Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Beliefs, Free Will, and God

1. If we have free will, then at least some of our beliefs are formed partly of our own will.

Suppose one is a gambler, and he chooses to exercise in a game of chance involving a small red box. The idea is that there is something in the box, and it either contains a million dollars or it does not. Nothing else is known about the game, nor how many times it has been played, nor if anyone has won or how often. The man certainly does not know whether or not one million dollars is in the box, but he nevertheless may believe “one million dollars is in the box” or not. He does not have any epistemological reasons for his belief; he is not supposing he is “due” for some good luck or any such nonsense. Yet his belief is not entirely random. It is based on his greed. Because he desires money, he chooses to form a belief about the money being in the box. Although this belief may be irrational, he has nonetheless chosen it, and free will partly formed the belief. One worry is that this is only so in situations in which the subject is being irrational (for one may argue scenarios in which the subject holds a belief on a rational basis may be causally determined, hence their rationality). However, it does not follow that whatever is rational is determined, and at least in that case the worry does not act as a defeater for (1).

2. It is not the case that one ought to believe P if he is unable to believe P.

If the subject cannot form a belief about some P, then it hardly makes sense to say that the subject ought to believe P in order to be rational. More properly, it does not make sense to speak of the subject’s belief in terms of rationality or irrationality.[1] No one thinks that a dog who lies by the front door of his dead owner is behaving irrationally; they simply think he is being a dog. Rather, at best the dog is displaying a-rational behavior (see n.1). But there are plenty of times we think someone, of sufficient mental capacity, is behaving irrationally, and ought to form a different belief in order to remain rational.

3. There are at least some beliefs we ought to hold in order to be rational.

This is analytically true if there are any beliefs that can properly be called irrational.

4. There are at least some beliefs we are able to form and hold.

(4) follows from (2-3).

There seems to be an argument for being able to form one’s beliefs. For one might reasonably suppose from (2-3) that whatever one ought to believe in order to be rational, he can believe. But this leads to:

5. On determinism there are at least some beliefs that ought to be held in order to be rational that at least some subjects cannot form nor hold.

There are two potential responses to (5) in light of the present argument. The first response is to bite the bullet. Admit that there are at least some beliefs that one ought to hold in order to be considered rational that cannot be held on determinism (since it is so highly implausible, on naturalistic/materialistic accounts of determinism, that we are able to hold every rational belief). “All that follows is that we consider the subject to be ‘a-rational’ in these cases,” he may object. The problem with this is that it is wildly counterintuitive. If we supposed that, then most every case of irrationality is actually a case of a-rationality. But surely this cannot be true. If one does not bite the bullet, then the move to make is to say that there are no beliefs that ought to be held in order to be rational that at least some subjects cannot form nor hold; or put another way: every belief needed to be held in order to be rational can be formed and held by every agent who can be said to be acting in the rational/irrational paradigm with respect to that belief. But in that case, determinism is false.[2]

If we can at least partly form our beliefs with our free will, then this explains the moral dimension we ascribe to people who hold beliefs that are themselves morally repugnant. For instance, the person who believes torturing babies in front of their parents for the fun of it is morally repugnant for this even if he never attempts to do such a thing (or even facilitate it, promote it, etc.). If one has partly formed his belief through his free will (or even antecedent character-forming choices), then he is to blame for the belief he now holds. Finally, we get to the point: if one can help choose his beliefs, then one can at least have some measure of influence on her own belief with respect to Jesus Christ. At some point, it’s not a matter of can’t believe, it is won’t believe. I once had a conversation with an atheist who essentially said they would never submit to God. This is a choice. What will yours be?

                [1] In fact, beliefs themselves may be construed as properly belonging only to the realm of the irrational/rational realm, so that whatever is not rational (henceforth called “a-rational”) just cannot be called a belief at all.

                [2] Theological determinists certainly may have a complaint here, but it seems that even (5) could be affirmed by the theological determinist. Even theological determinists think that some people act irrationally with respect to their beliefs. I suspect their real complaint will lie with (2).

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  1. Hey Randy,

    FYI: I ended up accepting an PhD. program offer from the University of Utah.

    Re: Free Will

    What is a 'will'?

    Re: I once had a conversation with an atheist who essentially said they would never submit to God. This is a choice. What will yours be?

    Personally, I find that not only is there no good evidence to believe in the propositions which constitute Christian theism, but also that I am rather glad reason does not oblige me to believe in such propositions: I find Christian ethics and the character of the Christian god to be pitiful and objectionable on the deepest levels.

  2. P.S.

    I should add that I do not wish to offend you (or any other Christian reading this blog). So, please, do not take my comments as a personal affront.

  3. Hi Aaron, re: U of Utah, that's great! You would be starting this fall then?

    I do not take any offense. But I don't suppose you think all of the Christian ethic is poor, do you? In fact, isn't it the case that some of its strongest commandments (i.e., most heavily promoted) by its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, are in fact moral advancements for the day? ("love your enemies" being one such example)

  4. Randy,

    Re: In fact, isn't it the case that some of its strongest commandments (i.e., most heavily promoted) by its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, are in fact moral advancements for the day? ("love your enemies" being one such example.)

    A few things to say here. First, most of Jesus' teachings were unoriginal: They were found in many of the writings and teachings of then extant rabbis.

    Second, my problem with Christian (and by implication Jewish and Muslim) ethics is that, at base, it is, as Nietzsche elucidates, anti-man: It has as a fundamental premise that by virtue of being human, one is sick and deserving of punishment.

    Third, regarding your particular example, why should one love one's enemies? If in fact they warrant being identified as an enemy (e.g., Islamo-fascists), it is a virtue to eradicate them as quickly and efficiently as possible so as to improve one's life and the life of one's fellows.

  5. Hi Aaron, With respect to the beatitudes, that's something I highly doubt, especially since the source material at least indicates the people were not quite used to the teaching (cf. concepts of forgiveness). But in any case these certainly aren't objectionable. A fundamental tenet of Christianity is not that by virtue of being human, one is deserving of punishment. That is referring to the original guilt interpretation of the effect of Adam's sin upon the rest of mankind, an interpretation not seen until the 4th century. That certainly doesn't make it wrong, but Christianity has hardly been monolithic in this regard, and the debate currently rages even in the United States as to the extent of the Fall. In any case, even more Reformed believers (who are more prone to accepting this kind of teaching) nonetheless affirm one is not punished on the basis of Adam's sin, but on their own sin (see Al Mohler, Millard Erickson, etc.).

    Finally, I don't think love entails no negative consequences, which seems to be what is required in your proposed counterexample. I don't see any reason why someone could not love some person and yet still administer some necessary (not in a logical sense) punitive or protective action. One would have to make the case that love cannot do such a thing. As to why one should love their enemies, if there is an omnibenevolent all-loving being (which on Christianity there is), then to love many is better than to love fewer; to love those even when they do not seem to deserve it is better than to love only those who do, etc. It is to be more like God, and Christ, which is the goal on Christian theism.


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