Friday, December 02, 2011

Truth, Consequences and Doublespeak

So, there's a connection between the Calvinist iteration of Total Depravity and this compatibilist free will idea. The Calvinist understands Total Depravity more as Total Inability; that a person is completely unable to choose to pursue God and, coupled with that, God must intervene to change the nature of those He elects for salvation so that they will inevitably believe and if He does not change a person's nature, they will never believe because they are unable to, doing so would be contrary to their nature. By now you should start to see the relationship to compatibilist free will: You are only able to make choices that are consistent with your nature… any choice that's inconsistent with your nature is a choice you are not able to make. Calvinists believe that man's nature is inclined against God. And the compatibilist version of free will states that no one can make choices that are contrary to their nature. This would explain why it is that God has to somehow supernaturally change a person's nature to enable them to believe, because without that they never will.

However, that all assumes that compatibilist free will is true. And I think we've shown that compatibilist free will is not true. But what would Total Depravity look like if libertarian free will were true, and man IS actually capable of choosing that which is contrary to his nature? Hmmm… that's a real game-changer, isn't it?

Now Calvinists will frequently take the opportunity of an attack on Total Depravity to play the semi-pelagianism card. Semi-pelagianism denied that man's nature wasn't damaged enough by the fall to render him completely unable to pursue God. Well, it's interesting to notice that if compatibilist free will turns out to be false and libertarian free will turns out to be true, then we can agree that man has a totally corrupt and rebellious nature, but he is nonetheless capable of choosing that which is contrary to his nature: Belief in God.

This thinking can be seen to have implications, then, for what the Calvinist expects from his post-salvation life as well. The Calvinist understanding is that the regenerated man has a "new nature" (and I would agree) but given compatibilist free will, it should be impossible for the Calvinist to choose that which is contrary to his new nature. That is, regenerate man should no longer be drawn toward sin… he is a changed man. However, this is fraught with difficulty because every Calvinist knows that sin persists to some degree in the life of the believer in spite of his new nature. From this flows a prodigious amount of double-speak, since the Calvinist is now torn between this idea that they have a new nature, and yet they plainly see that sin remains. That this is true actually demonstrates that the compatibilist concept of free will is false.

But again, libertarian free will can be seen as a solution here. Only if one is committed to the compatibilist notion of free will can these two realities be seen to conflict. Because given libertarian free will, it is not at all unthinkable that the regenerated person is capable of choosing that which is against this new nature. And isn't that what Paul struggles with in Romans 7?

This is interesting enough, seems to me… but when you combine this with some considerations related to general revelation, it becomes easier to see what God is up to and how this all works together.

Two passages in particular can be seen to reveal God's strategy, or at least part of it. Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20. These passages make it clear that the creation around us isn't merely there to accommodate and provide sustenance for man. Rather, these passages state that there is another purpose designed into creation, and that is to testify to the presence and existence of God. Notice that this is not the Bible's role… the Bible has another role. But the role of creation, clearly, is to alert man to God's presence. And this can be seen then as an appeal to man's libertarian free will, to give us reason to choose--quite against our nature--to pursue God in precisely the same way that my wife can coax me into eating a few slices of zucchini on the grounds that my diet needs to improve.

The conclusion this brings me to is that the Calvinist's understanding of Total Depravity, and in fact much of their theology, appears to be driven more by a compatibilist view of free will than it is driven by what the Bible actually says.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Battle of Wills

I am in the midst of studying the tenets of Calvinism or "Reform Theology", and to be honest, it is a theological system that I tend to reject quite strongly. Nevertheless, I'm making an effort to honestly consider the claims of Calvinism and that means listening to what Calvinists themselves say about what they believe. The big issue that must be dealt with in any discussion related to Calvinism is the apparent dilemma of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. This is a centuries-old debate that requires the consideration of the idea of "free will," or our ability to make choices that are actually choices as opposed to making choices which we merely believe are choices, but are actually pre-determined in some sense by some entity over which we have no control.

For various reasons, the Calvinist is compelled to divide the concept of "free will" into two possible categories: "Libertarian free will" and "Compatibilist free will."

I was listening to a very good podcast the other day, the host is a man named Jay Warner Wallace, a Christian apologist and, interestingly, a cold-case homocide detective. Wallace claims himself to be a Calvinist, and I listened to two shows in particular in which he dealt with these two categories of free will. What follows is a very close paraphrase of his explanations:

Libertarian free will: A human has the ability to choose anything within the realm of possibility, even when the choice that's made is contrary to the person's nature, contrary to the person's inclinations and desires, likes and dislikes.

Compatibilist free will: A human does have the freedom to make a choice, but he is always restrained by his pre-existing nature, by his inclinations and desires, likes and dislikes.

Wallace offers this example as a way of clarifying the Compatibilist view:

"In other words, you walk into that pizzeria, you're not going to choose an anchovy pizza, you still have freedom, but you hate anchovies, you don't like them, you dislike them. So therefore you are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose those. You only choose within your nature."

Wallace affirms compatibilist free will and says that the notion of libertarian free will is false.

So, how can we test this idea? Well, it seems to me that if I wanted to show that compatibilist free will is false, I would simply need to demonstrate that I can, in fact, choose to do something that is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Well, it turns out that I don't have to spend much time conjuring up examples which show that compatibilist free will is false and that libertarian free will is true. For instance:

It is against my nature, my inclinations, my desires, my likes and dislikes, to mow the lawn. And yet, every week or two during the summer I make a choice to mow my lawn. I don't like it, I'd prefer to do something else, I do not consider it pleasant. I have no desire to mow my lawn. And yet, I choose to mow my lawn. That is a choice I make that is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Similarly, I abhor green beans. They are disgusting, I can hardly believe that anyone would touch them, let alone put one in their mouth. Needless to say, it is inconsistent with my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes to eat green beans. And yet, occasionally (very occasionally, I'll admit) I choose to eat them. This choice is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Let's go the other direction once… I like chocolate chip cookies. It is quite consistent with my nature to eat chocolate chip cookies. And yet, when there are chocolate chip cookies in the house, after I've eaten one or two, and even though I desire, even though I'm strongly inclined to eat a third, or a fourth, or a fifth, I am able to choose to stop eating the chocolate chip cookies.

Every weekday morning I take water exercise classes at a local fitness center. Exercise is against my nature, I am not naturally inclined to exercise, nor am I naturally inclined to transport myself down to the pool at 5:30 every morning. And yet, in spite of the fact that I don't like these things, I choose every morning to do that which is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

As I considered this further, I was struck by how completely obvious this seems to be; that libertarian free will is obviously true and compatibilist free will is obviously false. So then I have to wonder: Why is Jay Warner Wallace persuaded of the opposite? He's a smart guy! And I don't want to jump to conclusions here… if I've missed some important point, I'd like to know about it. So I dug a little deeper. Look at my last example; the water exercise routine. It's true, it's not fun getting up at 5:20 every morning and hauling myself down to the fitness center for the class. I really would rather stay at home; that's my nature. And yet, again, I do choose to go to the class. I was thinking about what Wallace might say if I offered that example, and it occurred to me that he might say that there's another aspect of my nature, my inclinations, etc. that IS being preserved in my choice to violate my inclination to stay home. That other aspect might be that it's against my nature, my inclinations, what I like and dislike, to have back pain and not be able to move around easily. Such is the consequence of not going to the pool regularly. So, my decision to violate one aspect of my nature actually honors another aspect of my nature.

Well, that makes a certain amount of sense… except that this isn't what Wallace claimed, is it? He claimed that humans are only able to choose consistent with their pre-existing nature, and he didn't say anything about competing natures or inclinations. So either his claim is true or it's false. Even if I'm choosing consistent with ONE aspect of my nature, if it is possible for me to choose something that is against another aspect of my nature, then it seems to me that compatibilist free will is still demonstrated to be false.

What it comes down to, I think, is that the compatibilist free will idea is much too simplistic. That is, it seems to overlook the fact that we have multiple competing inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes in operation at any give moment in any given context. I might not be inclined to mow the lawn, however I am inclined to keep my house looking half-way decent. I might be inclined to eat the whole batch of chocolate chip cookies, but I'm also inclined toward improving my health so I can be more comfortable and productive. This compatibilist notion seems to ignore that complexity altogether. No allowance is made for ever choosing contrary to your inclinations… under compatibilist free will, such a choice would be impossible.

On the other hand, the idea of libertarian free will doesn't have any such liabilities. The claim of libertarian free will is that each person is able to make choices that are inconsistent with their inclinations… but notice that allowance is made for making choices consistent with your inclinations as well as making choices that are contrary to your inclinations. This allows multiple inclinations to operate simultaneously, where the person is able to prioritize and uphold those inclinations which the person determines to be most important. And notice that this decision as to priority is itself a choice.

There's one other point that could be made about this notion of compatibilist free will: There is a sense in which the argument is circular. It could be stated this way: You don't have free will because your free will won't allow you to have free will. See, the idea of free will has to do with not being compelled by any force outside of yourself to make certain decisions. It may well be that I didn't consciously decide to detest broccoli the way I do. Certainly, my aversion to vegetables and fruits does seem to be a feature of my personality that I didn't actually choose to acquire, so far as I know. But nobody else compels me to dislike broccoli, either. And again, even though my nature is diametrically opposed to the consumption of broccoli, I have chosen in the past to actually eat it. The point is this: It is me and only me that decides not to eat broccoli, even though under certain extraordinary circumstances I might ultimately choose to eat it.

After very careful consideration, then, I have to conclude that the compatibilist notion of free will is absolutely false and that libertarian free will is obviously true.

The reason this is so important is that it relates to the idea of "Total Depravity" as defined in Reform Theology. And that is what I'll analyze next.