Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gods of the possible

In its classic form, LFW posits the freedom to do otherwise. And this is the form of LFW which is deployed against Calvinism.

More recently, there are some libertarians who no longer regard this condition as a condition of LFW. If so, then that’s one less objection to Calvinism.

But, for now, I’ll address the classic formulation. Nowadays, the freedom to do otherwise is cashed out using the currency of possible worlds semantics. It ascribes to human creatures the godlike power to access and instantiate alternate possibilities.

So, the first question we need ask ourselves is what evidence is there that we enjoy this tremendous freedom? Indeed, what would event count as evidence for this sort of freedom?

The only direct evidence would be if I could travel back in time, reproduce the identical conditions under which I made a choice, and make a different choice.

This is not a straw man argument. This strictly follows from how LFW has been defined: “By ‘libertarian freedom’ is meant freedom such that the agent who makes a choice is really able, under exactly the same circumstances, to choose something different from the thing that is in fact chosen” (Hasker).

So the only way to put that proposition to the test would be to travel back in time. But in that event, there can never be any direct evidence for LFW. In that event, no one has ever had any experience of LFW. Indeed, no one could ever have any experience of LFW.

Why isn’t it possible to test this proposition? Because not all possibilities are compossible. You can’t do two different things in the same place at the same time. You can do two different things in the same place at different times, or do two different things at the same time in different places (by remote control).

One choice excludes another choice. By turning left, at that time and place, you didn’t turn right, at that time and place.

But if we have no direct evidence for LFW, do we have any indirect evidence for LFW? Well, if we had LFW, then there ought to be indirect evidence for LFW.

Although you can’t instantiate alternate possibilities simultaneously, you should be able to instantiate alternate possibilities successively—assuming that human beings enjoy LFW.

After all, alternate possibilities are just a special case of possibilities in general. They are differentiated by time. The freedom to do otherwise would be the freedom to do otherwise at the same time.

Even though this is unverifiable, it should also hold at a diachronic level as well as a synchronic level. For we’re talking about the general ability to realize abstract possibilities.

However, human experience doesn’t bear this out. If I had the ability to realize abstract possibilities, there are all sorts of things I should be able to do that I’m unable to do.

As a practical matter, if I want to do something, I have to use my hands and feet. Or I can use my voice to issue commands.

In other words, my choices are limited to what the physical world presents to me. And my field of action is limited to what the physical world presents to me.

In that event, the actual world delimits the range of the possible. I can choose from what is physically available.

But if I truly had the power to realize abstract possibilities, then the actual world shouldn’t pose a limit on my field of action. For, in that event, the actual world would be the sum total of what I and other free agents actualize.

The limiting factor on what is possible wouldn’t be the actual, but a competing possibility. If I want it to rain, and you want it to snow, at the same time and place, then those are incompossible possibilities.

But after we make allowance for all of the incompossible wishes of various agents, the world we live in still doesn’t look like the world I’d expect to find if we had the power to realize abstract possibilities. In that event, the real world should be a magical world. A world where every wish comes true—as long as your wish doesn’t conflict with my wish.

One reason I’m not a libertarian is that I don’t live in the sort of world predicted by libertarian freewill. And it’s easy to see why this couldn’t be true.

If LFW were true, you’d have all these counterfactual histories lined up in storage, waiting to be instantiated. A plurality of futures on tap. Take your pick! You don’t like this historical outcome? No problem! We’ll edit that out and splice in an alternate ending.

The problem with that notion is that it severs all the lines of causality, then picks up where it left off—as if the chain of cause-and-effect had never been disrupted.

Imagine if you tried that with a family tree. Selectively adding or deleting genealogical links between Abraham and David. The problem is that, if you make one of David’s forebears disappear, you make David disappear. You can’t very well swap out one historical segment, swap in another historical segment, then leave everything else intact. No, that dislocation will displace everything else down the line.

Imagine billions of competing agents with that power at their mental fingertips. Let’s destroy the world and recreate the world ten times a day.


  1. "It ascribes to human creatures the godlike power to access and instantiate alternate possibilities."

    That is the one line of argument that did it for me. It is plainly alien from the Bible. The world would have been like some cosmic game of chess that God had to play against chance to have His way in the simplest of matters let alone send His Son in the "completeness of time" to redeem us.

  2. I don't understand 100%

    let's say that God doesn't have LFW since he cannot lie. But still, he has LFW in the sense that he could have chosen not to create the universe, for example.

    If we carry this over to mans situation, it would mean that he couldn't act contrary to his nature (IOW in a reprobate state, he cannot for example choose Christ without God first regenerating him)

    But the analogy wouldn't rule out a sinner freely picking from several evil alternatives. As long as they are evil (and not contrary to his nature) they should be available.

    This is mostly with regards to the analogy sometimes drawn between Gods freedom and mans.

    Where am i going wrong?

  3. Goose,

    Why assume the choice to create was LFW? If LFW is incoherent, or indeterminism undermines freedom, then it wasn't LFW.

    Same with the sinner. You're assuming LFW and indeterminism is coherent and provides the control necessary for freedom and moral responsibility.

    Furthermore, most libertarians have thought a Huxleyan world did not provide true freedom.

    You know, the Gov. rigged things such that the people could do anything they "wanted" to do, it just so happened that what they wanted was the kind of things that didn't interefere with how the government wanted to govern people. So, they were free to go to the store, watch t.z., etc. They had a number of options. Their options were limited to their conditioned characters, though. Libertarians don't like that conception of freedom.

    Furthermore, libertarians have wanted to uphold a "real, deep" freedom. One where it really is "up to them" what they do. If one can only do evil, how is it "up to them?" They are not the masters of their fate, now.

    Moreover, famous libertarisn, like Kane, would say that each person must have been libertarianly free to "form" his or her character at some point in his past. But if we were all *born* with a sinful nature, then we didn't *form* it in the past. So your view would be at odds with perhaps one of the most lucid, cclear, cogent and profound libertarian writting today.

    Then, take Plantinga. He says to have "significant freedom" one must be able to "refrain" from any action. But if you "refrain" from doing evil, what crime has been committed? So, how would your view fit with Plantinga?

    Take Hasker. He claims that LFW means that it is *possible* for man to *sometimes* act contrary to God's wishes. This indicates that he is presupposing that with LFW is is also *possible* to *sometimes* act in accordance with God's nature.

    So, I find your move (this recent move by LFWers) to be totally unconvincing and at odds with the majority of LFW philosophers today.

    We're just telling you guys what your own position states.

  4. I'd also add that we'd need an explanation of the treasured libertarian maxim that an agent could have actually done otherwise. This is invoked in cases of moral responsibility. Thus when an agent commits an evil, the court holds them accountable because they didn't have to commit it, they could have done otherwise. But this means that they could have done another *evil*. So, doing otherwise would make them morally guilty. Furthermore, the libertarians invoke the "ought-implies-can" principle. So, to say you "ought to do good" is to say that you "can do good" (where "can" is read in libertarian terms). Thus Goose's understanding of things does not square with libertarianism. Besides that, a compatibilist could speak the same language: an agent can choose from a multiplicity of evils. So it's not clear how Goose's understanding is something specifically libertarian. Indeed, give my above arguments, it looks downright inconsistent with libertarian positions on these matters.

  5. Paul

    My view doesn't square with libertarianism, since i am a calvinist and believe in determinism :)

    All i was saying was that i don't see how the analogy from Gods inability to, say, lie is analogical to mans compatibilistic free will.

    Am i then to understand that God wasn't at liberty to not create? Are all possible worlds identical?

    Only on this scenario, it seems, can an analogu be drawn between Gods will and mans will.

  6. Goose,

    I meant to add a qualifier to my ealier posts to the effect that what I said to you would apply *if* you were espousing libertarianism.

    For me, personally, the main analogy I draw is with respect to moral responsibility. Libertarians often act as if inability to do otherwise takes away from moral responsibility, from ascriptions of praise and blame. These cases with God show that that is clearly not the case.

    Moreover, libertarians read freedom as ability to do otherwise. What is other than telling the turth? Lying.

    As far as creation, I do believe God had the liberty (nothing forced or compelled him to do so) to create or refrain, but I don't think it was an instance if *libertarian* free will - forking paths, open futures, could do otherwise given the same history, reasoning, etc. I don't think LFW is coherent. I think indeterminism ruins freedom and accountability.

    I also don't think creation (or saving some) was *necessitated* or *determined* by God's nature. So it wasn't compatibilistic.

    It's a third-kind. A sui generis kind for a sui generis being.

  7. Paul, can you maybe comment on the difference between "will" and "want to", and the ability to then really do what one "wills" or "wants to"?

    For example, if one really really really really wanted to jump to the moon, is that free will, or is that just a fanciful "want to", because one will never have the ability to do so?

    Closer to home, if one wants to stop sinning, and can't, what does that say about the "will" and the "want to"? Shouldn't someone with a free will and the ability to do what he wills be able to use that freedom to stop sinning?


  8. Steve, is God free in a libertarian sense? If yes, isn't it possible that as we share in the divine attributes of God (in a limited and finite way) that we are free also?

  9. August,

    Minimally, the 'will' is that capacity persons have to choose, decide, deliberate, or act. A 'want' is a desire or an intention.

    Are you asking if one is free to want to jump to the moon? Or free to jump to the moon? One is free to want to jumpt to the moon, I guess. But they would probably be irrational, unresponsive to reasons, and thus lack the control required for freedom.

    Closer to home, only regenerate people want to stop sinning, I'd say (terms would be filled in with my understandig of 'sin,' etc.,). If we allow something like the four-fold state of man, then regenerate man is posse non peccare (able to not sin). Unregenerate man is non posse non peccare (not able not to sin). So, a regenerate man could put to death sins. That's what progressive sanctification is all about. But, since we're not glorified and thus not non posse peccare (unable to sin), and given that the heart is an idol factory, and that sin runs deep and far into our soul (cf. Romans 7, old man/new man), it would be impossible to stop all sinning in this life: one reason would be, we actually don't want to. We may want to not sin in X-way, but that doesn't mean we won't want to stop sinning in Y-way. Or, we may want to stop sinning in X-way, but want to next year. This is why, among other reasons, perfection will never be possible.

    I hope that answered your question, I wasn't entirely clear on what you were asking.

  10. Norma Jean,

    I would say "No, he is not," and I *think* Steve would also.

  11. Perhaps, we have different ideas of libertarian freedom. Which is to say, we have different ideas of libertarian freedom....


  12. NJ,

    There's no sinle, unified idea of "libertarian freedom."

    Anyway: indeterminism, PAP, AP, UR, CDO, OIC?

    Sound right?