CosmicSkeptic on Objective Morality (1): Freewill

A friend recently brought to my attention a very interesting YouTube video of a talk called The Good Delusion given by Alex O’Connor, owner of the CosmicSkeptic blog and YouTube channel of the same name, in which he was making the case for an objective morality. O’Connor believes he has devised a way to make morality objective; that is, a morality based on ‘is’ rather than ‘ought’ propositions, thereby overcoming the insurmountable hurdle Sam Harris mysteriously continues to bang his head against of getting the latter (an ‘ought’) from the former (an ‘is’). Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons for thinking O’Connor hasn’t succeeded in his goal, hence the reason for this article. Because one of the premises in his argument concerns freewill (specifically, the claim we don’t have any), in order to disprove his claim in its entirety, I will also need to address this notoriously thorny topic. This first article then will argue, against O’Connor, that we do have freewill, while the second article will reject his broader claim that morality can be objective.


Before we can even think about discussing freewill and determinism, we need to explicitly clarify what we mean by these terms. Defining determinism is relatively easy and largely uncontroversial:

Determinism: All events are necessarily and completely determined by prior causes.

There is little ambiguity in this definition; A causes B, B causes C, and so on. In a chain such as this, ‘A’ typically represents the Big Bang and everything inevitably follows thereafter. This is a strictly materialist theory, meaning that not only is the universe completely physical (i.e. there are no immaterial or soul-like substances, which would, by definition, stand outside any physical causal chain), but that a complete accounting of these physical constituents would also be a complete accounting of any and all meaningful events, processes, and substances that occur within it. If there were any meaningful thing in the universe somehow ‘more’ than, or ‘outside’, a purely physical description, it would, by definition, not be materialistic. There may be interesting bells and whistles that only arise at a ‘higher’ level of description but these extra features cannot play any meaningful or interesting role in the universe over and above the movements and interactions of their most basic physical constituents.


Freewill is not quite so easy to pin down. O’Connor suggests the following as a definition:

Freewill: You could have acted differently in the same situation.

This certainly seems to have captured something essential to whatever we might mean when we say we are free. It says that in any given situation, more than one option must be genuinely ‘chooseable’ in a practical sense, not merely in theory. Imagine you were presented with a choice between ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’ at a time t when the state of the universe was S, and you chose ‘X’. This definition of freewill says that if S were somehow to reoccur (so that things were not just similar, but absolutely identical in every detail down to the smallest atom and the most stray thought you might have been courting just before making your decision), you would somehow, this second time around, be able to choose ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ instead. I contend that this is a) false, and b) not a good definition of freewill. If everything were truly identical, it would be impossible for anything different to happen, by definition. If everything were the same, including you, how and why would any choice you made be different a second time through? O’Connor’s definition, in claiming that something could have happened otherwise than it did in an identical situation, doesn’t say we are free; rather, it says our decisions are arbitrary. If you could genuinely choose ‘Y’ instead of ‘X’ a second time around, your behaviour wouldn’t be free; it would be random. More importantly, a little reflection will reveal that choosing ‘X’ every single time the universe cycles back to state S says absolutely nothing about whether you made that choice freely or not. Making the same choice in the same circumstance doesn’t mean there was no free choice available; it means that the choice was made for a reason. If everything in a situation were truly the same, including the options, the reasons, and the person making the decision, why would a different choice ever be made, even by a free agent? O’Connor’s definition of freewill is inadequate because it is a definition of an arbitrary universe.


Let me propose a definition that I think addresses this problem and gets to the heart of what we actually mean by freewill:

Freewill: We act on our desires in a way that is fundamentally unpredictable by looking at the physical.

First of all, this definition has us acting on our desires. If one’s actions can be explained by appeal to their desires, this means those actions aren’t random or arbitrary. Secondly, future actions cannot be predicted by past or current knowledge of the physical, no matter how complete this knowledge. This means that even if we knew everything about the universe at time t, it would still be fundamentally impossible to know what would happen at some future time t’. This amounts to a rejection of strict materialism as I defined it above. If we are free, strict materialism cannot be true. We will return to this thread momentarily.


The Argument

O’Connor’s argument is quite simple:

Premise 1: All of your actions are motivated by desire

Premise 2: You don’t control your desires

Conclusion: You don’t control your actions; i.e. you aren’t free to choose your actions; i.e. your actions are determined.


The first thing to note is that this argument is logically valid. If the premises check out, the conclusion logically follows. Premise 1 appears to be fine; all of our actions are, I think, motivated by desire. O’Connor discusses one potentially problematic case in which someone with a gun to their head is forced to commit a crime. He makes the bizarre claim that because the person decides to commit the crime, he or she actually desires to do so. This seems clearly wrong. A person can be motivated to perform some action they have absolutely no desire to carry out, but this will always happen only in order to fulfil some other desire. Our victim in this example has no desire to commit the crime, but an intense desire to live, hence the action is motivated by desire, just not one to commit the crime.

The second premise, on the other hand, is a bit of a metaphysical mess. The specific problem here is that it invokes the very thing it is attempting to prove cannot exist; namely, a separate, causally independent Mind capable of controlling (or not controlling in this case) desires. To see this more clearly, think about what it would mean to say, “I control my desires.” The only thing I could possibly mean by this is that ‘I’ (whatever ‘I’ is supposed to mean here) am somehow detached from my desires, able to inspect them from this removed locale, and select those I see as acceptable (those I desire in other words; anybody want an infinite regression with their argument?). It follows from this that the conclusion suffers from the same problem (who is the ‘you’ who doesn’t control their actions?).


This doesn’t completely destroy the argument, but it does necessitate a re-formulation:

Premise 1: All of your actions are motivated by desire

Premise 2: Your desires are necessarily and completely determined by prior causes

Conclusion: Your actions are necessarily and completely determined by prior causes


Now we can clearly see that the conclusion is virtually a restatement of our earlier definition of determinism. The only difference being that it has now been more narrowly circumscribed so as to target human beings, which was after all, the goal of the whole exercise. This means that the argument, like our definition, is strictly materialistic in nature. It is here that the chink in the determinist’s armour becomes a gaping hole.


Materialism – The Untenable Hypothesis

Materialism states that everything is composed of matter and there is nothing else going on in the universe. If you explain the atoms, you explain everything. How could it be otherwise in a materialistic universe? Unfortunately for the materialist, this isn’t the case in our universe. A complete and thorough accounting of every particle would fail to describe a whole raft of things, things which are most certainly non-physical; emotions, thoughts, subjective experiences, beliefs, desires, and so on.


It will immediately be objected that these things arise from the physical; they are emergent. Indeed, some will argue that these non-physical, mental phenomena are the physical; just different ways of describing particular configurations of particles interacting in particular ways. The first objection here hasn’t even bothered to answer the dilemma; it’s just slapped a fancy-sounding term on it and attempted to hide the paradox. How can a subjective experience, a thought, or an emotion emerge from a collection of objective, unthinking, unfeeling physical particles? How can the non-physical emerge from the physical? This is the evolutionary equivalent of a chimpanzee suddenly giving birth to a human being. The second objection is partially true. Ultimately, all phenomena, even those which are subjective or mental in nature, do reduce to something physical. If you eliminate the physical, external substrate, you also eliminate the subjective, inner dimension. No atoms, no consciousness. I am not propounding a theory of some non-physical substance (a term I consider an oxymoron) nor am I disputing that there is a physical basis to all ‘internal’ phenomena. I am however, denying that the physical and the mental are the same. The former gives rise to the latter in some way we don’t understand but that latter is something uncaptured in the pure physical description.

Imagine a non-conscious AI with absolutely no conception of subjective experience, and yet vastly superior to human beings (a philosopher’s zombie on steroids), decided to catalogue every particle in or near Earth over some extended period. When it looks over its records will it find anything about creatures who experience pain and pleasure, creatures who formulate goals they desire to accomplish and who experience anger or despair when those goals are frustrated, creatures that believe certain things about other entities? Of course it won’t. How could such a thing be possible? How could it learn anything about such magical phenomena from looking at the law-governed movements and interactions of physical matter? None of these devils are in the details. It isn’t a case of missing the forest for the trees, it’s a case of there being no forest if all you are able to see are the trees. Is this mysterious? Yes. Is it strange? Absolutely. Have I explained anything? No. My goal here is not to explain subjective experience (no one alive can do this, and anyone suggesting they can or that there is no mystery to explain is either lying, a fool, or a lying fool!), only acknowledge and describe it.

The subjective aspect of human existence gives us something we just can’t get from a collection of non-conscious ball bearings mindlessly bouncing around the universe. This something is fundamentally not just another thing; rather, it’s a perspective, a point of view from which things become things in the first place. Now, in addition to a mechanistic event, a meaningless jumble of particles, we also have a consciousness (or ‘awareness’, if the “C” word carries too much baggage for you) of that event.

What’s particularly interesting about this phenomenon that can’t be known, much less predicted, from the physical particles it supervenes upon, is that being a non-physical perspective, an awareness, it necessarily constitutes a break from the chain of causality that purely physical, non-conscious things are bound up in. A physical body is no longer just another inevitable link in a casual chain if it becomes consciousness of itself (if this expression is to mean anything at all) as a physical body. It’s important to understand exactly what it means to say something has become consciousness of itself. First, why consciousness as opposed to conscious? Well, to be ‘conscious of something’ implies that separate, independent Cartesian Mind I accused O’Connor of implicating in his original argument, as if there is some kind of transcendent entity of whom being conscious is merely one of its properties. This is a mistake. On the other hand, to be ‘consciousness of something’ reminds us that what exists, what has an ontological claim here, isn’t a separate, non-physical entity; rather, it’s the consciousness, or awareness, itself. Second, in saying that something is ‘consciousness of itself’, we are saying that the thing is no longer purely what it is in the same way that a table is a table, through and through. How? Because it now knows itself to be that thing. This perspective, this awareness, an absurdity in a materialistic universe, creates a kind of ‘space’ between the consciousness and the thing it is consciousness of; not the kind of space that exists between two physically separate things, for sure, but a space which is more like a fissure within being. (Wait a minute. Fissure within being? Are we resorting to pseudo-mystical metaphors now? Yes, we are! What did you think would happen when we started talking about non-physical things as metaphorical and pseudo-mystical as freewill or consciousness or thoughts?) With the creation of this space, the human body is still a human body, only it now also knows itself as a human body. This adds something that doesn’t exist in a purely materialistic universe, and it does so without altering the physical elements of which the universe is composed at all. How it does this is a mystery. That it does it is a fact everyone can see for themselves every time they think a thought or feel an emotion. The bigger point that I want to make here though is that this ‘space’ our awareness of ourselves creates, and which it must create if ‘awareness’ is to mean anything at all, also creates a break in the causal chain of being, not by interposing something uncaused or separate from the physical (as in a Cartesian Mind), but by distancing the thing from itself internally, by allowing the thing to know itself as what it is. If I am consciousness of being angry, I am not just angry as a result of particles moving around in my brain and body. To know oneself as a thing is no longer to simply be that thing as a mindless, determined link in a chain of causation.

At this point, the determinist has essentially two options. First, they can claim consciousness, volitional acts, thoughts, etc., the whole realm of subjective phenomena, are all epiphenomenal illusions; ‘noise’ generated by the physical particles that means and does nothing. Second, they can deny the reality of consciousness. The problem with the first response is that it is patently absurd because an illusion is itself a subjective experience. There can be no illusions in a world where there is nothing more special going on than ball bearings bouncing around. Who would be having the illusion? The problem with the second response is that is even more absurd than the first. What can you say to someone who denies their own subjectivity, who effectively denies their own consciousness? Perhaps it would be best to just look for their off switch, or put them in sleep mode.


The essential problem with materialism is that it starts by defining everything meaningful in the universe as physical. While this sounds eminently reasonable to a modern, sceptical ear, it completely fails to account for that one inconvenient fact that we have first-hand knowledge of many things, which, although not completely divorced from the physical, are most definitely non-physical. Indeed, this first-hand knowledge is, precisely because it is first-hand, the only thing of which we can actually be certain.


The Counter-Argument

We have seen that in O’Connor’s original argument it was meaningless to claim you don’t control your desires. Reformulating the argument didn’t help because we also saw that materialism wasn’t tenable in a universe where the principal, knowable truth is subjectivity. Where do we go from here? Well, let’s continue down the path we started and look at desire. O’Connor’s mistake was in looking for a separate desirer behind the desires, as it were, when in fact, you are your desires. Rather than postulating a desirer, the situation is more like a set of desires embodied in a human being have become aware of themselves, determining themselves in relation to an external world. The desires still desire, but they now know themselves as desires, and this ‘higher’ knowing frees them from being the blind, mechanical events (chemical, physical, or biological) that drive all other non-conscious things.[1] We are free, not because we are uncaused or because we are a non-physical spirit or soul, but because, as consciousness of ourselves and the causes we are subjected to, as perspectives, we transcend the physical. Any other interpretation of the universe we live in is just unable to make sense of the facts.



Postscript: Compatibilism

Just for completeness, I should briefly discuss compatibilism as well. Compatibilism is the view that freewill and determinism are mutually compatible. Acting in accordance with your desires (even if those desires are determined) is just what ‘freewill’ means. Determinists are typically pretty harsh, and rightly so, in their judgements of this attempted middle way. Compatibilism accepts determinism (and therefore materialism) in its entirety but redefines freedom to mean acting in accordance with one’s desires. The thing is they just choose not to look too hard at where, or how, those desires arise in the first place; and that is their intellectual dishonesty. Ignoring this question makes the theory a non-starter for me. In addition, the acceptance of materialism means that the compatibilist, like the determinist, doesn’t think consciousness does anything special either. As such, he or she falls prey to all of the problems I have outlined above.


Postscript 2: Materialism – A Thought Experiment

As a final coda, I would like try my hand at a thought experiment and assume the strongest version of materialism that could make sense in a world where some form of subjective experience arises (as it obviously does in ours). The only thing that really exists is physical matter. Some arrangements of that matter result in bizarre phenomena we can collectively call consciousness, and which includes thoughts, subjective experience, beliefs, etc., but there is nothing really going on except the movement and interaction of particles. Being mere by-products, or manifestations, of the particles they arise from, these phenomena are obviously effects which can never be causes; i.e. they are causally impotent. They aren’t illusions (which require someone to be illusory for), they are just empty, meaningless, noise produced by particles. In this universe, all of the determinist’s claims are true. There is no such thing as the self, freewill doesn’t exist, and objective science is the gold standard. Okay, so people like O’Connor may be prepared, even eager, to give up freewill and the self, but is this where materialism stops? Sadly not.

What about truth? O’Connor stands up in front of a group of people and claims that if they think they have freewill, they are wrong. But what does it mean to be wrong? It means that you hold certain beliefs or opinions about the world which are false. Nothing about this sentence makes sense in a materialistic universe. It’s mistaking the cart for the horse, when there isn’t even a cart in the first place! Beliefs can’t be false or true because they are just manifestations of particles, remember, and particles definitely can’t be wrong. That just doesn’t make sense. Particles are just particles. O’Connor’s ‘The Good Delusion’ talk, not to mention his entire CosmicSkeptic project, is all about trying to change people’s beliefs, but it turns out this is nothing more than changing the arrangement of particles in a brain. None of this is about truth or being right. Those words don’t even mean anything in O’Connor’s universe.

How about value? Sam Harris is a famous self- and freewill-denier and yet he also proclaims that consciousness is the most important thing in the universe because it is the only thing that bestows value. He correctly claims that conglomerations of particles mean nothing in themselves, whether they come together to create the most sublime literary masterpiece or the most banal scribble of a 3-year old. Value only exists in a world with conscious subjects. The internal contradiction in this claim is glaringly obvious. There is no value in particles themselves. Consciousness bestows value. Consciousness is just the ‘noise’ of interacting particles. Value is out.

I can do this all day, dismantling any and everything you might believe matters in life; love, compassion, goodness, beauty – all meaningless. Suffering and other emotions still exist as subjective experiences although they are absolutely meaningless and bear no causal relationship to anything else. Actually, the world of the O’Connors and Harris’ out there is something like a living nightmare. ‘We’, insofar as this word means anything in this world, are completely and absolutely helpless, slaves to our particles. If the arrangement happens to be of a particular type, we feel a certain emotion, if it happens to be of a different type, we feel another. ‘We’ have absolutely no control over any of this because ‘we’ don’t even exist; all that exists are particles generating this bizarre, emotional ‘static’.

Thus far, one might still bite the bullet and embrace this impoverished and nihilistic universe (although I doubt anyone is really this crazy), but now we run up against a bigger problem. In the materialistic universe as I’ve outlined it here we have accepted subjective experience as a real, albeit causally ineffectual, phenomenon; i.e. not an illusion, which I’ve argued is an absurdity. But this means we still have the problem of explaining how subjective experience emerges in a purely objective universe. You’ll recall that it was precisely this, supposedly strong, claim that it was impossible to get the non-physical from the physical that was the real trump card for the materialist. Having to assume this, to make our hypothetical materialistic universe accord with the universe we actually live in, has now done the heavy lifting for us, overcoming the biggest obstacle to freewill, selves, consciousness, and all of the other goodies materialists deny. At the beginning of this experiment, I tried to limit the non-physical to a causally ineffectual experience, untethered to a self and not conscious in any meaningful sense, but if we’re going to represent the subjective accurately, we also have to deal with the fact that ‘we’ not only experience emotions, we also care about which emotions we are feeling, actively seeking positive, and avoiding, negative ones. We can’t write this caring off as just more meaningless noise which accompanies the interactions of particles because then we would have no reason for treating the emotional content of the subjective experiences (the suffering or joy) as anything real either. On the other hand, if we allow caring to be a valid experience, we suddenly find ourselves with a non-physical perspective we are no longer able to deny.


[1] I’ve deliberately limited my description here to desires coming to know themselves as desires only to illustrate the point. In actuality, the conscious human being is obviously a totality one cannot break apart into self-aware desires, self-aware thoughts, self-aware thises and self-aware thats.

3 thoughts on “CosmicSkeptic on Objective Morality (1): Freewill

  1. Nicely done. I was especially caught by the phrase: “a universe where the principal, knowable truth is subjectivity”. That should qualify as an “a priori”, as it proves itself in the very definitions of “knowing”, “truth”, and “subjectivity”.

    I was tempted to jump into a comment while reading your description of determinism, where you use the term “meaningful”, to point out that “meaning” cannot be found in the physical material. All meaning is derived by rational thought. But then you went on to hammer home that point.

    As a compatibilist, I would be kinder to the materialist and the determinist. I believe that science suggests that our mental processes, such as conscious awareness, are physical processes running upon a physical infrastructure. So, materialism simply needs to accept that reasoning, such as a calculated choice, is also a deterministic cause of our actions. They should not object to this as long as reasoning is still a physical process.

    And because a calculated choice is a deterministic event, it can satisfy determinism’s insistence upon a reliable prior cause of our actions. They just need to accept that reliable causation includes not just physical, but also biological and rational mechanisms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Marvin. Yes, as long as materialism acknowledges the possibility of top-down causation, I can get on board, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: CosmicSkeptic on Objective Morality (2): Pleasure and Morality | Absurd Being

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