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An Argument from Consciousness and Free Will (2007)

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro


          1. Free Will
          2. Consciousness
          3. Closing Remarks

Naturalism and theism are two powerful accounts of the nature of the cosmos. While there is common ground between the two--for example, both affirm the existence of a stable physical world with laws of nature--they differ profoundly on foundational matters. Thus, naturalists tend to hold that there is no more than the physical world. Some of them think that the physical world is whatever is disclosed in an ideal physical science, which excludes the existence of conscious persons with free will and moral lives. Others are more capacious and allow that there is more to the cosmos than what is disclosed in the physical sciences. Some of these naturalists hold that conscious persons with free will and moral lives have emerged through nonpurposeful, evolutionary processes, where these emergent phenomena are not completely reducible to the physical structures of the cosmos. Most naturalists today insist, however, that the cosmos itself is not explainable in terms of purpose or teleology. They maintain that the processes that brought about and sustain the cosmos were and are blind, not being guided by a preconception of some goal or end.

Rather than follow the naturalist and explain the existence of consciousness and purposive beings (humans and nonhuman animals) in terms of nonconscious, nonpurposive forces, theists see the whole cosmos as ultimately explained in terms a conscious, purposive, divine reality. In theism, it is important to appreciate that God and the cosmos are not on an equal footing in terms of their being; the cosmos exists contingently, and thus neither its coming to exist nor its continued existence from moment to moment is necessary. If classical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are right, God's existence is necessary; it is not derived from any law of nature or from some higher supergod who was in turn created by an even higher deity, and so on. God's ultimacy in terms of goodness, power and knowledge is not derived or bestowed by any external, impersonal law of nature, or by chance. In brief, theism represents one of the more developed, mature accounts of reality that gives a fundamental place to purposeful explanation, whereas naturalism gives the most central role of explanation to nonpurposeful and (typically) causal explanation.

There are many arguments for the existence of God or, more modestly, arguments for a powerful, transcendent divine reality (that may or may not have all the theistic attributes in terms of omnipotence and so on) or, more modestly still, arguments against naturalism which at a minimum open the door to acknowledging a Creator. We believe that many of these arguments are best seen as cumulative and interconnected. Our task here, however, is to focus on one line of reasoning in support of theism. We shall briefly lay out why we believe that the existence of consciousness and free will are more reasonable given theism than given naturalism. Although consciousness is more fundamental than free will (consciousness is a precondition for free will, at least in the prime cases in which we weigh reasons for and against some end), we first consider the reality of free will and the difficulty it causes for naturalism.

1. Free Will

When we were presented with the invitation to write this essay, we did not immediately accept because each of us had reasons for and against writing it. In this situation, each of us (for ease of reading, from here on we will talk in terms of 'we') had to make a choice and the fact that you are now reading these words indicates that we chose to write the essay. What, however, is a choice? At a minimum, it is a mental action, where an action is something that we do or perform as opposed to something that happens to us. When we make choices, we are agents. When things are done to us, we passively undergo events and, therefore, we are patients. Because a choice is a mental action, it is not causally determined. Indeed, it is not caused at all, and therefore it has no causal explanation[1]. Nevertheless, because a choice is an event, it has an explanation. What kind of explanation does it have? Its explanation is a purpose, where a purpose makes reference to a goal or end that presently does not exist and to or for which the action that is chosen is a means of bringing about. Purposes are typically expressed in the contents of psychological attitudes such as desires and beliefs and, strictly speaking, are optative in form. For example, in light of both our desire that we make clear that there are no good objections to the idea that we make uncaused choices and our belief that writing this essay would fulfill that desire, we chose to write it for the purpose that we make clear that there are no good objections to the view that we make free choices. Philosophers call explanation in terms of a purpose teleological explanation, where teleological and causal explanations are distinct and irreducible kinds of explanation.

There is a fairly universal consensus that human beings believe that they make undetermined choices for purposes and that the basis for believing this is that they are simply directly aware or have the experience of making such choices. Some opponents of the freedom of the will claim that a belief in free will has religious roots. According to them, people believe that they have free will on the basis of their belief in God. While it would be foolish to deny that some people might claim that they arrive at their belief that they have free will in this way, it would be equally misguided to claim that all or even a majority do. Indeed, there are atheists who believe that we have free will, and it is far more plausible to think that they, like theists and ordinary people in general, believe that they make undetermined choices for purposes (reasons) because they are directly aware of making them. While there are atheists who believe that we have free will, it is nevertheless correct to say that theists are more likely than atheists to believe that we have free will. This is because if one believes that one makes undetermined choices for purposes, then one is less inclined to be skeptical of a view like theism that holds that a nonhuman, good, intentional agent (God) chooses to create the cosmos for a purpose.

Given that the foregoing is an accurate description of our freedom, what reason, if any, is there to doubt that we have free will? Many naturalists believe that while it might be true that we fail to be aware of any causes or other determining conditions of our choices, we cannot be aware of the lack of causes or other determining conditions. According to these naturalists, it is reasonable to think that we cannot be aware of the lack of causes or other determining conditions of our choice because science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) requires that we believe in the existence of causes or other determining conditions for anything that occurs in this world. In the view of these naturalists, it is because science supposedly makes this regulative assumption that it has been able to make such remarkable explanatory progress in curing diseases, developing technology to enhance communication and the exploration of space, etc. This argument against free will from science is known as the argument from causal closure or the causal closedness of the physical world. In what follows, we state and respond to this argument.

To introduce the argument from causal closure, consider the movements of our fingers right now on the keys of our keyboards as we work on this essay. If we have free will, these movements are ultimately explained teleologically in terms of the purpose for making our choice to write this essay. In other words, these movements are ultimately occurring in order that we make clear that there are no good objections to the view that we have free will. According to naturalist proponents of the argument from causal closure, this purpose or reason for choosing cannot be the ultimate explanation of the movements of our fingers. Their argument goes something like this: Suppose you are a neuroscientist who is seeking to discover what goes on in the brains and bodies of people when their fingers move. Assume that through your experimental work you find out that on occasions when people move their fingers, there are nerve impulses that reach appropriate muscles and make those muscles contract with the result that their fingers move. These nerve signals likely originate in the activation of certain neurons in their brains. What causes those neurons to fire? According to the proponent of the causal closedness of the physical world, we now have a quite detailed understanding of the process that leads to the firing of a neuron in terms of complex electrochemical processes involving ions in the fluid inside and outside a neuron, differences in voltage across cell membranes, and so forth. In other words, we have a pretty good picture in terms of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology of the processes at the microphysical level that ultimately explain the movements of peoples' fingers. If, by hypothesis, the movements of fingers of essayists are ultimately teleologically explained in terms of purposes, and those essayists are agents who cause movements of their fingers to occur as means to accomplishing those purposes, then there must be room (sometimes called a gap) in the causal story for those agents to intervene and initially cause, say, a neuron to fire, which eventually leads to the movement of a finger. Does, however, the requisite gap exist in the causal story? According to the advocate of causal closure, the neuroscientist, in order to have a complete explanation of the complex processes that lead to the movements of an essayist's fingers, does not need to include reference to an agent and a purposeful explanation. Indeed, this scientist allegedly cannot allow for an agent and a purposeful explanation because were he to do so, he could not practice his science. As a scientist, he is methodologically committed to not allowing for anything other than explanations in terms of physical causes. He needs to presuppose the principle of causal closure because were he to abandon it, then whenever he could not discover a physical cause of an event in the physical world, he might or would be tempted to terminate his empirical work and appeal to a noncausal or teleological explanation of that effect. The advance and success of science, however, in principle requires that no such appeal be permitted. In short, the closedness of the physical world is a regulative idea of science. Without it, science as we know it would not exist.

In order to evaluate the argument against free will from causal closure, it is necessary to consider what it is about physical entities that a scientist is trying to discover. Take our neuroscientist. It is reasonable to claim that he is trying to discover how the capacities of particles or microphysical entities such as neurons are causally affected by causal powers of other physical entities including other neurons. For example, in his pioneering work on the brain, the neuroscientist Wilder Penfield stimulated cortical motor areas of patients' brains with an electrode, which resulted in movements of their limbs[2]. As Penfield observed the neural impulses that resulted from stimulation by the electrode, he had to assume that during his experiments the relevant areas of the patients' brains were causally closed to other causal influences. Otherwise, he could not justifiably conclude that the electrode causally produced the neural impulses, which in turn causally produced both additional neural impulses down a causal chain and ultimately the limb's movement. There is no reason, however, to think that because Penfield's investigation of the brain required the assumption of causal closedness in the context of his experiments that he had to be committed as a scientist to the assumption that the physical world is universally causally closed such that the capacities of microphysical entities to be causally affected could only be actualized by other physical entities. That is, there is no reason to think that because a neuroscientist like Penfield must assume causal closure in his experimental work in order to discover how physical entities causally interact with each other that he must be committed as a scientist to the nonexistence of agents who choose to act for purposes and have the power to causally affect physical entities to realize those purposes. All that a neuroscientist such as Penfield must be committed to, as a physical scientist, is that agents that choose for purposes, if they exist, are not causally producing events in the relevant neurons during his experiments. If a neuroscientist like Penfield makes the methodological assumption that microphysical entities can have their capacities causally actualized only by other physical entities, then he does so not as a physical scientist but as a naturalist.

Consider, now, the movements of our fingers as we write our essay. While Penfield and his ilk could produce movements of our fingers by inserting electrodes into the cortical motor areas of our brains and discover what goes on in those and other areas of our bodies on those occasions, is there any reason to think that the present movements of our fingers while typing cannot adequately be explained without ultimately invoking a teleological explanation in the form of the purpose for which we chose to move them? It would certainly seem so. After all, these movements seem purposeful to an observer to the extent that they are producing what are (hopefully) intelligible sentences, and from the perspective of our first-person experiences, we remember choosing to write this essay and it now seems to us that we are carrying out our plan to do so. In short, it simply stretches one's credulity to the breaking point to claim that what is presently taking place in our bodies in relationship to the movements of our fingers can be explained without any ultimate or final reference to the teleological explanation of our choice to write this essay. Yet, that is precisely what the naturalist proponent of the argument from causal closure would have us believe. Not only would he have us believe this, however, but also he would have us believe that no events in our bodies (or minds) ultimately occur for a purpose. They cannot, if one assumes the causal closure of the physical world. Given, however, that there is no good reason to think that the practice and progress of science requires causal closedness, there is as of yet no reason to think that naturalism is true.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out that people typically see the disagreement between naturalists and their opponents (whom we will call 'teleologists') about what is an acceptable explanation manifested in the public square in debates about creation versus evolution. The argument in the public square is about whether God should, in popular vernacular, be allowed into the biology class, or whether certain complex phenomena in our physical bodies (e.g., the complex arrangement of parts in organs such as our eyes or in our cells) are indications of purposeful design by a mind (here, one can think of the position advocated by members of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement). According to naturalists, the scientific method (causal closedness) requires that no matter how designed some complex biological organism or organ might appear[3], it is in principle impermissible to appeal to a teleological explanation of it. What a reader should be aware of, however, is that the argument from causal closure that is used by naturalists to exclude teleological explanations of biological phenomena is the very same argument they use to exclude teleological explanations of the movements of an essayist's fingers on a keyboard. If the argument from causal closedness against the teleologist in the public disputes about evolution versus creation is sound, then it is sound when used against the teleologist in debates about bodily and mental events in our everyday lives. If the argument is no good in the latter realm, then there is no reason to think that it is any good in the former.

The argument from causal closure has led naturalists to propose some highly counterintuitive understandings of the relationship between our physical and mental lives. The most popular contemporary naturalist view of this relationship is the thesis that reality is a multilayered hierarchy consisting of levels of entities with their characteristic properties and events. According to this view, the lowest, fundamental or bottom level of reality consists of microphysical particles. On top of this lowest level are higher, intermediate-level entities (e.g., chemical, biological) with their distinctive properties and events. Mental properties and events are features of human beings (brains or central nervous systems) that are higher- (highest-?) level macroentities. There is a dependency relationship between the lower-level, physical properties and events of micro-objects and the higher-level mental properties and events of human beings: no human being can have mental properties and events unless he has physical properties and events, and the lower-level physical properties and events determine the higher-level mental properties and events in the sense that nothing can be just like a given human being physically without it also being just like it mentally. Thus, there is an ontological primacy of the physical over the mental, and physical indiscernibility (two entities are physically identical) entails mental indiscernibility (two entities are mentally identical).

The deterministic dependency relationship of the mental on the physical world is typically characterized by naturalists as a supervenience relationship: higher-level mental properties and events supervene on lower-level physical properties and events. Because a choice is a mental event, it supervenes on a physical event or events. This implies that a choice is determined to occur by those physical events on which it supervenes. The implication of this supervenience relationship between the mental and the physical is that free will in the form of undetermined choices explained by purposes is impossible.

If the argument from causal closure fails and we have free will, a choice does not supervene on a physical event or events. What, then, is the most plausible view of the ontological status of a choice? In the remaining space that is allotted to us in this opening case for theism, we briefly highlight the difference between our mental, conscious life and the physical world and explain why we believe that there is good justification for holding that we, the beings who make choices, are immaterial minds (souls). We conclude by indicating why we believe our existence as minds is more plausible given theism rather than naturalism.

2. Consciousness

To illustrate the difference between our conscious, mental life and that which is physical, consider a well-known argument in the philosophical literature that concerns a hypothetical scientist named 'Mary.' For whatever reason, Mary has spent her entire life up till now locked in a room and has never experienced pain[4]. While locked in the room, Mary has devoted her life to learning all the physical facts that can be known about pain, such as that pain is produced by such-and-such physical objects that cause so-and-so neural happenings which lead people to utter expletives, etc., etc. Her knowledge is exhaustive. One night, Mary is freed from the room and is invited to go bowling for the first time. As she picks up a bowling ball, she accidentally drops it on her foot and bleeps out an expletive. She asks her host what it is that she has just experienced and he informs her that she experienced pain.

Did Mary learn something new about pain? The obvious answer is 'Yes.' She learned for the first time what the intrinsic nature of pain is. While in the room, she only learned about extrinsic, relational features of pain. The conclusion of the argument is that there are more facts (nonphysical or psychological/mental facts) than physical facts and, therefore, that physicalism is false. Why couldn't Mary learn from her studies about the intrinsic nature of pain during the time that she was in the room? Part of the answer seems to be that the ouchiness nature of pain (the sensory feel of pain) can only be known from the first-person perspective which Mary lacked with respect to pain. None of the features of the physical world as identified by the physical sciences (mass, size, weight, electric charge, physical structure and constitution) captures what it is to experience pain (or think, feel, smell, taste, etc.). Another part of the answer as to why Mary learns something more when the bowling ball hits her foot seems to be that physical explanations of the intrinsic natures of things/events are typically given in terms of part-whole compositional and spatial relationships. Take the solidity of the tables on which our computers presently sit. The solidity of our tables vis-à-vis the computers is explained in terms of a lattice structure of microparts held together by attractive bonds which are sufficiently strong to withstand pressures to be split apart that are exerted by the computers. Such explanations, however, won't work for an experience of pain or the making of a choice because it is a defining characteristic of these events that they lack compositional event structures. That is, they are simple in nature in the sense that they are not made up of event parts. As Colin McGinn has stated, "Consciousness defies explanation in [compositional, spatial] terms. Consciousness does not seem to be made up out of smaller spatial processes.... Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem."[5]

Given that it is exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible to provide a compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event such as an experience of pain, can a metaphysical naturalist reasonably promise us some other kind of explanation of its nature? If not, as we think he cannot, and he must simply acknowledge its nature as an irreducible mental reality, can he at least provide a plausible explanation of how it came about that the universe contains occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure? We doubt it. Recall that naturalists do not posit any intentional, purposive agency undergirding or explaining the existence or continuation in being of the cosmos. Assuming contemporary cosmology, all that existed (matter and energy) fourteen or fifteen billion years ago in space and time lacked consciousness, experiences, intentions, choices or purposes. From this original state, through a process of explosion and expansion, the formation of hydrogen masses (stars, galaxies), the fusion of hydrogen and helium and the development of heavier elements (planets), there supposedly gradually emerged life and finally conscious life with experiences, choices, moral awareness, and so on. Some naturalists (e.g., the Churchlands, Quine, Stich) recognize that the emergence of consciousness constitutes such a radical development, that they actually deny that consciousness exists. One can appreciate the motive for doing so, as it appears that with the emergence of consciousness we observe the development of a reality that is unlike any other. Some (e.g., Searle) try to explain away the radical difference by noting how solidity emerges from microparticles, liquidity emerges from molecules, heat is accounted for in terms of molecular theory, and so on. But, as we have already argued, solidity (and a similar analysis applies to liquidity) is fundamentally a compositional relationship among parts vis-à-vis some other object, and when the example is heat--when this is understood in terms of kinetic energy--a compositional analysis in terms of molecules in motion seems to suffice. But if we think about the emergence of subjective experience in the form of the conscious feeling of heat, no amount of molecular theory will explain, let alone describe the sensations or experiences themselves. If we restrict ourselves (as naturalists like Armstrong and Dennett want) to the explanatory framework of an ideal physics with mass and energy, it is hard to see how any configuration of the physical world can constitute let alone explain the emergence of consciousness. And those who claim that consciousness 'supervenes' upon the physical seem to us to posit a mysterious, brute relationship, where one is labeling the occurrence of a radical emergence rather than offering an explanation.

What, then, is the theistic alternative? Theism begins by acknowledging that experiences of pleasure and pain and choices are events that occur in subjects which refer to themselves by the first-person pronoun 'I.' What is remarkable about these selves is that they too seem to be simple in nature in the sense that they seem to lack substantive parts. As the theist René Descartes wrote, "When I consider the mind, that is to say myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking thing, I cannot distinguish in myself any parts, but apprehend myself to be clearly one and entire.... And the faculties [powers and capacities] of willing, feeling, conceiving, etc., cannot be properly speaking said to be parts, for it is one and the same mind which employs itself in willing and in feeling and understanding."[6] In other words, while the mind lacks substantive parts, it has a multiplicity of properties (faculties, powers and liabilities) which enable it to make choices, experience pain, form beliefs, etc. So the theist believes that we must not only account for the existence of mental events, but also for the existence of the substantial selves that are the subjects of those events. The existence of minds like ours is not a mystery in a theistic universe, however, because theism takes the most fundamental fact of reality to be a conscious and purposive mind. In other words, the conscious, purposive reality, God, did not emerge from anywhere but was there all along as a necessary existent, and God created nonphysical minds such as us for the purpose of experiencing complete or perfect happiness through, at least in part, the adoration of God.

It might seem that naturalism is in a somewhat similar position to theism insofar as it too posits something fundamental, and foundational: a nonconscious, nonpurposive, physical cosmos, which did not emerge from or is sustained by some other force. But most naturalists acknowledge the contingent character of the cosmos. There is nothing about the cosmos or in the cosmos that exists necessarily or is self-sustaining; the cosmos is contingent. Theism, unlike naturalism, offers an account of the cosmos which does not leave one with bare contingency or without some overall reason as to why there should be a contingent cosmos at all, let alone one with stable laws of nature and the emergence of conscious, purposive beings with free choice. The naturalist is committed to believing that it is reasonable to seek explanations for the occurrence of events within the cosmos. We believe that this seeking of explanations should ultimately also be directed upon the very existence and nature of the cosmos itself. Why is there a contingent cosmos such as ours with conscious life that has free will? We believe that the existence of such a cosmos is more plausible given theism as opposed to naturalism.

3. Closing Remarks

In closing, we briefly comment on the nature of our argument and our understanding of nature.

First: Have we advanced what some would classify as a 'God of the gaps' argument? This is a popular label for a line of reasoning that insists we need to posit God's existence in order to close a gap in a naturalist account of the cosmos; for example, it has been argued that some of the gaps in the fossil record require supernatural explanations. Our argument is not of that form; we are not arguing that there is some gap in an otherwise seamless naturalist view of reality. We are, rather, pointing to the very existence and nature of free will, purposive explanations, conscious minds and the contingency of the cosmos as evidence for theism. This is an argument from the fundamental character of reality and what kinds of things exist (purposes, feelings, the contingent cosmos) to what best accounts for them. It is not like an argument in, say, geology, about whether some skeletal remains do or do not demonstrate the descent of human beings from mammals and so on. Our argument, then, differs from typical 'God of the gaps' strategies insofar as our reasoning is categorical and comprehensive in nature and not limited to some specific scientific issue about, say, the relationship of human beings to other animals.

Second: If theism is right and our arguments sound, do we somehow treat persons or free will as not natural or not part of the natural world? By no means. We believe that it is part of our nature that we exercise freedom, that we are conscious beings with moral lives, and so on. Our concept of 'nature' is both different from and wider than the naturalist's. We believe the argument between naturalism and theism is best seen as a dispute over the scope and character of 'nature' and wish to discharge straight away any suggestion that theism lands one with some kind of 'unnatural' or 'nonnatural' enterprise. Indeed, we believe the naturalist's account of nature is itself 'nonnatural' and denatures the natural world insofar as it denies the existence of both nonphysical minds that freely act for purposes and a Creator.

Much more needs to be said about the nature of theistic and naturalist explanations, the existence of consciousness and the soul, and the goodness of the cosmos. We look forward to doing that in the next part of this project, in replying to Professor Melnyk and to you, our readers.

Continue the Debate

Table of Contents


[1] Some advocates of free will argue that choices are either caused by their agents or that initial event-parts of choices are caused by their agents, where the causation by the agent (agent causation) is not caused at all. Because of limitations of space, we avoid this controversy. On either our view (the noncausal view of agency) or the agent causationist view of agency, something is done by the agent which has no cause.

[2] Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[3] It is worth pointing out here that metaphysical naturalists like Richard Dawkins concede that some things in the biological world look designed. They argue that the appearance of design is illusory. Cf. Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), pp. 5, 21.

[4] The story about Mary is Frank Jackson's, and he told it in terms of Mary learning all of the physical facts about a color such as redness without ever seeing red. See "Epiphenomenal Qualia," Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127-136.

[5] Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 18, n. 21.

[6] René Descartes, Meditations, Sixth Meditation.

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.