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Theological determinism and the problem of evil


I argue that the free-will defence need not presuppose a libertarian conception of freedom and therefore need not beg the question against compatibilists. I present three versions of theological determinism, each of which is inconsistent with freedom on compatibilist-friendly principles, and then argue that what generates the inconsistency – viz, that (1) God intentionally necessitates all human actions, and (2) no human has it within her power to influence causally God's will – is entailed by any version of theological determinism. Contrary to widespread opinion, therefore, the viability of the free-will defence does not depend upon the viability of libertarianism per se but on the falsity of theological determinism.

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1 Alvin Plantinga The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), ch. 9.

2 For useful discussion of Plantinga's important contention that all creaturely essences might be ‘transworld depraved’, see Weisberger AndreaDepravity, divine responsibility and moral evil: a critique of the new free will defence’, Religious Studies, 31 (1995), 375390, and Manis R. ZacharyOn transworld depravity and the heart of the free will defence’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, 59 (2006), 153165.

3 Some have questioned this implication. Here I simply concede it, but see Davies MartinDeterminism and evil’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 58 (1980), 116127, and Bishop JohnCompatibilism and the free will defence’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 71 (1993), 104120.

4 Lewis DavidEvil for freedom's sake?’, Philosophical Papers, 22 (1993), 149172. Omitting the claim that undetermined actions must be ‘random’, the above contention is also expressed in (e.g.) Mackie's J. L. seminal ‘Evil and omnipotence’, Mind, 64 (1955), 200212. It should go without saying that compatibilists may hold that God and evil are compossible. But making good that claim requires the introduction of a model specifying what God's reason for allowing evil at least might have been, and if the candidate reason (such as the bestowal of ‘incompatibilist free will’) is not sufficient to command God's respect then the model fails as a defence.

5 Another option is to construct novel arguments for the incompatibility of freedom and determinism generally. I do not pursue this line here, but see Cain JamesFree will and the problem of evil’, Religious Studies, 40 (2004), 437456.

6 Though, as will emerge, it does not require the contested assumptions deployed in canonical versions of arguments for incompatibilism, such as those in Peter van Inwagen's An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

7 See al-Ghazali The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in A. Hyman and J. Walsh (eds) Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1973), 283–291.

8 Jonathan Edwards ‘The great doctrine of original sin defended’, in J. Smith et al. (eds) A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 241.

9 More formally, the terms will be understood in this way throughout: (a) X is a direct cause of Y=df. X causes Y and X does not cause Y via mediating causes; (b) X is a total cause of Y=df. X is sufficient for Y and X is not a partial cause of Y (there is no distinct cause Z such that X and Z jointly cause Y); (c) X is an exclusive cause of Y=df. X directly causes Y and Y is not causally overdetermined. The terms ‘total’ and ‘exclusive’ are borrowed from Philip Quinn.

10 Philip Quinn ‘Divine conservation, continuous creation, and human action’, in Alfred J. Freddoso (ed.) The Existence and Nature of God (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 76.

11 For recent discussion on this topic, see David Vander Laan ‘Persistence and divine conservation’, Religious Studies, 42 (2006), 159–176.

12 Including Edwards's own compatibilist account, as Paul Helm has rightly noted in his Faith and Understanding (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 174–175.

13 I understate. Quite apart from the question of free will, the reality of mental causation is (so far as I know) universally held as a necessary condition on human action simpliciter. So Kim: ‘Determinism threatens human agency and skepticism puts human knowledge in peril. The stakes are even higher with the problem of mental causation for this problem threatens to take away both agency and cognition’; Jaegwon Kim Physicalism, or Something Near Enough (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 10.

14 As the critics of concurrentism complained, it isn't clear how the theory can avoid incoherence without collapsing into either occasionalism or some non-creative version of conservation. Here I simply assume the model is coherent and explore its implications for freedom, but see Freddoso Alfred J.God's general concurrence with secondary causes: why conservation is not enough’, Philosophical Perspectives, 5 (1991), 553585.

15 One might suspect that any theory positing such overdetermination fails to vindicate mental causation, since mental causes continue to appear in some sense redundant. I am myself sympathetic to this intuition, and I think that it is a testament to its force that it has been voiced in both the naturalistic and the theological contexts (see Kim Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, 47–49, and Alfred J. Freddoso ‘Medieval Aristotelianism and the case against secondary causes in nature’, in T. Morris (ed.) Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 92–93. For present purposes, however, no harm is done if we set this intuition aside.

16 The most sophisticated account along these lines is developed in John Fischer and Mark Ravizza Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Note, however, that although reasons-responsive control is necessary for responsibility it is not by itself sufficient; it must further be that the agent's actions are in an appropriate sense ‘their own’. My present point is simply that the control element of responsible action is not ruled out by TD2.

17 Daniel Dennett Freedom Evolves (New York NY: Viking Press, 2003), 281.

18 Alfred Mele Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

19 The premise should be understood with the proviso that the controlled agent's reasons and dispositions are caused by another as well, though not by such means as persuasion or advising or informing, so as to exclude cases in which the agent's actions are ‘caused’ in unobjectionable ways. For example, suppose I know you are powerfully predisposed to chase after a free lunch under virtually any conceivable circumstance and I inform you that free sandwiches are being served in the lounge down the hall. Perhaps I have caused you to go and have your fill. Still, you appear to act freely, since your action is caused by (among other things) your preferences and character traits, which we may assume were not imposed upon you without your consent. As Gale Richard points out in his ‘Freedom and the free will defence’, Social Theory and Practice, 16 (1990), 408409, ‘As a rule, the more the external event only triggers a deep-seated character trait or natural disposition of the agent the less difficulty there is in treating it as not abrogating the free will of the affected agent.’

20 Richard Gale (in ‘Freedom and the free will defence’) and Pruss Alexander (in ‘A new free-will defence’, Religious Studies, 39 (2003), 211223) have both offered principles akin to the one in premise (a), and both qualify their principles in recognition of the fact that one agent might cause another to act in a way that does not violate their freedom (see n. 19). But their qualifications do not protect the relevant principles from falsification since they are silent concerning the presupposed asymmetry. As they see things, premises like (a) must be interpreted as saying that most or all of the controlled agent's actions are brought about by another, since ‘Control by one person over all of someone's significantly free actions (as perhaps opposed to control over merely some actions) … is arguably freedom-cancelling’; Pruss, ‘A new free-will defence’, 219. But the crucial distinction is not to be drawn along the lines of the quantity of actions caused but rather the means employed in causing them (e.g. whether agents are merely being persuaded or advised as opposed to being covertly manipulated to act as they do), and, particularly, whether the agents themselves have any influence over their ‘controllers’.

21 Mele Autonomous Agents, 167.

22 Ibid. See also Mele's treatment of dispositions that are ‘innately’ instilled in a way that involves no ‘bypassing’ of the agent's previously generated capacities for control. For discussion of similar cases in context of the actual-sequence approach to responsibility, compare my ‘Reasons-responsive compatibilism and the consequence of belief’, The Journal of Ethics, 11 (2007), 357–375.

23 Robert Audi discusses related instances in which the influence of an ‘alien’ intermediary, who causes an agent to act in such a way that their actions are not ‘their own’, is distinguished from the influence of intermediaries who reliably ‘enable’, but do not cause another agent's actions so as to undermine their authorship. See ‘Acting for reasons’, in Robert Audi Action, Intention and Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 164.

24 Jonathan Kvanvig and Hugh McCann ‘Divine conservation and the persistence of the world’, in Morris Divine and Human Action, 13–49.

25 Given the assumption that whatever God ‘brings about’, He brings about immediately, the following inference pattern is therefore invalid: p brings about q, q entails rp brings about r. See Quinn ‘Divine conservation, secondary causes, and occasionalism’, 53.

26 Assuming, as most do, that supervenience is a relation of logical or ‘metaphysical’ rather than causal determination.

27 Here I simply take for granted the possibility of supervenient causes. As to the fundamental physical states directly caused by God, these will be either overdetermined (by God and His creatures) or, alternatively, exclusively caused by Him. In the latter case occasionalism will be true of the fundamental physical realm, but not necessarily of supervenient realms. For extended discussion of this possibility in the context of Malebranche's arguments for occasionalism, see Pessin AndrewDoes continuous creation entail occasionalism? Malebranche (and Descartes)’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 30 (2000), 413440.

28 I retain (3″) for referential convenience. (1) by itself entails that God's activity is sufficient for any resultant state of affairs, and I make no use of the stipulation that the effects of God's direct activity are not collaboratively caused.

29 David Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd edn, Eric Steinberg (ed.) (Indianapolis IN: Hackett, 1993), 66. Note that God's relation to the natural laws could be of some consequence if the correct analysis of it implies, as Del Ratzch argues, that laws are subjunctive conditionals stipulating ‘how God either does act or would act in given circumstances’, a proposal that looks to result once more in occasionalism. See his ‘Nomo(theo)logical necessity’, in M. Beaty (ed.) Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1990), 204.

30 Compare Jaegwon Kim: ‘if the mental supervenes upon the physical, the mental is dependent on the physical, or the physical determines the mental, roughly in the sense that the mental nature of a thing is entirely fixed by its physical nature’; Mind in a Physical World (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1998), 11. And: ‘The past determines the future and the future depends on the past. That is what I mean by “horizontal” causation’; idem Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, 36.

31 Harry Frankfurt ‘Three concepts of freedom II’, in J. Fischer (ed.) Moral Responsibility (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 119.

32 Ibid.

33 See Paul Helm Eternal God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), ch. 9, and compare Peter Byrne ‘Helm's God and the authorship of sin’, in Martin Stone (ed.) Reason, Faith and History: Philosophical Essays for Paul Helm (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 191–201.

34 Watson GarySoft libertarianism and hard compatibilism’, The Journal of Ethics, 3 (1999), 351365, and Robert Kane The Significance of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 67.

35 See my ‘Responsibility, manipulation and ownership: reflections on the Fischer/Ravizza program’, Philosophical Explorations, 8 (2005), 115–130.

36 Fischer and Ravizza Responsibility and Control, 233.

37 Ibid., 235, n. 30.

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