Magic, Atheism, and Free Will

In an older post, Edward Feser describes different perspectives on how the world can be intelligible, whether in itself, or with respect to our knowledge of it. Two options he discusses at length are: (a) the view that the world is wholly intelligible in itself, but only partly intelligible to us, and (b) the view that the world is only partly intelligible both in itself and to us. Feser argues that the second position is ultimately incoherent. It is represented by philosophers like Bertrand Russell who want to argue that science gives us real explanations, but that there is no ultimate explanation for the universe. Feser argues:

Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? It is hard to see how. For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft – it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so. But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. The “explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory. (Nor would it help to impute to the book some such tendency after all, if the having of the tendency is itself just an unintelligible brute fact. The illusion will just have been relocated, not eliminated.)

By the same token, it is no good to say “The operation of law of nature C is explained by the operation of law of nature B, and the operation of B by the operation of law of nature A, but the operation of A has no explanation whatsoever and is just an unintelligible brute fact.” The appearance of having “explained” C and B is completely illusory if A is a brute fact, because if there is neither anything about A itself that can explain A’s own operation nor anything beyond A that can explain it, then A has nothing to impart to B or C that could possibly explain their operation. As the Scholastics would say, a cause cannot give what it does not itself have in the first place. A series of ever more fundamental “laws of nature” is in this regard like a series of instrumental causes ordered per se. The notion of “an explanatory nomological regress terminating in a brute fact” is, when carefully examined, as incoherent the notion of “a causal series ordered per se in which every cause is purely instrumental.” And thus Mackie’s and Russell’s position is itself ultimately incoherent.

This seems a persuasive argument to me. But I think it has application beyond discussions between atheists and theists. It seems to me this point has implications for the debate between determinists and indeterminists. Determinists would clearly fit into option (a) that I noted above, that the universe is fully intelligible in itself. Some theistic determinists, like those in the Reformed tradition, will usually contend that some aspects of reality are not intelligible to us (in some cases, they would say this is true of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility), but they will contend that God understands all, and everything makes sense in itself.

Libertarians, however, seem to necessarily have a difficulty here. Jeremy Pierce provides the following argument:

If I am the cause of my decision, then there’s a particular event I can pick out – my causing my decision. That seems to be a genuine event. Is that event caused or uncaused? If it’s uncaused, then I am not in control, so it better be caused. But it better not be caused by something outside my control. So it must have been caused by some previous event that was also under my control. Then we have another event, and we can ask about that one as well. That one must also have been caused by some other event under my control. If you keep going, you either get an infinite regress, with this infinite past set of events all within my control, or else at some point something outside my control enters in. The first seems absurd – that any one choice I make requires an infinite past series of events all under my control. The second is bad for libertarianism – something outside my control caused what I do. Only a compatibilist could say that.

I do see one possible way out for someone endorsing agent causation. Do we have to admit that the event of my decision must have been caused by some previous event? That’s not what the agency theorist should say. The agency theorist should say that the event of my decision was caused by me. Then what about the event of its being caused by me? That’s just not a legitimate event. This may be the best way an agency theorist would handle this objection. You can put words to describe that as an event, but it’s not an event, and so there’s no meaningful question to be asked about whether it is caused or what caused it. It’s difficult to see why this might be independently plausible, because it sure sounds like an event… .

I agree with Pierce. Phenomenologically, there does not seem to be a reason to exclude such an thing from the category of event, except that it would salvage libertarian free will. Further, libertarianism implies a lack of contrastive explanations for free decisions. When someone asks for the causal explanation for why an agent acted freely in a certain way, the libertarian answer is “the agent caused his/her action freely”. But if you ask “why did the agent choose x over y”, they ultimately must deny that there is a sufficient cause for such an effect. This implies some aspects of reality have no explanation, even in themselves. And these points return us to the same problems Feser outlined in Russell’s position.

But the problems do not end there, for the unintelligibility Russell’s position entails should be a reason to reject his entire position. In another older post, Feser contends that atheism is ultimately a magical worldview, and that that is a problem for it. He writes:

Putnam surely captures one important sense of the term “magical” here (though there are other senses, as we will note below). More to the point, he surely captures the sense of “magical” in which the notion of magic is thought by the atheist to be objectionable. And rightly so, for it is objectionable. “Magical” powers, as Putnam here describes them, are powers which are intrinsically unintelligible. It’s not just that we don’t know how magic operates; it’s that there is, objectively, no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how it operates.

That it is intrinsically unintelligible has to be what is objectionable about it.

And a little later:

But a potential, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual, cannot actualize itself; only what is already actual can actualize it. And if that which actualizes a potential is itself being actualized as it does so, it must in turn be actualized by something else. Such a regress of causes would be of the essentially ordered or instrumental kind; and it can only terminate … in that which can actualize without itself having to be actualized — something which just is “pure actuality.” And that is the metaphysical core of the … conception of God. …

Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism itself.  The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell.  The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact — that it is intelligible through and through — seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense.

But if atheism is a magical worldview because it holds some aspects of reality are ultimately unexplainable, it seems libertarianism must also be magical for saying something analogous regarding human choices. And if magical explanations in the sense Putnam defined them are objectionable (as they seem intuitively to be), then it would be intellectually preferable to hold to a form of theistic determinism with a recognition that some aspects of reality are unintelligible to us, even though they are ultimately intelligible in themselves.