Proper Function & Libertarian Freedom



(The FreeThinking Theist)


February 3, 2020

After three long years of intense research and writing, I finally submitted my doctoral dissertation in hopes of getting three pesky letters to follow my last name for the rest of my life: Ph.D. (I passed)! My final submission was 350 pages long (including the bibliography). To keep it relatively “short” — and to eventually complete this project in a timely manner — I unfortunately had to “axe” many points that I was originally planning to include. These arguments went to the proverbial “chopping block” and were eventually buried and forgotten.

Now that my dissertation project is complete I hope to “dig up” several “lost arguments” to develop them in more detail. One such topic that was deleted rather early in the process was regarding the issue of proper function (of thought, rationality, and the acquisition of reason-based knowledge). This “lost argument” demonstrates the importance of libertarian freedom while engaged in the use of reason. That is to say, I am convinced that “proper function” entails libertarian freedom.

Alvin Plantinga contends that a true belief counts as “knowledge” if said belief is formed by cognitive faculties functioning properly in an appropriate environment, and according to a good design plan. My current intention is not to dispute this claim. Indeed, it seems to me that these are all key ingredients leading to knowledge claims. My task, however, is simply to show theists (since atheists do not believe humanity was intelligently designed to function properly) that — at least sometimes — proper function requires freedom (in a libertarian sense).

The Lost Arg.

I crafted the following syllogism to make this point:[1

The Proper Function and Freedom Argument

1. For any human x, x’s cognitive faculties are designed to function properly in an appropriate environment.

2. For any human x, if x’s cognitive faculties are designed to function properly in an appropriate environment, then, through a mature, conscious process of properly functioning faculties, x can reject irrational thinking in favor of rational thinking.

3. Therefore, for any human x, x can, through a mature, conscious process of properly functioning faculties, reject irrational thinking in favor of rational thinking (entails libertarian freedom).

To quickly fly over this syllogism, it seems properly basic to affirm that if one does not possess the ability to reject incoherent thinking in favor of coherent thinking, then something has gone terribly wrong with his or her cognitive faculties. And if one asserts that this ability is not necessary to gain reason-based knowledge, they seem to be affirming that they, themselves, do not possess the ability to judge and evaluate this premise as good, bad, better, worse, the best, true, or false. If one does not possess this ability, then he or she stands in no position to know if he or she should disagree with this premise or not.

Be that as it may, it is a properly basic belief that at least some humans do possess the ability to make these evaluative and rational judgments. In fact, if one objects to this premise, he or she seems to actually be affirming the same premise. That is to say, it is self-defeating to  affirm determinism. Robert Lockie concludes that if one affirms determinism, then one

“[C]annot be epistemically justified in her embrace (adoption, articulation, and defense) of determinism” (Free Will and Epistemology, page 231).

It follows that if one’s noetic structure is functioning properly, then libertarian freedom is a vital ingredient in the rationality mix. It stands to reason that if the ability to be a “free thinker” has been lost — and one is not free to employ the use of reason (in appropriate circumstances) — then something seems to have damaged one’s thinking faculties.

Enter the Mad Scientist

A short, but important, thought experiment clarifies:

Suppose a mad scientist exhaustively controls (causally determines) all of your thoughts and beliefs all the time. This includes exactly what you think of and about and exactly how you think of and about it. All of your thoughts about your beliefs and all of your beliefs about your thoughts are caused and determined by the mad scientist. This also includes the next words that will come out of your mouth.

Question: How can YOU (not the mad scientist) rationally affirm the current beliefs in your head as good, bad, better, the best, true, or probably true (note the range of options from which to choose) without begging the question?

Good luck with that… it is impossible!

Replace the mad scientist with “physics and chemistry,” “God,” or anything else and one has the exact same rationality problems but for different reasons.[2] After all, if something or someone other than you causally determines you to affirm a false belief, then it would be impossible for you to infer or affirm a better belief — let alone the truth! As epistemologist Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton aptly notes:

“Proper function of our cognitive faculties must first rule out the [deterministic] influences of outsiders such as Alpha Centurion, cognitive scientists, Cartesian evil demons, and also internal influences such as a brain lesion or even the influence of mind-altering substances. All of these influences may cause one’s faculties to fail to function properly” (Reason and Proper Function, p 23).

Indeed, there does not seem to be any “functioning” at all if something or someone else causally determines exactly what one thinks of and exactly how one thinks about it.

Be that as it may, since humanity does possess the ability to rationally infer and affirm knowledge claims (to argue otherwise is to affirm it), we know that we possess the libertarian freedom to think and take certain steps while deciding what we ought to affirm and believe. And since libertarian freedom seems to be metaphysically impossible if humanity is nothing but physical stuff, we can rationally infer that humanity is more than merely the physical.

To be continued…

This “lost argument” will continue to be unearthed and developed further (hopefully in the near future). In the meantime…

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


[1] Kirk MacGregor played a vital role in helping me think through the ideas behind the syllogism. (2-10-20, edit: Zach Reimer caught a small but significant error in the structure of the argument. Elliot Crozat and Jacobus Erasmus helped to “fine-tune” it and make it much shorter at the same time). I’m thankful for my great cloud of extremely smart friends.

[2] Replacing the mad scientist with “physics and chemistry” is problematic since the forces of nature are non-rational. If non-rational forces are causally determining all the thoughts and beliefs in your head, including the thoughts and beliefs about your current thoughts and beliefs, then you (the thing you call “I”), stand in no position to rationally affirm your current thoughts and beliefs as good (option #1), better (option #2), the best, (option #3), or true (option #4).

If God is the one who is causally determining all the thoughts and beliefs of all people all the time, then, since all humanity holds some false beliefs — and some false beliefs have horrible eternal consequences, a version of the Omni Argument is waiting around the corner for the one who affirms exhaustive divine determinism (EDD). Thus, the EDD advocate will (at least tacitly) deny the maximal greatness of God. If this is the case, then there is not much difference between “god” (note the little “g”) and the mad scientist. If one affirms that God (note the big “G”) is a maximally great being, as I do, then they must reject EDD.


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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