Saturday, March 21, 2009

Molinistic determinism

Dan recently replied to something I wrote:

I’ve been busy with more important business, such as my review of Ehrman’s silly new book. Now I’ll get back to Dan:

“So my contention is that the question of why dictionaries and lexicons are what they are is not relevant to the business at hand. The questions should be: “what does the dictionary say” and “does that conflict with determinism”? Since dictionaries speak of possible alternatives and determinism rules out possible alternatives, it seems like an open and shut case.”

i) That’s not an open and shut case since, for various reasons I’ve already stated, I don’t accept Dan’s standard of comparison in the first place. While I’m prepared to debate him on his own grounds, that doesn’t mean I accept his amateurish appeal to English-language dictionaries to settle the dispute over determinism.

ii) And, yes, the question of how dictionaries are the way they are is quite germane to the business at hand since Dan is overinterpreting lexical usage and trying to abstract the end-result from the process.

ii) Moreover, I’ve already corrected him on his misstatement that determinism rules out possible alternatives. That’s demonstrably false. In supralapsarian Calvinism, for example, God chose a particular means to achieve a particular end. There were other possible ends, with corresponding means available to him, but he chooses the end that best furthers his purpose (i.e. the glorification of God in the glorification of the elect).

iii) Calvinism distinguishes between divine and human agency. The conditions for one are not interchangeable with the conditions for another. But although I corrected Dan on that point, he simply repeats the same mistake the next time around.

That’s the mark of an opponent who’s not debating in good faith. He raises an objection. You respond to his objection. Then he repeats the same objection as if no response was given.

iii) Furthermore, as I also pointed out, appeal to alternate possibilities is fatally ambiguous since it fails to distinguish between the psychological process of deliberation and the extramental structure of the world. What do these alternative possibilities refer to? The ability of the subject to conceive of hypothetical situations, or the nature of the external world?

But Dan, in his latest reply to me, merely repeats his original objection as if nothing was said by way of response.

“The first definition descends to a tautology.”

As I already explained to Dan in some detail, dictionary definitions are typically tautological. He’s the one appealing to dictionaries. To reject my definition as tautological is a violation of his own standards.

A dictionary is a vicious hermeneutical circle. You can’t break into the circle unless you already have some working knowledge of the language apart from the dictionary. If you don’t know what any of the synonyms mean apart from the dictionary, then the dictionary definition will be meaningless to you.

“And the second is handcrafted to fit Kane's unique philosophical theory. Neither is suitable for understanding scripture, though Kane's definition is useful for understanding Kane. I have already made my case against leaving out essential ingredients and technical, philosophical definitions.”

i) That’s just a tendentious assertion on Dan’s part. Notice that he makes absolutely no effort to defend his claim that Kane’s definition is technical or philosophical or distinctive to Kane’s action theory.

ii) Once again, here is Kane’s definition:

“A choice is the formation of an intention or purpose to do something,”

How is that an especially technical or philosophical definition–much less a definition distinctive to Kane’s action theory?

Dan needs to actually explain how that’s a technical or philosophical explanation. What makes Kane’s definition more philosophical than the other definitions that Dan prefers?

Let’s compare two definitions of choice:

a) ”A choice is the formation of an intention or purpose to do something” (Kane).

b) ”A choice involves the power to instantiate alternate possibilities” (Dan).

Explain to me how (i) is technical or philosophical while (ii) represents popular usage or ordinary language?

On the face of it, Dan has things exactly backwards. (ii) is clearly more technical or philosophical than (i).

iii) Far from being technical or philosophical, Kane’s definition eschews metaphysical assumptions. Kane offers a very conservative definition, bearing on the psychological dynamics of choice.

By contrast, Dan’s preferred definition is freighted with metaphysical assumptions.

iv) But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Kane’s definition were a technical definition. So what? As I’ve also pointed out to Dan, dictionary definitions include technical definitions as well as popular definitions. It’s quite arbitrary for Dan to cite the dictionary as his frame of reference, then arbitrarily restrict what definitions are “suitable.”

v) Dan also needs to show that Kane’s definition is distinctive to Kane’s action theory. Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that allegation, so what? Kane is a libertarian. Dan is a libertarian. I, by contrast, am I Calvinist.

When I, as a Calvinist, debating a libertarian on the definition of choice, cite a definition by a leading libertarian, then I’m answering my opponent on his own grounds.

For Dan to reject that definition is special pleading in excelsis.

vi) Kane’s definition is clearly not distinctive to his action theory since I, as a Calvinist, agree with his definition–even though he’s a libertarian. He and I have opposing positions. Yet I find nothing objectionable in his definition of choice.

Dan isn’t simply losing the argument on Calvinist grounds. Dan is losing the argument on libertarian grounds.

“I generally think of choices at three levels: 1) contemplation, 2) choice and 3) execution of choice.”

i) Notice that Dan isn’t quoting a dictionary.

ii) Moreover, why should I prefer the definition of an accountant to the definition of a college prof. who edited the Oxford Handbook of Free Will? Dan must be very egotistical to think that his definition trumps Kane’s. I don’t share his conceited self-opinion.

iii) And even on its own terms, it’s problematic to include “execution of choice” in your concept of choice–considering the fact that a finite agent often fails to execute his choice.

“The dictionary defines choose as selection between possible alternatives (or options). Steve trades options for "hypothetical options" (#3 for #1). Doing so misses the dictionary (common sense) definition. Thinking about eating chocolate should not be confused with eating chocolate.”

i) At the risk of belaboring the point, dictionaries aren’t limited to “common sense” definitions of words. Dictionaries include technical definitions of words. This is Dan’s idiosyncratic restriction on lexical usage. And it’s another mark of his dishonesty.

ii) ”Selection between possible alternatives” is a mental act involving deliberation. Resolving on one alternative is also a mental act. That’s irrelevant to the extramental structure of the world. That’s a psychological claim, not an ontological claim.

iii) Besides, I reject Dan’s amateurish appeal to dictionaries to settle the dispute over determinism. Imagine the grade Dan would receive if he wrote a term paper for Robert Kane or Peter van Inwagen in which he tried to disprove determinism by quoting dictionary definitions of “choice”!

“Steve uses several examples of "failed attempts" to disprove LFW…Maybe not what we had in mind, but possible alternatives none the less.”

I see that Dan can’t keep track of his own argument. So we’ll have to take him by the hand and walk him through his own argument.

i) I didn’t cite failed attempts to disprove LFW. Rather, I cited fail attempts to disprove the ostensible evidence for LFW.

ii) Dan was forced to admit that there’s absolutely no empirical evidence for LFW. His fallback was to invoke intuitive evidence for LFW.

iii) That, however, would require a one-to-one correspondence between the hypothetical options we thought were within our power to realize, and what we could actually achieve. Failed attempts destroy the intuitive evidence for LFW since they demonstrate that Dan’s intuitive criterion is unreliable.

iv) To take stock, Dan has no empirical evidence for LFW, and he has no intuitive evidence for LFW. He can’t prove it by experience, and he can’t prove it by reason. What’s left?

“Determinism cuts off alternative possibilities at the source (level 2 – I cannot choose chocolate). If determinism is true, there are no alternative possibilities at level 2 or level 3. If I am predetermined to eat vanilla, eating chocolate is impossible; I can neither eat chocolate nor fail in the attempt.”

i) It doesn’t cut off alternate possibilities for God.

ii) In addition, all that Dan’s statement, even if accurate, would amount to, is a contrast between Calvinism and libertarianism. It goes without saying that, in Calvinism, the freedom of the creature is more limited than the freedom which libertarianism imputes to the creature.

That description doesn’t begin to prove libertarianism or disprove Calvinism. And it disregards the inherent tensions in the libertarian position. Yes, libertarianism claims a lot of freedom for the human agent, but can it make good on its claims?

iii) But there’s an even deeper problem: Dan’s own position is self-refuting. For Dan is not a classic Arminian. To the contrary, Dan is a Molinist.

a) But Molinism is at odds with Dan’s definition of choice. In Molinism, God is the only agent who can instantiate alternate possibilities. It’s God who determines which possible world to actualize, not the human agent.

In Molinism, human choice is purely counterfactual. There’s a possible world in which Dan does A, another possible world in which Dan does B, yet another possible world in which Dan does C, and so on.

But the Dan of each possible world lacks the power to instantiate these alternatives. The human agent is not the agent that instantiates a possible world. Only God can do that. So the human agent lacks access to alternate possibilities.

In Molinism, God chooses which possibility to instantiate, not the human agent. God chooses in light of what the human agent would do, but the human agent, in a possible world, isn’t free to make that happen himself. For a human agent in a possible world has no objective existence. A possible agent is not a real agent. A possible agent can’t do a thing.

b) What is more, once God chooses which possible world to instantiate, the agent has no freedom to do otherwise in the actual world to which he belongs.

The freedom of choice representing possible worlds might be significant if, in addition, a Molinist agent had the freedom to choose which choice would be actualized. But since he lacks that complementary freedom, the freedom which the Molinist scheme imputes to him is quite illusory.

c) Summing up, a Molinist agent lacks the freedom to choose between one possible world and another. That’s because each possible world (or world segment) represents a choice (or set of choices, involving other agents as well). Within each possible world, a Molinist agent only has one choice available to him. They pair off: one alternate choice per world, where a possible world (or world-segment) corresponds to an alternate choice.

And in the actual world, a Molinist agent only has one choice available to him. That’s because the actual world selects for that particular choice to the exclusion of other possibilities. In a possible world, or in the actual world, all other possibilities are inaccessible to the world-bound agent.

The real freedom belongs to God, who chooses which possible world to instantiate. A Molinist agent doesn’t get to choose the actual world in which he will find himself. He’s stuck with God’s choice. Hence, a Molinist agent has precious little freedom.

“What are we to understand by ‘hypothetical options’? Could it mean me imagining I am eating chocolate? Could it mean the thought ‘if I choose chocolate, I will eat chocolate’? Could it mean ‘if I am predetermined to eat chocolate, I will eat chocolate’? It's unclear what Steve means. Let's say it's the first. Why call it ‘options’ unless we also imagine ourselves choosing chocolate. In that case we are to the second. But what if chocolate is sold out? I might think it's a hypothetical option, but I would be wrong. Given the hypothesis (if I choose chocolate), I still don't get to eat chocolate. What about the third (‘if I am predetermined to eat chocolate, I will eat chocolate’). Even if chocolate is sold out, this one entails a counter-factual past in which chocolate is not sold out. That works, but does anyone think this is the key ingredient in the normal definition of choice? In short, not only does Steve trade options for ‘hypothetical options’, he really shouldn't be calling what he has in mind ‘hypothetical options’.”

It can mean I imagine a number of ostensible alternatives. I contemplate different flavors. And it can also mean deciding to eat one flavor rather than another, or deciding to refrain from eating any flavor.

These are mental acts. And there’s no equipollent relation between what I can conceive and what I can do. Indeed, I often lack the freedom to do what I mistakenly thought lay within my power to do.

Anyone with a certain IQ can mentally project himself into various hypothetical situations. There’s no intrinsic connection between that faculty and what is truly actionable. A five-year-old boy may entertain Superman fantasies. That’s both conceivable and impossible.

“Normally people think we are able to choose otherwise before the choice but not after the choice. This seems due to time and perhaps also cause and effect. But in any case, normally we think possibilities lapse. No crying over spilt milk. Steve seems to be calling this into question. One can only speculate as to why.”

No, one doesn’t have to speculate. I explained what I meant in relation to Dan’s position. What Dan needs to do is not to speculate, but pay attention to what was said.

“Does he think God time-travels? Does he disregard time as we know it? Does he think maybe we will wake up tomorrow and God chose Esau all along? In a world with turducken, I am not one to look down on innovation. Perhaps Steve can explain what's going on here.”

Perhaps Dan can pay attention to what was already said. Remember what I said in my previous post? “Of course, depending on whether the agent is human or divine, choice will involve different preconditions. Since God is timeless, his mind was never in a state of uncertainty or indecision. His intent or purpose is timeless. Due to his omnipotence, various alternatives were available to him. Many things were possible. But it took no time for him to ‘form’ an intention or purpose. It’s a timeless intention.”

Dan is supposedly responding to my previous post. But then he blows right past what I said by trotting out an objection which I already anticipated and disposed of in my previous post.

“In the meantime...we have the freedom to choose otherwise than we will choose and had the freedom to choose otherwise than we did. If God alone had LFW (the uniwiller theory) and has issued one simple, eternal decree, all possibilities should be spoken of in the past tense.”

i) That’s an assertion without an argument. A timeless God would employ tensed language when addressing time-bound creatures.

ii) It’s also erroneous to say that Calvinism involves a “uniwiller theory.” In Calvinism, God is not the only agent.

“God knows the heart and will judge us based on our choices. We trust Him to take care of the consequences.”

Irrelevant to what I said. This is what I said: “What’s the value of having libertarian freedom if you can never explore the consequences of each alternative in advance of committing yourself to just one course of action?”

How is Dan’s comment responsive to what I said? It isn’t. Was I discussing human culpability? No.

i) Once again, what’s the value of being able to choose from alternate courses of action if you don’t know, in advance, what the outcome will be? If, on the one hand, you could foresee the outcome, then there are many cases in which you would opt for a different course of action. If, on the other had, you can’t foresee the outcome, then it’s too late to change your mind.

To repeat: what’s the practical benefit of having this arrange of options if you lack the foresight to know which option is the most prudent course of action?

ii) Notice how Dan is trivializing the issue. On the one hand Arminians treat libertarian freedom as all-important. On the other hand, as soon as I begin to pose some rather elementary questions about the practical significance of such freedom, Dan retreats into statements like, “God will take care of the consequences”–as if that distinguishes Dan’s position from Calvinism!

“In analysing Gen 6:6 we should not confuse repentance with remorse. Lexicons provide "a change of heart" or "relenting of a past course" as a possible definition for naham; although another definition is remorse.”

i) Even Dan admits that “remorse” is one of the available definitions.

ii) He is also disregarding the implications of a word. There is more at issue than the meaning of a word. When a word attributes a certain attitude to an agent, that carries certain implications. It’s not just a question of what the word means, but what the attitude denoted by the word implies. The word denotes an attitude. What does the attitude imply? Why would God have a change of heart or feel remorse unless he regretted his prior course of action?

When we read about people, and certain states of mind are attributed to them, we draw certain inferences. This isn’t just a question of looking up some words in a dictionary. Words don’t exist in isolation to the world they denote. They derive their meaning from the world they denote.

iii) Here are some translations of Gen 6:6:

“The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (NIV).

“The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (NASB).

“God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart” (The Message).

“So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart” (New Living Bible).

“He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (New Century Version).

iv) What’s the common man interpretation of those statements? Wouldn’t the man on the street ascribe regret to God on the basis of such statements? Why would God feel sorry for what he did if could foresee the outcome, and prevent the outcome?

Taken literally, how can Dan avoid admitting that God thought better of his decision (to make man and send the flood) after the fact. After it was too late to undo all the damage? Isn’t the open theist far truer to Dan’s hermeneutical principles than Dan himself?

v) Keep in mind that Dan is the one who tells us we should use English dictionaries to settle the dispute over determinism–since Bible translators know and use English dictionaries.

So, then, the translation committees knew the implications of this usage when they render the Hebrew to say that God was sorry he ever made the human race. What is that if not an attitude of regret, with the benefit of hindsight?

“In particular, the LXX's enthumeomai excludes remorse and only includes a change of course.”

Irrelevant since Gen 6:6 wasn’t written in Greek. We only turn to versional evidence when the Hebrew usage is too rare to construe on its own.

“So in this case "antropromorphism" is overly complex and per Occham's razor should be avoided.”

i) Occam’s razor is irrelevant to the grammatico-historical method.

ii) If the anthropomorphic interpretation is “overly complex,” then the logical alternative is the literal prediction of regret (with all that entails) to God.

So why isn’t Dan a Mormon?

iii) BTW, notice that Dan had to duck every other passage I cited. He originally commented on these. I responded–followed by deafening silence on his part.

“God's knowledge is temporally prior but logically after the outcome, so God still foreknows in a temporal sense.”

i) From a Molinist standpoint, in what sense is God’s knowledge temporally prior? If God is contemplating possible worlds, then that would be apart from time since time itself would be a result of instantiating a possible world.

ii) Of course, Molinism fails to explain how God can know the future actions of free agents.

“On the other hand, if God's knowledge isn't based on the outcome, then it's not knowledge of the outcome.”

This is one of the semantic games that Dan tries to play. And in so doing, he abandons is commitment to common sense and popular usage.

In popular parlance, to know the outcome is to know what will happen.

However, knowledge of the outcome needn’t be based on the outcome itself. That’s a possible mode of future knowledge. Knowledge of the future after the fact. Of course, that falls short of knowing the future as future. Rather, that’s knowing the future as past. After the fact.

If knowledge of the outcome is caused by (i.e. “based on”) the outcome, then such knowledge is inherently ex post facto.

If, on the other hand, the agent is causing the future, then it’s not the outcome that causes his knowledge of the outcome; rather, causing the outcome is the source of his knowledge. God knows the outcome by knowing himself.

God knows what is going to happen because God decreed the outcome and God also executes his decree through primary and secondary causation.

“Steve:’Finding fault’ is conduct. The passage doesn't say why would God still find fault or if no one resists His will. It says why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”

Dan is too flatfooted to appreciate Pauline rhetoric. Rom 9:19 is a counterfactual objection in which, for the sake of argument, a hypothetical opponent takes Paul’s position, as he (the opponent) understands it, to its logical extreme. To think this is a statement of what the opponent actually believes is to get the objection completely backwards. The objection is a reductio ad absurdum of what the opponent takes to be a Pauline premise.


  1. Steve,

    The secondary definition of "determinism" at is as follows:

    "the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, have sufficient causes."

    I wonder what Dan makes of this?

  2. I will be the first to say that I’m a simple guy and perhaps this is over my head, but this quote from Stave seems to settle the matter:

    What is more, once God chooses which possible world to instantiate, the agent has no freedom to do otherwise in the actual world to which he belongs.

    The freedom of choice representing possible worlds might be significant if, in addition, a Molinist agent had the freedom to choose which choice would be actualized. But since he lacks that complementary freedom, the freedom which the Molinist scheme imputes to him is quite illusory.

    It appears to this simple mind that Dan doesn’t believe in LFW either or he is just inconsistent in his views.