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Jumping Ships from Open Theism to Compatibilism

Over the last several years I’ve had a lot of great discussions with Open Theists.

Open Theism — perhaps more properly called open futurism — is the idea that what we imagine as plausible future possibilities are all realizable (and not simply imaginary).

For them all to be realizable, it is asserted, God cannot have certain knowledge of a single future course.

There are 3 big reasons why folks might be interested in this sort of thing:

  • It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”
  • It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.
  • If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever-you-please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).

Sounds pretty good, right?

The bad news is that all 3 of these have major snags (and we’ll get into the specifics in just a moment).

First, let’s talk about what you’d expect if it’s true that these have major snags.

If these contributions are deeply problematic (as opposed to surface-only problems with ready solutions) — like a leaky wooden ship set-sail — you’d expect:

  • Radically novel conjecture (not just refinement or development) in order to “jury-rig.”
  • Selective appeals to solutions pioneered by competing hypotheses in order to “patch.”
  • Logical wildcards to keep the ship’s captain blissfully oblivious to the problems below; to “obfuscate.”

Open Theology is under development, and as such, different Open writers and thinkers have different ideas and approaches. Even so, I’m noticing those “you’d expect” patterns more and more.

This is especially of interest to me as a Christian compatibilist.

Why?

Because compatibilist solutions are very often being procured from the compatibilist “vessel” for at-sea patching! “Hey, that’s ours!”

Compatibilism is the idea that while creatures make decisions as strict functions of who they are and what makes them tick, we still make real choices, can be held responsible, and have free will. The angle is that these “agency things” dwell on a layer of meaningfulness that emerges from discriminatory interests (including interests of God).

It doesn’t seem like it at first, but compatibilism isn’t a big jump from Open Theism.

This is evinced by the fact that our vessels are neighborly enough for “trading”!

Of course, the hope is that Open brethren will eventually jump ship and board the U. S. S. Compatibilism, which is an amazing ship, and which would love a bigger crew to battle (in a friendly way) common theological foes.

Let’s tackle the snags within each of the above 3 contributions.

… In reverse order!

Contribution 1

If we (humans and angels and demons and whatever you please) are “co-writers of history,” we can selectively apply folk responsibility to guarantee the “cleanliness of God’s hands.” In other words, it seems to really help with theodicy. We can always find something other than God to take 100% responsibility for the “bad stuff” (Heb. raah).

Problem 1.1: The Incoherence of Folk Responsibility

Notice “selectively apply folk responsibility.” That “selectively” is important: Folk responsibility is a logical wildcard.

Logical wildcards are hard to directly address because their power is in their ghostly incoherence, vagueness, and inconsistency.

There are two ways to battle these ghosts:

  • Demand definition. (This is rhetorically weak because the ghosts will just fly away.)
  • Show how the ghosts are yielding logical contradictions and/or algorithmic inconsistencies. (This is more rhetorically effective.)

The latter takes place in the following article: “Holding ‘Folk Responsibility’ Responsible.” There, you’ll see definitively how folk responsibility is leveraged inconsistently to “clean God’s hands.”

Problem 1.2: The Triviality & “Raah” of Deterministic Processes

This applies only to the subset of Open Theists who admit that some processes are indeed deterministic (or, would be unless effected by a “libertarian free agent”).

One such process might be the molding of costal cliffs. After millennia of water against rock, each coastal cliff is indescribably unique. So, did God micromanage each cliff face around the world?

A common, and (I think) proper, answer is, “No. There’s a difference between the micromanaged results of deterministic processes and the corollaries thereof. The former has teleology; the latter is just ‘byproduct.'”

Sweet! That’s a patch borrowed from compatibilism. And it works pretty well with coastal cliffs.

But what about tsunamis against cities? Or Pompeii?

At this fork in the road, the subset might jury-rig with radical novelty. For example, one could posit that libertarian-free demons are driving every natural disaster and accident.

Or rather, if they please, they’re invited to borrow another patch from our compatibilistic ship: Not only can there be byproduct trivialities, but there can also be byproduct “raah,” like wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, lava flows, meteoroids, lightning, blizzards, famines, floods, plagues, etc.

Some of these may have ancillary consequences — the more ancillary the better — but we need not ascribe to them “total teleology,” frantically searching for folks like Hindus or gay people or pervasive demons or “Christians-from-wrong-denominations” to blame.

Contribution 2

It relieves us of the existential gravity of being causal creatures. We can more easily imagine ourselves as spontaneous originators and “co-writers of history.” We can flee from the nihilism of reductive analysis; before, we were called to box an existential heavyweight, but now we don’t even have to get in the ring.

Problem 2.1: Analysis Nags

When we look up at the starry sky, it appears as if all of the stars are the same distance away from us. But when we use observational instruments other than our “eyes & guts,” we see that this is false; they’re at all sorts of different distances.

Our “eyes & guts” tell us that we’re quite spontaneous. But other observational instruments keep telling us that we aren’t. We act according to who we are, and who we are is a function of what makes us tick.

Now, as a Christian, I have a faith-premise in some supernatural stuff. It comes with the territory. But supernaturalism is often used as a shoehorn toward arbitrary conclusions. And one way it protects this maneuver is through “gapping.”

By defining a treasure in an ambiguous or indiscernible way, there’s no way to disprove its existence. It establishes a “bunker,” “sandbag,” or “motte” — a “gap.”

Atheists accuse believers of positing a “God of the Gaps” all the time, and — to a point — there’s some validity to this indictment, especially because some believers recklessly plaster supernaturalism onto everything.

But we have faith in “He Who Is Unseen”; Paul tells us that unlike the readily tangible and powerless idols, God is powerful and wants to be sought, though he is not far from any of us. In other words, there is purpose in God’s veil of subtlety.

Here, though, folks take shelter in a “spontaneous will of the gaps,” and there is no such teleology explaining it.

No matter what analysis or observations we make, “something-or-other” can always live in the “something-or-other zone” (it’s no coincidence that libertarian free will lacks a coherent, positive definition; it is a “something-or-other”).

Problem 2.2: Coherent Remedial Response is Ruined by Spontaneity

When a child is spoiled, whom do we blame?

We don’t apply “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the child’s bad behavior.

But nor do we excuse the child.

Rather, we assign responsibility to every cofactor, focusing especially on those cofactors with the capacity to recognize a problem and the power to change catalyzing circumstances.

In short, we focus our attention on the parents and other environmental cofactors.

But the dynamism of responsibility (which entails a rejection of folk responsibility) is predicated on the fact that our decisions are influenced, molded, and knitted by prior causes.

How can this be reconciled with having a “free will”?

The compatibilist solution is to say that there is a sort of free will in the gap of human understanding and an interest in formative self-guidance:

  • If I don’t know what’s causing you to do choose something bad (let’s talk about only bad behavior for now), I call that your “free will.”
  • If I know what’s causing you to do something bad, but can anticipate you coming to correction in your own time, I also call that your “free will.”
  • If, however, I know what’s causing you to do something bad, and cannot anticipate a self-guided turn-around, then I do not call that your “free will”; rather, I call it a disease or defect or disorder. No longer can you be held exhaustively culpable for persisting in your bad behavior. And if I know how to cure you of your disease and can easily do so, then I bear culpability by omission until I help cure it (and can be blamed or credited for any delay, depending on the prospects and costs thereof).

This should be rather intuitive. But the idea of spontaneity allows us to insert “buck-stops-here culpability-breaks.”

And what does that do for us? It lets us excuse potential “surgeons” of their omissive culpability!

And certain eschatologies need this excuse, else they become theodicean problems.

We talked before how folk responsibility is used as a logical wildcard. It rears its head here, too. One minute, an Open Theist named Linda might claim that George can become rooted in his behavior and lose his spontaneity. The next, she’ll use George’s spontaneity to excuse the “Great Surgeon” of omissive culpability for George’s predicament.

The former claim and latter excuse are not at all consonant. Typically, Linda’s confusion comes from equivocating George’s past spontaneity (where culpability still lived with George) with “current spontaneity” (or lack thereof, such that current-George is inexorably enslaved to bad decisions of past-George and needs external help).

Problem 2.3: God’s Still Sovereign

I don’t mean to say that Open Theism denies God’s sovereignty. Many Open Theologies uphold God’s sovereignty with certain re-stipulations.

The issue is that even under Open Theism, God’s “wholly puppeteering will” follows from benign premises unless and until compatibilism is employed to erase the qualifier “wholly puppeteering” through forms.

We’ve talked before about these ingredients:

  • God has the raw power to do anything (at least things that are logically possible); if there is a coherent challenge to be met, God could do it if he net-wanted to.
  • God knows everything about the past and present.
  • God is occasionally willing to intervene and influence to various degrees.
  • God has done this before, sometimes gratuitously.

Within the first ingredient, the following is entailed:

  • No matter what happens, God can functionally undo it, such that it would not “stick.” Even if he cannot rewind time, he can manipulate particles and memories to duplicate the function of rewinding time.

These ingredients yield the following 2 “question-answer” pairs:

  • When would something happen and “stick”? When and only when letting-stick conforms to God’s net-wants.
  • When would something be “undone”? When and only when that undoing conforms to God’s net-wants.

Notice the reductive, ultimate appeal that answers both questions?

Now, remember that reduction destroys meaning. The above chain of logic — and its reductive conclusion — feel horrible and nihilistic, even as they are inarguable (assuming we agree on the premises).

beach1

So, how do we “get out” of this? How do we come up for air?

Again, we have a little fork in the road, this time 4-pronged:

  • We can “come up for air” by cupping hands over ears and reverting to non-analysis.

    beach2
  • We can “come up for air” by using logical wildcards (like folk responsibility and libertarian freedom) to bridge-break the logic.

    beach2
  • We can “come up for air” by denying the premises. A subset of Open Theists, for example, has dabbled in denying God’s raw power. A weak God would not yield the sovereign conclusion; theodicy is solved by positing a God “wholly willing, but unable.”

    beach2
  • We can “come up for air” by plowing forward, blasting through the nihilism of reduction to capture our refined, meaningful forms.

    beach3

The last is entailed by compatibilism.

Formation is a function of discriminating interests.

One such discriminating interest is that between “directly affected stuff vs. stuff affected through distant indirection.” The forms that emerge from such an interest allow us to take a HUGE breath after ascending from the fish’s belly of reduction.

Some Open Theists sense this payoff!

Some will even package this interest-driven discrimination into a stipulative (“True Scotsman”) redefinition of sovereignty and/or power, e.g., “True power is that which subtly influences.”

(This is like to borrowing a patch from the compatibilistic ship but claiming it was in the other cargo hold all along.)

Problem 2.4: Its Theodicean Sword is Borrowed

It’s one thing to appeal to a permissive interest in indirection. But you have to further claim that this is part of a manifold interest set, in which there are two or more interests that are incommensurable.

That’s because we know that God isn’t just interested in indirection or permission or “allowing for free will” or what have you. We know that he’s also interested in beautiful stuff like “nonsuffering.”

Circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set (“CIWAMIS”), in other words, acts like a “from-God confounder” that tells us why we might have both a benevolent God and bad stuff in the world.

We get theodicean “oomph” from CIWAMIS.

But here’s the upshot: “God’s not knowing the future” and/or “libertarian free will” has no “oomph” without it!

In other words, “God’s not knowing the future” and “libertarian free will” both bragged about their theodicean “oomph,” but were just brandishing CIWAMIS’s sword, while claiming it was their smithery.

And CIWAMIS, as it turns out, lends its theodicean sword to all sorts of theologies, including compatibilistic theologies.

Quick Break

I want to point out that at this point, we’ve taken the wind out of Open Theism’s theodicean sails.

But simply:

  • Remove libertarian free will; replace with “compatibilistic free will” or “natural will” or something.
  • Remove folk responsibility; replace with dynamic responsibility.
  • Uphold God’s discriminating interest in “direct/indirect” influence.
  • Uphold CIWAMIS.

Zero theodicean “oomph” is lost in the above cookie recipe. The cookies still taste great, perhaps even better, after we replace the raisins with chocolate chips.

Contribution 3

It would let us take Scripture at face value — rather than anthropomorphically and/or hyperbolically — when it talks about God changing his mind on appeal or having regrets. Rather we’d be able to say, “He genuinely didn’t know what future would be realized and reacted upon that future becoming realized.”

Problem 3.1: Face Value is Still Denied Selectively

We depend on anthropomorphic and/or hyperbolic interpretations anyway.

That’s because a face-value interpretation makes God not merely uncertain, but capricious and recklessly curiosity-driven. He wouldn’t just be imperfect at prediction — he’d have to be really, really terrible at it.

The “waiting to see” and “fickle” passages do not supply proof texts for those Open Theologies actually being proposed, which generally go out of their way to laud God’s exhaustive wisdom to guide history through subtle influences and maintain a stability of interests and firmness in purpose.

Often an Open Theologian will admit that Genesis 6 (for example) is being rather hyperbolic for whatever reason (to resonate with fickle man? to express CIWAMIS via athropomorphism? both?) when it talks about God regretting having made mankind… and beasts… and birds.

Problem 3.2: The Book of Job Lacks it

This would be a fallacious argument from silence, except that the Book of Job goes out of its way cover all sorts of theodicean proposals (most rebuked). It’s bizarre that it lacks any sort of libertarian excuse-making (i.e., “I didn’t do this to you; Satan did!”) if such a thing ought indeed be considered legitimate theodicy.

Job is rebuked (and repents) for claiming that God lacks justice and/or is distant and powerless.

The three stooges of Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are rebuked for claiming that Job’s predicament was a perfect divine expression of karmic justice, and that all lowly humans deserve unbridled suffering for their failing such a lofty God.

By contrast, Elihu, who (1) boasts perfect knowledge, (2) introduces the Storm of God, and (3) is never rebuked, weaves a theodicy of hope. He affirms God as super-powerful, completely wise, firm in purpose, despising nobody, and the ultimate teacher of mankind.

This is the theodicy that introduces the Storm, after which Job admits having failed to ascertain the grand plan “to wonderful for me to know.”

God’s superordinate responsibility (in a hierarchical stack) + a theodicy of corollary and ancillary function?

Such are the hull and sails of the U. S. S. Compatibilism.

Problem 3.3: That God is Worse

Josephus has a must-read account of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In it, God’s purpose is explicated: To see what’ll happen! ‘I’m going to tell Abraham to do this horrifying thing and see what he does.’

Afterward, this God is genuinely surprised; ‘Wow, I’m shocked at how readily you did that!’

The hilarious part about Josephus’s account is that both Abraham and Isaac reason a prospective justification for God’s command, that is, they conclude that God — in his wisdom and foresight — knew that Isaac would otherwise undergo some horrible disease or murder or other “severity” if Isaac were not kindly slain now.

In other words, in the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and cosmic foresight.

The reason this is hilarious is because — in Josephus’s account — the God in which Abraham and Isaac believed is clearly better (in terms of benevolence) and wiser (in terms of foresight) than the “actual” God (presented by the omniscient narrator).

When we finish reading the story, and our own giggles fade to crickets, we come to the sobering realization that a God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity — instead of benevolent ancillary investment and/or corollaries to creative processes — is indeed “less good.”

The common response is an insistence that only this “less good” situation is fertile turf to garden “genuine love.” Seasoned compatibilists, however, have been trained by experience to spot “genuine/authentic/true/real” persuasive stipulations a mile away. This one is the product of “genuineness by association.

The Breakdown

“Open Theism helps with theodicy.”

  • It relies on folk responsibility which is demonstrably bad.
  • “Creation’s deterministic trivialities” argumentum ad absurdum.
    • Patch: Concede to “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
      or
    • Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling leaves have libertarian openness.”
  • “Creation’s deterministic raah” argumentum ad absurdum.
    • Patch: Concede “determinism does not entail micromanagement” from compatibilism.
      or
    • Jury-rig: “Demons do those things.”
      or
    • Posit indeterminism even of non-choosing things; “the falling boulders have libertarian openness.”

“Open Theism prevents the existential anxiety of the loss of origination.”

  • Deeper analysis has been scoring slam dunks and three-pointers only for the following team: “We decide based on who we are, which is a function of that which makes us tick.”
    • Obfuscate: “Gapping” maneuvers keep the game clock going. But a deliberately subtle God would preclude overt detection; there is no such teleological explanation for the “gapping” of libertarian free will.
  • A coherent theology of remediation is selectively ruined by spontaneity. This is woefully useful because certain eschatologies need such selective ruination.
  • God’s superordinate responsibility still pops from his classical attributes like toast from a toaster, even if he has no clue about the future.
    • Obfuscate: Revert to non-analysis.
      or
    • Obfuscate: Logical wildcards to bridge-break the logic.
      or
    • Jury-rig: Explore “weak God” theology.
      or
    • Patch: Borrow “direct/indirect” formation from compatibilism.
  • It never had theodicean “oomph” anyway. The “oomph” was from “CIWAMIS”: circumstantial incommensurability within a manifold interest set. Compatibilism can fence with the same sword (and is, in fact, more adept at it).

“Open Theism plays more nicely with Scripture.”

  • Open Theologies actually being proposed leverage the same “anthropomorphic and/or hyperbole” interpretations as compatibilist Christians to handle certain passages that would otherwise have God being clueless or capricious.
  • The Book of Job is theodicean. It has a libertarian defense readily available to it and avoids its use, preferring instead God’s superordinate responsibility. Neither Job, nor the three stooges, nor “perfect knowledge” Elihu, nor the Storm of God employ it.
  • A “mad scientist” God is worse, as exemplified in the laughably upside-down account of Abraham & Isaac given to us by Josephus.
    • Obfuscate: Persuasive stipulation of what “genuine love” requires. (An ancient maneuver that has always been non-cogent.)

Final Remarks

If you’re an Open Theist, I hope this has at least piqued your curiosity in solutions pioneered by compatiblistic theology and perhaps fostered some prudent internal scrutiny.

In appealing to scrutiny, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit my own fallibility. But I nonetheless have conviction that compatibilism is the way to go. It’s a really, really, really great ship, resolute enough and flexible enough to navigate the waters of Scripture Sea.

In addition to the in-line hyperlinks in this post, check out the following:

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The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything)

Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest “bugs” in theology, which cascades down into conversation & contemplation bugs in soteriology, eschatology, metaphysics, and more.

This “bug” underpins much of what we’ve already talked about on this site over the past year or so.

First, let’s meet Apollos.

comic1Notice the shirt that Apollos is wearing. It points exclusively downward.

This is because Apollos is exclusively about reduction.

As soon as he found out that the blue rider and red horse were “both Play Doh,” he took a hammer to them and squished them into a hideous, formless mass.

His problem wasn’t that he looked deeper. And he wasn’t lying when he observed that both forms were, ultimately, “Play Doh.”

But he went too far in drawing a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion merely from observing shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.

See the other guy in that last panel? That’s Amon.

The story’s not over. Let’s see what happened the next day.

comic2Notice Amon’s shirt. It points exclusively upward.

This is because Amon is exclusively concerned with maintaining forms.

Here, the problem wasn’t that Amon wanted to protect Blue-Monkey-on-Red-Elephant. Of course he wanted to protect it! It is interesting and meaningful and beautiful!

Rather, the problem was that — like Apollos — he erroneously thought that a destructive, form-killing “should/ought” conclusion proceeds from any observation about shared pieces/parts or shared ultimate causes.

This reasoning error prompted a loss-aversive overreaction against anyone making such an observation.

The inhumanly pallid faces of both Apollos and Amon represent the fact that both characters represent errors of reasoning (in specific, they are powered by the same is/ought non sequitur). These errors yield lifeless, bug-ridden theology, and Christianity has had a major problem with it for over 1800 years.

The Checkmark-Shaped Reaction

It’s true that as we practice reduction, a sort of “existential gravity” makes us feel as if we’re losing our forms.

This is because forms are where all meaning resides.

The situation looks a bit like this — for everything we care about:

formationreductionThis isn’t some wild theory. This comes straight from the Bible.

This is the teaching of the Teacher, concluded “upright and true” in Ecclesiastes. “At the end of the day,” all prospects can be reduced to that which is ultimately empty of meaning — “hollow.” (Read more about Ecclesiastes and meaning here.)

In other words, by default we live in a “macroscopic” world where forms are common-sense and plain-to-see. We have all sorts of folk conclusions about the simplicity of the world, like that meaning is purely objective (has no interest-dependencies), that responsibility is “buck-stops-here,” and that we have spontaneity and multiple realizable futures (encapsulated in a feeling of libertarian free will).

But as soon as someone busts out a “microscope” — literally or proverbially — these folk ideas begin to break down, and we start to feel “existential gravity” just like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (probably Solomon) did:

journey1There are 3 reactions we can have.

The first is Apollos’s reaction: Radical reduction into a “tomb,” “dungeon,” or “fish’s belly” of nihilism, denying formative truth.

journey2The second is Amon’s reaction: Harefooted denial of reductive truth in fear of the “tomb,” “dungeon,” or “fish’s belly.”

journey3The third is Solomon’s reaction: Remember that formative truth remains true, even while reductive truth is also true, although some forms need to be dropped, modified, or refined, like a faceted gem cut from rough rock.

journey4This “check-marked shaped” journey ends in a declaration of compatibility: Formative truth is compatible with reductive truth, and their appearance of “disagreement” — their paradoxy — is because they proceed from different vantage points, i.e., “hetero-phroneo.”

(That, and the surface forms did contain a bit of false junk.)

Our quirky brains have trouble with heterophroneo; by default, they’re rather “monophroneo.”

And this yields the huge theology bug. It’s solvable, but only with hard work, and a refusal to be an Apollos or Amon (both of these characters are “Kochabs“).

Examples

“The dog and the dirty napkin” (we used this example before):

  • Dogs and dirty napkins are 100% different.
  • Actually, they’re 100% the same: They’re both mere collections of particles.
  • You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they’re both reducible to mere collections of particles, and we should avoid thinking that there’s some “magical” animating principle in dogs that makes them substantially distinct. But I don’t care much about that. I care about the fact that the former has feelings, thoughts, loyalty, and can play fetch, and is happy to greet me when I come home. The latter doesn’t have any of that stuff. And that’s where meaning lives.

“Altruism” (we also used this one before):

  • Altruism and selfishness are 100% different.
  • (“Psychological egoism”) Actually, they’re 100% the same. They’re both products of what eventually reduce to self-interests. For example, your desire to give to a certain charity reduces to something you care about. Even self-sacrifice is always in terms of what prospects you hope to achieve or principles you hope to exemplify.
  • You’re both right depending on the vantage point. Yes, they are both so-reducible. But our dictionary still functions. There’s still a difference in form between generosity and stinginess. There’s still a difference in form between sacrifice and retention. There’s still a difference in form between love-driven behavior and gratuitous self-service. Those are the things I care about. That’s where meaning lives.

“Ecclesiastes” (a deeper look here):

  • Objectives and objects are brimming with meaning.
  • Actually, everything is ultimately empty and meaningless. Laughter is great, but what does it accomplish? Wealth seems awesome, but it never satisfies. Ambition is an envy-fueled treadmill. The ground on which we build children, projects, labor, and learning is hollow.
  • (“Existentialism”) The search for ultimate meaning is futile — a chasing after the wind. This is an upright and true teaching. But it is also upright and true that laughter is great. Our journey should not yield nihilism, but a gem-like refinement toward what is really meaningful in life according to our interests, that is, food, drink, friends, family, finding satisfaction in our labor and projects, and fulfilling our “owes” to one another (social and moral obligations, including oaths to leaders and God) so that we avoid the “Collection Agent.” That’s where meaning lives. (Later, Christus Victor restores the shattered vessel, so that helps.)

“Freedom & Sovereignty” (many examples on this site; start here):

  • We act with free will; we make real choices and can be held accountable.
  • Actually, we are causal creatures and our thoughts & decisions are products of that which makes us “tick.” Rewinding far enough, we owe ourselves ultimately to external factors.
  • (“Compatibilism”) You’re both right depending on the vantage point. I’m a caused, causal creature, and I make real choices all the time. I have interests, emotions, thoughts, a will, and all of these are genuine. I make mistakes and have successes and triumphs, all of which are products of who I am, and who I am is always changing (God willing, I can even change myself in a recursive way!). As such, I can be held truly accountable for my real choices, but we definitely need to jettison folk notions of responsibility.

The Sun Also Rises

Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”

But does it really do this?

The sun’s behavior used to be a big deal. The fact of sunsets/sunrises being mere perceptual phenomena from rotational motion — and the additional fact of the sun’s relative stagnancy compared to the Earth — so violated folk “surface forms” that many people became Amons and took up hammers.

When we take a microscope to the situation, we find that the sun isn’t actually traveling across the sky and “hurrying back.” The sun is millions of miles away, relatively still, while the Earth flies around it, rotating while it does so and illuminating a perpetually-changing hemisphere.

To some folks, this reduction destroys sunrises. And it does, sort of.

But look out the window!

See the fiery sky against the shadowy land?

See the clouds underlit with morning?

Look! The sky has been punctured with a knife of blinding light!

The sword of morning is slaying shadows right and left. The stone is rolling. The dungeon gate is opening. The fish’s maw is heaving.

Our reduction “destroyed” the sunrise.

And yet, the sun also rises.

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Libertarian Free Will is a Powerful Meme, Whether or Not it’s True

Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?

We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.

The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.

As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!

(1) It’s the Default Feeling

As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.

Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”

So, what is “it”?

Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”

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  • First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.

    It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.

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  • Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”

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  • Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.

    Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”

So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).

(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)

And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.

(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition

Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”

And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.

This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.

Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:

  • “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”

    This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.

    For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.
  • “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”

    This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.

    These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
  • “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”

    This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.

    Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).

    How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?

    The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!

    Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.

    For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
  • “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”

    Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.

    More about this.

    What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”

    More about this.

As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.

The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.

Who has time for that?

Who has the patience?

Who has the driving interest?

Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.

The Resilient Cocktail

The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.

  • First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
  • Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.

And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.


It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”

It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 2: Undead Philosophy

This is the second in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part was about the exploitation by media, and the second part (below) is about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Commission & Omission

undead1

Jimmy Fallon’s “Your Company’s Computer Guy,” about to recommend omitting action.

 

You’ve noticed that when confronted with a situation in which you must either commit action or omit action, you often take the omissive route due to a lack of information.

Acting recklessly beyond what is known can create all sorts of problems, which you know.

As a result, omissive action becomes generally correlated with “more correct” action.

But does this make omission less morally intense than commission? Is it always slightly more grevious, for example, to kill by commission than by omission?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Retribution & Remediation

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Corporal punishment from the movie, “Catching Fire.”

 

You’ve noticed that when faced with the bad decision of someone over whom you have authority, you want to react in a way that teaches that person a lesson and corrects the problem, now and for the future.

This is the remedial prospect of assigning judgment.

But you’ve also noticed that, often, the response is something punitive — frequently, Pavlovian behavior modification that requires only that the person be repaid in proportion to how much you were wronged.

As a result, justice becomes generally correlated with “retributory” action.

But does this mean that this is the “point” of justice? Is the prospective “goal” merely to repay?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Assigning Responsibility

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Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”: Very blameworthy.

 

You’ve noticed that bad results can often be attributed to a single person making a single bad decision.

Usually, we’re all working as hard as we can for productive results, and when that goal is undermined, it’s usually because someone screwed up. If the cofactor was something mindless — like a broken pipe for which nobody has responsibility — then we often say, “Nobody is responsible.”

Thus, finding responsibility becomes generally correlated with finding a single, blameworthy decisionmaker.

But does this mean that this is how responsibility “works”? Is there always a single person solely responsible? And is it useful to limit responsible cofactors exclusively to decisionmakers? And is responsibility always about blameworthiness, never about creditworthiness?

The answer to all three is, “No.”

But it can feel like “Yes” due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

“Finding” Value

undead4

An invaluable gold statue of Michael Jackson.

 

You’ve noticed that when you look at an object of value, you think of the value “living inside” that object.

You also value things without consciously valuing them; you value food not because your rational mind is convinced of its utility, but because without food you feel hunger. That feeling is out of your control, and so it further feels like the food “contains” value.

You’ve also noticed that an object “becomes” more valuable the more work it would take to acquire or reacquire, which is not something over which you have arbitrary control.

Finally, you’ve been taught that certain things are valuable — even those things, which, if you hadn’t been taught as such, you wouldn’t value.

Thus, this constant bombardment of correlative lessons can make you feel like an object can have “intrinsic value.”

But can it, really? Would gold be valuable if there were no valuing things — that is, minds with interests — to respect it? Is value purely objective?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Objective Taste

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A veggie pizza from Maurizio’s.

 

We all agree that taste is a matter of taste. Some people are going to prefer Armanno’s Pizza on 12th and some people are going to prefer Maurizio’s Pizza on Washington.

You’ve just been hired, however, to head up local marketing for Maurizio’s. What do you do, given that taste is a matter of taste?

You could run a blind taste-test in service of finding the “aggregate taste,” such that you could boast, “Most people prefer Maurizio’s!”

Unfortunately, the results indicate that most people, in fact, prefer Armanno’s.

Uh oh.

How about this.

You put together a campaign that proclaims Maurizio’s is just better. It just “tastes better.”

It’ll be true for some people, right?

And by wrapping it in objective language, you’ve divorced it from fickle personal preferences and given it the mystique of objectivity. Its superiority has been enshrined on a pedestal that no filthy human hands have touched.

If you weren’t the marketer, someone else would be. And they’d eventually start playing around with objective language. That’s because there’s selective memetic momentum toward enshrining things preference-based as objective, preference-less facts.

Pretty sleazy, right?

But, what if the success of Maurizio’s had some huge, higher-order payoff for everyone? What if that connection was hard to show, or hard to articulate, but nonetheless 100% true? What if, in the here and now, it’s absolutely vital for society that folks be convinced to go against their personal impulsive pizza tastes and gravitate toward Maurizio’s?

Suddenly, wrapping the marketing of Maurizio’s pizza within incomplete, “objective” language, however sloppy and technically erroneous, starts to have utilitarian merit.

The language “bug” becomes useful.

But does this mean that it isn’t a bug? Does this selective momentum suggest that these things really are a matter of purely objective worth and purely objective “rightness”?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Correlative Bugs

Each of these examples have been of myths, driving persistent philosophical questions, from ancient debates to contemporary contemplation.

Is commission more morally intense than omission? No. Omission is just more often correct, because it usually is less reckless (but is sometimes more negligent).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is justice about pure retribution? No. Justice is about fixing a person or that which he represents in the abstract, but retribution is a very common, intuitive, and historically effective way of employing such fix attempts (even if the “fix” is “repair that which a murderer represents by locking him away forever”).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is assigning responsibility about finding a single blameworthy decisionmaker? No. Assigning responsibility is about finding all causal cofactors in service of what needs to be fixed or encouraged. This just, very often, points to a single person’s behavior in need of repair.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is there “intrinsic value”? No. Value is imputed by evaluators with interests. But there are all sorts of complications that make value seem, conceptually, “within object.”

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Are there “objective interests”? No. “Subjective-as-objective” language errors are just very often useful for behavior modification, and behavior modification has been historically effective — perhaps even necessary — for social stability.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

 

But the Undead are Entertaining

There’s a natural selective bias toward things that are exciting. It’s more fun to chatter than to sit in silence. Controversy is more entertaining than complacency. Story arcs sell better than story flatlines.

Remember that popular philosophy, just like anything else with the “popular” qualifier, is much more a product of memetics than of coherence or truth.


More reading:

 

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Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo

Is God really in control? Does his sovereignty encompass everything? Is the universe working out an orchestrated creative process according to God’s deliberate, big-picture will?

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Or, by contrast, is the universe on a twisting, winding road according to the pulls and tugs of innumerable creatures with free will? Are our decisions dictating the course of the plan without, in turn, being dictated by it?

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The Bible appears to support both, at first glance.

  • The Bible says that a man’s steps are not his own (Jeremiah 10:23), that a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9), and that God intervenes as it suits his pleasure in order to get the job done in the manner he most prefers, including affecting the decisions of people like Jacob and Esau’s mother Sarah, and hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Romans 9:9-18). The Bible says that God has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32), and that his plan works out everything in conformity with his big purposes (Ephesians 1:11).
  • But the Bible also says, later in Jeremiah (chapter 18), that if a nation exceptionally delights or disappoints God, he’ll alter his stated plans for them. Furthermore, the Bible frequently talks about human volition, choice, responsibility, and just punishment, which would appear — at first glance — to require free will as a prerequisite.

The mainstream Christian response is, “Both, somehow.” The net result, in our mind’s eye, is a non-cohering picture that flickers one way and the other, never making all that much sense.

incoherent

Broken chunks of an incomplete sovereignty collide with granular pieces of a devastated free will. It’s not a very pretty picture, and folks are generally so repulsed by it that they cry, “Oh, I don’t know! It’s a mystery! One day we’ll get it.”

But that doesn’t last very long. Soon enough, that mystery is being employed as a logical wildcard, being crammed and shoehorned into whatever theology a person pleases.

As an inscrutible mystery, it should have been a dead-end of logical derivation, but they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the wall, and now anything goes.

By “anything goes,” I’m referring to the endless doctrinal opinions on freedom and sovereignty, across every denomination of the Christian religion, and throughout its history.

Sovereignty Logically Follows from God’s Classical Attributes

First, it’s important to understand that God’s absolute sovereignty really is a “free truth” that proceeds from God’s classical attributes.

Take the following 4 premises as given:

  • God is omnipotent.
  • God is omniscient (in the classical sense of knowing even the future).
  • God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
  • God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.

If those premises are given, then we can ask ourselves, “When would God intervene in such a way?”

The answer would be, “Whenever it suits the optimization of his interests — i.e., whenever he pleases.”

We can also ask ourselves, “When would God not intervene in such a way?”

And the answer is the same: “Whenever he pleases.”

Since the answer to both questions is “whenever he pleases,” this means that everything that happens must be a product of his deliberation, in service of his interests. This might include down-the-road interests, or an optimization of incommensurable interests, that generate what Paul calls the “birthing pains” of the ongoing creation.

This is the “sovereign conclusion.”

St. Augustine correctly reasoned this, in Enchiridion, ch. 24:

“This obviously is not true: [The idea that] there is anything that he willed to do and did not do, or, what were worse, [that] he did not do something because man’s will prevented him, the Omnipotent, from doing what he willed. Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he [directly] causes it to happen.”

And the “foreknowledge is not predestination” complaint doesn’t work here. If those 4 premises are true, there is no functional barrier between foreknowledge and predestination (although they are distinct in the degree to which various divine interests are expressed in time).

Open Theism

Thus, some folks have taken the route of jettisoning the classical attributes of God such that he definitely is not sovereign in the way commonly understood.

This has three perceived payoffs:

  • First, this approach allows the picture to cohere (so they think) upon just one of the Bible’s “pictures” above, rather than settling on the ugly hybrid.
  • Second, that picture is one in which each of us has an unchained, uncoerced will. We are not fully under God’s control, they suggest; God has some control, and we have some control, and various dark agents have some control. We are the “co-authors of history.”
  • Third, it’s extremely useful for theodicy (the reconciliation of God’s attributes with the bad stuff that happens in the world) if God isn’t sovereign.

Initially, they jettison only omniscience. But this doesn’t go far enough because, as it turns out, the sovereign conclusion proceeds also from these 4 premises:

  • God is omnipotent.
  • God knows everything about the present, but is uncertain about the future.
  • God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
  • God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.

Thus, Open Theists sometimes feel forced to go even further, usually ditching omnipotence in favor of “weak God” theology, or persuasively redefining omnipotence such that subtlety is “true power.”

(For more about why they’re forced to go that route, watch the following video: “Challenge for Open Theism“.)

I think there are some palatable elements to this approach, but…

Assuming We Don’t Want to Do That…

There’s a robust, complete reconciliation of the first two pictures available to us.

It’s true!

It eluded us for many centuries, because it required discovering and deducing enough about ourselves to get rid of the idea of libertarian free will.

You see, there are, roughly, two kinds of free will.

The first is libertarian free will (which has nothing to do with the political persuasion). This is the idea that a part of us is completely spontaneous or uncaused. Advocates like to say “self-caused,” but nobody knows exactly what that means.

Early Christian theologians were obsessed with libertarian free will, because it was a fountain that seemed to yield so many exciting and stimulative puzzle-like prospects.

And it was taken for granted because — after all — my steps feel like my own.

Origen Adamantius demonstrates the underpinning archaic folk science in his De Principiis, Bk. III:

“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”

In none of this am I implying that these geniuses were dullards. They were simply working with the tools and body of knowledge to which they had access.

They didn’t understand how the brain works. They didn’t realize that our desires and impulses are driven by complicated machinery of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which are in turn motivated by things as mind-boggling as our genetic programming to things as deceptively mundane as what we had for breakfast.

They had some understanding of these causal contingencies, of course. Obviously they understood that a person can teach another, and mold another, and discipline another, and manipulate another, and threaten another, etc., sufficiently that the other’s mind is altered.

But they held out hope that, no matter how deep we explored into the causal contingencies of our thoughts, there would yet be a blank gap with a nearby signpost, “Here there be libertarian independence.”

Libertarian free will is our “default feeling,” since we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from the machinery by which they were created. The fact that others surprise us by their behavior, and we even surprise ourselves, lends even more weight to the default hypothesis.

The problem is that we can’t find libertarian free will anywhere. Furthermore, we don’t even know where to look, because the concept is not articulable.

Slowly but surely, we (in philosophy) began to realize that it’s not a real thing.

The Fallout

And this realization was horrifying. In fact, it was so horrifying, that we (Christians) got stuck on the first stage of grief — denial — and have been, for the most part, stuck there ever since. Even Calvinists, the infamous predestination-pushers of Christianity, often have vestiges of libertarian language and thought.

Why was it horrifying?

  • It feels like a new oppressive force is added.
  • It seems like there’d be no moral responsibility.
  • It appears that we’d no longer make real choices and have no efficacy.
  • It is a “dark incubus” that births an existential nightmare by robbing us of our sense of origination.

Yeesh.

The Reality

Note that, in the above bullets, I talked about our feelings, how things seem, how things appear, and what we sense. This was deliberate, because the reality is that all of these things can be overcome.

  • First, no new oppressive force has been added. The world has not changed. The rejection of libertarian free will is a “world-rocker” for sure, but we have to be ultra-careful not to let our worlds be overrocked. I called this mistake “Kochab’s Error” in an earlier post.
  • Second, there’s still moral responsibility, because responsibility is not an ethereal bauble that bounces around, looking for its buck-stops-here resting place. Rather, responsibility is a dynamic recognition of causal “nodes” in service of fixing them or encouraging them.

    (For more about dynamic responsibility, watch the following video: “Responsibility: Ejecting the Looseful and Keeping the Useful“.)
  • Third, we still make real choices, because real choices are simply this: Electing one from a menu of prospective options to actualize. Nothing more magical than that.
  • Further, efficacy is retained, because efficacy is simply the fact that what you do causes things to occur accordingly. Nothing more magical than that.
  • Finally, our sense of origination can be retained through our individual uniqueness and the increase thereof through recursive self-molding.

19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:

“I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances, as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power…

I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it… I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of [compatibilistic] free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing.

All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of [antecedent] circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood.”

That’s the other major kind of free will: Compatibilistic free will.

Compatibilistic Free Will

As the name might suggest, it’s completely compatible with there being a predetermined chain of events. Compatibilistic free will is a semantic revision that extricates the volitional dictionary — things like choice, responsibility, efficacy, and the term “free will” itself — from the libertarian shackles of incoherency that had kept these issues so insanely intractable.

Compatibilism asks us, “When you say free will, what are you saying the will is free from, and to what degree?”

It correctly recognizes that nothing is “free” in a vacuum. You have to be free from something, even if that something is merely implied. For instance, “Buy one, get one free,” really means “Buy one, get one free of charge,” or “of cost.”

And so, we can talk about “free-from-X will, to degree Y” about any oppressor X that we feel is meaningful to us.

“Destiny” is not a meaningful oppressor, because to be divorced from it is nonsensical. But Goliath of Gath could be a meaningful oppressor. Same with Nazi propaganda. Same with other lies, threats, manipulations, coercions, and brainwashings.

These can all constitute very meaningful oppressions of my will, making it “less free” than it would otherwise be.

The Heterophroneo

Once we have a volitional dictionary that “works” with God’s sovereignty, our hybrid picture turns from this monstrosity…

incoherent

… into this beauty:

heterophroneo

“Heterophroneo” is a compound term that means “different ways of thinking about things.”

  • Yes, God is in control. But still, I can talk about in what ways my decisions are efficacious.
  • Yes, a man’s steps are not his own. But still, I can talk about my own steps in a subordinate sense (just as I can talk about my own house versus my neighbor’s, though God transcendently owns both).
  • Yes, God is benevolent. But still, we can talk about the local “birthing pains” of his creation — sins, disasters, etc. — and put our hope in their being instrumental for an ultimate happy ending. We hold a sacred hope that God will be proved holy and righteous (Isaiah 5:16).
  • Yes, God knows what’s going to happen. But still, he can use hypothetical language to convince us to do the right thing, proclaim true (but ungrounded) counterfactuals, and make anthropomorphic statements about having regrets and changing his mind.

What follows are two great examples of heterophroneo from the Bible.

Timen and Atimian

In Romans 9, Paul talked about how Israel was being used for instrumental purposes despite itself.

In service of his thesis that God decides the destinies of the nations, Paul referred to the fact that God ordains the destinies of individuals, even intervening to change them, even to harden their wills.

When his imaginary antagonist asked, “Who, then, can resist his will?,” Paul did not say, “Oh, don’t misunderstand. Of course you can resist his will!”

Rather, Paul launched into a staunch defense of God’s sovereign orchestration of destinies:

Romans 9:20b-21:

“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”

You see that “special” and “common”? Those are actually the Greek words timen and atimian; honorable and dishonorable.

It’s important that we recognize this. It’s not about being a hero versus lukewarm. It’s about being a tool of honorable use versus a tool of dishonorable use. Both have purposes. Both have a role to play.

That’s the sovereign perspective.

And then comes the heterophroneo.

Paul repeated the very same language in 2 Timothy — but from the human perspective, wherein we can “cleanse ourselves” and choose which role we’ll adopt.

2 Timothy 2:20-22

“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes and some for common [Gr. atimian; dishonorable] use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes, made holy, useful [Gr. hegiasmenon euchreston; set apart and very profitable] to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

He was able to do this without contradiction because our decisionmaking is compatible with God’s sovereignty.

The Sins of Joseph’s Brothers

Joseph’s brothers were sick and tired of Joseph and his visionary dreams, wherein those brothers bowed down to him. They were also envious of his coat, a symbol of their father’s favor.

So they attacked him and sold him into bondage.

Genesis 37:23-24a,28

“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the [empty] cistern. … [And] when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious sin. It’s one thing to throw your family members into a cistern, but to then sell them into slavery? Pretty reprehensible. Undoubtedly a sin of malice and unchecked envy.

And then comes the heterophroneo.

Joseph became a ruler and managed a plan to store up food in preparation for a big famine. His brothers came to Egypt seeking a portion, but didn’t recognize Joseph. After messing with his brothers for a while, Joseph finally revealed himself.

Genesis 45:4-7

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.'”

Did you catch that? God sent Joseph. Did God sin? No, the brothers sinned.

But their sin was the dishonorable instrument — the tool of atimian use — by which God saved his people.

And it’s not as if God just kinda rejiggered his plan to work with what he had. Joseph referenced God’s sovereignty — and counterintuitive tactics — as a way to comfort and relieve his brothers of a measure of guilt, now that they had come to repentance.

And this segues into our final stop.

Why the Heterophroneo?

Heterophroneo can be confusing. At first glance, it looks like a contradiction. As such, it was held as a paradoxical mystery alongside belief in libertarian free will for centuries.

So why would Scripture use it? Because we’re supposed to use it.

Heterophroneo is useful.

freewill

The human perspective is good for:

  • Recognizing our own wills and dispositions and how they can be turned in various directions.
  • Deliberation among multiple imagined prospects.
  • Recognizing when we are being subverted, coerced, or exceptionally manipulated by things we consider meaningfully oppressive.
  • Assigning responsibility without feeling like we have to do a radical backward reduction. “Talking about your house and my house, even though God owns the universe.”
  • Reframing our uncertainty into prospective hopes and fears, and using those vivid images to aid in our decisionmaking. This helps us make choices in better service of our higher-order interests.

sovereingty

The sovereign perspective is good for:

  • Humbling ourselves.
  • Praising God, and recognizing his attributes (his power, wisdom, dominion, and will).
  • Helping us fight through suffering, Elihu-style.
  • Taking comfort in God’s grand plan of reconciliation.
  • Recognizing over what things we do not have control, and sacrificing that anxiety and uncertainty, converting it to faith in God and his promises.

shared

Surprising Cause of Restless Leg Syndrome: Demons!

You’re at a church social gathering, eating at a table with three of your friends. You mention how your legs move around at night, bothering your spouse, and you say that you think you might have restless leg syndrome.

  • “Restless legs? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the restless leg demon out of you?”
  • “Restless leg syndrome is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing your legs to move around, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop your legs from moving around like that?”
  • “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your legs to move like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”

The next week, you invite your friend Mike to church and, afterward, are again talking to your three friends. Mike, who visibly shakes, explains that he has Parkinson’s disease.

  • “Can’t stop shaking? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the shaking demon out of you?”
  • “Parkinson’s disease is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to shake, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from shaking around like that?”
  • “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your body to shake like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”

A few weeks later, you bring your cousin Deborah to church and, after the service, are again talking to your three friends. A while into the conversation, Deborah explains how she’s been grappling with depression.

  • “Feeling a persistent sense of despair? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the demon of despair out of you?”
  • “Depression is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to be sad all the time, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from being so depressed?”
  • “It’s irrational for you to despair like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that you are valuable and the future is not bleak.”

Staying Grounded

It’s vitally important, especially as Christians, to remember to ground ourselves on what is observable and understood (or, becoming more understood), even though we have a convicted faith in what isn’t very observable or understood.

We are understanding more and more than emotions aren’t magical. They are our experiences of physiological activity in our bodies, of which our brains are a part.

We are also understanding more and more the absolutely pivotal role played by the neurotransmitter “dopamine.” Dopamine stimulation is like pattern recognition nitro — it’s all about hopeful expectations and deciphering patterns in service thereof.

Take a look at this 3 minute clip from neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:

Dopamine underpins almost everything we consider entertaining and/or psychologically addictive: rhyming, jokes, gambling, hoarding, story twists, conspiracy theories both true and false, wonder/awe, mysteries, chord progressions (I-V-vi-IV is perhaps the most resonant progression ever for Western listeners because of its cyclical and dramatic rising and falling), video games, watching sports, turning pages, etc.

When something is wrong with your dopamine transmission, it can cause life-altering problems. Parkinson’s disease is the most well-known, where the cells that generate dopamine die. The shaking typical of Parkinson’s, restless leg syndrome, and shaking when afraid are all related to dopamine deficiency or over-stimulation.

Chronic depression is a neurotransmitter problem, often related to dopamine (among other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin) issues. When the ability to create hopeful expectations is hobbled or killed, then everything turns hopeless. Our conscious brains respond to this crippling problem by dwelling on the unclaimable, like the nostalgic past, and concluding nonsensical or irrational conclusions, like that a future full of potential is actually bleak.

This isn’t something that you can, generally, “think your way out of.” You can “think your way through and during,” as people with Parkinson’s do every day, but your thoughts alone don’t typically cause alleviation. Reliable alleviation comes through physiological treatment (like medicine that stimulates neurotransmitters), or through natural remedial brain activity (which makes depression merely temporary for some people). But this truth is complicated by the fact that some depression is the result of hopeless thoughts (usually a sudden or intense new realization of the limitations of, or recent reductions in, one’s prospects), like during existential crises or cataclysmic life events, and can be remedied in various ways (the most popular being anchor-setting and/or distractions).

Concluding Ought Thoughts

In any case, chronic depression is a chemical issue, as “non-magical” as Parkinson’s and RLS, but it has the sinister symptom of convincing us that it IS something in our “magical minds.”

  • We ought to avoid jumping to supernatural conclusions recklessly, like “Superstitious” Steve.
  • We ought to avoid treating all brain activity as a libertarian product of conscious will, like “Buck-Stops-Here” Buck.
  • We ought to avoid pretending like the brain is magical and can reason itself out of various thoughts and behaviors, like “Dualistic Philosophy” Sophia.

More Watching

Evangelical Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church, on his experiences with physiological depression and anxiety (especially 24:55+).

Robert Sapolsky’s Standford lecture on depression in the U.S.