Category Archives: Free Will

On van Inwagen’s View of Chance

To a book appar­ently enti­tled “Chance, Evil, and Modal Skep­ti­cism”, Peter van Inwa­gen con­tributes a chap­ter called “The Place of Chance in a World Sus­tained by God”. (I don’t have the bib­li­o­graphic infor­ma­tion; I only have a PDF that Derek von Barandy emailed me in response to this thread, though the piece is appar­ently reprinted from this book.)

What fol­lows is my sum­mary and assess­ment of the chapter.

van Inwa­gen sketches a pic­ture of the Cre­ated uni­verse in which par­ti­cles, whose con­tin­ual exis­tence and causal pow­ers are sus­tained by God, are sus­pended in the void. On this view, a “mir­a­cle” occurs when God tem­porar­ily diverges from His typ­i­cal activ­ity. One who holds a more com­plex pic­ture of the uni­verse, physics, and divine prov­i­dence can con­sider van Inwagen’s sug­ges­tions by com­pli­cat­ing the model sketched of the uni­verse as needed.

He says some­thing hap­pens by “chance” if it is with­out pur­pose or sig­nif­i­cance, not part of anyone’s plan, and might very well not have been. If some­one asks why an event occurred, if it occurred by chance then the cor­rect answer is “There is no rea­son or expla­na­tion; it just hap­pened.” (p. 51). This is not to say that there is no expla­na­tion of any kind (eg. nec­es­sary antecedent con­di­tions or per­haps even a suf­fi­cient cause), but only that it serves no end (I take this to mean some­thing like that it wasn’t a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for some future good). van Inwa­gen describes a sit­u­a­tion in which a man loses his wife to a car acci­dent and asks “why?”—it would be cruel to explain the car acci­dent to him in depth. He is ask­ing about the pur­pose, not the cause, of the accident.

Peter van Inwa­gen says there might not be a spe­cific one.

How­ever, there is most cer­tainly a gen­eral expla­na­tion. On van Inwagen’s view God is in full con­trol. This means that God cre­ated every­thing and sus­tains its exis­tence and causal pow­ers. He knows every­thing in advance and even chooses to devi­ate from His typ­i­cal sus­tain­ing activ­i­ties, some­times endow­ing par­ti­cles and struc­tures with dif­fer­ent causal pow­ers in order to sub­vert the course of his­tory for His own pur­poses. God has a pur­pose, or pur­poses, on this view, and such will be accomplished.

He says a lit­tle more about God’s “plan”. He defines God’s plan as the sum of His decrees. His decrees are those things He directly causes and the things nec­es­sar­ily entailed by those things He directly causes. Knowl­edge of an event alone, even if held in advance, does not imply that such an event is part of God’s plan. van Inwa­gen gives the exam­ple of lies. God may have known in advance that peo­ple would tell lies, but those lies them­selves may not have been part of His plan. There may be decrees that God issues in reac­tion to events He did not decree (eg. the mirac­u­lous heal­ing of a knife wound that itself wasn’t decreed by God). Reac­tive decrees are not part of God’s “plan” either.

If this lan­guage makes you uncom­fort­able, just sup­ply your own terms for the dif­fer­ent modes of decree. For exam­ple, call God’s “plan” His “per­fect will”, and those things that occur out­side of His plan His “per­mis­sive will”, and come up with a name for His reac­tive decrees, etc.

van Inwa­gen offers three sources of chance: the free will of ratio­nal crea­tures, nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism, and the ini­tial state of the cre­ated world.

Where God decrees (not com­mands or pre­scribes, but causes) a human’s behav­ior, that behav­ior is not free. How­ever, not all behav­iors are decreed by God. There are some cre­ated things whom God cre­ated with causal pow­ers of a sort that enable them to do things not strictly entailed by God’s decrees (although antecedent con­di­tions nec­es­sary for these behav­iors are sup­plied by God, the pow­ers them­selves are cre­ated by God and given to the crea­tures, and the results of these choices are known in advance by God). Freely made deci­sions of this sort are not part of God’s “plan”, as we are defin­ing God’s plan as the sum of His decrees and these deci­sions are made freely of His decrees. If free deci­sions of this sort are ever made in a way that they are not a part of any human’s plan either, then they are said to be the result of “chance”, where “chance” is some occur­rence that was not designed to serve anybody’s ends.

Next the author con­sid­ers nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism. This is the doc­trine that God’s decrees con­cern­ing par­ti­cles are not strict—they are loose and do not always suf­fi­ciently deter­mine exact out­comes. This is of course, within God’s con­trol as well and if it is the case it must only be by God’s per­mis­sion. He would be able to deter­mine with max­i­mal speci­ficity the exact behav­ior of every par­ti­cle if He so chose. But on this view, He doesn’t. He usu­ally let’s things like, per­haps, quan­tum events occur with prob­a­bil­ity (within bounds He deter­mines). Accord­ing to this pic­ture of prov­i­den­tial quan­tum mechan­ics, chance events occur where they are not decreed by God or strictly entailed by His decrees.

Finally van Inwa­gen con­sid­ers the ini­tial state of things. This func­tions sim­i­larly to nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism, as the pic­ture of Cre­ation painted is one of inde­ter­min­ism. God would decree some­thing like “let X or Y be”, and then as a result either X or Y would be where God did not spec­ify which. On this view then, He may have spec­i­fied a great num­ber of qual­i­ties when Cre­at­ing, but left plenty up to chance.

He also argues that if God had no good rea­son for choos­ing between X and Y (say, whether thus and such a neb­ula were pur­ple as opposed to pink, or whether there were one addi­tional olive tree in the Gar­den, etc.—use your imag­i­na­tion), and yet God chose, then such would be an arbi­trary decision—a deci­sion made with­out suf­fi­cient rea­son. Rather he prefers to think that God would issue decrees for suf­fi­cient rea­sons and that some would be loose and allow chance to play a part in their out­comes. For exam­ple, God would have suf­fi­cient rea­sons for cre­at­ing the Gar­den with a numer­i­cal range of trees, but not really care about the exact number.

What does van Inwa­gen get out of this view? For one, it might be the case that God has good rea­son for per­mit­ting evil, but that par­tic­u­lar evils occur with­out spe­cific rea­son. To be clear, there are prob­a­bly many spe­cific evils that God, in reac­tion to the Fall and sub­se­quent events out­side His decree although not out­side His knowl­edge and per­mis­sion, orches­trated in order to accom­plish future goods. The trial and cru­ci­fix­ion of Jesus of Nazareth comes to mind. Addi­tion­ally this piece does not deny that God is capa­ble of mirac­u­lous “inter­ven­tion” (remem­ber that on this view the exis­tence and causal pow­ers of every par­ti­cle are due to God’s activ­ity so it’s not as if He ever needs to “break” a phys­i­cal law or some­thing like that, only alter His own sus­tain­ing and empow­er­ing behav­ior). So God could pre­vent many evils that occur by chance. And He likely does.

van Inwa­gen briefly men­tions Cain’s mur­der­ing of Abel and says that per­haps God had rea­son to allow Cain the free­dom to do evil, and while He knew about the mur­der in advance and had the power to stop it, did not directly cause it and the fact that it was a mur­der instead of, say, a betrayal of another sort—a lie or a non-​​fatal bru­tal­ity, etc.—was entirely due to chance. This could be because Cain had no spe­cific ends which the mur­der served, which is not to deny that he had moti­va­tions for the mur­der, only that the mur­der served no pur­pose. If you like you can con­sider details about the mur­der as occur­ring by chance, like the fact that it occurred at thus and such a time or was accom­plished by stran­gling instead of stab­bing or vice versa, etc. The author also briefly men­tions that for some Chris­tians, an early death is itself not nec­es­sar­ily a misfortune.

So God may have good rea­sons for allow­ing evil, but not for allow­ing this or that par­tic­u­lar evil.

The piece is obvi­ously much more elab­o­rate than my review of it, and many inter­est­ing appli­ca­tions of this view are con­sid­ered that I do not have room to treat here. The read­ing through of the author’s con­sid­er­a­tions and illus­tra­tions is an expe­ri­ence that itself seems to do some per­sua­sive work on the reader, and so if you find that you are get­ting emo­tion­ally wound up, I rec­om­mend read­ing it for your­self (leave a com­ment and I will email you the PDF).

In the mean­time, what should I say by way of assess­ment? First, I like what we get out of the view. Aside from briefly sketch­ing a model of divine prov­i­dence that pre­serves free will within the non-​​negotiables of divine omnipo­tence and omni­science, van Inwa­gen carves out room for chance. This in turn frees us from hav­ing to spec­u­late as to the pos­si­ble good that could come out of each and every instance of evil or pos­si­ble evil, some of which are quite frankly very bizarre, grotesque, and deeply hor­ri­fy­ing. This often results in some very twisted, far-​​out theod­i­cies, both on the schol­arly level and in pop the­ol­ogy. Some­times bad things seem to just hap­pen for no good rea­son. Call­ing tragedy “tragedy” brings a cer­tain satisfaction.

And some­times good things hap­pen with­out pur­pose too—or equally good options are given to us by God along with the choice to pick between them. God prob­a­bly did not pick out your lip­stick this morn­ing and He may not care whether my wife and I try to get preg­nant this month or next year. This is not to deny that God cares about you and me, is a good lis­tener, or is inti­mately involved in our lives just as the fact that I do not care whether my son col­ors with the blue or red marker does not indi­cate that I do not care about him or his activ­i­ties or that I won’t be engaged in the deci­sion if he wants me to be.

That said, a num­ber of crit­i­cisms arise in response to var­i­ous aspects of this piece. Let’s start with the less sig­nif­i­cant and work our way up. The orig­i­nal moti­va­tion for read­ing this piece was to hear van Inwagen’s case for nat­ural inde­ter­mi­nacy. What he does say about it, how­ever, isn’t in its defense. He describes it but does not give any rea­sons to think it exists. Nor does he treat objec­tions to it. Surely his project can suc­ceed with­out it, but for what it’s worth, inso­far as he treats it in this par­tic­u­lar piece, he fails to give any good rea­sons for affirm­ing it.

To me, any inde­ter­mi­nacy under­mines the Prin­ci­ple of Suf­fi­cient Rea­son and results in an incom­pre­hen­si­ble meta­physic that destroys the empir­i­cal sci­ences. This would include inde­ter­mi­nacy in the Cre­ative decrees as well. If God decreed some­thing like “let X or Y be” with­out spec­i­fy­ing which and thereby leav­ing the out­come to chance, then what pos­si­ble force would deter­mine the out­come? Surely van Inwa­gen would want to deny that “chance” is any sort of force inde­pen­dent of God, for such would under­mine ase­ity and the con­tin­gency of every­thing on God’s char­ac­ter and deci­sions. But with­out a force exter­nal to the decree of God, what could pos­si­ble sup­ply the result of an indef­i­nite decree?

Unlike the author, I would pre­fer to think of God as hav­ing the abil­ity to make arbi­trary deci­sions. This would ground the out­come of a divine decree in the cre­ative will of God every time, regard­less of whether He had good rea­son for it. It strikes me as far and away more plau­si­ble that every phe­nom­e­non would have a suf­fi­cient rea­son, either in antecedent con­di­tions which suf­fi­ciently deter­mine it, or in a free agent. That’s exactly what agency is—the abil­ity to determine.

How can some­thing, other than agency itself, not be determined?

This brings me to free will. At the very least God has free will and is capa­ble of mak­ing uncaused deci­sions. His char­ac­ter sets the bounds of His deci­sions, but to say that every deci­sion God makes is a nec­es­sary and inescapable result of His char­ac­ter makes God Him­self a very bizarre piece of meta­phys­i­cal machin­ery with­out any per­son­al­ity or cre­ativ­ity. So, if it is the case that God’s will is free then surely there is room for “chance” in the world, where “chance” describes those par­tic­u­lars that are not absolutely nec­es­sary for God’s pur­poses. I think this sal­vages the ini­tial state of things as a source of chance after doubt­ing as much due to the rejec­tion of all indeterminacy.

Next, I have come to believe that humans have free will not unlike God, although this is less obvi­ous than the free­dom of God’s own will. In which case such would be another poten­tial source of chance. Why did I choose the cin­na­mon oat­meal packet this morn­ing instead of the straw­berry one? I just did.

Why did my friend cheat on her hus­band? She just did. The­o­ret­i­cally any­thing you can say by way of explanation—she was lonely because her hus­band was on a busi­ness trip, she had daddy issues, etc. would only give con­text to the sit­u­a­tion. Another woman in the same posi­tion could have done oth­er­wise. She could have done oth­er­wise. But she abused her free will; there’s noth­ing else behind that.

When my friend lost his job because of gen­uine libel against him and couldn’t find a job despite apply­ing for lit­er­ally hun­dreds of them, and he and his wife strug­gled to acquire food and gas money, I con­soled him with the phrase “that sucks”, not “every­thing hap­pens for a reason”.

Next, while I reject nat­ural inde­ter­mi­nacy, there seems to be the pos­si­bil­ity that some nat­ural evils, such as global warm­ing, the evo­lu­tion of rabies and HIV, the extinc­tion of wild salmon, the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of North Ida­hoan water sources by mer­cury and other met­als, etc. may be the result of the aggre­gate of human actions, includ­ing actions that served nobody’s ends or of unin­ten­tional byprod­ucts of actions that served no ends, self­ish ends, or even well-​​intended ends. In this way many nat­ural evils may be by “chance”, although not for the rea­sons van Inwa­gen suggests.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the bat­tle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intel­li­gent, nor favor to those with knowl­edge, but time and chance hap­pen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the chil­dren of man are snared at an evil time, when it sud­denly falls upon them.

–Eccle­si­asts 9:11–12

That said, we are sim­ply not in a posi­tion to know what God’s ends are and how they may be served by par­tic­u­lar evils. While spec­u­lat­ing about how this or that evil might serve God’s pur­poses we are very likely peer­ing beyond our purview of cos­mic his­tory. This seems to be equally a prob­lem for van Inwa­gen as for the per­son advanc­ing a bizarre, spec­u­la­tive theodicy.

There­fore I am most open to the fol­low­ing as pos­si­ble loci of chance:

1. The ini­tial state of things, but due to the like­li­hood of there hav­ing been arbi­trary deci­sions made on God’s part and not due to any indef­i­nite­ness in His decrees.

2. Freely made deci­sions (crea­turely and divine).

3. Some or per­haps all “nat­ural” evils, but due to the like­li­hood that they are some­how the result of the free actions of men and angels and not due to any inde­ter­mi­nacy in physics.

How­ever —and this may be the bot­tom line for me—I do think van Inwagen’s pro­posal might under­mine divine benev­o­lence on the basis of the fact on van Inwagen’s view, some evils occur that serve no pur­pose, which God could have pre­vented. So, if God were benev­o­lent and max­i­mally mer­ci­ful, wouldn’t He want to pre­vent those evils that occur that do not in some way ulti­mately serve His ends? Per­haps if we grant that God is max­i­mally good and that there are evils that do not seem to serve His pur­poses, which He is able to pre­vent, we could con­clude that it is more likely that even such evils, which seem triv­ial or point­less to us, do in fact have some ulti­mate cos­mic rea­son for being permitted.

So if this is cor­rect, then there would be room for chance in amoral mat­ters, and per­haps even in the par­tic­u­lars of cer­tain evils, but every instance of evil, as well as its sever­ity, has a pur­pose, because God would not let any ounce of evil go to waste, and squeezes every bit of glory out of it for Him­self, and of good­ness for His sheep, that He pos­si­bly can.

Maybe, just maybe, every­thing does hap­pen for a reason.

Why God Doesn’t Save Everyone

I inter­mit­tently fol­low a blog called Parch­ment and Pen, but haven’t ever com­mented on any of the posts until today. The author of the post, Sam Storms, con­sid­ers why God doesn’t just save every­body, weighs the Calvin­ist and Armin­ian answers, and finds the Armin­ian posi­tion want­ing. He quotes John Piper, who says,

Both [Calvin­ists and Armini­ans] can say that God wills for all to be saved. But then when queried why all are not saved both Calvin­ist and Armin­ian answer that God is com­mit­ted to some­thing even more valu­able than sav­ing all… What does God will more than sav­ing all? The answer given by Armini­ans is that human self-​​determination and the pos­si­ble result­ing love rela­tion­ship with God are more valu­able than sav­ing all peo­ple by sov­er­eign, effi­ca­cious grace. The answer given by Calvin­ists is that the greater value is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy…

And he’s more or less cor­rect in his sum­mary of the two posi­tions. With­out speak­ing for any­body else, my posi­tion (which, on this issue, is more con­gru­ent with the Armin­ian one) is that it is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms to talk about forced love, even if you call it “sov­er­eign, effi­ca­cious grace”. And God wants our love. This can be expressed in philo­soph­i­cally tech­ni­cal lan­guage, but I don’t think it needs to be.

But Mr. Storms raises some great points. He made me iden­tify a bit of irony in my posi­tion: If love can­not be forced, then how can I demand of God that He must love every­body in a sav­ing fash­ion? Put another way, if true love is freely given, then the dis­tri­b­u­tion of God’s love must not be made under any coer­cion. And surely God doesn’t owe sin­ners any­thing — they deserve hell for their actions, fair and square.

How is the non-​​Calvinist to respond to that? Well for starters I agree that it is God’s pre­rog­a­tive to save whomever He wills, and I grant that jus­tice alone doesn’t demand that God save every­body (or any­body at all, for that matter).

But the Bible clearly teaches that God is max­i­mally lov­ing. And it is less lov­ing to save less people.

This is not a char­ac­ter trait foisted upon Him, but one that He sov­er­eignly and con­tin­u­ously chooses to exhibit, just like His jus­tice. It is the char­ac­ter of God to love every­body, and that’s why He desires every­body to be saved.

So what about the Calvin­ist argu­ment, then? Doesn’t God want to exhibit sav­ing grace as well as damn­ing wrath, such that He needs to do some elect­ing and some repro­bat­ing? This is the pre­sump­tion to which I felt com­pelled to respond.

First of all, I don’t think wrath is an attribute of God. Jus­tice is. Wrath is the result of when a just per­son wit­nesses injus­tice. But jus­tice doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily result in wrath. It only demands that wrongs get righted. If you ain’t got no wrongs, ain’t no wrongs need to be righted.

In that way, jus­tice can exist in a vacuum.

This directly con­trasts love, which must be actively present within the rela­tion­ship of two or more peo­ple in order to have any existence.

Love can­not exist in a vacuum.

But aside from the con­tention that God is not by nature wrath­ful, I have this com­plaint against the Calvin­ist answer to why God doesn’t save everybody:

To say that the dis­play of wrath requires repro­ba­tion is false.

It pre­sumes that wrath is not dis­played in elec­tion. But God’s wrath is equally dis­played in elec­tion! The dif­fer­ence is that in elec­tion God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus instead of the elect, whereas in repro­ba­tion His wrath is poured out on the sin­ners who deserve it. That’s what it means for the atone­ment to serve as a “pro­pi­ti­a­tion” for our sins. God’s wrath isn’t diluted in any fash­ion what­so­ever. Jesus’ death sat­is­fied it all. Entirely.

If you hold the Calvin­ist posi­tion on this issue after read­ing this post, that’s entirely up to you, but I hope you’re con­vinced that it shouldn’t be on the basis of this idea that God has to repro­bate peo­ple in order to dis­play his wrath.

The Calvinist Reading of Gen. 50:20

Dur­ing the course of nearly every dia­logue with my Calvin­ist broth­ers in Christ (whom I love but with whom I occa­sion­ally dis­agree), Gen­e­sis 50:20 is brought up as a flag­ship exam­ple of the allegedly Bib­li­cal doc­trine of Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence. Reformed the­olo­gian Wayne Gru­dem defines this doc­trine as “God coop­er­ates with cre­ated things in every action, direct­ing their dis­tinc­tive prop­er­ties to cause them to act as they do” (Gru­dem, 1994, p. 317).

Grudem’s meta­physics are never quite clear, but the phrase “cause them to act” is clear enough. Even though Grudem’s sys­tem­atic the­ol­ogy gives a cer­tain amount of lip ser­vice to the exis­tence of some­thing like a “will”, Gru­dem is ulti­mately a determinist.

And that would locate him smack dab in the main­stream of Reformed the­ol­ogy, accord­ing to Calvin­ist the­olo­gian and Pre­sup­po­si­tional apol­o­gist Gor­don Had­don Clark. Clark warns us not to assume that the denial of free will is “hyper–Calvin­ism”. He exposits the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith (the “high water­mark” of Protes­tantism), the Shorter Cat­e­chism, and like state­ments based on the cen­tury or so of dis­cus­sion lead­ing up to them. And his find­ings? All Reformed state­ments of faith and proper Reformed the­olo­gians are full-​​blown deter­min­ists (Clark, 1961, pp. 28–32).

Any talk of man’s “free agency”, “nat­ural lib­erty”, of “Com­pat­i­bal­ism”, or God never being the “author” of sin, to be found in the main­stream of the Reformed tra­di­tion is to be under­stood entirely deter­min­is­ti­cally, accord­ing to Clark. That is to say that the Reformed doc­trine of con­cur­rence holds man’s will is causally deter­mined in every detail by God, though some would say that because it is not deter­mined by phys­i­cal means, it can be called “free”. In this way God’s prov­i­dence is said to “estab­lish” (cause and con­trol) man’s will (and is there­fore “com­pat­i­ble” with it). Sim­i­larly God is said not to be the “author” of sin, in that while He causes oth­ers to sin, He some­how never directly sins Himself.

Call it what you will.

This is not to accuse my Calvin­ist broth­ers of the “Fatal­ism” label they are so quick to throw off when called “Deter­min­ists”. I’m not accus­ing them of believ­ing in any force in the uni­verse out­side of God. I under­stand that they believe that it is God Who is doing the determining.

And that’s exactly the prob­lem. It makes God the cause of evil (even if not the “author” of it under the man­gled, Reformed under­stand­ing of “author”). But being the cause of evil is bad enough, as it under­mines the omnibenev­o­lence of God and oth­er­wise runs roughshod over the Bib­li­cal pas­sages teach­ing God’s love and man’s free­dom and responsibility.

So the rel­e­vant part about my Calvin­ist brother’s asser­tion that Gen. 50:20 teaches Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence is that it would mean that evil actions are not only “will­ingly” per­formed by their sub­jects, but also wholly, suf­fi­ciently, and causally deter­mined directly by God.

Upon inves­ti­ga­tion I have been pleased to find lex­i­cal, gram­mat­i­cal, and con­tex­tual rea­sons to lov­ingly but firmly disagree.

Here’s the verse in question:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many peo­ple should be kept alive, as they are today.

–Gen­e­sis 50:20 (ESV)

My posi­tion is that it is more plau­si­ble than not that the author of this verse did not intend it to teach Prov­i­den­tial Con­cur­rence or to con­sti­tute an exam­ple of it.

It seems the ini­tial ques­tion is what the word “meant” meant to the speaker in the nar­ra­tive, and to the author who recorded it. Here’s why I don’t think it meant “causally determined”:

1. Ancient Hebrews almost never discussed metaphysics.

Even the thor­oughly Calvin­ist Pres­by­ter­ian B. B. Warfield reluc­tantly admits, in the con­text God’s “irre­sistible prov­i­den­tial gov­ern­ment of the world” that “its meta­physics never come to explicit dis­cus­sion” in the Hebrew scrip­tures (Warfield, 1909).

2. Perhaps as a consequence of (1), ancient Hebrew almost never addresses metaphysics; it’s nearly always observational and pictorial.

The Tyn­dale Bible Dic­tio­nary explains that “Hebrew… con­cen­trates on obser­va­tion more than reflec­tion. That is, things are gen­er­ally observed accord­ing to their appear­ance as phe­nom­ena, not ana­lyzed as to their inward being or essence. Effects are observed but not traced through a series of causes… Hebrew is a pic­to­r­ial lan­guage…” (Elwell & Com­fort, 2001).

3. The meaning of the underlying Hebrew word חֲשָׁבָ (“Chashab” — Strong’s H2803), is nothing close to “metaphysically cause”.

Rather it’s “to think, account”, “to plan, devise, mean”, “to charge, impute, reckon”, “to esteem, value, regard”, or “to invent.” (Strong, 1996).

4. The use of the underlying Hebrew verb in nearly every other context in the Hebrew scriptures is quite obviously not intended to indicate metaphysical causation.

Usu­ally it’s some­thing like “regard” or “scheme” (for starters, this verb in the same mor­pho­log­i­cal state as it is in Gen. 50:20 can be found in 1 Sam. 18:25, 14:13, Esth. 8:3, 9:24–25, Job 35:2, Ps. 21:12, 14:3, 5, Isa. 33:8, 53:3–4, Jer. 11:19, 18:8, 48:2, 49:20, 30, 50:45, Lam. 2:8, and Amos 6:5).

5. The stem of the underlying Hebrew verb does not generally communicate causation.

This verb is found in the “Qal” form, that is, its unmod­i­fied root. While Qal verbs can com­mu­ni­cate actions…

6. …there is a stem in Hebrew entirely dedicated to indicating active causation (“Hiphil”).

There­fore the author could have specif­i­cally indi­cated cau­sa­tion if he had wanted to. For exam­ple, in Joshua 1:6b the author writes the word for “inherit” (נָחַל, “nachal”) with its Hiphil stem (תַּנְחִיל). Ren­dered in Eng­lish, this phrase there­fore reads “you shall cause this peo­ple to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” (ESV).

Note that not even verbs with the Hiphil stem nec­es­sar­ily indi­cate meta­phys­i­cal cau­sa­tion, as God is not likely say­ing that Joshua will be in direct, “Prov­i­den­tially Con­cur­rent”, or “Com­pat­i­bal­ist” con­trol of every action and inten­tion of the peo­ple in order to lead them into the Promised Land (also cf. Bullinger, 1898, p. 821 for list of idiomatic active verb usages in Bib­li­cal Hebrew; I learned of Bullinger via Dave Miller & Kyle Butt, who call on Bullinger’s list for insight into God’s hard­en­ing of Pharoah’s heart–the other flag­ship exam­ple offered up in favor of the Calvin­is­tic for­mu­la­tion of divine prov­i­dence; I learned of the Miller & Butt arti­cle via Bran­don Ridley).

Even still, the author of Gen. 50:20 didn’t even use the causative mor­pho­log­i­cal device that was avail­able to him; he specif­i­cally chose instead a non-​​causative stem.

7. The “meant” translation of Darby, ASV, AV/​KJV, ESV, NASB95, NKJV, RSV and any others is metaphysically ambiguous.

If the trans­la­tors had thought that this verb meant “cause” in any meta­phys­i­cal sense, there are plenty of ways they could have indi­cated so in trans­la­tion (like, for exam­ple, “cause”).

The other trans­la­tions only worsen the Calvinist’s case:

• “devised” (Young’s Lit­eral Translation)

• “intended” (NET, NIV, TNIV, NLTNRSV)

• “planned” (God’ Word, NIrV)

• “turned” (New Cen­tury Version)

• “used” (The Message)

8. Many commentaries agree with me.

To take just one exam­ple, Pashall and Hobbs write that Joseph did not say to his broth­ers “…that God caused them to think evil against him, for they were respon­si­ble for their own thoughts. In his wis­dom and power, how­ever, God used their evil pur­poses to achieve his will.” (1972, p. 52).

On top of the above 8 points, I am still left with the hermeneu­ti­cal ques­tion about whether the speaker in the nar­ra­tive (Joseph) is intended to by the author of the nar­ra­tive (Moses) be a taken as meta­phys­i­cal author­ity to begin with. Else­where in the Hebrew scrip­tures we find our heros and fore­fa­thers say­ing and doing out­right bone-​​headed things. It’s not always clear which por­tions of the nar­ra­tives found in scrip­ture are meant to be didactic.

Now, you’re telling me that this is one of your flag­ship verses? This is among the clear­est, strongest evi­dence for your cen­trally impor­tant doc­trine that you can come up with?

I am no Hebrew scholar and really I am no scholar at all (at present). I con­sider this some­thing of a place­holder for future study. Even still, these seem like impor­tant points, and I would need them explained by any­one argu­ing for the Calvin­ist read­ing of Gen­e­sis 50:20.

What of the alter­na­tives to the Reformed doc­trine of Con­cur­rence? Among the many is the Clas­si­cal Armin­ian doc­trine of Con­cur­rence or the more philo­soph­i­cally stated “Molin­ism”, which at present looks far more coher­ent with the Bib­li­cal data to me.

Why Frankfurt’s Examples Aren’t Counter

Long ago, while under­go­ing the most pro­found par­a­digm shift I’ve expe­ri­enced to date, I ran across what I have since come to under­stand are noto­ri­ous coun­terex­am­ples to the view that moral respon­si­bil­ity is grounded in the abil­ity for an agent to choose between alter­na­tives. Harry G. Frank­furt, who also wrote a hilar­i­ous work called “On Bull­shit”, pro­posed these so-​​called coun­terex­am­ples to the view he called the “Prin­ci­ple of Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties” in a paper in the year 1969 [5]. The below block quotes are taken from that paper with the excep­tion of the quote from a related Wikipedia article.

Frank­furt­ian coun­terex­am­ples have run in and out of my mind since then and I recently got the inspi­ra­tion to read Frankfurt’s orig­i­nal paper and set down in writ­ing my basic crit­i­cism of it. If I were to ever get some­thing like this into a pub­lish­able for­mat, it would require research into how these thought exper­i­ments have been treated in the lit­er­a­ture since ’69, but I think that get­ting out my per­sonal reac­tion to the orig­i­nal paper is suit­able blog­ging material.

Wikipedia does a fair job of describ­ing Frank­furt­ian coun­terex­am­ples to the Prin­ci­ple of Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties and their significance:

The prin­ci­ple of alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties forms part of an influ­en­tial argu­ment for the incom­pat­i­bil­ity of respon­si­bil­ity and causal deter­min­ism, as detailed below:

(1) PAP: An agent is respon­si­ble for an action only if said agent is free.
(2) An agent is free only if causal deter­min­ism is false.
(3) There­fore, an agent is respon­si­ble for an action only if causal deter­min­ism is false.

Tra­di­tion­ally, com­pat­i­bilists (defend­ers of the com­pat­i­bil­ity of moral respon­si­bil­ity and deter­min­ism, like Alfred Ayer, Wal­ter Ter­ence Stace[,] and Daniel C. Den­nett) try to reject premise two, argu­ing that, prop­erly under­stood, free will is not incom­pat­i­ble with determinism…

From the PAP def­i­n­i­tion “a per­son is morally respon­si­ble for what he has done only if he could have done oth­er­wise”, Frank­furt infers that a per­son is not morally respon­si­ble for what he has done if he could not have done oth­er­wise – a point with which he takes issue: our the­o­ret­i­cal abil­ity to do oth­er­wise, he says, does not nec­es­sar­ily make it pos­si­ble for us to do otherwise.

Frankfurt’s exam­ples are sig­nif­i­cant because they sug­gest an alter­na­tive way to defend com­pat­i­bil­ism, in par­tic­u­lar by reject­ing the first premise of the argu­ment. Accord­ing to this view, respon­si­bil­ity is com­pat­i­ble with deter­min­ism because respon­si­bil­ity does not require the free­dom to do otherwise.

Frankfurt’s exam­ples involve agents who are intu­itively respon­si­ble for their behav­iour even though they lack the free­dom to act otherwise.


While read­ing his paper, I was sur­prised by how much intu­itive appeal and pop­u­lar­ity among philoso­phers that Frank­furt con­cedes up front to Incompatibilism:

A dom­i­nant role in nearly all recent inquiries into the free-​​will prob­lem has been played by a prin­ci­ple which I shall call “the prin­ci­ple of alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties.” This prin­ci­ple states that a per­son is morally respon­si­ble for what he has done only if he could have done oth­er­wise… no one, how­ever, seems inclined to deny or even to ques­tion that the prin­ci­ple of alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties… is true. It has gen­er­ally seemed so over­whelm­ingly plau­si­ble that some philoso­phers have even char­ac­ter­ized it as an a pri­ori truth. Peo­ple whose accounts of free will or of moral respon­si­bil­ity are rad­i­cally at odds evi­dently find in it a firm and con­ve­nient com­mon ground upon which they can prof­itably take their oppos­ing stands.

In the mid­dle of his intro­duc­tion, he even goes so far as to con­cede that

…a per­son who has been coerced to do some­thing did not do it freely and is not morally respon­si­ble for hav­ing done it.

This made me curi­ous as to how exactly he could reject PAP. I found myself sur­prised yet again at the end of the paper, when he merely pro­poses an amend­ment to the prin­ci­ple, rather than an out­right rejec­tion of it alto­gether. In some ways this con­di­tioned me for a more char­i­ta­ble read­ing of Frank­furt than I was antic­i­pat­ing, but in other ways it laid the ground­work for a stronger argu­ment on Frankfurt’s part. The less you are try­ing to prove, the stronger your case for it can be. And if his amended prin­ci­ple plays to the Com­pat­i­bilist, then his paper has the chance of being more dif­fi­cult to cri­tique than I had per­haps ini­tially expected.

At any rate, after the up-​​front pleas­antries, Frank­furt pulls no punches in ham­mer­ing us with his thesis:

But the prin­ci­ple of alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties is false.

He goes on:

A per­son may well be morally respon­si­ble for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise.

…there may be cir­cum­stances that con­sti­tute suf­fi­cient con­di­tions for a cer­tain action to be per­formed by some­one and that there­fore make it impos­si­ble for the per­son to do oth­er­wise, but that do not actu­ally impel the per­son to act or in any way pro­duce his action. A per­son may do some­thing in cir­cum­stances that leave him no alter­na­tive to doing it, with­out these cir­cum­stances actu­ally mov­ing him or lead­ing him to do it-​​without them play­ing any role, indeed, in bring­ing it about that he does what he does.

Here is how he sets it up:

…Jones decides for rea­sons of his own to do some­thing, then some­one threat­ens him with a very harsh penalty (so harsh that any rea­son­able per­son would sub­mit to the threat) unless he does pre­cisely that, and Jones does it. Will we hold Jones morally respon­si­ble for what he has done? I think this will depend on the roles we think were played, in lead­ing him to act, by his orig­i­nal deci­sion and by the threat.

After this he tin­kers with some vari­ables to describe two dis­tinct but sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, which finally lead up to his main counterexample:

…Now con­sider a third pos­si­bil­ity. Jones was nei­ther stam­peded by the threat nor indif­fer­ent to it. The threat impressed him, as it would impress any rea­son­able man, and he would have sub­mit­ted to it whole­heart­edly if he had not already made a deci­sion that coin­cided with the one demanded of him. In fact, how­ever, he per­formed the action in ques­tion on the basis of the deci­sion he had made before the threat was issued. When he acted, he was not actu­ally moti­vated by the threat but solely by the con­sid­er­a­tions that had orig­i­nally com­mended the action to him. It was not the threat that led him to act, though it would have done so if he had not already pro­vided him­self with a suf­fi­cient motive for per­form­ing the action in question.

…I think we would be jus­ti­fied in regard­ing his moral respon­si­bil­ity for what he did as unaf­fected by the threat even though, since he would in any case have sub­mit­ted to the threat, he could not have avoided doing what he did.

…When we excuse a per­son who has been coerced, we do not excuse him because he was unable to do oth­er­wise. Even though a per­son is sub­ject to a coer­cive force that pre­cludes his per­form­ing any action but one, he may nonethe­less bear full moral respon­si­bil­ity for per­form­ing that action.

…For the irre­sistibil­ity of the threat to which Jones is sub­jected might well be taken to mean that he can­not but per­form the action he per­forms. And yet the threat, since Jones per­forms the action with­out regard to it, does not reduce his moral respon­si­bil­ity for what he does.

The first issue that strikes me about Frankfurt’s exam­ple is the sharp divi­sion it makes between cog­ni­tive states and behav­ior. Jones is intu­itively respon­si­ble for his actions pre­cisely because he orig­i­nally freely decided upon them (he may not have been able to behave dif­fer­ently, but he was able to will dif­fer­ently). And this is all the Prin­ci­ple of Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties addresses to begin with. The details that Frank­furt adds all occur after the free choice was made and if you will remem­ber, he even admits that

…a per­son who has been coerced to do some­thing did not do it freely and is not morally respon­si­ble for hav­ing done it.

So surely if Jones’ cog­ni­tive states were them­selves causally deter­mined we wouldn’t intuit that he is morally respon­si­ble for them. So the “Com­pat­i­bilist” world that Frank­furt paints is one which is deter­min­is­tic only in regards to exter­nal behav­iors, but in which agents some­how enjoy free­dom of the will in terms of their own cog­ni­tive states and are thus morally respon­si­ble for their actions only when their choices line up with them (which could even be believed to hold for every action, as I take Leibniz’s Occa­sion­al­ism to assert). But such a world is hardly deter­min­is­tic, as there are things in it which are not causally deter­mined (cog­ni­tive states).

There­fore it seems that not only do Frankfurt’s exam­ples fail to actu­ally counter the Prin­ci­ple of Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties, but they also fail to faith­fully rep­re­sent a full-​​blown Com­pat­i­bilist metaphysic.

Post Script
Inci­den­tally, I think the alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties in Frankfurt’s work cor­re­spond to what I else­where call “real” pos­si­bil­i­ties: those alter­nate meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties that dis­tin­guish worlds which share phys­i­cal prop­er­ties and a full his­tory con­gru­ent with our own up to a given point, and between which free agents can choose. I take Frank­furt to be say­ing that there can be moral respon­si­bil­ity in worlds lack­ing real behav­ioral possibilities.