Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Calvinism & determinism

I recently had a longish discussion about Calvinism and determinism in the combox. I'm going to rescue it from the combox and post it here.


“Steve, but of course those billions of people make millions of decisions each and therefore have a very good chance of doing wrong over the course of their lifetimes.”

i) Not a single exception? And the human lifespan varies considerably from one individual to the next.

ii) Why do you think sinning is a matter of chance? The sheer odds of sinning?

If you think that, like a game of dice, the outcome of one throw is unrelated to the outcome of another throw, then why do you think a particular outcome is more likely the more often you throw the dice? Isn’t that committing the Monte Carlo fallacy?

Dropping the metaphor, if you think that human decisions are indeterminate, then there’s no causal relation between one decision and another. In that case, each decision is like starting from scratch. A series of decisions doesn’t have a cumulative effect on the relative probabilities down the line. Each decision is a discrete, self-contained event–like a throw of the dice.

Certain combinations may be more probable or improbable than others, but if you take them serially, one at a time, then one decision is no more likely than another.

iii) Likewise, if you’re serious about the freedom to do otherwise, then you need to discount any bias that would load the dice.

“The main problem I have with Calvinism is that it doesn't have the honesty to call God what He is: The Author of Sin.”

Of course, authorship is a literary metaphor. You’ve called God a metaphor.

That accusation doesn’t amount to much unless you can specify what you mean by that metaphor in application to God. How do you delimit the range of the metaphor?

“By the time omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence are ascribed to God.”

Those attributes are scarcely distinctive to Calvinism.

“And it is said that He sustains the very physical laws such that the world disappears if He stops thinking about us.”

Who says that? You seem to be describing a form of idealism or occasionalism. But that’s hardly mainstream Calvinism. Mainstream Calvinism believes in second-causes.

“And it is also stated that He determines our actions and intentions, you are describing a world that resides in the imagination of God.”

That conclusion only follows (if at all) from objective idealism or occasionalism, not from divine determinism alone.

You also have yet to put your own cards on the table? What is your alternative?

I was responding to an Arminian. Very well, then, how does Arminianism avoid the same charge?

According to Arminianism, God foresaw that if he made this world, it would include moral and natural evils. It was within God’s power to prevent that outcome by not making this world.

Yet God went ahead and made this world in full knowledge of the outcome. At a minimum, then, that makes God partly responsible for the outcome, since he put into place all of the necessary and sufficient conditions which resulted in the moral and natural evils we see in this world.

If you fall back on open theism, you turn God into a mad scientist.

And if you fall back on atheism, you lose the argument from evil since atheism cannot underwrite moral absolutes.

Since you pride yourself on your intellectual honestly, how do you escape from your own dilemma?

4/18/2009 2:04 PM


“If by sinner, you mean someone who has sinned even once, and there is a non-zero probability of them sinning at every decision point, then the likely-hood of someone sinning is quite high. Suppose that someone has to make a decision that will be either moral or immoral 10 times a day with a 1% chance of making the immoral decision. They would have a 10% chance of sinning on any given day. There is a 1 in a billion chance of not sinning over 206 days. :)”

i) You are still in the clutches of the Monte Carlo fallacy. If, a la libertarianism, you treat each human decision as indeterminate, then there is no cumulative increase in the probability of a particular outcome. Each indeterminate decision is causally unrelated to the preceding or succeeding decision.

The sum total doesn’t raise the probability of any particular outcome in any particular case.

ii) You’re also acting as if every decision is a choice between good and evil. But many decisions involve a choice between alternate goods.

“Realize, doing one bad thing over any extended period would be quite easy.”

I’ve already pointed out one problem with that claim. Now I’ll point out another.

I’ve treated people like dice for the sake of argument, since that’s a way of modeling the libertarian position. However, real people aren’t like dice. With a pair of dice, you have a fixed set of physical variables. The outcome is random.

With humans, by contrast, there are many internal and external variables that figure in our decisions. There’s no way you can quantify the outcome of a human decision the way you quantify the outcome of throwing dice. That’s a fictitious mathematical abstraction.

“Why would we expect to find examples of sinless people? Why would a person subscribing to libertarian free will expect sinlessness?”

Because the freedom to do otherwise implies that you can either be a sinful or sinless. So, if people have the freedom to go in either direction, we wouldn’t expect every single human being to go in the same direction.

“The Author of Sin: because God determines all things, and sinful acts are a subset of all things, then God determines that sin occurs. This is if determinism is true (current events are determined by prior events all the way back to the moment of creation) and that God sets the whole thing up and determines who goes where, etc.”

i) You’re equivocating–probably due to your ignorance of Reformed theology. Predestination is not the same thing as casual determinism, where you have a chain of cause-and-effect from the first cause through a series of second causes to an end-result.

Predestination has reference to God’s plan for the world. A plan doesn’t cause anything–in the sense of a chain reaction. Just as a blueprint of a skyscraper doesn’t build a skyscraper.

Everything happens according to plan, but how it happens is a separate issue. There are different theories of causality. And one can postulate different causal mechanisms. That goes beyond Calvinism. That takes us into the realm of philosophy.

ii) In addition, you’ve tripped yourself up. If you take the position that sin is statistically inevitable, then an indeterminate outcome could be–and, in this case, would be–identical with a determinate outcome.

Sooner or later, according to your own calculations, the chances are that a series of indeterminate decisions will yield the same result as a determinate decision would.

In that event, what difference does it make if God’s plan happens to coincide with what would happen anyway, even if the end-result were random rather than predetermined?

iii) Apropos (ii), your objection only makes sense if, given the chance to do otherwise (i.e. not sin), a human being would do otherwise by not sinning.

For if, even when given the chance to do otherwise, a human being would refrain from doing otherwise; if, instead, a human being would sin, then the abstract freedom to do otherwise is morally irrelevant to the concrete outcome. What’s the point of giving him a choice if he’s not going to take it?

“Since Calvinism does not subscribe to idealism, what is meant by God sustaining the universe?”

It doesn’t mean that God sustains the universe by continually thinking it into existence. Indeed, Calvinism traditionally regards God as timeless, so no continuous creation is possible.

But God created natural cycles and forces that effect physical outcomes.

You make a few other remarks which are predicated on erroneous assumptions I already addressed.

4/18/2009 5:31 PM


“I have always thought that the libertarian position was focused on particular acts and not necessarily whether someone might hypothetically avoid sinning throughout their entire lives.”

If you define libertarian freedom as the freedom to do otherwise, then that hypothetical ought to be a live possibility.

“We do indeed have different (and opposing) desires within us and that influence our decision. My understanding of free will is that we can have within us competing desires and choose to take the action that comports with one but not the other.”

Competing or opposing desires are not the same thing as desiring to do either good or evil. I look at a menu. I have conflicting desires about which entrée to order. That’s not a choice between good and evil.

“My understanding was that Calvinism implied determinism (but not causal determinism as you say?) Is this correct?”

Calvinism is deterministic, but determinism isn’t Calvinistic. There are different versions of determinism.

“Of course, we have very few examples of people leading sinless lives. :)”

That’s irrelevant to libertarianism. You’re grafting a theological position onto a philosophical position.

“Moreover our desires do influence our decisions, so I don't think we always act as though we are flipping a coin.”

In which case your way of calculating the odds of sinning is fallacious.

“We can choose to do right (and do) some of the time, but do not always do so. So it would seem that some right choices are made.”

If you do right some of the time, then why do you need the freedom to do otherwise (wrong) in those situations where you’re going to do right? Why do you need the freedom to do something you were never going to do? What’s the point?

Why is it necessary to have a long corridor of unlocked doors if there is only one door you were ever going to go through? What would it matter if, unbeknownst to you, the other doors were locked!

“Why give us the freedom to make choices?…The reason we are given for this is that God ‘so loved the world’.”

Where does Jn 3:16 assert libertarian freedom?

“I don't know why God so loved the world that He would do as He has done.”

That’s too vague to respond to.

4/19/2009 3:12 PM


“I am trying to understand what you mean by determinism.”

Since you’re the one who chose to cast the issue in terms of determinism, the onus is actually on you to define your choice of terms.

For myself, I’m inclined to use more specific words like predestination or foreordination.

“Are only moral choices determined, or also ‘neutral’ ones like making choices from a menu?”

All events are predestined, including mental events (e.g. human volitions) as well as human actions.

“How does Calvinistic determinism differ from, say, causal determinism?”

God has a comprehensive plan for the world. Everything happens according to plan.

You’re confusing certainty with causality.

“So all choices are determined?”

God has “predetermined” all human choices. But determinism doesn’t single out a particular model or theory of causation.

“How, other than via determinism at all points, would it be possible that I would only be able to choose to go through one particular door after a long sequence of choices? You were careful earlier to distinguish predestination from causal determinism. What role, if any, does/did God play in the determination of our choices? What ‘locks’ the other doors?”

It begins with possible human beings. God’s idea of human beings. A hypothetical person.

What would a hypothetical person do? There’s no antecedent course of action that a hypothetical person would take. It all depends on how you construct the hypothetical. If you hypothesize that a possible person will turn left, then he’ll turn left. If you hypothesize that a possible person will turn right, then he’ll turn right.

In creating the world, God actualizes one hypothetical rather than another. That’s not making a possible person do something contrary to what he would otherwise do. That’s not robbing him of a choice.

There’s nothing a hypothetical person would or wouldn’t do apart from the hypothetical itself. It all depends on how you vary the hypothetical. Many different permutations may be possible. Creation locks in one particular permutation.

4/19/2009 5:07 PM
Put another way, a possible person has as many possible choices as you can hypothesize–although there are limits to counterfactual identity. There needs to be an element of continuity to keep in the same person who is doing this or that.

In that sense, a possible person could do otherwise. At a hypothetical level, he could do A or B or C. After all, a possible person is, himself, a possibility.

It’s not that a possible person has too few choices, but too many. He can be developed in so many different directions.

But not all possibilities are compossible. The act of creation actualizes one possibility out of many. One possible choice.

4/19/2009 7:47 PM


“If I understand correctly, you are saying that there is a difference between a chain of causation leading to a choice and God predestining and actualizing all events in that chain as well as the choice itself.”

Predestination ensures the outcome. However, predestination doesn’t cause the outcome. How God actualizes the decree is a separate question. The Bible doesn’t offer any particular theory of causation. Different models are available. That’s a philosophical question over which we can speculate.

It’s not cause-and-effect in the sense that God is the cue, which hits the cue-ball, which strikes the 8-ball, &c.

That’s the kind of mental image which I think many people have in mind when they think of casual relations.

“I take it that blameworthiness for an immoral choice attaches to the choice (or the intent of the chooser?), but not to the planning or actualizing of it.”

Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. That all depends.

If a Mafia Don orders a hit, then he’s as culpable as the hit-man.

On the other hand, suppose that organized crime is out of control. To deal with the problem, the police infiltrate the rival crime families, and instigate a battle between the rival crime families. The police then sit back and watch the rival crime families annihilate each other.

While it’s immoral for the mobsters to murder each other, it’s not immoral for the authorities to turn them against each other. The authorities have a different motives than the mobsters.

“We seem to have two entities involved in a choice: the person making it and God actualizing the reality of the choice per plan.__God is only actualizing that which the chooser would choose, as predestined by God. I'm confused about to the boundary between the chooser's agency and God's.”

Actualizing a possible agent and his possible choice is what makes him an actual agent.

Again, there’s no one thing a possible agent qua possible would choose. God instantiates one out of various possible choices.

“Predestination strikes me as verging on a causal mechanism, rather than just a descriptive certainty. Predestination suggests a positive decision to ensure a result, while foreknowledge could just be certain knowledge.”

Predestination ensures the end-result. True.

That, of itself, doesn’t select for a particular mechanism. And it’s possible for an indeterminate outcome to be identical with a determinate outcome.

By stacking the deck, you can cause a royal flush to be dealt. However, if the deck is randomly shuffled, then the odds are that sooner or later a royal flush will be dealt.

Same result, different process. In cases where the results coincide, how would the process be morally significant?

On a related note, God isn’t causing a possible agent to do one thing rather than another, for it’s not as if there was one thing (rather than another) which a possible agent was going to do. A hypothetical person has a range of hypothetical choices. God decides which alternative to instantiate.

“Even so, a God outside of our time line may be able to see our future with perfect clarity without determining it.”

That move has been tried before. It doesn’t work.

4/20/2009 9:39 AM


“I'm having a hard time understanding the differences between ‘predestine’, ‘actualize’, and ‘cause’. ‘Predestine’ seems to be a decision made by God that some event should occur. ‘Actualize’ seems to be God making a hypothetical real. ‘Cause’ seems to be the means by which a hypothetical is made real.”

Predestination refers to God’s timeless plan for the world. God actualizes his plan through a timeless act.

A “cause” can take different referents. It can include second-causes, such as rain from rain clouds.

“Does God ever ‘cause’ anything?”

Depends on how you define “cause.” You defined cause in terms of a chain reaction.

Suppose we use the counterfactual theory of causation: “If A did not obtain, then B would not have obtain”.

In that sense, the predestination causes things. In that sense, God causes things.

But on that definition, it’s equally true that natural forces cause things. That human beings cause things.

So God would not be the sole cause.

“But what if the authorities instantiated the mobsters in the first place? We are sinners and God instantiates this, but I'm not sure why. In heaven there will not be instantiation of sinful acts. What are your thoughts on what God ‘gains’ by His instantiation of the events of this world and not just skipping to the ‘good part’?”

God has nothing to gain. The elect have something to gain. It’s for the sake of the elect.

For example, apart from the fall, St. Peter would never go to heaven. Apart from the fall, St. Peter would never exist. Other people would exist apart from the fall. But Peter would not exist since his existence depends on a multitude of preceding variables in a fallen world which eventually give rise to his parents. So Peter is a beneficiary of the fall.

One could discuss other aspects of this issue, but for now I’m confining myself to your immediate objection.

“The way I am thinking about all this makes ‘God isn't causing...’ and ‘God decides...’ direct contradictions. In short, God isn't causing an agent to do one thing over another, he is merely deciding which thing or another he is going to instantiate. What's the difference? My guess is I am thinking about your terms in a way quite different from the way you are.”

I didn’t deny that God causes things to happen. I denied your model of causation. And I distinguished between causation and certainty.

“My thought is that God is not 'timeless’ but in another time line. C.S. Lewis has a nice analogy of Shakespeare and the characters of his plays. Shakespeare can ‘observe’ any point in the time line of his plays, but is himself in his own time line. For my own part, I am skeptical of the notion of a timeless mind. I don't have any trouble with the notion of God being ‘acted upon’.”

Since you offer no supporting arguments for your claims here, there’s nothing for me to respond to.

4/21/2009 8:16 AM

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