A Rational Presuppositional Approach to Free Will

By Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton


February 10, 2020

I met Tim Stratton when he reached out to me after reading my book Reason and Proper Function: A Response to Alvin Plantinga. He enthusiastically let me know that the argument I presented in that book supports a version of libertarian freedom that he endorses. At first, I wondered “what did I write to support libertarian freedom?” Then I questioned, “What does Tim mean by libertarian freedom?” So I asked him: “Do you mean libertarian freedom as contra-causal freedom?” Tim said something like, no I mean “contra-causal determinism.” He said that his version of libertarian freedom is decidedly not compatibilist, traditionally understood.[1] So, let us see if we agree about freedom.

Tim sent me a video in which he responds to Dr. James White on the topic of Molinism. I watched Dr. White’s video and I watched Tim’s defense of Mere Molinism. I told Tim that I had done a deep dive into the topic of free will about fifteen years ago while arguing with some Biola friends, but that I never returned to the topic. I had not seen the need to revisit the topic until I realized how many young people on the internet are debating free will, predestination, Calvinism, Molinism, and Arminianism. It is not only Christians who are arguing about free will, but many atheists are arguing about it as well. This caught my interest.

On principle, I try to argue about more basic (logically prior) issues before addressing the less basic. I see these free will arguments as less basic, so I have not directly addressed them in my work. I address different perspectives on free will in my Philosophy of Religion classes, but there we have a context for discussion. I have tried to figure out the best way to enter into this highly divisive topic since Tim requested my participation. I will offer a different perspective, one that I hope will advance the discussion. Tim is an expert on this topic, I am not. My emphasis has been in epistemology, particularly focused on the nature of reason. I want to connect reason and free will and we can see if Mere Molinism is supported by my view in the end.

Rational Presuppositions

In any discussion I enter into, I assume the following as necessary conditions for common ground and meaningful dialogue:

Reason, the laws of thought, is necessary for thought and for discourse. By way of refresher, the laws of thought include Identity, a is a; Non-Contradiction, not both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and Excluded Middle, either a or non-a. I assume, as Aristotle did, that the laws of thought are also the laws of being. There are no square circles, no being from non-being, and no uncaused events. If we give up the laws of thought, we give up meaning, if we give up meaning then we cannot understand one another and communication fails.

Integrity is necessary for dialogue. If we profess a position, we should be willing to live with the logical implications of that position.

The Principle of Clarity is necessary for discourse. This principle says that the basic things about God, human nature, and good and evil for human beings are clear to reason. If the more basic things are not clear then the less basic things are not clear and we have no basis for discussion. If the more basic things are clear to reason, because we are rational beings, then we are morally accountable for knowing what is clear. To put it another way, human beings are without excuse for failing to see what is clear to reason. This assumes that humans are rational beings and CAN use reason if they want to. Rationality at this level assumes free will in the sense of liberty to think critically at the basic level. We are always free to use reason to critically analyze our basic beliefs. If there is clarity, there is also inexcusibility at that basic level.

The Rational Presuppositional approach is necessary for dialogue and assumes that if we can agree on the more basic (God, human nature, good and evil) then we can agree on the less basic – what assumes answers to these questions.

I would like to say a little more about reason. We can make a distinction between reason in itself, our use of reason (reasoning), and reason as an aspect of human nature (rationality). Reason, the laws of thought, is not fallen and is not fallible. These are laws of thinking and of being. The laws apply to all being, including the being of God. God cannot both be Creator and non-Creator in the same respect at the same time. I argue that reason MUST be ontological if we are to maintain meaning, truth, and knowledge as opposed to falling into skepticism and fideism.

Reason and Proper Function

Yet, we must come to terms with the fact that human beings persistently fail in their use of reason. We must give an account as to why we make mistakes in understanding the meaning of the terms we use, why we believe false things, and why we provide unsound arguments all the time. I argue in Reason and Proper Function that errors in our use of reason are not due to cognitive malfunction, but are rather due to cognitive non-function or non-thinking.

By cognitive non-function, I mean that we neglect, avoid, resist, or deny (NARD) reason and its proper use. NARD comes in degrees. Neglect may just be a kind of apathy. It didn’t occur to me that I should think critically about God and human nature and good and evil. When it is brought to my attention that I have been neglecting these most important topics, I can either choose to start using reason critically, or I can avoid the topic. We avoid many topics, especially the most basic topics, but we cannot avoid them for long, they continue to come up. When we can no longer avoid, we can choose to think critically about the basic questions, or we can go into resistance mode. Resistance mode is where we dig in, we are in self-deception and self-justification. We may turn against the one bringing the undesirable topic to mind by using informal fallacies against them. We may go into non-cognitivism and say things like “I just feel it deep in my heart” or “I know it immediately by experience.” When the resistance level of non-thinking is exposed, one may choose to start thinking critically, or one may deny reason itself – that is, to deny the laws of thought. This is the deepest level of non-function or non-thinking and the most deadly. Yes, I said deadly.

Non-function, or non-thinking, is deadly in that when we deny reason, the laws of thought, as rational beings, meant to think according to those laws, we commit a kind of intellectual suicide. Logicide (the murder of the logos) results in intellectual suicide. How does this happen when we don’t use reason to know basic things? We lose meaning. Our words lose meaning, we speak nonsense, and our lives lose meaning because we are no longer connected to and understand reality. What happens when one cannot understand reality? So-called “reality” becomes boring. Human beings, as essentially rational beings, cannot live without meaning — we need meaning to make sense of things — so we search for meaning in ways that we determine to be good.

This is where freedom comes in. We are free to either obey the law of our being – the laws of thought – or we are free to violate the law of our being. But, we are not free to violate the law of our being without inherent consequences. If we don’t use reason, necessarily we will not find meaning and we will not understand. Humans, by nature, need meaning, so we invent our own source of meaning (in theological circles this is known as autonomy – determining good and evil for oneself apart from the way God made us). When we determine good and evil for ourselves, we go after all kinds of finite things that will never satisfy (because of the “God-shaped hole” that needs knowledge of and satisfaction in the infinite). When we are not satisfied, we go into excess. When we go into excess, we waste our time, efforts, and our life, which is vanity. When we waste our lives and we realize it, we feel guilt. And there is actual guilt. We are guilty of failing to see what is clear because it was readily knowable and we chose not to use reason to see what is clear. If a person is in this condition of meaninglessness, boredom, and guilt (MBG), it is a direct and necessary consequence of the failure to use reason at the basic level. One is always free to use reason at the basic level. If we were not free at this level, and the basic things were not clear, then there would be no basis for moral accountability. Let us say that NARD necessarily leads to MBG. We are free to NARD, but we are not free to escape the consequences of NARD-ing.

Meaninglessness, boredom, and guilt begin the descent into hell for human beings. Hell is inherent and present. It has Biblical analogs: darkness of mind “outer darkness,” the burning of desires “the lake of fire,” and the gnawing of conscience “the worm that does not die.” And, if not changed in this life, it goes on forever as a “bottomless pit.” The alternative – spiritual life – is available to us as well. If we seek to know what is clear about God and humans and what is good for humans and evil for humans then we will live accordingly and experience the inherent results. What is the result of using reason? We find meaning, we know the truth, we understand the totality of reality – including who God is and our relation to God and our purpose in the world – and we can attain wisdom, the pinnacle of human achievement. But, why is critical thinking at the basic level so difficult?

In Reason and Proper Function, I briefly mention what I propose as the “carefulness criterion” as a way of keeping us from falling into cognitive non-function. It is minimally critical thinking at the basic level and exercise of the intellectual virtues. Why do we fall into cognitive non-function? I propose that it is because we do not want to exercise our cognitive abilities at the basic level. At this point, you may wonder, why don’t we want to exercise our reason at the basic level? Why don’t people want to address the questions “Does God exist or not?” “What is the essence of human nature?” “What is good and evil for human beings?”

I suspect that we all have assumed (presupposed) answers to those questions; essentially, we think we know. The carefulness criterion would have us back up and prove what we think we know. If we say we know that God exists, and it is clear that God exists, then we ought to be able to show that God exists. We think that is hard and so we justify ourselves and fall into fideism. Atheists assume that God does not exist. If it is true that God does not exist, that should be clear, and the atheist should be able to demonstrate the alternative to “God exists” is true. But, in my experience, those who assume there is no God fall into skepticism as a means of self-justification. Even when we are free to deny that some things are clear to reason, we are not free to escape the rational demand to provide justification for our beliefs.

At the basic level, human being and human thinking are “determined” by reason, the laws of thought. This is not an externally caused determinism. It is an inherent determinism based upon the kinds of beings that we are. We are never free to not be human – we are determined by design to be rational beings. And we are never free to not give justification for our beliefs. Furthermore, once we have answered the questions about how we know, and whether God exists or does not exist, we are no longer free to choose apart from those assumptions without incurring the inherent consequences for our beliefs. The consequences are either meaning or no meaning, truth or no truth, knowledge or no knowledge, understanding or lack of understanding, wisdom or no wisdom. The consequences of using reason at the basic level are spiritual life or spiritual death (SD).

Human Freedom and Divine Action

There are implications for freedom here too. If a person who NARDs is in the condition of meaninglessness, boredom, and guilt, which is spiritual death, how can that person come out of that state? Spiritual death is the result of intellectual suicide. The light of understanding is off. How will the light shine in the darkness? Spiritual death requires spiritual resurrection – you must be born again – but how? Physically dead men do not raise themselves to life. Physical resurrection requires a divine act of God. As does spiritual resurrection. If one is spiritually dead, only a divine act of God can bring one to spiritual life. God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, restores the critical use of reason at the basic level.

Is God violating human freedom by restoring the use of reason at the basic level? Is he violating freedom if he does not restore the use of reason at the basic level? At this point, we have to ask what do we mean by freedom? Freedom is liberty. If you want to use your reason at the basic level to see what is clear, you are always free to do so. What is keeping people from doing so? They don’t want to, given their state of NARD-ing. Once you NARD then MBG results. Perhaps a person may think “how do I stop NARD-ing?” If you want to stop, perhaps you should ask for Grace. But, I suspect if a person wants to stop NARD-ing, they have already received Grace and the lights are on.

Have I described a version of freedom that is libertarian? Is this version of free will compatible with Mere Molinism? I will let you decide.


[1] Stratton has referred to himself as a “modified compatibilist,” or as a “libertarian compatibilist.” Traditionally, if one affirms compatibilism, they mean that free will and/or moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. The compatibilist often claims that whatever we choose, that was the only option compatible with our nature at that time. If that is the case, we could not have chosen otherwise. Stratton, however, believes that God created humanity with the occasional ability to choose between a range of alternative options *each compatible* with our “image of God” nature (See Limited Libertarian Freedom & Traditional Compatibilism: What’s the Difference?).

[2] For more on common ground, please see Gangadean, Surrendra: The Logos Papers #2.

[3] For more on the concept of neglecting, avoiding, resisting, and denying the use of reason, see my mentor’s work: Gangadean, Surrendra. Philosophical Foundation: A Critical Analysis of Basic Belief (Lanham: University Press of America, 2009).


About the Author

By Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton

Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton, Ph.D. has been a college Philosophy professor in Phoenix, AZ since 2003. Her most recent projects include serving as Research Fellow for the Clarity Fund. She is a founding member of the Public Philosophy Society. In order to promote the niche market of public philosophy, Kelly founded Public Philosophy Press. She is the author of Retrieving Knowledge: A Socratic Response to Skepticism (2018) and Reason and Proper Function: A Reply to Alvin Plantinga (2019). You may find more about Kelly’s work on her website: http://retphi.com and on her YouTube channel.