During the founding era, Americans were not yet living in Charles Taylor’s secular age, a time in which citizens in the Atlantic world can “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, that is, coming to a point where the crucial importance of the God of Abraham for this whole enterprise is brought home forcefully and unmistakably.” It would still be another century before Friedrich Nietzsche declared, through the mouth of a madman, that God is dead. Even then, the madman’s announcement turned out to be premature, for as he realized, this “tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.”

The event still on its way was not so much the death of God as the death of the theological tradition that underpinned core liberal concepts we often take for granted, such as basic human dignity, natural rights, and moral agency grounded in free will. The classicist Kyle Harper noted in a 2015 talk on these themes that the full realization of this tremendous event “would unravel in future time, and its consequences would be unsettling.”

Hadley Arkes, an emeritus professor of jurisprudence who now directs the James Wilson Institute for Natural Rights and the American Founding, observed that it “has taken generations of lawyers to make obscure and to forget the most obvious things around us—or within us.” From a different angle, however, we might say the framing assumptions of our public culture no longer give an adequate account of the primary things we see around us and within us, leaving us uncertain and anxious about what to do with this tension. The primary things I have in mind are basic and foundational: the value of individuals, the human capacity for choice, the reliability of reason, and the reality of goodness. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the kinds of taken-for-granted concepts that the reductive materialistic assumptions of our secular age routinely call into question.

Should We Believe We Have Free Will, Even If It’s Not True?

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One example of the discrepancy between the framing assumptions of our age and a concept we take for granted was provided by a recent story in The Atlantic entitled “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will.”

Philosophers and theologians, of course, have debated the question of free will for millennia. What was new was the confidence with which the article pronounced that neuroscience had settled the debate. Chemistry and physics, according to the author, can explain every thought, every hope, and every dream (including, of course, our thoughts about determinism and free will). Although this is not a new assertion, its implications are indeed unsettling, for it would make freedom and moral responsibility illusory. As a character in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength contends, such a state of affairs would mean that “Social relations are chemical relations.” In this view, politics and law are, and can only be, applied chemistry. The analytic distinctions between freedom and tyranny, consent and coercion, persuasion and propaganda, and even sanity and insanity all begin to break down.

These dire implications do not necessarily make the view false; Nietzsche might have been right when he asserted that free will is the “foulest of all theologians’ artifices.” Indeed, it could be the case that the foundational beliefs of civilization are all illusory—that the truth is a poison pill that eventually will lead to our ruin. Perhaps, to borrow that famous line from the movie A Few Good Men, we simply cannot handle the truth. The really interesting part of the Atlantic article pronouncing that free will does not exist, then, was its subtitle: “But we’re better off believing in it anyway.” Within a discussion of philosopher Saul Smilansky’s contention that we should embrace the illusion, the article explains (perhaps with a sense of irony), “if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”

According to Smilansky, the truth is that there is an unbroken chain of physical cause and effect from which we cannot escape and which determines all that is or will be; but belief in this truth of the human condition is contrary to our good. The truth, as Smilansky sees it, is contrary to our good, because it empties the world of purpose and meaning, which provide the crucial motivation for individuals to carry on the project of civilization. The cold reality, in this view, is that the same physical laws that determine the course of our lives, actions, and thoughts will lead eventually to our physical entropy and decay. As that other philosopher, Jim Carrey, said recently on the red carpet at an awards ceremony, “We’re going nowhere. It is a big pageant of nothing, rising out of nothing, and happening for no one.” From this vantage point, moral nihilism seems to be a reasonable conclusion as we look into the abyss of death. But the author of the Atlantic article highlights the worry that the nihilistic outgrowth of materialism will undermine the good of society.

Materialism’s Metaphysical Emptiness

Setting aside whether the concept of good is meaningful in this context, let us note that the problem was acknowledged in Western theology and jurisprudence before neuroscientists began studying the brain. Biblical commentators, for example, have long interpreted one of the consequences of the fall of man to be humanity’s tendency to elevate material reality as the ultimate or highest source of meaning. As R.R. Reno writes in his recent commentary on Genesis, synthesizing the insights of classical Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant interpreters, “When the eye of the soul becomes carnal, taking the physical and finite as the measure of all things, the testimony of creation awakens a sense of shame. We know ourselves pursuing a futile life-project—even as we commit ourselves to its futility.” Smilansky and others, of course, might see this tradition as useful nonsense. Tabling that question, we can say that people have long been aware of the disheartening implications of a worldview that makes the physical and finite the measure of all things, and it arguably is our deep longing for the infinite and immortal that leads us to be disheartened.

In light of this unease, and the disparity between materialism and experiential reality, the practical question for us today is what it would take for the people who control the key institutions in our society to embrace the old idea that we are rational animals capable of making decisions fraught with moral consequence. So long as our choices are entirely determined by physical causes, however, freedom is an illusion. If freedom is an illusion, then nothing is right or wrong, since unavoidable necessity is not a moral category. The practical stakes for how we answer these abstract questions are high. In one of his best and most reflective essays on this topic, Lewis observed:

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.

Lewis’s observation does not mean the natural law exists (although he of course thought it did). His narrower point is that the idea of natural law is essential to the idea of freedom, because, as he wrote elsewhere, it provides the foundation of “a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

In the modern world, some have been tempted to dispense with the metaphysical baggage of the natural-law tradition, but without metaphysics we are left simply with physics, and physics is about power, leverage, and force. If power is all there is, then everything is about power, including the arguments we engage in as academics. The alternative to reason is strength: it has always been the alternative. In the reigning worldview of many intellectuals, material nature in an endless chain of cause-and-effect necessitates all human action. The strong rule, as must be the case, but strong can also mean clever, if cleverness helps one gain power. For this reason, many academics see law and public discourse as little more than linguistic power struggles, necessitated in advance by the course of matter.

It is a grim worldview that cannot give a coherent account of many of the fundamental concepts at the base of our law and politics, and cannot account for our actual lived experiences in the world. “Everyone knows,” as the late Peter Lawler wrote, “that physics can’t explain the physicist.” Physics, by itself, simply explains away the physicist—and much else. The older theological and metaphysical view gave us two basic things that so far we have not been able to recover: a confidence in practical reason and a belief in freedom. Both grew out of a deeper philosophical anthropology that understood human beings as rational animals unique in their capacity to deliberate about the standards of justice rooted in human nature.

Rumors of God’s death may have been greatly exaggerated, but the prevalence of a materialistic philosophy that cannot give an adequate account of human freedom and moral responsibility has put in jeopardy many of the core ideas at the base of our civilization.

This essay is adapted from “James Wilson, Necessary Truths, and the Law,” an article written for a symposium on truth in American law and public discourse that is forthcoming in the Duquesne Law Review.