Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.

Book Review: Mind: A Brief Introduction by J. Searle

Below is the text of my Amazon review of John Searle’s “Mind”, an introduction to the philosophy of mind published in 2004. In this book Searle does a superb job of analyzing the structure of our mental processes, but he runs into problems trying to get a handle on free will and personal agency. Rather than comment on these two issues as a part of this review I have written an article on the subject located here.

“Mind: A Brief Introduction” by John Searle 2004

Another good book from a good philosopher, Searle’s review and proposals concerning the philosophy of mind. He sets out reviewing the dominant threads in the development of philosophy of mind noting and striking at their particular weaknesses. Searle dismisses property and substance dualism but also strikes at the weaknesses of various branches of materialist thinking on the subject. He then proposes his own theory, one that is fundamentally materialistic (physics being for Searle the ultimate basis of all things), but different in that it takes mental properties seriously but rests them firmly on what amounts to “the power and functional purpose of brains”.

Searle is an honest philosopher. He states his assumptions, makes clear his reasoning, and knows when his approach to the subject hits a wall that he has not (perhaps yet) found a way round. In this book, like everyone else, he cannot reduce-away the gap between the objective ontology of brains and the subjective ontology of experience. He points out that while every other phenomena in the physical universe can be both logically and physically reduced to some more fundamental phenomena, subjective experience cannot be logically reduced precisely because it is subjective while everything else is objective, public. Of course he assumes that there is some underlying, solely physical, foundation which will become known in time.

The book covers consciousness taken as a whole, a gestalt, and also intentionality (the “about-ness” of our thinking), the aspectral nature of all consciousness, emotions, desires, beliefs, and with these also acts: decisions and volitional control of the body. There is also a chapter on the unconscious, and that too fits perfectly well into his view of what mind is.

Searle runs into two other barriers not normally acknowledged by other philosophers. In a chapter on [libertarian] free will, he says that from a psychological point of view, free will must be real, but from his own view that consciousness is just what the brain does in the same sense that kidneys filter blood, he admits that he cannot figure out how free will could work. He alludes to a popular view that quantum mechanics might have something to do with this, but is honest enough to admit that this idea still does not really answer the question.

The other barrier is that of personal identity, the conviction that although my body and character change I remain, to myself subjectively, the same person today as I was a month or a decade back and that I can plan for the future when, presumably, this same person will still be around to enjoy the fruits of present labor. Here he addresses the “continuity of memory” theory to personal identity and accepts that this is important but is insufficient to explain the phenomenon. That these are MY memories still presupposes some “I” whose memories they are. He denies the “I” is substantive, but merely a functional hypothesis that we must have to make experience intelligible. He admits that he does not know how to get deeper into it than that.

The book is well written (could Searle do otherwise?) with little formality. His assumptions and arguments are clearly made in plain English. It isn’t an encyclopedic introduction to the philosophy of mind, but it does touch briefly on the main threads of the field as explored by Western philosophers for the past 300 or so years. His own theory, well expounded, illustrates how subtle and problematic some of the questions in the field can be. A good read. Highly recommended.

Comments on “Mind” by John Searle

In a wonderfully written book, “Mind” (2004 — see my Amazon review here) John Searle introduces us to issues in the philosophy of mind and promotes his own version of a theory of mind. While carefully rejecting present views of dualism (substance and property versions), and a larger set of variations grounded in materialism. He proposes his own view grounded, in the end, in materialism, but claims to avoid all the problems with other versions. What makes his version materialistic is that he assumes both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to be causally responsible for consciousness, that is agent subjectivity and intentionality. In large part, it is because of the causal relationship that presentation to consciousness via sensory experience, and causal action by an agent who can “make things happen” that the “interaction problem” (the “mind-body problem”) largely disappears in Searle’s philosophy of mind.

But it never completely disappears. Searle runs into problems with free will and personal identity that the theory fails to accommodate. Free will does fit into his view of mind as it relates both to the individual and the collective. It has “conditions of satisfaction” that can be easily specified in Searle’s terms. Personal identity is far more problematic. I discuss both below.

While the necessity of brains to consciousness is these days not controversial, Searle’s assumption of their sufficiency begs the question in the debate between dualists (particularly substance dualists) and materialists, including Searle. It is precisely the point of the debate here that no one has established sufficiency of brains to minds, and it turns out the whole debate turns on what evidence there might be that brains are insufficient. It turns out the evidence, not proof, comes from physics itself; the causal closure principle!

Searle implicitly recognizes this “begging of the question”. At the end of chapter 4, having said that he belives his arguments fully refute the various materialist variations he explores, he says this about dualism.

“Notice that these arguments still leave dualism as a logical possibility, though I think extremely unlikely, that when our bodies are destroyed, our souls will go marching on. I have not tried to show that this is an impossibility (indeed I wish it were true), but rather that it is inconsistent with just about everything else we know about how the universe works and therefore it is irrational to believe in it.”

I do not believe he really “wishes it were true”. If he did, he might have found a more sophisticated version of the argument (see  also “From What Comes Mind?”). He also says, in the same conclusion to chapter 4 that as goes the two ontological realms (the mental and the physical), “No one has ever succeeded in giving an intelligible account of the relationships between these two realms”. Part of the purpose of this essay is to give such an account consistent with his structural analysis of mind. In the end, the precise mechanism of the connection remains a mystery, but in my view, it is no longer a connection between realms. One problem is that by “how the universe works” Searle is speaking of the discoveries of science, starting with physics. In physics, there simply is no evidence of any positive reality added from elsewhere (besides brains) that could constitute consciousness some separate thing added to physics. Physics finds no other realm and that is certainly true! There is no other realm that physics can possibly detect. But for physics to declare, blithely, that “nothing other than physics exists” obviously begs the question, something even physicists (those not pushing some vested interest) admit. This blatant assumption impacts both substance and property dualism.

Property dualism is a materialism where brains are necessary and sufficient causally, but what they cause comes, inexplicably, to take on a being of its own. Property dualism says that a new ontological realm emerges from physics, and once emerged has independent properties that are ontologically objective and yet remain interactive with physics. Property dualism springs from materialism and either proposes a new, fundamentally different ontology springing (who knows how) from the material, or it falls into epiphenomenalism. The core of this view falls into the same trap as many nondualistic (materialist) explanations, the naked assumption that “nothing but physics” is manifesting any such ontologically novel realm.

As for substance dualism, Searle refers explicitly to a strictly Cartesian version. In this variation, God in some direct way imposes mind on bodies. Brains are not even directly involved, although even Descartes recognized that some connection must exist between them. This view leads to all sorts of distractions (souls, disembodied minds) that are not, in fact, entailed even by a “mind realm”. Searle believes the whole idea of an ontologically objective “mental realm” (substance or property) is the root of dualist problems and he is right, but for some of the wrong reasons. His reasons stem, mostly, from belief expressions that come down to us through the history of religious institutions. These beliefs are vague and confused and may not properly distinguish between mind, soul, person, or spirit. All this vagueness was present in Descartes, and everyone (dualist or anti-dualist) since Descartes has simply imported it into their idea of what dualism must entail. Property dualism of course looses the disembodied soul notion but still comes out to an ontologically objective “realm” that brains produce. I agree with Searle, this is the wrong way to look at it.

There are more sophisticated versions of a proper substance dualism argument, but it remains the case that some of what is substantial about substance dualism has to come from something that is itself nonmaterial. This typically ends in God because that is what humans have thought must ground anything nonphysical. Once you have God, the physical too becomes grounded, and the fact of interaction between whatever it is that constitutes the mental and the physical is no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the mystery of the interaction mechanism remains. But we need not go as far as God to paint a more sophisticated substance dualism; we can start with physics. The principle of causal closure stated briefly is that physics comes from and produces only physics. Subjective experience, being in its essential nature nonphysical, cannot emerge from physics, at least not physics alone!.

Consider a radio, powered up, properly functioning, playing some music. The music issues from the proper functioning of the radio in a way analogous to subjective mind’s issuing from our brains. Clearly the music (technically pressure waves of a certain type) is not the radio itself. But there is no music realm, only music which stops (or becomes distorted) the moment the radio stops functioning properly. Note now the properly functioning circuitry of the radio is 99% responsible for the music, but not 100%. There is something else, in this case a physical electromagnetic wave, that carries information to which the circuitry of the radio is (through a complex convolution of electron perturbation) sensitive. The important point here is the music is not merely added to the radio the way Descartes added mind to body. That is why, in the case of the music, there is no realm. The radio is responsible, the cause, of the music, and brains are similarly the cause of consciousness.

Consciousness is not added to brains, but stems from them. However, the radio while necessary is not sufficient to produce any music at all without the information bearing (and electron perturbing) radio wave to which its functioning circuits are sensitive. The music (strictly speaking the configured pressure wave) is the expression of that sensitivity transformed through the radio’s circuitry. Something to which the brain is sensitive results in a metaphorical interpretation we experience literally as experience. There is no realm because mind as such is not added from the outside to brains. Mind, subjectivity, springs from brains in response to or as a result of (transformed by brain circuitry) sensitivity to something nonphysical that must, nevertheless, exist inside the physical universe.

We must posit something, we need not go all the way to God, existing inside (is a part of) the physical universe that has three qualities. 1) It cannot itself be physical. 2) it must be able to affect brains, or put another way, brains must be sensitive to or detect this something. 3) it must be everywhere in the physical universe such that where ever the right circuitry comes to be in the universe, a subjective experience, attached to that circuitry, appears in or rather as some subject. This “hybrid-substance dualism” says this: Consciousness emerges from brains. Consciousness is not added to brains from the outside but emerges in functioning brains themselves in conjunction with or as a result of (causal) interaction with some entity that is not itself material.

Why not material? Because the material alone, the brains, cannot invoke the nonmaterial which is the essential characteristic of a subjective awareness! This is my core assumption, and I justify it not by religion but physics! No physics has demonstrated the emergence of a nonphysical phenomenon from nothing but physical forerunners (causes). It is also a fact that the only seemingly nonphysical phenomenon we know is consciousness, subjectivity, itself. Given what it is physics is competent to explore, the physical, and that we have a manifestly nonphysical subjective experience that is clearly reliant on brains, the only legitimate assertion physics can make about mind is that we cannot possibly know if physics is sufficient to produce it. This does not prove “physics doesn’t produce it”, but it also gives us no justification to say that it does.

In both of my books and a few essays here on the blog I call this entity “Cosmic Mind”, but that has the unfortunate connotation that it is itself a thinking entity or that it amounts to panpsychism. Neither is the case. Perhaps a better name might be “Cosmic Mind Field” (CMF). Existing in time and pervading all space. It is nevertheless not a panpsychism because it evokes consciousness only in brains, not rocks, individual living cells, or thermostats. But it must function as a field (albeit not electromagnetic) because it performs where ever functioning brains are present and evokes a continuum of consciousness from brains of varying levels of complexity.

Perhaps there is “something it is like to be a fish or a lizard, but we have good reason to believe that whatever that is, the consciousness of lions, apes, and parrots is richer, and that of humans richer still. Like two radios of different quality, the more primitive brains invoke a more primitive and limited consciousness in the same way the lower quality radio reproduces less of the information present in the electromagnetic wave.

This picture allows Searle’s view of consciousness to go through. Brains being causal entities evoke consciousness. There is no mystery of “causal mind” because brains do all the causing. Searle’s analysis of “aspectual intentionality”, qualia (aspectual perception), belief, desire, the subconscious, and so on all can go through as he supposes they do. My proposal avoids the Cartesian “realm business”. Mind is not some realm imposed on bodies, but stems from them. At the same time it resolves the causal closure dilemma. Mind is nonphysical because its invocation from brains isn’t entirely physical but depends on the brain’s sensitivity to the CMF.

But what is that exactly? It is precisely because the only handle we have on objective (mind-independent) ontology is perceptual and therefore physical that we cannot say. We cannot detect the CMF with physical instruments, nor conceive of any experiment that would isolate it from other phenomena because we can only so isolate physical phenomena! CMF sensitivity is common to all consciousness. There is nothing that we have from within consciousness that isolates the effect of the CMF because consciousness is that effect. But human consciousness at least effects a partial escape from this. I will come to that a bit below.

The Free Will Problem

In Mind Searle runs into two problems he cannot fit into his analysis, free will and personal identity. As concerns free will Searle admits he cannot reconcile even a causally efficacious consciousness with free will on the brain side. On the psychological side, from within subjectivity, he cannot shake the conviction that free will must somehow be genuine. We presuppose it in everything we do and every utterance we make. Does my model help us here? I could always say that free will is just a power (more in man than in fish) that consciousness has. Searle would rightly object that this doesn’t explain anything new. It doesn’t explain the ontological ground of the freedom. How in a universe of random (quantum) and deterministic phenomena does anything (even the nonmaterial) become free in the volitional sense?

This is both a physical and a metaphysical problem. It’s hard enough to accept that physics alone is sufficient to cause consciousness. Now it also happens that this consciousness is volitional, its choices neither determined nor random (both purposeless) but now directed and purposeful? The CMF is becoming extraordinary indeed.

The metaphysical issue is not merely the possibility of volition in the universe, though that is one issue. Like consciousness, free will must be possible as its exercise supports our entire intentional state. As with consciousness, free will’s possibility is something physical law makes room for. What physical law demands is that physical causal chains have some physical starting point. Physics allows its macro-deterministic behavior to arise from randomness, the quantum vacuum. If physicists were being honest, they could not rule out that something else, something not visible to scientific method, can also start causal chains.

Volitionally initiated causal chains, the causal part, all begin with some macro-physical starting point; for example the motion of a hand or a speech act. They are not causal chains until that point. But physics cannot preclude that, perhaps simultaneous with neural activity, a volitional act neither determined nor random, initiates that chain. It is, in other words, logically possible that physics alone is not enough to explain the appearance of a third source of causal chains; volition. Not only is this logically possible, physics itself recommends the conclusion. In centuries of sophisticated experiments and observation physics has found only determinism and randomness. Why should physicists concede the possibility of a type of cause they cannot, even in principle, detect? Because unlike other hypothetical entities (ghosts) and powers (remote viewing), free will is presupposed in virtually every decision we make as human beings. Volitional capacity is the closest thing to “obvious in our experience” besides experience itself. Not only must we presuppose it, our entire culture, language, art, institutions, cleverly designed experiments, and engineering feats, all imply free will.

In “Making the Social World” (2011) Searle devotes a chapter to language and the commonalities and differences between pre-linguistic and linguistic mind. He lists five possible types of “linguistic utterances”: Assertives, Directives, Commissives (e.g. promises), Expressives (e.g. apologies), and Declarations (e.g. “I pronounce you husband and wife”). The first four of these all have pre-linguistic forms (beliefs, desires, intentions, and emotions respectively) but Searle says that Declarations, making something real (e.g. a married couple) merely by declaring it, has only a linguistic form. Searle does not recognize that free exercise of will is precisely a pre-linguistic declarative. It “makes something real” by willing it, and has the same “two directions of fit with the world” as declarations.

One freely chooses (Searle’s “prior intention”, “will-to-world fit”, “world-to-will” cause) and then freely acts (“intention-in-action”, “world-to-will fit”, “will-to-world” cause). The “conditions of satisfaction” for free will are the same, indeed a combination of, those of perception and action, homologous to linguistic declarations. If I think I am free, that belief can only be true if I really am free. If I act freely and introduce into the world a new [physical] causal chain that action is satisfied only by a genuinely new causal chain initiated by a free choice. If this analysis is correct, then free will is a property of consciousness in the same sense as intentionality and the CMF must, in some sense be its metaphysical ground.

The Identity Problem

Searle demurs on free will’s “ontologically objective” reality, but he cannot bring himself to do the same for agent-identity. To be conscious, to have purposes, to choose, are, in human experience, the consciousness, intentionality, and volitional elections of an agent. All of our experience presupposes agency, some singular identity that recognizes the change all around it by reference to its constitutive changelessness. Searle doesn’t use the word ‘changeless’, but his examples are telling.

He shows that memories do not explain the phenomenon. There is an image in my mind from when I was two. I believe it is real because my parents explained to me once what it was when I was a little older. But then there is a gap and the next memories (few) I have are of events taking place when I was four. Gradually, the gaps become smaller and the number of memories grows, but gaps persist here and there even to recent times. And yet, I have the unshakable conviction, as much as the conviction that a persistent “I”, the same person, have existed since that earliest memory.

I had that memory and I have all the other memories, the same I despite gaps in the memory record spanning years! What about the future? I can plan for a future, say going to graduate and postgraduate school to become a philosopher. I can act today so eight or ten years from now I, the same I who today applies to graduate schools, becomes a philosopher. Looking backwards from that time, I will be the same person who filled out those first applications. I will recognize this. If my brain has functioned normally throughout that time, its truth (reality-representation) is immediately apparent. The “conditions of satisfaction” for changelessness are met.

Searle believes it necessary to posit some functional entity that stands for this “I”. He does not hesitate to declare that it cannot be a substance, but something must stand antecedent, logically anterior, to consciousness itself. As we experience it, agency is inseparable from our (that is human-subjective) exercise of will. Both the freedom and the will in “free will” seem, in our phenomenal arena, to come from, to be the will of, my agent-self, my “I”.

Is Searle’s “functional entity” helpful here? What does it mean for a functional entity to be changeless? How does this property emerge in a universe where everything else from physics to thought is constantly in flux? How does a functional entity dependent in some necessary sense on both a changeable brain and changeable consciousness gain this quality? Searle’s suggestion is merely a stand-in, but the qualities it must have suggest more.

Functions are processes. A changeless process is logically impossible. The agent can only be a substance whose persistence, at least, is logically possible. If that is the case agency cannot take origin in mind. The always-changing cannot produce changeless substance any more than physics alone can produce nonmaterial mind. Agency is always experienced and expressed in mind, but its metaphysical source must be external to it.

It is this substantial agency that makes possible the capacity to partially escape otherwise transparent subjectivity, something it appears only humans can do. By this I refer to our capacity to analyse mind itself. Lions have some sense of individuation from the world, but do not exhibit any ability to think about their consciousness as such. Only humans do this, and while language seems to be necessary in the exercise of this capacity it isn’t sufficient for its appearance. Even though what we experience of our own identity is experienced only in and through mind, only the existence of something in someway distinct from mind can provide a sort of “binocular perspective” that enables us to say something about mind itself, to describe our subjectivity (to ourselves or others) as if, as it were, from a third person perspective. I have much more to say about this in my essay “Why Personality”.


Putting it All Together

Both free will and identity raise extraordinary ontological issues. For mind, it seems an extraordinary coincidence that this CMF happened to be around to evoke consciousness from a certain organization of matter, especially as both the consciousness and the life on which it rests were contingent. Not only is the CMF implicated in consciousness (which at least we can suppose is generated by brains as music is generated by the radio), but also volition, something for which physics and philosophy cannot even account for logically let alone physically!

Identity is even more remarkable. It is one thing to suppose that some nonmaterial reality can arise out of the purely physical. It is even more of a stretch to demand that an entity that never changes in time arises in a time-drenched universe in which everything else changes! The absurdity of these impossibilities ends in two extreme positions, denial that nonmaterial phenomena exist, including consciousness, or that its existence must be purposeful. This is to say the antecedent presence of the CMF, is not an accident, but produced for the purpose of causing consciousness with free will when the right material organization comes along. Of course this has further teleological implications.

Searle insists that all explanations find their ground in physics, material reality, but he is left with three problems resulting from this demand; the mind-body problem, free will, and timeless agency. Starting with consciousness as such we have Searle’s assertion that it is just “what brains do” but he knows his explanation does not cross the gap. Dual-aspect (Russellian) monisms (Davidson, Nagel) or panpsychism (Chalmers, Goff) also fail to bridge the gap. If, as these philosophers insist, mind is nothing more than an expression of undiscovered physics then we should find evidence in physics for the emergence of something (besides mind which begs the question) even minimally nonphysical.

My own solution, the CMF, doesn’t get to the details either, but it explains why what we seek is not found in physics. It isn’t there. If the CMF and brains interact (which they seem obviously to do) then either we are back to impossible physics, or there is a third entity responsible for both. When we discover interaction between two otherwise discontinuous phenomena in the physical world we take this discovery to be evidence of some third phenomenon that mediates the interaction. In proposing such an entity, a common source of physics and mind, we are doing nothing new philosophically speaking.

The CMF makes consciousness possible, evoking subjectivity from brains, but by itself doesn’t give us free will. If free will, obviously exercised in and by mind, has a ground it must come also from our third entity. That entity must itself be willful, purposeful. It is reasonable to locate free will in mind, a power of consciousness, because its operation fits perfectly into Searle’s structural analysis of intentionality in language and both exhibit constraint by time. We choose only in the present and both the choices made and the conscious arena in which they take place are constantly changing.

But the same cannot be said of human subjective agency. This also exists in time and expresses in mind; I am here in the universe after all. But unlike everything else agency does not change. Our consciousness is always changing and our will (free or not) can act only in the present, but all this change takes place within a phenomenology of changeless self. This is such an extreme problem for Searle that he proposes a functional entity in some sense independent of both mind and physics. But just as we never see physics resulting in the nonphysical, it cannot yield up a changeless entity antecedent even to mind. Moreover, it is this agency that enables us to reflexively examine mind itself, something it could not do if it was not in ontologically distinct from mind.

Function resting on a constantly changing consciousness cannot be changeless. Unlike volition, changeless agency cannot be a product of the time-constrained CMF. Our antecedent and ontologically objective source must also be a timeless agency, able to add this agency to time-constrained mind. With this step we are all the way to a personal God outside time.

Granted this is a truncated argument. Searle is honest enough to admit that substance dualism remains logically possible but rejects it on the grounds that it adds nothing useful to the philosophy of mind. But Searle does not get any closer to the secret of subjectivity emerging out of physics alone other than to insist that it does. The dualism I propose takes nothing away from his analysis of the structure of consciousness as we experience it. My analysis of free will (above) shows that Searle’s basic insights about mind remain sound. Free will fits into his ideas about the relation of mind to language, better in fact than in his own analysis!

While not popular with physicists or philosophers, God, like dualism, always remains logically possible. Moreover, while theism does not explain the details, it does account for free willed nonmaterial agency outside physics. It tells us why physics cannot find these in physics itself but yet experiences (presumably in the minds of physicists and philosophers) them in a physical universe otherwise governed by deterministic process resting on the randomness of quantum mechanics.

That we have agency and do exercise free will is so obvious to me that I will make the extraordinary claim that what motivates most free will and agent denial is not physics as such which says only “physics cannot account for it”, but precisely that accepting the ontological objectivity of free will agency too easily opens the door to theism. Of course physicists and philosophers will greet this claim with derision but the fact remains that, in the end, only God can provide the ontological ground for both free will and agency.


Searle’s Quantum Mistake

In a chapter on free will (of the libertarian sort) Searle runs into something of a wall. He concedes that psychological freedom must be real, but he cannot reconcile this with what is ultimately physical biology (brains) both necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness, the arena in which psychological free will operates. He speculates on a popular suggestion, that quantum behavior, some quantum randomness essential to the brain’s function, is in some part responsible for a genuine (ontologically objective) volitional will. Searle knows that randomness is not volitional freedom, but he says that it is possible that something about the brain transforms the randomness into volitional freedom in agent consciousness.

But he doesn’t like this solution because it makes the brain different from all other organs in that only the brain requires quantum processes in its role. I believe he is mistaken here. There is good reason to suppose that life itself rests to some degree on quantum phenomena. Every bacterium, amoeba, or living cell in an organ of the body lives because quantum phenomena are an intimate part of the mechanics of living processes. The brain then would be no different from any other life in this respect though it may (I suspect does) further constrain (in Terrence Deacon’s sense, see “Incomplete Nature”) the quantum processes necessary for life. That is the brain utilizes quantum processes in some quantitatively or qualitatively “enhanced way” as compared to life in general, but it is no longer unique in its dependency on quantum process generally.

Suppose I am right here. Does it help us answer the free will question as concerns biology? No. There always remains the gap between physics and the subjective experience. How do “enhanced quantum constraints” become volitional, or for that matter subjective? The interaction problem always remains. But my suggestion does clear one of Searle’s objections to the involvement of quantum phenomena with the phenomenal experience of consciousness and free will; quantum processes are essential to life generally.

Review: N. Rescher “Free Will”

I’ve read two books by Rescher. The first “Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues” (2000) I did not review for Amazon because there is no Kindle version and I managed to find the complete text as a PDF or online read here. This book inspired my essay “Process, Substance, Time, and Space”. Rescher’s examination of the free will issue, often the gorilla in the room for philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics, not to mention ethics, is nothing short of thorough and well articulated. Another of my essays “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” was written prior to my reading Rescher’s “Survey” or “Free Will”. It addresses some of the same issues, but Rescher does a much better job.

In the review I mention Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), but I didn’t want to add my own philosophical commentary to a book review. Here I will note again the two works are complimentary. Although Lowe is a substance and Rescher a process ontologist, the compliment arises because Lowe’s focus is metaphysical, while Rescher’s is phenomenological and epistemological. Lowe’s book is directed more towards establishing the metaphysical possibility of free will in a deterministic and/or random (quantum) universe. He looks at causal process and asks what freedom means, what it must accomplish, its “existence criteria” to be called free and willful (purpose directed) in the context of a causal universe. By contrast Rescher gives us an explosion of distinctions in types, kinds, or categories of experience in which we explicitly and directly recognize the freedom and willfulness of our acts. For Lowe it is about what we understand freedom to be, while for Rescher it is about how we experience it. Along the way, Lowe must, perforce, delve into the epistemological, while Rescher only rarely touches on the metaphysical.

Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal, Second Edition (Kindle Edition 2015)

This book has been out on Kindle for over a year and a half now and I am its first reviewer. I suspect this has something to do with its $40 price which is frankly obscene for a Kindle book. My opinion here casts no aspersions on Amazon for it is the book’s publisher who sets the price. This is a particularly greedy publisher especially as it appears that a bit of sloppiness crept into the production here but I will save that at the end.

Sometime ago I reviewed a book on the same subject by Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will”) and in that review I said that Swinburne “conceded too much to the determinists.” Having read Rescher now I come away with the conviction that even in my own writings, with a much more expansive view of freedom than Swinburne, I have conceded too much to the determinists!

If this is not the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of free will it is a very close second to that of E. J. Lowe, “Personal Agency” 2006 (it’s a tough call). I was surprised to discover that Lowe is not cited in the book’s bibliography. Lowe’s focus is more metaphysical, the nature of agency, while Rescher aims squarely at the phenomenological, the subjective qualities of free will, but their thought runs in parallel streams detectable throughout the book. Rescher’s arguments are thorough. He spends the first 2/3 of the book making distinctions and investigating what free will would have to be like if it existed. His first and most important distinction is that between metaphysical and moral freedom. He does not mean what either of these terms normally connote. “Moral freedom” for Rescher is commonly addressed by what philosophers call Compatibilism, the notion that an act is done without constraint from outside the actor, like a thief with a gun to your head ordering you to open the safe. For Rescher, moral freedom is simply the freedom to act free from “undue external constraint” whether or not the act has any traditionally moral implications. Metaphysical freedom, by contrast, is the freedom to choose, to make a decision prior to an act, and that such a choice arises from the deliberation, “the thought” (conscious or subconscious, though not unconscious), of the decider. In contemporary philosophy, Compatibilism is a response to the fashionable notion that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” is impossible, not supported by physics. Rescher stands the matter on its head and notes that moral freedom, the possibility of a “freedom to act” (in a manner fully compliant with physics, not to mention the limits of one’s biology) depends on having a prior freedom to deliberate (even subconsciously) and choose. Even with a gun to your head you have “metaphysical freedom”. You can deliberate over alternatives like fighting off the thief. That you would not actually succeed, are likely to die, is what revokes your moral freedom, but deliberation, the choice to deliberate, remains available. The choice “in mind”, prior to any final decision to act, is “metaphysical freedom” in Rescher’s sense.

Rescher raises many issues usually addressed in the negative. Besides making important and obviously useful distinctions here, He effectively demolishes many of the challenges to free will like Galen Strawson’s claim that for a decision or act to be free every input to it, including every motive, belief, and inclination of the actor would have to have been both consciously and freely chosen going back to the earliest life of the actor. Rescher also demolishes the notion that one could, in principle, trace the neurological basis of some particular choice or action back indefinitely in the history of the actor, and addresses various interpretations of the infamous Libet experiments. He points out and argues extensively and well that without some stopping point in the thought of the actor not only is there no room for freedom, but consciousness itself becomes pointless. Without eventually referencing thought itself, there is always something that is left out of the description of most human behavior. That such “leaving out” is an inevitable outcome of a purely physical description, is evidence that something genuinely important is being missed.

It is not until the book’s last two chapters that Rescher addresses the metaphysics of “metaphysical freedom” as he understands this. His case here is entirely circumstantial, but convincing nevertheless. He notes explicitly that there can be no empirical demonstration of free will one way or the other. He argues that broadly speaking evolutionary advantage accrues to animals the more they have the power to choose and revoke choice in thought prior to acting. Mind and brain exist together in lock-step such that there is never a “mental eventuation” without there being some correlative brain activity. The mental is not causal in the traditional sense but “initiating”. Exactly what the difference is here is not really explained but at least one difference is initiation’s lack of temporal precedence. At no time is there a mental eventuation (there is a distinction Rescher makes between “events” and “eventuations”) without a corresponding brain activity. Rescher is, in the end, a materialist. From the traditional metaphysical viewpoint he argues that free will, like the consciousness (capacity to think) underlying it, is simply emergent from physics through biology (Darwinian mechanism) and that therefore there is nothing mysterious about it metaphysically speaking. The agent herself emerges from the bundle of tropes that constitute her consciousness. That we do not know (and can never discover because it is not strictly causal) precisely the mechanism by which thought takes control and initiates does not mean it doesn’t happen. He argues persuasively that the entirety of our experience not to mention the subjective meaningfulness of consciousness itself suggests that it, that is free will, is real, and it is always rational for us to proceed on that basis.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book I did notice a curious production issue. There are places in the book where whole paragraphs (sometimes two or three successive paragraphs) are lifted from one part of the book and placed in another. At first I thought this a curious stylistic device as in each case the following discussion takes different turns. But as it began to happen more and more, not only between successive chapters but inside chapters and in the last case even within the same subsection, I began to wonder if this was not a production error on the editor’s part?

Nobody interested in the free will problem from one side or the other should be without this book. Dualists and monists of all stripes will find if not a complete answer to their questions, a host of useful distinctions and considerations bearing on the problem. It is unfortunate that it is so expensive. The publisher is doing the community of philosophers-at-large no favors here.

Arguing with Automatons



There is no metaphysical middle ground between libertarian free will and automatonism. I stress the metaphysical here because there is phenomenological (psychological) middle ground that backs up into the epistemological. By “phenomenological middle ground” I refer to what I take to be most people’s every day experience with making choices. If you step into a taqueria and for a moment do not know if you “feel more like” chicken, beef, or pork, you think about it and choose one. We each make these (and many other) sorts of decisions throughout our day. In this process I (for I can in the end only speak for me) do not feel impelled by something, some combination of events in my past, to make one particular choice over another. I had chicken last week, so this week I’ll take the steak, or perhaps I liked the chicken so much I choose it again. Whether you are committed to libertarian free will philosophically the choice of chicken, steak, or pork, feels at least superficially free. Whichever choice you make you are at the same time aware that other choices (and so futures) were potentially open to you.

I will not further address this experience of phenomenological freedom because it is conceivable that you can genuinely believe you are free without actually being free just as genuinely believing you are Napoleon reincarnated does not mean you are Napoleon reincarnated. The issue then is not whether the alternatives appear open to you but whether they actually are open. Although you might have chosen beef or pork and have done so in the past, on this occasion something stemming from your past (indeed going all the way back to the big bang) determined that you would choose chicken and this determination was (usually is because otherwise the phenomenological room would also disappear) at least entirely subconscious if not in fact unconscious. On this occasion you were going to choose chicken just as on prior occasions there were determinations that led to your choosing steak or pork at those times. Automatons are entities that sometimes appear to make free decisions from a purely behavioral viewpoint, but which we know not to be free because we understand all of what leads deterministically to those choices; that is, we know all of what underlies the behavior both necessarily and sufficiently.

In this paper my goal is not to defend a view of libertarian free will as I have done that before here in this blog and other places. What does interest me here are two related things. First does it make any sense for a human being with free will to argue or debate with an entity who appears to be a human being but lacks free will? Second, if no human beings have free will does any debate or argument between such entities have any meaning or significance? I am thinking of the following scenario. Two human beings are having a debate. The thought of the first being is freely expressed through speech in a language that both know. That speech, having some meaning in the common language the other being grasps in her thought, leads to a free decision in the thought of the second being to accept the argument of the first being or to reject it and freely offer a counterargument of her own. Note the freedom involved here would entail the second being might have, besides agreeing or offering a counterargument, instead have chosen simply to be quiet and abandon the discussion among other options. What is crucial to meaning here is the respondent understands the semantic relation between the argument presented and her response whatever that turns out to be. “The semantic” is important here because the relation is not about the brain states of one party invoking brain states in the other, but rather subjective states of consciousness whose form and content do not resemble brain states.

The Argument

An automaton is a “state machine”. Some combination of parts each having various but finite numbers of states in which they can reside together determine what the automaton “does” at any given moment. The parts here can be mechanical, electromechanical, or of any other constitution that can express a “state”. Automatons today range from such trivial devices as automated floor cleaners to sophisticated computers in which software initially constrains possible “states” expressed in hardware; servomotors controlling a driver-less car or making chess moves on a game board. Every automaton begins in some first state when it is “turned on” and that state evolves in time from that point depending on what the automaton experiences in its inputs. Inputs include what it senses of the world’s response to its outputs (for example a chess move) which become further inputs. Not only do modern automatons “adapt” their behavior (within the range of mechanical possibility) by responding to their various inputs (given the potentials embedded in their programming), and that behavior can appear unexpected from the viewpoint of a human observer.

That these behaviors appear unexpected does not mean they are not fully determined (causally) by the automaton’s present state including all present inputs. In all the automatons we build from thermostats to self-driving cars and game playing computers we take this “ultimately determined” status for granted. We know that if we examine the machine’s workings in fine enough detail we will find exactly which combinations of states determined any particular behavior, that those states were sufficient to cause the behavior in question, and that those states were recursively determined by prior states (plus inputs) back in time to the machine’s first state. Because we know exactly how one state causes another we assume there is nothing more to the behavior of the automaton than its history of prior states. We assume that is, the automaton experiences no internal subjectivity. If two such automatons were to have an argument of some sort, a third-party would see what looked like our argument response between two humans illustrated above. But we have good reasons to believe that despite the behavioral similarity there is no subjective, semantic, understanding occurring in either of them.

Back in the 1970s there was an automaton named ELIZA. Today there are far more sophisticated automatons, but ELIZA is illustrative for my purposes here because it was specifically designed not so much to “be intelligent” but to mimic intelligence passing the Turing test. Simply stated, the Turing test proposed that a machine would or could be taken to be intelligent if in interacting with a human being, the human could not tell if it was interacting with a machine or another human. But the Turing test proved a little easy to pass under domain restricted circumstances and ELIZA was proof of that.

ELIZA’s domain was psychotherapy of the lite sort in which a therapist speaks one-to-one with a patient. Humans (students) were the patients and asked to talk (type) to their therapist.

Patient: I’m not sleeping well lately.
ELIZA: Have you any idea why?
Patient: I’m having bad dreams.
ELIZA: What are the dreams about?
Patient: My mother.
ELIZA: Tell me about your mother.

A simple program by today’s standards ELIZA found subjects, verbs, and objects in patient sentences and wove questions around one or more of them. If the program could not find any specific word to incorporate in its reply it output something more general like “why?” Most patients could tell that ELIZA was a machine but only after enough interaction that they realized ELIZA’s answers weren’t getting at anything. But initially, and in brief transactions, many patients thought they were speaking (typing) to a human being. But here’s where it gets really interesting for this argument. There came a point in work with ELIZA that some students, even knowing that ELIZA was a machine, not only continued to interact with it (some for long sessions), but reported experiencing therapeutic value! Some students said the sessions reduced stress and helped them think about their lives. The sessions “had meaning” in the broad sense, they had significance to the student.

The first question we want to ask is: were these interactions of meaning or significance to ELIZA? We assume not. We normally take it there is “nothing it is like” to be ELIZA, there is no consciousness there, no free will, no subjectivity. All of ELIZA’s replies are necessarily and sufficiently determined by a few hundred lines of code controlling the CPU and memory registers of a non-conscious automaton. One alternative view (taken by Chalmers and others) is there is something minimally “to be like” ELIZA, there is some subjectivity there though we cannot, from the human viewpoint “get at” what it might be like. Thomas Nagel (“What is it Like to be a Bat” 1974) deliberately chose an example (the bat) that to most people would have a subjective experience of some kind. Nagel’s argument is that it is in principle impossible for us to access bat-experience subjectively. His conclusion is taken to apply to any other subjective experience including that of other humans.

What would happen if we made two ELIZA programs interact? From a third-party perspective it would be a conversation between a therapist and a patient, that is two persons. But we know that this is not the case. We can explain all the behavior of both sides with reference to nothing but algorithms and programmable hardware, and we have good reason to believe that these are both necessary and sufficient causes of the observed behavior. We wouldn’t normally think to say that either side experienced any “therapeutic value”, semantic understanding or indeed had any internal experience of the interaction at all. Why not? Two reasons. One is that we do not impute any consciousness to ELIZA, and not having any consciousness, ELIZA cannot have and will at all. We normally take for granted that some consciousness is a necessary ground of any sort of willing. Will is only experienced, only exists, subjectively and never, like Hume’s cause, in the third person. My theme here focuses on the will so I want to stress the causal determinism (both necessary and sufficient) of the combination of algorithm and hardware is what robs the automation of anything that could conceivably be called “will”.

Now suppose we substitute real human beings for the two ELIZAs but stipulate that neither has a free will. The interaction is, in a manner perfectly analogous to “algorithm and hardware”, causally determined by states of the brains of the two humans. This causal relation is both necessary and sufficient to bring about every question and response there being no genuine “will” about it. So what is different about these two cases? Why (and where) can there be meaning and significance in the humans but not the automatons? The difference is the humans are (or could be) conscious – I stipulated only that they had no free will.

In the literature on free will and philosophy of mind one often finds that deniers of free will are not always deniers of consciousness. That is, although there is no genuine will there is experience, something subjective, and meaning arises in that arena. But consciousness itself is problematic for the same reason as free will. As Sean Carroll (“The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” 2015) put it “thought can’t cause physics”. But if consciousness is real, then by some mechanism physics causes thought, subjectivity, and that should be equally impossible. There is, to put it bluntly, no more evidence in all of modern science that physics causes thought (subjectivity) than there is (from a third-party perspective remember the two ELIZAs) that thought causes physics. Consciousness and free will are two sides of the same coin.

If consciousness is real, and therefore experience can have meaning, then one must hold that physics causes [nonmaterial] thought. Rejecting this leaves only epiphenomenalism or eliminative materialism. The first makes experience (the subjectivity we experience every day) an illusion, while the second says it isn’t even illusory but nonexistent, something experience itself makes incoherent. Think of having a few orgasms in some clinical setting. The clinician asks you “which orgasm was the most powerful?” You say “the second.” The clinician, monitoring the behavior of every nerve in your body, says “No, my instruments tell me the first was more powerful.” The question comes down to who are you going to believe? The report of the clinician or the orgasm qualia you experienced? I stress here that it isn’t the orgasm, the measureable biological phenomena of nerve and muscle, but the subjective quality of the experience that matters.

The above example applies to qualia in general, but orgasms are particularly individual and subjectively qualified. It would be absurd to hold the third-party measurement had logical priority over the subjective experience. The quality of an orgasm is in its subjective experience and nowhere else. It would also be absurd to hold that an orgasm was illusory (epiphenomenalism) or nonexistent (eliminative materialism). An “illusory orgasm” is no more possible than a “square circle”. But none of this means there isn’t some brain state associated with every experience including experiences of thinking or choosing. If subjective experiences (think orgasms) are real, if they mean anything to a subject, there must be at least a logical separation between brain states and subjective experience. This is the gap so well described by David Chalmers (“The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory” 1996 and “The Character of Consciousness” 2010), and that forces one to accept a property dualism of some sort.

In his 2015 book “Free Will a Philosophical Reappraisal” Nicholas Rescher asks us to consider that there is some brain state literally simultaneous with “the thought”. The question is not which is physically antecedent (and so causal) but logically antecedent and so initiating. Rescher is a materialist, so his scheme must work from the side of physics. He argues the relation between physics and thought is not causal in the normal sense that physics understands it. Instead of a cause he calls it an initiation. He makes two distinctions here. Initiations are atemporal. Rescher (a process ontologist) holds an “event view” of cause in which events unfold (cause) other events. What is important about all event unfolding is its temporality. Events have duration (however short or long) and “causing events” must precede result unfolding in time. By contrast, initiations are simultaneous with their physical expressions. Crucially they are not “events”. Rescher calls them “eventuations”. In Rescher’s view the eventuations go both ways. Brain states eventuate thoughts, and sometimes a certain class of thoughts we commonly call choices or decisions eventuate brain states.

Although Rescher does not try to resolve the mystery of the interaction metaphysically he doesn’t have to. What he shows is the reasonableness of the relation going both ways. If physics can evoke consciousness, then consciousness can, correspondingly, evoke physics. A second consequence of initiations is that there is some brain state just before a decision or choice in thought which is not sufficient to guarantee evocation of the brain state correlated with the thought. Of course the “thought correlate” is compatible with that prior state. It must be one of the following states that can evolve from the prior state. That it does evolve requires the prior state (or some other compatible prior state) but also the initiating thought which remember by Recher’s view is not strictly a cause. This is important because the neuroscientist need not accommodate any thought. One brain state (an event with temporal duration and so causal powers) is traceable backwards through (temporal) series of other brain states, the prior unfolding into the latter (as in ELIZA) without ever detecting the inflection point where a thought had non-temporal control.

Rescher’s distinction gives us the possibility of free will but at the cost of some logical dualism. If one accepts such a dualism then there is no unique problem with free will. But if one rejects all dualism in favor of eliminative materialism, then not only free will, but consciousness itself (and so subjective orgasm) is impossible. The only escape from such a trap is the ad hoc move of declaring that physics causes thought but not the other way around. There is no particular reason to believe this is the case however for even in this view, the basic metaphysical problem of the mechanism remains. If someday neuroscience does resolve the matter of how physics causes consciousness and demonstrates its sufficiency, it is reasonable to suppose they will discover at the same time how it is that consciousness [sometimes] causes (eventuates) physics.

My original statement “no metaphysical middle ground between free will and automatonism” has now come to the identity between eliminative materialism and automatonism. We have no reason to suppose that consciousness is real (think orgasm) and free will is not. Each must interact with physics in what might well be the same mechanism, some non-temporal cause not yet identified but that crosses Chalmers’ gap. But where does all this leave us on the meaningfulness of arguing with automatons? If you accept that consciousness is in some sense real then there is no choice but to accept some dualism. Once you accept that, there is no reason not to think that libertarian free will of some capacity is real also. If you reject this and insist on eliminative materialism then neither free will nor consciousness is real, and you must accept this in the face of that very experience that leads you to this conclusion. In short, the conclusion is incoherent and that means eliminative materialism is an epistemological nihilism.

Epiphenomenalism fares little better here. There are no epiphenomena in the physical universe apart (purportedly) from consciousness itself, no evidence that physics can cause epiphenomena. If consciousness is epiphenomenal so are its contents including judgments, thoughts, and everything built upon them; our mathematics and all of what we take to be empirical knowledge. Suppose we (and who is this “we” given the epiphenomenal nature of consciousness?) use our mathematics and science, build a real (not simulated) airplane, step into that airplane and it flies.

Is our flight experience something real (remember the orgasm) or also an epiphenomenal illusion? If illusion, what mechanism (the interaction problem) entails such a reliable connection between the illusion and the world? Physics produces an illusory phenomenon able, nevertheless, to make discoveries and use them to engineer devices that can only work if the discoveries (mental phenomena after all) match purportedly independent physics across time. Planes don’t only fly occasionally or by happenstance. Properly designed, built and maintained they fly every time. The only alternative to this extraordinary coincidence is there is no “independent world” at all.

What saves epiphenomenalism from metaphysical nihilism is that they must hold (being materialists) that it isn’t anything subjective (in this case discoveries and their connection to application) resulting in these engineering marvels, but brain states determined in an engineer’s deep past. None of what we take to be “subjective experience”, for example thoughts about airplane wings, can have any causal relation to the production and flying of airplanes. Experience tells us this is patently absurd. Rescher’s notion of initiation might help here but physics (and traditionally materialism) does not recognize any atemporal cause.

If eliminative materialism or epiphenomenalism is true then human beings cannot be anything more than complex automatons whose “initial state” goes at least as far back as conception. Possibly it goes back further, but just as an automaton cannot know what states of the world led to its being “turned on”, it would be impossible for humans to know one way or another if what fixes [illusory] choices goes back any farther than conception of your body.

Either way, it doesn’t matter because there is no you in anything that you do, choose, believe, or think. There is your body of course, but what issues from it is no different in principle than what issues from ELIZA or for that matter a robot floor cleaner. There is no reason for any conscious and free willed being to accept anything that issues from you as anything more than properly (let us say) formed propositions in the English language. The signs (words) carry standard meanings to the conscious recipient but the issuer counts for nothing being unable to have any “genuine opinion”, that is subjectively (though it may falsely report having such opinions), to consider one way or another.

Note that this does not mean that propositions expressed by automatons are not true. They may well be true, but if they are it is purely by chance that such truth is expressed through this particular channel compared to any other. There is no reason to credit the source other than to recognize the expression came from this source. The expressive vehicle has no “stake in the game”. It makes perfect sense to take the propositions of automatons seriously in the same sense that it makes sense to take a chess move by Big Blue seriously. But at the same time, it makes no sense to further argue or debate an automaton or give it credit for being clever. As clever as their behavior might appear to us (who have consciousness and free will) the cleverness (though not the truth) is imputed to the automaton by us.


So what happens if you debate an automaton and as a result your argument and alters its behavior? Nothing is going on other than your output becoming its new input and deterministically re-vectoring the automaton’s report. There isn’t any mind there to change and arguing with it becomes nothing more than a game played with the objective of affecting the course of its behavior. One might interact with ELIZA merely to try to invoke a particular response. But note that an automaton (or other determined entity) changes our free minds all the time. How many books have I read whose contents have persuaded me to alter my opinions or beliefs? Of course we normally assume that a conscious free-willed person writes the book, but there is no reason this must be the case.

Being free willed I allow the arguments (by accepting as valid and good and choosing to alter my beliefs, behavior, motives) in the book to have the impact on me that they have. Linguistically, crediting the book with “changing my mind” is merely (usually) a proxy for according its author that credit. But the book is neither conscious nor free willed and yet the book, by my reading, and not its author, is the proximate cause of my change of opinion.

At the end of the day then debating an automaton simply makes no sense. Winning such a debate is like winning a chess match against Big Blue. On the conscious side it might be satisfying and it provides new inputs to the automaton, but we have not thereby altered any mind. No person acknowledges any “good argument” on our part. If the automaton has a designer she might come to recognize something novel about my argument. I might be impacting some mind at second order here, but among the foundation pillars of materialism an insistence there is no designer.

So what do we do with an entity who looks just like a free willed person but claims to be an automaton? There are three possibilities: 1) the entity is lying, 2) the entity is mistaken, and 3) the entity is an automaton. Notice the three alternatives concern only the status of the free will claim. An automaton can produce true propositions. Theoretically, a mind might fruitfully engage with an automaton, even learn something from it. But fruitfulness is precluded if the subject at issue is or inevitably involves the no-free-will claim. As it turns out, most philosophical issues are entangled with the no-free-will claim. Obviously metaphysics and epistemology touched above, but also ethics (any subject having any socio-political import; anything on our world involving interaction between entities that look like people) and aesthetics (can an automaton experience beauty?); all the classic philosophic sub-disciplines.

If the entity is lying there is no point in arguing because we do not know the motivation behind the lie and thus even a knock-out argument serves no purpose. If the entity is an automaton then again there isn’t any point arguing because no argument exists that would make the truth other than it is. Big Blue is an automaton no matter how hard we try to convince it otherwise. Indeed we might cause Big Blue to report that it isn’t an automaton, a mistake by the machine. Reporting free will (or consciousness) when none exists does not change the fact of the matter. We have done nothing more than caused a deterministic system to mis-adapt in a small way, a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Big Blue’s mistaken report need not affect its chess playing skills.

That leaves “being mistaken” by a conscious entity. Here at least there is, presumptively, a mind to be changed. In theory, some argument can affect it, could make the conscious entity recognize that it must in fact be free willed. While possible, such an argument isn’t likely to be found. Why? Because the individual concerned believes the falsehood (often asserted by authorities like physicists and philosophers) “there is nothing but physics” and “thought cannot cause physics” (even bearing in mind the causal distinctions made above). Ironically many of these same authorities see no inconsistency in physics causing thought. We cannot prove the reality of free will or even consciousness in any logically rigorous way any more than we can disprove it. Human beings (I speak biologically here) who claim “no free will” believe this (typically) for metaphysical reasons. If physicists are correct as far as they (all science) can legitimately claim and there is nothing but physics to be found by physical means, then the only possible evidence of the reality of consciousness and free will is what we experience subjectively in the daily business of our lives.

Either we assume that human beings on Earth who deny any free will are mistaken by intellectual error, a choice (free willed) to accept a falsehood, or we take them at their word and they are not, in fact, free willed. If we take the second alternative, continued interaction is nothing more than a game played with a sophisticated ELIZA. Of course in our real world, some mix of the these is also possible. Some of those who report lacking free will are simply mistaken, while others might genuinely lack it. But all of this only matters to free willed human beings on one side or the other. If a free willed being mistakenly believes she has no free will, she might be enlightened, liberated, saved by our interaction with them — however unlikely this is. If the being on one side has no free will, really is an automaton, arguing with it about this is a waste of time.

By contrast if there is no free will on either side, then everything is a “waste of time” because all interaction would be meaningless; epistemological nihilism. There would be nothing “to know”, only what determined physical behavior, a process physics does correctly recognize as purposeless and therefore also metaphysically meaningless. Why should all of us automatons bother to do anything at all? The answer should be plain. The capacity to ask that last question cannot issue from a true automaton. To an automaton, the answer must be determined, perhaps “to maintain its existence”; not a rationale or purpose (of a mind) but a blind switching of state. To question the meaningfulness of existence presupposes some subjectivity whose experience, and so existence, it is. If subjective experience is real then physics causes (perhaps atemporally initiates as in Rescher) thought, and though obscure there is no a priori reason why thought shouldn’t cause (initiate) physics by the same mechanism.

The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism


Compatibilism is a philosophical attempt to rescue personal responsibility from determinism. The idea, now fashionable in scientific and philosophical circles that, thanks to an ultimately deterministic macro-universe, libertarian free will is an illusion. The libertarian part is important because compatibilists are so named precisely because they claim that we can be responsible for our acts even in the absence of our capacity as agent to initiate novel physical chains of events (through control of our bodies which are indisputably physical). Initiation is the key here. As Lowe points out (“Personal Agency” 2004) when I elect to raise my arm it is my brain and its physical connection to physical nerves, the nerves to muscles, etc. that actually controls the physical motion of my arm. That is the micro motions of my arm, the exact speed with which it goes up, exactly how high, and at exactly what angle, etc are all controlled by a physical chain of multiple events in my nervous system coupled with the capabilities of my muscles. What I do as an agent is initiate this process by choosing to raise my arm in a general sense with such and such a force, in so and so direction, etc. In order to be libertarian, that choice has to be theoretically prior to any physical causation. I might raise my arm because I want to ask a question of a lecturer, but that reason is not the cause of my arm’s going up because I could just as easily have chosen not to ask a question at that moment. Nor does any activity in my brain outside my conscious control force me to raise (or not raise) my arm. For libertarianism to be real then, there must be some agent who has the power to “initiate physics”. It is exactly this power that is denied these days by a large number of scientists and philosophers.

I think compatibilism has problems on several levels but before I get to them let’s look at what compatibilism says. The basic idea here is that if some act of mine is not coerced by an external agent, then I remain responsible for it even if in the end the act was foreordained by some prior set of physical events ending in my brain and thus the act itself. If someone puts a gun to my wife’s head and threatens to kill her if I do not rob a bank, then I am not responsible in any full sense for robbing the bank. If on the other hand there is no gun to my wife’s (or my) head then I am responsible for robbing the bank even if that act was not a libertarian choice but rather the culmination of prior physical causes, that is brain activity. Notice however the key requirement for agent coercion in the compatibalist view. Suppose I am far from home, tired, cold, and have no money. I choose to break into what appears to be an unoccupied house merely to get warm and spend the night. Surely I am responsible for that act. Now imagine that it isn’t tiredness that drives me but a hurricane from which I wish (naturally enough) to take shelter, so I break into the same unoccupied house. Neither act involves agent coercion and any court would find me guilty of breaking and entering in either case. In the latter case, the court might forgive my act because it would be reasonable for me to believe that by remaining outside the hurricane threatened my life. But I remain responsible for the act. By contrast if a man (an agent) put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me if I did not break into that house I would not be judged responsible for it.

So lets have a look at this… If I am coerced into doing something under threat of death from another agent then I am clearly not responsible for that doing in any normal sense. But given the assumption that libertarian free will is an illusion, why does agency coercion make a difference? Presumably if not coerced I would not rob the bank, but what about the agent who coerced me? Supposing he was not himself coerced into putting a gun to my head, a court would say he was responsible for that act. But since libertarian free will is an illusion, his behavior was determined in some sense by his brain in someway over which he had no prior control. Indeed even if I was not coerced, I too had no choice in the matter because my behavior also was determined, if not by coercion then by events in my brain and their causes and their causes and so on all the way back to the big bang — or at the very least to my birth.

The difference between the gun to my head and the hurricane is that in the latter case we might presume I had some alternative than breaking and entering. A hurricane might kill me, but then it might not. But the same thing cannot be said concerning brain events. The universe may not be an agent, but its deterministic imposition is even more sure in its result than a gun to my head. I might, after all, fight off an armed man, but I cannot fight off the causal outcome of a brain state over whose particulars, the result of a long chain of events, are beyond my control.

In effect I am an automaton differing from a more conventional automaton only in degree and not in kind. Even today we can build highly adaptive automatons so our appearance of adaptiveness is hardly a counter argument. The difference is only that the conventional automaton’s fixed state, its starting state, goes back only as far as when it was first turned on. Mine goes back at least to my birth, and if we take the metaphysical implications of the sort of determinism we are talking about seriously, all the way back to the big bang.

Returning more directly to compatibilism, besides the matter of prior determination, by a coercing agent or the universe, there is the problem it presents for the notion of agency itself. Libertarian free will is dismissed on the grounds that there is nothing in physics that supports it. But the same can and has been said about mind, consciousness in general, and the experience of agency, our subjective awareness of a self that appears to have an internal arena (consciousness) and the power of libertarian free will. There is nothing in physics that supports those either! If purely physical processes can cause to emerge a subjective that appears from the experiential inside to be non-material, there is nothing in physics that would permit that epiphenomenal entity to have any downward effect on physics. Physics might recognize an utterly illusory agent (although the ontological status of illusions is problematic), but the illusion cannot be permitted to effect a change in physics. If it could, then any such effect might in fact be the freely chosen act of an ontologically genuine (given that an illusion cannot cause physics) agent, the very notion rejected as being impossible.

How can an agent coerce me if the agent is an illusion and cannot affect physics? A man with a gun to my head is merely another automaton. Of course I will follow instructions and rob the bank because an additional layer of coercion has been added to that which determines my choices anyway. If there had been no gun to my head I would not rob the bank, but that course too would be the outcome of a deterministic chain. There is nothing in physics that prevents the behavior of one automaton from becoming part of the input to which another automaton adapts but either way, there is no agent acting, only a zombie (albeit a complex zombie) body, so the relation of agency to compatibilism is incoherent. Without libertarian free will the agent is no different from the hurricane. By denying libertarian free will and resting compatibilism on the presence or absence of a coercive agent, philosophers are resting a doctrine of responsibility on a redundant illusion. I am coerced by circumstances no matter what I do and no matter if there is an “agent-automaton” present or not.

If libertarian free will is genuine then we are already responsible; we are agents of our will and must own our acts. We don’t need compatibilism. But if libertarian free will is an illusion, no compatibilism will recover our responsibility because (1) the very notion of “agency” becomes problematic, and (2) even if the agent notion were somehow coherent, its behavior is determined at some level with or without the presence of a “coercing agent”.

Response to Criticisms of Agent Causal Libertarianism


I’ve just finished a short book “Freedom, Responsibility, and Determinism: A Philosophical Dialogue” by John Lemos, Hackett Publishing 2013, an introduction to philosophical issues surrounding free will. Lemos explains several variations (each) of Incompatibilism, Compatibilism, and Libertarianism as concerns free will. As concerns Libertarianism, he discusses three variations, the first being “agent causation” and the other two (indeterminism and “indeterministic event-causal”) trying to do (unsuccessfully I think) without the agent. As concerns agent causal libertarianism he notes three types of objections. Because my view of free will, derived from the theology reflected in all of these essays, is of the agent type, my purpose in this essay is to respond to those three lines of criticism.

In the theistic view I hold, the agent is the person, personality being a non-material “information extra” on top of non-material mind. Higher animals have mind, but not personality. God can distinguish this extra pattern (he puts it there), but we cannot. To us, the mind-personality combination just looks like mind, like consciousness, our “what it is to be like” experience. Human subjective experience is an amalgamated whole, a mereological sum consisting of everything that goes into mind, plus personality. No experience of the person takes place outside of mind, and every decision of the person occurs within mind’s all encompassing embrace.

In my essays on personality and free will I explain why we must infer personality even if we cannot discern it. To summarize, we must infer it, among other things, because we experience our exercise of free will, something that a fully macro-deterministic and micro-random universe (which would include mind in the absence of personality, higher-animal mind) cannot support in the absence of a crack in physics, a crack that allows for genuine causation, and not merely event-unfolding. My view is fully committed to agent-causal libertarian free will not because of any crack in the physical except as concerns personal agency. It is plainly what we appear to experience from our subjective viewpoint; not as concerns every choice we make, but in many of them throughout our lives.
Objections to agent cause are of the following three types:

1) Uncaused cause is not scientific, nowhere supported by physics.
2) Agent Cause does not solve the “luck problem”.
3) Agent Cause is incoherent because agents persist while the events they cause happen at specific times.

The first objection comes down to scientism. Physics allows for exactly two types of causes, and in addition causal language is taken to be naieve. For physics, events, that is physical events including the movement of biological bodies, unfold into subsequent events. Thus there are two broad types of events, those that are determined, and those (quantum events) that are fundamentally random. Because of quantum randomness, physicists concede that the macro-level of description is not entirely determined, but to the extent that it is [slightly] undetermined, it is [slightly] random. There is no room in our physical description for purposeful, that is original and  non-random cause; an event that occurs without any prior event other than the undetermined (more precisely not fully determined) but purposeful choosing of an agent.

This objection is question begging. The agent-causal claim is precisely that there is an exception to the two physical possibilities of determinism and randomness, and the exception is specifically personal agency! Agent causalists do not claim that the free agent is physical even as they of course concede that their bodies are physical. For physics simply to declare that no such non-physical thing can exist because there are only physical events having physical (determined or random) antecedents begs the question of agency being the exception.

On the theistic view, the exception is not problematic as God himself produces this exception, configures it on consciousness in time. Other than how he produces it, there is no “interaction problem” because the person is a cause only in mind. The interaction issue remains between mind and body and a topic for another essay. Non-material agents can be a cause in physics because they have a causal effect in mind, and mind has a connection to its physical root, the brain and from there to a body. From our perspective within time we cannot and never will be able to answer this question. First we cannot even access personality directly and second, even if we could, the mystery of how God does such things understandably resides with God. The universe is highly accessible to our collective minds, but there is no guarantee that every mystery is accessible.

The second objection builds on elements of the first and extends them in its own way. The “luck problem” is so called because scientists (and most philosophers) recognize only one exception to determinism, that being quantum randomness. Since randomness cannot be purposeful, if randomness has anything to do with choice, then the outcome (of choice) can only come down to luck. I have dealt with the physicalist aspect of this objection above, but there is another. Imagine a possible world in which there exists a doppelganger of you, exactly the same as you in every respect except at the moment of some decision she makes a choice different from yours. The problem here is that the “same you” made different choices under identical situations so it makes no sense to say that you, qua agent, determined one choice over another. Which choices you make still comes out to luck when considering all possible worlds containing you.

There are two broad ways to conceive “possible worlds”. One is to think of them as merely heuristic devices for exploring truth conditions in counterfactual arguments, and the other is to hold that they are real ontological entities. From a theological viewpoint either comes out to the same argument for the following reasons. If possible worlds are heuristic only then only the real world matters and there is one unified and infinite God. If possible worlds are real, then there can still only be one unqualified infinity (God) in the universe of all possible worlds.

Since God bestows personality, patterns consciousness with it, he cannot create two personalities between which he cannot distinguish. Since each personality is patterned on a separate mind (and God is related to each individually), God must be able to distinguish between them. That means no two persons in the universe can be “the same person”, that is identical to God’s eyes, and this across all possible worlds. A possible world containing a person who (indistinguishably even to God) is also you is logically impossible. Such a world would be, like a possible world containing a square circle, an “impossible world”.

In possible world talk, something is necessary if it is true in all possible worlds, and contingent if true in only some of them. Something is impossible if it is true in none of them, or true only in impossible worlds which comes out to the same thing; impossible. The luck objection is answered because that person in the other possible world, though she shares your history up to the moment of this particular decision, is nevertheless not you; she is a different person and hence can make a different choice for her purposes. Two different people making different choices do not raise the luck problem. The decision in your world is your decision and in the other world it is hers.

The third broad objection to libertarian agency is incoherence. As with the first charge, this one too comes out to begging the question. An action, random, determined, or volitional, is conceived as an event while the agent who is the event’s “original cause” is conceived as substance, albeit non-material. Since physics holds that events unfold (not cause) into subsequent events, how does the substance, exactly, become a prior-determiner of an event when it is not itself an event? A second component of this objection is temporal in character. Events occur at specific times but the agent is extended in time. If there is literally nothing other than the agent’s volition that determines subsequent events how is it that the event happened at some specific time? Why that time and not a little earlier or later? How is it, in other words, that a temporally extended substance that is not itself an event can bring about an event at a specific time? Put another way, how does an extended substance that is not an event interact with time and events?

I want to note first that the notion of “causal agent” as substance and “event” are not so far apart. E. J. Lowe in his “Personal Agency” (2008), demonstrates that any talk of “events unfolding into other events” can be easily cast back into substance-causal terms. Lowe suggests that all cause is “agent cause” but some (most) agents happen to be inannimate. An example can be taken from Lemos’ book. I thrust a red-hot iron rod into a bucket of cold water. The water (substance) causes the iron to cool down, while the iron (substance) causes the water to heat up. Lemos points out that what is really going on here is that events in the iron, the rapid motion of iron atoms, are unfolding into subsequent events as their kinetic energy is transferred to the slower moving molecules of water. What Lemos fails to note, and Lowe points out, is that it is just as reasonable to conceive of the atoms in the iron and the molecules of water as agents. They are not animate agents, and no psychology, consciousness (panpsychism) is imputed to them, but they are agents of the effect, kinetic energy transferred from the iron atoms to the water molecules. Some specific kinetic energy is a temporary property of the atom-agents. Any event description can be transcribed into an agent description, at least as concerns physical process.

Simalarly, persons can be cast as “extended events”. Given the human capacity for abstraction, this is not at all uncommon usage. A galaxy comes into existence and eventually, after hundreds of billions of years, passes out of existence, at least as an identifiable galaxy. Certainly a galaxy can be cast in substance terms, it is an agent for example when its deeper gravity well steals gas from a smaller neighboring galaxy. But it is also a process, an event, the galaxy’s temporal worm whose existence spans some interval.

That we can take what are commonly thought to be substances like galaxies and view them as extended events is not new. This is, after all, what process philosophy is about. By itself, this doesn’t resolve the problem of luck however. In a galaxy after all, when specific events occur is either determined or random. We can refer to measurable antecedent events to explain the timing. Although a person can be cast as an extended event the view doesn’t help us here. As concerns the agent-causal view, there remains nothing about the qualities of the temporally extended person-event other than agent volition enact-able at specific times also determined by the agent. Lowe would probably be uncomfortable casting persons as events and to be sure it is an awkward view in this case. Unlike an atom or a rock animation makes a difference. Either view works easily enough when the agent has no libertarian free will, or indeed any will at all. A substance-agency, becomes more appropriate precisely when the evocation of an event at a specific time is neither random nor determined other than by the agent because only then is it genuinely original cause and not merely events unfolding into other events.

So the question of the coherence of agency here turns on whether there is anything (in the universe) other than “other events” (random or deterministic) that can purposefully initiate events at a specific time that are neither sufficiently determined (by antecedent influences) or random. The agent-causal claim is at root the claim that a libertarian-endowed agent has precisely that power. Put conversely, the power, on the part of an extended (in time) agent, to trigger events at specific points in time determined by the agent’s purposes alone (and of course her skill manipulating her body to bring about the desired event) is one of the qualities (at least) that makes that power libertarian! The capacity, to be original cause at particular moments in time, moments elected by our temporally extended agency, is at the very core of what it means to have a libertarian type of freedom. That this should be is not a mystery theologically speaking because human freedom in time is a derivative of God’s freedom outside time, a derivative God himself bestows upon us.

In God, freedom is absolute, unconstrained (except by logic), and acts across all time. Human freedom is not absolute nor unconstrained. Indeed part of the timing issue can be understood in terms of conditioning influences, the history and present environment, in which the agent finds herself. More importantly, the capacity to initiate an original causal chain, to be an original cause, at a particular moment in time, is how God’s unconstrained freedom comes out in human beings altogether limited to the temporal world. Far from incoherent, this capacity is the essence of the libertarian claim. The coherence of this claim can be in doubt only if God does not exist, but that begs the question because if God does exist it is well within his capacity (not being a logical contradiction) to bestow that very power on personal agents.

The incoherence charge begs its own question because it presupposes the inconceivability of that quality in the agent, the power to originate events without sufficient antecedent cause, that the agent-causal libertarian maintains is in fact a special power of such agents alone. Agent-causal advocates do not deny that this power is not to be found anywhere else in the universe other than in [some] animate agents. To our knowledge (that is human knowledge on Earth) only persons are fully free (a fullness that remains, nevertheless, highly constrained in timespace) in a libertarian sense. The higher animals sometimes appear to exercise choice in ways that suggest they have some similar agent-properties, but I am not sure if in the animal case, the seeming libertarianism of the act is not imputed to them by us.

All three types of objections to agent-causality fail if God is real. The first objection fails because the nature of personal agency, the person being non-material, lies outside science’s domain. The second fails because if “possible worlds” are real, then persons must, nevertheless, remain unique across all possible worlds, and if they are not real, then only the actual world matters and no two persons can be absolutely identical. A person identical to you can only exist in impossible worlds. Two people who are the same person are a logical contradiction. The third objection fails because the very power, of a non-event to initiate an event at a specific time, declared incoherent under an event-only view of causation, is the power of agency given to personality by God. Even if physicists are right about causality being nothing more than the unfolding of events into subsequent events, personality is the exception to that rule in the universe. The exception is possible, conceivable, and not incoherent, precisely because God makes it possible.

God’s existence is a highly prejudicial matter with most scientists and philosophers today. One of the more general problems they have with the agent-causal view is that it so easily slides into dualism and from there to substance-dualism and God. In Lemos’ book, one of his characters (the book is written in the form of a dialogue) notes the association between the view and dualism of one form or another. From a theological perspective, substance dualism grounded in God is suggested precisely because it is a solution to the three objections discussed above. I have argued in many essays collected on this blog and books, that free will, our experience of it, and its conflict with physics, is one of the major reasons for evaluating the explanatory power of dualism. My answers to the objections noted in Lemos’ book flow from what I take to be consequences of God’s existence. Moreover, and this is perhaps the main point to contemporary scientists and philosophers, they justify and warrant our belief in the reality of what seems to our experience to be a genuinely libertarian free will at least as concerns some of our decisions. Agent-cause grounded through personal-agency in turn metaphysically grounded in God explains our seeming freedom the way we actually experience it! None of the other alternatives seem fully to encompass that feat.

What is “the Soul”?


In all the other essays in this blog, as controversial as they might be, I could at least argue from some part of the content of our experience. Whether or not libertarian free will is real (or even possible) can be debated, but most people at least do admit that it seems like it is real and that we exercise it. The same is true of values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Are they illusions? Do we make them up, deliberately invent them? Perhaps we really detect their presence, they are real and stem from the same source as consciousness itself.

When it comes to the soul, however, we are at a loss. Simply put we experience nothing what-so-ever of our soul. Now philosophers of religion and theologians will perhaps disagree with me here, but their world is quite mixed up as concerns the soul. Mostly they use it as a word to mean just about anything they want having some bearing on what they take to be our “experiential core”. ‘Soul’ has been used as a synonym for ‘essence’, ‘personality’, ‘mind’, and any combination of any of them even including the body. I do not believe the soul is any of these things. To put it bluntly, we do not experience anything of the soul.

If we do not experience it, why should I think there is a soul at all? The answer has to do with the conviction that God, if he exists, must be both infinite, good, and the source of personality. If “God’s purpose” has to do with personality’s progressive alignment with the “will of God” as described in my first and third books, and more briefly my blog essay “Why Free Will”, then it doesn’t make sense if, on material death, the personality simply vanishes from the universe never again to be expressed. If we are supposed, progressively, to become perfect, like God, in a spiritual sense, this process certainly is not completed by the end of a very short (in cosmic terms) mortal life. What is the point of the fixed temporal reference of personality (see “Why Personality”), of all that we acquire, if it vanishes after a few score years on Earth?

If all this process has a point then personality must somehow survive mortal death. When we die our brain-based consciousness is obliterated, but not the information, the pattern configured into it by God. There is no consciousness here, something that we might best relate to having surgery under general anesthetic. In that case, consciousness (along with its configuring personality) is placed into a deep sleep. With no consciousness in which to operate, personality simply ceases to experience anything, and that includes the passage of time. But as our brain-based consciousness returns to wakefulness, the personality is again expressed.

The inference that there must be a soul if God is real is one of the “consequences of Infinity” I discuss at length in my books and here in “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”. In this case, a consequence that lies strictly beyond our subjective experience. Unlike personality, whose direct apprehension skirts the edge of our self-consciousness and must be present to explain, for example, recursive self-consciousness, the soul doesn’t have to be there at all as far as we, that is our personal selves on Earth are concerned. In short, it has nothing to do with our mortal lives.

Following material death consciousness ceases, but after some unknown duration we wake up again. The person emerges in association again with mind, that is, a consciousness produced by contact with Cosmic Mind (see “From What Comes Mind”). There is also, I presume, some vehicle of expression, something analogous to a body recognized by other persons as the locus of the individuality that is our-self. The vehicle isn’t material by our present reconning but it can be seen and identified by the expanded perceptual systems of its own type. Other post-mortal persons can see and discriminate one another from some environment. In this new case, the mind isn’t brain-based, but rests on something not material, not measurable by physical instruments, and within a vehicle with which the new person-mind combination can express itself. What kind of stuff is that? Is it the same “spirit stuff” of which God is made? I do not know and as we cannot detect it, we cannot say much about it. But if non-material reality actually is real, a part of the Universe’s fundamental ontology, there can be any number of levels or layers or types of “non-material stuff” between God and the material world with which we are familiar.

So we have “the person” and we have a consciousness (likely greatly expanded over our present matter-based version), and a vehicle of expression, but so far no memories. As I noted in my “Why Personality” essay the person has no purchase on its identity without memories which, in our case, are brain-based and so vanish when we die. This, I believe is where the soul comes into the picture. It is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the lifeboat, the escape mechanism that retains memory of the mortal existence. Memories with which we are re-associated when we “wake up”.

What memories? All of them? In our present estate the soul must evolve, grow, along with us even if we experience nothing of it. It is something like a baby within us albeit a baby we do not experience. Possibly it contains all of our memories, God must remember them after all, but I do not think so. Human life is filled with experiences of no spiritual value, that is no bearing on the free willed choice to “do God’s Will”. Experience of physical pleasures are obvious examples, but there are many others. What does have bearing on our future, what is of “spiritual value” are the experiences we have as result of instantiating (or attempting instantiation) of one or more of the values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) the only “stuff of spirit” with which we, with our brain-based minds, have contact. I hypothesize (and this is purely a speculation) that the memories we retain and wake-up with are the instances of value choice we make during our mortal life. Every time we make a positive spiritual choice, a choice to fit or instantiate some value into the world (more precisely to attempt that instantiation since we are not always successful and often only partly successful) that choice is recorded in the soul.

If true, this has interesting consequences. Notice in describing this mechanism I have said nothing about any intellectual belief in the reality of God. Atheists and theists alike make “spiritual decisions”, choices based on and for “reasons of” truth, beauty, goodness, or some combination of them. We commonly relate these to “the moral” and choosing “the moral” in any given instance has nothing directly to do with the intellectual baggage carried by the choosing individual. It might seem that “a believer” has more reason to make value-laden decisions than “an unbeliever”, but this is only theoretical. There are, in real life, many atheists who make more of these decisions than many theists. All of them have a soul.

Suppose we take two normal people (atheists or theists it doesn’t matter). One of them makes some value-instantiating decision on average every day of her life, at least those in which she was aware of herself and values. Lets say she had 50 years of such experience since becoming “self-aware” and before she dies or dementia degrades her brain enough to destroy her sensitivity to values. Our other person, on average, makes only one value entangled choice once every month over the same 50 years.

Upon waking in the post-mortal life our first candidate will retain some memory of every day of those 50 years, more than 18,000 memories. Even those she has forgotten in the mortal life will be available to her. By contrast our second candidate will have memories of 600 days of his previous life. Our two candidate’s status, as concerns personality, consciousness, and expressive vehicle when they wake is the same. But one of them retains far more memories of her prior experience (even if she was an atheist and never attended a church in her life) than the other even if he believed in God and attended church every week! To the extent that “going to church” motivates you to make more spiritual decisions the experience is of value. If it does not then, as with what you believe about God, it makes no difference what-so-ever.

Although this is the variation that recommends living a better, more value-entangled, life on Earth, I do not know how much of a difference it makes in the end. Like two siblings born 3 or 4 years apart, the difference in ages makes a considerable difference in their comprehension of the world for a few years, but by the time 30 or more years have elapsed the age difference is washed out. This is the meaning, I believe of Jesus’ parable of the harvest. Everyone gets the same thing in the end. Even a 75 year life on Earth is but 28,000 days. It might take trillions of days measured in Earth-time to reach some provisional end to the process of “becoming perfect as God is perfect”, more than enough time to obliterate the difference of a few thousand memories. But in the early times of the post-mortal career, there will be a difference. Our first candidate will advance in the program more quickly than the second.

I would make two quick observations before ending this. First philosophers have debated the nature of such identity transfers or duplication. Usually these are cast in terms of clones or star-trek-like transporters, but the notion has been applied to God. Does God move the person (and/or soul) from Earth to somewhere else, or does he use his omnipotence and perfect memory simply to recreate them? While such thought experiments are indeed puzzling as concerns clones or transporters they amount to a difference that makes no difference as concerns God. God is not subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Either way, the resulting copy, if that is what it is, is perfect, suffering no degradation whatsoever. From the subjective view of the individual no difference could be discerned. Either way, we will wake up aware that we are the same person who lived another life in another place and that the memories we find in the contents of our new consciousness belong to that person, us.

Second there inevitably arises the question of soul death. Can a soul die? Since it is non-material I do not think it can suffer death by accident or be murdered. But if free will is genuine, we must be able to commit suicide, to choose not to continue in the post-mortal adventure. Suicide of this sort is probably very rare if it ever happens at all in the post-mortal experience, but it must be possible if we are genuinely free. There is nothing to suggest that the post-mortal experience is timeless, the soul is not immortal in an unqualified way. On the other hand, I am not sure simple cosmic-suicide is possible on Earth. We can kill our body, but in that case the automatic life-boat mechanism kicks in and that person/soul combination survives having developed up to the point of physical suicide. In the next life, we begin where we left off here whether we were 80 or 10!

It might be possible to kill our souls on Earth through consistent, repeated choices of evil, choices in opposition to what is represented by the values. If we are (individually) evil enough, so steeped in evil that we lose the capacity to discern values altogether, we also lose the capacity to know right from wrong, and not just most of the time but always. We become, in short, iniquitous! It is possible (though I do not know) that in such a case our souls can wither and die. From that point on, in the life of that mortal, no survival raft exists and such personality vanishes (perhaps merging back into the infinite as a drop of water merges with the ocean) on physical death. Notice that this suicide entails the repeated exercise of free will choice. A single horrifically evil decision would not seem to be enough to obliterate the soul. Accident or disease, the degradation of the physical brain to the point that value discrimination is no longer possible, might freeze the soul in its present status at that time in the life of the individual, but God well knows that the individual has not chosen this outcome of his or her own will and the survival mechanism remains operative.

My speculative story ends here. I have gone into these things in more detail in my books (the first and third). More importantly it is there connected up with what we do experience of spirit. I emphasize here, in conclusion, that this is nothing but a speculative story based not on direct experience but on inference from basic assumptions about the nature of God and the purpose of experience, in particular the point of free will in a physical universe of purposeless mechanism. I tell this tale because it fills a hole in the theology I describe in my first book. If God’s “perfect universe” takes billions of years to complete, then the short mortal experience, something usually less than 100 years, we have on Earth cannot be the end of the story even though we have no experiential (subjective or otherwise) evidence of this mechanism’s operation.

Why Personality?


This entire essay is substantially re-written in April 2019 to bring it in line with the evolution of my thinking expressed in more recent work. Additional work in November 2019 better clarifies the connection between mind and information.

I am not merely a dualist, but a tri-ist. Mind is not the only substantive entity in the universe of our experience that isn’t physical. To understand why my ontology makes room for a personality which is in the human (not the animal) case a facet of our selfhood experience, I have to explain what it is about human experience that demands our postulation of it. To do this, I must begin with mind in general and not “personal mind” or “personalized mind”. The higher animals give us what we need here.

Physics alone cannot give us mind though to be sure it is one of mind’s roots (see in particular “From What Comes Mind?” for a general over-view of the model, “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness”, and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Over-all the metaphysical ground of my views on this is theistic, specifically a theism sketched here in “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”.  I am not going to go into the theology here, but I must delve a little bit into mind because the point of the essay is to argue that even postulating a substantive (in a quasi-Cartesian sense) mind is not enough to account for human experience. There is something else in addition to mind. That is to say, there are certain experiences that suggest such a thing exists, and this something I call personality.

Mind broadly speaking is purposeful. Animals have purposes for which they engage in their various behaviors. They do not articulate these purposes as such but it is clear that there is a reasonable sense in which higher animals can be said to be both minded (having some content of consciousness) and “act with purpose”. Indeed it can be said that life in general, even non-minded life (say paramecia) act purposefully and indeed they do. But lacking consciousness, it is less reasonable to say that such animals “act volitionally” and more reasonable to say that human beings impute purpose to life in general. Paramecia act, but the purposes of those actions are not the purposes of an individual, as these become in the higher animals. It is consciousness generally that adds both individuality and purposefulness.

But we notice limitations in animal mind that are absent in humans. Animal purposes are always local, limited to the present time. To find food if hungry, reproduce, shelter, even to socialize, all of it for its own sake. Humans by contrast exhibit all of these same sorts of local purposes, but they also exhibit purposes extended in time, purposes for next year, or a lifetime.

Animal do not recursively evaluate their purposes. They do not abstract. A lioness, being hungry, engages in the hunt for food. She decides on the specific course that hunt might take as new data emerges to her senses concerning the presence of food. But she certainly does not deliberate on the purpose of hunting in the abstract. Humans do exactly this. We are said to be “self conscious” and are able therefore to deliberate not only on the process of executing a purpose, but on the purpose itself.

Humans are also creators in a way that animals are not. Apes can modify sticks or other objects to use as tools, but only humans create new tools, even vast engineering projects that are more than mere modification of existing things. There is also the matter of art, social institutions, religion, and abstract-capable language.

It is these qualities that signal something special about human consciousness that needs explaining.  At the same time, I have to explain how it is that we cannot locate this entity in a recursive examination of consciousness. Our self-consciousness does not permit discrimination of the personal from consciousness as a whole, even in the first person!

I follow here briefly with a sketch of my theologically-grounded theory of mind. See above linked articles and  my first book all covering this in more detail. God is the source of the physical universe of spacetime. Into this universe, besides a physics of purposeless mechanism, something I have called “Cosmic Mind” is also added. Cosmic Mind is not a person, but rather a sort of field pervading space and time analogous to an electromagnetic field. Important here is that the field is in space and conditioned by time. It is non-material however. It does not convey any sort of proto-consciousness or panpsychism on the universe, but interacts only with certain complex organizations of matter-energy that we call brains. When nervous systems (of animals) become complex enough they are able to be perturbed or in some manner affected by Cosmic Mind and it is this interaction that manifests subjectively as consciousness.

This is the quasi-Cartesian aspect of my view. It is quasi-Cartesian because mind is not added to brains in Cartesian fashion, but rather emerges from brains, a property dualism, in response to, or because of, the universal presence of Cosmic Mind. Yes, there is an “interaction problem”. As it turns out attempts a purely physical explanations of mind (other than eliminativism) all have variations of the same problem. See the aforementioned “Fantasy Physics” article for much elaboration on this.

The point of Cosmic Mind in the theory (it may have other roles in the universe) is to effect subjective experience in sufficiently evolved nervous systems. Brains are, in effect, detectors of Cosmic Mind and consciousness constitutes that detection. Evolving mind at first detects very little of this signal producing minimal consciousness — perhaps a “what it is like to be” a fish or a lizard. More evolved brains are affected in richer ways and the nature of those individual minds deepens.

When we reach the human level, indeed the definition of humanity from a God’s-eye-view, the brain begins to feel the impact of parts of the Cosmic Mind signal not detected by any other animals. Specifically human brains begin to detect what the Cosmic Mind signal conveys of spirit, the hypothetical stuff of which God is made and the antecedent source of both physics and mind. From the subjective viewpoint, spirit is conveyed in the form of the values, truth, beauty, and goodness. See “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” for further elaboration on these.

The detection of the values by human (and not animal) mind is not an automatic “good judgement” concerning what has values; what is true, good or beautiful. It is the discrimination of their three-part existence. The “spirit component” of the Cosmic Mind signal is always there. It impacts animal mind. But animals do not discriminate it as distinct elements in consciousness. Humans do.

Continuing the theological picture, something else happens when brains and therefore mind reach this level of physical complexity and signal-detecting richness. Such minds are personalized by God directly. In the fashion of Thomistic or Aristotelian Hylomorphic  dualism, God configures each such individual mind with extra information (a form) that becomes fused with that consciousness in such a way that from any perspective (even in the first person) it is not possible to tell what part of subjective consciousness comes from Cosmic Mind alone, and what part from the fused-in personality.

No other mind in the universe, personal or otherwise, can make this discrimination, but it cannot be lost to God. Other minds, including ourselves in the first person are aware only of the combined result, mind simpliciter in the third person, and the content and structure of our own consciousness in the first. God alone knows what was done to each value-discriminating mind to personalize it. To emphasize, the added pattern is not physical. It is a form imposed on immaterial mind itself.

The relation between a value-discriminating mind and a personalized mind is contingent (nothing forces God to immediately personalize every value-discriminating mind) but constant. Value-discriminating minds are all and always personal, they are the minds of persons.

The idea of a substantive personality within the mind is derided in philosophy as a homunculus, a little controller commanding the rest of the conscious arena like the captain of a ship. This model proves to have many philosophical problems, but it is an incorrect model. When a captain steps onto a ship, you have a ship and its captain. The captain is added to the ship and remains distinct. But personality is not added to mind in this sense. Rather mind itself is personalized in the manner of a lump of clay turned into a statue. One does not “add statue to lump”, but rather transforms or forms lump. Once transformed, there is still nothing but a lump of clay albeit in a more structured configuration.

From any viewpoint other than God’s, “personalized mind” is still only mind. Even the individual (the person) whose mind it is cannot segregate itself from the mental arena as a whole that includes it. Even we, subjectively, cannot find personality through self-examination, because as Hume noted all we find are properties of mind. The character of our subjective mind includes personality (the imposed form) but we cannot isolate that inclusion. We do however experience its presence as a part of our mind-personality amalgam, our phenomenal sense-of-self. Our minds are what they are after all, but human mind has capacities that mind alone (animal mind) does not appear to have.


It can be useful to examine mind from an information perspective. In physics, information is another way to express the structure of and relation between physical objects. The more structured, the higher their information content. Information is an inversion of entropy. Stars are information-rich compared to clouds of hydrogen gas, but in the case of stars, the information added comes from nothing more than macroscopic and deterministic behavior described by natural law. Life is far more information-rich than stars and it is not clear all of life’s information assembled itself from nothing beyond the operation of natural law. There are those who quite reasonably suggest (having math to support it) that life’s information is unlikely to have assembled itself accidentally. But this is another subject.

As we move up the evolutionary chain of our biology we encounter artifacts of mind. A beaver dam for example is a configuration of sticks, logs, and other natural products suitable for habitation and young-raising by beavers. We can examine such a dam and quantify the information it contains in its configuration, but it is clear in this case that the specification for that information came from outside. The dam didn’t build itself. One way or another, the specifying information was imposed on the physical ingredients by the labor of beavers. If there is something it is to be like a beaver, then that information, the information to cut and configure the trees, lodges somewhere (from our third-party perspective) in “beaver mind”.

Beaver mind emerges from beaver brains plus its contact with Cosmic Mind. There is no doubt that the structure of brains can be described in information terms. Brains have all the information contained in life and then some. There are those who claim there is nothing more to mind than information coded into brains, but this is controversial. Nevertheless, from stars to life to brains we grasp that information is expressed in physical structure of one kind or another.

On my “Cosmic-Mind-Perturbation” model, can consciousness itself be understood in information terms? The structured perturbations of electrons by an electromagnetic wave in an antenna are information. Whatever goes on in the interaction between Cosmic Mind and brains it is reasonable to suppose that information is involved. If the interaction affects any part of the physical (electro-chemical) resonances of the brain we would expect to be able to measure it, though there is no guarantee we would recognize the significance of what is being measured. In any case, it does seem like the content of consciousness (as distinct from consciousness as such) is information rich. Qualia in particular are often cast in terms of information.

It isn’t as clear that consciousness per se can be cast in information-language.  Information is quantifiable. Subjective experience simpliciter is precisely not quantifiable. Consciousness is an experience of a subject. It’s content is information-rich, but it might be the case that what can quantified of that information is a product of the brain alone. The information content of mind need not be a contribution of Cosmic Mind.

When we come to human mind, personalized mind, there comes to be, necessarily, information in mind itself, in its form not merely its content. Personality if it is conceived as a hylomorphic form on mind can only be information added to mind, structuring the gestalt of the emergent consciousness. But we can only infer this is the case, that human mind includes some directly incorporated information, from qualities we subjectively experience! We cannot ever hope to identify it. Personality is utterly transparent!

Individual mind, even apart from personality is likely unique. Given that no two brains (human or animal) are absolutely identical, no two minds are identical. But personality adds an additional quality of uniqueness, a unique pattern joined with and as that mind.

We can say that personality is an additional configuration on top of mind analogous to the way brains are a configuration on top of life. But even if life origin involved some purposeful addition of information to the universe, life remains self-sustaining from that point forward in time. Consciousness, by contrast (with or without personality) is dynamic and depends on the constant interaction between Cosmic Mind and brains. Mind’s presence (at least in animals on Earth) cannot be maintained in the absence of a properly functioning brain. If the brain fails or becomes functionally distorted in some way, consciousness is impacted and in severe enough cases disappears altogether. If the mind disappears, so does its personal configuration.

The specifics of the addition being a non-material extra-configuration of a non-material entity cannot be measured by any instruments. Any third party distinction is likewise forever out of the question. Even to our view, personality isn’t segregated from mind. God can distinguish it, but we experience nothing other than the mental arena that results from the fusion. From a phenomenological viewpoint it is all “merely mind”, in the same way that a lion’s mind is all merely mind.

Personality is epistemologically transparent in the first person because we cannot distinguish its information as such. We cannot distinguish where mind leaves off and personality begins. Everything that we do and experience as persons, what we subjectively experience to be ourselves, takes place in and through mind, the amalgam of personality and mind-simpliciter. We are forced (discussed further below) to infer that personality must be real and distinct, ontologically, from mind as such, but even the evidence that this inference is valid is experienced only in and through the amalgamation. The reality of personality is a metaphysical inference made with some phenomenal, but not epistemological support. It is to that phenomenal support that I now turn.

The Metaphysical Requirement for Personality

The evidence for our inference comes down to recognizing that human consciousness has qualities that cannot take origin in mind alone. This is the phenomenal evidence that something is going on besides mind. There are three such qualities: self-consciousness, persistence without change in time, and a partially a-temporal free will. The first and last are consequences of the personality’s separation (though we cannot discriminate it) from mind. The second quality is characteristic of personality itself.

— Recursive self-consciousness

Animals experience contents of consciousness and can evaluate those contents. They have limited free will. A lioness can choose between two zebras, one a bit nearer but appearing younger and faster than another somewhat farther away. She is quite able to evaluate both and make a decision (perhaps in error) concerning which is easier to catch. But the lioness is not able to evaluate consciousness as such, she merely accepts its nature and content as given. Only humans are capable of making this second-order evaluation and we are able to make it because our consciousness contains the extra personal information. Although we cannot find that extra information, its presence enables recursive evaluation analogous to the way having two eyes gives us a direct perception of depth in three dimensions.

Self-consciousness is the most uncontroversial of the three qualities personality contributes to consciousness. That is, it is uncontroversial that we, humans at least, are self-conscious. There is some dispute over this matter as concerns some animals, but I believe that these cases constitute a reading-in, an anthropomorphic imputation similar to metaphorical imputation of purpose to simple life. Most of this controversy comes from observation that animals exhibit complex emotions including feelings of compassion, affection, and even awareness of the possibility of other selves when they are not immediately present to the senses. At the same time, there is no direct evidence of self-evaluation.

In humans self-evaluation seems to compel attempts at expression. It is one of the drivers of language development. We see no evidence of a “compulsion for expression” in any animals. Animals who have shown remarkable ability to acquire human languages do not seem to use what they acquire to construct abstract propositions concerning consciousness itself. If an ape, taught to spell English words, in blocks wrote out “is my green the same as your green?” I would have to modify my view here.

If from our viewpoint we cannot discriminate personality from mind what then is contrasting about it to us? Self consciousness is an automatic consequence of amalgamated mind. The signature quality of personality itself is its changelessness. Even Cosmic Mind lies inside time and is subject to it. Mind, our mind’s, change over our lifetimes. Personality, the specific pattern or form amalgamated with a temporal mind never changes.

— Changeless identity

The person of God is changeless absolutely and for all eternity. He (perhaps with his two coordinates in the Trinity) is the only literally changeless entity in the universe.  This needs some elaboration. Persistence in the material universe is not ever absolute. We say that material objects persist even though we recognize that they slowly undergo change over time. Not only material objects, but consciousness too changes with time. The contents change of course, and the overall quality and structure of the arena undergoes change as well. Yet the part of the “personalized mind” recognized by God as the person never changes and this self is but vaguely sensed by the subject as that entity takes and has taken ownership of that conscious life in and through all of the changes it otherwise undergoes.

There is no direct third-party access to subjective consciousness. To phenomenal experience, the person, my “I” is even more private than consciousness. I can to some extent examine my own mind, but even I cannot examine my personality distinct from that mind. Yet the amalgam  does provide a distinct experience that is independent of what does change, our character, that which we express. Character can be measured. It is the expression, the output, of the internal personalized mind acting to control a body, evolving and changing along with everything else in the universe.

Anything about a human being’s behavior or inner state that can be observed or queried (e.g. “personality tests”) comes under character. None of it, internal (a sunny disposition) or external (observable behavior) is personality as I am using that term. Because consciousness (and more obviously the body) changes, character changes.

The persistence of a changeless self throughout the history of that character is even more invisible than the presence of a consciousness behind its expression in character! But the owner of those changes remains the same and is aware of being the same throughout. Despite having traversed many changes in character (and physical characteristics) over the course of our lives we are perfectly aware, under normal circumstances, that the same person owns all of those changes.

In theory, if we had an instrument that could measure, perhaps make graphic, a subjective viewpoint without personality, and then the same individual mind personalized, it would be possible to subtract the first measurement from the second and identify what it is about consciousness that constitutes its personalization. That is, it would be possible to recover the information difference between the two. But there is no such instrument nor can there ever be because the only detector that exists in the universe for this phenomenon is the personalized mind.

There is yet another reason why such a subtraction would not be possible. Human mind, mind capable of detecting value, is always personalized. Value detection (or its potential) appears to be the necessary and sufficient condition for the immediate awarding of personal status. This is another one of the reasons for the phenomenon’s epistemological transparency. We cannot have even a memory of a time when our consciousness was not personalized.

The quality of changelessness has everything to do with our (that is human) relation to time. Humans alone among the animals can project purpose into the future as such or act for the sake of the past. We can do this thanks to a fixed reference available as a temporal background in our experience. There are examples of what appears to be such capacity among the animals; squirrels storing nuts in the fall to eat in the winter come to mind. But I question whether the squirrel is projecting a purposeful self into a future time or merely following biological imperatives at any given time-of-year.

Humans uncontroversially project themselves, their “I” into the future and choose courses (in the present) to affect that future as such. If I am a competent architect with many successful projects, I do confidently project myself, that is the same self that today begins a new project into a future time when that project will stand completed. Of course I understand that contingencies beyond my control might block the future I envision. My present choices do not determine that future, but much experience supports our confidence that we can, under most circumstances, bring about that which we project and that the same “I” will own the completed project in the future as now takes ownership of its beginning.

Many people tell me that their person is not changeless. They look back and remember themselves as much younger people and declare that, of course they have changed since then! But when I point out that they also remember being the person who was once “that way”, the person who owned those differences at an earlier time they admit that this is so, but attribute this seeming merely to memory. This is not correct. They are confusing character with personality. Yes, their character has changed, and yes, they remember their old character. But they are also aware that a single entity has been present throughout those changes, an entity that owns and is responsible for them all. That thin sense of “awareness of sameness” is our only direct phenomenal handle on personality.

Memories are, as it were, complicit in our sense of changeless ownership because even that sense is had in and through consciousness. Personality is the core of our sense of changeless ownership, but it is that plus memories and synchronic (moment by moment) awareness that constitute the sense of identity as a gestalt. That memories are not the sole source of our identity is demonstrated by wide gaps (years perhaps) in memories of early childhood while we yet we retain the sense of ownership over those coming both before and after the gaps.

Even when my memories of some particular event completely disappear, for example as concerns my very young childhood of which few memories remain, there is nothing in my experience to suggest that I was literally a different person at that time. We have a very strong intuition that in that past we were still the same self as we are today even if everything about that self, memories, character, etc, have changed. But memories are important to our integrated mind/person sense of self. Without them, the personality has no purchase on what, exactly, it is a changeless core of…

— Free will

Free will is a power of mind. It is mind’s capacity to initiate causal chains in the universe that are both volitional and purposeful; causal chains that are not fully determined by prior physics. Higher animals have it. Human mind, has the capacity to discriminate values (truth, beauty, and goodness) and thus can exercise free will with respect to them. Animal mind is in someway affected by the values but they cannot choose with regard to that which they cannot as such discriminate.

Animal mind however is temporally constrained in two ways, human mind only in one. Humans and animals can exercise will only in the present. In addition, animals can only exercise will for the sake of the present. By contrast, humans can exercise will for the sake of the past and especially for the future. Like self-consciousness, this difference in human consciousness is a function of personality’s substantive reality, in this case, its changeless persistence. We have a binocular appreciation for the depth of time, the relation of past to present and future, because we have a reference, a thin awareness of changeless ownership of our experience beginning sometime in the past.

This awareness of ours has both a qualitative and quantitative character. As we “grow up” we are qualitatively aware of a significance to larger intervals of time. We are quantitatively aware of the magnitude of the interval through we ourselves have passed. We can be aware of these things because we have a changeless reference providing the temporal contrast to present experience.

The future has been open since the big bang but not until consciousness comes along is there something in the universe that can take advantage of its openness. Not until personalized consciousness comes along is there something in the universe that can freely elect purposes with which to direct action having only a contingent relation to the present in which the choice is made. We must begin somewhere to constrain the future and shape novel outcomes that are the end-products of those purposes plus our skills in acting over time to fulfill them.

This sort of freedom, not only the freedom to choose but the freedom to choose for the future cannot come from physics in which no mechanism, individually or in their totality, exhibits any present let alone future oriented purpose.  Because our (human) partial-temporal-liberation is a function of personality’s changelessness, it can have only one source, a “changeless God” who can ground (is the only possible ground) of changelessness. God is the direct cause of personality.

The metaphysical inference

Neither of the three contributions of personality to consciousness appear to exist in animal consciousness. If consciousness is an emergent combination of brain resonances and Cosmic Mind, personality is a further information imposition on that consciousness. From our viewpoint, it all just looks like consciousness. Only God knows what part of our phenomenally unified consciousness is “the person”. That explains personality’s “epistemological transparency”.

Constancy is nowhere to be found in the physical universe except in personality. That constancy is personality’s distinguishing passive characteristic. Changelessness in time, in turn, sets up our capacity to experience directly the relation between past, present, and future. Our fixed point of temporal reference in the past that permits projection into the future. Animals have only the present and memories. It isn’t clear that their memories engender any intellectual sense of an abstract past in animal experience, but clearly we have one.

Self-consciousness is a property of the relation between personality and consciousness. Personality provides the contrast, the transcendence, needed to reflexively examine our own consciousness. What we find in that examination is of course partly the person indistinguishably (from the subjective) fused with the consciousness being examined. But that we have this recursive ability at all can only be because something about the fused entity transcends consciousness simpliciter. Changes in the content of consciousness of all kinds can be viewed abstractly thanks (in part at least) to the contrast generated by personality’s constancy. Finally, a temporally liberated free will is personality’s distinguishing active power. Persons are free to become purposeful original-causal agents and elect to effect (attempt to effect) temporally distant purposes.

Personality therefore belongs in our ontology. It must be real even though we cannot identify it directly and it must come from God because he is the only possible source of changelessness in anything. It is transparent, in the final analysis, because nothing distinguishes it from the mind gestalt in subjective experience  (epistemic transparency). Personality permits mind to recursively examine itself, but there is nothing further to provide contrast to personality — and this puts paid to the homunculus problem. We experience personality only within the fused whole of our consciousness.

In a wider theological context there is more to be said about personality, but that “more” has nothing to do with our present [phenomenal] experience of it, but other inferences that can be made from its existence and origin. I discuss one of these in another essay. see “Why Free Will?” 

Why Free Will?


Let’s begin with physics. I love physics! The mechanisms underlying the physical universe in which we live are fascinating to me. What most strikes me about these mechanisms is that they are purposeless. Underneath the deterministic behavior of macro-physics (expressed today in classical Newtonian Mechanics, electro-magnetic field theory, and both special and general relativity) there is the quantum realm in which a true randomness replaces determinism. This is important. Randomness becomes determinism as quantum phenomena emerge into the classical. Neither exhibits any evidence of purpose in its mechanism.

Authors note: Since writing this essay I have come to learn and understand that quantum phenomena are not random, but indeterminate. The difference is technical and has to do with there being a definite and determined statistical distribution of quantum outcomes. The outcome is NOT determined, but the distribution of outcomes is. That’s indeterminate! The argument in the rest of this essay does not, however, depend on this difference.

If there is any evidence for the existence of God it does not come from physics. Oh we can observe the universe, note its fantastic propensity for delicate structure from strings of galaxies to the operations of the living cell, recognize beauty in it all, and suppose that all of this was brought to be in a purposeful way by a God having some purposeful end in view. As it turns out, this association might be true and not interfere with the progressive discovery, by physics, of purposeless mechanism. We attribute to God the power to paint his purposes on the canvas of purposeless mechanism. But when we get down to the physics of it, we discover not that God couldn’t do this, but that God’s hypothetical purposes are not needed to explain the effect. Gravity, heat, and the values of the physical constants together can get the job done. Of course that these things got this particular job done (including life and what has followed from it), and not some other less amazing result, was simply an accident as far as physics is concerned. But that’s ok. Physics’ job is to uncover the mechanisms, not to pronounce upon their justification in a wider context.

The evidence for God’s existence, if it comes from anywhere, has to come from consciousness, the fact of a libertarian free will (at least in persons), and the detection of values – truth, beauty, and goodness. All of this is discussed in far more detail in two of my books (published in Amazon Kindle format), “Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016). I’m not going to reprise those arguments here. Let’s assume that what I take to be “evidence of God’s existence” really is the evidence we need, at least provisionally, to accept God’s reality. The question I want to address is what the combination of a purposeless physical and libertarian free will accomplishes and how it helps to answer the question, why this universe? Why are free will and purposeless mechanism juxtaposed?

The Nature of Free Will

Free will comes down to our capacity to initiate novel chains of causation in the physical. Chains whose beginning cannot be attributed to an infinite regress of physical causes. The higher animals also have something of this power, but human-initiated causal chains, are novel in a much stronger way than chains initiated by animals. If a lioness hunts and kills a zebra for food, feeding parts of the carcass to her cubs, there are causal chains precipitated from those events, chains that would be absent if the lioness misses the zebra(or chooses to leave it be), while other causal chains would ensue – perhaps her cubs would starve.

Animals can manipulate purposeless physical mechanism to initiate different futures by manipulating pre-existing agents and processes. In doing this, they introduce purpose into universe process. For animals, such purpose is limited to manipulating what already exists. The zebra already exists when the lioness sees it. She can leave it alone or hunt it. If she hunts it, she can succeed or fail. The result is a still-living zebra, a dead zebra, or a tired (but still living) zebra. None of these things would be new in the world.

Humans can also manipulate existing objects and processes in this way, but we can do something animals cannot. We can create genuinely unique objects and processes. These begin with ordinary pre-existing things, but we are capable of assembling such things into new things that did not exist before. Human initiated causal chains not only rearrange what existed prior, but from that re-arrangement build up new things whose effect on the world is entirely novel, emergent, an effect that never existed prior to the object (or process’s) creation.

Human purpose imposes an entirely new level of order on deterministic physics, an order that did not exist prior to its imposition. In Aristotelian terms, mind, including animal mind, adds “final and formal cause” to the universe.  But in the animal case, both are restricted to the biological demands of the organism. Human mind, our capacity to create new realities, novel orders on top of deterministic mechanism, is novel in itself. We create much that is but tangential or has nothing whatsoever to do with our immediate biological requirements. Human volitional choosing incorporates both abstract time and [sometimes] the values into its purposes. Something no animal can do.

Let’s imagine an analogy. God is a master artist, and we are his beginner student. The master can work in any medium, any paint, on any surface, sculpt in stone, clay, or bronze, compose and play magnificent music in any style, write masterpieces of literature, write, produce, and act in dramatic work. One might notice right away, that art is in fact one of the channels through which humans use free will to create what is new, but here the art analogy stands for novel creation in general. As beginning students of our master, we are given only one medium on which to create, a canvas which happens, in our case, to be a purposeless physics. Further we are given only one physical instrument with which to create, that being our bodies. It’s pretty obvious how the analogy goes. We impose purposeful order, the purposes being chosen by ourselves (freely) on the canvas we are given, the physical universe, with the only instrument we have, our bodies – and other instruments that we create using them.

But what purpose are we to impose? What are we to create on the canvas that surrounds us? We began by creating simple tools, stone axes, and clothing. A million years later and we have reached atomic bombs, aircraft, computers, vast scientific instruments, medicines, and more. Much of what we have created has, over all, benefited human life on Earth, or at least some portion of it. Much of course has brought also misery on a scale not imagined by our stone-ax-wielding ancestors. Here is where the values come back into this picture. In the theistic view, values, truth, beauty, and goodness, are not invented in human minds, but detected by them. They are the compass, a suggestion from the master (keeping to the art analogy) as it were, for what sorts of novelty we are supposed to create. But for free will to be genuinely free, the master can suggest but not dictate the creation.

Why not? Surely many masters dictate to beginning students. Here I have to leave my teacher-student analogy. In our real case, in the real world, the decision as concerns what to create lies only and exclusively in our will. Why should that be? Given that this can, and has, resulted in much misery throughout human history. Couldn’t God have arranged everything so that we were free in just about anything except as concerns the kinds of choices; choices that initiate causal chains having direct and deleterious impact on other human beings? I have to suppose he could have so arranged things, but the restriction must have an impact on the intended outcome (and God would know exactly what the difference would be) such that it wouldn’t work out to be what God intends.

How can we begin to say what God intends? In fact though, supposing God to be both infinite and [infinitely] good, allows us to say something at least of what must be true of what God wants. It must be the most repleat possible manifestation, in the physical, of God’s values, pointers to his intentions, which for now we know only as our dim detection of truth, beauty, and goodness. This idea is expressed by the phrase “best possible universe”. Whatever else he might want, God must want the “best possible universe” that can be made. Clearly this is not the case now, at least not on Earth. This place is literally hell, tormented existence, for billions of people alive to day, and countless more who have come and gone since human history began. If we can imagine better, so can God.

Of course we do not know the status of life on other worlds, but a generally inhabited universe is easily supported by theism. More importantly, even as concerns this world, time must be factored into the eventual emergence of “best possible universe”. Since “God’s will” must be the highest truth, beauty, and goodness, a “best possible universe” emerges in time when every creature freely chooses to do that will to the best of its ability at any given stage of that creature’s life. Doing God’s will means doing that which increases the value content of the world’s particulars.

Human beings (value-discriminating personalized minds on this and other worlds), must make this choice of their own free will. They must choose purposes and create novel reality based on what they perceive to be alignment with the values! God cannot create a logical contradiction. He cannot make a square circle. Nor does God do anything purposelessly. If the best possible universe could be brought about without free will and its attendant potential problems (evil), God would have done that.

What God must want (at least. among other things) is that world resulting from that choice when the choice is utterly free and made by everyone. Apparently, those people will live in the best possible universe and it will be better, even than a universe that evolves through the same amount of time but in which humans were not free as concerns value entangled choices.

So there we’ve got the whole thing sort of summed up. To make the “best possible universe” human beings, all of them and for all future time, must (and will eventually) choose to align themselves with the values, with truth, beauty, and goodness, and all of that happens to come out to God’s will (metaphysically) and love in human experience. God could, by himself, have created a fantastic universe. But what seems to be the case is that an even better universe can (and will) come from a partnership between God and creatures who detect values and freely choose to incorporate what they detect in the causal chains they initiate. This cannot happen unless human beings are actually free to make those kinds of decisions. That means they are free not to make them, and that, in turn, leads away from the best possible universe, at least temporarily. I will return to this last point below.

The Relation between Free Will and Values

I want to say something more here about values, in particular how and why they figure in this process of human instantiation (literally making-an-instance-of) of God’s will. Three things are traditionally taken to be values as such; truth, beauty, and goodness (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness”). Separately, they are the root concepts of three major branches in philosophy, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics respectively. Within these separate domains there are outcomes or instantiations within the world of values, and these outcomes are taken to be “of value” because they do in some sense embody one or more of the core values. A true proposition is “of value” because it instantiates truth, fairness is “of value” because it embodies goodness. Beautiful things are “of value” because they are beautiful, etc. Truth is value in the intellectual domain, beauty is value represented in physical, while goodness is the value of personal choice, the value of interpersonal relationships.

Taken together, all the values raise the same metaphysical question: from whence do they come? In rejecting any theological metaphysics, most philosophers assert one or another version of human invention of values. Phenomenally, they are entirely subjective although it might turn out, as we share much of our phenomenology, that they come out roughly the same in most persons. Their subjectivity is under normal circumstances constrained to a range. Your notion beauty might be different than mine, but it is rare that I would find beautiful what you find repulsively ugly. Truth we normally take to be somewhat more objective, less tolerant of subjective interpretation, while our sense of goodness falls somewhere in between beauty and truth. This view seems to explain how it is that while most persons seem to have some shared sense of values, many do not. Not only are there persons who perceive values in almost exclusive terms, there are those who do not appear to respond to them at all.

Importantly however, as much as philosophers have tried to ground “objectivity of value” on our shared biological experience, such grounding offers no reason why any one individual should pay attention to values. If on the whole the universe is purposeless, its only purpose being our purposes, who is to say that your purpose, to love others, is any more right than my purpose, to make all people my slaves? You might argue that more people will come our happier given your purpose. I might even concede your point but note that if values are invented by us, in the end, the happiness of the many is not any more intrinsically valuable than the satisfaction I derive from being slave-master of all. As concerns the purposeless universe, from my viewpoint, neither outcome is intrinsically to be preferred. If values are metaphysically subjective, the happiness of others can be justifiably irrelevant to me.

As already noted, in the theistic view values are not invented they are detected. They are extrinsic to us, a signal as it were from God, detected by human (and not animal) minds. Now as it might happen, minds are not equally sensitive to this signal, sometimes altogether, and sometimes separately. This explains some of the variation we have as concerns them, but more importantly, however well we perceive them, we are free to ignore them and this explains the rest. Of course our detection capability is imperfect as is our capacity to effect what we detect on the universal canvas. Importantly, value’s metaphysical objectivity provides the reason why any given individual should pay attention. Your purpose to love is in alignment with God’s will, while my purpose, to make slaves of all, is antithetical to it! “Knowing the end from the beginning”, God’s will must eventually come to pass. Your free will choices are dedicated to assisting in the bringing about of that end, precisely the use God (apparently) foresees will result in the best possible universe! My will, by contrast cannot possibly contribute to that inevitable outcome. It must be, that while I might appear to gain something for a time, that which is gained has no intrinsic value. It incorporates nothing of truth, beauty, or goodness. This has consequences not only for others made miserable, but for me. I will deal with some of these issues in a future essay.

There is another important property of our relation with values. Our value-entangled free will choices are the only choices about which we are absolutely free. As such, they are the crucial link in the chain of process that (apparently) brings God’s will into the world; evolving purposeless mechanism into the best possible universe. All our other non-value related choices, while yet free, are hemmed in, constrained by what we can do physically with our tools. Only as concerns value-laden choices are we free in an unconstrained sense. It is with respect to this freedom that we become agents of the connection between God’s will and the physical universe. True our capacity to instantiate value in the physical is limited by all the constraints that limit our other choices. We can act only with our bodies and the tools created with them. But the choice to attempt that instantiation (or to refuse to do so), however imperfectly, is radically open.

The best possible universe not only requires freedom, it requires radical freedom. Given that we are otherwise constrained to the physical, it is only with respect to value-entanglement that we are radically free. It isn’t merely through choice that we incorporate God’s will into the world, it is specifically through choosing to instantiate the values! The values are the link that connects God’s will and purposeless mechanism with human freedom. It is by following their compass that human choices remake the world over into God’s image of what must be the best possible world.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that the process of human partnering with God in the making of the best possible universe is straight forward. Although we are radically free with regard to attempting some mapping (instantiation) of value as we perceive it into the physical world, the process of carrying out that decision depends on our skills utilizing the same tools, starting with our bodies, that we employ in carrying out any other action-demanding decision we make. As concerns the individual’s relationship to God it is said that only the motive of the agent is important. An omniscient God knows us each most intimately, and would be an unfailing discerner of motive. The consequences to the individual of such choosing can be the subject of another essay, but I note that as with many kinds of physical action, practice contributes to skill.

As concerns the world however, that is as concerns the effect of some individual act on the world, much depends on both the skill of the actor in effecting the action, and also on the state of the world (including other actors) in which the action is set. Although this last is outside the control of the actor the two arenas do interact. A part of what constitutes skill with respect to a particular act at a particular time takes the state of the world into account up to some limit of which the actor is capable. I’ve already noted that we do not detect value perfectly. As some people have better eyesight than others, some are better value detectors. Detection capacity contributes to an individual’s skill as concerns value instantiation, but it is the state of the world that underlies the apparent relativity of values as they manifest in the world.

Any attempt at value instantiation that impacts more than one or a few near-by persons comes to interact with a wider milieu of states and personal actions that affect its outcome. On a crowded world, vastly different economic, social, political, and geographic circumstances, along with their specific outworking as concerns any particular individual, guarantees that no attempt to do good, aver truth, or enhance beauty will have straight forward and universally beneficial effects. This can be true even as concerns two individuals! If I give some money to two hungry people on the street one might buy alcohol while the other buys needed food. True I might have been more skillful in my choice of action, perhaps bringing food instead of giving money, but even in this case I have no way of knowing (unless I subsequently follow these individuals) how my meager attempt at bringing some goodness into the world plays out.

On larger scales the problem becomes more severe. Ethiopia wants to dam the headwaters of the Blue Nile, electrifying parts of the country for the first time, bringing economic opportunity to millions. But if the dam is built, the flow of the Nile will be much reduced and those nearer the mouth, in Egypt, will loose economic opportunity and their food supply as the river level falls. These kinds of problems are playing out all over our world, and anything the world community agrees to do as concerns these things invariably helps some and harms others. This would remain true even if the community’s motives were purely moral. As it happens, many more motives are typically involved.

The values are not a formula for success in building the best possible universe. They are a compass pointing in a direction but otherwise incapable of yielding specific measures having desired outcomes. Those measures, their implementation and adjustment as one comes to know their outcomes, is our collective task. The compass is important however, and for reasons noted above recognizing its objectivity is also important. But all of that only gets us to justifying the demand for action and that the action be motivated by a desire to benefit those affected. The rest, the creativity, will (personal, economic, and political), and specific action to take are all entirely up to us. Not only is it our mission (at least as concerns God’s intent) to bring values into the world we must learn progressively how to do it! Part of that learning experience involves comparing outcomes of acts back to the compass! But this would make no sense, it would not be guaranteed, or even likely to work, if the compass were not objective.

Theodicy: Free Will and Evil

I have covered this subject in great detail in my first and third book. Here I can only summarize it all. Philosophers divide this problem into two parts, natural and human-caused evil. Natural evil is an oxymoron. The universe God needed includes physical events (for example stars exploding, earthquakes, and naturally-evolved diseases, that harm (or can harm) human beings. Death by gamma ray burst, earthquake, or disease are all bad for us, but they are no more technically evil than are the natural events that give rise to them. No one would assert that an exploding star is morally culpable.

Philosophers also accuse God of being evil for just this reason. Why would he create a universe in which such processes harmed human beings, or for that matter any sentient beings? Consider that the meteorite that ended the dinosaurs was very bad for them, but without those animals disappearing from the face of the earth we likely would not have evolved. The universe God needed, where an animal capable of perceiving value and freely choosing to instantiate it, who evolved through purposeless physical mechanism, could not function if the same mechanism that gave rise to that animal could not, sometimes, also destroy it. The “accidents of time” are not as such evil. An earthquake that kills people is no more evil than an earthquake that doesn’t, either because people have learned to mitigate its effects (earthquake-proof buildings) or because no people happened to live where it occurs. Either way, it is just an earthquake. Remember also that there are other aspects to this theology, personal-survival of death (see “What is the Soul”), but lets move on.

Besides natural evil, human beings also cause harm to other sentient beings, humans included. Philosophers call all of this evil, but they fail of a crucial distinction here. Humans cause harm in two ways. One is by making mistakes. We make decisions and perform actions, both moral and amoral,  that cause harm to others because we do not have a full understanding of the future consequences of our actions. It is not our intent that these actions subsequently cause harm, but they do. Mistakes are not evil, they are just errors.

But there is another category. Human beings can deliberately and freely choose to do that which they know is a mistake, to do deliberately something that is antithetical to the values. These actions are true evil. It is through error, deliberately and knowingly chosen, that evil enters the world. It is for this reason that free will is so intimately related to both the building-in-partnership-with-God the best possible universe, and to the degradation of any progress made in that direction, by the willful choice to contravene it. That choice is evil.

My view has been criticized on the grounds that “death is death” whether from earthquake, some error, or evil. This of course is true, but not to the point. Theology coheres together as a piece or not at all. Death from any source is temporary (see above link on the soul). What is important about the difference is that with evil human will is being freely (willfully) deployed in opposition to the direction of value compass. Because free will is so deployed there are consequences in addition to whatever might have stemmed from the action had it been purely a mistake.

Besides those impinging, psychologically and spiritually, on the person who commits evil, the consequences of evil are sociological. They impinge on human life in ways that error alone does not. They are, for example recursively reinforcing (one evil act leads to others by the same agent and others) where error is recursively-correcting. Agents, including the agent committing the error, tend to work toward mitigating the negative effects of a mistake once they are known. Errors serve to teach. Evil can also serve to teach, but typically those who commit it resist such teaching and it is left to others, using their free will, to mitigate its effects.

To make the [future] “best possible universe” God juxtaposed free will and purposeless mechanism in a physical universe capable of evolving value-discriminating mind. He could not do this without allowing that sometimes the physical mechanisms destroy the very minds (and bodies) that evolve from them. In the same way, he had to allow that free will might, if it was really free, be deployed in direct opposition to the universe plan.

The plan must eventually come to pass and be completed. That means the consequences of evil can only be temporary albeit from our viewpoint can extend in time over multiple human generations; all a blink-in-the-eye from God’s viewpoint. As concerns our agency, God must permit much more than he himself wills if free will is to be genuinely free.