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Shameless plug. Dan and I are putting together a collection of new essays on this issue. Many regulars here are contributing. Check OUPs catalogue next year!

I'm an atheist *and* a libertarian incompatibilist. Go figure.

Panicky metaphysics loves company, maybe?

More seriously, Kevin Timpe and I are editing a volume [what title did we decide to go with, KT?] in which a bunch of really smart people, including quite a few gardeners, will be taking big swings at this question, Michael. I won't step into the box myself here (or there) but I'll bet some of the contributors will thumbnail their contributions for us here.

Looking forward,

I think there are three things going on. First, some (not all, of course) theists think there are some heavy duty rewards and punishments that await us. They are therefore committed to requiring an equally heavy duty sense of responsibility (what Galen Strawson calls heaven and hell responsibility, quite literally). As John Fischer has said - though not in quite these terms - it is more plausible to think that a compatibilist account of responsibility is adequate for a less far-reaching set of rewards and punishments, rather than what than heaven and hell level responsibility. Second, I think there is just some kind of intellectual inheritance going on: there are many distinguished libertarians among the great religious thinkers of the past. Third, what Dan says: panicky metaphysics loves company. I would have put it more diplomatically though: theists have a richer ontology to start with. My impression is that theism better correlates with agent-causal libertarianism than with event-causal (but I'm not sure: anyone?); event-causal requires a less rich ontology inasmuch as it can be compatibilism plus indeterminism.

It would be really interesting to see whether theism correlates with libertarianism cross-culturally. I have speculated that the free will debate is so US dominated because the US is an outlier among Western countries on theism. I wonder whether Hindu or Muslim theism are also concerned with free will, and what form the concern takes,

Interesting question!

I am an incompatiblist. But more importantly (to me), I am a libertarian. So I wonder, maybe what really needs an explanation is why most libertarians tend to be theists. If we can explain this, then we will understand why most incompatiblists are theists since most incompatibilists want to be a libertarian.

I have argued in my classes and in at least one book chapter that FW positions generally align along world-view commitments, and that theists embrace incompatibilist views for the reasons Neil cites, and that compatibilists by comparison are much more contextualist or pragmatic. I would chime in on Neil's cross-cultural speculation that incompatibilist FW concerns probably correlate with Abrahamic traditions generally, and more specifically with those traditions as they skew towards a conservativism of individual responsibility. Oddly however that conservatism took different routes by Euro-American individualism of agency and Western-Asian collectivism of accountability for all involved, but came to the same conclusion: misuse FW and you are individually responsible, in the Euro-Am view as ultimately so, in the West-Asian view as one conflicting with the norms of the collective. Same result by different routes.

Free Will and Theism: Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns

Kevin and Dan tried to hide it, but I ferreted it out. Further info here:

It looks great!

Prediction: start looking at theologians (both contemporary and historical) instead of contemporary analytic philosophers and you'll find that fewer of them are incompatibilists. If the prediction turns out to be true, this might cast doubt on Neil's first two suggestions. Many theists, especially those in the Augustinian and Calvinist traditions, are compatibilists.

During the process of developing our new scale for measuring intuitions about free will and related concepts--The Free Will Inventory--we collected lots of data on the relationship between people's beliefs about free will and their other moral, religious, and political beliefs. One thing I have found in several recent studies involving the scale is that the scores on the specifically libertarian items--“Free will is the ability to make different choices even if everything leading up to one’s choice (e.g., the past, the situation, and their desires, beliefs, etc.) was exactly the same”--often correlate with the scores on the dualism subscale much more strongly than the scores on the non-libertarian free will items. And while I don't have the data at hand to check, I suspect that religiosity mediates the effect. Eddy and I will have more to say about this in Kevin and Dan's volume (so stay tuned). But for now, I just wanted to point out that we have some data that speaks to the issue raised by Michael.

p.s. I am working on a related project in political psychology right now. One of my goals is to show that libertarian conceptions of free will and responsibility often go hand in hand with libertarian political values and beliefs. For instance, we predict that people who believe in more robust forms of agency are more likely to tolerate inequality and to "blame" the "have nots" for their plight. If we're right, then contrary to what free will theorists often say, the two kinds of libertarianism are related after all! But more on that later as well!

I think Justin brings about up a good point. My guess is that it is not theism simpliciter, but theism plus various religious traditions that have varying views on the after life, nature of justice and punishment, God's sovereignty and knowledge, etc, that push folks toward libertarianism. Some of these traditions are very unsympathetic to libertarianism (here I think of Lynne Baker's 'Why Christians Should be Compatibilists' (the title is something like that)).

My guess is that many philosophers who are theists are libertarians because of both emphases and their views on a set of complex issues (for example, an emphasis on logical coherence and allowing contemporary science and philosophy to inform their hermeneutic of the Bible, preoccupation with the problem of evil, etc.).

Prediction 2: most theists "in the pews" don't have a coherent, worked-out view on these issues. Sometimes they'll sound like libertarians, especially when talking about sin, evil, and the like, but at other times, e.g., when they're talking about divine sovereignty, they'll sound like more compatibilists.

Interesting, Thomas. Are you gathering data on just world beliefs too? I would predict that JWBs correlate well with political libertarianism. I would also expect that, given that theism correlates with conservativism in the US much better than elsewhere, that neither political libertarianism nor JWBs would correlate with theism outside the US - which may have interesting effects on the relationship between metaphysical libertarianism and theism outside the US.

Justin: your prediction 2 is a moral certainty. Almost no one has a coherent worked out view on these matters.

Bourget and Chalmers have a piece forthcoming in Phil Studies in which they report some interesting data on the beliefs of philosophers. The paper is up now on PhilPapers. There appears to be an interesting cluster of views that indicate more than just an incompatibilism-theism connection, as many of you have already suggested. See p. 19, for example, where they report a kind of clustering between libertarianism about FW, non-physicalism about Mind, theism, non-naturalism about Metaphilosophy, metaphysical possibility about Zombies, and a further-fact view about Personal identity.

Notice that these correlations are from the reports of the 'target faculty' - philosophers at high-end research institutions.

Thomas: does any of this jive with the things y'all are finding with the Free Will Inventory?

I assume we are thinking of incompatibilists of the libertarian variety (see Jiajun's comment), for hard determinists are less likely to be theists. But again why? The clustering Josh Shepherd refers to in his comment is intriguing. Are libertarians sort of crypto-espiritualists? Hope not.

I myself think I am a libertarian, but not an atheist or a theist. I am agnostic, mostly because I don't understand what "God" means, and thus what "God exists" or "God doesn'r exist" mean, either.

I think that belief in libertarian freedom is closer to Catholicism than to some other Christian confessions. Luther was not a libertarian; and Calvin seems to have been a compatibilist (cf. J. Capes's comment). I whish I knew more about non-Christian religions. I agree with Franklin: maybe the roots of libertarianism, if at all, are more in particular religious confessions than in theism as such.

Anyway, it would be good if there were no deep relation between libertarianism and some form of theism or religious views. And, by the way, it would also be good to show that libertarianism as such has nothing essential to do with (and even could be opposed to) conservatism, 'Tea Party' neoliberalism and other right-wing ideologies, a connection Th. Nadelhoffer suggests in his comment.

Neat post and interesting comments. I suspect, however, that the cut is not between compatibilists and incompatibilists but between libertarians and the rest. Offhand I can think of many hard determinists (or similar views, which require libertarian free will for moral responsibility and all that stuff, but think we do not have it) who are not as far as I know theists - Galen Strawson, Bruce Waller, Neil, Thomas, Tamler in some modes, myself, Ted Honderich, and surely others.

So if I am right, the interesting question concerns the connection between libertarianism and theism. Hard determinists are no more likely to be theists than are compatibilists.

Michael, it is indeed a busy time of the year; special thanks for providing this very interesting question, as an end in itself and also as a very attractive means for temporarily escaping the grading of papers. Neil, your question of how these issues relate to just world beliefs is a fascinating one; I’m not surprised that this is a topic you would find very interesting; but I’ve been surprised that so few philosophers seem to take a great interest in the research on just world beliefs (especially given the contemporary interest in X-phil); or is there a philosophical literature on this that has escaped my attention? Thomas, your research project sounds wonderful; I’m sure you have already examined it, but just in case, have you looked at the work of Michael Cavadino and James Dignan on these issues (especially their 2006 book, Penal Systems: A Comparative Approach and their 2006 paper on “Penal Policy and Political Economy,” in Criminology and Criminal Justice)?

Interesting point, Saul. Personally, I agree (as Carlos suggested) that the cut is first of all between libertarians and the rest. However, we need to be careful and ask: how could that be?

After all, libertarianism is the conjunction of incompatibilism and the true belief in free will. How could there be an independent motivation for libertarianism prior to a motivation for incompatibilism? In other words, if there is a reason for theists to be libertarian, shouldn't there be a reason for them to be incompatibilist first?

So I wonder, to make sense the claim you suggested, maybe we need to understand libertarism a little bit differently. I take the basic idea of libertarianism to be a libertarian-like belief: human beings have a very robust free will and control over our lifes, and as long as I still believe that the incompatibilist free will is possible and does exist in this world, then I am a libertarian. If one day I stop to believe so, I would rather choose the second best and become a compatibilist.

Following this line of thought, personally, I would be more concerned about the plausibility of positive libertarian theories of free will rather than the traditional debate about compatibilism and incompatibilism. And it might put big burden of proof upon libertarians to develop a plausible positvie view of free will. (Of course, I am not saying that the traditional debate is not important)

As for the motivation for such a libertarian-like belief, besides the sociological explanation, one intellectual explanation I can think of is what James called "tender-minded" psychology, in contrast to tough-mindedness. Here is an interesting short article on James's distinction:

Hi All, Thanks for all these contributions. I was especially interested to learn of Thomas's research and the potential link (in some manner) of political libertarianism and metaphysical libertarianism.

Dan's joke, panicky metaphysics loves company, while I know was just a joke, probably gets at something right: but it's hard to state what it is, at least in terms of *arguments*, and while lots of folks here had interesting sociological observations, there wasn't much offered in the way of how the philosophical grounds for each hang together.

I'll bet that it has to do with Neil's remark that the metaphysics of freedom needs to track the potential rewards and punishments of heaven and hell--though then, I suppose, the issue is not just about a link to theism, but to further commitments.

Several of you noted that the real divide is between libertarians and those who are not. That seems right.


Here is how they "hang together":

Libertarian FW beats the Compatibilist sort hands down- a 'wretched subterfuge'. Putting the angels aside, we are the best and brighest in God's creation, the only creatures capable of understanding Him. So of course we would be created in His image and likeness, possessing all and only the finest intellectual gifts, lest we develop an inferiority complex not befitting our elavated status.

I think that Justin is right to say that theists in religious organizations may have conflicting ideas about freedom and responsibility, but at least in the US a large majority of them will self-identify as libertarians once they’ve done some philosophy or theology. This may not have been so in the 17th century and at least part of the 18th – Jonathan Edwards might well have had a lot of company.

So what happened? One thought that echoes Alan’s suggestion comes from the idea of political theology (Carl Schmitt). In particular, people express their social and political preferences and convictions in their religious views. The Edwards position combines theological determinism and a robust doctrine of divine providence with a retributivist theory of punishment, which mirrors certain authoritarian socio-political ideas. Maybe as the socio-political authoritarianism became less prominent, the cognate theological position also became less common.

Another thought is that already in the 18th century and especially in the 19th, conceiving of one’s relationship to God as analogous to the relation between sovereign and subject faded and was replaced by a personal relationship model. And it’s hard to have a good personal relationship with someone you think of as causally determining people to be immoral and then damning them to hell for it, as Edwards would have it. It’s not as difficult if one conceives of God as damning people to hell only when they behave immorally of their own libertarian free will. To address a point Neil makes, my guess is that it would be also be a challenge to have a good personal relationship with someone you think of as causally determining people to be immoral and then punishing them for retributivist reasons. But this last sort of view never became salient.

One might retain the theological determinism and give up on damnation, as Schleiermacher did, but that idea has never had all that much appeal beyond the theologians. Perhaps one reason we continue to find theological determinism among the theologians is that they have often viewed this as the only way to retain a robust notion of providence, while this issue can get a bit abstruse for many non-academics.

Jiajun - there may indeed be an interesting psychological difference. Some people start from the thought "I have free will, now let's see how robust it can be". Then as you say the libertarian variety is naturally the first choice, but if one comes to doubt whether one can have it, one settles for the compatibilist variety. Another route might be a moral conviction such as "We need to have robust libertarian free will for moral responsibility, desert and justice". Here one starts with incompatibilism, which if one is optimistic leads to libertarianism, but if one becomes doubtful about LFW leads to hard determinism.

As to the psychology joining theism with libertarianism, again I can see two explanations. The first would be metaphysical: if you believe that the world is "empty", there is no God, then it seems that believing in LFW would be harder than if one already believes that there is a God. If, in other words, we are metaphysically generous, then the world is filled with all kinds of things, and then why not add LFW?

A moralized inclination would echo Kant in the practical critique: a really good moral world would include a benevolent God who takes care of the righteous and punishes the vicious, but also LFW so that rewards and punishments are more deserved (and a heaven would be very good too).

I want to emphasize that both of these stories, the metaphysical and the ethical, are not debunking of theistic belief. I myself don't share that belief, but there is no overwhelming reason why the world might not be metaphysically crowded (i.e. have both a God and beings with libertarian free will). And it would be morally good if there were a benevolent God, and LFW (and an afterlife). Given, e.g., the we punish people, it would have been morally better had those being punished deserved their punishment in the robust libertarian sense. And as I have argued elsewhere, this would also allow a stronger basis for respect for persons and self-respect.

I am just pessimistic on all counts (i.e. about the existence of God and LFW), but if true this is still sad.

Hey Michael,

There’s so much to say about this topic! Thanks for posting. (I’m looking forward to working on this more for the Timpe/Speak volume). Some quick thoughts in response to Neil’s point about hell (with which you express some sympathy), which is interesting. I’m not sure, though, that this explanation is very “compatibilist friendly”, or makes good sense of the compatibility debate.

I suspect that belief in divine rewards and (extreme!) punishments can appropriately motivate (and has motivated) belief in **free will**. But I don’t think a big part of the story here is that many theists need to “justify” desert of hell, and figure accordingly that some “strong” kind of freedom (“libertarian freedom”) is required to do so. Sure, what’s needed is a strong kind of freedom – the ability to do otherwise, say, or… – but then there’s the further question of whether that strong kind of freedom is compatible with determinism! That’s a further, separate question, to which many of course go on to answer “no”.

I feel like this is another one of those times (ably noted by PvI) where we are misled by talk of “libertarian free will”, as if by positing that we have “libertarian free will”, we could justify more or harsher treatment than merely supposing that we have “compatibilist free will”. The disagreement is (or should be) over what’s required for **one and the same thing** -- or whether one and the same condition (being able to do otherwise, say, or being the source of one’s action) is or is not compatible with determinism.

But maybe the idea is this: one might maintain that there is some “kind” (or degree) of responsibility that it is possible to have, and possible to have only if one meets some “libertarian” condition on responsibility, whereas meeting the compatibilist’s specified conditions will only get you some lesser “kind” (or degree) of responsibility. And this is “heaven and hell” responsibility, in G. Strawson’s terms.

But if I were a compatibilist, I’d be very reluctant to say this. Instead, I’d say that either nothing could justify anyone’s deserving hell (construed as eternal conscious torment [!]), or meeting conditions compatible with determinism could do so (and I’d go on to add that in fact no one in the actual world meets those conditions vis-à-vis the ‘right’ actions in order to merit hell). If the libertarian requires an “avoidability” condition on meriting this kind of treatment, well then so does the compatibilist – she just adds that meeting that condition is compatible with being determined. If the libertarian requires a “sourcehood” condition, well then so does the compatibilist – she just adds that meeting that condition is compatible with being determined. If the libertarian requires some cooked-up, gerrymandered condition that analytically entails that someone who is determined cannot meet that condition, then she maintains that that condition is a chimera, and anyway that “meeting” that condition is not required for any kind or degree moral responsibility. At no point does she grant that there is some degree or kind of responsibility it is possible to have only if one isn’t determined. I have the sense that if she does so, the game is up, though it is hard to justify that sense further (though I have some ideas). (I thus disagree with the basic spirit of Capes’ [really nice] “Mitigating Soft Compatibilism” paper.)

In my opinion, the thing to say about “hell” (construed as eternal conscious torment) is simply that that it is implausible in the extreme that any of us have done anything in virtue of which we would deserve such treatment, even if we are as fully morally responsible for what we’ve done as it is possible to be. What is more pertinent, I think, to the question of whether we deserve “hell” are questions about the moral badness of our “sins” (our morally responsible wrongdoings). You sometimes hear people saying things like that any sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment; I think Anselm may have said something like that. But I think the compatibility debate is orthogonal to that sort of question, both with respect to whether we’ve sinned “against God” in the relevant sense, and with respect to whether, if we have, that merits an infinite punishment.

The gods must not be crazy! Or at least not be seen to be.

That, I think, is the answer to patrick on why theists go libertarian to justify hell. And it's also the explanation for why Abrahamic traditions in particular, as Alan points out, have this theism:libertarianism correlation.

The problem with compatibilism, for these theists, is that it is all too easy for an all-powerful being to make everyone good, if deterministically caused character traits still count as good. Heck, even an intelligent and resourceful *human* parent stands a very good chance of raising good children. That's why I suspect libertarianism was invented long before monotheism. I imagine a conversation like "Hey Ugg, why is your boy so malicious? Is it a bad bloodline, or bad parenting?" "Umm... he just creates these evils ex nihilo! Yeah, that's the ticket!" For Ugg the caveman, libertarianism is one way out, and impossible to disprove. For triple-O monotheists who think some people are hell-bound, it's probably the *only* way out.

Apologies to South African filmmaker Jamie Uys.

To me, the most obvious connection between theism and libertarianism is via the Free Will Defence. If free will is compatible with determinism, then God has no excuse for making free humans (or free angels) who end up doing bad things - He could have determined them always freely to do good. Given the popularity of the Free Will Defence as the number one answer to the Problem of Evil, it is no surprise to find lots of theists accordingly espousing a libertarian metaphysic. David Hume spotted this point in his Early Memoranda, and Mackie is a modern advocate.

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