Excusing Sinners, Blaming God, Compatibilism, & the Consequence Argument

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

January 22, 2018

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the former atheist and French Calvinistic philosopher named, Guillaume Bignon (Click here to read his amazing story). I attended the EPS/ETS conference in Rhode Island and was invited to lunch with a few philosophers, theologians, and apologists. I happened to sit right next to Bignon as I was sipping my warm soup on a cold Northeastern day.

One professor sitting on the other side of the table encouraged me to continue my work at FreeThinking Ministries and made a loud declaration: “DETERMINISM MUST DIE!”

The evangelical scholars sitting around the table all applauded until I looked to my right and saw Bignon shaking his head — seemingly in disagreement. Then he stated (in a cool French accent) “I am a determinist!”

The professor responded: “Okay, determinism doesn’t have to die, it just needs to get really sick!”

We all laughed and Bignon’s friends encouraged me to “set him straight.” This led to a short conversation regarding his views. He informed me that he was a Calvinist and a compatibilist. I offered several objections and specifically asked him how he would respond to Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument. He responded that I was simply going to have to wait to find out by reading his book:  Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil.  I responded that I would immediately preorder his book, read it as soon as it got to my front porch, and write a response. In the meantime he jokingly declared that he and I would continue to be “friendly enemies!”

Friendly Fire

Well, I have read my “friendly enemy’s” interaction with the Consequence Argument. To put it bluntly, I am unimpressed. This is because Bignon affirms exhaustive divine determinism (EDD), and I am convinced that rationality (let alone knowledge) does not exist if all thoughts and beleifs are ultimately causally determined by something external to the person possessing the thoughts and beliefs. In fact, I have argued that a determinist cannot possess knowledge that determinism is true (even if determinism is true)! If that is the case, then all that remains for the determinist are question-begging assumptions.

Bignon, however, begins Chapter 5 asserting that libertarians beg the question. He declares:

“It is not uncommon for libertarian objectors to Calvinism to assume the truth of incompatibilism . . .” (60)

Perhaps it is not “uncommon” for some libertarians to assume the truth of incompatibilsim, but it does not necessarily follow that all libertarians assume this much. Indeed, I have spent the majority of the past five years deductively ARGUING (as opposed to “assuming”) that humans (at least occasionally) possess soft libertarian free will and that God does not exhaustively causally determine ALL things (See The Freethinking Argument and The Omni Argument. Both of these arguments can be found in my essay entitled The Apologetic Significance of Molinism). I will address the significance of these deductive conclusions below.

On page 61 Bignon quotes Randall Basinger:

“The Calvinist must . . . explain . . . how a God who decreed what each person will do can hold them accountable for what they in fact do.” (Exhaustive Divine Sovereignty, 191)

I agree, but Molinists must explain it too since we affirm the exact same proposition. You will notice that the above quote says nothing about “determinism.” Thus, the Calvinist assumes that the means by which God predestines all that He has decreed is via causal determinism. The Molinist, as I have previously argued, explains the “how” by appealing to God’s omni attributes. Namely, the omniscience and omnipotence of God.

Given the fact that Calvinists typically appeal to exhaustive divine determinism (as does Bignon), he points out the following:

“They [Calvinists] respond with embarrassment, start confessing their rational limitations, argue for mystery in the face of the unknown, and some get dangerously close to admitting irrationality.” (61)

I have argued that deterministic views, like Bignon’s, logically entail irrationality even if a Calvinist will not admit it (I will clarify below). Bignon offers examples of several honest Calvinists who affirm their own view is nonsensical. Here is one example on page 61:

“Calvinist Edwin Palmer unduly shoots himself in the foot: ‘the Calvinist freely admits that his position is illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish.” (Palmer, Five Points, 104)

To Bignon’s credit (and this is why I love the guy!) he responds to these “incoherence-affirming Calvinists” with force:

“We can appreciate a refreshing Calvinist epistemic humility, but let us not confuse ourselves about the ‘logical problems posed” . . . Calvinists must take a deep breath, relax, and deal with the arguments.”(61)

This is fantastic advice!

With his advice in mind, I offer the following challenge to my friendly enemy: If his arguments are defeated (logically) and my arguments are left standing, he ought to drop his Calvinism for Molinism.

Bignon exclaims:

“The burden of proof is still firmly on the shoulders of the incompatibilist, and we are still looking for an argument to support the incompatibilist thesis.” (62)

It is too bad that Bignon did not conduct a Google search or talk to our mutual friends (which we share many) who are aware of the arguments I have advanced supporting the “incompatibilist thesis.” These arguments are offered in abundance on FreeThinkingMinistries.com. To be fair, although two of these arguments are being published in theological journals later this year, he did not have access to these arguments in published literature before writing his book. As noted above, I will address these arguments soon, but since they do exist, Bignon must account for them and interact with them before jumping to conclusions. That is to say, the “burden of proof” has been shifted to his shoulders.

The Consequence Argument

Begin by considering Peter van Inwagen’s (PvI) Consequence Argument (CA). This informal version of the CA argues against naturalistic determinism, but one can simply replace the “laws of nature” with “God” and “His will” when dealing with a Calvinistic view of determinism:

“If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.” (Van Inwagen, Essay, 16)

The CA assumes two “rules” that require further examination:

Rule AlphaThere is nothing anyone can do to change what must be the case (or what is necessarily so).

Rule BetaIf there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and nothing anyone can do to change the fact that Y is a necessary consequence of X, then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y either.

This rule seems to be explicitly obvious because if an event necessarily occurs from a necessary entity, then the event itself is necessary and we are powerless to stop its occurrence. This has been called the “Transfer of Powerlessness Principle,” and as Robert Kane says:

“our powerlessness to change X ‘transfers’ to anything that necessarily follows from X.”

The CA suggests that if determinism is true, then humans are powerless or not responsible — in an “up to us” sense — for our actions because there is no libertarian free will (LFW) regarding an ability to think or act otherwise. I think PvI is exactly right, but Bignon claims that PvI misses the mark in a certain sense:

“Traditionally, and in the present work, incompatibilism has been defined as the thesis that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility. Instead, van Inwagen’s argument aims to establish the thesis that determinism is incompatible with “free will.” (62-63)

Although I take it to mean that if x is not ultimately “up to us” then we are not responsible (morally responsible or otherwise) for x, Bignon suggests otherwise. He states that since PvI’s argument is not specifically dealing with “moral responsibility,” but rather focused on LFW, then his understanding that determinism is true and that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism is left unscathed. With that in mind, and to his credit, Bignon actually affirms the Consequence Argument as PvI states it!

Bignon makes it clear:

“I happily concede, namely that libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism, but falls short of refuting compatibilism.” (63)

This claim is quite significant. In fact, I believe it is a game-changer! Since Bignon affirms that determinism and libertarian free will are logically incompatible and mutually exclusive concepts, then it follows that if one of these concepts is true, then the other is necessarily false. Since Bignon affirms compatibilism, he also affirms that divine determinism is true and that nothing is un-determined by God and yet — somehow — we are still responsible.

Be that as it may, since his view of compatibilism entails determinism, and since determinism is logically incompatible with libertarian free will (which Bignon affirms), now, all one must do is provide just one argument deductively concluding that humans possess (at least soft) libertarian free will or that God does not always causally determine all things about humanity. If just one argument passes, then determinism — and thus compatiblism — must be false.

Those of us at FreeThinking Ministries have previously offered several arguments deductively concluding that exact thing. If these arguments pass (just one is needed), then compatibilism must be false and any Christian committed to truth and logic must reject Calvinistic compatibilism.

With that in mind, consider both The Omni Argument and a short version of the Freethinking Argument. Let us begin with the latter: 

The Freethinking Argument 

Typically, this argument is offered in an 8-step syllogism which not only deductively concludes that humans possess LFW, but it also shows that the immaterial aspect of humanity (a soul) exists and that the worldview of naturalism is false. However, with the specific topic of Bignon’s book in mind, we will only focus on the core of the argument. We can state it as follows:

1- If humans do not possess libertarian free will, then humans do not possess the ability to gain knowledge via the process of rationality.

2- Humans do possess the ability to gain knowledge via the process of rationality.

Therefore

3- Humans possess libertarian free will.

I have argued for and defended several versions of the Freethinking Argument at length (See The Freethinking Argument in a NutshellA Revised Freethinking ArgumentI Think Therefore, I AM, and The Vanishing “I”). However, if one does not want to take my word for it consider the case offered by other respected thinkers. The eminent philosopher of mind, John Searle sums it up perfectly:

“Actions are rationally assessable if and only if the actions are free. The reason for the connection is this: rationality must be able to make a difference. Rationality is possible only where there is a genuine choice between various rational and irrational courses of action . . . If the act is completely determined then rationality can make no difference. It doesn’t even come into play…” (Rationality in Action:2001:202)

Greg Koukl (a Calvinist) agrees:

“The problem with [determinism] is that without freedom, rationality would have no room to operate. Arguments would not matter, since no one would be able to base beliefs on adequate reasons. One could never judge between a good idea and a bad one. One would only hold beliefs because he had been predetermined to do so. . . . Although it is theoretically possible that determinism is true — there is no internal contradiction, as far as I can tell — no one could ever know it if it were. Every one of our thoughts, dispositions, and opinions would have been decided for us by factors completely out of our control. Therefore, in practice, arguments for determinism are self-defeating.” (Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions; 2009;128-29)

And William Lane Craig argues,

“There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.”

The salient point is this: If Bignon affirms that he has, in fact, rationally inferred that Calvinistic determinism is true, then Calvinistic determinism must be false! As his fellow Calvinist, Greg Koukl pointed out above, his deterministic view is self-refuting. Arguing for “moral responsibility” is one thing, but if Bignon does not possess the libertarian freedom to think (because something other than Bignon ultimately causally determines all of his thoughts and beliefs) then Bignon is not responsible for his thoughts or beliefs (including his belief that Molinism is false). If this is the case, “rational responsibility” is illusory!

So, if Bignon affirms that he can freely think and that all of his thoughts are not causally determined by God (or anything else), then libertarian free thinking exists. If libertarian free thinking exists, then exhaustive divine determinism is false. If exhaustive divine determinism is false, then (as Bignon affirms), compatibilism is false.

But wait, there is more! Although Bignon makes it clear in his book that he is not interested in dealing with “soteriological Calvinism,” we can focus on this issue to ultimately demonstrate that deterministic Calvinism is false. Consider the following argument:

The Omni Argument 

1. If irresistible grace (the “I” of T.U.L.I.P.) is true, then for any person x, if God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell, then x will go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell.
2. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then for any person x, God desires to, has the power to, and knows how to cause x to go to Heaven and not suffer eternally in Hell.
3. There is at least one person who will not go to Heaven and suffers eternally in Hell.
4. Therefore, one cannot affirm both (i) that irresistible grace is true and (ii) that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient (a maximally great being).
5. God is a maximally great being.
6. Therefore, irresistible grace is false.
7. Therefore, divine determinism is false (God does not causally determine all things).
8. God is completely sovereign and does predestine all things (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5,11).
9. Therefore, predestination and determinism are not to be conflated.
10. The best explanation of the data is Molinism.

Both the Freethinking Argument and the Omni Argument demonstrate that libertarian freedom is possessed by humans and that God does not determine all things about humanity.

The Final Argument

With these arguments in mind, and the fact that Bignon has affirmed that determinism is not compatible with LFW, and compatibilism entails determinism, consider one more syllogism:

1- If Compatibilism is true, then determinism is true.

2- If determinism is true, then LFW is false.

Therefore

3- If LFW is true, then compatibilism is false.

4- LFW is true (as demonstrated above).

Therefore

5- Compatibilism is false.

By Bignon’s own admission, libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism. Also, his view of compatibilism entails that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Although I disagree, the salient point here is that Bignon affirms that determinism is true! With this in mind, all one must do is provide an argument concluding that libertarian free will exists or that God does not causally determine all things all the time. I have offered two arguments which seem to succeed in accomplishing this task. Therefore, Bignon (and all rational Christians) should freely choose to reject this Calvinistic view of compatibilism.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim was recently accepted at North West University to pursue his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics.

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