Divine Sovereignty and Determinism: Response Series Part 4

Previously, we replied to a rebuttal of to my claim that determinism is radical. Now, we’ll tackle Blake’s fourth objection that the Principle of Alternative Possibilities does not make sense on given several facts held to by Arminians.

A. Complaint. Here’s what he says:


4. Principle of Alternative Possibilities

[Quoting me.] “Well, freedom (in the Libertarian sense) roughly means to be the first un-caused cause of one’s own activities (agent causation) and by implication to be free and able to choose from a range of several alternatives (principle of alternative possibilities, or PAP).”

Arminians cannot even believe this. In Roger Olson’s summary of Arminian doctrine, he states, “Left to themselves, without the liberating power of grace, sinners will not exercise a good will toward God.” This is the case because Arminians affirm that humanity is unable to please God and obey him until God enables them to obey through prevenient grace. Therefore, before one receives this prevenient grace from God, sinners have no “alternative possibilities” other than sin and corruption.

Also, just to mention briefly, the Bible lists tons of evidences and situations when God hardens a person’s heart or compels someone to make specific decisions. Are we expected to believe that individuals who were compelled by God to make certain decisions were “able to choose from a range of several alternatives” contrary to God’s purpose? Was Caiaphas able to choose not to prophesy (John 11:51)?  Unfortunately, Arminians may respond that he could have.

The concept of PAP is also contradictory to the historic Arminian doctrine of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. If God knows everything that will happen then humans are not free “to choose from a range of several alternatives,” but by necessity choose what God foreknows we would choose. There is no alternative possibility other than what God foreknows will happen. Brendan had mentioned to me previously that this is a difficulty in Arminian theology. There are individuals who have tried to overcome this problem of divine foreknowledge and libertarian free will. Among those who have ventured to do so include William Lane Craig, and his utilization of Molinism.


B. Response. There are at least three parts to this: (1) total depravity and prevenient grace, (2) divine hardening, and (3) the (in)compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

First, let’s define the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP). Essentially, PAP is the doctrine that a person is morally responsible for their actions only if they could have done otherwise than what they did. PAP is taken to be a necessary condition for libertarian free will. Given two choices A and B, when you choose A, you could have chosen B.

1. Total Depravity and Prevenient Grace. Blake thinks the doctrine of total depravity and necessity of prevenient grace negates PAP because, left to ourselves, in our natural and fallen state, we can’t exercise a good will towards God. On this both Arminians and Calvinists agree. But I don’t see how this negates PAP. I agree with John Wesley that, even in a state of darkness, one is free to choose between a variety of sins! So there are alternative possibilities in what we choose to do as graceless fallen creatures, but it’s just that whatever we choose to do, it will be morally evil.

I think this highlights a general issue that I’ve noticed in Theology discussions about free will. I think the way Theologians talk about “free will” is a moral/spiritual quality to love God. But in Philosophy, all we PAP-affirming Libertarians are talking about is a raw choice between any two alternatives A and B, irrespective of their moral content.

2. Divine Hardening. I also agree with Blake when he says there are times when God hardens our hearts, but I don’t agree that God ‘compels’ us to do what we do. His signature case fr compulsion is Caiaphas’ prophesy. But I don’t see why we have to interpret that speech-act as divine compulsion. Rather, I think what we see here is a person freely speaking about Jesus, where God’s Spirit’s revelation coincided with those words spoken freely by the High Priest as a prophesy. After all, Arminians think nobody can even lift a finger much less speak words without divine concurrence. Arminius believed that God must empower us and sustain us even to do the very mundane day-to-day things we do. So God perhaps concurred with Caiaphas’ speaking the relevant words that God could use to say something true about Jesus.

I think divine hardening is an interesting case. My interpretation of God’s hardening of a person’s heart is when God simply hands that person over to do what they want to do. Romans 1 talks about this giving over to sins. hen God calls us to do the right thing, and we choose the wrong thing, God might just hand us over to that, and that will lead to our becoming hardened. Actually, Pharaoh’s story is really interesting in this respect. For although the Bible does say that God hardened the King of Egypt (Exo. 4:21, 7:3, 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, 14:17), the same Bible also says that this same King hardened himself (Exo. 8:15, 32; 9:34), and other times it does not specify who hardened whom (Exo. 7:14, 22; 8:19; 9:7). So it seems there is a human element going into play here, and that seems compatible with PAP.

3. Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Blake also thinks that PAP is inconsistent with God’s knowing what we will do in the future. But I’d like to point out that it’s not obvious that if we will choose a certain path of action and God knows what it will be then we could not have in principle chosen another course of action. But I don’t even think Blake characterizes it fairly. For he says if we will choose a path of action at a future time, and God knows it, then we will choose it “from necessity.” Where did that come from? I don’t know how Blake is forming his objection. But if Blake’s argument is something of the form
(1) Necessarily, if God foreknows that P at t, then P at t.
(2) God foreknows that P at t.
(3) Therefore, necessarily P at t.
then Blake is probably making the mistake of illegitimate transferring the modal operator “necessarily” from premise (1) to premise (3). For whereas (1) simply makes a claim about the infallibility of God’s foreknowledge of a true future proposition P at t (given the infallibility of his knowledge in general), the conclusion (3) makes necessary not God’s knowledge of P at t given the truth of that proposition, but it makes necessary P at t itself, which is obviously a mistake. Or, put in another way, (3) doesn’t follow from (1) and (2), and so the argument is logically invalid.

Put more charitably, I guess this is just an argument-plug for the incompatibility of freedom and foreknowledge. But it just isn’t clear what Blake is arguing, or what his argument form is. If Blake wants us to think there is a problem between God’s knowing what we will do and our ability to do otherwise then what we will do, then he needs to provide some relatively complicated story of why that is supposed to be a problem. Intuitively, there’s no problem with having the metaphysical causal powers to do something different in principle even if it turns out you won’t do otherwise. That is, it doesn’t follow from the point that you can do otherwise that you therefore will. But I guess that’s just the whole debate.

A brief note on Molinism, too.  Molinism is not, per se, an answer to the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, as Blake seems to think. Molinism is a story about how future contingent truths get the truth-values that they have. Molinism has a mechanism to explain that in such a way as the Simple Foreknowledge proponent does not. But Molinists still have to deal with the freedom and foreknowledge problem along with Simple Foreknowledge proponents.

Next time, we’ll talk about Blake’s fifth objection to my blog.

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