Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Unreflective assumptions about free will

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3 minutes to read Suppose everyone automatically assumes they have the power of contrary choice. What follows?

In my series on Molinism I’ve talked a lot about the power of contrary choice, as exemplified in the principle of alternate possibility. I’m going to quote a comment from Arminian theologian Roger Olson on this point:

I explain “compatiblism” as a view of “free will” to students all the time—with a straight face and telling them that is what many philosophers and theologians mean by “free will”—that one is “free” whenever one does what he or she wants to do and is not being coerced to do something he or she does not want to do—even if the person could not do otherwise. Invariably the students object that this is not what “free will” means. Invariably they think free will is power of contrary choice. I suspect compatibilists ought to come up with some other phrase than “free will.”

Now, leaving aside Olson’s obliviously 18th century characterization of compatibilism,* let’s imagine that counterexamples to this don’t exist; that everyone naturally assumes that free will just is the power of contrary choice.

So what?

What does Olson think this would prove?

To illustrate, imagine that everyone automatically assumed that guilt and innocence could not be “inherited” or “transferred”. That if you were guilty, someone else couldn’t take punishment for you and thereby free you of that guilt. That’s a highly plausible intuition, at least in the West—but that is, after all, the context of Olson’s discussion; if he taught in the majority world I highly doubt he would get the same reaction about free will from many of his students.

Olson firmly repudiates the notion that determinism can be compatible with moral responsibility. He thinks that the term “free will” in a deterministic system like Calvinism is a misnomer. And to illustrate his point he uses the pre-reflective assumptions of his students.

Does Olson also think that terms like “counted righteous before God” and “justified” and “innocent” under Christianity are misnomers—given the highly plausible pre-reflective intuition that guilt and innocence cannot be transferred between people?

If not, why should we take such jejune argumentum ad populum seriously when applied to free will?

* Philosophers who believe that determinism is compatible with responsibility have advanced their position significantly since Jonathan Edwards’ time; they usually describe freedom not in terms of ability to choose what one desires, but rather in terms of control over oneself, and responsiveness to reasons for acting. Either Olson is simply unaware of this—in which case why is he teaching for crying out loud—or he is simply misrepresenting compatibilism. Neither option throws him in a very good light.




I’m curious. In your opinion, is there anywhere in Scripture that clearly teaches that mankind has “free will” (in some sense of the term)?

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Well, Leviticus 22:18 and Psalm 54:6 speak of freewill offerings, which certainly imply at least a colloquial understanding that man is free to make choices. And I think it is implicit in the concept of man imaging God that he can exercise freedom of will in some meaningful sense.

But the very category of free will is a philosophical one, out of place in the thinking of the ancient near-East. It would be much more accurate to say that Scripture teaches that man is a responsible agent, that he is culpable (or exculpable) to God for his choices, and God himself determines what they will be.

Incidentally, this is actually wildly “liberal” in ANE thought, which was extremely fatalistic. Since the human realm was ultimately one with the natural and divine realms, and past and present were ultimately one in a great cycle of continuity, nothing you did ultimately mattered, and indeed was fully decided in advance by impersonal forces well outside your control. The very concept of right and wrong as adherence to the laws of a personal creator to whom you were accountable was quite strange; usually, from what I understand, what you should do was simply whatever would bring honor (and more importantly survival) on your clan or tribe or people-group, and what you shouldn’t do was anything that would bring shame on them. So for instance, because ritual temple prostitution or child sacrifice was a way of ensuring fertile crops through representation and sympathetic magic, those were good things. By the same token, if you could steal without being discovered (and so would not lose face), then why feel guilty? You haven’t lost face, so you haven’t done anything wrong.

So Israel’s concept of moral responsibility is actually incredibly robust. It’s a great irony that Arminians argue against biblical principles in precisely the way pagan idolaters of the ancient near-East would have; except the pagan idolaters would have appealed to their fatalistic honor/shame intuitions, which of course Arminians would find utterly reprehensible and outrageous. It’s such an obliviously provincial, condescending approach to the dialectic.