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A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

According to Roger Olson, there’s a glaring hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will. And, it’s a hole that Calvinist’s generally refuse to acknowledge.

To see why, Olson points out that many Calvinists contend that incompatibilism as a view of free will is simply incoherent. (There are many different kinds of incompatibilism, but in a nutshell it’s the idea that my having true free will in a given instance is not compatible with the idea that my action in that instance could be caused by some prior event or state of affairs.) The Calvinist contends that if an actually is truly “uncaused,” then it is irrational or random. And, if our actions are irrational and/or random, then they do not come from our choices and they they are not the kinds of actions for which we can be held responsible – i.e. they are not “free.” Consequently, there is no such thing as incompatibilist free will. For the Calvinist, according to Olson, that is an oxymoron; it is incoherent.

But, Olson goes on to argue that this raises a problem for our understanding of God’s free will. If the very notion of incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then God himself cannot have incompatibilist free will. This, in turn, would mean that God’s own actions are caused by some event or state of affairs. And, many Calvinists will agree here, contending that God’s actions are “caused” by his nature. He does the things that he does because he is perfectly the kind of God that he is. But, and here is the real nexus of Olson’s argument, this would seem to mean that all of God’s actions are necessary. He created the universe because he had to; it was an expression of his perfect and immutable character. There’s really nothing else he could have done.

And the problem for Olson is that this account of God’s creative act was clearly rejected and declared heretical by quite a number of early theologians. Most of these thinkers insisted that God’s creative act had to be understood as a free act of his will. God was free to do otherwise, though it was perfectly fitting for him to choose to create.

So, the tension that Olson sets up is this. If you are going to claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then you must also affirm that God’s actions are all necessary consequences of his character. Conversely, if you are going to claim that God has incompatibilist free will, then you cannot also claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent.

I’m sure that Olson is perfectly aware that none of this actually serves as an argument for maintaining that humans actually have incompatibilistically free wills. But, he maintains that it does place the Calvinist in quite the quandry, and he argues that most Calvinists are unwilling to face it head on.

What do you think? Is this truly a hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?


Free will and character are not incompatible

A common critique that I often hear against libertarian views of free will is that they are incompatible with the idea that our decisions can be decisively shaped by our character. I ran across a good example of this critique in a recent blog post. The author is critiquing a definition of free will offered by C. Stephen Evans, in which Evans says, “The possession of free will does not entail an ability not to sin, since human freedom is shaped and limited by human character. Thus a human person may be free to choose among possibilities in some situations but still be unable to avoid all sin.” The author concludes:

This statement is contradictory. If the will must sin of necessity then it is in bondage to corruption, and that which is in bondage is not free. So we must ask, freedom from what? Freedom from coercion, yes, but not freedom from necessity (the necessity to sin in this case). So even the author of the definition himself rejects free will perhaps without even knowing it.

There are at least two things wrong with this conclusion. First, it is simply a mistake to conclude that for a person to have “free will”, even in a libertarian sense, they must not be constrained in any sense. All views of free will recognize that the human will is always constrained in important ways (i.e. there are lots of things that I can’t choose). Evans’ definition simply affirms the fact that believing in free will does not commit you to believing that a person is free not to sin. Most libertarian views of free will do necessitate that there be multiple legitimate options available to the free agent, but it is entirely consistent with these views to hold that all of these options might be sinful. Libertarian free will does not commit a person to maintaining that a fallen human being is capable of performing a truly good and righteous act. That is an entirely separate question.

Second, the criticism misses the fact that at least some libertarian views affirm that some free actions can be fully determined by a person’s character. In other words, it might be the case that my decision to X was fully and completely determined by the fact that I am the kind of person who always does X. But a libertarian can still maintain that this is a free action for which I am entirely responsible if I was responsible for the development of an X kind of character. In other words, as long as I am ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions that led to the development of my character, I am fully and freely responsible from the actions that flow from that character, even if the specific actions that resulted were themselves fully determined. (For a good introduction to this understanding of free will see Robert Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will).

So, if you want to be a compatibilist, fine. But be careful about throwing “logical contradiction” around too quickly. (And, by the way, the same holds for many libertarian criticisms of compatibilism).