I Am an Empatheist

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne asked his blog readers today to coin one word that could be used for atheists who are accomodating—rather than combative—in their attitudes toward religion. Here was my response:

Since you’re obviously talking about people like me, maybe it would be nice to let people like me name ourselves. I wouldn’t mind, for example, being called an empatheist. It blends the words “empathy” and “atheist” perfectly and is not inherently derogatory or dismissive.

An empatheist is an atheist or agnostic who, in disputes, tries to walk in the shoes of others and tries to stay open and empathetic to points of view different from his or her own (and not treat the world in Manichean terms). An empatheist is a person, in short, who has absorbed liberalism and atheism in a way that makes him or her in favor of social pluralism. He or she doesn’t want a world without religion, but a world that speaks from diverse points of view.

An empatheist believes that a society that speaks many religious languages is better than one that speaks only one language (such as monotheism or monoatheism).

Camus was an empatheist. He famously told a group of Christians that he thought it was important for Christians to stay Christians and speak from their tradition, even as he spoke from the vantage of his lack of faith. He wanted dialogue and alliance with reasonable religionists, not combat. Barack Obama is almost certainly some sort of empatheist. The Berkeley philosopher, Richard Rorty, was an atheist, and I don’t believe he would have been offended to be called an empatheist.

Empatheism is a way of being in the world that blends atheism and pragmatic liberalism. It’s vaguely secular, but doesn’t want to rhetorically go after the juggler of moderate or liberal religionists. An empatheist tries to see what’s good in religion, not just what’s bad. An empatheist recognizes that there is an ontological mystery that empiricism cannot quite reach, and that religion, in its diversity, attempts to approach. The gestures of religion the empatheist does not scorn, but understands.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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35 Responses to I Am an Empatheist

  1. Paradigm says:

    “Barack Obama is almost certainly some sort of empatheist.”

    He claims to be a Christian, so if he is an empatheist then he is also a liar.

    I share your view on pluralism though. The idea of living in a world where everyone believes exactly the same thing is a bit scary.

  2. Veronica Abbass says:


    Jerry Coyne asks, Provide a snappy, one-word name for those atheists who are nonetheless soft on faith,” and “PLEASE do not post anything on this thread except your entries.”

    In your post (above) and on Coynes blog you have taken the opportunity to post a long comment that includes mentioning Barack Obama. Whether or not Barack Obama is a Christian or an empatheist is irrelevant. He was elected to run a country; that’s what he should be doing: “there’s no place for religion in the government of a nation.”( with apologies to Pierre Elliott Trudeau)


  3. santitafarella says:

    Paradigm and Veronica:

    It may have been unfair of me to incorporate Obama into the empatheist way of being in the world. I suspect that Obama is an agnostic (like me). But I suspect that Obama, for political purposes, poses as a Christian. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician engaged in Machiavellian practices for public consumption. I may well be wrong about Obama’s sincerity in this regard, and he may well be a serious Christian. I very much doubt it.

    But Obama’s inclusiveness, and the way he tries to walk in the shoes of others, is consistent with an empatheist way of being. If Obama is not an empatheist then he is at least an “emptheist” (a theist with empathy for atheists). I much prefer empatheists and emptheists to combative monoatheists and monotheists.

    An alternative formulation for what I would think is a fair characterization of the “empatheist” would be a word that blends irony with atheism or agnosticism. “Ironatheist”? A religious version might be: “Ironytheist.” An agnostic, atheist, or theist who recognizes his or her own ironic and contingent relation to his or her own position is somebody who is not going to be a fanatic, and is going to be open to dialogue and alliances—and even changing his or her mind.


  4. Wes says:

    An empatheist recognizes that there is an ontological mystery that empiricism cannot quite reach, and that religion, in its diversity, attempts to approach.

    This crap is so tiresome. It’s just simply illogical. Look:

    Phenomena of type X are not explained by science.
    Therefore, they are explained by religion.

    It doesn’t follow. And as long as religion insists on tucking its claims away in the gaps left by science, it will be perceived by atheists like me as completely irrational.

    If religion wants to be epistemologically respectable, then it has to make a positive case for its own methods, not just a negative case against science. Even if science can’t explain some things (it has its limits, of course), it does not in any way follow that religion can.

  5. santitafarella says:


    I didn’t say that religion “explains” X (the ontological mystery). I said that religion attempts to approach X. Atheists also approach X with metaphysical and epistemic premises (since empiricism cannot reach that far). Approaching something, or making claims or assumptions about something, is not to explain something.

    If you want to argue with my position, at least characterize it accurately. Or perhaps you take comfort in setting up strawmen and knocking them down.

    That’s tiresome. You can listen to conservative talk radio all day if that’s your interest.

    You’ve already conceded that science has limits as a tool of inquiry—that there are places science can’t reach or has yet to go. It follows that, at some point in the path, everyone must therefore make assumptions about the world that exceeds our empiricisms.

    For example, do you believe that you have free will? Yes or no?


    • JefFlyingV says:

      I have seen 2 different views of what freewill can be constituted as through religious terms and nonreligious. And the difference between the two has led to misunderstandings in the past.

      Sorry to use a question as an answer, but, Santi seeing that you are an agnostic, how do you interpret freewill?

  6. Adam M. says:


    I agree you didn’t say that, but what you did say seemed phrased in a way that makes religion seem more successful or at least more likely to succeed. (Empiricism “cannot” reach, but religion is “attempting”.)

    Why not say “there is an ontological mystery that empiricism cannot quite reach… and religion can’t either”?

    I have to say that I’m suspicious of people who proclaim the limits of science, which exist and are clearly acknowledged, but who say little or nothing of the limits of religion, which are the same limits, really. If scientists can reveal no truths about the supernatural realm, if it exists, why do people act like priests can?

    Oh, and to answer your question, which wasn’t addressed at me, it’s tricky. I feel like I have free will, but intellectually feel that it’s probably just a very compelling illusion, based on various evidences. In a way, it’s like this optical illusion: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Grey_square_optical_illusion.PNG I think this one is special because no amount of measuring pixel values or intellectual understanding about light can serve to dispel my illusion and see/feel those squares as the same color…

  7. Wes says:

    I’m not setting up straw men. Your claim still amounts to saying that since we have to make “assumptions”, then religion is a legitimate “assumption” to make in areas where science cannot reach.

    That’s nonsense. It’s entirely possible that the areas unreachable by science aren’t any more reachable by religion.

  8. Wes says:

    Oh, and I like my little angry green icon. It fits my curmudgeonly demeanor well. 🙂

  9. Adam M. says:

    It’s entirely possible that the areas unreachable by science aren’t any more reachable by religion.

    Not only possible, I think you’d be hard pressed to make any sensible case for the position that religion has privileged access. I think the only reasonable thing you can say about a non-empirical realm is “if it exists, nobody knows, or can know, anything about it”.

    If there was only one religion, I might feel differently. But so many religions claiming that universal truths have been revealed to them, and their truths being different and incompatible, leads me to rule out revelation as a way of knowing anything or answering any question…

  10. Jared K says:


    I only skimmed the comments and your replies about Obama, but I think you may be a little off. I think he has sent strong enough signals that his religious views are sincere and real–albeit somewhat watered down theologically.

    I think he has reached out far too much to religious folks (both to moderate conservative evangelicals and social justice Christians) to be merely politicking–although he surely is doing that too. You probably saw that he expanded Bush’s faith based initiatives:

    I don’t think he’s the kind of religious person that I am, but I think he’s probably warmer to organized, Christianized religion than you are. Maybe somewhere in between you and I? And I think he really is a firm theist of some vareity and I think he digs Jesus’ social message.

  11. Jared K says:


    You seem to be laboring under either a philosophy of naive scientism or the now defunct logical positivism of the mid 20th Century. These might explain a bit:

    Scientific knowledge is but a subset of meaningful types of knowledge. By no means is science the only game in town when it comes to legit ways of knowing. Note that even the issue I’m discussing can’t be addressed by science. The question of what counts as knowledge is a philosophical one, not a scientific one. Indeed, there is an entire analytic field dedicated to this question: epistemology.

    As for saying that science shares the same “limits” as religion, that is nonsense. Religion, if it is a philosophical or experiential endeavor (or anything other than some sort of “creation science” frankly), can be, and indeed is, much broader than science.

    Science is generally limited to that type of knowledge gained through theory, observation, testing, and peer review. Sounds good. But surely there are plenty of things in life that are meaningful and count as knowledge but that can’t be pursued by the scientific method. Is even a single thing about ethics rationally meaningful to discuss? If so, that is non-scientific. What about asthetics? What about philosophy of science (which can’t be probed into by doing science)? What about virtually all of philosophy? Epistemology? Logic? Mathematics? Existential questions of meaning, mortality, and morality? All of these are meaningful and rational areas of inquiry that extend beyond what the scientist can do (at least while she is doing “science”). I am always amazed at how many people who are generally very knowledgeable about science seem to be so naive about this. This clearly is correct. Science is but a subset of all rational and meaningful pursuits of knowledge.

    That doesn’t prove that religion is not B.S., but it does show that, *in theory*, religion and philosophy can cover radically different ground. Santi is right.

    As a philosophy grad student myself, I feel a little sorry for scientists sometimes because, unfortunately, they aren’t really allowed to ask many questions–at least not within the confines of their training and discipline. The analytic philosopher gets to wrestle with much more and actually gets training for such inquiries 🙂

    • santitafarella says:


      Well and clearly said, and thanks for the video links. I especially liked your sentence: “Santi is right.”


    • Adam M. says:


      You might be right, but I’m not convinced. Can you give some examples of meaningful questions that have been answered by religion or philosophy that are untouchable by science in theory? And by “answered”, I don’t merely mean that somebody said something in response to the question, but that the answer is actually, demonstrably right.

      (Secondly, and this is an aside, I consider logic a branch of math, and math a branch of science. Aesthetics can theoretically be understood by neuroscience, it seems, and the sciences of ethology, sociology, neuroscience, etc. can bring a lot to discussions of morality as well.)

    • Wes says:

      I hadn’t noticed this post at first. Let me respond briefly.

      1.) Don’t condescend to me by posting youtube videos about the Vienna circle. I’m a philosopher, not a scientist. I’ve read Carnap and all the rest, and I’ve read Quine and Kuhn and Wittgenstein, and I know why logical positivism is flawed.

      2.) Which leads to the major flaw in your objection: Nothing in what I said amounts to an espousal of logical positivism. I actually incline towards the semantic view in philosophy of science, and I tend to be somewhat of a Kantian when it comes to the nature of “reality” and our relation to it.

      3.) I never said anything scientistic. Go back and read my post. I was not at any point saying that only science counts as knowledge.

      4.) My point, which you ignored, is that religion’s epistemic value cannot be based merely on a negative account of science. Religion must be able to make a positive justification of its own methods. And religion has failed at this. The fact that science has limits (which it surely does) does not mean religion isn’t bogus. It is entirely possible for science to be limited AND religion be bogus. The claim that religion is bogus does not equate to a claim that science accounts for everything or that there are no other ways of knowing.

      • Hugo says:

        I nearly chipped in with a reply to Jared’s post, with some pop-reduction of Wittgenstein’s views, namely “most things are effectively language games, the things that aren’t, are those things that can be investigated by science”. 😉 Then I noticed I’m out of my league.

        And I’m chipping in and haven’t followed the whole discussion.

        As to “religion’s epistemic value”, I believe it contains value in the realm of shaping our lives, how we live them. It has as much value *in that realm* as any other lifestance. Largely, it has historical value in being a path we’ve walked as a culture, as our views (/memes) developed to where they are or where they’re going (including enlightenment ideals).

        Where religion is wrong, is in the realm of claims about the physical universe. That’s not the realm in which it really finds value. In that realm it can be “bogus”, while in the realm of it-shapes-our-lives it still has value. Not to say the best, our religion and/or worldviews and/or eupraxsophy or whatnot certainly evolves over time. But as what we are now, genetically, cannot really be separated from our ancestors or the environment and other creatures we interacted with over our evolutionary history, so too, I feel, we shouldn’t separate (with a clean cut) our contemporary worldviews from the religion that shaped its past, even in opposition for that matter.

        OK, that’s some random 2c I threw on the table. Clearly I’m not exactly *in* the discussion, not quite responding to any particular point of debate. Up to you (plural) if there’s something of enough interest here to pull it into a discussion. (And up to me in how much time I have or don’t have, with regards to getting more deeply involved.) Enough verbiage, to bed with me (Europe).

  12. Bruce Gorton says:

    Except you aren’t really actually empathetic – empathy is not the same as keeping silent to “spare people’s feelings” or demanding that arguments be shut up.

    Generally the type being covered are actually condescending to the religious – rather that treat the religious as equals who you can argue with and expect reasonable arguements from, the accomaditionist tends to take the old view that religious people need a crutch.

    Essentially for all of the flaws of the aggressive end of the atheist community we do not hold that religion is a mental illness which signifies weakness, hence we demand logic, rationality and evidence from religious people in religious arguments.

    We put our arguments across, plainly, frequently aggressively, with the expectation that our ideological opponents can take it. We give as good as we get because to do otherwise is to somehow view the religious with every bit the disdain they accuse us of having for them.

  13. santitafarella says:

    Adam M:

    I totally accept your correction, and would agree with your statement: “Why not say ‘there is an ontological mystery that empiricism cannot quite reach… and religion can’t either’?”

    I completely share your view here. Religion has zero epistemic access to things.

    When I say that religion approaches the ontological mystery, all I mean is that religion engages in poetic gestures that empiricists do not bother with. The empiricist shrugs at the ontological mystery and says, “We can’t know, let’s work on things we can know.” The empiricist focuses on problems that can be solved. The religionist and people like me who are agnostics but still like metaphysics and epistemology and poetry, say: “Let’s keep talking about this weird thing, however futile and unanswerable. Let’s think about meaning and wrestle with the ontological angel.”

    I don’t think it is incoherent to be an atheist or agnostic and to light a candle before a Buddha and do some vipassana meditation or yoga. I’m not even sure it’s incoherent (at least as an agnostic) to speak to the ontological mystery as an imaginitive narrative listener who refuses to speak back (God as Sigmund Freud). I mean, who knows, there might be some ultimate telos behind things. I think one reason people talk to “God” is because nobody else in their lives listens to them, and they don’t have a therapist to talk to. Think about that. People like to narrate their lives, and they like to think that somebody else is actually listening too, and actually gives a shit that they like milk in their coffee.

    Facebook is a kind of God-substitute. Watch me live out my life you gazillion godlike conscious beings out there! All my “friends.” It meets a human need to have an audience.

    What the hell is having a blog, but as a God substitue. And the audience that talks back! Who needs to pray to a telos when you’ve got all these purposeful conscious telos-beings looking in. It helps.

    And I’m willing to be surprised. If there’s a telos behind the ontological mystery curtain, how cool is that?

    I’m also convinced that it is not incoherent to write poems that swirl around the ontological mystery of things, and to read them. I think it’s good to defamiliarize and charge the world with strangeness (to light a candle or read a poem, or enter the world of an exotic religious text). It drives us to ask questions we would not ask or think about in more prosaic frames of mind.

    One of the great problems of life is how to defamiliarize the familiar, so that we don’t just sleepwalk through existence with our comfy assumptions and mental habits. Religion should stir the atheist; atheism should stir the religionist. The worst thing to do is avoid one another, to refuse to look at one another’s books and thoughts and practices—or to treat them with dismissive contempt.

    Religion can be a force for evil—taming the ontological mystery and giving it final answers—but so can atheism (when it stops looking or pretends to know more than we can). But both theism and atheism have enormously important things to teach one another.

    Liberal religion and liberal agnosticism both approach the ontological mystery without looking away or pretending to know. They just keep talking about it and pointing to it. That’s the balance, and why I don’t call myself an atheist or find any form of narrow religion appealing.

    Triumphalist religion and triumphalist atheism are the enemy, in my view.

    Doubt, doubt, doubt. Then doubt some more.


  14. santitafarella says:


    You said: “Your claim still amounts to saying that since we have to make ‘assumptions’, then religion is a legitimate ‘assumption’ to make in areas where science cannot reach.”

    What do you mean by legitimate? Is it, in your view, illigitimate for a person to conclude or surmise that there is some sort of telos behind the beginning of the universe?

    It has zero merit at all? It must not even be kept in play?

    Strict naturalism’s way or the highway? No other legitimate or coherent starting point for human reasoning?


  15. santitafarella says:

    Bruce Gorton:

    You make many good points. Empathy can lapse into patronizing. No doubt.

    I’d like to think that I am not, personally, doing that.

    I really do take seriously the claims of religion. I think about them. I don’t dismiss them out of hand. I think that there is a point of overkill. Once it’s established that you have different starting premises, one needn’t express repeated outrage that you’ve come to radically different conclusions. Obviously, you’re going to. The road between atheists and religionists forks very quickly, right at the first ontological mystery (the beginning of the universe). I can see how a coherent case can be made for a leap of faith, and an acceptance of a series of non-empirically grounded propositions by faith. I just don’t have the inclination myself.

    In those last two sentences, by the way, I’m talking about hard atheism, and why I’m an agnostic. Of course they apply to hard religion too.


  16. santitafarella says:


    You’re almost certainly right about Obama. I’m almost certainly wrong. It was a bad example on my part. I agree that Obama falls somewhere between you and I.


  17. Wes says:

    What do you mean by legitimate? Is it, in your view, illigitimate for a person to conclude or surmise that there is some sort of telos behind the beginning of the universe?

    It has zero merit at all? It must not even be kept in play?

    Strict naturalism’s way or the highway? No other legitimate or coherent starting point for human reasoning?

    I do find the notion of a teleological universe to be contradicted by observation (the universe appears to be impersonal). Any assumption otherwise must involve the claim that all the available evidence is actually wrong.

    But, more importantly, I don’t like the automatic association of the noumenal with the teleological/supernatural. They are not the same thing. I am not a dogmatist or a militant. I will fully admit that science has limits, and that there is most likely more to reality than we can ever know through empirical reasoning. But I do not accept the notion that we can just plug teleology into the gaps in our knowledge. There is no rational foundation for this. It is done based on wishful thinking, not epistemologically robust reasoning.

    The theory of evolution tells us a thing or two about how what we call a “person” comes into existence. A being with feelings, thoughts, goals, etc, does not exist sui generis, as far as the biological evidence goes. The only such beings we know of which possess these things are evolved beings. A person, if the scientific interpretation of the evidence is correct, is a PROCESS, not an eternally existent, unchanging essence.

    Again, this is all contingent on the evidence. It’s imperfect. It’s not 100% certain. But at least it’s something. I can’t for the life of me find any more reliable standard. Sure, it’s imperfect. But the only alternative is dubious traditional legend.

  18. santitafarella says:


    What do you make of this Paul Davies quote:

    “If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a biofriendly universe looks like a fix – or ‘a put-up job’, to use the pithy description of the late British cosmologist Fred Hoyle. It appeared to Hoyle as if a super-intellect had been ‘monkeying’ with the laws of physics. He was right in his impression. On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings. Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems to be ‘just right’ for life, in many intriguing ways. No scientific explanation for the universe can be deemed complete unless it accounts for this appearance of judicious design.”


  19. smijer says:

    nice post. I like the way you think. I posted a much shorter but similar comment on Jerry’s thread.

  20. Wes says:

    Davies’s quote is typical creationist thinking applied to the whole universe rather than just life on Earth. It suffers from all the same flaws.

    For one, the reasoning is basically like this:

    If things had been even slightly different in the past, they would be radically different today.
    And yet, things are the way they are today.
    This is highly improbable.
    Therefore, things were intended to be that way.

    Whether applied to biological complexity or physical constants, the reasoning is the same. There are numerous flaws in this type of reasoning.

    1.) The “odds” are entirely bogus. We do not know if the various physical “constants” can vary relative to each other. No one has ever come up with an accurate calculation of how likely our universe is relative to any other, because we are 100% ignorant of the relative parameters.

    2.) It commits the Is/Ought fallacy. The fact that things exist today does not imply they were meant to exist.

    3.) We do NOT live in a “bio-friendly” universe. The vast, vast, vast majority of the universe is not only void of life but completely inhospitable to it. All life on Earth is not even a speck of dust relative to the universe. As Mark Twain put it, saying that the universe is here for our sake is like saying that the Eiffel Tower exists for the sake of the coat of paint on the vary tip of it. My message to people like Davies is: You are not the center of the universe.

    4.) No matter how complex the universe is, this does not in any way prove design. David Hume demonstrated this well 250 years ago.

    5.) What other universe would we expect to find ourselves in? Of course we find ourselves in a universe where it’s possible, somewhere, for something like us to exist. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to find it out. The mere fact that it’s possible for us to exist in this universe does not prove that the universe exists for our sake. Rather it shows that we would not be here if the universe weren’t the way it is.

    I can’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that I think captures this erroneous type of reasoning well: “Cockroaches act as if the whole apparatus of human construction exists solely for their benefit. Theologians tend to view the universe that way.”

  21. santitafarella says:


    Your five points directly above are powerful ones. In fact, your last couple of posts were vigorously defended arguments, and more than reasonable.

    I might quarrel a bit with this: “What other universe would we expect to find ourselves in? Of course we find ourselves in a universe where it’s possible, somewhere, for something like us to exist.”

    I think it’s a bit too simple to say, in effect, we’re here because we’re here. The anthropic principle is much more convincing (to me, anyway) if we live in a multiverse. Otherwise I have a hard time getting my head around the fact that the one and only universe that is or has ever been has actually achieved the extraordinary complexity that it has by what is, in essence, dumb luck over 12 billion years. The ontological mysteries of freedom, consciousness, matter, love etc. seem to beg for explanation.

    Also, a multiverse does not stop the infinite regress. I like the way the Hindus see the world in this respect. They see the phenomenal world as in ever contingent change, like clouds moving through the sky of a large telos or consciousness that is necessary, timeless, unchanging: the Atman.

    Metaphorically, perhaps even literally, it seems like a potentially correct intuition—the mindless phenomenal somehow being the flipside of a grounding mind. And then Buddhism has its “Anatman” doctrine, “no Atman” doctrine, which is equally bizaare, with emptiness—or nothingness—being the flipside of the phenomenal. Unlike you, I’m not sure that mind as a starting point for the universe is any more or less question begging than eternal matter or self-created matter or mirroring Buddhist nothingness.


  22. Wes says:


    I was not saying that “we exist because we exist”. I was saying that the observation that it’s possible for life to exist in this universe is not in any way astonishing.

    It is true a priori that an existing being is going to find itself in a place where it’s possible for that being to exist. That just follows analytically from what we mean by existing. We exist in this universe. We find that it’s possible for us to exist here. That’s not surprising. It’s basic modal logic. “If P then it is possible that P” is always true.

    It certainly does not in any way show design. And the fact that, if things were different, we wouldn’t exist, does not prove that we were meant to exist. As I said, that’s committing the Is/Ought fallacy.

    A professor from whom I’ve taken courses in mathematical logic, metaphysics, and theology once told me that he believed in God because consciousness needs a special explanation. I asked him why a universe containing consciousness (in a tiny, insignificant corner) needs a different explanation from another university, containing some other property not found in this universe called “schmonsciousness”. In other words: Why is that particular feature so special that the explanation for the ENTIRE UNIVERSE must hinge on it?

    I don’t deny the “ontological mystery” as you call it. But the move from that to “a personal god rules the whole universe” is not justified.

  23. santitafarella says:


    You asked: “I have seen 2 different views of what freewill can be constituted as through religious terms and nonreligious. And the difference between the two has led to misunderstandings in the past. Sorry to use a question as an answer, but, Santi seeing that you are an agnostic, how do you interpret freewill?”

    I see free will as a mental property that effects a physical property. In other words, somehow my mental life—I will pick up this pen right now—leads to a disjuncture in the physical course of things and my hand reaches forward and picks up a pen. All that neurological synapsis firing and chemistry in my body has been disrupted with a thought (and so it would seem).

    And that’s the problem, isn’t it? How does a mental thought disrupt the course of where atoms would have gone without my mental intervention, leading the hand to move in a certain way, toward the pen as opposed to something else?

    I don’t account for it. I believe in free will by faith. Agnostics can (indeed, must) leap beyond the empirical sometimes, like all human beings in the face of ontological mysteries. Strict naturalists who believe that all causes in the universe can be reduced to physical causes would say that our experience of free will is an illusion, an epiphenomenon that, with enough information from the physical world (of atoms and chemical reactions), my picking up the pen was predictable and even inevitable.

    I can’t refute it. But I choose to believe that I have free will, and that someday perhaps even science will show that I do. It’s one of the reasons I’m an agnostic (and not an atheist). I think that mental properties are difficult to account for, especially those that give the appearance of having real world effects.


  24. santitafarella says:


    Put differently: Maybe mental properties cannot be reduced to physical properties. Maybe it’s just part of the ontological mystery (mystery of being). Maybe there are two things, not one, in this universe.

    I’m not thrilled with the current model (by sheer good fortune matter, when organized with sufficient complexity—neuronal complexity—“turns on” consciousness).

    Does that mean I entertain that there might be a ghost in the machine? As an agnostic, and not an atheist committed to accounting for everything absent telos and with physical properties only, I would say that I do. I entertain it. I don’t believe it. I don’t know. But I don’t rule it out (the possibility that mental properties are not reducible to physical properties).

    And I don’t know how I would live without believing in free will (or at least ignoring that I don’t have it).


    • Adam M. says:

      I’m not thrilled with the current model (by sheer good fortune matter, when organized with sufficient complexity—neuronal complexity—”turns on” consciousness).

      I don’t think consciousness is like a boolean switch that can be “turned on” or off. It seems that there is a continuum of self-awareness among the animals, which is fairly well correlated with brain complexity, with humans probably having the most well-developed sense of it.

      So if there is something supernatural about consciousness, then it would seem that the ability to access that supernatural realm at least is determined largely by the physical arrangement of matter in your head.

      Nobody knows the real answer, but I’m hopeful that it will be solved within my lifetime, and what an exciting prospect that is! In the mean time, I tend to follow the work of Haggard and Eimer, Libet, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, and others working on this problem. As far as I know, the only real, verified data we have about free will falls on the side of showing that it’s illusory, and so I believe it probably is.

      That doesn’t eliminate the feeling of choice, but then, there are known illusions that seem just as compelling and indispellable (like the visual one I linked to earlier)…

      • Hugo says:

        In my ignorance, I disagree with the “illusionary” statement, as well as agree.

        I think the answer “it is illusionary” becomes predetermined by the way we ask the question, by the lens through which we view ourselves.

        Which arguably means I also consider it illusionary, in the sense that I find free will *real* in a realm other than the *physical, particle-universe*.

        While I hate the computer metaphor, let’s use it anyway: The brain is the neuronal computer that supports software consisting of “memes” (this sentence defines the language, mostly, rather than making any actual claims). Our free will is found in the realm of our subjective experience, in the realm of those memes.

        I feel the “do we have free will?” question should not try to tie the two realms together. I don’t mean that in the “prohibitionary” sense, I mean that in the sense that if it tries to do that, the results aren’t actually meaningful. The question kinda divides itself by zero. 😛

        OK, on the matter side, the question is: “if we could know the complete state of the universe, can we deterministically calculate the next state?” If the answer is “yes”, this is typically taken as the answer “no free will”. The uncertainty principle (quantum physics) messed up that determinism a bit though. If the complete next state can only be determined probabilistically, how is the outcome, the next state, actually determined or chosen? From here ideas of branching universes, that for every choice you made, there are other branches that you didn’t choose. That presents us suddenly with a choice…

        A scary and/or dangerous thought though, kinda solipsist, kinda resonates with newage mumbo-jumbo like “The Secret”, in a softer sense: we’re choosing which reality we want to experience. A most harmful version of this metaphysics, there’s always suffering in some of the other realities anyway, so who cares which we choose? We’re not really reducing suffering by choosing to observe the non-suffering branches, might as well go explore the suffering ones. 😛

        I’m digressing though, silly thought experiments. I feel if you come at the question from the other side, more of an existentialist side, defining existence based on our experiences, then the “can the next state be deterministically computed?” is a senseless question, as our experiences aren’t on the realm of the physical state of the universe. We experience free will, thus: we have free will. We define it that way. The question of whether this experience of free will emerges on top of an ultimately deterministic universe is then a purely academic exercise, devoid of any real *meaning*, meaning being on the realm of our experiences, our memes…

        I’m quite aware of how little I just said. Or that it might be experienced as much anyway. It’s an interesting challenge to distill a non-linear (for lack of a better word) worldview into a linear narrative. Like visualising a high-dimensional shape or entity in two dimensions (or even one :-P), you need to take intersections on various planes (or hyper-planes) to be able to see anything. Or basically, choose a place to stand, from which to observe the surroundings, choose a fulcrum on which to pivot your lever… and the point you choose is somewhat arbitrary… to make the visualisation useful, the lever do something, the worldview communicable, you need to have some aim in mind, your target audience’s goals/desires/reasons for listening in the first place?

        Hitting submit, as the other option is simply to delete, and I’m too emotionally invested in the idea of “my time has value”, and I spent time to write this. Meh. 😉

  25. santitafarella says:


    Early on in this thread I meant to respond to your question about free will, but perhaps we’re passed it? In any event, your last post was interesting, but I’d ask you what constitutes, to your mind, an explanation?

    In other words, if consciousness can be problematized and located as having physical properties, and when those physical properties are present you get consciousness, does that constitute an explanation, or just a deepening of the ontological mystery?

    In other words, can’t we be shocked and wonder-struck that dumb matter should have the property of consciousness under certain conditions? How weird is that?


    • Adam M. says:

      Regardless of its cause, consciousness seems pretty amazing, but I agree it would be even more so if we find that it’s an emergent property of matter (which I believe may happen due to the ongoing progress in finding and understanding neural correlates of consciousness).

      There seems to be a gap between knowing that a given conscious percept will arise if and only if certain neuronal activity happens, and the feeling of experiencing it firsthand.

      Why do I feel? I have no idea.

      It’s that gap that makes it seem mysterious to me, and I don’t know if it can ever be bridged. Even if consciousness was reverse engineered to the extent that a conscious machine was built, it wouldn’t cease to amaze me. But I wonder if future generations would think “the natural phenomenon of consciousness” as normal as we think the force of gravity? (That’s pretty mysterious too when you think about it. Why does matter attract all other matter in the universe over infinite distances? I don’t know, but it almost seems magical.)

      Anyway, it’s something people have been speculating about for millennia, but we’re finally getting the first morsels of real understanding from neuroscience. I’m pretty excited about that.

  26. santitafarella says:


    I actually liked your summing up of Wittgenstein so cleanly when you said: “I nearly chipped in with a reply to Jared’s post, with some pop-reduction of Wittgenstein’s views, namely “most things are effectively language games, the things that aren’t, are those things that can be investigated by science”.”

    That’s also very Richard Rorty sounding, and I noticed that you have a view of free will (that it is true in the experiential but needn’t be reconciled with the language of the non-mental) akin to Rorty’s.

    I’m wondering if you’ve ever read Rorty’s “Contingency, Irony, Solidarity”. Have you?

    Also, my wife is a Brit from the Midlands; are you writing from England or some other part of Europe?

    Sorry if you came a bit late to this thread. It appears it may be dying. Crickets. Maybe another thread will pick up a bit later.


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