Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spooftexting libertarian freedom

I’m going to comment on this post:

Dan tries to prooftext his position from Scripture. However, that’s misleading, for he filters his prooftexts through his definition of “choice.” Therefore, he’s not really beginning with Scripture. Rather, he’s beginning with his preconceived theory of what makes a choice a choice. As such, his entire exercise begs the question.

What does choose mean? We could let determinist philosophers define choose for us and sometimes their voices are louder than ours, but they do not speak for the majority. If you want to know what a word normally means, you look it up in a dictionary.

There are several things wrong with this statement:

i) Dictionaries define words, not concepts. You can’t master quantum geometry by looking up “quantum” and “geometry” in the dictionary.

Likewise, libertarian freedom is a philosophical construct. Indeed, there are different versions of libertarian freedom. You can’t get all that from dictionary definitions.

ii) Moreover, dictionaries define words, not reality. Dictionaries don’t determine what is true or false, real, or fictitious. A dictionary isn’t the touchstone of truth. It’s not an oracle.

Dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive or proscriptive. They simply reflect popular usage. But whether or not popular usage maps onto reality is a separate issue entirely.

iii) Furthermore, it’s deceptive for Dan to suggests that Calvinists must reply on “determinist philosophers” to define the word “choice.” For instance, here’s how two libertarian philosophers define the key terms:

A choice is the formation of an intention or purpose to do something. It resolves uncertainty and indecision in the mind about what to do.

Robert Kane, Four Views on Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 33.

Before going into arguments for determinism, it is necessary to remove some misconceptions about the determinist position. To begin with, it must be emphasized most strongly that determinists do not deny that people make choices. If they did deny this, their position would be absurd, but the fact is they do not. Furthermore, the experience of choosing–of seeking alternatives, weighing their desirability and finally making up one’s mind–is not any different whether one is a libertarian or a determinist. For while determinists believe that there are sufficient conditions which will govern their choices, they do not know at the time when they are making a decision what those determinates are or how they will decide as a result of them. So, like everyone else, they simply have to make up their own minds! The difference between libertarian and determinist likes in the interpretation of the experience of choice, and not in the experience itself.

William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View (Downers Grove; IVP, 1983), 37.

If we plug these libertarian definitions of choice into Dan’s prooftexts, that’s perfectly consistent with predestination.

This is a positive case. The king is deliberating about what is possible and asking himself how likely he is to win. Can he win or not with the forces he has on hand?
And that's what deliberation is.  Your asking yourself what's possible and what things would be like if that's what you choose.
We deliberate to figure out what we are able to do.  Those are our alternatives.  We then select one possibility rather than the others.

Two basic problems with this argument:

i) Predestined agents can deliberate. A predestined agent can contemplate hypothetical alternatives. A predestined agent can also select one of the hypotheticals he contemplates.

He’s not selecting a possibility; rather, he’s selecting an idea. His idea of what’s possible.

Indeed, if a predestined agent engages in deliberation, then he was predestined to engage in deliberation. If he selects a hypothetical course of action, then he was predestined to make that selection.

ii) When you deliberate, you imagine you have a range of possibilities at your disposal. This is about ideas rather than possibilities. You have ideas about what’s possible. Imaginary possibilities.

But simply as a matter of common human experience, what we think is possible may often not be possible. An Olympic hopeful may think he can win a gold medal. That doesn’t mean he can. In many cases, that’s not a realistic option. Many things are conceivable that aren’t live possibilities.

After choosing, we believe we could have chosen otherwise.

Really? Here’s how one philosopher describes that process in retrospect:

The first reason is that when we are making a choice our faces are always turned toward the future, toward the consequences that one act or the other will bring us, never toward the past with its possible sources of constraint. Hence these sources are not noticed. Hence we remain unaware that we are under constraint at all. Hence we feel free from such constraint. The case is almost as simple as that. When you consider buying a new typewriter your thought is fixed on the pleasure and advantage you would gain from it, or the drain it would make on your budget. You are not delving into the causes that led to your taking pleasure in the prospect of owning a typewriter or to your having a complex about expenditure. You are too much preoccupied with the ends to which the choice would be a means to give any attention to the causes of which your choice may be an effect. But that is no reason for thinking that if you did preoccupy yourself with these causes you would not find them at work. You may remember that Sir Francis Galton was so much impressed with this possibility that for some time he kept account in a notebook of the occasions on which he made important choices with a full measure of this feeling of freedom; then shortly after each choice he turned his eye backward in search of constraints that might have been acting on him stealthily. He found it so easy to bring such constraining factors to light that he surrendered to the determinist view (p21).

Back to Dan:

The passage [Deut 30:14-19] lays out the alternatives for us – blessings and curses, life and death. It talks about our ability – verse 14 says so that you can do it. And then we have the exhortation to choose life.

Several problems with Dan’s appeal:

i) He’s overinterpreting the Hebrew verb in v14. To my knowledge, the imperfect verb has many shades of meaning, viz. may, might, should, could, would.

ii) In context, the passage is stating the accessibility and intelligibility of God’s law.

iii) The passage isn’t just about “choosing.” Rather, the passage contains hypothetical syllogisms. If you do x, then y will result–but if you don’t do x, then z will result.

But this is perfectly compatible with predestination. If a predestined agent obeys the law, then he will be blessed–but if he disobeys the law, then he will be cursed.

The passage isn’t merely about choice, but about the hypothetical consequences of hypothetical choices. It concerns the link between the protasis or antecedent (“if”) and the apodosis or consequent (“then”).

That linkage is entirely consistent with predestination. God predestines the choice as well as the end-result.

iv) The passage isn’t confined to individual blessing and bane, but primarily concerned with collective blessing and bane. If Israel obeys, she will be blessed. If Israel disobeys, she will be cursed.

You choose the respective consequences by choosing to obey or disobey. Yet individual Jews don’t control the outcome, for even if a righteous remnant is faithful, the infidelity of the majority will trigger the curse sanctions. Individual Jews lack freedom of opportunity, for even if they choose with a view to be blessed, that can be overridden by the apostate majority. At the corporate level, individuals can’t do otherwise than suffer the consequences. You may choose life, but if the apostate majority chooses death, you will die with your compatriots.

v) The collective dimension also applies to children. They will be blessed or cursed based on what the adults do.

God expected the opposite to happen.  Not only was it possible, God asks what more He could have done [Isa 5:1-4].

i) Dan is quoting a parable, in which the farmer represents God. We must make allowance for the anthropomorphic limitations of the extended metaphor.

ii) Even if we grant Dan’s misinterpretation for the sake of argument, his appeal would only make sense if Dan is an open theist. Yet Dan is a Molinist. At least he used to be.

Does the Molinist God not know what happens in the possible world he instantiates? Does the Molinist God instantiate a possible world, only to discover after the fact, much to his chagrin, that what actually transpired was the opposite of what he expected to occur?

I thought that according to Molinism, God selects one possible world over another because he prefers the overall balance of one possible world rather than another. But how can that be if he’s caught off guard?

Paul's statement [1 Cor 10:13] on God's faithfulness is in light of what some Jews did, such as grumble in the dessert.  Not all the Isrealites fell into sin, but many did, even though God always provides His people with an exit path. That God does not allow unbearable temptations is a reflection on His faithfulness.   The implication for Paul's audience and for you, dear Christian, is that every time you go through a temptation, God gives you the ability not to succumb.  Sadly we sometimes do give in to temptation, even though we are able to do otherwise.

i) In context, the passage isn’t dealing with temptation in general, but idolatrous apostasy in particular. That’s been documented by standard commentators, viz. Fitzmyer, Garland, Ciampa/Rosner.

ii) Freedom to do otherwise is inconsistent with Arminians who believe in God’s simple foreknowledge.

iii) Freedom to do otherwise in the actual world is also inconsistent with Dan’s commitment to Molinism. Freedom to do otherwise involves a contrast between two (or more) possible worlds, or between the actual world and one (or more) possible worlds.

It’s freedom between worlds, not freedom within a given world.

When God instantiates a possible world, that actualizes one set of possibilities to the exclusion of other possibilities. That’s the logic of Molinism.

iv) Incidentally, Calvinism doesn’t have a problem with alternate possibilities or possible worlds. But that’s a measure of divine freedom, divine power:

The Jews had eyes but don’t see and ears but don’t hear [Ezk 12:2] meaning they have abilities they don’t use and God holds us accountable when we don't use the abilities He gave us for Him!

Calvinism doesn’t deny that fallen men have eyes to see and ears to hear. They see and hear, but they fail to perceive or respond appropriately. According to scripture, God hardens unbelievers, yet holds them accountable (cf. Isa 6:9-10). 


  1. I think the line, "After choosing, we believe we could have chosen otherwise." should be indented to indicate that you are quoting the article.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for your comments and tone. I had the debate with TF and D.V. will post the audio file sometime this week and a transcript at some point down the road. You brought up several good points here that I would like to address but likely it won't be for about a week or so.

    For the record, I am still a Molinist.

    Thanks again and God be with you,

  3. According to scripture, God hardens unbelievers, yet holds them accountable (cf. Isa 6:9-10).

    Seems kind of petty for an omnipotent omniscient being, but who am I to judge?