A Christological Argument Against the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

Many (not all) advocates of libertarian free will endorse the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP):

PAP: S is morally responsible for doing A only if S could have done otherwise.

PAP has come under continual fire ever since Harry Frankfurt’s seminal article in 1969, and many philosophers (including a number of leading libertarians) now accept that PAP is false. Leaving aside the philosophical arguments, however, it seems to me that any orthodox Christian ought to reject PAP on theological grounds.

Yours Sincerely

In an earlier post I offered a response to a specific objection to the doctrine of particular redemption. This objection boils down to the claim that the following two statements are incompatible:

(1) Christ did not die in an atoning sense for S.

(2) The gospel can be sincerely offered to S.

I argued that (1) and (2) can be seen to be compatible by drawing an analogy with Newcomb’s paradox in the case where one of the two boxes turns out to be empty.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant raised some characteristically thoughtful objections to my argument. He and some other readers thought they smelled a rat, in the form of a relevant disanalogy between the two scenarios. In the first part of this post, I’ll first respond directly to Bnonn’s comments; in the second, I’ll try to advance the argument a little further.

Newcomb’s Paradox, Particular Redemption, and Sincere Offers

Newcomb’s paradox is a famous puzzle in decision theory that has provoked much discussion. It has been formulated in different ways, but a standard formulation runs as follows.

The Predictor is a person who is able to make a prediction about a future choice of yours with a very high degree of certainty. (In some versions, the Predictor is infallible — a point to which we will return.) The Predictor invites you to play a game involving two boxes: A and B. Box A is transparent and you can see that it contains $1,000. Box B is opaque. You’re now given a straight binary choice: you may pick either both boxes or only box B. But before you choose, the Predictor informs you that he has already predicted which choice you will make and has arranged the contents of box B accordingly. If he predicted that you will pick only box B then he placed $1,000,000 in that box; but if he predicted that you will pick both boxes then he left box B empty.

The million-dollar question is this: What choice should you make? (The thought experiment assumes, of course, that you want to maximize your winnings!)

A Short Answer to a Quick Question for Calvinists

Arminian theologian Roger Olson has posted a quick question for his Calvinist interlocutors (whoever they may be):

To my Calvinist interlocutors I ask: If free will as uncaused choice is logically incoherent, what about God’s decision to create the world?

Dr. Olson apparently thinks this raises a problem for Calvinists, but I’m really not sure why. The idea, presumably, is that God’s decision to create was uncaused and therefore the idea of an uncaused choice must be logically coherent. But the question has several problematic assumptions lying behind it.

In the first place, few contemporary defenders of libertarian free will (LFW) would concede that it entails uncaused choices. I suspect most Christian philosophers today who hold to LFW accept some version of agent causation. But on that view, free choices aren’t uncaused; they’re caused by the agent (with no prior sufficient cause or explanation). If Dr. Olson thinks that LFW entails uncaused choices (as he seems to do, given the way he poses his question) then I’d say he’s in a minority even among his fellow libertarians.

But leave that quibble aside. The main problem here is that Calvinists needn’t be committed to the idea that LFW is logically incoherent. Yes, there are some Calvinists who take that view. But it isn’t implied by Calvinism as such. A Calvinist can consistently hold that LFW is a coherent idea but that it isn’t actually instantiated (i.e., creatures could have had libertarian free will but don’t in fact have it).

In fact, a Calvinist can go further and say that while LFW may be coherent as such (i.e., there is nothing incoherent about the idea of LFW) it is necessarily false that any creatures have LFW. He may hold (as many Calvinists do) that creaturely LFW is incompatible with divine omniscience or meticulous divine providence. And if God possesses his attributes of omniscience and sovereignty essentially (i.e., he could not fail to possess those attributes) then creaturely LFW must be impossible in the broadly logical sense: there is no possible world in which creatures have LFW. (This is not to say, of course, that creatures couldn’t have free will in some other significant sense.) But it doesn’t follow from the claim that creaturely LFW is broadly logically impossible that LFW as such is logically incoherent. The Calvinist could consistently hold either of the following views:

(1) LFW is logically coherent, and God has LFW, and necessarily no creature has LFW.

(2) LFW is logically coherent, but God does not have LFW, and necessarily no creature has LFW.

So it’s hard to see why Calvinists qua Calvinists should be unsettled by Dr. Olson’s question. He relates an email exchange with John Frame in which (as he recalls) he extracted a concession from Dr. Frame to the effect that LFW must be coherent if we grant that God makes free choices. But why should we consider any such concession significant? It doesn’t raise any special problem for Calvinism.

One final observation. Dr. Olson’s question is also premised on the assumption that we ought to grant that God has LFW if we claim that God freely chose to create. But that assumption isn’t beyond question either. Steve Cowan, for example, has argued that there are problems with construing divine freedom in standard libertarian terms. So this assumption can’t simply be taken for granted. But even if it turns out that God must have LFW, this shouldn’t cause any Calvinist to blush. Calvinists have plenty of other good reasons to deny that creatures have LFW without having to argue that LFW as such is logically incoherent.

Calvinism, Assurance, and Inerrancy

I’m pretty sure that by now I’ve heard all the major objections to Calvinism. Some of them deserve to be taken seriously, although none are weighty enough to overturn the balance (or rather imbalance) of biblical evidence. Others objections, however, I find hard to credit at all. An example of the latter is the claim that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election undermines assurance of salvation. Only this week a student was telling me about a professor at a nearby liberal arts college who had wielded this objection in his theology class. The objection is rarely articulated with precision, but as best I can make out the idea is that a Calvinist can’t enjoy assurance of salvation because he’ll always be fretting about whether or not he’s really elect. What if he’s a reprobate after all? He longs to peer into the secret will of God, but all in vain — for as Deuteronomy 29:29 declares, the “secret things” belong to the Lord God alone.

The Arminian Cause

This post serves as a follow-up to my last post, in response to the comments that my new Arminian friend posted here (on-site) and then here (off-site). (Since he goes here by the username ‘Arminian1’, I will use that name below.) I’m not going to respond point-by-point to his second set of comments, because (i) I simply don’t have the time and energy at the moment, (ii) it would end up so long that I doubt anyone else would have the time, energy, and interest to actually read it, (iii) Steve Hays has already raised some excellent points with which I concur, and (iv) I’m confident enough that anyone who reads Arminian1’s second response, and understands the metaphysical problems I raised for his position, will recognize that  his rebuttal consists largely of hand-waving non-answers (e.g., appeals to divine transcendence, eternity, and omnipotence that somehow function like magic wands to dissolve away, without any further explanation, the paradoxes raised by backward/circular causation).

So for now I will simply address the issue he raised in his first comment. (Since he repeats this point several times in his second response, I suppose this will count as a partial reply to that too!)

Arminianism and the Paper Trail of Prophesied Prayers

This is a follow-up to my earlier post, in response to some comments.

To recap: on Justin Taylor’s blog, a commenter called ‘Arminian’ took issue with an article by John Piper by contending that Calvinism is incompatible with the claim that our prayers can be “genuine causes” of God’s decisions about how to answer those prayers. As he put it, “the person’s request for God to do the thing cannot reasonably considered a cause of God doing the thing.” I responded (here and here) that (1) this is correct, but Piper wasn’t making that claim in the first place, and (2) it’s hard to see how our prayers could be “genuine causes” (in the sense intended by ‘Arminian’) on the classical Arminian view either. This post is an elaboration on (2).

Piper on Predestined Prayers

Uber-blogger Justin Taylor recently posted an excerpt from an online article by  John Piper in which he explains, by way of a fictional dialogue, how God’s foreordination of all things doesn’t imply that petitionary prayers are pointless. One commenter going by the moniker ‘Arminian’ took the opportunity to fire some shots over the fence. I pointed out that this brother was in danger of shooting himself along with the Calvinists, which inevitably drew some more shots in response.

I later posted some follow-up comments, but for some reason they haven’t appeared, even after re-posting them. Since I took the precaution of saving a copy, and since I think Piper’s point is important and worth defending, I’m going to post them here for anyone who might be interested (including ‘Arminian’, whoever he may be). But they’ll only make sense after reading the original post and comments.