Thursday, November 23, 2017

Calvinism and hard determinism

I'm going to comment on an article by self-styled Calvinist Theodore Zachariades

I have not met an Arminian that concedes this compatibilist view of freedom. To them only libertarian freedom is real.

Why should Calvinists use Arminian views as the standard of comparison? 

What is the point of using Arminian arguments about supposed freedom to plead for Calvinist conclusions?

Since, by his own admission, Arminians reject compatibilism, appealing to compatibilism is inimical using Arminian arguments about supposed freedom to plead for Calvinist conclusions.

God is a planning Agent.

Free will is thereby an illusion, as our lives have been scripted and planned before by God. 

At the end of the day, we live out a script that God has decreed. He asked no counsel or took anything into consideration but His own will in this eternal decree. Meticulous providence rules out free will. Calvinists that affirm their truncated version of free will do so to maintain human responsibility. But the Bible does not use free will as an explanatory category to sustain human responsibility. We are responsible or accountable because we are created beings. God’s character, as indicated in His prescriptive law for humans, is the standard by which human behavior will be judged. 

If predestination is true, and it cannot be doubted in face of so much evidence, it must follow that free will is false. There is no free will in a universe directed and upheld by the Lord God Almighty. There are those who wish to maintain a semi-Calvinist or hypo-Calvinist view that asserts that free will is compatible with determinism. That still leaves one as a determinist, an inconsistent one, however. I prefer to stress theological hard determinism.4 Take the fall of Adam. Was it a free action or was it determined? I believe you cannot have it both ways. If determined, then was Adam truly free? This problem has a long history. I side with God’s decree including the fall of Adam; indeed, even the fall of Lucifer! Free will in a compatibilist-determinist worldview is only free in name. 

Libertarians, of all stripes, renounce these arguments by compatibilists, and thereby they win the argument by the definition. If free will is compatible with determinism, why not claim that libertarian free will is compatible with determinism? The reason one cannot is that the determinism side weighs too heavily and truly precludes libertarianism or true free will. Compatibilists like to use the language of free will without having the substance.

i) Let's begin with some standard definitions of hard determinism (or theological hard determinism) from the philosophical literature:

Hard determinists (William James’s term) are also incompatibilists, but they accept determinism and deny that we have the sort of free will required for moral responsibility. Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (Cambridge 2003), xiv.

Hard determinists are incompatibilists who take a harder line: since determinism is true, free will does not exist in the sense required for genuine responsibility, accountability, blameworthiness, or desert. Robert Kane, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Oxford 2002), 27. 

But another option, typically only hinted at, is to endorse theological hard determinism, according to which theological determinism is true, but as a result we are not morally responsible in the basic desert sense for our actions. Derk Pereboom, "Libertarianism and Theological Determinism," Kevin Timpe & Daniel Speak, eds. Free Will and Theism: Connections, Contingencies, and Concerns (Oxford 2016), 116.

On that definition, Calvinism is antithetical to hard determinism. That humans are morally responsible agents whose actions are potentially blameworthy or liable to just desert is a Reformed essential. Zachariades is operating with an idiosyncratic definition of hard determinism that doesn't correspond to standard usage. He doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. Certainly his claim is uninformed. 

ii) When compatibilists say that human agents are "free" in some respects, what does that mean? The definition of "freedom" in the compatibilist sense depends on the point of contrast. "Free" compared to what? To take one representative example:

We typically make distinctions in the law and in morality between individuals who have been coerced and those who have not. Indeed, we distinguish between agents who have been manipulated (in certain ways), brainwashed, deceived, subject to clandestine subliminal advertising, and so forth, and those who are morally responsible. John Martin Fischer, "Semicompatibilism", Kevin Timpe, Meghan Griffith, & Neil Levy, eds. The Routledge Companion to Free Will (Routledge 2016), 5. 

On that definition, compatibilist freedom means freedom from certain types of manipulation, coercion, deception, brainwashing. So a compatibilist can specify the sense in which determinism is consistent with freedom. Does Zachariades deny that human agents are free in that sense? 


Semicompatibilism is the view that even though some freedoms–for instance, the ability to do otherwise–are incompatible with determinism, moral responsibility is compatible with determinism J. Campbell, Free Will (Polity 2011), 29-30.

Does Zachariades imagine that Calvinism is inconsistent with compatibililism (or semicompatibilism) in that sense? On the face of it, Zachariades appears to be ignorant of what hard determinism and compatibilism (or semicompatibilism) even mean. Yet these are terms of art. These are philosophical concepts. He needs to show some understanding of what they represent before he's in any position to assess them. As it stands, his discussion is incompetent. 

iii) Finally, determinism does not entail premeditation. For instance, the sequence of a randomly shuffled card deck is determinate, but unplanned. If you take a deck of cards, which has a preexisting sequence, bisect the deck, then randomly shuffle the cards so that a card from one half alternates with a card from the other half, the recombined deck has a determinate sequence even though the order of the cards is random rather than planned. 

Determinism is equally consistent with intended and unintended outcomes. Although determinism may be a necessary condition for premeditated events, it's not a sufficient condition. Zachariades needs a more discriminating category than determinism to articulate how everything happens according to a master plan. 


  1. My favorite pull quote: "Libertarians, of all stripes, renounce these arguments by compatibilists, and thereby they win the argument by the definition." They get to win by definition because they renounce arguments by compatibilists? How does THAT work, exactly?

    It seems quite clear that Zachariades believes the only possible definition of "free will" is "libertarian free will" and that there cannot be any other type of free will. But there are many passages speaking of "free will offerings" throughout the Bible, which is the same book that describes God predestining things. It's almost like--come with me now--the Bible itself uses both the words "free will" and "predestination" within its pages so there's SOME way that these two terms are compatible with each other in Christianity....

  2. "Libertarians, of all stripes, renounce these arguments by compatibilists, and thereby they win the argument by the definition."

    Ah! So that's the secret. It sure would have made winning all my debates a whole lot easier if only I had known it was possible to simply "renounce these arguments" and "win the argument by the definition"! This should be a mantra: renounce the argument, redefine the argument, win the argument! As easy as 1-2-3.