8 Things Everyone Needs to Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate

We all have bad habits. Maybe you bite your fingernails, watch too much TV, or throw wet socks at strangers on the bus. We all have them. And, the problem with habits is that we usually don’t even notice them. That’s kind of the idea. A habit is like breathing, you just do it.

But, many habits are quite annoying. You might not notice, but the people around you do. And, although they might be too polite to say anything, they don’t like it.

Intellectual habits are no different. We all have patterns of thinking and arguing with which we’ve become quite familiar. We come back to them time and again, seeking the reassurance that only an old friend can provide. They’re such a part of life that we don’t even notice them anymore.

But, many of them can be quite annoying, especially to people with different habits.

Some of these intellectual bad habits make regular appearances in the free will debate. And, whenever they’re present, they prevent meaningful dialog. So, in the interests of promoting clarity and charity in the free will debate, here’s a list 8 things that I think everyone involved in the discussion should stop doing.

1. Stop ignoring the broad areas of agreement. I could just rename this one, “Make sure you read my last post.” But, this one’s important, so I thought I’d mention it again. Since both sides agree on so much, let’s stop pretending that they’re polar opposites. That’s lazy, and a bit rude.

2. Stop using terms without clear definitions. Much of the debate is marred by the imprecise and unclear use of terms. To some extent I suppose that’s unavoidable. If we stopped to define every term clearly, we’d never get anywhere. But, you’d think that people in the debate would at least take the time to define the most central terms (free, will, necessity, determinism, etc.), and then stick to those definitions with consistency throughout the discussion. Unfortunately, that’s the exception rather than the rule. If the conversation is going to get anywhere, we have to break the habit of using such terms lazily. (I offered some initial definitions in my first post.)

3. Stop believing that certain arguments are on your side. Both sides have their favorite arguments that they like to wield against the other approach. But, they often fail to realize that many arguments are more cobra than a club, just as likely to bite the person holding it as the intended target. So, the libertarian critiques the compatibilist for appealing to “mystery” in explaining the relationship between determinism and freedom, neglecting to mention that it also appeals to mystery with startling regularity. And, the compatibilist happily points that it’s difficult for the libertarian to explain how completely free actions are related to the reasons that a person has for those actions (i.e. if the action is completely free, then even my strongest/best reasons don’t necessitate the decision), but neglects to point out that a determinist system has equal, if not greater, problems explaining how fully determined actions can be properly responsive to “reasons” (e.g., billiard balls don’t reason, they just respond). Many arguments in the debate are like this; they cut both ways. So, let’s stop pretending that certain issues are only problems for one side. Most are problems for both, just in different ways.

4. Stop pretending that your side is the only one that reads the Bible. This is possibly the worst habit of them all, and both sides do it. Here’s a good rule to live by: Assume that the Christians you’re debating actually do read the Bible and are not complete idiots. They’re fully aware of the verses you’re citing and they are not just ignoring them. They read those verses differently than you, but that’s not the same as not reading them at all. So, take the time to engage how/why they’re reading them differently.

5. Stop ignoring the diversity of the other side. I’ve actually been doing the debate a bit of a disservice by referring to libertarianism and compatibilism as though they were singular entities. The reality is that they’re actually broad labels covering a number of distinct, though related, perspectives. Unfortunately, many either neglect to engage that diversity or are unaware of it entirely. So, you’ll often find someone critiquing, for example, one kind of libertarian free will, and then acting as though he/she has defeated libertarianism itself. That’s like capturing one pawn and concluding that you’ve won the chess game.

6. Stop picking on your weakest opponent. Paired with the last problem is a tendency to focus only on the weakest form of libertarianism or compatibilism. For example, some will critique classical compatibilism, a view with a number of glaring difficulties, and then act like compatibilism itself has been defeated. And, of course, the same problem occurs when critiquing libertarianism. Just because I can knock down your little brother, I shouldn’t assume that I can take on your whole family.

7. Stop appealing to God’s will. Here’s another good rule: Don’t try to resolve one mystery by appealing to another. Most would agree that understanding God’s eternal will is a task that lies far beyond us mere mortals. Yet, you will often find theologians appealing to the divine will in support of their view of free will (i.e. God does/doesn’t have libertarian free will. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that we do/don’t have it either.) Unless you’re really sure that you understands the ins and outs of God’s eternal will, let’s stay away from this one. (Caveat: The one exception to this rule is when appealing to God’s will as a thought experiment to deal with conceivability/coherence arguments. For example, some contend that libertarian free will is simply incoherent. In that case, it’s legitimate to ask if they think God has libertarian free will. If they say yes, then they actually don’t think the concept is incoherent. This doesn’t establish whether libertarianism itself is right or even coherent; it just establishes that the other person needs to be more consistent in their thinking.)

8. Stop assuming that yours is the “commonsense” approach. I find it interesting how many theologians/philosophers on both sides of the aisle argue that theirs is the “commonsense” view of free will and that the other side bears the “burden of proof” in the argument. Stop it. Although it’s probably true that most people assume some form of libertarianism in daily life, you only have to ask a few questions before their compatibilist assumptions also begin to surface. The simple truth is that the “commonsense” view of free will is conflicted and, quite possibly, incoherent. So, let’s all stop assuming that our approach is normative and that the other side is the one that has to establish their case. Both sides have a lot of work to do.

I’m not foolish enough to think that following these eight guidelines will solve all of our problems. But, I’d like to believe that it would help.

This is the second in our series on approaching the free will debate with clarity and charity.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Th.M. program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 2, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As someone who did debate in college -sometimes on this topic and many similar to it- in a word, YES! You are spot on and this is why I hated debating these subjects.

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