Standing Among Giants: The History of the FreeThinking Argument

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

August 30, 2021

In 2012 I was sitting next to Timothy Fox listening to Dr. R. Scott Smith teach about the philosophy of intentionality at Biola University. Smith was explaining that intentional states of consciousness entailed an awareness OF and ABOUT things. With “of-ness: and “about-ness” in mind, I started thinking of the laws of logic and about competing hypotheses. It soon occurred to me that if one cannot think of and about competing hypotheses, then it would be impossible for one to rationally choose the best explanation among these alternative options. This got me thinking about the importance of being able to freely think in a libertarian sense.

I started connecting more dots and began to scribble down the beginnings of a three-step syllogism. These two premises and one deductive conclusion have been massaged and nuanced a bit over the past decade, but they are roughly what I refer to as the “core” of the FreeThinking Argument. After class, I rushed to the front of the classroom to run this syllogism past Dr. Smith. He invited me to walk to the cafeteria with him and we discussed this argument over lunch. This conversation led to many others (on line and in person) and I eventually expanded the syllogism to go beyond merely concluding that humanity possesses the libertarian freedom to think, but that there seems to be much more to reality than simply the stuff science can test and discover. Speaking of being able to rationally “choose the best explanation,” Smith noted that an abductive case might then be offered to show that a biblical view of reality is the best explanation of all the data. This led to what I now refer to as the FreeThinking Argument Against Naturalism.

It has taken several forms over the past few years, but here is a newly-worded version of the syllogism (by the word “nature,” I am referring to the kinds of stuff that scientists can directly test or discover).[1]

  1. If naturalism is true, then only nature exists (no souls, angels, demons, or God).
  2. If there is no “supernatural” aspect of humanity, then everything about humanity—including all thoughts and beliefs—would be causally determined by the forces and events of nature (i.e., physics and chemistry).
  3. If all things about humanity—including all thoughts and beliefs—are causally determined by the forces and events of nature, then it is impossible for humans to rationally infer best explanations (over false beliefs) and rationally affirm knowledge claims.
  4. It is possible for humans to infer best explanations (over false beliefs) and rationally affirm knowledge claims (it is self-defeating to offer knowledge claims against this premise).
  5. Therefore, not all things about humanity are causally determined by the forces and events of nature.
  6. Therefore, a supernatural aspect of humanity exists (like a “soul” or immaterial mind).
  7. Therefore, naturalism is false (souls or immaterial minds exist).
  8. Speaking of inference to the best explanation: the best explanation of the existence of a supernatural aspect of humanity is God (and the biblical view of God seems to make the most sense). 

It all started on campus of Biola University in La Mirada, California nearly a decade ago.

C.S. Lewis

But did it really start in 2012? In a sense it did — I began to logically connect these theological dots at that point in time and formulate a unique syllogism. However, as I was pleasantly surprised to discover, I was not the first to connect many of these dots. While finishing my MA thesis on the topic, I was informed by another reviewing my work that my argument was quite similar to that offered by a legend. I immediately purchased C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: A Defense of the Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert. I discovered that CS Lewis argued that if materialism or naturalism were true then reasoning itself could not be trusted. That sounded familiar![2] Reppert believes that the basic thrust of Lewis’s argument can withstand the most serious philosophical attacks.

As I have previously made clear in The Vanishing “I” (2017):

I am not the first person to argue in this fashion or “notice these absurd commitments” of deterministic views. Although the Freethinking Argument is a syllogism original to me, C.S. Lewis pointed out some of these problems long before I was born. Although I was unaware of his work (in this field — I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia) prior to first crafting the Freethinking Argument, great thinkers of the past have argued in a similar fashion. Lewis defended a similar line of argumentation in his 1947 book, Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Thirteen years later, in the second edition of Miracles, Lewis significantly revised and expanded his argument. Many others have noticed problems like these and have crafted similar (yet different) arguments. Just as William Lane Craig stands on the shoulders of great thinkers of yesteryear (such as Al Ghazali and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz) to craft unique syllogisms and defend arguments, I also stand on the shoulders of giants like C.S. Lewis and others who provide foundations for my unique syllogism.

Although similar and related, it is actually quite easy to see the essential difference between these two syllogisms. First consider Lewis’ Argument From Reason. It can be offered in the following manner:

1. No belief is rationally inferred if it can be fully explained in terms of nonrational causes.

2. If naturalism is true, then all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of nonrational causes.

3. Therefore, if naturalism is true, then no belief is rationally inferred.

4. We have good reason to accept naturalism only if it can be rationally inferred from good evidence.

5. Therefore, there is not, and cannot be, good reason to accept naturalism.

This is a great argument! Lewis makes it clear that naturalism undercuts itself because if naturalism is true, then we cannot sensibly believe it or virtually anything else. Although I agree, see the vital difference with Lewis’s argument when compared with what I consider the “core” of the Freethinking Argument (FTA). The core of the FTA is the following (this would be steps 3, 4, and 5 in the FAAN version):

1- If humans do not possess libertarian freedom, then humans do not possess the ability to rationally infer and rationally affirm knowledge claims.

2- Humans do possess the ability to rationally infer and rationally affirm knowledge claims.

3- Therefore, humans possess libertarian freedom.

This three-step syllogism is a “cleaned-up” version of what I initially scribbled down in Smith’s classroom nearly a decade ago. As noted, the main point of the FreeThinking Argument is that libertarian freedom is possible and humans possess it. C.S. Lewis’s argument does not deductively conclude “Therefore, humans possess libertarian freedom” (although I would argue that it is implied).

These ideas, however, did not originate with Lewis.

Thomas Aquinas

As I was working on my doctoral dissertation about Mere Molinism, I studied the writings of many theologians from Augustine to Jonathan Edwards. In fact, one might find it surprising to know that I spilled more ink regarding Thomas Aquinas than I did Luis de Molina. During my research of Aquinas’ views of freedom, it struck me that he was onto the vital importance of libertarian free-thinking for one to be a rational agent. Consider my summary of his views found in “Mere Molinism.”

For Aquinas, then, human freedom exists in the sense that nothing outside of the person compels him or her to make choices or to act in a certain way. Instead, the human being acts on the interaction of internal factors which involve the emotions, thinking, deliberating, evaluating, weighing, judging, and then ultimately deciding or willing. There are indeed outside influences, and to insist on human freedom does not mean an immunity to them. But these do not necessarily compel a person to act without the interaction of the internal factors previously mentioned. Freedom, therefore, is not a function of will alone as if it were an independent structure or entity (84).

I noted that in DV, q24, Article 2, Aquinas identifies this freedom as a function of the “image of God” uniquely found in human beings (which is related to the final abductive conclusion of the FreeThinking Argument Against Naturalism):

“We are said to have free choice in so far as our acts are voluntary…. According to the Philosopher, in everything which moves itself there is the ability to be moved and not be moved…. Man is seen to be made to the image of God from the fact that he has free choice, as Damascene and Bernard both say…. Whatever is endowed with free choice acts and is not merely acted upon…. If the judgment of the cognitive faculty is not in a person’s power but is determined for him extrinsically, neither will his appetite be in his power; and consequently, neither will his motion or operation be in his power absolutely…. But to judge about one’s own judgment belongs only to reason, which reflects upon its own act and knows the relationships of the things about which it judges and of those by which it judges. Hence the whole root of freedom is located in reason. Consequently, a being is related to free choice in the same way as it is related to reason” (84).

I followed Aquinas by explaining that “the ability to reason—and reach rational conclusions—should not be conflated with a cause (which can also be referred to as “a reason” for an effect). Rather, the ability to reason is the judging/weighing faculty of the person.” If something or someone else causally determined the precise manner in which one evaluates, judges, or reasons, then one has an undercutting defeater against (a reason to doubt) the manner in which they evaluate, judge, and reason.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Aquinas may have laid the foundation for the FreeThinking Argument centuries before either Lewis or I were born. I am indebted to the work of both of these “rock stars” of Christian thought.

William Lane Craig

Speaking of “rock stars of Christian thought,” in retrospect, although he does not laser-focus on this topic, I believe William Lane Craig’s work had a significant impact on my thinking as I was developing the FreeThinking Argument. Craig’s 2010 article discusses “a sense of vertigo” setting in when a determinist realizes he/she has no opportunity to think otherwise about determinism (or anything else). Thus, according to Dr. Craig, if determinism is true, the determinist cannot rationally affirm that determinism is true.[3]

This encapsulates the essence of the FreeThinking Argument and I have often quoted Craig’s 2010 article to support the syllogism I developed in 2012:

“There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.”

Conclusion

To be honest, I had mixed emotions when I first discovered I was not the first to logically connect these theological dots. Indeed, I was quite encouraged to see that many heroes of Christianity (past and present) had independently reached similar conclusions. That meant I was probably on the right track. It was a little disheartening, however, because I realized I was not that special. But as they say, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Indeed, as I continue to study this topic, I am discovering other great thinkers of the past who have contributed to this conversation.[4] I will definitely appeal to these giants as I continue to advance my case for libertarian free thinking.[5]

Although it might not be all that “new” I do think my syllogisms and thought experiments are rather unique and the manner in which I defend the premises in my arguments forges new trails into the territory of freedom, responsibility, and the sovereignty of God. I hope and pray that my small contribution to this discussion advances the conversation toward the knowledge of reality and for God’s glory.

Bottom line: I am honored to stand at the feet of giants (and also on their shoulders).

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


Notes

[1] Depending upon one’s preferred labels, the FreeThinking Argument can be adapted to address materialism versus the immaterial and physicalism versus the non-physical. Some might agree with every premise of a modified version of the FreeThinking Argument, but object to the final abductive conclusion. For example, Philip Goff, in his book “Galileo’s Error,” makes a similar case against materialism but then posits panpsychism (the view that consciousness is fundamental and everything is conscious) as the view that ought to be preferred because it is “simpler” than substance dualism.

In response I would note that while simpler explanations should be considered, they are not always the best explanation of all the data. Moreover, if a simpler explanation is ad hoc (seemingly “made up for this problem”) then we ought to be suspicious. At the end of the day, I stand by the abductive conclusion: a biblical view of God makes the best sense of both the human libertarian freedom to think and a supernatural, immaterial, and non-physical aspect of humanity.

[2] The primary reason I argue that reason cannot be trusted is not merely if naturalism or materialism is true, but if humans do not possess the ability to freely think in a libertarian sense. That is, if something or someone else causally determines HOW one reasons (one can reason well or reason poorly), evaluates, judges, and weighs thoughts, ideas, premises, and propositions, then one has an undercutting defeater to one’s own “use of reason” (at least if there is reason to think the “something or someone else” causally determining and in control of one’s thinking is non-rational or untrustworthy). This is why the FreeThinking Argument is not only a problem for atheists who affirm naturalism, it is also a problem for Calvinists who affirm exhaustive divine determinism.

[3] William Lane Craig, Molinism vs. Calvinism: Troubled by Calvinists, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/molinism-vs.-calvinism

[4] In Miracles, Lewis references J. B. S. Haldane, who appeals to a similar line of reasoning in his 1927 book, Possible Worlds: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1929, p. 209

[5] In “Mere Molinism” (175-178) I quote many others who seem to have reached similar conclusions supporting the FreeThinking Argument: Robert Lockie, Greg Koukl, John Searle, Angus Menuge, J.P. Moreland, Evan Fales, Robert Koons, Timothy Pickavance, John Polkinghorne, and Randolph Clarke.

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(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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