Saturday, December 08, 2007

Cartesian windowpanes

“You cannot have a choice unless you can genuinely actualize alternative possibilities.”

Robert has no experience actualizing alternate possibilities. He only has the experience of doing one thing at a time. He has never had the opportunity to test or experiment with each alternate possibility.

“So he was ‘debating’ between responding to me or not responding to me. If both of those options were real he was deliberating about a choice he was facing. This experience is itself an indication that in contrast to his espoused philosophizing (in his philosophy and theology he argues for exhaustive determinism) he operates in his daily life as if choices are real. And he does so because choice are real, and his philosophy/theology of determinism is false.”

This does absolutely nothing to advance the argument. It is simply a question-begging appeal to his pretheoretical notion of “choice.”

“But these actions are not really “options” unless each of them can be actualized by the person. Running as fast as a cheetah is not an option for me because it is not an option that I can actualize. Only actions which I can actualize are (or should be designated as) options for me. It is misleading and goes against the way we speak of ‘options when in fact they are impossibilities for us to actualize. “

This is equivocal. If I attempted to exercise a particular option, and couldn’t carry out my intention, then I didn’t have the freedom to exercise that option.

But this is a debate over abstract, unexemplified possibilities.

“When the ordinary person on the street speaks of his options he means not only that he believes these options exist but that each one can be actualized by him. If he cannot actualize it he does not call it an option.”

That’s wholly irrelevant to whether determinism is true or false. The man on the street may hold many false, pretheoretical beliefs.

Robert’s appeal to the man on the street is a backdoor admission that his position can’t withstand philosophical scrutiny.

“If I go to Baskin Robbins 31 flavors and because of some equipment malfunction only one flavor is available most of us would not say that I ‘picked’ it, we would say something like ‘I was stuck with X,’ or ‘I had no choice so I had to take X’.”

If he tried to pick a flavor that was unavailable, then, no, he couldn’t pick it.

But suppose the one flavor which was still available was the flavor he intended to pick all along?

“Then Manata says that due to God’s decree in reality he could only have done X and that that does not bother him. Well it may not bother him if the selection is just ice cream. But let’s up the stakes a bit. According to Manata it does not bother him that he has to do the one thing decreed by God. So I guess when he commits a serious sin, that does not bother him nor does he express remorse as he is only doing what God decreed and that does not bother him. It bothers me and many other Christians to have a view that results in every evil that occurs being decreed by God and being the only thing we could do, with it being impossible that we do otherwise. God predetermining my every sin so that I had to sin and could not do otherwise is not the God of the bible. It also means that our deliberating and planning and thinking about various ‘options’ is all illusory.”

Now he’s resorting to emotional blackmail and rhetorical extortion. If the Bible teaches predestination, then Manata isn’t responsible for the consequences of what the Bible teaches. God is responsible teaching predestination in Scripture. Manata is responsible for his fidelity to the teaching of Scripture.

Robert hasn’t offered an exegetical disproof of Manata’s position. To the contrary, he’s trying to nullify the witness of Scripture by this demagogic blocking maneuver.

Speaking for myself, I’m not bothered by what God teaches. I’m not bothered by what God does.

But, to answer him on his own level, many other Christians are bothered by the idea of horrendous evils that happen for no good reason. God didn’t plan it to happen that way, for a higher end.

“We think we have ‘options’ but if everything is decreed then we never have ‘options’ nor do we have choices as ordinarily understood. That may not bother Manata but that bothers a whole lot of other people. I do not believe that God created a world where our actions are decreed and options and choices are all illusory. That would make God into something more like Descartes demon than the God of the bible.”

i) Once again, he’s simply demagoging the issue.

ii) Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our choices would be “illusory” if predestination were true. How does that consequence falsify predestination?

Unless you’re a naïve realist, you had to admit a gap between appearance and reality. There is an illusory aspect to human experience. It isn’t pure illusion, but there are illusory elements to our experience of the world. Here’s an example:

“An assumption implicit in the argument from experience is that there is a direct correspondence between the perception of change and the objective passage of time, or its consequences. Change and motion are out there, and we just register them. But as perceivers are we really so passive? Is there not an element of the mind’s construction in what we experience? According to a very influential theory of motion perception, proposed by Herman von Helmholtz, what we see when we see motion is in part due to the mind’s telling us what we see. We see motion when we keep our eyes still, and a moving object produces a shifting image across our retinas. But we also see motion when we track the moving object with our eyes, so that the retinal image stays constant. These systems responsible are known as the image/retina system and the eye/head system. These systems have to cooperate all the time. For, as we take in a static environment by sweeping our eyes over it, as we often do, our retinal images are constantly shifting. But the world outside does not appear to move. Why? It seems that information from the two systems can cancel each other out: the brain registers the changing image, but attributes the shift simply to the fact that the eyes are moving, so we do not register motion,” R. Le Poidevin, The Images of Time: An Essay on Temporal Representation (Oxford 2007), 93.

In this case, we’re dealing with a necessary illusion. The mind must override and reinterpret the sensory impute to prevent the percipient from becoming disoriented.

So even if, for the sake of argument, our freedom of choice were illusory, it might be a necessary illusion—in the same sense that certain optical illusions are necessary for us to function in the world.

Likewise, we can imagine alternative courses of action and their respective consequences. That’s a necessary condition of moral deliberation. This would true even if we didn’t have metaphysical access to alternate possibilities. As a practical matter, we can only do one thing at a time.

“If God kept going back to the moment before the choice to create the world, could God have picked to not create the world? Or was God’s action of creating the world necessitated? He had to do it?”

There was no moment before the creation of the world. And there was never a time when God was undecided.

“I don’t chastise a compatibilist for being a compatibilist. I chastise them when they take words from ordinary usage and then use them with very different meanings attached. Wittgenstein made this point very well, about how philosophers use ordinary terms with different meanings and it leads to all sorts of nonsense. That is misleading and deceptive, similar to what some groups do when they take Christian terms and operate according to a different meaning.”

This is irrational. Philosophical and scientific terminology are intended to be more accurate, not less accurate. Robert can only defend his position by retreating into these anti-intellectual, ad populum appeals.

It’s only self-deceptive if you’re a naïve realist who insists that mountains grow larger or smaller in relation to the observer. Pretheoretical impressions are not infallible. And language doesn’t give us unmediated access to reality.

Robert is like a bird that keeps crashing into a window because it can’t tell the difference between a windowpane and thin air. The transparent glass is “illusory” and “deceptive,” ya know. Only a hard-hearted Calvinist would believe in a world where birds smash into Cartesian-demonic windows. Such a conception violates the ordinary meaning of avian discourse.

In a libertarian world, birds can fly through windows. And if you don't know which world is the real world, just ask Robert.

“A text discussed here recently was 1 Cor. 10 and the nature of temptation. The bible says that God provides a way of escape from temptation. So the believer facing temptation is also facing the reality of choice (he can choose to resist the temptation or choose to give into the temptation).”

No, the text is stronger than that. The text includes a divine promise of preservation. Cf. T. Schreiner, The Race Set Before Us, p266.


  1. Dear Steve,

    So even if, for the sake of argument, our freedom of choice were illusory, it might be a necessary illusion—in the same sense that certain optical illusions are necessary for us to function in the world.

    IF freedom of choice is illusory, we are left with hard determinism, not compatiblism. Do you think such a view could be reconciled with scriptures that teach we have wills and make choices?

    God bless,

  2. godismyjudge said...

    “IF freedom of choice is illusory, we are left with hard determinism, not compatiblism. Do you think such a view could be reconciled with scriptures that teach we have wills and make choices?”

    1.Before addressing your question, I want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of my original point. Robert was arguing that predestination is false because, if it were true, it would render our freedom of choice illusory.

    The narrow point I was making is that this is a fallacious argument since there are, in fact, illusory aspects to our perception of reality. That, of course, doesn’t mean that freedom of choice is one of those illusory aspects. It does, however, mean that Robert cannot simply infer that if predestination renders freedom of choice illusory, then predestination is false. For that general argument, if sound, would falsify other aspects of experience which we know, for a fact, to be illusory.

    To take another example, I have the impression of seeing the words I type in front of me, on my computer screen. But while the words are indeed, external to me, the impression of externality is an illusion. What I perceive is a mental representation. That impression has an external stimulus, which I sense, but what I perceive is not something out there, but the content of my own mind, as the sensory input reaches consciousness.

    I could cite many other examples in which the phenomenology of experience presents us with certain illusory impressions—and necessarily so. Hence, Robert will either need to drop that argument and use another, or else use a more specific version of his general argument to distinguish unacceptable from acceptable illusions, and further explain why predestination would precipitate a consequence belonging to the unacceptable category.

    2.To my knowledge, hard determinism doesn’t reject the possession of a conative faculty. Rather, it regards our intentions as the effect of an antecedent causal chain of conditions sufficient to yield a particular intention.

    3.Likewise, I don’t think it denies the reality of choice. Rather, it denies the libertarian definition of choice as the freedom to do otherwise in the same situation or access to alternate possibilities.