Category Archives: Metaphysics

To Will or Not to Will, There Is No Question

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins. Tim is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Jonathan Edwards was by any measure a brilliant man, and his book Freedom of the Will is an excellent demonstration of his intellect at work. The book is at least in part a response to what Edwards saw as a false understanding of the Will and Man’s ability to choose, but also partly Edwards’ assertion on the proper understanding of the Will. As a result there are both negative (the will is not. . .) arguments alongside positive assertions (the will is. . .) with sections sometimes starting with the negative and concluding with the positive, but other chapters entirely devoted to the one or other.

Jonathan Edwards was very much a product of his times. His arguments are very much framed in a cause-effect model. Indeed he spends several chapters establishing his argument that every effect has a cause and that every act of will finds its cause in the motive (Part 1 Sec 2; Part 2 Sec 3; Part 2 Sec 10). This model is inherent in most of Edwards’ arguments.

Edwards makes a few very strong arguments for his determinist view of the will. One argument which Edwards uses well is that of the life of Jesus Christ. In countering the “Arminian” argument that determinism negates the basis for praise or blame, Edwards argues that it was impossible that Jesus would sin or fail in doing the Father’s Will. This was because to do so would invalidate the salvation of all who had preceded, and would make God a liar through the failure of all the promises and prophesies concerning Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus’ actions were necessary and determined, yet they cannot be criticized as not being praiseworthy. Another related argument is that if neither blame nor praise can be assigned because of acts of necessity then “he [God] is deserving of no commendation or praise; because he is under necessity, he can’t avoid being holy and good as he is; therefore no thanks to him for it.”(p.278)

While refuting the idea of the praiseworthiness of decisions from indifference, which he represents as essential for a decision/action to be virtuous rather than determined, Edwards posits what I can only call the praiseworthy sociopath. He argues that if one ponders committing criminal actions from a Vulcan dispassionate indifference (ok he didn’t actually say that but that is the picture he paints) then one is closer to committing those crimes than if viewing them from a predisposition of disgust and horror. Furthermore, Edwards gives the example of seeing a friend in deadly danger and with that same Vulcan dispassion pondering whether or not to assist them. He argues (and rightly so I believe) that in such situations an indifference to saving or leaving is not virtuous but rather worthy of condemnation.

I must confess that not all of Edwards arguments are so easy to agree with, including his argument regarding God’s foreknowledge and decrees.  Here is how he lays out the argument. First Edwards posits that if God foreknows something that event is certain to happen. He goes to great lengths to emphasize the absolute certainty of God’s foreknowledge: if God foreknows something it WILL happen, no possibility to the contrary. This certainty is so strong that there is nothing that could make it stronger. If God decrees something it will happen with absolute certainty. Both God’s foreknowledge and His decrees have an absolute certainty of coming to pass. Since God’s foreknowledge is not incompatible with human freedom because of its certainty, therefore God’s decrees likewise must not be incompatible with human freedom.

It is at this point that I shock everybody with my confession that I am not a Calvinist, so I admit to a certain presuppositional bias. Yet it seems to be that Edwards is making a logical fallacy here. I am certain that the Calvinist/determinists out there will see nothing wrong with the argument as it is laid out, but it seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between foreknowledge and decree. Yes, one could argue that the result is the same, the foreseen or decreed event occurs exactly as it was foreseen or decreed, but they are different starting points. Decree is inherently causal, foreknowledge is not. And as such then assumptions and qualities for the one do not necessarily carry over to the other. Foreknowledge in and of itself does not seem to necessitate decree. To get from one to the other there must be some glue, some logical bridge connecting the two. In my view the certainty of result is insufficient to make that connection.

Aside from stirring up that tired old argument between determinists and non-determinists, I have a few other criticisms of Edwards arguments.

  1. His “greatest desire” model seems simplistic, and unable to deal with passages like Gal 5:16-17.
  2. One of his arguments regarding the incompatibility of contingency and foreknowledge is that knowledge must have evidence, because it must be evident to the understanding (p.258). This is already a weak argument, built around an undefined term: understanding. But Edwards then continues on to argue that because there is no necessary connection between a contingent future event and the present. This boils down to a manufactured argument for contingency cannot work with foreknowledge because I say it cannot.

I am not trying to open the contingency argument here, just to point out that not all of Edwards arguments carry the full impact that he seemed to think they carried.

Overall I would call Freedom of the Will a mixed bag. Edwards has some strong arguments, he has some weak arguments. There certainly has been plenty of material for me to reflect on.  But is there someone who can help me wrap my apparently not sufficiently deterministic mind around how to make the connection between foreknowledge and decree? I know the sovereignty passages, I am not even necessarily arguing against decree as it is used. But I just don’t see the connection that makes what is foreseen necessarily (to use the term in the Edwardsian sense) decreed.

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


Some Problems with Jonathan Edwards’ view of Original Sin

[This is a guest post by Andreas Lunden. Andreas is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

In The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced, and Arguments to the Contrary Answered, Jonathan Edwards engages in the controversy over human depravity, a topic that occupied much of the eighteenth century. Edwards’ eagerness to refute his opponents on this matter indicates that a major cultural shift was ultimately at stake, since the Western man was viewing himself with increasing positivism regarding his nature and potentialities. In other words, Edwards was combating an increasingly prevailing drift of opinion that had begun in Europe and was now slowly but surely invading America.


An Outline of Edwards’ Argument

The argument of this book is straightforward. Edwards spends well over three hundred pages defending the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. More specifically, for Edwards, Original Sin means, (1) the innate depravity of heart of all men OR, (2) the imputation of Adam’s sin to all men. Those who hold to one of these statements usually also hold to the other. On the contrary, those who oppose Original Sin usually oppose both these statements. According to Edwards, such “new interpretations”, which stray from Christian tradition, are unlikely to be correct. For Edwards, “mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil they are subjects of, and the afflictive evil they are exposed to, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other, then doubtless the great salvation by Christ stand in direct relation to this ruin.” He finds support for his views both in general observations of man’s inclinations and behaviors (history), as well as the witness of the Christian scriptures.

The flow unfolds as follows:

  • Part One: Evidence of Original Sin from Observation, Experience & Scripture
  • Part Two: Observations from Scripture Proving Original Sin
  • Part Three: Observations Relating to the Process of Redemption
  • Part Four: Answers to Common Objections

What stands out is Edwards’ brilliant exposition concerning man’s inability to present evidence for capacity of goodness despite God’s “great means” to promote such virtue. He analyzes both the Old and the New Testament, focusing on the means used by God to draw man to Himself: from Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Gentiles, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Jews, and finally the “Church age.” For John Taylor (the main opponent of Edwards), the ongoing failures to pierce the heart of man were simply due to a wrong representation of the gospel. Such a view must have caused unpleasant affections in the heart of Edwards. According to our defender of Original Sin, the problem of man’s depravity stems ultimately from something much deeper than an “unfortunate” misunderstanding. Man’s apparent failure to respond to God lies in the realm of a thoroughly corrupted heart. Consequently, man’s redemption is obviously connected to a restructured heart, which is exclusively the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Some Problems with Edwards Argument

Edwards has a talent for arguing in such a way that he answers not only the questions currently on the table, but also possible “follow-up” issues that may surface in response to his own writings. However, one possible weakness in Edwards’ argument (as discussed in class) is his view that creation is a continuous event ex nihilo (from nothing). In arguing that God recreates the whole of the universe every instant, he is able, not only to combat Deist notions, but also maintain a sense of oneness, and connectedness between the first Adam, and the whole of mankind (as opposed to Taylor’s view that sin and guilt are to be seen as entirely personal). However, this begs the question, if history is divided into an infinite number of independent frames, how is the now related to the past or the future? What, then, is a person? How does one in this view understand personal identity?

Another area that I find problematic is Edwards’ somewhat condescending posture in relation to his opponents. His argumentation is ruthless, in style but first and foremost in intellectual force. While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another. I am by no means arguing we should compromise truth, only that we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.

Edwards’ Opponent

Finally, I conclude from this reading that nothing is new under the sun. I found myself chuckling at Taylor’s arguments since they sometimes sound similar to contemporary objections to Christian doctrines of Sin, Hell, Judgment, etc. Here are a few examples:

The doctrine of Original Sin…

…disparages divine goodness in giving us our being, so that we have no reason to thank God for our being.

…pours contempt on human nature.

…gives us an ill opinion of our fellow humans.

…hinders comfort & joy, and promotes sorrow & gloominess.

…is not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels.

Jonathan Edwards offers sound answers to every one of these objections, but I’m curious, how would you respond?

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

Some concluding reflections on how to approach the free will debate

Thousands of years, countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and still no resolution to the free will debate. Maybe we should just stop talking about it.

But that won’t do either. Our view of free will has too many important implications for life, ministry, theology, and ethics. Far from being a speculative, philosophical discussion, the free will debate touches on nearly every aspect of what it means to be human.

So, we have a seemingly unsolvable problem that is, at the same time, vitally important for many of life’s most significant issues.

Oh, is that all?

We’ve been working through a series on Striving for Greater Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate (you can see all the posts in that series here). And, that’s a great place to start. But, it’s just a starting place. The hard task of actually understanding “free” will remains.

As I said at the beginning of this series, I have no intention of trying to resolve the issue here. But, to wrap up this series, I thought I should at least say something about how I approach the discussion. I haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion yet. But, I have landed on a way of framing the discussion that I find helpful.

The closest that I come to arguing for a particular view of free will is in my book Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.) The basic thrust of my argument in that chapter is that any adequate theological anthropology must affirm certain basic things about the human person, which I develop in my chapter on the image of God: christocentrism, qualified uniqueness, mystery, relationality, moral responsibility, embodiment, and brokenness. This is the theological framework within which particular scientific/philosophical theories must function to be theologically adequate. So, I evaluate any approach to free will by its ability to operate coherently and convincingly within this theological framework.

I won’t take the time here to unpack everything that I develop in that chapter. But, here’s the conclusion:

Working through each of these theories using our criteria for a theologically adequate anthropology, we can see that each struggles at certain key points. Certainly, classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate both because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from, as well as its inadequate explanation of alternate possibilities. New compatibilist theories have worked hard to overcome these weaknesses. Nonetheless, we have seen that they still struggle to explain how the complete determination of the human person’s character and affective states does not ultimately undermine the person’s responsibility for actions that result from that character and affective condition. The source of the person’s ‘deepest self’ seems important and unfortunately opaque in the compatibilist system. For theological compatibilists, this leaves them susceptible to concerns surrounding the origin of sin and the nature of evil.

Libertarian theories are subject to important critiques as well. Indeed, the libertarian approach struggles to explain how there can be sufficient indeterminism to allow libertarian free will, without ultimately foundering on the problem of luck or the loss of any causal significance for human reasons, beliefs, and desires. And theologically, libertarianism struggles to explain how God can be causally active in the lives of human persons without undermining their free will.

Our discussion in this chapter has not focused on trying to resolve these debates. Indeed, I have argued that given the currently ambiguous and debated relationship between moral responsibility, causality, and free will, it seems unlikely that the debate will be resolved any time soon. So, as with the mind/body debate, I think that we will be on safer ground identifying those things about the human person that must be affirmed in any adequate theological anthropology and use those as our guiding criteria. With these in place, we can acknowledge that each of these theories has important strengths and corresponding weaknesses. We cannot rule either of them out of bounds on this basis, but we can develop a picture of what any adequate view of free will must be able to affirm and move forward from there.

Like I said above, this isn’t a satisfying answer to the problem, though I do find it to be a compelling way of approaching the discussion.

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

5 Arguments that Arminians Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to turn the tables. The last post focused on arguments that Calvinists need to stop using. Today’s post turns that same lens on Arminian arguments.

So, here are five arguments that I think Arminians need to stop using in the free will debate.

1. Calvinists reject free will. I won’t say much here, because I’ve already commented on this in the last post. But, this argument gets used often enough that it’s worth commenting on again. I’ll say it as clearly as I can. Calvinists do not reject free will. They do reject libertarian free will. But, of course, to criticize a compatibilist for rejecting libertarian free will is simply to reject a compatibilist for not being a libertarian. Not terribly helpful. You can critique compatibilism all you want, but simply arguing that Calvinists reject free will is not going to cut it. You’ll need to go deeper.

2. Calvinism undermines personal responsibility. The problem here, of course, has to do with the fact that Calvinism is a form of theistic determinism. Although they affirm (compatibilistic) free will, many simply can’t get past Calvinism’s determinism.  If it’s fully determined that I would do X, and it’s therefore necessary that I do X and “impossible” that I should do not-X, how can I possibly be held responsible for doing X? And, libertarians find the appeal to desires here (i.e. I’m responsible for doing X if I wanted to do X) completely unconvincing. Unless I’m somehow responsible for having these desires, then it’s hard to see how the desires themselves can render me responsible for the actions that they produce.

As I pointed out in the last post, though, the great irony here is that Calvinists use personal responsibility as an argument against libertarianism as well. But, if it’s a problem for both, then it’s hard to see how it is actually a problem for either. At the very least, Arminians need to recognize that Calvinists don’t have any greater difficulty with free will than they do.

3. Calvinists have no solution to the problem of evil. This objection is as old as theology itself. If God is completely sovereign and fully in control of every event that happens, then isn’t he responsible for all of the evil that happens in the world? So, it seems that the Calvinist either has to bite the bullet and admit that God is the “author” of evil (at least in a compatibilistic sense) or come up with some way of arguing that the “bad” things in the world aren’t really evil, in the big picture sense anyway. Since most libertarians find both of these solutions unpalatable, they often use the existence of evil as one of their larger clubs with which to bludgeon compatibilists.

But, the Arminian has a problem here. I argued earlier (8 Things That Everyone Needs to Stop Doing in the Free Will Debate) that good Arminian theology strongly affirms God’s sovereignty. But, if that’s the case, then the problem of evil would seem to be equally great for the Arminian. If God knew exactly how much evil would result from his act of creation, and if he could have acted (sovereignly) to prevent any given act of evil, then the problem of evil rears its head for the Arminian too. Granted, the Arminian doesn’t have to explain God’s causal relationship to such deeds, but the fact that he allows their existence is still a problem. The Arminian will probably respond that God allows such evil because he values free will (or the kind of relationship that free will makes possible). But, once you’ve made that argument, you’ve opened the door to saying that it’s possible for God to desire something of sufficient worth (e.g., his own glory) to justify the evil that exists in the world, which is exactly the kind of argument that the Calvinist often makes. So, once again we’ve run into an argument that is a problem for both and should be treated as such.

4. Quantum indeterminism creates room for libertarian free will. This is one that I run across increasingly often. On one interpretation of quantum physics, the physical world is fundamentally indeterministic. Although it appears to operate on deterministic principles, that’s only at the macro level. Dig deeply enough into the fabric of the universe and you only find randomness, chaos, and chance. And, if the universe is built on randomness rather than determinism, then the idea of a will unconstrained by antecedent factors seems much more likely.

The problem is that an indeterministic will is no solution to the free will problem. Indeed, it just makes the libertarian’s job even harder. I don’t have any greater control over an indeterministic system than I do a deterministic one. According to one, I have no “control” because my decisions are just the result of the deterministic processes around me. But, according to the other, I have no “control” because my decisions are the result of inherently random and chaotic processes. How is that any better? The only option here is to suggest that somehow my “will” lies outside these quantum processes and is able to impose some order on them. But, whatever that might be, it’s not quantum theory. So, now we’re just using the label while ignoring the actual content of the theory. (By the way, another problem with the quantum theory is that there’s a real debate regarding whether quantum physics entails that the universe is ontologically random, or whether it appears so because of our epistemological limitations.)

5. Compatibilism reveals its weakness by appealing to mystery all the time. Let’s face it. Ultimately, compatibilists can’t explain how their system works. Human volitions are both determined and free at the same time? Really? God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and we’re responsible for our actions? How does that work? Push hard enough and most compatibilists will appeal to mystery. They won’t agree that their system is incoherent; they’ll just say that understanding how God’s causality and ours fit together is beyond our ability to understand. And, libertarians are often quick to suggest that this is because their system just doesn’t make any sense. Of course they have to appeal to mystery, it doesn’t make any sense.

Once again, though, the argument cuts both ways. Push a libertarian hard enough, and you’ll find mystery there as well. For the libertarian, the mystery usually comes in response to the “luck” argument. On the one hand, they have to affirm that the human agent is in “control” of the action. But, they also need to maintain that the action is not “determined” by anything (including the agent’s own reasons, character, habits, etc.). The action can be influenced and conditioned by antecedent factors, but not determined by them. If that’s the case, though, how exactly does the agent “control” the action? How exactly do I choose A rather than B in such a way that the choice was not determined by any prior factors and without it becoming an arbitrary decision over which I have no control and for which I bear no responsibility? I don’t know. And, as far as I can tell, neither do most libertarians.

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

5 Arguments that Calvinists Should Stop Using

Continuing our series on Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate, today we’re going to look at five arguments that Calvinists routinely use against libertarian views of free will. And, although they’re popular arguments, I’d like to suggest that Calvinists should stop using them. Each of them in some way undermines the clarity and charity that I think needs to characterize this discussion.

1. Arminians are anthropocentric. Calvinists love to argue that their system is entirely God-centered. Arminians, on the other hand, take the human person as their starting point. They focus on free will because their theology revolves around the human person and what he/she can contribute to salvation. In that sense, it is fundamentally anthropocentric and dis-oriented. And, this is usually where they’ll also bring in the idea that Arminianism undermines divine sovereignty; they’re really just trying to establish human autonomy.

But, it’s simply not true. Granted, Arminian theology understands the relationship between human and divine action differently, but that does not mean that their theology is conditioned by anthropocentrism any more than Calvinism is conditioned by fatalism. Good Arminian theology revolves around the triune God every bit as much as Calvinist theology does. Stop suggesting otherwise.

2. Arminians begin with philosophy rather than Bible. Similar to the first one, I often hear Calvinists claim that Arminians are more driven by a philosophical considerations than by the Bible. In other words, they think Arminians come to the table with a predetermined commitment to a libertarian view of free will, and then read that into the biblical texts, rather than allowing the Bible to shape and guide their view of the human person.

Two things can be said in response. First, Arminians unquestionably bring presuppositions to the discussion, but no more so than Calvinists. We all do it, so let’s stop pretending otherwise. Second, it’s just not true that Arminians simply impose their philosophical framework on the Bible (at least, no more so than anyone else). Arminians rightly point out that there is considerable support for their view of free will in the biblical texts. Of course, other biblical texts seem to support the compatibilist view equally well – that’s why there’s a debate. So, as I argued earlier, Calvinists need to stop acting like Arminians don’t read their Bibles.

3. Arminians can’t explain divine foreknowledge. Not everyone is going to like this one because the foreknowledge argument is quite popular in Calvinist circles. But, I think it causes more problems than it resolves. The basic idea of the argument is that if God knows in advance what we’ll do, then our actions are already fixed and cannot be libertarianly free.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it quickly lapses into discussions of the nature of eternity (is there any “sequence” in God’s experience of time or does he experience everything simultaneously) and divine knowledge (on what basis does God know things), things that are impossible to know for sure. Any argument based on such speculative considerations seems necessarily flawed. It also seems to run into problems with its “externalistic” view of volition. If I invented a time machine traveled forward to see what decisions you would make tomorrow, how does that have any bearing on the nature of your decisions? My knowledge is completely “external” to your decision (i.e. it has no direct connection). How could something so far removed from the decision have any bearing on whether the decision is free? So, for a couple of reasons, I find this argument far more trouble than it’s worth.

4. Arminians fail to realize that free will is driven by desires. This is the heart of classic compatibilism: a decision is free if it’s what the agent wants to do, but the decision is still fully determined because the agent’s desires are caused by antecedent factors. So, it’s fully determined that I will drink coffee this morning because I am already the kind of person who will want to drink coffee this morning. Thus, the same action is one that involves a choice for which I can be held responsible (i.e. it’s a free action) and is fully determined at the same time.

The problem is that desires alone are insufficient to ground a meaningful account of free will. To see this, suppose that my desire to drink coffee this morning stems from the fact that my evil neighbor planted some kind of neural parasite in my ear, which has attached itself to my brain stem, causing me to have coffee-drinking desires. In this scenario, I still want to drink coffee, and I still act on that desire, but it’s hard to see how it qualifies as a free action. (Notice in this scenario, I’m not being forced to drink the coffee – i.e. coercion – because I want to drink the coffee.) Now, this scenario is obviously absurd. But, it illustrates the fact that compatibilism cannot simply appeal to desires in its understanding of free will. It also needs to offer an account of where those desires come from sufficient to distinguish legitimately free actions (e.g., me writing this post) from those in which freedom seems compromised or lost entirely (e.g. brainwashing).  (Classic compatibilism has other problems, but this one seems the most glaring as it’s often explained by Calvinists.)

5. Arminian free will undermines responsibility. The argument here begins with the “luck” argument. Since, the libertarian view entails that nothing prior to my decision is sufficient to determine my decision, then it seems like the decision itself is rather arbitrary. Even my character, reasons, and desires do not determine what I will decide.  Given the exact same circumstances, it’s entirely possible that I would have made the opposite decision. So, libertarianly free decisions seem random. If good/bad results, that’s really just the “luck” of the draw and not something for which I can bear responsibility (after all, I could just as well have done the exact opposite).

Now, I think the luck argument itself is a significant problem for libertarian views of free will. (Libertarians will often appeal to mystery at this point.) So, that’s an argument that Calvinists should definitely keep using. But, Calvinists are rarely satisfied with the luck argument alone. The real payoff is in going the next step and arguing that because of the luck argument, the libertarian view of free will is inadequate to ground moral responsibility. The problem here is that Calvinists have an equal (if not greater) difficulty explaining moral responsibility (as we’ll see in the next post). So, if both sides have an equally difficult time with the same problem, it’s hard to see how it can serve as a useful argument for either.

I’m not saying here that the Calvinist has no good arguments against libertarian free will. As I mentioned above, I do think the luck argument is a significant problem. And, I could easily list a few more. The point of this post, though, is to highlight some arguments that I’d like to see much less of in future discussions.

For some other good posts on this subject, see:

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

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.]

5 Things Everyone Agrees on in the Free Will Dbate

Man is the intersection of two worlds….[I]n him there takes place the conflict between spirit and nature, freedom and necessity, independence and dependence. ~Nikolai Berdyaev

Everyone involved in understanding the human person wrestles with Berdyaev’s two worlds: freedom and necessity. What are these two worlds? What is their relationship to each other? What impact does this have on everyday life? And, the answers to these questions go in many, often contradictory, directions.

Like most debates, this one tends to focus on the areas of disagreement. That, of course, is the heart of the argument. So, it’s not surprising that the disagreements get most of the attention. But, we lose something when we only focus on disagreement. At the very least, we lose the opportunity to appreciate what really is (and isn’t) at stake in the discussion. If we’re going to approach the free will debate with clarity and charity, this can’t be our starting point.

So, instead of highlighting that which divides, I’d like to focus on 5 areas of general consensus in the debate. Before I start, though, it’s important to realize that I’m talking about the free will debate as it currently stands among evangelical Christians. So, these won’t necessarily be areas of consensus for philosophers, scientists, and theologians coming from other perspectives. But, among evangelicals Christians, these are 5 areas on which both libertarians and compatibilists agree.

1. Human persons have free will. Everyone agrees that human persons do in fact have free will. We must affirm this at the beginning of the discussion. I often hear people assert that some group denies the reality of free will. No, they don’t. Even if you think you have reasons for questioning the adequacy of their overall view, you shouldn’t incorrectly suggest that they deny the reality of free will. Among Christian theologians, there are few (if any) hard determinists. So, let’s stop pretending that there are.

2. Human persons are morally responsible beings. Since I included moral responsibility in my definition of free will, this area of agreement is technically a part of the first one. But, it’s so important that I thought it worth mentioning separately. Many of the arguments in the debate center on accusing some other perspective of denying or undermining moral responsibility. And, of course, it is possible that they actually are undermining this key principle. But, let’s begin the discussion by recognizing that they do not think they have done so and have no intention of doing so. All of those involved explicitly affirm the responsibility of human persons for their actions and decisions. Let’s start there.

3. Not all human actions and decisions are meaningfully free. Everyone agrees that not all of our actions/decisions are meaningfully free. Instinctive actions over which I usually have little or no control (e.g. breathing) do not qualify as “free” actions in the sense that most intend. Nor would actions that result from external coercion and/or manipulation. No one is talking about these kinds of actions, though they come into play as thinkers have to determine how to distinguish between free and non-free actions.

4. Free will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Again, everyone agrees that God is sovereign and that this is fully compatible with affirming that humans have free will. This one gets abused often enough that I need to say it again. Both sides affirm that God is sovereign (yes, including Arminians), both sides affirm that humans have free will (yes, including Calvinists), and both affirm that these two assertions are compatible with one another (even if they struggle to explain how).

5. Free will is importantly related to antecedent conditions. As I explained in yesterday’s post, determinism is best understood as the view that any event necessarily results from antecedent conditions plus the laws of nature. Because antecedent conditions are associated with determinism like this, many conclude that libertarian views have no room for antecedent conditions. That is not the case. Every major view of free will recognizes the importance of antecedent conditions for understanding free will. They differ significantly in the role that they ascribe to antecedent conditions, but no one simply ignores them. So, it’s just not true that libertarians see decisions as being made in a “vacuum,” isolated from things like character and environment. Everyone agrees that such factors influence free will in important ways.

As you can see, evangelicals involved in the free will debate actually agree on a broad range of issues. Most importantly they agree that human persons are meaningfully free and morally responsible, and that this is fully compatible with a strong affirmation of divine sovereignty. For everyone, these provide the framework within which they struggle toward a more detailed understanding of human volitionality.

Unfortunately, the agreements often get buried under the disagreements. And, we lose sight of how much we share in common. We’re not strangers from different countries waging war over disputed territory, but close neighbors linked by a long history of shared assumptions, disagreeing about what’s best for the neighborhood.

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.]

Striving for Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate

I’d love to get Augustine and Pelagius in a room and listen to them debate free will. That would be a sight. At least PG-13. Or, better yet, Augustine and one of the great Greek theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus or John Chyrsostom. Perfect.

We’ve been debating free will for a very long time. And, if you read some of the more recent discussions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t made much progress. The arguments of today sound just like the arguments of yesterday (and the day before).

Despite the lack of progress, free will remains an important issue. Your view of free will impacts how you understand salvation, discipleship, ethics, humanity, and even the nature of God himself (e.g., see the recent exchange between Roger Olson and Michael Patton on whether God has free will), among other things.

So, since free will is both important and contentious, I thought it would be worth writing a few posts on the subject. But, let me be clear. I’m not going to try and resolve the debate (if that’s even possible). Nor will I be arguing for one position over another. Instead, I’m going to offer some thoughts on what we need to do if we’re going to have discussions about free will that are characterized by both clarity and charity, two things frustratingly lacking in many of these debates.

First, a few of definitions:

  • Free will: The most important term in the whole debate, “free will” is also the hardest to define. For our purposes, it will suffice to say that “free will” refers to the capacity to choose among various options in such a way as to be responsible for those choices. The concept thus includes both choice and responsibility. And, indeed, much of the debate revolves around what constitutes a real “choice” and what things are necessary to hold a person “responsible” for their choices.
  • Determinism: The standard definition for (causal) determinism is that a particular event (e.g. a “choice”) is necessitated by antecedent events/conditions together with the laws of nature. Thus, it was causally determined that the ball would break the window (event) as soon as I hit with with the bat at just the right angle and velocity (antecedent event/conditions), assuming that God doesn’t miraculously intervene (laws of nature). And, these antecedent conditions can be entirely natural (materialistic determinism) or supernatural (theistic determinism). Either way, the antecedent causes/conditions necessitate the particular event.
  • Libertarian: A view of free will is libertarian if it holds that “free will” (i.e. choice + responsibility) is incompatible with determinism. In other words, if it is true that all human actions/choices are fully determined by antecedent events/conditions plus the laws of nature, then, quite simply, we are not free beings. We are simply billiard balls careening around the table, every action determined by the collision of the balls around us.
  • Compatibilist (soft determinist): A view of free will is compatibilistic if it holds that “free will” is compatible with determinism. In other words, one can fully affirm that we are free moral agents, responsible for all of our decisions, and still maintain that all of our actions/choices are completely determined by antecedent causes/conditions. (This view is often called “soft determinism,” to distinguish it from “hard determinism,” or the view that since our actions/choices are fully determined, we are not free beings.)

In Protestant theological circles, the real debate is between those holding a libertarian view of free will (broadly “Arminian”) and those with a compatibilist view (broadly “Calvinist”). I should say that using theological labels like Arminian/Calvinist actually tends to confuse the issue, since those labels are far too imprecise to be terribly helpful, and they include much more than just particular views of free will. But, there’s no getting around the fact that these labels are importantly involved in the free will debate. So, we shouldn’t just ignore them.

With these definitions in place, the rest of the series will focus on developing greater charity and clarity in the free will debate. I may not succeed, but I intend to try anyway. I’ll add the links as the series develops, but here’s a quick rundown of where we’re going.

Stick around. It should be fun.

Hegel’s Logic as Metaphysics

[This is a post by Keith Mitchell.  It is part of the continuing series on Philosophy and Theology that current ThM students are entrenched in.  Enjoy!]

There are three common areas in philosophy that we have already discussed. Metaphysics asks, “what is?” Epistemology, “how do you know about what is?” and Ethics, “what should we be doing about it?” For Hegel the Metaphysical question of “what is?” can ultimately be understood as The Absolute Geist (aka Spirit or Mind). The essential stuff of what exists—the Geist—is non-material. The Geist got separated from itself and is now working back toward itself through history (this view of history retains a familiar Judeo-Christian progressive linearism).  What is more tangible than all imminent idea moving history forward?

The process the Absolute Geist takes through history is dialectic; working in the same manner as a rational and productive conversation (Hegel is all about synthesis whereas Kant was fine with the dualism). The interaction (between the thesis and antithesis) makes for clarification on a deeper level (synthesis), verses impasses and compromise. The result is a resolution to a higher place, not just another place.

But what gives the dialectic momentum and energy for movement? Because for something to be ultimate reality (the Absolute Geist), it must be self-sufficient, we cannot be responsible for dragging it along. This is where Hegel’s logic comes in. By logic I do not mean syllogistics, but the reason for a thing; in this case the reason for the dialectical movement of what ultimately is.

For Hegel there is no logical concept of ‘being,’ without ‘not being.’ Thus, A cannot be ~A (the little symbol just means “not”). But, and this is key, A can become ~A. For Hegel then, becoming is a more fundamental reality than being. Thus any given idea needs its opposite in order to first exist, and then to evolve. Each idea is not complete; having within it the potential for inherent contradictions.  All incomplete ideas give rise to an antithesis, which resolve into a synthesis. These contradictions are self-perpetuating. Thus, becoming is a dynamic process that works of its own accord and moves toward becoming more universal and concrete.

The final stage of the dialectic for the Geist is self-awareness. At this stage the Absolute will have no more antitheses inherent in it. All that exists will be harmoniously at one with itself. Individuals will finally experience true freedom since there will no longer be any areas of conflict. With it, there will be an end to the pattern of change. Hegel’s view is called “Absolute Idealism;” “Absolute” because it is encompassing everything, and “Idealism,” because the essential stuff of what exists (Geist) is non-material.  For Hegel, reality is rational and this is its logic.