Freedom and determinism

May 20, 2007

The Free Will Defence involves a claim about logical impossibility, namely, that it is logically impossible for God to (sufficiently) cause a creature to freely perform an action. Thus Plantinga writes:

“Now God can create free creatures, but He cannot causally or otherwise determine them to do only what is right; for if He does so then they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; but he cannot create the possibility of moral evil and at the same time prohibit its actuality. And as it turned out, some of the free creatures God created exercised their freedom to do what is wrong: hence moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes err, however, in no way tells against God’s omnipotence or against His goodness; for if He could forestall the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” (God and Other Minds, 132)

He considers an objection which “challenges the assumption, implicit in the above statement of the free will defense, that free will and causal determinism are logically compatible.” Consider Antony Flew who writes:

“To say that a person could have helped doing something is not to say that what he did was in principle unpredictable nor that there were no causes anywhere which determined that he would as a matter of fact act in this way. It is to say that if he had chosen to do otherwise he would have been able to do so; that there were alternatives, within the capacities of one of his physical strength, of his I.Q., of his knowledge, open to a person in his situation. …There is no contradiction involved in saying that a particular action or choice was: both free, and could have been helped, and so on; and predictable, or even foreknown, and explicable in terms of caused causes. …If it is really logically possible for an action to be both freely chosen and yet fully determined by caused causes, then the keystone argument of the Free Will Defence, that there is contradiction in speaking of God so arranging the laws of nature that all men always as a matter of fact freely choose to do the right, cannot hold.” (“Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom”, 150, 151, 153)

What do you think of the in/compatibility of freedom and determinism? Do you agree with Flew or with Plantinga when he says that “It seems to me altogether paradoxical to say of anyone all of whose actions are causally determined that on some occasions he acts freely.” (God and Other Minds, 134)

I’m curious what you think about this.



  1. Thank you for the post, Jason.

    You know, before i got into philo, all of my Christian education, Calvinistic in nature, points towards determinism.

    Remembering the homework which Plantinga had left us- that there is definitely a great difference between total depravity (Calvinistic) and transworld depravity (Plantinga’s possible worlds,) do allow me to elaborate my past position, though i dare not represent Calvinism for my knowledge is really superficial.

    The Calvinist doctrine of election is that man is in Total Depravity, and is unable to choose salvation without God’s grace. So a calvinist believes that a man cannot freely choose salvation. The doctrine of Irresistible Grace is such that whoever God elects, the man has no way to resist it. And once they are saved, they will not lose salvation- the Perseverance of the Saints. This grace is not based on merits, and is thus Unconditional Election. I know you are not comfortable of this elect biz- mainly because not all will be saved – the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

    Thus we have what is called the Five Points of Calvinism:
    Total Depravity
    Unconditioned Election
    Limited Atonement
    Irresistible Grace
    Perseverance of the saints

    Beautifully acronymed as TULIP.

    I hope you can appreciate why the Calvinist doctrine of grace entails determinism, for given free will, a man is not totally depraved, can resist grace and thus also questions the doctrine of limited atonement. (Although I think we can still retain unconditional election and perseverance of the saints to be coherent to a freewill position.)

    As such i am not quite sure how Plantinga can hold the freewill position, reject compatibilism, and still be a full-fledged calvinist. Hmm.

    As for me, I think the freewill defender is the best solution for the problem of evil – but the fact that plantinga is a calvinist and can still holds that freewill is true makes me curious how this is possible- and indeed very attractive.

  2. Hmm ok so it seems that Plantinga is not a pure calvinist so i cannot seek refuge in him for a compatibilist position..

    Lets see… How about this compatiblist position?:

    A man enjoys freewill. However, his decision to do A is limited by his perception, IQ, knowledge and character- his constitution and disposition. As such given 100% possibility, he can actualise only say 50%. He has freewill in this 50%.
    However, this limitation is not caused by God.

    His constitution and disposition is decided by his genetic traits, which is passed down from his parents’ DNA. The coming together of his parents is limited by the circumstances which bring them together. Similarly, other factors also comes in eg education, friendship, life experiences, that will affect him, but this is caused by other agents. The choosing of friends and the quality of education he has, is also limited by circumstances.

    Now the problem is whether we want to put the coming together of parents as well as the agent’s life experience as pre-determined by God. Hmm we can actually do without that.
    We have to remember that the parents and the people that affect that agent’s action also enjoy 50% freewill and suffer 50% limit. As such God cannot predetermine those circumstances too.

    Thus we seem to have compatibilism – a world where agents enjoying 50% freewill due to their constitution and disposition interact with one another.

    In other words, to say of anyone all of whose actions are causally determined that on some occasions he acts freely is not really paradoxical – the agent has 50% freewill and can choose to act freely, but this 50% freewill is predetermined by other causes- the freewill of agents around him. This is thus a world inter-caused by agents with 50% freewill and 50% limitation. But this 50% limitation is caused by other agents with 50% freewill and 50% limitation. And i can go about linking everyone up spatially in a web, and chronologically in a timeline.

    Where is God in this picture then? This will bring us to Adam. Adam, like any agent, has 50% freewill and 50% limitation due to his constitution and disposition. God predetermined the 50% in Adam, but thats all, He allows him to multiply and to sin. However, this 50% limitation in Adam can swing my position to a compatiblist one.

    How’s that? Just trying. Haha. 🙂

  3. that’s a very interesting post! I’m wondering if you consider Adam free only because of his possessing 50% freewill. If so, perhaps we could say he is 50% free, or possesses only limited freedom. My own position is just like what you mentioned: we are not 100% free but creatures with many limitations. Nonetheless, we have some degree of freedom.

    What i’m unclear about is the following statement:

    “However, this 50% limitation in Adam can swing my position to a compatiblist one.”

    could you explain this a bit more? I’m quite confused as to how to construe it… it seems to have sprung out of nowhere 🙂

    just a quick clarification:
    the compatibilist thinks we can be determined to X and yet be free to X. This is not because the determinism is not 100% but because determinism and freedom are not mutually exclusive. A compatibilist would say that even if we are 100% determined to X, we are still free to X. and when we X, we do so freely.

  4. Oh I see. Thank you for the clarification. Yup I think that kind of swung me back again. Heehee 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: