Reply to Roger E. Olson (Responsibility)

I don’t think I’ll be able to stay angry with Roger E. Olson, who has some great theological insights, but he has the bizarre habit of deleting posts when he’s decided the conversation is over.

For posterity, here’s the conversation that recently received a haircut.

Posted by J. Inglis:

It seems to me that a large part of the problem with the Calvinist view, and its opposition to libertarian freedom, is that it has a poorly and incompletely worked out theory of time, of God’s relationship to time, and the relationships between time, existence, and knowledge. Augustine, and Calvin after him, lived and wrote in an age when time was not well understood.

Since then much has changed in, and been added to, our knowledge of time. We now conceive of time as a fourth dimension of our universe (the other three being spatial dimensions), and we realize that time can be understood according to what is known as the “A theory of time” (there is a flow to time in which the past no longer exists, the future does not yet exist, and only the present moment exists) and the and the “B theory of time” (in which all times–past, present and future–exist as equally real).

Calvinism is stuck with and in a primitive theory of time and its relationship to knowledge, and it lacks the imaginative and theoretical resources to deal with time as it is currently understood. The only way it can and does deal with future time and future actions is to contend that all actions and events must be determined by God, and must have been determined before (pre-) he created the universe.

Why should we so limit God that he can only create the universe if he alone determines every event that will happen, and gives no power or responsibility to any other being to determine what actually happens at a particular moment? Did he not create us in his image to rule this world? Does not ruling involve determining what will happen? Is God not capable of giving us this power?

The entire narrative of the Bible is consistent with only one view of time: an A theory of time in which God has given us the freedom and responsibility to determine what happens (in relation, of course, to those limited areas that God has given us jurisdiction over). The narrative stories are replete with what appear to be real choices, with God wanting to know what will actually come to pass. If these narrative presentations are only metaphors and not to be understood as real choices by real people that actually determine in part what comes to pass, then what do they metaphorically refer to and mean? Nothing. There is nothing that it would be a metaphor for.

They are meaningless narratives. Abraham did not really have a choice to do other than he did; God determined his one path of actions before the universe began. When the Biblical text states that God wanted to see if Abraham was faithful, the Bible does not literally mean that. God already knew what Abraham would do; he determined the choice that Abraham would make. So what does it mean that God wanted to see if Abraham would be faithful? I can’t see that there is any meaning for us in that statement by the Bible; the Bible is “literally” misleading us.

In opposition to the entire narrative presentation of the Bible–i.e., a presentation in which humans are constantly given choices, in which God demands that the right moral choice be made, in which God tells us we have the power to choose to do right, in which God waits to see if we make the right choice out of all the possible choices–the Calvinists hang on to only a few verses that they interpret as indicating otherwise.

Furthermore, the verses on which they construct an entire theology, an entire theory of how God must be and act, can be reasonably be interpreted differently. That is, their interpretation is not the only possible one, nor is it the more likely interpretation given our expanded knowledge and hermeneutical abilities.

Posted by me:

Hey there. Roger suggested I look for some of your comments on this blog about divine responsibility. After mining for a few pages, I found this, and if you’ll forgive me for digging up grassy ground, I’d like to respond.

(I’m not a Calvinist, but am a Christian determinist and compatibilist.)

You said, “Is God not capable of giving us this power?”

This is a rhetorical question with the implied answer, “Yes,” but this is not a forgone conclusion. If libertarian free will is an “incoherent nothing” — that is, it’s not a thing-to-be-had — then God giving “it” to anybody would be an instance of “Winning the Mountain Game,” like creating a rock he lacks the raw power to lift.

You said, “Nothing. There is nothing that it would be a metaphor for.”

Yes there is. It would be a description of Godly tension — that is, circumstantial interest incommensurability within his manifold interest set — under the metaphorical veneer of human indecision and ignorance. This is how he can “lament having made mankind” while it being true that “a man’s steps are not his own.”

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”; we can imagine God stifling a giggle. Afterward, God is genuinely surprised, e.g., “Wow, I didn’t think you’d really do it.”

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 torment at malicious hands if he were not kindly slain now. In the face of divine inexplicability, they reason an explanation that preserves both God’s benevolence (in terms of prospective aims and investments) and wizardly 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 an oblivious God subjecting people to tests out of reckless curiosity, instead of benevolent ancillary investment, is indeed a moral monster (and/or doofus).

You said, “That is, their interpretation is not the only possible one.”

Oh, indeed.

Posted by Roger E. Olson:

Simply…Do you believe God has libertarian free will? If not, how is creation not necessary even for God? We’ve been over and under and around this subject many times here. Frankly, I’m not very interested in pursuing it again. I will just say that I firmly believe God has libertarian free will (not limitless free will but free will governed by his character) so libertarian free will cannot be an incoherent concept. If I ever come to believe it is an incoherent concept I will have to join those who believe God’s creation of the world was necessary and not contingent.

Posted by me:

If libertarian free will is an “incoherent nothing,” then as scary as it sounds, it is nonetheless the benign conclusion that God does not have “it,” since it is not a “thing to be had.” A bit like someone saying, “You seriously deny that God has ‘illj vbbo’!?” but less obviously silly. :)

Some misguided Calvinists will say that God’s creation was necessary and not contingent, but these folks are committing a modal scope fallacy.

Imagine God’s creation as a function (I’ve found it’s ultra, ultra clarifying and bug-solving in both classical and modal logic to use pseudocode examples):

CreateStuff(Array of Interest Attributes):Stuff

Stuff creation;
// [stuff here defining creation based on passed-in parameters]
return creation;


If we pass-in God’s character, then a single Stuff object emerges deterministically (unless the function has unwilled randomness in it) and is returned by this function.

But notice that the structure is still contingent. It is contingent on the passed-in interest attributes, which could hypothetically be anything. Look at the function header! It takes a variable. There is a contingency. Since I cannot be there, imagine me pointing at the above parenthetical on your monitor with my finger. :)

In some possible modal world P, God exists but values chaotic freedom a little lower than God in our world K. CreateStuff(P-God) yields a different Stuff than CreateStuff(K-God).

In short, “If determinism, then no contingency” is a non sequitur that proceeds from a modal scope fallacy (with a teaspoon of “Kochab’s Error” thrown in).

Posted by Roger E. Olson:

If God is determined by his own desires then there can be no contingency in anything God does.

Posted by me:

Did you mean, “If God’s character is determined by his own desires…”?

I assume not, but if so, my reply:

God’s character is equivocal with God’s interests. No fact about contingency or lack thereof follows.

Did you mean, “If God’s actions are determined by his own desires…”?

If so, my reply:

If God’s actions are determined by his interests then his actions have contingency upon his interests. This should go without saying, to be frank. Take the above “CreateWorld(Interests):Stuff” but swap it to “TakeAction(Interests):Action”. P-God has different interests than K-God, and thus takes different actions than K-God (perhaps P-God miraculously halts every Cain due to his interest mix/weights).

Posted by Roger E. Olson:

If God’s actions (e.g., creating the world) are determined then they are not contingent. But, apparently, we mean different things by “contingent.” I mean what most people mean by it: “Could have happened otherwise.”

Posted by me:

I suspected this might be the hang-up. Usually when I hear talk of contingency vs. necessity, I make the assumption that we’re talking about the sense in modal logic, not folk colloquialism. (I hope this didn’t sound flippant. Back-and-forth posting has a tendency to drop intended tone.)

I assert, however, that it’s vitally important we avoid the folk colloquialism. Folk colloquialisms are very often incoherent by virtue of ambiguity, and such is the case here (again, I assert).

I did an article a while back on “Could have done otherwise” and why its brevity and ambiguity gives it a false veneer of meaningfulness while having “logical wildcard” power. Drop “stanrock superheroes” (without the quotes) into Google to see why I make this claim. (Also, if you’d rather continue this conversation in e-mails/chats/phone sometime, let me know. I don’t want to spam up your blog with references to my material. Or if you’d rather I rewrite/trim-down instead of referring, I’d understand that preference, too.)

Posted by Roger E. Olson:

In this case, anyway, I will go with what you call “folk colloquialism.”

Posted by me (but removed by Roger E. Olson):

That’s fair, though my hope remains toward an eventual common acceptance of compatibilism.

Last spring, you and I had the following friendly chat:

Another fellow jumped in and you and he chatted a bit about libertarian free will and whether it qualified as something non-contradictory. You said, “It’s a mystery I can live with because the alternative(s) is so much more mysterious — viz., how a person can be responsible for decisions and following actions with regard to which he could not have done otherwise.”

If I read right, you saw two mysteries before you:

  1. How can a person’s choice be both foreknowable and spontaneous, caused and uncaused, externally-attributable but exclusively culpable? (The supposed “libertarian free will contradiction.”)
  2. How can a person be responsible for their actions when they could not have actually done otherwise? (The supposed “Determinism-responsibility contradiction.”)

Given that both were paradoxes AND that the veracity of one would preclude the veracity of the other, you stacked them using a mysteriousness-based heuristic, and libertarian free will won out.

As I alluded to in my prior reply, the problem with “could have done otherwise” is not JUST that it’s a folk colloquialism. It’s that it’s a folk colloquialism that entails 3 separate possible articulations with completely different philosophical implications.

  • Articulation #1: “X = What I have done yesterday. Today, I have the ability to do not-‘near-X’.
  • Example of articulation #1: “I went to Subway yesterday and ordered a Seafood Delight sandwich. It was gross. I can imagine having done otherwise, yesterday; I would have been much happier. Today, I’ll order something different at Subway instead. I shall ‘do otherwise.'”
  • Articulation #2: “X = What I have done yesterday. I can have the ability to have done yesterday not-X.”
  • This unpacking shows an analytical contradiction which therefore must be false, i.e., an ability I lack.
  • Articulation #3: “X = What I have done yesterday. I can rewind the universe and do not-X yesterday.”
  • This miraculously creates a meta-timeline that circumvents the earlier contradiction. Of course, one would correctly argue that you’re really doing not-‘near-X’, since your miraculous intrusion has changed yesterday’s scenario (and thus the definition of the action). And, of course, we can’t “do this” anyway.

These are the three paths in the three-pronged fork in the road.

In reverse order, the evaluation:

Articulation #3 is some sort of superpower that doesn’t really do the trick.

Articulation #2 is a path we can take, but it drops into a crevasse. Harry Frankfurt did exhaustive philosophical work showing this in the late ’60s.

Only articulation #1 is something I can do — and it is completely compatible with determinism. The compatibilist assertion is that #1 serves as the foundation for coherent discussions of what responsibility is all about. This is huge, and together you and I should take this path.

Compatibilism being true doesn’t make Calvinists correct. Calvinists have all sorts of bizarre baggage and crufty idiosyncrasies. I’d love to explore what Arminian compatibilism would look like.

It’s September, and a strong wind breaks against an oak tree. It yields an explosion of yellow leaves, each falling in indescribably unique ways, various movements across various axes, changing and twisting, one by one coming to rest upon things in vicinity.

(A) Did God micromanage the intricacies of this event down to the molecule? Do each of these leaves (and their subparticles) course with deliberate divine teleology?


(B) Do the leaves have some sort of libertarian freedom that makes their activity non-deterministic? Are they defying the laws of physics? Is that the only way to divorce their near-random activity from God’s micromanagement?


(C) Are the intricacies of this event just a chaotic (hyper-complex under orderliness) byproduct of God’s initial set-up and mostly hands-off-ness? Since he is the God of Theism and not Deism, perhaps he tilts one leaf exceptionally against the window of a house, catching the attention of the man within; he stands up and approaches the window, taking a moment to look outside, forgetting his worries for a few minutes, appreciating nature, the change of seasons, and how flexibility and adaptation keep creation ticking and interesting, and how he’d better wear a coat this evening.

Can’t we assert “C”? And once we have this “C-maneuver” in our pockets, can’t we apply it to anything deterministic under theism?



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