Thursday, September 14, 2006

Real Choice?

Did you choose to start reading this post?

You may have gotten here as a result of a search you did at Google. You may have clicked a link at someone else’s blog. You may have this site listed in your favorites. No matter how you came here, did you feel that you had a choice whether to read this entry?

This may seem like a foolish question.

But there are several different people who would argue that you were predetermined to read this article. Some of them are
materialists who believe that the human mind is just an illusion, that our actions are completely determined by our genes and our environment. Some of them are philosophers who say that determinism is philosophically necessary. Some of them are theologians who say that libertarian freedom is an affront to God’s sovereignty.

What is necessary for someone to have a real choice?

We generally don’t consider a choice made under coercion as a real choice. But maybe a better way of thinking about this situation is to consider it a real choice made between limited options. A person who is threatened with death if he doesn’t renounce his faith in Christ still has a choice. He can choose
apostasy or death.

No one has unlimited choices. I am limited by the laws of physics. I am limited by my previous choices. I am limited by the particular time and place to which I was born. I am even limited by the choices my parents (and their parents) made.

Would you consider a choice made under some kind of influence a real choice?

Our legal system considers certain choices made while suffering from “
mental defect” as free from responsibility. In other words, it considers them not real choices. While we might think that some defendants use this strategy to avoid punishment for willful crimes, we would agree that some people are not morally responsible for their actions because of limited faculties of reason.

What about a choice made after some kind of
brainwashing or programming?

When an individual is conditioned to follow the will of another person, we no longer consider that person to have a choice. We call these people victims of mind control. They may not be threatened with any coercive force. But they have been trained to behave according to the wishes of another person. Yet they would feel that they are making free choices.

Back to our question: Do you have real choices?

“Scientific determinism” would say, “No.” It is primarily based on
Newtonian physics. The idea here is that everything has one or more causes and is strictly determined by those prior events. But the development of quantum mechanics has introduced probability into the deep structure of the world. This aspect of the issue is beyond the scope of this blog (and my brain).

It would appear that the philosophical determinists and the theological determinists are two completely different groups. The theologians start with the Bible after all. The truth is, however, that this is strictly a philosophical issue. (At this point I can hear some of my Reformed friends shouting through my DSL connection.)

What do I mean that this is strictly a philosophical issue?

First, the arguments of the philosophers and the theologians are essentially the same. While the theologians may have a different starting point, they follow the same basic line of reasoning as the philosophers who hold to determinism. Second, the theologians’ interpretation of the Scripture is shaped by their prior philosophical assumptions. They claim to be taking the Bible in its “plain meaning,” but those who start with different assumptions see an entirely different “plain meaning.”

In order to avoid the charge of attacking a straw man, I want to list some quotations from two highly respected proponents of theological determinism:

Understanding the Will, by Douglas Wilson

No man is capable of making a choice contrary to the strongest desire of his heart.

If the choice were not his strongest desire, he would not
have chosen it.

It is nonsense to talk of a free will, as though there were this autonomous thing inside of us, capable of acting in any direction, regardless of the motives of the heart. . . . Choices made apart from the desires of the heart? They would be an exhibition, not of freedom, but of insanity.

And what is a free man? He is someone who is free from
external compulsion and is consequently at liberty to do what his heart desires. . . . Under the superintendence of God, all men, Christian and non-Christian, have the freedom to turn left or right, to choose chocolate or vanilla, or to move to this city or that one — depending entirely upon what they want to do. The foreordination of God does not violate this; it is the cause of this.

It is impossible for a true choice to be autonomous in the sense of being independent of our heart desires. If there were a choice for which no reason at all could be given, we could no longer call it a choice.

The Bible teaches that God superintends the choices made by men. He may do so immediately through providential intervention or mediately through the use of secondary agents.

Man, as creature, is free to do as he pleases. He has this freedom only because God grants and sustains it —and perfectly controls it.
Answers to Objections to the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, by Loraine Boettner.
If we admit free will in the sense that the absolute determination of events is placed in the hands of man, we might as well spell it with a capital F and a capital W; for then man has become like God, — a first cause, an original spring of action, — and we have as many semi-Gods as we have free wills. Unless the sovereignty of God be given up, we cannot allow this independence to man. It is very noticeable — and in a sense it is reassuring to observe the fact — that the materialistic and metaphysical philosophers deny as completely as do Calvinists this thing that is called free will. They reason that every effect must have a sufficient cause; and for every action of the will they seek to find a motive which for the moment at least is strong enough to control.1

Since man is a rational agent there must always be a sufficient cause for his acting in a particular way. For the will to decide in favor of the weaker motive and against the stronger, or without motives at all, is to have an effect with out a sufficient cause.
2

God so governs the inward feelings, external environment, habits, desires, motives, etc., of men that they freely do what He purposes.
3

Predestination holds that events come to pass because an infinitely wise, powerful, and holy God has so appointed them. Fatalism holds that all events come to pass through the working of a blind, unintelligent, impersonal, non-moral force which cannot be distinguished from physical necessity, and which carries us helplessly within its grasp as a mighty river carries a piece of wood.
4

According to the doctrine of Predestination the freedom and responsibility of man are fully preserved. In the midst of certainty God has ordained human liberty. But Fatalism allows no power of choice, no self-determination. It makes the acts of man to be as utterly beyond his control as are the laws of nature.
5

No man can be a consistent fatalist. For to be consistent be would have to reason something like this: “If I am to die today, it will do me no good to eat, for I shall die anyway. Nor do I need to eat if I am to live many years yet, for I shall live anyway. Therefore I will not eat.” Needless to say, if God has foreordained that a man shall live, He has also foreordained that he shall be kept from the suicidal folly of refusing to eat.
6

Hence, only a person who has not examined this doctrine of Predestination, or one who is maliciously inclined, will rashly charge that it is Fatalism. There is no excuse for anyone making this mistake who knows what Predestination is and what Fatalism is.
7

Instead of our doctrine of Predestination being the same with the heathen doctrine of Fatalism, it is its absolute opposite and only alternative.
8
Let me make some quick observations.

Predestination teaches that God “governs the inward feelings, external environment, habits, desires, motives, etc., of men that they freely do what He purposes.” How is this any different than our victim of brainwashing? Inserting the word “freely” does not make these actions free. If God determines the conditions that determine the actions then he is determining the actions.

Boettner says that Predestination is nothing at all like Fatalism. He says it is “its absolute opposite and only alternative.” The only difference between the two is that in one case things are determined by a person and in the other case things are determined by an impersonal force. In the end, the results are the same. It matters little to the question of freedom whether the “agent” of determinism is God, an impersonal force, or a super-intelligent alien race.

Individuals are free to do what they want to do but they are not free to change what they want. God changes what some people want in order manipulate their actions to fit into his plans. Freedom to be controlled by something that you have no control over does not sound like freedom to me.

This theology reduces the will to a mathematical formula. The will is not an agent according to this thinking. It is the slave of the single greatest desire of the heart. This robs the term will of any real meaning. It also strikes me as an extremely na├»ve understanding of desires and aversions as processed by a human being. This concept, by the way, comes from Thomas Hobbes who said, “Liberty and Necessity are consistent; as in … the actions which men voluntarily do: which, because they proceed from their will, proceed from liberty, and yet, because every act of man’s will, and every desire, and inclination proceed from some cause, and that from another cause, in a continual chain (whose first link is in the hand of God the first of all causes) they proceed from necessity” (
Leviathan).

Boettner finds it “reassuring” that the “materialistic and metaphysical philosophers” hold a position very similar to his. I would suggest that this is not a good thing. It indicates that his position is determined more by his assumptions than by some direct statement of Scripture.

Doug Wilson is guilty of
bifurcation in this statement: “It is impossible for a true choice to be autonomous in the sense of being independent of our heart desires. If there were a choice for which no reason at all could be given, we could no longer call it a choice.” We must choose between

Our choices are completely determined by our single strongest desire.
Or we have absolutely no reason for making our choices.
Maybe we like several flavors of ice cream and decide to choose rocky road today. Does that require that we like rocky road the best? Does it even require that we like rocky road the best today?

To think of choice in this way is to rob the term of all its meaning. There is no choosing to be done. All is determined by our strongest desire.

Wilson says that man is “free to do as he pleases” and that God “perfectly controls” what he wants. In other words, an individual is free to do what he wants to do, which is what God wants him to want to do. No matter how many steps you put in the middle, God dictates this person’s actions.
How can this be called freedom and language still have any meaning?

Boettner objects to free will because it makes humans into “a first cause, an original spring of action.” Is this not what it means to make a choice? Is this not an essential part of being human, that we have an influence on the future? In Boettner’s system, a human being is a cipher, entirely determined and programmed by a sovereign God.

We’re back to a false choice. Boettner says we must accept that humans are completely programmed to act and to will by God. Otherwise we are left only with the option that humans become God. There are many alternatives he is ignoring. Why cannot humans be initiators of “causal chains” without overriding God’s ultimate power? Is God’s sovereignty limited so that he can be in control only if he orchestrates ever minor detail?

Boettner says, “No man can be a consistent fatalist.” Yet the very argument he uses against Fatalism is equally effective against Predestination.

It seems to me that the God of Wilson and Boettner has an awful lot in common with the “God” of
Deism. He lives outside the chain of determinism and sets everything in motion to achieve the ends he has in mind.

I began this post with several “desires.”

  • I wanted to focus on the bankruptcy of the word “choice” as used by certain theologians.
  • I wanted to keep the argument focused on the philosophical issues.
  • I wanted to cut through some of the obfustication that surrounds this issue.
  • I wanted to avoid an acrimonious tone.
  • I wanted to create enough controversy that it would stimulate helpful discussion on this issue.
  • I wanted to provide some new insight into an old dispute.
  • I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable length.
  • I wanted to make a new post because it has been too long since my last one.
I fear that these competing desires have kept me from realizing any except the last one.

Pastor Rod


“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

22 comments:

Steve Sensenig said...

Rod, I fear that people will think you and I are the same person blogging under different names! ;) Let's see, we both have issues with the same theological discussions...we both want to discuss things reasonably without ugly tones...we both take too long between posts...

Yep, I'm starting to think you are my long-lost twin brother!!

Seriously, thank you for voicing these questions. Somehow, when I read your posts, I realize that I'm not the only one asking this stuff, and that I'm not as crazy as sometimes I fear I am. Either that, or we both are crazy.....

steve :)

Gordon Cloud said...

This is a good post. I hope that some of our Calvinist friends will read this with an open mind. Oh, wait, that's not up to them is it?

And now I am going to have wrap my mind around the possibility of Steve having a twin brother. :)

Ms.Green said...

Good post. Calvinism is an insult to God's character. Calvinism makes God the author of sin, and says that He chose some to be damned and some to be saved, which goes against all the Scripture that says otherwise. I'm glad that God is a God of love who is not willing that any should perish...and gives all men the opportunity to be saved. If we reject Christ, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Luke Britt said...

Ms. Green,

Your comment doesn't have a lot to do with anything in the material posted by Rod. You may want to take your agenda to a blog actually debating Calvinism. Calvinism does not equal deterministic ideas.

Rod,

Tell me, what do you mean by impersonal force?

Ms.Green said...

luke,

I would disagree with you first of all, because determinism is a belief in predestination. Calvinism teaches predestination and that man has no free will whatsoever to choose.
However, I simply wanted to compliment Rod on his post. I was not wanting to "debate" Calvinism. If he does not want my feedback, which is, after all, why most bloggers "blog", then if asked, I will refrain from posting further. However, I would think that since this is his blog, he, rather than you, would make that determination.

nathaniel adam king said...

Ms. Green, predestination is taught by Calvinist, but not all Calvinist teach predestination. Therefore, for you to go on a spill about how Calvinism is the wicked evil mind-spawn of Satan, based upon Rod's analysis of determinism, is quite silly. I think that is why Luke responded as he did.

The issue is determinism or predestinationism, not Calvinism. Please, for the sake of all that is sane, lets stick to the topic.

nathaniel adam king said...

Gordon, no, it is not entirely up to Calvinist as to whether they read this with an open mind. For some reason they consider God as so powerful and in control that He even controls the fall of the die (Prov 16:33).

I have always wondered where they get that silly idea...

words chosen with dearest love,
Adam

nathaniel adam king said...

Rod, my dearest friend, just a couple quick notes.

Boettner finds it “reassuring” that the “materialistic and metaphysical philosophers” hold a position very similar to his. I would suggest that this is not a good thing. It indicates that his position is determined more by his assumptions than by some direct statement of Scripture.

Simply because the pagan and the Christian may agree that the grass is green doesn't mean the Christian should assume it purple. I mean seriously, are you going to think that no thoughts of yours are in common with the pagan? When the pagan stumbles upon truth, we shouldn't think that this truth is 'determined more by his assumptions than by some direct statement of Scripture' simply because it is held to by a pagan...

Maybe we like several flavors of ice cream and decide to choose rocky road today. Does that require that we like rocky road the best? Does it even require that we like rocky road the best today?

To think of choice in this way is to rob the term of all its meaning. There is no choosing to be done. All is determined by our strongest desire.


The alternative, as I see it, to saying that our actions are determined by our strongest desire, is to say that our actions are not determined by anything.

Remember Alice in Wonderland? How she was placed at a crossroads. She had absolutely no desire to go any which way. Therefore, why would she move?

If she had no desire to go any way, her action should have been to stay still. If she was to move, and yet have no desire to move, can we really hold her responsible for her action? She didn't want to move after all...

Pastor Rod said...

All,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm leaving now for a two-day conference. I should be able to get logged on tonight. I will try to give some more detailed replies.

In the meantime, continue to carry on the discussion (or argument) but try to play nice.

Feel free to state your position with passion, but remember that you are "talking" with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thanks for stopping in and for the taking the time and having the courage to voice your opinions.

God Bless,

Rod

nathaniel adam king said...

What? You cannot respond to me? Did I burn you so badly you need to run away for a couple days.

Pitty, I was going to enjoy jesting with you. You always do seem to provoke excitement within me with our discussions. I shall wait though...I shall sit here and wait patiently for your return, or your reply.

Be afraid my open theist friend, be very afraid!

with greatest love,
Adam

Gordon Cloud said...

Adam, our exchanges always bring a smile to my face. God bless you, my friend.

Ms.Green said...

Since supposedly this is a Christian blog, I will leave you with one Scripture, and delight you by going elsewhere.

"And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,"

The arrogance of a few of you is very unbecoming of men who call themselves Christian. I hope you are kinder to the lost than you are to other Christians.

Pastor Rod said...

Steve,

Now that you've let out the secret that were twins, you've reduced our positive influence for each other. When we agree, people will dismiss it, "Oh, they would agree; they're twins."

Gordon,

I don't claim to have all the answers. But I like to ask lots of questions.

Ms. Green,

You are indeed welcome here. But I don't like it when Calvinists tell me that my theology is heresy. I don't think that Calvinists are heretics. I do think they are misguided. But all of us have flaws in our theology. The people who've commented here are committed Christians who love God. I like to think that we Arminians are generally more gracious and understanding toward those who disagree with us.

Luke,

I'm not sure that I understand your question.

While I don't mind engaging in full-contact debate, I would ask you to be a little kinder to those who have the courage to post their comments.

Adam,

You get your own personalized reply. See below.

Rod

Pastor Rod said...

Adam,

My dear narrow-minded Calvinist friend. (Actually you are one of the few open-minded Calvinists I know. I just like calling you names.)

First, I want to respond to your comment Ms. Green. You said, "Not all Calvinist teach predestination." I think this might be an issue of semantics. Some people would define Calvinist to include only those who teach predestination. I would be interested to know how you define Calvinism to include those who do not.

Now, let's take off the gloves.

I agree that just because pagan believes something that doesn't make it wrong. Let me unpack this point.

Calvinists frequently accuse those who differ with them of relying on human philosophy instead of Scripture. Calvin's description of the will is straight from Thomas Hobbes (of Calvin & Hobbes fame). Hobbes is a materialist philosopher. In other words, he believes that there is no spiritual or non-material aspect to life. This means that he believes that the human mind is just the brain functioning. People add nothing to the great chain of cause and effect. Boettner celebrates that Calvin's view is exactly the same as Hobbes'. I find this very significant.

You said, "The alternative, as I see it, to saying that our actions are determined by our strongest desire, is to say that our actions are not determined by anything."

Ah, now we get to the issue. There are not only these two options. I can think of at least one other. (One that I would argue is the clear teaching of Scripture.)

The Bible indicates that God created humans with the ability to make real choices. This means that our choices are "determined" by us.

We do not have to have unlimited choices in order to have real choices.

I made several other significant points in my original post. I'd be interested in your reaction to them. Then we can discuss them. (I can tell you why you're wrong.)

Sorry to make you wait so long to continue this discussion. I hope you didn't fall asleep at your keyboard.

God Bless,

Rod

nathaniel adam king said...

Rod,

First, I want to respond to your comment Ms. Green. You said, "Not all Calvinist teach predestination." I think this might be an issue of semantics. Some people would define Calvinist to include only those who teach predestination. I would be interested to know how you define Calvinism to include those who do not.

When I said 'predestination' I was not referring to simply the belief that God predestines. All Christians must believe that God predestines or else they are blatantly going against the clear Biblical teaching that says differently.

When I said 'predestination' I was referring to more along the lines of determinism. Ms. Green said that Calvinism teaches predestinationism which means no choice and no freewill. The idea of no choice and no freewill is a deterministic idea, not a predestinationist idea. Therefore, she was attempting to say that all Calvinist were determinist. Which I so graciously felt I needed to correct her error.

Calvinists frequently accuse those who differ with them of relying on human philosophy instead of Scripture.

Everyone does this, it makes them sound better. I've heard it from non-Calvinist as well. You are doing the same thing here...

Calvin's description of the will is straight from Thomas Hobbes (of Calvin & Hobbes fame). Hobbes is a materialist philosopher. In other words, he believes that there is no spiritual or non-material aspect to life. This means that he believes that the human mind is just the brain functioning. People add nothing to the great chain of cause and effect. Boettner celebrates that Calvin's view is exactly the same as Hobbes'. I find this very significant.

I find it significant that such men as Albert Einstein can come across truths even though some of their presuppositions are clearly anti-God. Perhaps we shouldn't discredit a belief derived at by a pagan simply because the pagan likewise does not believe in God.

Simply because Hobbes was a pagan, we shouldn't then say everything he believed was clearly tainted and to be avoided at all cost.

You said, "The alternative, as I see it, to saying that our actions are determined by our strongest desire, is to say that our actions are not determined by anything."

Ah, now we get to the issue. There are not only these two options. I can think of at least one other. (One that I would argue is the clear teaching of Scripture.)

The Bible indicates that God created humans with the ability to make real choices. This means that our choices are "determined" by us.


I would agree completely that our actions are 'determined' by us. That has always been my position. But saying that our actions are determined by our strongest desire, is saying just that. If you believe that our actions are determined by us, you needn't avoid like the plague the belief that our actions are determined by our strongest desire.

Pastor Rod said...

Adam,

I agree with your definition of determinism. What confuses me is how someone could call himself a
Calvinist and not be essentially a determinist. Would a one or two point Calvinist (not to be confused with a one or two pint Calvinist) be truly a Calvinist?

Is there really such a thing as a free-will Calvinist?

Rod

Pastor Rod said...

Adam,

Me: Calvinists frequently accuse those who differ with them of relying on human philosophy instead of Scripture.

You: Everyone does this, it makes them sound better. I've heard it from non-Calvinist as well. You are doing the same thing here...

I'm talking about something very specific here. Calvinists like to say that non-Calvinists have arrived at their positions as a result of their philosophy. They say that Calvinism is based entirely upon Scripture withhout any reliance upon philosophy.

My argument is that

1) All theology is a reflection of philosophical assumptions.

2) Calvinism is built on a particular phlosophical foundation that was once widely accepted but is no longer commonly held.

I'm not doing the same thing. I'm not claiming that my theology has no philoshopical assumptions.

Rod

Pastor Rod said...

Adam,

Are you predestined to miss my point?

You said, "Simply because Hobbes was a pagan, we shouldn't then say everything he believed was clearly tainted and to be avoided at all cost."

What Einstein says about the theory of relativity has little to do with his view of God. But Hobbes arrives at his conclusions about the human will because of his materialistic view of reality. To him a human being is no different in principle from a watch.

You keep repeating your same point (kind of like a watch). I'm trying to get you to see my point, but your mind seems to be stuck on this response.

Rod

Steve Sensenig said...

Rod wrote: Now that you've let out the secret that were twins, you've reduced our positive influence for each other. When we agree, people will dismiss it, "Oh, they would agree; they're twins."

I didn't know that we were still keeping it a secret. I'm telling Mom... ;)

I'll try to disagree with you every once in a while, ok? hehe

Pastor Rod said...

Adam,

I'm trying to stretch your Calvinist mind, but you keep fighting me and reverting to the same ruts.

You said, "I would agree completely that our actions are 'determined' by us. That has always been my position. But saying that our actions are determined by our strongest desire, is saying just that. If you believe that our actions are determined by us, you needn't avoid like the plague the belief that our actions are determined by our strongest desire."

When I say that our actions are determined by us, I am not saying that they are determined by our strongest desire. Our strongest desire is not "us." Our strongest desire is determined by other things. (Besides, I'm arguing that talking about our strongest desire is utter nonsense.)

Another was of saying this is that our actions are free, free to be determined by a real choice between real options. We decide what we will do. Your view (and Calvin's view and Hobbes' view) reduces a human being to a calculator.

I didn't expect you to agree with me, but I did hope that you would understand me.

I await your reply, my frustrating friend.
Rod

Mike said...

I am new to the whole blogging world, so bare with me.

Free will is like spandex, a priviledge and not a right. God is not held by any promise that He will honor free will, but we do, for the most part have an option to choose Him, and our attitude while going through Life.

It seams to me that only the World would keep to the idea that our hearts strongest desire is the way we make our choices. We as Christians are called to make our choices acording to Christ's disire, not our own.

Pastor Rod said...

Mike,

Welcome to blogging and welcome to Kingdom Come.

I'm glad we're online, because if everyone "bares" with you it might be a sight more disturbing that some unauthorized person wearing spandex.

Your last point is significant, I think.

I wonder, however, if your position about God's obligation to honor freewill is workable. It seems to me that either God determines everything or else he honors choices made by humans. The middle position seems to be fraught with difficulties.

Thanks for taking the time to participate.

Rod