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The Meaning of Life: Reflections on God, Immortality, and Free Will

As a professional philosopher, now well past his allotted years of three-score-and-ten, I am often asked for words of wisdom about the meaning of life. Yet no sooner do I begin to answer, than I’m asked further questions–questions about God, immortality and free will. Not surprising, really, since each of these bears upon our conception of reality and of our own status and significance within it.

I am asked:

(1) Does reality include a supernatural realm, inhabited by God and, perhaps, other spiritual beings? Or is the familiar natural world all there is to it?

(2) If there is indeed a supernatural world, how do we relate to it? Are we composite creatures with a foot in both camps, so to speak; creatures with souls as well as bodies? Is it possible that our souls should live on after our bodies are no more? Or is physical death the end for all of us?

(3) What is the nature of the free will that we commonly suppose ourselves to enjoy during our sojourn here on earth? Do we in fact have free will? Or are our lives little more than pointless scribbles on the fabric of the universe, as devoid of real significance as scratches on a piece of glaciated rock?

Here, in brief, are the answers I’d give after a lifetime of reflecting on these three questions and their connections with the overriding one: “What is the meaning of life?”


How, for a start, might the existence of God affect the meaningfulness of our lives here on earth?

Religiously minded people are inclined to answer thus:

  • If there is deity to whose existence we owe both our own existence and that of the physical universe, then surely we should live our lives in accordance with any purposes that deity might have for us;
  • it is therefore incumbent on us to find out what those purposes are; and
  • our lives will be most meaningful if we fulfill that deity’s purposes.

The real meaning of life, on this view, is to be found in serving God, or at least in living according to his dictates.

But which “God” are we talking about? And which of his or her commands are we to obey?

Which God?

First: Since different religions use the term “God” to refer to different deities, we need to ask which God any particular believer has in mind.

Presumably not the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli, who–only about 600 years ago–supposedly commanded the sacrifice of 50,000 youths and maidens in a single year. Nor his brother, Tezcatilpoca, who supposedly consumed 25,000 virgins annually. Nor, presumably, any of the other 189 gods whose “death” H. L. Mencken celebrated in his 1922 essay “Memorial Service.”[1] There is no good evidence for their existence. And no enlightened person could countenance the idea that their commands were moral.

These gods deserve the oblivion to which thinking men and women have consigned them.

So does the God of our much vaunted Judeo-Christian tradition. After all, this is the God who, according to the Old Testament, is said to have drowned every member of the human race, not just wicked men and women, but innocent children, suckling infants, and the unborn, with the sole exceptions of the drunkard, Noah, and his incestuous family.[2] This is the God who himself slaughters hundreds of thousands, if not millions, by means of his angels, serpents, hailstones, windstorm, earthquake, fire, and plague.[3] This is a God who: gives 32,000 Midianite virgins to the soldiers who had killed their families;[4] allows his hero, Jephthah, to demonstrate his devotion by sacrificing his daughter “as a burnt offering”;[5] punishes the Babylonians by having “their little ones … dashed to pieces before their eyes … and their wives ravished”;[6] declares “I will cause them [members of his own chosen people] to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat everyone the flesh of his friend”;[7] and commands His chosen people to slay “both man and woman, infant and suckling” in thirty-one kingdoms while directing the Israelites in their policy of ethnic cleansing of the land that orthodox Jews now call Greater Israel.[8] And this is the very same God[9] who, in the New Testament, repeatedly promises eternal torment in the fires of Hell[10] for all those–the majority of the human race–who haven’t believed in Jesus (an obscure figure whose dates of birth and death no one knows and whose historical status may fairly be likened to that of Hercules, Mithra, King Arthur or William Tell).[11]

The God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–as depicted in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran–is a supernatural being who commits, causes, commands, or condones violations of almost all the moral precepts that we hold dear.[12] He is a moral monster, infinitely more evil than the moral monsters of human history: the Ghenghis Khans, Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots from whom we shrink in horror. And the world he supposedly created for us to live in is one in which we are constantly being assailed by his chosen Weapons of Mass Destruction: natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes that kill hundreds of thousands; radiological bombardments from outer space; chemical and biological minefields that await our blundering missteps because he has not deigned to reveal them to us; and diseases such as cancer, filariasis, hookworm, malaria, and schistosoma that cripple or kill countless millions each year.[13]

Compared to Him, the Aztec gods were paragons of virtue. So, too, is Satan–the mythical personification of evil–who is portrayed as guilty of nothing much worse than tempting Eve with a piece of fruit, giving Job (with God’s permission) a bad case of boils, and tempting God himself (in the person of Jesus) with the offer of an earthly kingdom.

Is this the God on whose behavior we ought to model our own in order to give a meaning to our lives? If so, we have a moral license for mayhem.

Or are we to say that what is good enough for God is not good enough for us?

Which commands?

Second: If it were the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God in obedience to whom we are to find life’s meaning, which of his commands should we obey? All of them? Or just those that now satisfy our moral scruples?

One problem is that this God prescribes the death penalty for over thirty offenses. These include: being a stubborn and rebellious son; cursing or hitting one’s parents; owning an ox that happens to kill a man; blaspheming; committing adultery; committing homosexual acts; picking up sticks or working on the Sabbath; preaching other religions; and so on. If we were to obey this God’s dictates, we would have a quick solution to the world’s population problem. Are we really obliged to kill all who are guilty of these offenses? Or is it up to us to decide which of his laws to obey?

Clearly, there are grave difficulties with the belief that the meaning of life is to be found in obedience to any revealed (theistic) god: the Yahweh of Judaism, the God of Christianity, or the Allah of Islam.

Do any gods exist?

There are grave difficulties, for that matter, in the supposition that any god at all exists. If a god exists who does not reveal himself in any way–the god of deists, for example–then we have no empirical evidence for the existence of that god. At best we can produce abstract philosophical arguments for the existence of some vaguely conceived higher intelligence, or supreme being.

But such arguments–the arguments of so-called natural theology (as opposed to revealed theology)–are notoriously feeble.

The ontological argument tries to define God into existence by a linguistic stratagem that would allow us equally to prove the existence of a perfect “soul-mate” for each and every one of us. Would that the world worked that way! But it doesn’t.

The argument from design, when viewed in the light of the disasters and diseases in the universe such a deity supposedly designed, leads to the conclusion that the Great Watchmaker is either incompetent or malevolent. And it raises the further question, “Who designed God?”

Likewise, the cosmological argument from the alleged need for a cause of all that exists gets us nowhere. If we postulate an existing God as an answer to the question, “Why does anything at all exist?” we merely add to the list of existing entities. That only adds to the burden of explanation by raising the question “Who or what caused God?” We do better to avoid the impending regress by accepting the existence of the universe as a brute fact, leaving it to science rather than theology to provide a plausible, empirically testable, cosmology.

There are no sound reasons, I would argue, for believing that there are any gods at all, either revealed or hidden from view. A fortiori, there is no good reason for believing that we should order our lives to take account of their alleged existence and purposes for us.


How about the supposition that the meaning of this life is to be found in a next life? It is commonly argued that if all came to an end at the grave, then life itself would be devoid of meaning.

But is survival of our bodily deaths a real possibility? And would having a second life confer meaning on the present one? I’ll deal with these questions in turn.

Is the concept of survival conceptually coherent?

Ask yourself, first, what it would be like for you yourself to survive your bodily death? What do you envisage yourself surviving as? I suspect it would give you little comfort to know that the particles of which your physical body is composed are virtually immortal in so far as they will probably survive as long as does the physical universe. These are not the parts of you that you think of when you think of your self surviving the death and dissolution of your physical body. So, once more, what do you survive as?

One hypothesis is that it is your soul that survives. But what is your soul? We commonly invoke the trilogy “body, mind, and soul.” But are these three things or just two? If three, then it would be nice to have some sort of guarantee that when your soul survives it will at least be accompanied by your mind. Otherwise, the survival of your soul as some sort of mindless, unthinking, unconscious entity, would carry as little significance as would the survival of your body in a permanently comatose state.

Arguably, the soul–when conceived as different from both body and mind–is nothing more than a hypothetical entity, invented by theologians and metaphysicians as the bearer of mental properties in much the same way as the ether was invented to be the bearer of light waves. We have no more warrant for believing in the soul, thus conceived, than we do for believing in ectoplasm, the faked emissions of spiritualist mediums.

Hence, since it is the thinking, feeling, you–your conscious mind–that you want to survive, let’s drop the term “soul” from our discussion and concentrate instead on the term “conscious mind.”

What exactly do you envisage when you think of your conscious mind surviving the death of your physical body and brain?

You think of it, I submit, as some sort of nonphysical object that can be detached from your body and its brain and go on existing in the absence of either.

But is this really the right way to think of it? Certainly, language encourages to think so. After all, the word “mind” is a noun; and nouns–we have been taught–are naming words, and names stand for things or objects. Hence, we are apt to conclude, the noun “mind” must be the name of an object; and if not the name of a physical object, then surely of a nonphysical one.

Problems for dualism

But this idea raises a host of problems. When, in the embryological story of the development of a human being from the union of sperm and ovum does this object, the mind, get “injected,” as it were, into the growing embryo? When, in the evolutionary story of the development of homo sapiens from more primitive primates, does this object, mind, enter the picture? More pertinently, if it is your mind that you identify with the “you” that is to survive your death, will it be the mind you had as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, or the mind you have in your dotage? And what of the minds of paranoid schizophrenics, imbeciles, stillborns, or aborted fetuses? Is the meaning of their lives to be found in the continuance of the minds they have at death?

When questions, like these, are so clearly imponderable–admitting only of arbitrary answers if any at all–we would do well to examine their presuppositions: in this case the presupposition that the mind really is some kind of substance or object.

But what might the mind be if it isn’t a substance, thing, or object?

The Cheshire Cat Fallacy and a nondualistic conception of the mind

The answer I would give is that when we talk about the mind we are simply talking of a cluster of mental attributes or properties: various dispositions, abilities, and activities; intellectual properties like being rational, emotional properties like being loving, artistic ones like being musical, and moral ones like being honest.

Now if the mind is not itself an object but rather a set of properties of an object, namely a set of properties of a physical body with a functioning brain, then the mind can no more continue to exist after the death of the physical body and brain than can a grin continue to exist after the disappearance of the face that does the grinning. To suppose otherwise is to commit what I call the “Cheshire Cat Fallacy.” You may remember the wonderful passage in which Alice, while in Wonderland, chides the cat who keeps doing disappearing tricks:

“I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

Curious indeed. In fact, conceptually absurd.

If I am right, the idea that we–our minds, our souls, or our consciousnesses–might survive our bodily deaths in any meaningful way is a philosophical fiction as little deserving of rational belief as Lewis Carroll’s story of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (Chapter VI).

I have a general piece of advice to offer here: In thinking about such allegedly deep and intractable questions as “What is the mind?,” “What is intelligence?,” or “What is consciousness?”–any question involving the name of some nonphysical abstraction–we do well to avoid the noun and concentrate instead on the corresponding verb, adverb, or adjective.

The question “What is consciousness?” for instance, about which so many neuroscientists and philosophers currently seem so deeply puzzled, is better replaced by questions like “What is it to be conscious?” (the verb), “What is it to do something consciously?” (the adverb), or “What is it for someone to be in a conscious state?” (the adjective). It then becomes clear that the abstract noun “consciousness” isn’t the name of some elusive thing; it isn’t the name of a thing at all. To be conscious is to be aware; to do something consciously is to do it while being aware of what one is doing; to be in a conscious state is to be in a general state of awareness of one’s self or surroundings.

The General Fallacy of Reification

It is so easy, you see, for us to fall into the trap of reification: the tendency to think of an abstract noun as if it were the name of a real thing that is capable of independent existence. The General Fallacy of Reification–of which the Cheshire Cat Fallacy is just one instance–is epitomized in a passage from another of Lewis Carroll’s works, Through the Looking Glass, ch. VII. Talking to Alice, the King says:

“[The two Messengers have] both gone to the town. Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them.”

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

As Peter Heath, in The Philosopher’s Alice,[14] comments:

Because nobody functions grammatically very like somebody, there is a temptation to believe that it is the name of a peculiar, diaphanous sort of somebody, who is then unnecessarily added to the world’s inhabitants. In such a way does the language of abstraction darken counsel, corrupt communications, and beget bad philosophy, a theme much insisted on by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and their many modern successors.

Properly conceived, consciousness or awareness is a property of a living organism. It is a property that we human beings share, though to a different degree, with members of various other species such as alligators, bats, cats, dogs, elephants, frogs and gorillas (to list just a few in alphabetical order). Likewise with other mental properties like intellect, will, and emotion. Like the properties of having temperature and being fluid, all are emergent properties: properties possessed by complex objects though not by their simplest constituents, the molecules, atoms, subatomic particles from which they are constructed. All these mental properties are designed by what Richard Dawkins has called “The Blind Watchmaker”: they have emerged in the natural course of evolution.

The term “mind” is just a compendious way of referring to all such properties. None of them can exist in the absence of the organism that has them. It follows that none of them can continue to exist when the organism that had them is dead. When the organism dies, so does the mind, and so does consciousness.

Why survival wouldn’t give meaning to life

There is another grave problem facing the hypothesis that our lives here on earth wouldn’t have any significance if all came to an end at the grave, that it would be meaningless unless we could look forward to life in another world. This hypothesis leads to the absurdity of an infinite regress. For in what would the meaning of the next life lie? In its sequel? And in what would lie the meaning of that sequel? Still another sequel? And the meaning of that? The answer gets postponed ad infinitum.

Once more, the question admits of no nonarbitrary answer. If any of the unending hypothetical series of “next” lives can have a meaning, surely this one–the one we have here on earth–can too.

For reasons like these, my answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” is akin to the answer I would give to the question “What is the meaning of such and such a book?” The meaning of a book is to be found in the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and the chapters it contains. Likewise, the meaning of life is to be found in the meaningful moments, episodes, and achievements that occur within our brief appearance here on earth. A book doesn’t lack meaning because it comes to an end on the last page. Nor do our lives lack meaning because they come to an end when all neural activity ceases.

To be sure, some lives are lived in meaningless fashion. Some lives are lived in pursuit of goals which we can only deplore as pointless. But the lives of still others, gifted by nature or favored by circumstance, will have value both for themselves and for others. And some–by virtue of their physical, intellectual, artistic, moral, or social achievements–may even achieve a different kind of “immortality”: they may live on in the memories of those who follow them.

No gods are needed to give our lives meaning. No future life is needed to give meaning to the present life. We ourselves can choose to give our lives meaning, purpose, and value right here and now.

Or can we?


On the one hand, most of us presume that we do indeed have the ability to make free choices as to how to conduct our lives. Not in all circumstances, perhaps, but certainly in many. We feel free in most of our choices, if not all. We can and do distinguish between the freedom of choice conferred on some by virtue of economic status, education, and good health, for instance, and the relative powerlessness of others who are handicapped by poverty, ignorance, or disease. The choices open to one may not be open to another. The freedoms enjoyed by the master are not enjoyed by the slave. The freedoms of the jailer are not enjoyed by the prisoner. The freedoms of oppressors are not enjoyed by the oppressed. The choices of some are freely made while the choices of others are severely constrained. These differences do in fact exist. We recognize them in practice as well as in theory. And we mark them, in language, by talk of varying degrees of freedom, or its absence. And we mark them, in practice, by assigning corresponding degrees of responsibility, moral as well as legal.

Yet, on the other hand, some have claimed that our feeling of freedom is illusory and the concept of responsibility must be abandoned accordingly. We are all mere slaves of fate, products of, and subject to, the dictates of laws not of our own choosing. Or so it has been argued.

Two main arguments have been advanced to support this fatalistic conclusion. One has to do with the laws of logic; the other with laws of nature.

The threat from Logical Determinism

The first is an argument from the doctrine that all of reality–whether past, present, or future–is subject to the laws of logic. There is little, if any, dispute about this. Even theologians would say that God Almighty, for all his power to violate the laws of nature, cannot violate the laws of logic.

One of these laws is the Law of Excluded Middle which says that every statement is necessarily either true or then false (there being no “middle” possibilities). Another is the Law of Identity which says that necessarily, if a statement is true then it is indeed true, and necessarily, if a statement is false, then it is indeed false. Applied to a statement about any given future event E, these laws yield the obvious conclusions:

Either it is true that E will occur or it is false that E will occur.

If it is true that E is going to occur then–of necessity–E is going to occur.

If it is false that E is going to occur then–of necessity–E is not going to occur.

Generalizing, for all future events, we infer:

The future must be what it is going to be.

And from this we infer, in turn:

You can’t change the future from what it is going to be any more than you can change the past from what it was.

At this point, the dark clouds of fatalism seem to threaten our cherished belief in free will. We may well start thinking of our lives as mere pawns of fate. Hence the famous stanza from Fitzgerald’sThe Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays: Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays, And one by one back in the closet lays.

Each of these statements is an expression of the doctrine that I once christened as “Logical Determinism,” a doctrine which seems to imply that the future is fated and that we are powerless to do anything about it.

The myth of fatalism debunked

Nearly fifty years ago (in 1958) I tried to illustrate how easily one can be misled into drawing fatalistic conclusions from Logical Determinism by writing an article titled “Must the Future Be What It Is Going to Be?”[15] in which I predicted that a fellow doctoral student at the Australian National University, Bob Hawke, would one day be Prime Minister of Australia. And, drawing on the laws of logic, I argued that if my prediction was true at the time when I made it, then Bob was indeed going to become Prime Minister, and there was nothing that anyone could do to prevent this, since otherwise my statement would have been false. By parallel reasoning, if my prediction was false, then Bob would never become Prime Minister, and there was nothing that anyone could do to make him Prime Minister, since otherwise my statement would have been true. No matter what the future held, in neither case could anyone do anything to change it from what it was going to be.

These conclusions, I claimed, are indeed warranted by the laws of logic. But, I asked, does this imply that Bob’s future was fixed or fated in advance, irrespective of his own choices in the matter?

My answer, now as then, is “No.” To conclude that it does is to suppose that what the future is going to be owes nothing to an individual’s goals, ambitions, or choices. It is to suppose that our wills are causally inefficacious, that none of our efforts or strivings can have any effect.

Bob Hawke did indeed become Prime Minister of Australia (in 1983). But not because of string-pulling deities or blind fate, let alone because of my predictions. He became what he became with the help of others, no doubt, but at least in part because of his own ambitions, his own efforts, his own political will, and his own free choices between the possible careers he was well equipped to pursue: including those of lawyer, academic, or politician. No one who knew him–as I did in his capacity as my downstairs neighbor, friend, and occasional baby sitter–could ever deny him that. True, nature and nurture may have given him his talents, his charisma, and his range of choices. And political circumstances may have fostered his ambitions. But they operated, as it were, through him, not despite him. They did not curtail his power of choice. If anything, they gave him a freedom of choice, about large issues as well as small, that most ordinary citizens lack.

It wasn’t my prediction’s being true (all those years before when I made it) that made him Prime Minister. It was his becoming Prime Minister that made my prediction true. Bob Hawke gave his own life meaning in many ways, not least by aiming for, and achieving, his status as political leader of Australia.

The laws of logic don’t imply fatalism. The answer to the factual question as to whether someone’s choices and actions will make a difference to the future cannot be deduced from the logical tautology that, of necessity, the future is going to be what it is going to be. True, we can’t change the future from what it is going to be. But, remember, we can’t change the past from what it was, either. The fact remains that what our future is going to be is partly determined by our present choices and actions.

The threat from Causal Determinism

A second argument for the illusoriness of free will is supposedly derived from what we call Causal Determinism: the belief that there are exceptionless causal laws connecting states of affairs and events such that, for any system governed by such laws, the state of the system at any given time determines a unique state of the system for any later time. It holds that the past determines the present, and the present determines the future.

Now, according to the arguments I’ve advanced so far, reality has no place for a supernatural domain, either one inhabited by gods or one inhabited by ghosts. The only world that exists is the natural one, the material one, the world that we can best learn about by observation and experiment, the methods of scientific inquiry. Humans, so conceived, are wholly natural beings, and, like other natural beings, are subject to the laws of nature.

But, once more, there is an apparent problem with this conception. If we, like other natural entities, are products of nature, then what account are we to give of free will? To what extent, if at all, do we have control over our own destinies? What meaning or significance could our lives have if we are designed to be what we are by the “blind” processes of evolution?

The plausibility of Causal Determinism stems largely from the success of the various sciences in providing causal explanations of why things behave as they do: things like the motions of the heavenly bodies; the rise and fall of the tides; the rising and setting of the sun; the recurrence of the seasons; the workings of machines; the incidence of disease.

With the arguable exception of events in the microphysical world of quantum physics, causal laws seem to apply quite universally throughout the universe, not just to inanimate objects but animate ones as well.[16] Even human beings and their behaviors lend themselves to causal explanations by various life sciences. Consider the biological sciences such as genetics, endocrinology, molecular biology, etc. They abound in causal explanations for why we do what we do. So do the behavioral sciences of psychology, sociology, etc. That much human behavior is determined by the interplay between nature and nurture–not to be identified with heredity and environment, respectively–seems clear. Couldn’t all of it be?

In the minds of some thinkers, the answer must be “No.” For Causal Determinism, like Logical Determinism, also seems to have fatalistic implications that would render the notions of free will, responsibility, and the meaningfulness of life itself illusory.

The great physicist Sir Arthur Eddington (an early promoter of Einstein’s Relativity Theory) voiced this objection when he asked:

What significance is there in my mental struggle tonight whether I shall or shall not give up smoking, if the laws which govern the physical universe already preordain for the morrow a configuration of matter constituted of pipe, tobacco, and smoke connected with my lips? (Philosophy, 1933)

According to Eddington, the concepts of human significance and freedom can be rescued only by denying the universality of Causal Determinism and embracing the so-called indeterminacy of quantum physics.

Yet this conclusion is fraught with difficulties. His argument is that we can’t really have significant freedom if what we do is determined by what we are, and what we are is itself determined by factors over which we have no control. But by the same token it is hard to see how our acts can be free if what we do is determined by what we are and what we are is undetermined in the sense of being the outcome of mere chance.

The “Determinism or Chance” dilemma

We are faced with a dilemma: Either what we are is the outcome of causal factors in the past or it is the outcome of sheer indeterministic chance. Yet in neither case can be really be in control of what we are, or–it is further argued–of what we do.

How might one escape from the horns of this dilemma?

One option, countenanced by Eddington and numerous other thinkers, is to invoke a dualistic conception of the human being: the supposition that our immaterial minds-cum-souls, stand outside the material world and interpose themselves in the causal breaks postulated by quantum indeterminacy. As he put it:

We must attribute to the mind power not only to decide the behavior of atoms individually but to affect systematically large groups–in fact to tamper with the odds on atomic behavior.[17]

Likewise, Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles speculated that the mind-cum-soul can intervene in the otherwise orderly flow of deterministic laws by virtue of indeterminacy at the microphysical level. He even suggested that free will may be interpose itself between the synapses in the brain.

But this hypothesis will not do, for two main reasons.

First, it presupposes the kind of dualism that we have already seen reason to reject: a dualism that sees reality as comprising two sorts of realms, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the immaterial. It thinks of the mind-cum-soul as a mysterious entity that can violate the laws of nature. It thinks of mind-cum-soul as an supernatural entity that transcends the world of nature, one whose acts of free will are nothing short of genuine miracles.

Second, this dualistic conception of free will offers only a temporary respite from the difficulties posed by the Determinism or Chance dilemma. For the dilemma arises again with respect to the postulated mind-cum-soul. How did we come to have it? Was it preordained for us, by God perhaps, or by other causal factors in the spiritual domain? Or did we get it just by chance? In either case we seem to have no choice in the matter. After all, it is not up to us to choose the nature of our immaterial minds or souls any more than it is up to us to choose what genes we inherit from our parents or what chance mutations our genes may have undergone. Clearly, there is no escaping this dilemma.

If we accept the presuppositions of this dilemma we are forced to draw bleak conclusions. No one ever does, or even can, make genuine choices or act freely. No one is really free in a deep sense of the word, any beliefs to the contrary being shallowly conceived. No one is ever truly responsible for his or her actions since there is no possible circumstance–whether in a deterministic world or in an indeterministic one, whether in a natural world or a supernatural one–in which we choose, or have control over, the self that is “given” to us. Ultimately, we are puppets of the fates of causality or chance, living lives that are meaningless.

According to this line of reasoning, there are no conceivable circumstances, no possible worlds, in which the concepts of freedom, responsibility, or meaningfulness have any application. These conclusions, if soundly derived, would have profound consequences, not only for our theoretical ideas of our status in the universe, but also for our practical dealings with our fellows. It would mean that our ordinary practices of praising and blaming, of assigning responsibility in private judgments or in courts of law, would be unfounded and without justification. And that, it is argued, would lead to moral, legal, and social mayhem.

The fallacy of persuasive redefinition

But we don’t have to accept these dire conclusions. The reasoning that leads to them involves an all too common kind of fallacy: the fallacy of persuasive redefinition.

Let me illustrate in terms of a different example: the concept of solidity. Just as we ordinarily distinguish between circumstances in which we are free and ones in which we are not, so we also distinguish between objects that are solid and ones that are not. A concrete floor and a thick plank of sound wood are solid; marshy ground and rotten planks are not. As Aristotle pointed out: “it is the business of the language of ‘properties,’ as also of definitions, to distinguish.”[18] So it is with the language in which we talk about the properties of being solid and of being free. It is the function of “solid” and “free” to distinguish between cases where they apply and cases where they don’t. Hence, to redefine either term in such a way as to make it lose its distinguishing role, is to abuse language and generate philosophical nonsense.

Consider an argument which purports to conjure the solid-nonsolid distinction away. Eddington once claimed that if we were able to inspect a block of concrete at the submicroscopic level we would see that the relative distances between the molecules and atoms of which it is composed are akin to the distances from one planet to another in our solar system. At the “deep” level of atomic physics, he pointed out, our block of solid concrete and our solid plank are full of empty space. He even went to so far as to suggest that this profound discovery had important practical consequences: stepping on a concrete floor or a solid plank, he concluded, is as risky as stepping on a swarm of flies. We ordinary folk, he claimed, are shallow folk who don’t understand what “solid” really means. Its real meaning is such that nothing whatever has the property of being solid.

But this is preposterous. Eddington seems ignorant of Aristotle’s point about the function of language. It is not we who don’t understand the meaning of “solid”; it is Eddington. He has used sophistical reasoning to try to persuade us that our commonsensical beliefs are mistaken. But in fact all he has done is to try to persuade us to forget the ordinary criteria for the use of the word “solid” and adopt new ones. He is trying to persuade us to redefine the word “solid.” Yet if we were to accept his redefinition of the term, we’d not have learned a significant scientific fact about the world; we’d merely have fallen victim to his word play. The old distinction between what one can safely rely on to support one’s tread would have to be marked by a new pair of words. Instead of saying that the concrete is solid whereas the rotten plank is not, we’d have to say something like “The concrete is dolid but the rotten plank is not dolid.” We’d have changed our language but not advanced our understanding of how the world works.

Much the same needs to be said, I submit, about the reasoning of those who would try to persuade us that no one is ever “genuinely,” “really,” “truly,” or “ultimately” free in the allegedly “deep” sense of the word “free.” The weasel words (“genuinely,” “really,” “truly,” or “ultimately” and “deep”) are the give-away. They are sure signs that a linguistic conjuring job is taking place. We are being subjected to an attempt to persuade us to abandon what we ordinarily mean by the words “free” and “not free,” and to adopt new–allegedly “deeper”–criteria for their application. But we make no advance in our understanding of the world if we go along with these persuasive arguments. We would then need to find new words to distinguish between the master and the slave, the warden and the prisoner, the cases where we make choices and those in which we don’t, and the cases where are choices and constrained and those in which they aren’t. All that would have changed is that we would have to invent new words for the good old distinction, new bottles for the good old wine.

Those who have tried to persuade us that we are never “really” free have subjected us to nothing more than semantic sophistry.

What I am and what I do

This should become clear when we step back and take a closer look at the presupposition involved in both horns of the dilemma with which they try to confront us. This is the presupposition that if I have no control over what I am, because–in the final analysis–I don’t choose what I am,[19] then I have no control over what I do.

Is this presupposition true?

I think not. From the indisputable fact that “ultimately” we don’t choose, and hence aren’t responsible for, what we are, it does not follow that we don’t choose, or aren’t responsible for, what we do. In other words, from the fact that nature, nurture, and perhaps even sheer chance, make us what we are, it doesn’t follow that we ourselves don’t play a role in determining what actions we will perform. Equally, from the fact that neither the master nor the slave chose their parents or the circumstances in which they would be born, it doesn’t follow that the master can’t make choices and exercise freedoms that are unavailable to the slave. We all know that he can.

The doctrine of Causal Determinism, you see, is consistent with Eddington’s claim that his tomorrow is determined in part by what he does today. It does not commit us to saying that his tomorrow is determined independently of what he does today.[20] Causal Determinism says that the future is determined by the present and the present by the past. It certainly does not say that the future is determined irrespective of what happens in the present or what happened in the past.

Causal Determinism, in short, no more implies Fatalism than does Logical Determinism. As I put it earlier with respect to Bob Hawke’s political ambitions, his nature and nurture may well have given him these. But they operated through him, not despite him. Likewise with Arthur Eddington. The laws of nature, both those of nature and those of nurture, and the contingencies of circumstance, may well have determined what decision he would make about whether or not to smoke the next day. But these, once more, operate through him, not despite him. Both Hawke and Eddington were free agents to the extent that they were neither compelled to do what they did nor prevented from doing what they chose to do.

The notions of free will and responsibility, and the sort of significance we attach to both, are in no way compromised by our conception of man as a wholly natural being.

Nor are they in any way compromised by the supposition that what we are is a consequence of factors, deterministic or indeterministic, over which we have no control. The kind of freedom that is required if we are to live our lives in meaningful fashion isn’t threatened either by determinism as such, or by indeterminism as such. It is threatened only by causes and accidents that prevent us from acting in ways we choose or that compel us to act in ways we do not choose.

Thus if Bob Hawke had chosen to pursue a political career and had been prevented from doing so by ill health or accidental incapacitation, for instance, then to that extent he would not have been free. And if Arthur Eddington had chosen to give up smoking but had been in the grip of an addiction to continue, then to that extent he too would not have been free to act otherwise. But in the absence of such compulsions or impediments to action both were free to act as they chose. And the lives of both men, politician and physicist respectively, had a significance that was in no way impaired by the fact that they were products of evolution, nature’s blind designer.

As it was with them, so it is with us.

To repeat what I said earlier: “No gods are needed to give our lives meaning. No future life is needed to give meaning to our present life. We ourselves can choose to give our lives meaning, purpose, and value right here and now.” In short, life can have meaning in the natural, purely material, world–the one in which we live and have our being.


* Based on a talk to the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists (Auckland, New Zealand, 2002). An earlier version of this paper was published in The Open Society, Volume 76, Number 3, Spring 2003.

[1] H. L. Mencken, “Memorial Service,” copyright 1922 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and renewed 1950 by H. L. Mencken.

[2] Genesis 7:23. According to the story, only Noah, his wife, and his children survived the Deluge. Hence, the human race could have continued only if at least two of the survivors committed incest.

[3] For instance, he punished King David for carrying out a census that he himself had ordered and then complied with David’s request that others be punished instead of him by sending a plague to kill 70,000 people[II Samuel 24:1-15]

[4] Numbers 31:17-18.

[5] Judges 11:34-39.

[6] Isaiah 13:16.

[7] Jeremiah 19:9. For other instances in which God causes, commands, or concurs with cannibalism see Leviticus 26:29, Deuteronomy 28:53-58, Ezekiel 5:10.

[8] I Samuel, 15:3 and Joshua 10. By way of explaining of why only one of the indigenous peoples made peace with the invaders, the Bible tells us, “For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy …”[Joshua 11:20] The occasion for killing was contrived by God himself.

[9] To suppose that the New Testament God is different from the Old Testament one is to dissent from Jesus’s reported view of the matter: and is to be guilty of the Marcionite heresy.

[10] The book of Revelation tells us that “everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain”[Revelation 13:8] will go to Hell where they “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever: and they have no rest day or night.”[Revelation 14:10-11]

[11] As is acknowledged by many liberal biblical scholars including the less conservative members of the Jesus Seminar.

[12] See my “A Moral Argument for Atheism” https://infidels.org/library/modern/raymond-bradley-moral/

[13] Reflecting on his own list of God-generated disasters and diseases, Mark Twain [in Letters from the Earth, posthumously published in 1938] commented:

It is curious–the way the human mind works. The Christian begins with this straight proposition … : God is all-knowing, and all-powerful.

This being the case, nothing can happen without his knowing beforehand that it is going to happen; nothing happens without his permission; nothing can happen that he chooses to prevent.

That is definite enough, isn’t it? It makes the Creator distinctly responsible for everything that happens, doesn’t it?

[Man] equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing! … What do you think of the human mind? I mean, in case you think there is a human mind.

[14] Peter Heath, The Philosopher’s Alice, [London, Academy Editions, 1974, p. 201]

[15] Raymond D. Bradley, “Must the Future Be What It Is Going to Be?” Mind, April, 1959.

[16] Note that the phenomena with which quantum physics deals are still subject to natural laws, albeit probabilistic rather than strictly deterministic ones.

Note, too, that even if quantum phenomena are uncaused, and hence were exceptions to the Causal Principle “Every event has a cause,” no one supposes that they are exceptions to the principle “Every event has an effect.” But if the latter principle is correct, and the large scale events of human action are to any degree the effects of quantum events, then to that degree human actions are indeed caused by events in nature.

[17] Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, p. 313; quoted by L. Susan Stebbing, Philosophy and the Physicists, p.163.

[18] Aristotle, Topics, Bk. V, para. 2, 130b.

[19] It is obvious that, in the final analysis, I don’t choose what I am. Let us use the term “self” as an abbreviation for the expression “what I am.” Then, unless my self has existed for all eternity along with God (a supposition that nobody would seriously entertain) then it is obvious that there must have been a temporal beginning to my self, to what I am. And this original self cannot without contradiction be supposed to have been chosen by an earlier stage of my self. This conclusion holds no matter what metaphysical status we assign to the self: whether we conceive it as a spiritual entity, or a material one, or as a composite of two such entities.

[20] Raymond D. Bradley, “Causality, Fatalism, and Morality,” Mind, October, 1963.

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