Thursday, December 11, 2014

Calvinism and Cartesian demons

David Houston Maul, I know I’m a bit late to the party but I’d like to know what you think of this argument: Suppose you thought a Cartesian demon exists who is bent on deceiving you. If you believed such a being existed then you would have an undercutting defeater for a large subset of your beliefs. Now, suppose you’re a Calvinist who believes that God sometimes (unculpably) deceives people by determining them to believe that they are elect. In a way analogous to the Cartesian demon scenario, it seems that you would then have an undercutting defeater for your belief that you are elect. You know that he doesn’t always do this so it may not be enough to completely defeat your belief but I think it makes your belief less warranted.

The situation is getting desperate when Arminians resort to Cartesian demons to defeat Calvinism.  

i) To begin with, once you let the Cartesian demon out of the cage, it will bedevil every belief-system. It isn't partial to Calvinism. It's a universally delusive imp. No getting it back into the cage once it's released. How is Arminianism immune? 

You can't just sic the Cartesian demon on Calvinism. The Cartesian demon is a wild animal. It hasn't been to obedience school. It doesn't follow orders. 

It's like letting a tiger out of the cage, pointing to your enemy, and saying, "Attack!" Well, the tiger stares at you and sees you as a menu item, too. The Cartesian demon is omnivorous. All-devouring. It won't stop with Calvinism. 

ii) If you can't help but be deceived, then aren't your justified in maintaining delusive beliefs? To take a comparison:

The first objection to reliabilism, lodged by several different authors, is the evil-demon counterexample (Cohen, 1984; Pollock, 1984; Feldman, 1985; Foley, 1985). In a possible world inhabited by an evil demon (or permute this, if you wish, into a brain-in-a-vat case), the demon creates non-veridical perceptions of physical objects in people's minds. All of their perceptual beliefs, which are stipulated to be qualitatively identical to ours, are therefore false. Hence, perceptual belief-forming processes in that world are unreliable. Nonetheless, since their perceptual experiences – and hence evidence – are identical to ours, and we surely have justified perceptual beliefs, the beliefs of the people in the demon world must also be justified. So reliabilism gets the case wrong. The intended moral of the example is that reliability isn't necessary for justification; a justified belief can be caused by a process that is unreliable (in the subject's world).


  1. ===
    Now, suppose you’re a Calvinist who believes that God sometimes (unculpably) deceives people by determining them to believe that they are elect. In a way analogous to the Cartesian demon scenario, it seems that you would then have an undercutting defeater for your belief that you are elect.

    I think the biggest problem I have with this is that it bases assurance on whether or not we believe we are elect, as if the concept of "elect" is in total isolation. As far as I can tell in my own observations, Arminians are far more concerned than any Calvinist over the question, "What if you're not elect?" or "What if you falsely believe you are elect?"

    I don't ever ask myself, "Am I elect?" What I do is look at the Scriptures. They say that whoever believes in Christ will be saved. They say that the one who believes does so because he's been regenerated. They say that only the elect are regenerated. Therefore, I do not ask, "Am I elect?" I ask "Do I believe?" And if the answer is "Yes, I believe" then I *know* that I am elect because it's a logically necessary chain back. Anyone who skips all that and just focuses on, "Am I elect?" misses the forest for the trees. In fact, if I believe I am elect and look at the evidence and see that I have no faith in Christ, then I have a defeater for my believe that I am elect, regardless of whether a Cartesian demon is putting that belief in my mind or not.

    You can know you're elect if you do everything that only the elect can do. You don't have to have any special insight into the will or mind of God.

  2. I agree with Peter Pike's solution to the problem. However, I do think that this issue is one that Calvinists should address with seriousness because many Calvinists and former Calvinists (who remain/ed professing Christians) have had such doubts. A number of Puritans had to write pastoral books that touched on the subject. In my opinion it's because there actually is something inherent in Calvinism that can lead to such doubts and fears. I don't think such doubts are limited to people who are for whatever reason (e.g. genetic, or neurological, or psychological etc.) prone to depression. G.K. Chesterton argued that it was Calvinism that drove William Cowper mad due to his fears of being reprobate. I doubt Calvinism was the only (or even main factor), but I think it contributed.

    The fact is that some people have an over-sensitive conscience and the devil can use good/true theology to drive people to despair. Before Luther's rediscovery of sola fide, while he was an Augustinian predestinarian he feared his non-election so much that he admitted that when he was honest with himself, rather than loving the just and sovereign God, he hated Him. Non-Christians can also fear their non-election. Even those who are elect (cf. John Bunyan's confessions in his spiritual autobiography "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners").

    I don't think the problem is primarily an epistemological question since it's mostly answered by Peter Pike's comments. Rather I think it's a combination of theological, psychological and demonic factors. Given Calvinism, some people are non-elect. People considering the implications of Calvinism have to ask whether they believe it implies God can or can't tempt and deceive. If so, then presumably that would include the false belief of one's election. I personally believe God can deceive people and/or lead them to false conclusions. Even tempt people (as I argued in another of Steve's blogs).

    It all boils down to the question of whether you trust God or can trust God. Well, if you're convinced of Calvinism, the only solution is to submit to God's sovereignty. Even if that means you're reprobate. You aren't going to become elect by resenting predestination. Also, there's no prima facie reason to deny the possibility that God retroactively answers prayers. In which case, one can pray for one's election (i.e. "God please elect me" even if we CAN'T pray, "God change my status from non-elect to elect" [since God doesn't change His mind or decrees]). At the very least it wouldn't hurt, and one can stand on Bible promises like John 6:37b; James 4:8; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7. And if one is already a professing Christian, you might as well just resolve to believe you're elect and resolve to continue believing the Gospel and daily repenting. Believing one is non-elect benefits no one. In other words, focus on the Gospel not on the doctrine of election. Focusing on the Gospel tends toward to salvation. While focusing on reprobation can tend toward people not getting saved or not persevering in their profession of faith.

    As George Whitefield said, "Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance before he goes to the university of election and predestination."

    1. correction:

      You aren't going to become elect by resenting predestination.

      This should probably be phrased as, "You aren't likely going to discover your status of election (either in this life or at the eschaton) by persistently resenting predestination."

      Some elect Arminians do persistently resent the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and its corollary of Calvinist reprobation. But they'll end up finally saved because they focused on the Gospel. As I said, "...focusing on reprobation can tend toward people not getting saved or not persevering in their profession of faith."

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    3. It may seem strange for me to write, "It all boils down to the question of whether you trust God or can trust God. Well, if you're convinced of Calvinism, the only solution is to submit to God's sovereignty. Even if that means you're reprobate." But submission to God's will is the the distinguishing mark of the elect. While resentment and opposition to God's will is the distinguishing mark of the non-elect.

      Psychologically speaking, the more you fear being non-elect, the more you'll resent and be at enmity with God (consciously or subconsciously). And finding those hostile attitudes in your own heart will then increase your fear of being non-elect. It becomes a vicious circle. By this time you may conclude (and probably rightly) that many of the non-elect have been trapped in such a vicious circle and have perished because they never escaped it You may even come to the conclusion that God has used such circles to ensure that the non-elect don't get saved (cf. Pharoah and Judas). I personally believe God does, though I'm sure some Calvinists would deny it.

      So, the best way out of the circle is to surrender to God. Admit that in His sovereignty He has the right to do what He wills with His own creation. " Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?..." (Matt. 20:15). Submit to God's omniscient and omnisapient wisdom, even if that means you're non-elect. When you get to that place of not fighting God any longer, you're in a position to believe God's other promises (e.g. Gospel promises). I suspect this is part of why many of the medieval theologians and devotional writers taught people should love God so much that they would be willing to be lost if that would bring greater honor and glory to God.

    4. One way to be fighting God is by having the subconscious intention to work your way into election (as irrational as that may be). But that was Luther's experience. The more he worked to be good, the more convinced he was that he failed God's standards and feared that God was merely setting him up to perish. But then he re-discovered the core element of a purer Gospel, sola fide. That got him out the circle.

      Luther wrote:

      For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not live, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

      Finally by the mercy of God, as I meditated day and night, I paid attention to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. This, then, is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, viz. the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous one lives by faith.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of all Scripture showed itself to me. And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.
      Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings [1545],” in Luther’s Works 34:336-37; WAusg 54.185-86)

      1. Submit to God's will of decree whatever that may entail, 2. Submit to God's way of salvation in the Gospel, focusing the Gospel promises rather than God's hidden and secret will of decree. Leave the details of God's secrets with God (Deut. 29:29). 3. Submit to God's revealed prescriptive/preceptive will by growing in obedience. Don't fall on the wrong side of The Marrow Controversy. See Sinclair Ferguson's three part sermon series HERE or HERE

    5. I promise this is my last comment in this blogpost (unless someone interacts with me).

      Here's a link to some of the closing remarks of Martin Luther's book The Bondage of the Will. Which he wrote to address the issue of predestination. I think they would help some people who are fearing the possibility of their non-election.

      Excerpt from the Bondage of the Will