatiblism, not any argument that people who explicitly affirm free will somehow are denying it. For all I know, denial of free will does indeed entail rational self-refutation. But if “orthodox” compatiblists are wrong, it isn’t because they deny free will, because they don’t.

    • If our good friend George had specified that he was talking about libertarian free will (as opposed to ‘free will’ disingenuously so called) then would you still be whining?

      • If he only meant LFW, then he would be making a completely different argument than he actually made.

        I’m confused as to what’s so confusing about this.

        George asserts that 1) the majority view among secular philosophers is the rejection of free will, the power to freely adhere to norms of rationality, the power to freely affirm truth or falsity etc. and 2) said rejection is self-refuting.

        But 1 is false. Empirically, demonstrably false. The clear majority of philosophers affirm that we have these freedoms. Therefore, if the “secular orthodoxy” is wrong about free will, whatever the reasons for its wrongness, the self-refuting rejection of free will is not among them.

      • I think he meant libertarian free will. His argument makes the best sense that way, so I think that’s the most charitable way of reading him. Besides, who cares? Suppose he doesn’t mean ‘libertarian’ free will; in a very near possible world he does, and in that world his argument here is both valid and sound. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that worth arguing and thinking about instead? Why do you feel the need to object so pedantically when your objection isn’t even remotely insightful? If you think it is insightful then what insight do you think you’re casting light on here?

  5. I suppose we just have different values of “insightful”.

    George made, and you cited approvingly, a bad argument with a faulty premise. I “pedantically” pointed out the faulty premise, demonstrating that the argument doesn’t work. What’s not to like?

    If he meant LFW, then (as demonstrated by the survey data and unchallenged by anyone) his headline conclusion is wrong. There is no secular orthodoxy making self-refentially contradictory claims on this issue, although there are undoubtedly some people somewhere making these sort of claims. Just as there are indeed glossolalic snake-handling christians out there, but it is inaccurate to describe their doctrines and practices as orthodox, or to impute them to Plantinga or Cardinal Bergoglio.

    Imagine if someone wrote an article claiming that the party of the presidential candidate you support wants to put all black people on a boat back to Africa, titled the article “The Deporters”, and I wrote a blog post repeatedly referencing “the deportation party” etc. Wouldn’t your first order of business be to point out that this view is not the one actually held? Once you did, how would you respond to “stop being pedantic! why won’t you discuss the substantive problems with the deportation policy?”

    The clear and unmistakable intent of the FT article and this post was as a cudgel with which to beat atheists, but that just won’t work once the multiple errors of fact and logic are removed. What aspect of the discussion remains “worth thinking and arguing about”? Whether a position neither George nor Devers nor you nor I hold is unworkable? Fine. I think the relf-refutation argument is plausible, but that Devers is correct to point out (and I note you haven’t challenged him on this) even if it goes through this doesn’t establish the positive existence of FW. Is it the purely sociological claim that most atheists don’t believe in LFW? Who would argue?

    Of course, he probably believes LFW is the only meaningful form of free will, and that compatiblism fails on other grounds. But we can only dig that out of the argument by doing precisely the kind of philosophical analysis we teach our freshmen in intro informal logic classes: identifying fallacies George commits, like Equivocation (flipping back and forth between LFW and FW sans qualification) and Begging the Question (asserting LFW is the only meaningful model of FW).

    As you already know, compatiblism (as it says on the tin) is the view that whatever is worth saying when we say someone acted freely is not in contradiction to saying that they were caused. If your revised reading of this passage is that he is simply reiterating “yes it is!”, he’s not making an argument anymore, he’s just chanting his libertarian beliefs at people in a conclusory tone of voice.

    • Alright, so the problem is here then that:

      “If he meant LFW, then (as demonstrated by the survey data and unchallenged by anyone) his headline conclusion is wrong” is wrong.

      If there is a way to reconcile LFW and Atheism then whatever it is, it wouldn’t be deterministic, which means that it would part ways significantly with various features of secular humanist thought which is normative for secular humanism (meaning, that by which the whole family of ideas belonging to secular humanism are identified as such).

      You clearly do not believe in LFW. Do you believe that most secular humanists believe in LFW? If so, do you think they do so consistently?

      In any case, clearly LFW does not sit well with beliefs like determinism, and determinism, I take it, is one of the presumptions which generally characterizes not only the views of the Naturalist, but also the views of the secular humanist (often secular humanists are Naturalists of some variety).

      Either provide an argument to say that determinism is not a characteristic presumption of secular humanism, or else I think you should concede the point that LFW is incompatible with secular humanism as it is generally construed (or find a way to reconcile determinism with LFW).

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