Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?


“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. You are doing the very thing you just claimed is 10impossible. 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. But, rejecting freedom, means denying the existence of agency and persuasion.

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.

Berdyaev 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 11blindly 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. This was an argument for God’s existence put forward by William Paley – that the order and structure of nature is indirect evidence that nature has a maker. God has been traditionally associated with the Logos – the cosmic principle of order; the order that science does its best to discover. Paley suggested that the orderly structure of nature is comparable to finding a watch on a desert island. There is no way that a watch could exist by itself. The way its gears fit together and its capacity to keep time indicate a designer, even though the designer is absent. A watch is a human created object 12and it is something people carry, so a person must have dropped it. So, the current inhabitant of the island can logically infer that someone else must have been there before him. To put it in Berdyaevian terms, 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. A painting, objectively, is just paint on a canvas. Music, is just black marks on manuscript paper, or the ones and zeros of a computer file. But, we know they came the human imagination, which is connected to the human interior. They point back to their spiritual, subjective, origin.

Knowledge involves creativity. The producer of knowledge takes something from the 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, 9immersing 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 entirely13 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 embodies 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 were a right moment for creative dogmatism, the postulate of Freedom is surely one of them.

Though the Ungrund is by definition The Great Mystery and unknowable, one way of thinking about it that could make it a little more imaginable, is to compare it to another dimension that you can reach into, like a wormhole. It is another dimension that you cannot see inside, but you can reach your hand in and pull something out. What you pull out will be related to you, and your 6desires, preferences, personality, knowledge, and life experiences. Einstein had to know a lot about physics and mathematics to generate the theory of relativity, and he had to have a great imagination. As a young teenager, he had read an encyclopedia that combined physics and biology and in it was the thought experiment of what it would look like to ride a beam of light. He never forgot this and it inspired thoughts that led to his breakthrough discovery, along with working in a patent office where clocks were being patented, getting him to think about time in a new way. What Einstein discovered was also related to his knowledge, desire to know, and life experience. When Beethoven composed music, he knew a lot about previous music, and also a great deal about music theory. His style of music reflected him, his personality, his cultural environment, and his preferences; and even the nature of his creative and imaginative impulses. Einstein’s insights into the Logos; the beauty of Beethoven’s music, represent something transcendent. Highly trained composers can compose in the style of Beethoven, but this is strictly imitative. It is possible to pull from the Ungrund something similar to Beethoven, but only in conscious imitation of him, and the results are derivative. What each musician pulls from the Ungrund, ideally, is a reflection of him and his interaction with the Great Mystery. It is a gift from the divine; a gift uniquely chosen for the recipient and in cooperation with him.

It is also important to note that the act of creation and imagination implies agency. And it is not the Ungrund that is the agent. The Ungrund provides the possibility of agency and creation, but it does not cause you to create. It is merely the precondition of both agency and creation. That is why it is the “causeless cause.” And it is how spiritual determinism is avoided. Without the Ungrund, spiritual determinism would just replace physical determinism. If God or some other spiritual item caused your creative act, then there would be spiritual cause and effect leading to a predetermined outcome just like physical determinism. Before your creative and imaginative act, you do not know what will appear. If you did, what you are doing would not be an act of creation. You try to position yourself in such a way that when you reach, something can travel along the link you have with the Ungrund. 7Sometimes we fail. But, even failure represents something good. If the successful creation of good things was guaranteed, it would be closer to an algorithm; a set of instructions, and that is the opposite of being creative. We talk about being “inspired” to create. The word “inspire” etymologically means to breathe or blow into – to breathe out something spiritual and transcendent which is then inhaled by us. A truth or idea is imparted to you. The Greeks thought of the soul (psyche) as the breath. Breath is invisible, it is the precondition for life, and it leaves the body when you die. There is something beautiful in the idea that genuine and good acts of creation reflect the unrepeatable Person made in the image of God. And this ability to create, this Freedom, with our link to the Great Mystery, is what makes us God-like – with the caveat that we cannot create anything that also has this link. We can make a piano, or a picture, but we cannot make an eternal soul with this connection to the Ungrund.

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.

32 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.)

      • Hi, Bonald – following Brian’s humorous post I could say I credit you with a spiritual connection to infinite freedom which accounts for the final mystery of human association and the reason why scientific treatises will always be a pale thing compared to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. And you credit me with non-existence; just a dreary moment in a “sequence of events” in no interesting way different from a rock, no more responsible for “my” “actions” than it is. Hence, I look up to you and you down on me.

        Free will cannot be proved because the Ungrund is not amenable to rationalistic explanation, or any other kind. All the arguer for it can do is point to a rather impressive list of horrendous results of embracing the equally unprovable determinism in the form of a reductio ad absurdum, including the impossibility of rationally arguing for determinism; rationality having gone out the window. And point to the rather better results of believing in free will – though now having to accept responsibility for one’s own actions which a great many people have strong motivations for rejecting. If anyone has been predetermined to be a reprobate since all eternity then I declare myself an atheist – at least regarding that particular evil God.

      • Thank you for your time, Dr. Cocks.

        I would be interested to hear your take sometime on the Christian doctrine of predestination. Of course, I realize that this is a difficult subject and would not blame you for deciding to steer clear of it. The reason I bring it up is that theologians have long pondered issues related to the ones we’ve been discussing but in the explicitly Christian context of the relation between human free will, the necessity of grace, and divine foreknowledge. So even without materialism, there are issues here.

  7. Matt 26:34 “Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”

    Exploring the Christian doctrine of predestination, IF this was a REAL event, how did Jesus predict Peter’s denial of Him? In a ONE GOD possible sense (because with God all things are possible), it already happened (it was not a linear time future event. It was a replay – therefore a stuck in time loop Eternal Return Recurrence of the Singular Event. Because God transcends and IS time, space, causality, acausality, ungrund, etc. As THE ONE – in Him we live and move and have our being – pantheism, panentheism, etc. – there is no place where THE ONE God is not (unless one takes a more Deist view that God abandoned His creation and lives in a separate territory).

    Romans 9:14-22 on Predestination

    “14What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” 16So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. 17For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” 18Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

    “19You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” 20But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

    “22What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, 24even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

    Personally I don’t agree with the implications of this Singularity doctrine, but if it is true, then God’s Will will eventually future-prevail over my unwillingness to accept it on faith today.

    There is a deep desire in humanity to know it’s future – what will happen to us individually. Astrology, Prophecy, etc. imply both freedom to choose – however also imply fait accompli – it already happened.

    Nietzsche proclaimed that we should love it (Eternal Return)! Amor Fati!
    Camus proclaimed we should imagine Sisyphus as Happy!
    Yogi Berra proclaimed it was Déjà vu all over again.

    Plato’s Myth of Er makes more sense to me (directionally and morally speaking), because each of us is personally responsible as uncreated immortal souls within a hierarchy of power for paying their own remorse and regret sin-invoices (no scapegoat) through reincarnation(s) and memory restoration (anamnesis). In today’s fiction (the imagination of others), there is also the time-war theme of being able to change the past and future with retrocausality.

    Perhaps this is the Hope remedy in Pandora’s Box, the escape key – … press it to UN-DO remorse and regret.

    • Thanks, wtquinn:

      Since it was Jesus’ destiny to reveal the scapegoat mechanism to mankind, then he might be expected to know that Peter, like pretty much every human, will distance himself from the scapegoat victim through fear and conformity. Fear that in allying yourself with the victim, you too will be crucified, and conformity, because where unanimous opinion appears, it is very hard to remain an exception to it. If, for instance, absolutely everyone you know (friends and family included) start telling you you are crazy, or morally repugnant, and, for instance, don’t deserve to live, it will be next to impossible not to come to share this opinion. The “you will deny me thrice” could be a slight poetic license perhaps, meaning in this context, on every occasion that you are asked you will deny knowing me.

      My RSV Bible has it Romans 9:21 “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?” – hence, a castigation against resentment. If that is a legitimate interpretation of the Greek, then this puts a different light on your translation’s “honor” and “dishonor.” Most of Romans 9 is justifying why Christianity can include Gentiles as well as Jews. “The vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” seems problematic unless the vessels of wrath have become what they are through their thoughts and actions and wrath has no place in eternal life and is thus destined for destruction.

      What is the Singularity doctrine in this context? I’m only familiar with it as the name for the precursor to the Big Bang and also the supposed coming of AGI consciousness.

      • Thank you for your perspective Richard.

        I think your interpretation would render time as linear, forward motion only – which may be true. We will find out a-posteriori after death.

        I used Singularity loosely to mean the All, the Infinite Ground of all being, also embodied as the One personage, hypostasis, etc. I know there are more rigid precise definitions separating these words among the orthodox, depending on sect.


  8. Pingback: Addition to “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?” – The Orthosphere

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