January 29, 2013

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

A Theistic Argument for Compatibilism

One often hears it asserted that most theists are metaphysical libertarians. This seems to be supported, at least in the case of theistic philosophers, by the PhilPapers survey where target faculty specializing in philosophy of religion, who were overwhelmingly more likely to be theists than their peers in other specializations (72.3% for religion specialists vs. 14.6% overall), were also overwhelmingly more likely to be libertarians (57.4% vs. 13.7%). (Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to compare theists to non-theists across the board, so we just have this correlation among religion specialists.)

Now, I suppose there are some reasons for this. One is that the free-will defense is widely thought to be the best response to the problem of evil, and is widely thought to require libertarianism. Another is that theists are often committed to some notion of punitive justice which is also widely thought to require free will. A third reason is that if God is a necessary being, and libertarianism is not true at least about divine freedom, then we inherit all of Leibniz's difficulties in trying to carve out any contingency in the world at all. Now, it is perfectly possible to be a libertarian about God's freedom and a compatibilist about human freedom. According to some (most?) interpreters, Aquinas adopts this view. On the kind of view in question, libertarian freedom would be the most perfect sort of freedom, and perhaps one might even concede that it's a sort of freedom that we (prideful) human beings often think we have, but one would say that compatibilist freedom is sufficient for moral responsibility and is all that we actually have. Nevertheless, if the theist is committed to saying that God has libertarian freedom, then the theist is committed to saying that libertarian freedom is at least a coherent notion, and it's easy to see why that would be at least correlated with claiming that we actually have libertarian freedom.

On the other hand, I think there are special philosophical reasons for theists to accept compatibilism. Reasons, that is, which are specially philosophical (as opposed to theological or scientific) and also specially applicable to theists. Consider the following argument:

  1. There are possible worlds in which God creates free beings other than those free beings (if any) which exist in the actual world.

  2. For any possible free being and any possible maximally specific circumstance in which that free being chooses freely, God knows what that being would choose. That is, every (maximally precise) counterfactual of creaturely freedom has a truth value known by God.

  3. Therefore,
  4. There are true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom concerning creatures who do not exist.

  5. If incompatibilism is true and any counterfactual of creaturely freedom concerning a creature who does not exist is true, then that counterfactual is a brute contingency.

  6. There are no brute contingencies.

  7. Therefore,
  8. Incompatibilism is false.

The base premises of this argument are (1), (2), (4), and (5). Plausibly, God's omnipotence requires (1) and his omniscience requires (2). (4) Seems clearly true, and (5) is a premise in cosmological arguments, hence many theists are committed to it. (A word about brute contingencies: if one defines 'brute contingencies' in such a way that facts which are made true by exercises of agent-causal power are not brute, (4) is still true, since agents who don't exist can't exercise agent-causal power, and the argument still goes through. Because of the possibility of this construal of 'brute contingency', the argument does not beg the question against theistic libertarians.) So with the exception of (4), every premise is one the theist has some special reason for believing.

All the premises are, I take it, open to question (though I will comment that (1) and (4) seem clearly least questionable to me), and I am myself uncertain whether the argument is sound, and uncertain whether the conclusion is true. A great many (perhaps most) of the philosophers who endorse both theism and libertarianism see the issues clearly enough to reject at least one of the premises (typically either (2) or (5)), so I suppose I'm not saying anything terribly shocking. However, it seems to me that this argument is strong enough, from the theistic perspective, that we ought not to regard the combination of theism and compatibilism (at least about human freedom) as odd or unusual, except perhaps in a purely sociological sense. There are strong reasons, within a theistic metaphysics, for endorsing compatibilism.

(cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

Posted by Kenny at January 29, 2013 2:49 PM
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Does imago dei present problems for assuming that God has libertarian freedom but humans only compatibilist freedom?

Posted by: Luke Breuer at January 4, 2014 7:42 PM

I wouldn't have thought so. After all, the doctrine is not that humans are just like God (that would be a pretty implausible doctrine). There is also debate about the extent to which freedom is a core part of imago dei. For instance, many in the tradition have thought that reason was the core of imago dei. Now some people have argued that reason does require libertarian freedom, but obviously compatibilists don't think this.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at January 5, 2014 9:07 AM

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