What to do when skeptics attack libertarian free will—become a Calvinist

By way of backstory…

This is a continuation of the discussion started with Stuart in his article ‘Openness Theology (Part 2)’. I realize it’ll go over the heads of some, and I apologize for that—but I think these issues are interesting and important enough to warrant bringing them to the front page. Interesting because, for more philosophically-inclined Christians, they raise questions about our own natures and our relationship to God; important because the answers to these questions have a lot of ramifications for not just our theology, but also our apologetics.

For example, a fairly standard line of attack for skeptics is to draw out the inconsistencies between holding to both God’s definite foreknowledge (DFK) and libertarian free will—which many Christians do. As a skeptic of LFW, though a believer in DFK, I took this line of attack in the comments thread of Stuart’s article:

P = “God knows that an agent S will choose A rather than ¬A”
Q = “S will choose A rather than ¬A”
[A] = the principle of accidental necessity (PAN)
[L] = the principle of logical necessity

  1. [A]P
  2. [L](P → Q)
  3. [A]Q

This precludes the possibility of S’s choosing ¬A. Since LFW typically relies on the principle of alternative possibility (PAP), this argument suffices to disprove the standard libertarian view.

Stuart, however, resolves the difficulty by rejecting the principle of alternate possibility while still holding to libertarian freedom: namely, that our choices are causally unrestrained. To justify rejecting PAP, he cites a hypothetical scenario where it seems that PAP is false, but agent S still has free will. This kind of scenario was first proposed by a philosopher named Harry Frankfurt, and is so called a Frankfurt Counterexample.

At this point, I’m gonna start talking to Stuart directly:

Continuing the discussion…

Stu: I think it’s interesting that you object to PAP using a Frankfurt Counterexample. Frankfurt being a compatibilist and all (: But I take it you’re adopting the Molinist position, ala William Lane Craig.

I think that’s problematic, because ultimately it collapses into a pure Reformed theology. PAP is necessary to liberterian free will (LFW), because without it there’s no obvious distinction between incompatibilism and compatibilism; and without that, there’s no reason to believe in LFW and be a Molinist!

For example, imagine a choice between A and ¬A, where God foreknows the outcome A. Compatibilists, who hold to theological determinism, believe something like the following:

  1. Principle of Volition (PV): Agent S can consciously contemplate A or ¬A and choose one
  2. Principle of Accidental Necessity (PAN): S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary
  3. Principle of Compatibilistic Free Will (CFW): S freely chooses A

But what’s the difference between these beliefs, taken together, and what a libertarian would believe sans PAP? Perhaps you’d say (2) is incomplete, and that completing it creates the relevant distinction:

2C: S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary AND causally restrained
2L: S cannot choose ¬A because his choice of A is accidentally necessary though NOT causally restrained

But the difference being suggested here only gains its force by trading on an equivocation in the concept of causality. (2L) cannot be true as a blanket statement under traditional Christianity. And (2C) need not be true, depending on what kind of causation you have in view.

If any kind of causation is in view, then presumably the libertarian and the compatibilist would both agree that (2C) must be true, and together reject (2L)—because the mechanics of God’s creative act necessitate at least three causal restraints on contingent choices:

CR1. Prior to creation, God surveyed all possible worlds and chose to create this one (call it W1)
CR2. God initially instantiated W1 in reality by speaking it into being
CR3. God continually upholds the instantiation of W1 in reality moment to moment

Any Christian must believe all three of these propositions, and all three of them constitute causal restraints on our choices.

A bit of explanation re these three causal restraints Christianity implies

Statement (CR1) entails a causal restraint on our choices, because God’s ability to know true facts about choices in worlds which have not been instantiated logically entails that his knowledge is not grounded on any choices’ actually obtaining. But if his knowledge is not grounded on the choices’ obtaining, yet he still has definite foreknowledge of their outcomes, it follows they must be causally determined. Were they not—were they indeterminate—then by definition he could not know their outcomes.

Statement (CR2) entails a causal restraint on human choices, since S’s choice of A is conditioned on God’s instantiation of W1. Indeed, every choice made in W1 occurs inevitably as God determined when he chose to instantiate W1.

Statement (CR3) entails a causal restraint on human choices, because we know that God alone instantiates things in reality. This instantiative power is a kind of causation, though not a natural causation (aka secondary causation). It’s an existential or primary causation. By definition, only God has this power; it’s sui generis, and a non-communicable attribute. Were God not exercising this power continually, the universe would simply fail to exist. Thus we know that whenever something is real, God alone instantiates it in reality; and since S’s choice to A is real, God alone therefore instantiates it in reality. It’s arguable whether this is merely a restatement of (CR2) or not; I don’t have a considered opinion on that.

The upshot (which is threefold):

Firstly, we must be careful when, in (2C) and (2L) above, we talk about S’s choice being “causally restrained”. Do we mean that it’s restrained in a natural sense, in an existential sense, or both? Any Christian must, of necessity, acknowledge that our choices are existentially causally restrained. But then there is no disagreement between the libertarian and the compatibilist, and their views appear to be the same. On the other hand, if we’re only talking about natural causal restraint, the compatibilist need not (to my knowledge) affirm that our choices are restrained at all; ie, he may agree with the libertarian that the only causally relevant factor in S’s choice is the action of S’s own will.

Secondly, because libertarianism without PAP implies a closed future, and acknowledges God’s definite foreknowledge even of non-instantiated worlds, it therefore necessarily entails theistic determinism:

TD. Theistic determinism is true if, and only if, for an agent (S) choosing whether A, the outcome A or ¬A is actualized inevitably because of a prior action on the part of God.

Thirdly, libertarianism with PAP necessarily entails the opposite: ie, it implies an open future, which in turn requires a denial of God’s definite foreknowledge, since there is literally nothing for him to know about human choices logically prior to their obtaining.

Make a choice: Calvinism or Open Theism

This is why an Arminian theology will either collapse into a Reformed theology or an Open theology when you push its premises to be consistent with one another. Once you’ve discarded PAP you’re most of the way there, since you’re essentially adopting a compatibilist view already—making theological determinism a lot easier to swallow.

On the other hand, if your intuitions were to refuse to let you discard PAP—as I’ve seen be the case for many Arminians, despite the PAP counterexample God conveniently provided for us right in the Bible itself (Exodus 7ff)—then if you want to align all your beliefs to be consistent you have to let go of God’s definite foreknowledge.

I look forward to your thoughts (:

1 reply
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    If I pick up a library book and read about all those wonderful people who lived and died throughout history I am reading about all the free choices they made during that time, and I am not affecting those choices at all.

    If God, being extra-temporal, can do the same, that is view our choices without directly influencing them, then theological determinism becomes unnecessary.

    The most you might say is that (if indeed he did) God did view every possible world then this is the world in which our free choices match his history book.

    To be honest I think the biggest problem with Calvinism is that it applies a linear concept of time to God.

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