skip to Main Content

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”

Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.

Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event.

Without freedom, if asked, who is it that actually wrote “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” the answer will be “the universe.” “The universe” will in fact have to be the answer to every question concerning “who?” The universe and/or the Big Bang turns out to be the only thing that could appropriately be called an agent at all. The statement “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” marks a sequence of events like any other.

The concept of freedom is necessary for one consequentialist reason. This is that no society can function without a notion of freedom because freedom is the basis for holding people morally responsible for their actions and for justifying punishing them for breaking the law. Abandoning moral responsibility would mean no longer prohibiting murder and lying, among other things, and society would crumble. If sanctions and punishments are not to be linked to guilt or innocence and are there just for expediency then any action (that concept cannot be eliminated from this part of the discussion) and any agent can be punished regardless of whether he has done anything wrong or not. That would mean living under the most arbitrary social arrangement ever with no rhyme or reason and zero predictability. Determinism means the end of any notion of justice and the end of that notion spells the end of fruitful human interaction.

The trouble with consequentialist reasoning is that good or bad consequences often have nothing to do with either morality or truth.

A far more damning objection to getting rid of the concept of freedom is that it is a prerequisite for rational argumentation. Arguments are attempts to persuade whereby a controversial claim is made and then evidence is provided to support the claim. Other people then evaluate the evidence and decide whether they want to accept the controversial claim or not. Evidence is another name for premises or reasons. This process has a rational, logical character. Reasons are not causes. Causes are something like one bit of matter bumping into another bit of matter and causing an event. Reasons do not involve bumping. They operate on the level of logic and concepts and that level must be free from deterministic physical forces, otherwise we really are just back to “sequences of events” and rational argument is not possible and neither is persuasion.

So, to argue that freedom is an empty category is a performative contradiction. The writer of “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other” regards himself as an agent. He regards the reader as an agent and he is attempting to persuade the reader of the truth of his claim who is free to make up his own mind on the basis of the reasons provided.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is logically possible that determinism is true, but it is not logically possible to rationally argue that determinism is true, since rationality, argument and persuasion all require freedom. To argue for determinism is a kind of hypocrisy where one of the things a person is saying does not exist is actually presupposed in the very act of arguing for it.

Berdyaev makes a useful distinction between the subjective realm and the objective realm – the subjective realm being characterized by freedom and the objective realm being determined. Any living creature has an interior of some kind linking it to freedom, whereas rocks do not. The objective realm is mostly “a sequence of events.” Some of these events are the result of blindly operating physical forces and some are the results of the actions of agents. Just by looking at the event it might not be possible to distinguish between which are the result of free actions and which causally determined. Once an event has occurred it is in the realm of objectivity and the objective can be measured. However, some events have a symbolic character. Mind, consciousness, Spirit, subjectivity and freedom are all interior phenomena. As such they partake in mystery and hiddenness. They cannot be exteriorized. However, they can be the cause of events or “sequences of events” and these events can point back to their divine, free origins. An analogy could be Paley’s Watch. Paley’s watch is the idea that if someone were to find a watch on a desert island, with no other evidence of human habitation or prior human visits, the watch would indicate that humans had been there. The watch is in no way human, but it becomes symbolic evidence of a human presence in the past. In the same way, music or a painting are symbols of a free, creative act emerging from subjectivity. They are not actually free and spiritual since they now belong to the objective realm.

Knowledge involves creativity. The producer of knowledge takes something from the hidden and mysterious and transfers it to the plain light of day. Albert Einstein’s creation of the theory of relativity required great imagination, intuitive leaps and insight, immersing himself in the finer points of prior physics, and diligence. The actual theory is beautifully logical and objective and thus partakes in the objective realm. The act of producing the theory involved lots of interior goings on, but actually publishing the theory is just part of a “sequence of events.”

It can seem like switching from a mechanical worldview to an organismic worldview would represent some kind of advance. However, it is a mistake to imagine that trees, or human bodies, or termite nests[1] are in any way “free.” Freedom is not to be found “out there.” The actions of trees, human bodies and termite nests all point to the existence of intelligence, active response to environmental conditions, and the like, but only in symbolic fashion. It is rather terrible that the world we see around us can only ever be a symbol of the spiritual and the free.

Prior to the existence of God the Father, God the Creator, God the Lover, is the Great Mystery and the Great Mystery partakes in Freedom. The Great Mystery of Jacob Boehme’s Ungrund is why God’s nature can never be fully known. God the Logos is a Person and can be experienced and known. Meister Eckhart’s Godhead is entirely inscrutable and unknowable. It is the causeless source of freedom, and all living things have a connection to the Ungrund. “Man is not fractional or separate part of the world; he embodies in himself the whole mystery and solution of the world.” It is why no Person can ever be fully known – not to yourself, not to other people and not to God. God does not fully know Himself either.

The Great Mystery provides choice and choice means the possibility of evil and nonbeing. It is also the precondition for the good. God the Father does not create evil. The possibility of evil pre-exists God the Father.

What proceeds from The Great Mystery must be causeless in order to be free – otherwise physical determinism is simply replaced by spiritual determinism. If creativity were explainable it would no longer be creativity. Freedom too is inexplicable. And it is the postulate that is the precondition for postulating anything since only agents can postulate. Berdyaev uses the phrase “creative dogmatism” at one point in his writing. If ever there was a right moment for creative dogmatism, the postulate of Freedom is surely one of them.

Obviously, a world of only “sequences of events” is not good, or evil. It has no purpose, no meaning, and no interior.

Without mystery, life is not worth living; not for us and not for God. To be deprived of mystery would be the death of creativity, freedom and a creative response to life. God is the Creator and creators take from mystery and produce the known, the objective. The known now participates in the “sequence of events” that symbolically point back to their creator. Again, there is something tragic and ironic about creation because of its objective character.

“Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.” That is true, to a degree. Sequences of events per se have an objective character. However, some sequences of events have a symbolic character pointing back to their divine origins in meonic Freedom.



[1] Termites intelligently and subtly alter their nests in response to changes in weather patterns.

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

Back To Top