Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From

I found it ironic that the week I sign up to post my blog is the week that we deal with anthropology, a topic that means we must engage with the timeless dilemma of human free will. As far as I know I am one of the few ThM students who, with unashamed humility, will admit to being a Calvinist (although I’m sure that Brian LePort is a closet Calvinist and Andreas Lunden is one who simply refuses to admit it).  Alas, God’s sovereignty would have it no other way than for me to post during this week, although it may be to highlight continued areas of my theology that need some fine tuning, something this ThM program has a PhD in.  That being said, let me start by saying that I in no way intend to come across as the “arrogant Calvinist” I hear so many speak fondly of.  I am fully aware that engaging this particular topic is like pulling the pin on a theological grenade, rolling it into a room, and closing the door (as seen in the recent resurgence of activity on Marc’s question about “Why Non-Calvinists Hate Calvinism So Much,” a post that simply will not die.  Arminians seem to keep coming up with more reasons.)

At this point the only article I have had much time to engage with is Marc Cortez’s article on free will.  I think he does an excellent job accurately engaging with both sides of the dilemma and pointing to strengths and weaknesses (I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss either).  However, I initially disagreed with his statement that “classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from…”  One possible explanation that is gaining more support from guys such as Bruce Ware and Alvin Plantigna, is with the concept of middle-knowledge.  This is the idea that God not only knows what could be and what will be, but that he also knows what would be if certain circumstances were put in place.

The critique of many classical compatibilist towards middle-knowledge in libertarian free will is that it is incoherent because choices are made arbitrarily.  If all things are equal, and choice A is just a likely as choice B, then God could still not be sure that any set of circumstances would bring about the desired result.  There is no necessary connection between choices and circumstances so God could not know an individuals choice by simply knowing the circumstances.  Thus, God’s foreknowledge is compromised.  However, inside of classical compatibilism middle-knowledge is a viable option.   The classical compatibilist holds that choices are not made arbitrarily, but that men always choose what they desire most.  Therefore, using middle-knowledge God would know accurately what set of circumstances would produce what result.  There is a connection between choices and circumstances.  If this is indeed accurate, then classical compatibilism has an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from.   It would appear that desires and beliefs stem in some way by antecedent factors that God himself orchestrates.

However, upon further inspection, it seems that Marc foils this stance with his “Consequence Argument.”  This argument states that if men are not in control of the particular circumstances that stimulate the strongest desire, then men cannot be held responsible for the choice that is made when a certain set of circumstances is presented.  At this point, it seems that I am left to fall on the defense that this removal of other possible choices due to specific antecedent conditions does not deny moral responsibility to the agent, because the agent still acts freely based upon their greatest desire.  This seems to be the case with Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, and the King of Assyria in Isaiah 10.  Circumstances are orchestrated so that Joseph’s brothers and the Assyrian King carry out their greatest desires, which also happen to be the plan of God, yet God holds them culpable for the sin.  They exercise their freedom of inclination, and God exercises his sovereignty.  I’m not sure if this is just one of those hard truths we must accept, while scratching our heads, or if more light will be shed on this in the future.  According to the Consequence Argument I still have yet to solve the problem.  Maybe I should take Marc’s stance as a true Barthian theologian and give way to a true dialectical theological method: simply shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know”………yet.


Posted on October 25, 2010, in Anthropology, Philosophical Theology, Th.M. Program, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. Billy,

    You don’t know! How dare you. You sound like a postmodern, relativist (sarcasm intended for those who follow)!

    In response to your comment that I am a Calvinist let me say that I wanted to be one but I was told that I am not one so I am not sure what that makes me!

    That being said I want to find hope in Middle Knowledge/Molinism because I find the argument I hear from many Calvinist to be a bit too simplistic. I think some Arminians do the same. One emphasizes our free will’s captivity to the point that it does seem to ignore that even the most corrupt sinner can sometimes cry out for God (I think of the imagery of Rom. 7). The other emphasizes our ability to freely choose to the point that it endangers our own understanding of how messed up we are.

    I wonder where Pneumatology comes into all of this?

  2. The other piece I found interesting in Marc’s article was where Christology comes into play in this entire discussion. I have to agree that this whole debate seems to lack a Christocentric view. It all centers around what it mean to be human, free, and morally responsible. However, I never hear anyone speak of the free will of Jesus in any way. Seeing as how he was fully human, what type of free will did he possess? Seeing as how he had no sin nature, does this change how we should perceive his ability to choose? If so, does this affect how we should understand him as being our representative? Was he really tempted in every way as we are? I know some of these matters have been addressed in church history, and people are still arguing about them today, but what I’m starting to see the whole in the relation between the divine and human will in Christ, and what bearing this would bring on the subject.

    PS – You (and Andrew Finch) might want to take that Giants Jersey off and get a Rangers one before the world series starts. Then people can’t accuse you of being a bandwagon fan after the Giants lose.

    • I will reply more. on topic..but how dare you call us bandwagon fans!!! I have been a fan of the Giants since I was little. Remember Will Clark, Krukow, Nen, well yeah I do!!! I haven’t seen you wear one paraphernalia that has Rangers on it, maybe you are the bandwagon fan…but I digress (sorry Marc off topic but Billy called us out 🙂 I will write more on topic once I do the reading, haha.

  3. Bandwagon! I’ve been a Giants fan through the lean years and the only reason I will take my current jacket off is to get a World Series champion one in its sted! Go Giants!

    That being said, Christology does seem to complicate the matter. It is easy enough to say Christ was the ideal human, but how does that speak to our corrupted humanity? I don’t know.


  4. Very true. Where has Billy’s Ranger’s gear been? We remember Will “The Thrill” Clark, and Thompson, and Matt Williams, Mitchell, Darren Lewis, Dravecky, Bonds, Burkett, Swift, Bonds….I could go on.

    Who does Billy know? Nolan Ryan doesn’t count.

  5. What are you talking about. I can name half the Yankees roster that used to play for the Rangers!

  6. + Cliff Lee is six months! 😉

  7. Since I am studying Aquinas right now I am going to throw some Thomistic understanding of freedom out there also. I like Aquinas understanding of free will because to be free means to not be under the influence of some other creature. Aquinas draws a very direct line between creature and God. Thus, for Aquinas free cannot mean being independent of God. I like the conclusion that Brian Davies draws in his book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Davies believes that Aquinas would say “that my actions are free if nothing in the world is acting on me so as to make me perform them, not if God is not acting in me.” God does not act on those whom He has created as free agents (as Aquinas believes other creatures act on other creatures). Aquinas believes God works in everything and since everything for Aquinas must include free choices he believes that God works in free choice as well.

    For some of the extra reading for my Aquinas class I was reading his “De Potentia” and in it he says, “If there is nothing free in us, but the change which we desire comes about of necessity, then we lose deliberation, exhortation, command and punishment, and praise and blame, which are what moral philosophy is based on.” This kind of struck me as to the importance of free will.

    Thanks for a great post Billy (even though you are a Rangers fan). It really made me wrestle with my view of free will and brought up some ideas I have not wrestled with since I took my Theology classes at Western Seminary.

  8. I do not have enough time to drag up, kicking and screaming, all the various ideas I have formed over the history of my life on why determinism sucks. Now, that being said, I believe Billy is one fine human being. He smiles quicker than any person I have ever met, and I get this instant feeling that I can’t wait to talk to this guy, though we haven’t really had much of a conversation yet. I can handle keeping individuals and ideas distinct.
    We are determined according to the strongest desire of our heart. This thought is an over simplification of the process of our heart (i.e. desires) to an elementary school level of understanding. “I want it, give it to me, it’s mine!” As believers we are commanded to put off our old selves, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.(Eph. 4:22 NIV). This makes it sound like we could make a choice, a responsible decision against our own desires. The compatabilist would say, these desires have the potential to deceive us, but we overcome them with our superior desire to love God! (What a lark!)

    I would suggest our faith, a process of indeterminate free will, places our mind on the appropriate nature that produces the consequent desire that produces the consequent action (see Rom. 8:5). Desire does not precede faith; because faith should not be reduced to desiring the thing to be true, faith is best understood as choosing to believe the thing as true.

    I know in ThM land it is inappropriate to quote scripture because the process of interpreting one verse should take at least an entire chapter of in-depth academic study, and further we don’t want to proof text any of our ideas. However, it is my belief that classical and hierarchical compatibilism are directly opposed to all of Paul’s teaching on believer’s sanctification through faith, and replace it with sanctification through desire. Faith is awesome because it can account for all the causes prior to an action; it exists at the point of decision where a person chooses to have faith despite all mental and physical causes. (Yes, this is only possible if you reject material determinism and are a dualist who believes choices can be made in the spiritual realm.)
    Oh, and Billy, I don’t believe this compromises God’s foreknowledge. Either God is able to have a perspective outside of time while choosing to exist inside of time, or God is able to orchestrate events in such a manner that His determined events always happen despite free will (even to the point of purposely over-riding free will on occasion if necessary). The owner of all the atoms in the world will not lose if he says something is going to happen. In fact, determining events despite the existence of free will is an even stronger assertion of power and sovereignty. Above all, thank you Billy for espousing a definite opinion. : )

  9. One thing Stephen says here that I find worth highlighting (I say one, though I know there are others), is that some sort of free will is not a negation of God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty doesn’t necessitate micro-managing. The fact that God can work while we make a mess of things is great.

  10. Andreas Lundén

    Hmm, thanks for mentioning me in your post. All publicity is good publicity. 😉 On at least one of your points in this weeks blog I actually agree with you. 😉 When acting according to our strongest desire our moral responsibility is not taken out of the equation.

    Not sure I take issue with Calvinism, only certain types of Calvinism. I think Calvinist views that emphasize the systemic nature of providence over the personal nature essentially miss the mark.

    I think Barth makes a fine contribution to theology in arguing that God’s providence rests ultimately on the eternal election of the Son. I can trust in a person, not is a system. That’s ironic, considering the fact that I’m a communist…

  11. Here’s some Torrance for you all to consider:

    “Standing in our place” (Lat. vicarious, substitute). Christ in his humanity stands in our place and represents us, and hence the term the “vicarious humanity” of Christ in which the humanity of Christ takes our place and represents us, so that what is true of him is true of us, and what he did in his (our) humanity is ours. Thomas F. Torrance, “Incarnation,” 205

    The nexus of divine/human grounded in the person of Jesus. Something to consider.

  12. I’ve been busy lately, so here are a few quick comments on Billy’s post.

    First, the Consequence Argument is definitely not mine. It’s been around for a while; I was just highlighting its significance in this discussion.

    Second, as Billy points out, middle knowledge is usually associated with some form of libertarian free will. Ware is among the few compatibilist theologians that I know who make use of this concept.

    Third, along with this, one should be very careful about the nuances between various theologians. Ware and Plantinga both use the idea of middle, but in very different ways. Plantinga supports libertarian free will (as most middle knowledge proponents do), and Ware does not.

    And fourth, Billy also does a nice job highlighting the importance of desires in this argument. I do think that many compatibilists need to do more thinking on what it means to say that free will is based in what we want the most, but then to go on and say that God determines what we want the most. It’s not clear to me how that does any more than just push the problem back one step.

  13. I’d also like to respond to Ware’s argument that a libertarian approach to middle knowledge is necessarily arbitrary because “choice A is just a likely as choice B” and, therefore, there’s no way God can know which will result. That is an unfortunate caricature of the middle knowledge position. Middle knowledge proponents specifically deny this conclusion. They argue that God has real knowledge of what actually happens, what doesn’t happen, and what could have happened under different circumstances (middle knowledge). And, for most middle knowledge proponents, this isn’t because circumstances determine what free beings will do, but because there is such a thing as counterfactual knowledge (i.e. the simple knowledge of what a free being would do in any given situation). So, this knowledge is not grounded in the fact that God controls/determines a person’s desires (as in Ware’s system), but it’s grounded in the fact that God simply knows the counterfactual truth of what a free being would choose to do in a every situation. So, it’s not that God can’t know because “choice A is just a likely as choice B,” but that God knows the actual reality that the person chose A, the actual reality that the person did not choose B, and the counterfactual reality that the person would have chosen B in a different situation.

    With middle knowledge, then, the issue is not so much whether free actions are arbitrary (that’s the problem with more standard approaches to libertarian free will), but whether or not there is such a thing as counterfactual truths that can be known in the first place. (In other words, the argument isn’t so much whether middle knowledge makes free will arbitrary, but what grounds God’s knowledge of what free beings would do in a given situation if their choices are not “determined” by circumstanes.)

  14. And, in response to Stephen, I’d like to caution that we not caricature the compatibilist position either. No good compatibilist says that our actions are determined by the kinds of shallow desires that Stephen identifies (I want it, give it to me, etc.). Compatibilism only maintains that our actions are driven by our deepest desires, many of which are entirely opaque to use. (Augustine has a number of great discussions of deep desires that are mysterious and hidden even to ourselves.)

    I’d also like to ask whether its adequate to associate “faith” with cognitive understanding as you seem to. Would it not be more appropriate to view “faith” as a stance of one’s entire being, one which would include both affection and cognition in complex interaction?

    • I understand the compatilibist position refers to our deepest desires in sophisticated arguments; I was making fun of the position because I dislike it so much. (I shouldn’t do that.)

      I see faith as neither an emotional conclusion, nor a cognitive one (nor a complex interaction of the two coming to conclusion); instead faith is our soul’s response to a divine encounter.

      I think our soul is more than our emotions, more than our cognitive thought, and more than the complex interactions between the two.

      • “faith is our soul’s response to a divine encounter.”

        What exactly does this mean? What kind of “response” is it if it’s neither cognitive, affective, nor some combination of the two? Is it volitional? Is it an entirely different capacity of the human person? If so, what kind of capacity is it? What does it do?

  15. Since I’m already on the tree limb, I’ll dance.

    God does not have a brain and yet he has memory. God does not have a brain and yet he has perception. There is nothing physical to God and yet he is the great cognitive thinker. How then can knowledge NOT exist in the spiritual realm? If we also have a spirit, then cannot we also know spiritually?

    The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
    For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?
    For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit…

    Paul talks about our spirits and spiritual knowledge all the time. (Reader, don’t get too caught up on the speaking in tongues part.) I guess I’d be really surprised if we were supposed to understand our spirits as a physical cognitive and emotive processes.

    If we have a spirit, then our spirit can recognize the work of the Spirit within us. Anything I say after this will get… fuzzy, but I certainly have made hypotheses on how our physical cognitive and emotive processes might interact with our spirit’s ability to know.

    I’ll ask an opened ended question. How can the Holy Spirit interact with us if we are nothing but material brain and physical receptors? Sure the Spirit could manipulate our physical minds and senses, but then we would never know that his was not merely our imaginings. We would only experience his physical manipulations of our material selves. This doesn’t seem like much of a deposit of the things to come.

    • Okay, I think I see where the confusion is now. You seem to be conflating congition/affection with physical processes. That is only necessary if you’re some kind of physicalist. Dualists have traditionally understood cognition/affection to refer primarily capacities of the soul, though the exercise of these capacities now is strongly influenced by our physicality. And, they typically cite many of the same arguments that you did for supporting the notion that these are capacities of the soul and not the body. So, for most dualists, the “spiritual knowledge” that you reference above is not a distinct capacity of the person, but is (at least partially) the exercise of one’s cognitive capacity with respect to spiritual realities.

      • Thanks Marc. I’m working hard to assimilate all of the new information I’m getting in class. Your reply really helps me see where my thoughts fit in to the big picture (I’m serious). I need to find out who is a really good modern dualist and read their stuff. Perhaps you can drop a few good names for me in class. Thanks again.

      • Probably the two most prominent evangelical philosophers arguing for dualism right now would be John Cooper and J.P. Moreland. There are others, but those are the two you’ll see cited the most often.

  16. I thought William Hasker’s article in Beilby’s book, “For Faith and Clarify” was excellent on this precise point. The Emergent Dualism stance was very intriguing.

  17. Great post bcash32! I found Dr. Cortez’s reading quite compelling. His insight into the subject has helped to reveal the depth of waters we are attempting to swim in; as I am sure you have noticed it gets quite murky towards the bottom. That to say, the more I investigate this subject, the more questions arise. Considering the impasse of these two positions, Libertarianism and Compatibilism, it would seem necessary to find compatible terms to navigate the conflict. I appreciate Cortez’s words on page 125: “The free will debate is seriously complicated by the fact that successful resolution of the debates requires the various parties to have clear and agreed upon definitions of the two basic concepts, and there is little clarity about either of them.” Like so many debates, it does not help to talk by one another without talking to one another. Such an endeavor will require great humility on both sides. In this particular reading I was again reminded of the importance of this class as it relates to theological studies. Philosophy plays an incredibly important role when we try to understand the balance between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility.

  18. @Marc: Your chapter helped lay out the problems. Are you planning on giving us your take on the solution come Wednesday. I felt left alone at the end of the chapter with no where to go. 🙂

    • What? I gave a crystal clear answer at the end of the chapter. Did you miss it? (It’s actually a theological easter egg. I think you have to click on the 43rd letter of the last paragraph four times while holding your left ear. That will open the secret conclusion to the chapter.)

  19. Ah, that makes sense, I clicked on the 41st letter…I’ll be back.

  20. Oh, and I too found it “compelling”…do I get a bonus point?!

  21. Hmmm….what if I insult your chapter? Do I get points?

  22. Hmmmm….I’ll think of some way to get points.

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 10.29.10 « Near Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will « scientia et sapientia

  3. Pingback: 5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using « scientia et sapientia

  4. Pingback: Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will | Everyday Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: