Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism (Pt. 12: Free Will)

, posted by jordanjapo

This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here:

This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here:

The Elephant in the Room

There has been an issue lurking beneath my posts for some time now, and that is the issue of free will. In this post, I aim to do three things very briefly. First, lay out the Calvinist and Arminian views concerning the will. Second, address whether either view is compatible with Scripture. Third, address whether either view has any significant philosophical problems in it.

1. Two Views on the Will

How you answer this question is a sure-fire indicator of where you fall on this issue: Is free will compatible with determinism? Determinism is the thesis that every action, every event, every thought, etc. is determined (directly caused, put in place) by prior states of affairs and/or the decree of God. As I worded it before, the difference between the Calvinist and the Arminian is how they judge the truthfulness of this claim: “God determined/caused me to freely do X.” The Calvinist says “Yes, that’s true,” whereas the Arminian says “No, that’s nonsensical — if it was determined/caused, it wasn’t free.

An incompatibilist would, not surprisingly, say the two are incompatible, and would believe in what’s been called Libertarian Free Will (LFW). They are likely to say, “If my actions are merely the result of events that took place in the distant past, then they were never really up to me, so I wasn’t free to do them.” Often, an incompatibilist will say that freedom consists in being able to do otherwise, that he isn’t morally responsible for something unless he could have chosen to do something else instead. (Quick clarification: very few philosophers would argue that free will requires the ability to do otherwise; nevertheless, most who hold to LFW would still say that it often accompanies free actions, so it is still a helpful tool for distinguishing between the views.) Arminians and Molinists would hold to a view of the will resembling this.

A compatibilist, on the other hand, would say that the two are indeed compatible, and would believe in Compatibilistic Free Will (CFW). Often, they will argue that someone did something freely so long as the desire to do it came from “within,” as it were. Thus, they define freedom more broadly, and say that free will is simply the freedom to do what we want. Those in the Reformed camp often follow Jonathan Edwards in saying that the will always does what it most highly desires. If this is the case, then so long as people do what they want, then they are genuinely free.

2. A Biblical Assessment

Frankly, the issue of the will is very seldom brought up in the Bible directly. However, I think that the Biblical testimony does point toward LFW over CFW.

As I have said before, the notion of Libertarian Free Will is assumed by affirming that people could have done other than what they did. 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” This means that for every time a person has sinned, God had given a way of escape that they could have taken. The implication is that nobody sins who wasn’t able, by God’s grace, to do otherwise. (Emphasis on “by God’s grace.”)

Thus, the Arminian who sins can repent of his actions, acknowledge that there was a way of escape, and that had he relied on God’s grace, he could have taken that way of escape.

Meanwhile, for the Calvinist who sins, he is unable to make any sense of this verse. He will have to say, “Even though there was a way of escape, I could not take it — not because my feet were tied, not because my hands were bound, but because my heart loves evil, and I have to choose what my heart most highly desires.” The question then is raised: what determines the heart’s desires? The only option is that it is God. (And if some Calvinist reader objects, then I have the follow up question: if God isn’t the one in control of our desires, then how does the Edwardsian view of the will solve anything?)

Furthermore, the commands of Scripture place an emphasis on choosing. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” If we are commanded to do something, it seems that it is in some manner up to us whether we obey or not. Now it could be the case that through frequent sin we have hardened our own wills, making it nearly impossible to not disobey a command. For example, if I were to begin lying constantly, it could end up becoming an addiction of sorts that I wouldn’t be able to break. But now imagine that I’m commanded “Tell the truth!” by an authority. Because of my years of lying, I find myself unable to tell the truth — I lie. Now, is that my fault? Am I morally responsible for that? Yes. But why? Two answers: 1) I am responsible for the free choices that placed me in this addiction, and 2) I am responsible for not taking the steps that I am able to do in order to get me out of this situation.

What about texts in favor of compatibilism? I have only heard one brought up in this context, namely, Luke 6:45 “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” All this text says is that what is in your heart comes out of your mouth. You could also take it to be implying that the status of your heart sets limits on what your mouth is able to say; if your heart is good, your mouth is able to say good things; if it is bad, your mouth is able to say only bad things. But I can still pick what particular good or bad things to say; all the text is saying is that my heart limits the range of options.

And speaking of evil hearts, people often confuse providence and salvation when talking about the will. Sometimes I hear people say “Yeah, our wills are free, we can choose what we want to do, but all that we choose to do is sin. Our will is bound in sin, like Luther said.” But notice how the conversation shifted from God’s providence to total depravity. They’re two separate issues. On the one hand, we can ask whether or not God has meticulously fore-ordained every event in a deterministic manner, and on the other hand, we can ask how it is that people come to faith in Christ, and what that looks like. It is possible for people to agree on the first question while disagreeing on the second.

So, as I see it, neither view is explicitly Scriptural, but Libertarian Free Will fits into the whole much more easily.

3. Philosophical Issues

I’ve already discussed the problem of evil, so I won’t repeat that here. Rather, I will look at the two views of freedom themselves, and ask whether or not they are internally coherent.

Compatibilistic Free Will

The Consequence Argument Peter van Inwagen gave this argument this name, and he very nicely summarizes the problem when he writes,

“If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.” (From An Essay on Free Will, p. 56.)

Let me flesh it out this way: imagine that determinism is true. That means everything is the result of three possible factors alone: what has happened in the past, what kind of nature you have (that produces the sorts of desires you have), and divine intervention. Those three. Now let me ask you: which of those three is up to you? None of them! You can’t control what happened in the past, you can’t control your nature, and you can’t control God! Therefore, nothing you do is up to you. Therefore you have no free will.

The Deliberation Argument When we are deliberating, we are trying to decide what to do from a number of choices. And it seems to be evident that we assume, while deliberating, at least two things: first, that we are actually able to do the number of things we’re deliberating over; second, that we actually do something in order to select one of the multiple possibilities. Compatibilism does not fit well with our experience, whereas a libertarian account does. In fact, compatibilism reports something to us that is entirely foreign, upon reflection, to what we experience: namely, that we always do what we most want. Yet, for one thing, Paul says in Romans 7 that he does not do the good that he wishes. And even beyond that, it is a rather simplistic approach to the issue. Have you ever felt a strong desire to do something, perhaps while being tempted, and nevertheless resisted? Such as when I choose not to eat late at night, even though that last slice of pizza is calling my name (which it currently is, by the way). That is my strongest food-related desire, and yet I’m not giving in. Why? Well, the Calvinist has a clever and seemingly plausible response: they say it is because I in fact want something else more than the pizza, namely health or weight loss. But I think that is simplifying the issue. Because right now, I don’t feel a desire to be healthy; it is more a matter of principle. It feels like it is arising from my reason, not from my desires, and it feels like my will is the arbiter between them. I admit, this argument is weak in its subjectivity, yet I think that if you reflect on the matter, an Edwardsian account is evidently too simplistic.

Libertarian Free Will

There is essentially one main argument against the credibility of LFW, and it is what I call the Randomness Problem. It is essentially this: If a person chooses to do A over B, why did he do so? He could have done otherwise, right? Well why, then, did he choose A over B? Is there a reason? Suppose a reason is given: I chose to not eat the pizza, and the reason is that I want to be healthy. But if this is true, then does it make me choose to not eat the pizza? What this line of questioning is trying to get at is that there seems to be no underlying cause to the choice. I was just perusing through John Frame’s Systematic Theology, and he consistently critiques LFW on this very point: it seems like there is no cause to the free choice.

Peter van Inwagen has helped paint a helpful picture of the problem. Imagine a device with a green light and a red light, and a single button. Whenever the button is pressed, one of the two lights flashes, yet it is entirely indeterminate which one will flash. Even if one knew every detail of the device, how it worked, and were practically omniscient with regard to this device, it would still be impossible to know which light would flash upon pushing the button. Now imagine that I press it. It flashes red. Did I cause it to flash red? Well, yes and no. I caused it to flash, but I didn’t cause it to flash red. To use my wording from earlier, was it up to me that it flash red? No. And the charge is this: if our actions are truly undetermined, if there are no direct A -> B causal series that determines our choices, then our choices are just random, and a random choice is no more “up to us” than a determined choice is. In fact, some Compatibilists will use this argument to say that free will presupposes determinism to be true.


Agent Causation

There is a view of freedom that I think is particularly helpful for elucidating the problem, and it is known as an Agent-Causal view of free will. Think of it this way: the Compatibilist tries to throw the Incompatibilist onto the horns of a dilemma: every event is either determinately caused, or uncaused. The Agent-Causation Theorist escapes the dilemma by saying there is a third category: self-caused. That is to say that the agent, the person, the one acting, actually causes a new causal series; he actually brings something about.

This view stretches back to Aristotle. He referred to change in terms of motion, and he said that certain entities (like humans) are self-movers.

So how does this theory help? Well, consider my refraining from eating pizza once again. Why did I do that? I chose to. I did. As Randolph Clarke argues,

What an agent directly causes, when she acts with free will, is her acting on (or for) certain of her reasons rather than on others, and her acting for reasons ordered in a particular way by weight, importance, or significance as the reasons for which she performs that action. Her acting for that ordering of reasons is itself a complex event, one that consists, in part, of her behavior’s being caused by those reasons. What is agent-caused, then, is her performing that action for that ordering of reasons rather than, say, that action for a different ordering of reasons or another action for different reasons. (Toward A Credible Agent-Causal Account of Free Will, Nous, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), pp. 191-203.)

I think that’s exactly right. We intuitively believe at least two things: that we are the ones who choose our actions, and that which choice we pick is undetermined.

This view has received some criticism, but mainly from those who think the idea doesn’t make sense on a materialistic view of what a person is. But if we put the fact that it is unfashionable aside, I think there is great reason to accept this view of human freedom, the main one being that it is the only view of freedom I’ve read up on that can avoid the traditional objections.

And that’s that! Those are my overview thoughts on the free will debate, particularly as it concerns the Calvinism and Arminianism debate.