Jan 142013

On Sunday’s episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, Greg Perkins and I answered questions on free will and natural law, romance between an atheist and a believer, bringing children into a statist world, and more. The podcast of that episode is now available for streaming or downloading.

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Whole Podcast: 13 January 2013

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Podcast Segments: 13 January 2013

You can download or listen to my answers to individual questions from this episode below.


My News of the Week: I’ve been SnowCon 2013 and working on the publication of my dssertation. Also, last night I discovered that an awesome picture of me and my shotgun appears in this CNN photoessay (#11).

Question 1: Free Will and Natural Law

Question: Is free will merely an illusion? While I dislike the idea that we’re just puppets of physics and natural law, I wonder whether our seemingly “free” decisions are actually determined by the combination of our biology and our environment. After all, if our brain is merely a physical and chemical system, how could any any decisions be made freely? Wouldn’t that violate natural law? In essence, how can our knowledge that the physical universe is deterministic be reconciled with our subjective feeling that we choose our actions?

My Answer, In Brief: The evidence for free will is overwhelming, and the attempts to deny that are not scientific but rather based on a dogmatic adherence to reductionistic materialism.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Question 2: Romance Between an Atheist and a Believer

Question: Can a romance between an atheist and a religious believer work? What are the major obstacles? Should the atheist attend church or church socials with his spouse? Should they have a religious wedding ceremony? Should they send their children to religious schools? Do the particular beliefs – or strength of beliefs – of the religious person matter?

My Answer, In Brief: Religion is a fundamental motivator of values, and so romance between an atheist and a religious believer is possible, but fraught with danger.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Question 3: Bringing Children into a Statist World

Question: Is it wrong to have children in an increasingly irrational and statist culture? People should think about the long-range effects of their actions, and act based on principles. So if a person thinks that our culture is in decline – and perhaps even slipping into dictatorship – is it wrong for that person to have children? Is such an assessment accurate? Along similar lines, were people wrong to have children in the Soviet Union and other dictatorships?

My Answer, In Brief: If you don’t want to have children, that’s fine, but don’t use the ridiculous dogma of secular apocalypticism to justify that decision. Life, particularly for children, is better than ever before.

Listen or Download:


To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Rapid Fire Questions


  • Imagine that you were to be able to trace every event in a person’s life back to infancy, such that you would be able to predict all their decisions based on their past experiences? What would the technical term for that be?
  • If pedophiles cannot change their sexuality, then is it wrong to simply attempt to suppress that?
  • Is it rational to refrain from flying because you object to the policies and actions of the TSA, even though you’d quite enjoy taking a vacation abroad with friends?

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  • Start Time: 1:00:41
  • Duration: 5:48
  • Download: MP3 Segment

To comment on these questions or my answers, visit its comment thread.


Be sure to check out the topics scheduled for upcoming episodes! Don’t forget to submit and vote on questions for future episodes too!

  • Start Time: 1:06:29

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  • William H. Stoddard

    I just tried to post this on the comment thread for Question 1, but when I looked at it it seemed to be under Question 3. So I’m going to repost it here on NoodleFood, as I’m not sure it will be of interest to people mainly concerned with whether to have children in a statist world.

    Actually, there is a technical philosophical term—an “ism”—for the belief in free will: libertarianism. Of course it’s a different meaning from the political meaning of the word, which makes it potentially confusing; but at least in philosophical discussions I’d expect readers to be able to keep the two concepts distinct.

    I’m somewhat perplexed by part of your discussion: The appeal to cognitive self-regulation as a specific case of self-regulation, which is a broader category that applies even to bacterial metabolism. Of course it’s true that bacteria have physiological self-regulation (regulatory genetics is in every molecular biology textbook) and are not simply passively shoved around by external forces. But Ayn Rand defines free will as the choice “to think or not to think” or “to focus or not focus,” and says that this is the fundamental choice from which everything else follows. Bacteria don’t have that choice, because they don’t think at all. So self-regulation can take place without what Rand calls “free will.”

    Nathaniel Branden’s argument, in “The Contradiction of Determinism,” was that if we do not have free will, then we cannot choose what to believe in accordance with the standard of reason, which invalidates any claim for the truth of our beliefs, including the belief in determinism. (Curiously, I just ran across this same argument in Planet Narnia, a study of astrological imagery in C. S. Lewis’s fiction, and apparently Lewis took it from the Marxist biologist J. B. S. Haldane!) And of course this leads to the identification of free will as axiomatic, in accordance with Rand’s characterization of axioms as beliefs whose rejection makes any claim to knowledge unsustainable. But it’s not obvious that that argument can apply to the metabolism of a bacterium, the growth of a tree or a vine, or even the perceptually guided behavior of a cat. I don’t dispute that they are self-regulating, but I don’t see that their self-regulating character is axiomatic.

    I’m not sure what the relation is between “self-regulation” and “free will,” but I don’t find it obvious that the two can simply be equated.

    • http://www.philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      William — For the connection between self-regulation, see the Harry Binswanger article that I have listed in the show notes: “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation.” The whole article is about how human free will is a kind of mental self-regulation. (He doesn’t draw the parallel that I do to the apparent capacity of many perceptual-level to regulate their attention, however.)

      As for the term “libertarianism,” I’m shocked that the term slipped my mind (GAH!). However, that might be because I avoid using the term (as used in discussions of free will) to describe my own views, because it’s just not too clear what it means. Often, libertarians (e.g. Kane) appeal to QM to justify free will, such that free will becomes a kind of arbitrary indeterminism. That’s super-unhelpful, I think, and really plays into the hand of determinists (including compatibilists). Still, I can’t believe that the term slipped my mind. Silly me.

      P.S. I’ll check out what’s up with the comments!

      • William H. Stoddard

        I avoided bringing up physical indeterminism because I don’t think it helps. I mean, suppose we have a physical system that is deterministic and is not capable of attaining valid knowledge. If we add the supposition that its physical state is subject to a series of random changes, or that its transitions from state to state include some multi-branched steps in which the branch it takes is selected at random, that doesn’t add to its ability to attain valid knowledge; randomness is random! You might as well suppose that if you can’t hit what you’re shooting at by aiming, you can improve your chances by closing your eyes and waving your gun around blindly.

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