An Argument Supporting the Incompatibility Thesis

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

November 29, 2021

The majority of my time seems to be spent arguing against deterministic world views and for the proposition that humans possess libertarian freedom. I then seek to demonstrate how human freedom in a libertarian sense is evidence pointing to the existence of God. In fact, I contend that the biblical view of God is the best explanation of this seemingly supernatural phenomena! Often, however, after I have made a case concluding, “Therefore, humans possess libertarian freedom,” objectors (usually either atheists or Calvinists) exclaim something along these lines: “But the thesis of compatibilism!” 

The previous paragraph demands definitions.

Determinism: the idea that a specific event is necessitated by previous events and/or antecedent conditions.

Exhaustive Naturalistic Determinism (END): The idea that every event (physical or mental) is causally determined by a prior or external physical/natural state of affairs. Accordingly, the laws and events of nature causally determine all things about humanity, which would include all thoughts, beliefs, actions, behaviors, evaluations, and judgments (this view is often advanced by atheists).

Exhaustive Divine Determinism (EDD): the idea that God causally determines everything outside Himself or all contingent things. Accordingly, God causally determines all things about humanity which would include all thoughts, beliefs, actions, behaviors, evaluations, and judgments (this view is often advanced by Calvinists).

Libertarian Freedom: (1) Referring to an agent’s choice, action, evaluation, or judgment that is not causally determined by something or someone else.[1] (2) The opportunity to exercise an ability to choose among a range of options, each of which is compatible with one’s nature in a circumstance where the antecedent (previous) conditions are insufficient to causally determine or necessitate the agent’s choice (this view is typically advanced by Molinists, Arminians, and Open Theists).

Compatibilism: the thesis that free will and/or moral (and rational) responsibility is compatible with determinism.[2

Incompatibilism: The thesis that freedom and/or moral (and rational) responsibility (in a desert sense) is not compatible with determinism.[3

Guillaume Bignon, in my opinion, is one of the leading Christian philosophers today arguing not only for the thesis of compatibilism, but also arguing that EDD is, in fact, true and that humans never possess libertarian freedom.[4] In his book Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, he correctly notes, “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.”[5

I attempted to respond to Bignon’s challenge in Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism and provided several arguments against exhaustive determinism on the one hand and offered other syllogisms supporting libertarian freedom on the other. My aim was not merely to argue against the mere thesis of compatibilism, but to demonstrate that this thesis does not actually correspond to reality, and thus, compatibilism does not always describe the way things are. That is to say, the proposition consisting of the conjunction of both (i) “everything about humanity is always causally determined by something or someone else” and (ii) “humanity is still responsible in a desert sense” is false.

Notice the vital difference between the mere thesis of compatibilism and the claim that the thesis actually describes reality.[6] To miss this vital distinction is sure to lead to multiple mistakes on the part of those who seek to oppose my arguments. To reiterate, I did not seek to argue against the coherence of the thesis, but rather, I specifically argued that the thesis of compatibilism does not always correspond to the way things are.[7]

This article, however, will go further and specifically argue against the coherence of the thesis that moral responsibility (in a desert sense) is compatible with exhaustive determinism. Although this syllogism can be “tweaked” to argue against exhaustive naturalistic determinism (END), I will focus on arguing against exhaustive divine determinism (EDD). The view that God causally determines all things about humanity all the time. 

Let’s begin with a simple three-step syllogism. For any person x: 

1- If x is not rationally responsible, then x is not morally responsible. 

2- If EDD is true, x is not rationally responsible.

3- Therefore, if EDD is true, x is not morally responsible. 

This is a valid argument supporting the incompatibility thesis. So, if this argument is sound (we have reason to accept the two premises), then we have good reason to reject the thesis of compatibilism and state that moral responsibility is not compatible with exhaustive determinism. 

Defending Premise (1)

If x is not rationally responsible, then x is not morally responsible. 

The first premise is intuitively obvious. Indeed, even Carolina Sartorio — one of the leading compatibilists in the world today — affirms this much:

“some minimal degree of of rationality, is arguably required for moral responsibility . . .” [8]

If the actions of your body spring forth from the thoughts in your head, and someone else is controlling (causally determining) all of the thoughts in your head, then someone else is to be blamed for the actions that resulted from “your” thoughts (note the scare quotes). The “minimal degree” of rationality one needs is not to have all of one’s thoughts, evaluations, judgments, and beliefs causally determined by a non-rational something or an untrustworthy someone else. After all, if something or someone else causally determines exactly how one thinks, then one does not possess the opportunity and power to think — or act — differently. 

Determinists often appeal to something called “guidance control” in an attempt to maintain desert responsibility. The determinist assumes that he has the power to “guide” thoughts (guidance control) even if he had no ability to actually pull the otherwise off (which would require “regulative control”).[9] Be that as it may, if exhaustive determinism is true, then this means that the way one supposedly “guides” thoughts and actions is also causally determined by things other than the agent in question. After all, if how one guides is ultimately under the control of something or someone else, then one does not seem to have the control condition required for moral and rational responsibility.

That “control condition” is in the hands of something or someone else. 

Additionally, theologians, pastors, and Sunday school teachers talk about the “age of accountability.” This refers to the idea that God would not hold a baby or a toddler morally responsible or accountable (in a desert sense) for being born into sin. Why is this the case? Because if the toddler is not rationally responsible, then the toddler simply cannot logically connect the dots to grasp why the toddler ought not be selfish (for example).

Our justice system also recognizes this fact about reality. If one commits a crime, but it can be demonstrated that the defendant was clinically insane, then the defendant is not punished, but rather, institutionalized so he or she can get professional and medical treatment. The defendant who pleads insanity — and has been demonstrated to be insane — has been shown to be not rationally responsible for his actions. Thus, the defendant has been found to be not morally responsible (in a desert sense) for his actions.  

David Baggett is widely recognized as the leading philosopher specializing in all things related to the Moral Argument. Baggett has emphasized my point with force:

“Among the moral phenomena in need of rich explanation is moral freedom, without which it would seem we cannot rightly be held deeply responsible for our actions—either accolades for doing well or blameworthiness for shirking our duties. Speaking as an advocate of the moral argument(s) for God, I applaud my friend Tim Stratton’s clear-headed and rigorous defense of the sort of robust libertarian freedom without which morality and many of its salient categories lose much of their distinctive import, prescriptive clout, and binding authority.”[10

Defending Premise (2)

If EDD is true, x is not rationally responsible.

The first premise seems obvious, but why think the second premise is true? There are multiple arguments available to defend this step of the syllogism, but for the sake of time and space I will offer the RAADD:

Rationality Argument Against Divine Determinism

1. If God causally determines Jack to affirm a false belief about X (in the actual world), then Jack does not possess the opportunity to exercise an ability to infer a better or true belief about X (in the actual world).

2. If EDD is true, then God causally determines all humans (including Jack) to affirm false theological beliefs (no one’s theology is infallible).[11

3. If God causally determines all humans to affirm some false theological beliefs, then Jack stands in no epistemic position to know which of his theological affirmations are true and which of his theological affirmations are false.[12

4. If Jack does not stand in a position to rationally affirm his theological beliefs, then Jack possesses a defeater against (a reason to doubt) his theological beliefs.

5. If Jack possesses reason to doubt his theological beliefs, then Jack cannot rationally affirm his theological beliefs (this would include the affirmations that God causally determines all things and that humans do not possess libertarian freedom to think).

6. Therefore, if EDD is true, Jack cannot rationally affirm his theological beliefs (this includes the affirmations that God causally determines all things and that humans do not possess libertarian freedom to think).

This argument, if sound (which I believe it is), shows that if EDD is true, then humans do not possess the power or opportunity to exercise an ability to rationally infer better or true beliefs when we affirm false beliefs. This seems absurd! Moreover, if that is the case, then humanity cannot rationally affirm theological claims of knowledge. Inferring better and best beliefs (over false ones) and rationally affirming claims of knowledge seem to be vital attributes of a rationally responsible person. This active use of reason is illusory if EDD is true, and thus, if EDD is true then humanity is not rationally responsible for anything we passively think and are ultimately causally determined to believe. 

The Deductive Conclusion

Since both premises have been supported and seem to be true, the conclusion logically follows:

If EDD is true, x is not morally responsible.

So, despite what compatibilists assert, we see that the thesis of compatibilism has fallen on hard times. Not only do we have reason to believe that humans possess the libertarian freedom to think, and therefore exhaustive determinism is false (the “thesis of compatibilism” does not actually describe reality), even if determinism were true, neither rational responsibility or moral responsibility (in a desert sense) would be compatible with determinism. 

I recommend a better option: Mere Molinism

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


Notes

[1] This can also be stated in the following manner: “Libertarian freedom is the ability to choose such that antecedent conditions are insufficient to causally determine one’s choice.” This definition of libertarian freedom holds whether or not there are alternative possibilities.” 

[2] In Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge and Mere Molinism, I do not simply argue against the mere thesis of compatibilism. Rather, I aim to show that even if the thesis happens to be coherent, the idea expressed in this thesis does not actually describe reality. 

[3] Responsible in a desert sense, which is about one’s deserving of praise or blame for performing (or not performing) some thought, judgment, or action. Derk Pereboom is a well-known example of an incompatibilist. 

[4] I must add an important footnote regarding Guillaume Bignon. I believe I was too “aggressive” in our earlier exchanges. I also admit that I was not as clear as I could have been in some of our interactions. For these mistakes I sincerely apologize! Bignon is a brilliant and scary smart philosopher, a man after God’s own heart, and a brother in Christ whom I highly respect (I also cannot wait to read his forthcoming book about his amazing testimony). I spend so much time interacting with Bignon’s  work, not because I don’t respect him, but because I do respect him and his work immensely! 

I really enjoyed spending a little bit of time talking to Bignon recently at the EPS in Fort Worth, TX. At one point, after David Wood’s prompting, we stood up in front of many of our mutual friends and I exclaimed that we had “buried the hatchet.” Bignon responded by saying “There is no hatchet!” Amen to that! 

While attending the EPS together I was throughly impressed with Bignon’s ability to defend views he does not personally affirm. Since the two of us care about many of the same issues, we both attended the readings of many of the same papers. On one occasion an author intended to argue against libertarianism. Bignon responded from the crowd and said, “Although I am no libertarian, your argument does not follow” (or something along those lines). Bottom line: I am attempting to interact with Bignon’s work, not as his enemy, but as his friend and brother in Christ who respects him and looks up to him. 

[5] Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God, 62.

[6] I do believe that there are some kinds of freedoms worth wanting that are compatible with determinism (in that sense I am a compatibilist). However, there is at least one kind of freedom that is also worth wanting that is not compatible with determinism (in that sense I am an incompatibilist). I contend that at least one of these important freedoms is related to the opportunity to exercise an ability to take thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5) before bad thinking takes you captive (Col 2:8) and to infer better and true beliefs over false beliefs. 

[7] I understand this is confusing (but it makes sense in my head). I have argued that freedom might be compatible with determinism (if, for example, “freedom” is defined as the “ability to choose one’s greatest desire at a certain moment”), but that desert responsibility is not compatible with determinism. I could be called a compatibilist with this definition of “freedom” in mind, but I am an ardent incompatibilist with desert responsibility in mind. 

[8] Robert Kane and Carolina Sartorio, Do We Have Free Will? A Debate (2022)

[9] John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza discuss guidance control and regulative control in their book Responsibility and ControlFischer has also argued that as long as one is “responsive to reasons” it does not matter if he is causally determined or not. The problem, as I see it, is that if exhaustive determinism is true, then the manner in which (the “how”) one responds to reasons is also causally determined by something or someone else. One can be determined to reason poorly and determined to respond to reasons incorrectly. This view seems to run into problems with the RAADD argument offered above. 

[10] Baggett offered this endorsement on the back cover of the forthcoming Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism Study Guide (published by Wipf and Stock).

[11] A deity who causally determines all people — including all Christians — to affirm false theological beliefs does not seem to be a maximally great being.

[12] One prominent “internet EDD-Calvinist” attempted to refute the third premise by stating: “But I have internal awareness and can think of and about competing beliefs.” This is irrelevant and misses the point. If a deity of deception causally determines all people — including EDD-Calvinists — to affirm false beliefs, then EDD-Calvinists stand in no position to internally evaluate which of their beliefs are true and which of them are not. After all, their internal evaluative process analyzing their beliefs would ALSO be causally determined by the same deity of deception that causally determined their false beliefs in the first place. There is simply no escape if EDD is true. Remember, the “E” of EDD stands for “exhaustive.” That means everything — including one’s internal thoughts. 

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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