Thursday, July 24, 2008

Calvinists and secular compatibilists

I would like to perform a thought experiment. Secular compatibilist and compatibilists agree that freedom and responsibility are compatible with determinism. Frequently we see Calvinists making use of compatibilist arguments, such as Frankfurt's.

Calvinists maintain the following:

1) God's decrees set in motion causal chains that guarantee the occurrence of all that happens in the world.

2) Persons are morally responsible for those actions, even though they are the inevitable result of a divine decree.

3) These actions deserve retributive punishment, which in those who do not receive the saving grace of Christ, is meted out to sinners in hell.

4) God is not blameworthy for decreeing those actions that He himself judges as evil. (It is either good because God decreed it, or it is good because of an unknown and unknowable reason God might have had).

Calvinists: If this is in any way a straw man, please amend these statements so as to more accurately reflect your own position. Getting an accurate fix on your position aids the legitimacy of the thought experiment.

Now I am wondering what secular compatibilists think of all of this.
Obviously, a secular compatiblist is going to object to the theism that is part of Calvinism. But what else? Offhand, without denying compatibilism from a natuaralistic perspective, a secular compatibilist might object to the following:

1) She could say that while natural determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, control by an agent is not, especially an omnipotent one. The problem would then be to account in some principed way for the difference in the way these two cases are adjudicated.

2) She could argue that the attribution of moral responsibility should never be retributive. If that is the case, then the kind of responsiblity-attribution they are engaged in is markedly different from that of the Calvinist, and perhaps different standards apply. If I am asking "Who is responsible" because I want to know whose behavior I need to modify, as opposed to who deserves punishment, this is a very different enterprise, and one that is actually easier to reconcile with determinism.

3) She could argue that there is no "conservation of responsibility," that just because O. J. Simpson is responsible for committing two murders (assuming the prosecution was right) does not mean that an "accessory before the foundation of the world (not just before the fact)" is not also responsible.


Johnny-Dee said...

I pointed out this sort of inconsistency in Antony Flew's earlier work in my first paper accepted for publication. Many atheists (like Flew's earlier work) reject Christianity because they find the implicit compatibilism in Calvin and Luther objectionable (plus they assume all Christians must be like Calvin and Luther). But, then, they go on to espouse a compatibilist account of freedom that has the laws of physics and matter essentially doing what God was doing on the Calvinist version of Christianity. I'm an incompatibilist, so I share some of the criticisms raised against certain forms of Calvinism. All I ask is that the critic remain consistent: don't use incompatibilist intuitions to unseat one view and then forget those intuitions when you replace it with another compatibilist account.

Anonymous said...

“Secular compatibilist and compatibilists agree that freedom and responsibility are compatible with determinism.”

This isn’t quite accurate. A compatibilist would agree that the ability to make a choice, to exercise her will, is compatible with determinism. You are muddying the waters here by tossing in moral responsibility.
Moral responsibility is not the equivalent of the ability to make a choice.

Clayton Littlejohn said...


You don't say which paper you're referring to, but on its face I don't see the inconsistency. Can't the compatibilist say that a human subject is responsible for sin _and_ say that God would be morally responsible for setting up the universe in such a way as to ensure that the sin was committed? I don't think moral responsibility sums to one, as it were, so the compatibilist can say that the difference between a godless universe and the universe according to Calvin is that in the godless universe there is no supernatural agent complicit in the commission of wrongdoing.

Anyway, I know not every compatibilist will pursue this line, but it is a line for the compatibilist to take if they want to show that Calvin is in trouble even if they believe that we're responsible for our deeds.

Johnny-Dee said...

Clayton, I don't have any important disagreement with your comment. Let me make my point a little more clearly. Some atheists (like Flew's writings prior to 2000) find Calvinism unobjectionable because it would make it impossible for anyone to have the ability to act otherwise due to the predetermined will of God. This is all well and good on its own, but then Flew maintains a compatibilist account of freedom where people do not have the ability to act otherwise due to predetermined causes of matter and laws of physics. If one thinks the ability to act otherwise is important to freedom/moral responsibility, then it should be applied consistently.

I think Clayton is probably right to say that not all criticisms of Calvinism that are based on problems with freedom/responsibility will similarly cut against all forms of compatibilism. I would like to see what a Calvinist thinks of all this.

Anonymous said...


"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

Notice that, whatever else the decrees of God do, they don't do violence to the will of creatures, and they don't establish a kind of general determinism. The decrees actually establish the contingency of secondary causes.

So there is a big difference between the general determinism of secular compatiblism and the divine determinism of the Reformed branch of the Augustinian tradition.

The Reformed, if they confess the WCF, ought not believe in determinism in terms of natural (secondary) causes. They really are contingent (at least some of them).

The Reformed are not compitiblists, if by compatiblitism we mean that free will is compatible with natural determinism. For the Reformed do not (or at least are not confessional bound to) believe in natural determinism.

The Family said...

So, a Calvinist would say that God decreed (predetermined) free will then (giggle)?

Anonymous said...

Exactly. That's the position of Reformed orthodoxy as I understand it. It is right there in the WCF.

Anonymous said...

Was Frodo free to refuse to take the ring? Sure. But Tolkein wrote him as taking it.

Still, Tolkein wrote him as taking it freely. In the world of Middle-earth Frodo is the hero, not Tolkein. And neither is Tokein to blame for the evils visited upon Middle-earth.

This is all analogous to God's decrees and the unfolding of history.

Here we are entering into a high and holy mystery that transcends our understanding.

This can either inspire giggles or worship. Take your pick.

Ilíon said...

VR: "... 1) She could say that ..."


You're speaking English, are you not?

When one is speaking English and wishes to use a personal pronoun to refer to some generic person, the *only* correct pronoun to be used is "he."

Please, leave this "she" BS to the leftists and other moonbats.

Doctor Logic said...

I agree with anonymous. Moral responsibility is not the equivalent of the ability to make a choice. Secular compatibilists are saying that real choices get made because choices are objective and well-defined.

I would say that an individual can assign a subjective moral grade to an action (past or planned) based on how that individual feels (desires/preferences) about the outcome of the action.

Moral responsibility is a human invention. Suppose an undesirable event occurs. We prefer the event had not occurred and that similar events be avoided in the future. We look at what actions by agents would have avoided the event, and assign moral responsibility to those agents who had the available knowledge and power to avoid the event.

Beyond this, I agree with your (2) and (3). The point is not retribution. The point is to get to the most desired possible future. Unfortunately, desire for retribution is built-in to our DNA, and neglecting retribution is would itself result in adverse consequences (e.g., vigilantism).

Anonymous said...

Do free-will libertarians hold that given a range of actions it is in the power of a person to perform at t, for every action A that is actually performed there exist possible worlds which are exactly like the actual world but where the person does something other than A at t, such that the number of these worlds is equal to the number of actions in the range?

If so, then how can God foresee the future, when He does not know which possible world will become actual at t?

Victor Reppert said...

Now there's a question for you. The whole debate surrounding open theism concerns just this issue.

Ilíon said...

VR: "Now there's a question for you. The whole debate surrounding open theism concerns just this issue."

I'd say that the only reason Open Theism even exists is because -- whether intentionally or not (*) -- the Open Theists have a faulty conception of God (**) (and seem as remarkably immune to correction as the typical 'atheist' generally is (*) ).

(*) The Open Theist seems always to be saying, in effect: "*I* don't have those characteristics (i.e. certain historical-orthodox beliefs about God's nature), and I *can't imagine* what it would be like to possess such a nature -- therefore, that's not what God is like!"

(**) God is so different from us that naturally none of us really begin to understand him. (Of course, we also don't really/fully understand or own selves, much less our fellows).

Nevertheless, there are many things we can know about him ... because certain ideas about whatever one wants to call 'God' either are or are not logically attributable to and logically consistent with conceptions of the God-Who-Exists and the God-Who-Creates.

Personally, I can't see where the God-of-the-Open-Theists is anything more "advanced" than Zeus.

People can understand Zeus (since he's a SmallGod, made by us and made in our image), and so it's always a temptation to give up on wrestling with the robust orthodox conception of God.