Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

1“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”

Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.

Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event.

Without freedom, if asked, who is it that actually wrote “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” the answer will be “the universe.” “The universe” will in fact have to be the answer to every question concerning “who?” The universe and/or the Big Bang turns out to be the only thing that could appropriately be called an agent at all. The statement “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” marks a sequence of events like any other.

The concept of freedom is necessary for one consequentialist reason. One is that no society can function without a notion of freedom because freedom is the basis for holding people morally responsible for their actions and for justifying punishing them for breaking the law. Abandoning moral responsibility would mean no longer prohibiting murder and lying, among other things, and society would crumble. If sanctions and punishments are not to be linked to guilt or innocence and are there just for expediency then any action (that concept cannot be eliminated from this part of the discussion) and any agent can be punished regardless of whether he has done anything wrong or not. That would mean living under the most arbitrary social arrangement ever with no rhyme or reason and zero predictability. Determinism means the end of any notion of justice and the end of that notion spells the end of fruitful human interaction.

The trouble with consequentialist reasoning is that good or bad consequences often have nothing to do with either morality or truth.

A far more damning objection to getting rid of the concept of freedom is that it is a prerequisite for rational argumentation. Arguments are attempts to persuade whereby a controversial claim is made and then evidence is provided to support the claim. Other people then evaluate the evidence and decide whether they want to accept the controversial claim or not. Evidence is another name for premises or reasons. This process has a rational, logical character. Reasons are not causes. Causes are something like one bit of matter bumping into another bit of matter and causing an event. Reasons do not involve bumping. They operate on the level of logic and concepts and that level must be free from deterministic physical forces, otherwise we really are just back to “sequences of events” and rational argument is not possible and neither is persuasion.


So, to argue that freedom is an empty category is a performative contradiction. The writer of “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” regards himself as an agent. He regards the reader as an agent and he is attempting to persuade the reader of the truth of his claim who is free to make up his own mind on the basis of the reasons provided.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is logically possible that determinism is true, but it is not logically possible to rationally argue that determinism is true, since rationality, argument and persuasion all require freedom. To argue for determinism is a kind of hypocrisy where one of the things a person is saying does not exist is actually presupposed in the very act of arguing for it.

3Berdyaev makes a useful distinction between the subjective realm and the objective realm – the subjective realm being characterized by freedom and the objective realm being determined. Any living creature has an interior of some kind linking it to freedom, whereas rocks do not. The objective realm is mostly “a sequence of events.” Some of these events are the result of blindly operating physical forces and some are the results of the actions of agents. Just by looking at the event it might not be possible to distinguish between which are the result of free actions and which causally determined. Once an event has occurred it is in the realm of objectivity and the objective can be measured. However, some events have a symbolic character. Mind, consciousness, Spirit, subjectivity and freedom are all interior phenomena. As such they partake in mystery and hiddenness. They cannot be exteriorized. However, they can be the cause of events or “sequences of events” and these events can point back to their divine, free origins. An analogy could be Paley’s Watch. Paley’s watch is the idea that if someone were to find a watch on a desert island, with no other evidence of human habitation or prior human visits, the watch would indicate that humans had been there. The watch is in no way human, but it becomes symbolic evidence of a human presence in the past. In the same way, music or a painting are symbols of a free, creative act emerging from subjectivity. They are not actually free and spiritual since they now belong to the objective realm.

Knowledge involves creativity. The producer of knowledge takes something from the4 hidden and mysterious and transfers it to the plain light of day. Albert Einstein’s creation of the theory of relativity required great imagination, intuitive leaps and insight, immersing himself in the finer points of prior physics, and diligence. The actual theory is beautifully logical and objective and thus partakes in the objective realm. The act of producing the theory involved lots of interior goings on, but actually publishing the theory is just part of a “sequence of events.”

It can seem like switching from a mechanical worldview to an organismic worldview would represent some kind of advance. However, it is a mistake to imagine that trees, or human bodies, or termite nests[1] are in any way “free.” Freedom is not to be found “out there.” The actions of trees, human bodies and termite nests all point to the existence of intelligence, active response to environmental conditions, and the like, but only in symbolic fashion. It is rather terrible that the world we see around us can only ever be a symbol of the spiritual and the free.

Prior to the existence of God the Father, God the Creator, God the Lover, is the Great Mystery and the Great Mystery partakes in Freedom. The Great Mystery of Jacob Boehme’s Ungrund is why God’s nature can never be fully known. God the Logos is a Person and can be experienced and known. Meister Eckhart’s Godhead is entirely inscrutable and unknowable. It is the causeless source of freedom, and all living things have a connection to the Ungrund. “Man is not fractional or separate part of the world; he 5embodies in himself the whole mystery and solution of the world.” It is why no Person can ever be fully known – not to yourself, not to other people and not to God. God does not fully know Himself either.

The Great Mystery provides choice and choice means the possibility of evil and nonbeing. It is also the precondition for the good. God the Father does not create evil. The possibility of evil pre-exists God the Father.

What proceeds from The Great Mystery must be causeless in order to be free – otherwise physical determinism is simply replaced by spiritual determinism. If creativity were explainable it would no longer be creativity. Freedom too is inexplicable. And it is the postulate that is the precondition for postulating anything since only agents can postulate. Berdyaev uses the phrase “creative dogmatism” at one point in his writing. If ever there was a right moment for creative dogmatism, the postulate of Freedom is surely one of them.

Obviously, a world of only “sequences of events” is not good, or evil. It has no purpose, no meaning, and no interior.

Without mystery, life is not worth living; not for us and not for God. To be deprived of mystery would be the death of creativity, freedom and a creative response to life. God is the Creator and creators take from mystery and produce the known, the objective. The known now participates in the “sequence of events” that symbolically point back to their creator. Again, there is something tragic and ironic about creation because of its objective character.

“Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.” That is true, to a degree. Sequences of events per se have an objective character. However, some sequences of events have a symbolic character pointing back to their divine origins in meonic Freedom.


[1] Termites intelligently and subtly alter their nests in response to changes in weather patterns.

21 thoughts on “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

  1. Pingback: Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense? | Reaction Times

  2. Mystery is the Ungrund, the incognizable, which, as it cannot be the subject of a proposition, can figure in no syllogism of causality.

  3. ‘When Harold Macmillan became Britain’s prime minister, he was asked what would determine his government’s course. He replied with Edwardian languor: “Events, dear boy, events.” As he well knew. An event–the 1956 Suez debacle–had catapulted him into 10 Downing Street. An event–the sex-and-spies Profumo scandal–would grease the skids under him in 1963.’

    Yet Supermac made judgements and took actions in reaction to “events”.
    Some worked. Some did not. Nevertheless, he was indeed an ‘actor’ –
    in both senses of the term.

  4. It’s not clear to me that acting for reasons and acting nondeterministically are the same thing. One can imagine one without the other. By introspection, I have a clear sense of engaging in deliberation and acting for reasons. I am not aware of any introspective evidence that my choices are not determined by external inputs and my prior mental state. I’m not sure what such an experience would be like, and I’m not convinced that being nondeterministic would be desirable. In a sense, acting nondeterministically is the opposite of acting for reasons, which is why Leibniz denied that even God acts this way.

    • Hi, Bonald – there is no introspective evidence of nondeterminism – just a metaphysical and logical requirement that my actions have not been predetermined since the beginning of time. Otherwise, “I” do not exist at all and “reasoning” is an illusion. There is just a universal stream of cause and effect extending infinitely backward and forward in time. If there is no division between reasons and causes then “reasons” as reasons for action do not exist and “you” and “I” are not even having this discussion. The Big Bang is talking to itself.

      “Action” by an “actor” can only exist nondeterministically. We can act on the basis of logic, values, intuition and reasons. If all those things are the result of chains of physical or spiritual causation, then they are all stuff and nonsense. The non-you writes mechanically and my neurons impel the non-me to respond.

      • In the trial of Stephen Ward (part of the Profumo Affair which helped to bring down Supermac’s government), Lord Astor denied knowing or having even met the fragrant Mandy Rice Davies. When this denial was put to her under cross-examination, the bold Mandy replied: “Well (giggle), he would, wouldn’t he?

        So, whose actions are deterministic and whose actions are indeed actions whether for reasons or no reasons?

      • Hi Richard,
        I was just trying to support your argument with an entertaining
        (at least, I think so) real-life example.

        Perhaps Astor had his reasons for denying knowing Mandy.
        Shame? Fear of social stigma? Truth, even? Who knows?
        Perhaps Mandy’s giggle was scripted by a lawyer
        and she was just an actor reading someone else’s lines.
        She was (or eventually became) an actress after all.
        But perhaps (and here it gets interesting),
        perhaps it was the spontaneous reaction of an amused woman.

        Perhaps the giggle, while non-deterministic, was appropriate.
        In other words, maybe Mandy had good reason for it.

        But, if actions are all determined from cause to effect
        then Fitzgerald/Omar is (are?) correct:

        “For in and out, above, about, below,
        ‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
        Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
        Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.”

        That is a very bleak prospect.

      • The prettiness is the chief problem with Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It almost completely disguises the philosophical vacuum at the heart of it.

        I once gave a beautifully illustrated copy to a girl at University. She was so taken with the gorgeously expressive language that she completely failed to notice the emptiness of the thought-world underlying the whole poem. She was shocked when I pointed it out to her. Our relationship did not prosper.

        I often think that Fitzgerald’s technique is at least as effective as that of Cthulhu in leading people to embrace their own destruction.

      • Oh. yes. The poem is amazingly nihilistic. Nihilism with charm and humor. Sorry about the girl!

      • > Otherwise, “I” do not exist at all and “reasoning” is an illusion.

        I don’t see how that follows at all.

        There’s no obvious contradiction between my actions being determined and my being an identifiably separate being. I assume you would grant that rocks and trees exist although not being metaphysically free. Nor do my acts become illusory because causes can be found for them. (It’s not appropriate to say “external causes” here, because any determinist would grant that one’s own prior state enters into the causal chains that determine one’s acts.)

        If you’re going to stick being an uncaused cause into the definition of true existence, then it must begin as an open question whether you or I do exist in this way. I have only ever claimed to exist in a humbler way.

  5. @bonald – In determinism there is nothing but a swarm of events. It is metaphysically inaccurate to say “you” are doing anything at all if determinism is true. Certainly your body exists either way, but bodies by themselves are corpses. The comparison with rocks is apt. Trees, however, do appear to act, e.g., donate sap to tree stumps so they may continue to live. Rocks exist but not as actors who can claim responsibility for doing anything. For that you need to be a locus of decision making. Under determinism, “you” are not deciding anything. Under free will it makes sense to call someone intelligent, but not in determinism. You need an interior that is subjectively free to be worthy of that adjective. We don’t call avalanches intelligent or stupid. But then this whole discussion is a performative contradiction. If it is actually a discussion between two conscious minds, free will exists. If deterministic, we are two tape recorders whose preprogrammed contents have been sitting there since the beginning of time waiting for a suitable cause. There is no “you” and “I” having a discussion. For what thoughts or comments would you like to take credit? Thank the Big Bang! Rocks don’t need metaphysical freedom to exist, but humans do to be agents. And metaphysical freedom needs a causeless cause. (God created us, but not our freedom. Evil, as well as good, come from freedom and God did not create evil).

    Part of us participates in the Holy Spirit which is a causeless mystery. Freedom is indeed part of the definition of what it is to be a human being and a human actor. But an interior is needed. All conscious beings have some part of “spirit” within them. Considered as “sequences of events” all is a machine – though one without purpose or designer. Some of those events, however, are symbols of spirit and in inner life.

    A determinist can make no meaningful distinction between Internal and external. A mind cannot be seen – that would be internal. A brain, however, is simply part of the mechanistic universe which happens to be under a piece of skull which is neither here nor there metaphysically and can easily be removed. If we take “minds” seriously as distinct from brains then determinism goes out the window again – unless we think in terms of spiritual determinism – and that’s when we have recourse to the causeless Ungrund.

    • > Under determinism, “you” are not deciding anything.

      I suspect that there’s some intuition I’m supposed to be having that’s just not coming. Under determinism, I do make decisions–in the sense that they follow from my reasoning and interplay of desires and are not coerced by external forces–but those decisions are predetermined by the prior state of the universe (including of my own mind). Even responsibility exists in a way, since a person who predictably will make a wicked decision in a given situation could be said to be worse than one who does so only stochastically.

      This is not to say that I am a determinist. Only that I don’t see it as a matter that can be settled a priori. The current best guess for the laws that run the universe are nondeterministic. (Although adding randomness via quantum measurements in the brain would hardly be free will as anyone recognizes it.) And there is the question of grace and the pre-motion of meritorious acts, which depends on divine initiative, and God being outside of time must be regarded as a separate boundary condition and not just a part of the universe’s initial conditions. It is probably not possible from a mere knowledge of the material past to know whether a given person has from all eternity been consigned to the predestined or the reprobate.

  6. It doesn’t sound very humble to brag about being humble! 🙂 In the grand hierarchy of the humble – is it arranged from inferior up to superior, or the other way around?

    • Well, I had a dilemma. If I say that I grant myself only a humble mode of existence, then I sound like I’m slyly praising myself. If I say that I grant you only a humble mode of existence, that sounds rude!

      Anyway, thank you for your patience. My mind can only take small steps. (Rather, when it tries to take larger steps, it often goes wildly wrong.)


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