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Stewart Goetz Against Melnyk

Reply to Melnyk’s Objections (2007)

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro


We thank Andrew Melnyk (hereafter, M) for his thoughtful response to our essay and begin with his suggestion near the end of his response that in principle theists can provide a good explanation of the emergence of consciousness. Our position is that theists can do this (and not just “in principle”) because their worldview offers an explanatory framework in which the goodness of conscious life and libertarian free will provides the fundamental reason why conscious, free subjects exist. Because naturalists such as M offer a nonpurposive, nonintentional account of the cosmos, they posit at the most basic level of explanation processes that have no prevision of an end that is brought about and thus they cannot contend that the processes that produced our cosmos did so in order to produce the cosmos and what is good in it. M rightly notes that naturalists can simply posit that consciousness emerges when there is sufficient physical complexity, but this is not the same thing as locating the existence of consciousness in an overall framework in which its existence is a good, purposeful end.

M is correct that a full articulation and defense of a theistic worldview must address the problem of evil. Each of us have addressed the problem of evil elsewhere, but we make just one observation of our approach to evil vis-à-vis M’s naturalism[1]. Given M’s compatibilist view of free will, all the horrors of human-made evil must be seen as deterministically written into the very fabric of the cosmos. If all minds are unhappy, this could not be otherwise, given the laws of nature and the condition of the cosmos going back to the Big Bang or earlier. On libertarian, theistic grounds, many human evils may be seen as not essential but as byproducts of a misused freedom, a freedom we are called to use for good. We do not have space to pursue the ethical implication of theism and naturalism. We suggest, however, that in a longer, wider debate naturalism ends up having to recognize evil as a natural feature of the world whereas theism sees it as unnatural.

As we defined ‘Naturalism,’ it is the view that nothing has a fundamental purposeful explanation. M agrees with our characterization of naturalism. He claims that while naturalism can concede that some things have purposeful explanations, these explanations are never fundamental (ultimate and irreducible). Rather, they are special kinds of causal explanations. For example, to say that M visits the gym for the sake of his health is to provide a purposeful explanation of that visit. But this purposeful explanation is really a causal explanation in the form of M’s wanting to be healthy and his believing that visiting the gym promotes his health causing him to visit the gym.

A purposeful explanation isn’t a causal explanation. It is a teleological explanation. M’s insistence that it cannot be a kind of explanation other than causal should alert the reader to the fact that there is a fundamental divide between naturalists and antinaturalists. This divide starts at the very bottom with how we understand the explanations of our own actions, particularly our mental actions, and percolates all the way up to different views about the existence of God. The divide does not start with different views about God’s existence and seep down to how we understand ourselves.

Is there, then, any reason to think that our belief that our actions start with our mental lives and fundamental teleological explanations is mistaken? M appeals to Donald Davidson’s classic defense of the causal view of action[2]. Davidson presents a challenge to anyone who believes that reasons are fundamentally anything other than causes of the actions (choices) that they explain. He maintains that when we say things like ‘He chose to play golf because he wanted to close the business deal, and not because he wanted to avoid mowing the lawn,’ the sense of ‘because’ in this statement must be causal in nature in light of the distinction between having a reason (e.g., wanting to avoid mowing the lawn) and choosing to act with it and having a reason (e.g., wanting to close the business deal) and choosing to act because of it. One may justify a choice to act by citing a reason one has even if one did not choose because of it. One cannot explain a choice by citing a reason, however, unless one chose because of it. Davidson argues that if the sense of ‘because’ is not causal, then we are left without an analysis of ‘because’ in ‘He chose to do such-and-such because… ,’ where we go on to name a reason. Explanations in terms of reasons must, therefore, be causal explanations.

For clarification, consider an example of Carl Ginet’s in which agent S urgently needs her glasses which she has left in R’s room where R is now sleeping. The narrative that follows is complex, but it will repay close attention to help assess M’s Davidsonian position:

S has some desire to wake R, because she would then have R’s company, but also some desire not to wake R, because she knows that R needs the sleep. S [chooses] to enter R’s room in order to get her glasses, knowing as she does so that her action will satisfy her desire to wake R. Could it nevertheless be true that S did not intend of her action that it wake R?… It seems right to say that S did not intend to wake R if S was so disposed that had it turned out that her entering the room did not wake R, S would not have felt that her plan had failed to be completely realized, and she must then either wake R in some other way or decide to abandon part of her plan. And S’s being thus uncommitted to waking R is quite compatible with S’s expecting and desiring to wake R.[3]

According to Davidson, S has two reasons to enter R’s room, namely, a desire to wake R (and a belief about how to fulfill it) and a desire to get her glasses (and a belief about how to fulfill it). S has two reasons that justify her entering R’s room. If S chooses to enter R’s room because of one of the reasons but not the other, this can only be because one of the reasons caused her so to choose. The reason that causes S’s choice explains that choice.

Contrary to what Davidson would have us believe, we contend that the distinction between justifying a choice and explaining a choice can be preserved when ‘because’ is understood teleologically. Understanding ‘because’ teleologically implies that S chose to enter R’s room in order to achieve the purpose that she get her glasses but not in order to achieve the purpose that she wake R. Thus, the distinction to which Davidson draws our attention can be preserved when a reason explains a choice teleologically and not causally.

Not only do we maintain that choices are fundamentally explained teleologically, we also maintain that they are uncaused. M concedes that we are not aware of our choices having causes, and points out that it does not follow from this that we are aware of them not having causes. We agree that this distinction is an important one and made it ourselves in our opening essay. What we contend is that we are aware of our choices not having causes.

A choice is only one kind of mental event. It is a mental action and the awareness of it as such leads to our grasp of the fundamental distinction between being a mental agent (mental activity) and being a mental patient (mental passivity). As minds, we both act and passively experience things happening to us. Choosing and focusing our attention on a philosophical problem fall in the former category, while believing and desiring belong in the latter.

The distinction between being a mental agent and being a mental patient is grounded in two types of mental properties, namely, powers and capacities[4]. These two kinds of properties are inherently different from each other and each is an ultimate ontological category. Corresponding to these two kinds of mental properties are two kinds of events, namely, an agent’s exercising of a mental power and the actualization of a mental capacity in him. Like the properties themselves, these two kinds of events are intrinsically different from each other such that any token or instance of the kind ‘being the exercising of a mental power’ is intrinsically distinguished from any token or instance of the kind ‘being the actualization of a mental capacity.’

The intrinsic natures of mental powers and capacities respectively have important implications for causation. Because an agent’s exercising of a mental power is essentially intrinsically active, it is essentially uncaused, and because an actualization of a subject’s mental capacity is essentially intrinsically passive, it is essentially caused. Any instance or token of mental action by nature lacks an efficient cause, and any instance or token of mental passion by nature has a cause.

Consider a choice. Its ontological status as a mental action is specified in terms of an agent’s possession of the power to choose and his exercising of that power. Thus, on our noncausal view of libertarian freedom, the power to choose is ontologically an ultimate and irreducible mental property of an agent, where the exercising of that power by the agent is a primitive or simple event in the sense that it has no event parts (it lacks an internal causal structure) and is intrinsically active and, thereby, essentially uncaused. It should be clear, then, that our assertion that a choice is essentially an uncaused event is not an ad hoc claim arising out of a commitment to libertarian freedom. It is instead rooted in a general ontology of mental powers and capacities and their respective exercisings and actualizations.

Given the ontology of mental powers and capacities that is at the basis of our account of agency, it is the case that no exercising of a mental power can be causally determined because no exercising of a mental power can be causally produced. Moreover, an agent’s belief that he makes essentially uncaused choices is not justified by a failure to be aware of a determinative relationship between happenings in the micro- or macroworld and his choices. That is, an agent does not conclude that a choice of his is not an effect event on the basis of an investigation that he conducts and in light of which he fails to find any causes of it, whether at the surface or a deeper level of the physical world. If knowledge of whether or not a choice is uncaused depended on the results of such an investigation, then an agent would never know whether or not a choice of his was an effect event because it would always be possible that the choice had a cause that was beyond his introspective ken. Hence, his failure to observe the cause would count for nothing. A belief in libertarian freedom is not the conclusion of such an investigation. Given the fact that an individual knows that he is making a choice, it follows that he is aware of performing a mental action that is his exercising of a mental power and whose nature as such entails that it is an essentially uncaused event. An agent does not fail to find causes and then conclude (unjustifiably) that his choice is not an effect event. There is no need for the agent to look for causes of his choice at all. The agent only needs to be aware of his mental act of choosing to know that it is uncaused. In short, it is the simple experience of choosing along with the conceptual truth that a choice is essentially uncaused that is the ultimate support for a belief in the occurrence of uncaused choices.

So much for the nature and epistemology of choice. How does an agent’s choice relate to what goes on in his physical body? If our libertarian view of freedom is correct, then the physical origins of some movements of our bodies are events in our brains whose ultimate causes are irreducible mental events and not other physical events. This entails a gap in the physical causal story in our brains. M claims “there’s ample evidence that this isn’t so,” and the evidence that it isn’t comes in two forms, positive and negative.

The positive evidence (noted by M in his original essay) is that concrete phenomena of many different kinds (e.g., cell-biological, chemical) are physical or physically realized and every physical event has a physical cause. We responded to the realizability claim in our second essay. We add here that to assert that every physical event has a physical cause is simply to beg the question at issue by assuming the principle of causal closure of the physical world, which we critiqued in our original essay. We earlier contended that M’s explanatory naturalism actually undermines what we believe to be an evident feature of reasoning itself, namely the fact that we accept conclusions in virtue of our grasping premises and entailment (or evidential) relations.

The negative evidence is “the failure of neuroscientists over the past century to discover any chains of neural events that begin in the brain, lacking neural causes. Surely there would’ve been a Nobel Prize for such a discovery.” Surely, however, M is mistaken in suggesting that a Nobel Prize in physical science would be awarded for such a discovery (assuming for the moment that it could be made). It wouldn’t, because Nobel Prizes in physical science are awarded for discoveries of relationships (e.g., causal relationships) between physical events. Discovering such relationships is what scientists are in the business of doing, which is in no way incompatible with there being ultimate and irreducible mental causes of physical events.

Let us set aside Nobel Prizes. Could a neuroscientist, as a scientist, ever discover a chain of neural events that begins in the brain and has no physical cause? Surely not, but the explanation of this inability is not that no such chain exists. The explanation has to do with the methodology of science and involves the distinction between failing to find a cause and finding the absence of a cause, which is, as M says, a distinction that may sound pedantic but is not. An empirical investigation of a causal chain can never establish that there is no physical cause. At most, a scientist can fail to find such a cause. Indeed, this happens all the time. Is M’s position that the failure to find such a cause would lead him to believe that there is a gap in the physical story? We doubt that this is the case. We suspect that were someone to try (we think wrongly) to convince M of the existence of such a gap on the basis of a failure to find a physical cause, he would simply respond that the failure to find such a cause does not in any way suggest the nonexistence of such a cause. Given that M is a naturalist (and physicalist), what else could he say? What we believe this debate shows is that philosophical views are not held on the basis of empirical investigations. They are brought to empirical investigations. And it is because they are brought to empirical investigations that we suggested in our second essay that M eliminates certain fundamental mental data that are not physical or physically realizable in order to make the world conform to his philosophical theory.

M, however, in his reply to us raises a different kind of argument against the existence of uncaused, teleologically explained choices. He points out that people very often choose to act in character, that is, they choose to act in accordance with their beliefs, preferences, and moral principles. If choices were uncaused, “then there’s no obvious way to explain why, time and again, the chooser’s choices make sense in light of his or her beliefs, preferences, and moral principles; the supposition that free choices are entirely uncaused makes the fact that people generally choose to act in character an extraordinary coincidence.”

M seems to assume that if one believes agents make uncaused, teleologically explained choices, then one must also believe that they are always making such choices. Such an assumption is fallacious. We believe that much of our lives is routine in nature and choiceless. There is an important philosophical distinction between deterministically forming an intention to perform act A and choosing to do A. Though both mental actions are made for reasons (purposes) and, thus, explained teleologically, the latter only occur in situations where there is a reason recommending an alternative course of action (two-way rationality). When there is a reason for only one course of action (one-way rationality), agents cannot and need not choose; instead they deterministically form an intention to do what that reason recommends. Hence, M’s notoriously loud-mouthed sexist is determined not to put in for a transfer to a team with a female boss because he has no reason to do so but only reasons not to do so. Given the nature of his reason-giving structure (it is one-way rational in nature), he cannot choose to put in for a transfer to a team with a female boss.

M puts forth one other example that supposedly poses problems for our view of freedom. The incident concerns the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane who head-butted an opposing Italian player. If Zidane chose to head-butt his opponent, he had a reason for doing so and a reason for not doing so. Given that observers believed that Zidane had two-way rationality and that the other conditions obtained which M stipulates, they could reasonably conclude that Zidane chose to head-butt the Italian. M says that “if free choices were uncaused, then these bases for reasonably concluding that Zidane freely chose to head-butt an Italian player would be inadequate, since none of them makes it at all reasonable to think that some neural event in Zidane’s brain had no cause.” Our view of freedom, however, does not imply that some neural event in Zidane’s brain had no cause. What it implies is that if Zidane chose to head-butt the Italian opponent, then some neural event ultimately had an irreducible mental cause.

We now turn from the issue of freedom to that of pain. In our opening essay, we presented the example of a scientist named ‘Mary’ who is locked in a room and, by hypothesis, has learned all the physical facts that can be known about pain (in M’s terms, a complete multidisciplinary science of pain). Upon being freed from the room, Mary picks up a bowling ball and drops it on her foot (M has Mary stub her toe) and learns for the first time what it is like to feel pain. We maintained that Mary learned something new that she did not know before, namely, what the intrinsic nature of pain is, and, therefore, that there are more facts than physical facts.

M responds that the general principle underlying an argument like ours involving Mary is that if someone knows a certain body of knowledge, but then learns something new, then it must be the case that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality to which the earlier body of knowledge did not refer. As a counterexample to this general principle, he presents a different story:

Because of a blow to the head I suffer terrible amnesia and forget who I am. But I read in the newspaper that tomorrow, for reasons that don’t matter, one Andrew Melnyk will be publicly flogged. ‘Bad news for this Melnyk fellow,’ I mutter to myself, but I soon return to my quest to find out who I am. Later, however, I discover that I am Andrew Melynk, and then, of course, I realize, to my horror, that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged.

M says that he has acquired new knowledge, but it is false that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality about which he had no knowledge before discovering that he is Andrew Melnyk. The subject matter is the same, namely, Andrew Melnyk. What are different are the two items of knowledge (namely, that of himself and associated with his use of the first-person pronoun ‘I’ and that of himself and associated with the name ‘Andrew Melnyk’), where each refers to the same subject but by means of different representational formats. Melnyk’s new knowledge is that he is identical with Andrew Melnyk. Similarly, Mary’s new knowledge about pain does not refer to a feature of reality to which her scientific knowledge did not refer. Rather, Mary learns about the identity of what she experiences when she drops the bowling ball on her foot with the referent of the scientific knowledge she possessed before leaving the room.

In response, we maintain that our argument does not presuppose the general principle that if someone knows a certain body of knowledge, but then learns something new, it must be the case that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality to which the earlier body of knowledge did not refer. Nevertheless, we believe that Mary’s new knowledge is not of an identity statement, for two reasons.

First, unlike M, who while suffering from amnesia continued to have first-person awareness of himself (which was reflected by his use of ‘I’), Mary had no awareness of how pain feels (what, in our original essay, we called its ouchiness) before she left the room, which is the period of time that corresponds to the temporal period when M suffered from amnesia. Hence, while M acquires knowledge of an identity between what he took to be two different entities but which were really one thing of which he was previously aware in two different ways, when Mary leaves the room she becomes acquainted with something (the ouchiness of pain) of which she was not previously aware. That of which she was not previously aware is the intrinsic nature of pain. Prior to leaving the room, Mary was only aware of extrinsic, relational features pain.

Second, if ‘two’ things are in fact one, it must be the case that they share all of their properties in common. As we suggested in our opening essay, however, there is good reason to think that the ouchiness of pain, which is the intrinsic nature of pain, has properties that are not shared by that about which Mary learns before leaving the room. The ouchiness of pain seems to be simple in nature in the sense that it is not made up of event-parts (or other structural parts). Physical explanations of the intrinsic natures of things/events are typically given in terms of part-whole compositional relationships. Hence, if Mary learned anything about the intrinsic nature of a physical phenomenon when she learned all the physical facts about pain (again, we suspect she learned about only extrinsic, relational features of pain), then what she learned could not have been about the intrinsic nature of pain.

Proceed to the Next Debate


[1] See Stewart Goetz’s “A Theodicy,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 459-484; and Charles Taliaferro’s Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

[2] Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 3-19.

[3] Carl Ginet, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 145-146. The emphasis is Ginet’s.

[4] As David Chalmers points out, basic particles in the physical sciences are also characterized in terms of powers and capacities (he terms them forces and propensities). See his The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 153.

Copyright ©2007 Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. All rights reserved.

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