In this series, I consider the competing doctrines of libertarian and compatibilist free will, arguing that the former is unbiblical and incoherent, and that the latter is necessary for upholding God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
This is part 2 of 6, in which I compare determinism and indeterminism to clarify their differences.
Before evaluating how free will relates to moral responsibility—which is really the crux of the debate as I see it—there are some prior matters which need to be understood. Particularly, the distinction between the two basic views regarding freedom, and the reasons for these distinctions, should be briefly considered.
The freedom relationship
Although it commonly goes unsaid in the context of this issue, freedom is always a relationship. Thus, when we talk about free will, we must be meaning one or both of the following:
- In our ability to properly choose, we enjoy a freedom to something;
- in our ability to properly choose,1 we enjoy a freedom from something.
Both the compatibilist and the libertarian agree that both options are true. The libertarian maintains that we have a freedom to choose between two or more actually possible alternatives; ie, that this freedom is from necessity. In other words, for any given choice, we really could choose either alternative a or alternative b. Or, viewed from the other direction, the alternative we choose is not determined inevitably by any prior factors, such that although we seem able to choose b, we can only actually choose a because that’s what’s been predetermined. The freedom to is merely a restatement of the freedom from, and vice versa.
If our choices were inevitably determined, according to the libertarian, then they would not be “ours”. This is because they would actually be just the outcome of these prior factors, rather than a result our own acts of volition. Hence, the libertarian view is called indeterminism. It maintains that a fully determined choice is not a “proper” or “real” choice—all human choices, to be proper human choices, must be free from prior determination. And if a choice is not determined by prior factors, then it is necessarily indeterminate until the moment it is made. In this regard, libertarians consider God’s determinative action to be incompatible with proper human choices, and so they are also called incompatibilists.
Determinists or compatibilists, on the other hand, take the view that a choice may indeed be fully determined by prior factors, and yet be free. This is because they hold that a choice, to be a proper choice, must only be free from coercion—not necessarily free from determination. They agree with libertarians that a choice must be “ours”. They disagree that a choice is not “ours” if it has been determined by prior factors. In fact, a choice is always determined by at least the prior factor of the greatest desire we entertain at the time. This is what, speaking in terms of the causes and effects within our own minds, determines which option out of many we will select.
Thus, compatibilists argue that free will entails merely freedom to choose between apparently possible alternatives; and merely freedom from being forced to pursue one alternative or another—as opposed to being determined to do so. However, because our choices are determined by God prior to our actually making them, we don’t choose between actually possible alternatives. If we choose alternative b, then we always were going to choose b, even though until the moment of choosing we felt like we could have selected a. Our choice was inevitable, on the basis of God’s prior determination. But it was not forced—it was, in fact, still a product of our faculty of will, functioning apart from any coercion. We weren’t made to choose against our will—rather, we chose freely precisely because we chose what we wanted most at that time, and what we wanted most, like all things in creation, was determined in advance by God.
The origins of choices
This highlights the issue which divides libertarians and compatibilists. The libertarian is primarily concerned with showing that our choices are properly ours. The reason he is worried about prior determination is because he rightly wants to uphold the responsibility of man. If a choice has its origin outside a man’s will, then that choice is not ultimately a product of his will, and so it’s hard to see how it can be thought of as being properly his. And if it is not properly his, then how can he be held responsible for it, whether for punishment or reward?
The complicating factor, from the Reformed perspective, is that although this issue is cast in terms of responsibility, it ultimately is a question of sovereignty. The libertarian rightly wishes to uphold man’s responsibility, but in doing so he is making an appeal to man’s sovereignty. If a choice does not find its ultimate origin in man himself, the libertarian says, then the man cannot be held responsible for it. The Calvinist is compelled to disagree. Whether the libertarian means to or not, he is exalting man into the position of God himself by supposing that man can be the ultimate origin of anything. In our fallen state, this is a very natural thing for us to do—which is why, I’d argue, libertarianism is as popular as it is. But for this very reason libertarians ought to be especially careful, when evaluating the issues in this debate, to examine themselves soberly, ensuring that they aren’t holding their position for the wrong reasons.
Contra the libertarian, the compatibilist argues that the pertinent issue is not whether a man’s choice has its ultimate origin in his faculty of will. Rather, it’s whether a man’s choice has its immediate origin there. Naturally, the choice must be made by the man in order for it to be his, and for him to be held responsible for it. If it is made by him, then it has its origin in his faculty of will. That needs to be the immediate cause of the choice; otherwise it is not directly his. But the compatibilist recognizes that causes themselves have causes, and that determinations are themselves determined. Importantly, he finds the conclusion of the argument I gave in part 1 convincing: God is the ultimate cause of all things. This being the case, it is unavoidable that our choices are predetermined, since if God did not determine them they would never obtain. If the libertarian believes that this obviates them as proper choices, so much the worse for that belief. It’s impossible that our choices couldn’t have their ultimate origin in God, and since God holds us responsible for them nonetheless, it is only logical to conclude that the libertarian must be wrong.
Now, I haven’t yet found anyone who could fault the argument in part 1. That’s why I’ve started this series with it. Anyone is welcome to critique it, and I’d be happy to interact with that critique. But I don’t anticipate a refutation, because it’s just a basic stipulation of a consistent application of the Christian view of reality. The remaining parts of this series will all follow on from that argument by showing how libertarianism is inconsistent in some way—either with other propositions it’s supposed to protect, or with itself, or with other basic Christian doctrines. It enjoys strong, face-value intuitive support. But, as I will argue, it enjoys absolutely no strong, in-depth intellectual support.
- ↑ When I speak of “choice” or “choosing”, I take it as fairly obvious what I mean. However, to avoid any confusion, allow me to quote libertarian Robert Kane’s very adequate definition: “A choice is the formation of an intention or purpose to do something” (Robert Kane, ‘Libertarianism’ in John Martin Fischer et al, Four Views On Free Will (Blackwell 2007), 33.