Philosophy Proper Polemics

A Case Against “Free-Will”

Like most reading this post, I’ve participated in and witnessed many arguments between so-called Arminians and Calvinists. The debates usually center around proof texting primarily and rational argumentation secondarily; rarely do they center around deep exegesis and systematic rationality. Yet, I’ve always noticed that there is an argument for Calvinism and against Arminianism which tends to be ignored. The argument I’m talking about is deeply philosophical (which is one of the reasons it gets ignored). And it is also not an explicitly biblical argument (though the Bible certainly speaks to it). I think these two reasons answer why the argument is ignored: (1) Evangelicals tend to be skeptical of philosophy and (2) Alot of evangelicals treat the Bible in a way that excludes the philosophical type reasoning unless said reasoning has a proof text. Thus, the formal issue of this post is the concept of “Free-will” but the underlying cause of this post is really the relationship of faith to reason and theology to philosophy more generally.

That evangelicals prefer their Bibles to philosophy isn’t exactly something the philosopher should be angry about; it’s better that evangelicals hold fast to their Bible’s, even in a somewhat mistaken way, than that they be well versed philosophers who ignore their Bibles (better yet that they become good philosophers and good students of the Bible). The Bible is the Word of life. The Bible is easily the best book to be well-versed in. The Bible is the cradle where Christ is laid (Luther), and He is our life. No, this argument isn’t contrary to the Bible at all. Rather, it is drawn the underlying rational structure which the Bible itself assumes. God did not give us a Bible apart from our natures and apart from the common experiences we have of the world; rather, in special revelation God grants us the grace which perfects and builds upon the initial revelation He’s given us of Himself in general revelation. In other words, this is a series of arguments drawn from common-sense which simply analyze the ideas contained within the Calvinism-Arminianism debate to evaluate their purported rational content. In the final analysis, the arguments looks at the central idea contained within the notion of Arminianism – free-will – and sees if it stands the test of rational analysis.

Arminianism and Free-Will

Central to the Arminian system is the concept of “free-will.” Without free-will, you don’t have Arminianism. The phrase “free-will” is used in the Westminster Confession of Faith (a Calvinist document), but in the WCF the phrase refers to the fact that God is not mechanically controlling humanity as a puppet-master to a puppet; rather, men, insofar as their capacities allow them, are free to do what they want (We’ll call this volitional freedom, the freedom to will apart from an all-controlling puppet master). The WCF’s doctrine and the Reformed doctrine also posits that men are free from biological determinism – which posits that you are simply the sum total of naturalistic impulses affecting your person; i.e. when you act, you only act according to sensible nature. The argument here is that men are rational and moral animals and are thus free to transcend the impulses of their nature according to higher standards embedded within their form as beings made in God’s image. Finally, Reformed Theology affirms that we are not immediately, constantly, and holistically determined by God as by a puppet-master; Reformed Theology affirms that we are not determined solely by naturalistic causes (naturalistic determinism). Rather, Reformed Theology posits that we are free-agents who act according to a rational nature, disposed to righteousness or wickedness.

In this vein, I believe that desires are ultimately the grounding of a persons actions. One’s nature precedes and determines one’s act. If you’re choosing between reading this book or that, the ultimate answer as to why you chose this book or that is because you wanted to. Why you wanted what you wanted, ultimately, was not caused by you but was caused by your nature (which was created principally by God, not by you).  No-one stayed your hand regarding your choice; your choice was made by you. You were indubitably influenced by a multitude of factors (some consciously known, some unconscious), yet ultimately you chose according to your strongest inclination (or series of inclinations intimately related), given your options. Even if you had conflicting desires and, in one sense, did not choose what you wanted holistically, the choice you did make was chosen because it was your strongest inclination. Inclinations (desires), precede and are the force of choice and are based upon a rational-agent’s nature. This doctrine, that desires precede and determine a subject’s actions, holistically, is rejected by the Arminianism.

According to Arminians, it is by nothing at all – no impulse or determinant – that the individual freely acts. According to the Arminian, the subject is ultimately free from all determining impulse and yet simultaneously wills. Problematically though, if you were free from impulse you could not will; and if you can will you can’t be wholly free from some form of determination or impulse. If you are “absolutely free” from all possible influence then there is no reason why you consequently willed. And if there is no impulse, no trajectory toward this or that, you would never move toward this or that. Thus, the position of the Arminian, specifically their anthropic and metaphysical doctrine of “free-will,” is ultimately irrational. It is a self-referentially incoherent concept because the concept of absolute “freedom” contradicts the concept of “willing.” Absolute freedom and consequent willing are like oil and water, they don’t go together. Therefore Arminianism, which only works as by this principle, is an unworkable system rationally. The argument against them here is as follows:

  1. Absolute freedom and consequent willing are ultimately contradictory
  2. That which is contradictory is, by definition, irrational
  3. Arminianism requires absolute freedom and consequent willing
  4. Arminianism is therefore ultimately contradictory
  5. Arminianism is therefore irrational

Think about it like this: if you get the Arminian to affirm that no influence, whether internal or external, necessitates action, then as a rational being you would rightly ask the Arminian, “from where did that consequent choice come from then if there is no influential cause?” The Arminian would ultimately respond that the agent chose by their “free-will.” In other words, ask an Arminian why they, with their free-will, chose X over Y? There is no answer. Why did they choose it according to their free will? If they answer, ultimately, because of a stronger desire of X than Y, then that is simply my position and their act was determined by a cause, whether internal and/or external (and was thus determined beforehand). In this regard, desire determines action and thus the will is not free in the metaphysical sense. What they usually say when asked why an individual chose X over Y is that the individual chose X over Y  because of their free-will. But this is circularity because it is simply the statement that an individual by his own free-will chose X over Y because of his free will. And as we have already shown, if the will were free a choice could not have been willed. And if a willing has been done, the will could not have been free (else what would have caused it to act?)

To be fair, common-sense Arminians admit of the effect upon the subject of desires, inclinations, persuasions, habits, and ect. and yet at every level they simultaneously affirm that the subject, if placed again in the situation in which he formerly made that choice, with the exact same inclinations and the exact same external influence, could have made a different choice. But this is preposterous. From what cause, then, if everything were the same could the effected choice have been made? If everything in this thought scenario were the same, including the subject – his desires and habits – then how could the consequent choice ever be different? It couldn’t be. Yet, the Arminian responds that, according to his free-will he could have chosen differently! Yet, what then is this free-will? It is obviously the ability to transcend all the other rationally explicable-determinators upon which we predicate the rationale for any given choice by a human or divine rational subject. Ok, if that’s the definition, then what is the reason for which one, by his free-will, chooses one thing or another? He has this capacity which frees him from the sum compilation of all other determining influences whether external or internal, yet, what is it from within the free will which causes the agent to act? If this “free-will” is what is causing his action, then how is it doing so? If he is free, metaphysically free, absolutely free – then how does he will at all? He obviously couldn’t because nothing is causing him to move. And an uncaused effect is by definition an impossibility. 

Furthermore, if Arminian free-will did exist and by some crazy work of circumstance we affirmed that it could somehow undergird man’s choice, it would still be an irrational notion. This is because the law of causality is a necessary law. It cannot, by definition, be violated. The law of causality posits that every effect has a sufficient cause. The reason this must be the case is that if phenomena occurred without a sufficient reason, or effects happened without sufficient cause, then there would be no reason to believe anything at all – because the phenomena which “randomly happened into existence” may just as easily “randomly pop out of existence” at any given moment. Transcendent, necessary, intelligible laws couldn’t, therefore, be transcendent and necessary if the law of causality doesn’t obtain. Laws which apply to everything and are necessary to make any intelligible statements and anything intelligible would themselves be subject to popping out of existence and into existence at any moment. And if this were the case, why believe them? But if things can just pop into and out of existence with no consistent law undergirding all reality, then the principle of all reality is spontaneity – anything can happen. But if anything can happen then the very laws through which we predicate anything at all could be arbitrary as well. And if they’re arbitrary there is no reason to believe them. Indeed, “believing them” wouldn’t mean the same thing because the standards of belief could just change tomorrow; indeed, they could have changed yesterday – either way, they’re arbitrary. Thus spontaneity destroys rationality. And if rationality is destroyed, then the conversation about spontaneity and it’s own postulation of free-will in particular and Arminianism in general, is transcendentally meaningless.

And this is what the notion of free-will requires: choices are made without impulses because the will is wholly free (these choices are made by the principle of spontaneity; spontaneity is another way of saying “they happen without a cause”). If all our willings are ultimately the result of a phenomena which “transcends” all rational explication, then the universe itself is ultimately founded upon irrationality in principle. If spontaneity, in principle exists, then the law of causality, as a transcendent and absolute principle, is nullified. If the law of causality obtains, then spontaneity, in the ultimate sense, is a myth. There are then, in the final analysis, only two games in town. You can admit of reality, rationality, and truth; and if you do you must admit in the absolute necessity of the law of causality; or you can admit of illusion, irrationality, and falsity if you believe in the ultimate law of spontaneity (that which exists as a phenomena without a rationale). And it is this spontaneity which the Arminian notion of free-will presupposes as a working principle.

I hope you see the problem. If spontaneity exists, which is required in the Arminian notion, then intelligibility doesn’t exist because spontaneity makes all things arbitary and nothing concrete – i.e. your predications about reality come to nothing at all. If spontaneity, as a principle, exists in reality then God could simply – and randomly – cease to exist. In other words, if spontaneity exists in any aspect of reality, it would have to have occurred “randomly” and without a cause. Thus, since it occurred “randomly” anything could occur randomly. And given enough time, everything, even contradictory notions, would “randomly” occur. Thus, if spontaneity obtains then the very assertion that spontaneity obtains may not obtain tomorrow – indeed, given enough time tomorrow would never come because the universe would cease to exist (and then it would pop into existence again) and then it wouldn’t, forever. And then it would again, and cows would be green and then they wouldn’t. And truth would be an not be at the same time. And boys would be girls and girls would be boys. And contemporary Feminism would be a positive force in the world. And Leftism would be substantially righteous. All of this is of course absurd and is what spontaneity requires. Yet, the Arminian notion of the will requires spontaneity because the will is wholly free and thus can only act as by spontaneity. So the Arminian notion, therefore, is absurd. The argument against Arminianism at this point is as follows:

  1. Sponteneity is an irrational notion
  2. Arminianism requires sponteneity
  3. Therefore, Arminianism is an irrational notion

Conclusion

Maybe a way forward in this debate is a step backward. What I mean is that instead of getting into a proof-texting battle, talking past each other while importing assumptions of what the Bible means, or simply getting into an over-detailed examination of context, one should just ask the simple question what rules would be necessary to postulate that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and it mean anything at all. After asking that question and ascertaining what those “rational” rules are, one can come to the next question of asking whether or not the ideas of “Arminianism” or of “Calvinism” can be consistent with those rationally necessary notions at all. Arminianism posits that free-will exists. This is an irrational notion. In order to “save” that irrational notion, the Arminian may posit (and has to posit) spontaneity. But spontaneity, as it has been shown, is irrational also. Finally, as this relates to the relationship of philosophy to theology I want to leave you with this: there is nothing pious in toting around proof texts with a philosophy which would logically undermine the very nature of appealing to Scripture at all. Sound philosophy and sound theology go hand in hand, just as general revelation and special revelation go hand in hand. Both, ultimately, are grounded in the nature and character of God and we apprehend the truth contained in them because we’re made in His image.  Helpfully, J.V. Fesko has recently argued that we should utilize, in our apologetic, both books of God’s revelation in order to fulfill the task of Apologetics – I think this is true in our polemics as well. We should be using philosophy as theology’s handmaiden as has been the tradition of the church. Let us see that this tradition be conserved and furthered.

Resources:

The freedom of the will, Jonathan Edwards

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin (His section on the will)

11 comments on “A Case Against “Free-Will”

  1. It is reasonable to presume that all human concepts, having evolved within a universe of reliable cause and effect, already subsume reliable causation. These would naturally include the concepts of “spontaneity”, “randomness”, and, of course, “free will”.

    We flip a coin to get a random choice as to which team is at bat first. While the result is unpredictable, it is not indeterministic. When we ask “Why does it land as it does?”, we can identify the causes that explain the number of rotations (the position of the thumb under the coin and the energy applied) and external factors (the wind resistance and the bounciness of the surface it hits on landing). And, if we really wanted to, we could build a machine that would, under controlled circumstances (e.g., in a vacuum), always cause the coin to land heads up.

    And no one really expects a decision that we make to be free of purpose or reasoning, as that would literally make the choice unreasonable. The only time we would want that would be where either choice is equally desirable or equally undesirable, such that we may as well flip a coin.

    So, I would offer that no one actually holds the position that “absolute freedom” is required for free will (unless we’re talking about “absolute freedom” in its natural deterministic sense, as a metaphor).

    I suspect that it doesn’t matter whether you ask a Calvinist or an Arminian why they chose A instead of B. Both will happily give you the reasons why A was the better choice. And if you ask them “Is that the reason (cause of) why you chose A?”, they will say “Yes”.

    So, nobody is asserting that their choices are “free from purpose and reason”. Thus I believe the problem is in your definitions, the branch of philosophy called “semantics”.

    Pragmatism suggests that we derive our definitions from the operations where the words/concepts are actually used. In the case of “free will” the operation is “choosing what we will do”. And the freedom we are concerned with is not “freedom from causation”, but rather freedom from coercion (e.g., someone holding a literal gun to our head”) and undue influence (e.g., mental illness, hypnosis, authoritative command).

    That is the operational definition of free will that we use in cases of moral or legal responsibility.

    As you no doubt agree, there is no such thing as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. So, the suggestion that free will, or any other freedom for that matter, would imply such a thing would be unreasonable.

    What do you think?

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  2. Patrick Steckbeck

    Hello, thanks for your thoughtful reply. In my experience in conversing with Arminians, there seems to be two mutually exclusive positions held. In the first, as I wrote, they affirm that external and internal influences are the rationale for volitions. This is, as you know, the position of Calvinists. Yet, they simultaneously affirm that the subject, if placed in the same situation, with the same internal/external impulses could have chosen differently. If all the potential causes are accounted for, yet the subject can simultaneously act differently, then the only thing left to account for that act is sponteneity. Yet, this position, as I argued, is irrational.

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    • But “I could have done otherwise” is rational. It is a logical necessity for the choosing operation. At the beginning of this operation, there must be at least two real possibilities, and it must be true that we can choose either one. “I can choose A” is true and “I can choose B” is also true (even if I can choose both is false).

      However, given reliable cause and effect, it will always be the case that, if it is inevitable that I will choose A, then I will always choose A.

      This may lead one to jump to the conclusion that “I cannot choose B”. But that would be false. What you “will” do is a different question from what you “can” do.

      Words like “can”, “able”, “ability”, “possibility”, etc. refer to an unknown (though theoretically knowable) future event. They all subsume “If I should choose to then I can” (am able to, it is possible for me to, etc.). Although these are sometimes referred to as “counterfactuals”, these statements are still true.

      So, when we choose A and someone asks, “Could you have chosen otherwise?”, we can truthfully answer, “Yes. I could have chosen B instead.”

      Because as soon as you use one of those terms (“can/could”, etc.) you shift the context back to the beginning of the choosing operation, where we both had multiple choices and the ability to choose any one of them.

      If we roll back the clock to the beginning of the choosing operation, then it will again be true that we “can” choose either A or B. However, we “will” always choose A. These two facts, (1) that we could have chosen B, and (2) that we would always choose A, are both true.

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      • Patrick Steckbeck

        If your greatest inclination is to choose A and it is a real possibility, can you not choose A?

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      • Yes. You CAN choose B, however, you definitely WILL NOT choose B. What you can and cannot do is not defined by what you will or will not do.

        There are figurative statements and literal statements. The jump from what you will do to what you can do is a figurative transformation. The fact that you inevitably WILL choose A suggests the idea that it is AS IF you cannot choose B. And then we take that strongly suggested figurative statement as if the AS IF were not there. And we literally drop the AS IF.

        The only problem with a figurative statement is that it is always literally (actually, empirically, objectively) false.

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      • Patrick Steckbeck

        Ok, I agree with that at a conceptual level. Human X presented with X and Y, given his human-ness could choose X over Y as a metaphysical option but he can’t choose x over y, if his greater inclination is to y over x as to reality. He is free to choose, but will always choose what he wants. And because his wants are determined by his nature not by anything else, his choice is determined.

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      • I don’t know what “metaphysical” means, so I avoid that term (A. J. Ayers in “Language Truth and Logic” suggested we could dispense with metaphysics, and that’s fine with me).

        His choice is most certainly causally determined (after all, every event from the motion of the planets to the thoughts going through our heads right now is causally necessary/inevitable from any prior point in eternity).

        But the most meaningful and relevant causes of his deliberate acts are the acts of deliberation that directly precedes them. That process is the final prior cause of his choice. And, of course, he is the physical object that is actually making that choice (performing the choosing operation). No prior cause which has not first become integral to who and what he is can have any influence upon his choice. If our determinism is to be valid, then it cannot minimize or exclude him as the most significant cause of his choice. A determinism that ignores causes is a false determinism.

        He remains the most significant and meaningful cause of his choice.

        Except when he is not, as in the cases of coercion and undue influence. If someone holds a gun to his head and forces him to subjugate his will to theirs, then his will is not free (his “I will” is not freely chosen).

        Free will cannot mean “freedom from causation”, because there is no such thing. But it can (and does) mean freedom from coercion and undue influence, which is both real and meaningful.

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  3. Patrick Steckbeck

    I don’t disagree with the substance of what you said there – except for dispensing with the language of metaphysics. Turretin uses the language of free-will as freedom from coercion and as the freedom to transcend biological impulse through rationality – he rejects the so-called freedom of indifference which was a category used to deal with the theological problem of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility at his time.

    It sounds like you’re not as interested in the theological side of the debate (maybe I’m wrong in that assumption). The way “free-will” was used in circles I grew up in referred to the freedom of indifference (freedom from causal factors), and thus the freedom of spontaneity, just as Turretin uses the language. Those are the concepts my article is attempting to refute.

    I don’t disagree with a meaningful use of the language of free-will to refer to our transcendence of biological determinism due to our rationality; nor do I disagree with the meaningful use of the language of free-will to refer to freedom from coercion (whether from God or persons). I do disagree with the purported meaningfulness of the concept of “freedom of indifference” which, in theological circles, is used to solve the purported problem between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

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    • I had never heard of “freedom of indifference”. The problem of responsibility is that the more powerful we make God, the greater his responsibility for how things turn out. And I think that is where religious free will comes into play, to shield God from responsibility for the evil in the world, by shifting responsibility to us.

      I think, and research supports, that most people view free will as freedom from coercion and undue influence, and that is how it is used in cases of moral and legal responsibility.

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  4. Your whole argument is flawed, because what you claim arminians believe about free will is not what arminians who understand their own theology claim at all. God frees the will through preveniant grace. Yes, we will naturally choose according to the strongest desire, if acting in the flesh alone. But with the enlightenment of God, we are freed to make a genuine choice. So the whole bit about randomness becomes irrelevant. When we are dealing in the realm of miracles, philosophy takes a backseat. God’s word claims we can increase our faith, choose faith, etc. Humanistic philosophy naturally can understand or explain the things of the spirit, wether God’s or are the human spirit.

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  5. edit: Cannot understand

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