The problem with the FreeThinking Argument Against Naturalism

0. Introduction

Tim Stratton is an apologist who runs the website FreeThinkingMinistries. He has an argument he calls the Free Thinking Argument Against Naturalism (FAAN). It works like this: ‘thinking freely’ requires libertarian freewill, and this requires having a soul, and this requires that God exists, and if God exists naturalism is false. Here is how he puts it in his article ‘The FreeThinking Argument in a Nutshell‘:

  1. If naturalism is true, the immaterial human soul does not exist.
  2. If the soul does not exist, libertarian free will does not exist.
  3. If libertarian free will does not exist, rationality and knowledge do not exist.
  4. Rationality and knowledge exist.
  5. Therefore, libertarian free will exists.
  6. Therefore, the soul exists.
  7. Therefore, naturalism is false.
  8. The best explanation for the existence of the soul is God.

In this post, I will set out a quick problem with this argument.

  1. Justification

The main problem, as I see it, is with premise 3. Here is what Stratton says about this:

“…it logically follows that if naturalism is true, then atheists — or anyone else for that matter — cannot possess knowledge. Knowledge is defined as “justified true belief.” One can happen to have true beliefs; however, if they do not possess warrant or justification for a specific belief, their belief does not qualify as a knowledge claim. If one cannot freely infer the best explanation, then one has no justification that their belief really is the best explanation. Without justification, knowledge goes down the drain. All we are left with is question-begging assumptions (a logical fallacy).”

Stratton uses ‘justified true belief’ as the definition of knowledge, which seems a bit out of date with how contemporary epistemology thinks about it, but let’s pass over that and just play along.

Given that he says that on naturalism “[o]ne can happen to have true beliefs”, he seems to be conceding that true beliefs are possible on naturalism, but that having justification for true beliefs is not. So the question becomes: what is it about naturalism that rules out justification? However, all he says about why we would not be able to have justification on naturalism is that:

“If one cannot freely infer the best explanation, then one has no justification that their belief really is the best explanation.”

What is going on here?

2. Determinism

Let’s play along with the idea that on naturalism, “all that exists is causally determined via the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the big bang”. It doesn’t seem to be required to me. After all, the laws of physics could be indeterministic. Naturalism (plausibly) says that there are no non-natural causes, but doesn’t say that every state is determined by the initial state of the universe. Perhaps, as quantum theory seems to suggest, the laws of physics are indeterministic, and the evolution of the world is chancy. That might be correct, or it might be incorrect. Stipulating naturalism doesn’t on its own seem to settle this question though. But let’s just grant it anyway, just to see where it goes.

The question is: on naturalism, and determinism, if I have a true belief, can I have justification for that true belief? Stratton is saying ‘no’, and his reason seems to be that this is because I “cannot freely infer the best explanation”.

But why should I have to freely infer anything? I don’t think freedom, of the type he is suggesting, is required at all. Here is how that could work.

Suppose that strict determinism is true, such that “people are nothing more than material mechanisms bound by the laws of chemistry and physics”, “bags of chemicals on bones,” or “meat robots”, certainly not possessing a soul or libertarian free will. If so, then each of our beliefs will have been caused to be in our mind (or in our brain) by some antecedent state of affairs, which was itself caused, etc etc, in a chain going back to the initial state of the universe. It is logically possible that I could have believed otherwise than I do, but really there was never any physical possibility that I was going to.

3. The Counterexample

Let us suppose that in this situation, I have the belief:

A) Tim Stratton is the author of the FAAN

It is a true belief (presumably). But can I have justification for it if naturalism and determinism are true? Let us suppose also that I have the further two true beliefs as well:

B) There are various articles and YouTube videos by Tim Stratton in which he presents the FAAN, and in which claims to be the author of the argument.

C) Nobody would make an easily detectable false claim to authorship of an argument in so many articles and YouTube videos.

Nothing about naturalism or determinism prevents me from having these two beliefs. Perhaps they have to be merely brain states on naturalism, rather than ‘mental states’ (supposing that phrase to mean something other than brain states). Let’s suppose that as well for the sake of the argument.

It seems to me that nothing Stratton has said so far rules out the possibility that the brain states associated with me having beliefs B and C are part of the causal story involved in me having the belief A. It may be that something about the chemical reactions happening in the brain when I entertain both B and C causes me to have this belief A.

The question then would be: why my having beliefs B and C doesn’t count as justification for believing that A? In other words, why isn’t it a justification of my belief that Stratton authored the FAAN that I also believe that he has said it many times in articles and videos, and that people generally don’t pretend to have authored arguments like that?

This seems like a perfectly coherent situation. I actually do have the belief that he is the author of the argument for more or less those very reasons. I’ve never met him; I didn’t see him write the argument; I wasn’t with him when he first thought of it. I go off the evidence I have (the articles and videos) along with my assessment of how likely they are to be reliable (based on the thought that people generally don’t completely make up authorship of arguments like that). I didn’t freely pick any of those beliefs. Reading his articles caused me to believe that he says he authored them in the articles. My experience with people also caused me to come to believe people don’t generally make up easily detectable falsehoods. On the basis of those (let’s suppose: caused by those) I came to believe he authored the argument. This seems perfectly coherent. But if so, then I can have ‘rationality and knowledge’ without libertarian free will, and thus premise 3 is false.

3. Conclusion

If Stratton thinks that this cannot be a justification, for some reason, then he has not spelled it out that I know of. Nor do I understand how that would go. To show that such a situation cannot be an instance of a justified belief, he would have to show that such a situation is impossible (cannot happen), or that it is possible but cannot count as a justification. To me it obviously can happen even granting naturalism and determinism. All it requires is the holding of true beliefs (which Stratton explicitly allows in that situation) and that beliefs can be causally related to one another. But I supposed for the argument that beliefs are simply brain states, which are physical states, and the sorts of things that “bags of chemicals on bones” or “meat robots” could have. Obviously, they could be causally related; physical states can be causally related, brain states included.

Given all that in the counterexample, I have a true belief, A, and I have relevant beliefs, B and C, and it is on the basis of having those beliefs that I believe A. The thing that is important about whether B and C count as justifying belief A is how relevant they are to A, but not about whether they are casually related to my having belief A or not. The causal question seems irrelevant, so long as they are of the right type, and I believe A because I believe them. Both of those conditions are met here, so it counts as an instance of justification. Thus, the argument is unsound.

There are many other ways one could argue against FAAN, but I wanted to present this one. It is not my argument, but comes from Peter Van Inwagen, in his paper ‘C. S. Lewis’ Argument Against Naturalism‘. In reality, Stratton’s argument at this point is just a rehashed version of Lewis’ argument, and fails for the same reasons.

4 thoughts on “The problem with the FreeThinking Argument Against Naturalism”

  1. Alex– As usual, this was fantastic. I think you’re spot on that our having knowledge does not require libertarian freedom. (I have to admit that I’m a bit confused as to why anyone would think that knowledge would require freely formed beliefs, as opposed to beliefs formed deterministically (!) on the basis of good reasons.)

    Here’s one thing that I find confusing when theists invoke libertarian freedom to defend the soul. Naturalists do not typically believe that we have libertarian freedom; for that reason, one might surmise that libertarian freedom and naturalism are incompatible and that, if libertarian freedom exists, there must be some supernatural element to the human person. That is, a soul. This might make sense if naturalists rejected libertarian freedom merely because they reject the soul.

    But naturalists typically do not reject libertarian freedom on the basis that we do not have a soul. After all, there are naturalistic accounts of libertarian freedom (e.g., Robert Kane’s). Instead, naturalists typically reject libertarian freedom because either (1) they think there is strong evidence against our having libertarian freedom or (2) they think that libertarian freedom is logically incoherent, so that there is no possible state of affairs, with souls or without, that could count as our having libertarian freedom. I find the latter to be fairly plausible. In any case, the arguments offered in support of (1) and (2) apply to everyone, regardless of whether we have souls or not. So, it seems to me that if theists want to utilize libertarian freedom in support of their supernaturalism, at minimum, they need to demonstrate why (1) and (2) are wrong-headed and to show why naturalistic views, like Kane’s, won’t do the job.

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  2. I don’t think Tim’s argument is a rehash of Lewis’ argument, though Tim would probably agree with you. I think it’s a misrepresentation of Lewis’ argument. It’s a misrepresentation that a lot of Christian apologists make. Free will never even came up in Lewis’ argument. Lewis merely compared two paths to belief, both of which could have been deterministic:

    1. Belief through physical causes.
    2. Belief through rational reasons.

    Nowhere in Lewis’ argument does he even hint that the second involves libertarian free will or free will at all. What Lewis does, instead, is explain why these two paths to belief are distinct and why one results in rational belief and the other doesn’t. He also argues that if naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs are through physical causes rather than rational reasons and cannot therefore be rational beliefs.

    I think Tim’s argument fails, but for a very different reason than you do. It fails because it leads to absurdity if taken to its logical conclusion. If the exercise of libertarian freedom is necessary to arrive at rational beliefs, it follows that the more free our beliefs are, the more rational they are, and the less free they are, the less rational they are.

    The stronger evidence presents itself to us, or the stronger the force of an argument, the harder it is to deny the conclusion. The harder it is to deny the conclusion of an argument, the closer that argument is to determining your belief. If the evidence or argument were so strong that we could not resist its force, then our belief would be determined by the evidence/argument. But according to Tim Stratton, if our beliefs are determined, then they cannot be rational (and it doesn’t seem to matter what they are determined BY so long as they are determined). So it would follow that the more warrant we have for believing something, the less rational we are for believing it since the more warrant we have for believing something, the closer that warrant is to determining our belief.

    And the reverse is also true. If the closer we are to having our beliefs be determined by reasons, evidence, arguments, etc., the less rational those beliefs are, it follows that the less hand reasons, evidence, and argument have in bringing about our beliefs, the more rational our beliefs are. And our beliefs are MOST rational when they are completely arbitrary and are not so much as influenced by reasons, arguments, and evidence.

    But that is exactly backward. The more solid an argument is and the stronger the evidence is, the more rational you are for affirming the conclusion. It follows that you are MOST rational when the evidence and arguments are sufficient to determine your belief. Or, in other words, your belief has everything to do with evidence and reasons, and nothing to do with making an arbitrary choice.

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    1. “Nowhere in Lewis’ argument does he even hint that the second involves libertarian free will or free will at all. What Lewis does, instead, is explain why these two paths to belief are distinct and why one results in rational belief and the other doesn’t”

      Lewis distinguishes between two notions of ‘because’, the because of cause and effect and the because of logical dependence. And he says:

      “But unfortunately the two systems are wholly distinct. To be caused is not to be proved” (Lewis, Miracles, p. 17)

      He is saying that if your thoughts are the products of cause and effect, then they are not rational. Tim is saying that unless they are libertarian free, they are not rational. Anything that is free in this sense is not part of an external cause and effect chain that originated outside the agent. So while they are not exactly the same, they are both making a relevantly similar point; and the van Inwagen style reply applies to both.

      As for your second point, just because x is a necessary condition for y doesn’t mean y co-varies with x. Training is necessary to win the marathon, but you could train too hard and die of exhaustion, or never stop and miss the race etc. So according to you this shows that training cannot be a necessary condition for winning the race.

      The point is that all Tim needs to say is that freedom is one of the necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for knowledge. He doesn’t need to be committed to the simple “more free, more justified” idea you are trying to pin on him.

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