Friday, April 26, 2013

Human Freedom: Denying The Upper Story

One debate that rages within Christianity is the debate over human freedom. In this life, do humans have genuine freedom of choice and what does that look like? What is the extent of our freedom? And many folks are convinced that this issue is just too deep or too complex or mysterious to even try to sort out, and in fact many pastors will encourage folks not to bother with such controversies; that to do so will ultimately be unproductive.

I think the issue is much more important than that and I think it's important because it relates directly to the character of God. Calvinists have tried to reconcile this issue with a conception of human freedom called "Compatibilist Freedom," and they think this resolves the tension. Arminians generally hold to a more straightforward conception of human freedom called "Libertarian Freedom."

I listen to two apologetics-oriented podcasts each week… Please Convince Me, hosted by Jim Wallace, and Stand To Reason, hosted by Greg Koukl. I learn a lot from these men and I respect them. I also have it on good authority that, well, they're human. And humans make mistakes. Jim Wallace has produced several podcasts which deal in depth with this issue, and what follows is a careful analysis of the things he offered in those podcasts. No disrespect is intended toward Mr. Wallace. I just think this issue is very important and I think it's worth exploring.

In two older podcasts from 2010 Jim Wallace describes the concepts of Libertarian freedom in the following ways:

    "…humans have the ability to choose anything that's possible, even when the choice made by the human is contrary to their nature, contrary to your inclinations, your desires, likes and dislikes."

    "Humans have the ability to choose anything. Even when there's a choice that you might make that might be contrary to your nature, to your inclinations, your likes and dislikes. I call this 'unfettered free will.'"

And in those same podcasts, Mr. Wallace describes Compatibilist freedom in this way:

    "Humans have the ability to choose something, …but they always are restrained by their pre-existing nature… You are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose [those things which are contrary to your nature]. You only choose WITHIN YOUR NATURE."

And in an October 2010 podcast, Mr. Wallace's clearly rejects the concept of Libertarian freedom :

    "The atheists and the skeptics who would charge us with this idea that you don't really have free will are people who believe that there is such a thing as Libertarian free will, that humans actually could have Libertarian free will--the ability to choose things outside their nature--and I would just argue that that's just a false notion… Nobody chooses outside their nature. They just don't."

Another popular notion of Libertarian free will involves what Greg Koukl has described as the "Could've Done Otherwise" condition… that a Libertarian free will choice is a choice that could have gone the other way.

For the time being, I think it's fair to conclude that Libertarian freedom encapsulates two basic ideas: The ability to choose contrary to one's nature, and--given two options--the ability to choose either of those options.

By contrast, Compatibilism denies the ability to choose anything that's contrary to my nature. That is, my nature directly and absolutely governs my decisions. And Mr. Wallace seems quite convinced that Compatibilism is true when he says emphatically "Nobody chooses outside their nature. They just don't." This is an emphatic, blanket statement which gives no hint of any exceptions.

But there seems to be an absolutely fatal problem with this idea. We all agree that man's nature is sinful. And yet we all know that even non-Christians frequently choose not to commit sin. It's true, of course, that none of us will reach the end of our lives having never committed a sin. But we're not talking about adding up the choices throughout one's life and then looking at the aggregate, we're talking about the individual decisions which make up that aggregate.

I've heard Greg Koukl explain on his program that unregenerate people do not sin at every opportunity given them. This means that, at least on occasion, unregenerate people choose against sin. (not that it does them any good) That is, given the opportunity to commit a particular sin, the unregenerate person IS capable of saying "No, I'm not going to do that."

But every time a non-Christian (with an unregenerate, totally depraved and sinful nature) does that, they are demonstrating precisely the capability which compatibilists deny: They are making a choice that is contrary to their sinful nature. Mr. Wallace is adamant in his denial of this possibility: "You're not going to choose something that your nature inclines you against," and "…fallen humans are restrained by a nature that inclines us toward evil."

Well, if these statements are true, if our nature inclines us toward evil and we are unable to choose contrary to that inclination, then how do you account for the fact that unregenerate people do not commit sin at every opportunity they're given? It ought to be impossible for an unregenerate, "natural" man to choose against committing a particular sin.

Also, we know that regenerate (born again) persons choose to commit sins, even though this is clearly contrary to their new nature. Compatibilism utterly fails to explain this reality, while Libertarian freedom seems to accommodate it quite comfortably.

In a podcast from earlier last year, Mr. Wallace seemed to appeal to Libertarian freedom as he (properly) came to the defense of the personhood of infants. It's true, he didn't use the phrase "Libertarian freedom", but what he described clearly fits Libertarian free will:

    "So what makes us 'morally relevant'? It seems that morality is based on the ability to say that we have free agency, that we could have chosen otherwise. If we can't choose otherwise, and we're just another domino falling because some synapse fired in our brain that was caused by something we ate or something that was already pre-designed in our genes, we can't step out of our nature and make a decision that's above our nature, then you really can't hold us morally accountable for anything. Fault requires the freedom to choose something that you should or shouldn't choose."


    "…Morality is based on the ability to say that we have free agency, that we could have chosen otherwise. If we can't choose otherwise, and …we can't step out of our nature and make a decision that's above our nature, then you really can't hold us morally accountable for anything. Fault requires the freedom to choose something that you should or shouldn't choose."

These descriptions contain both aspects of Libertarian freedom: The ability to make a decision that is "above" our nature, or to "step outside" our nature (where our nature is not calling the shots) and the "Could've Done Otherwise" condition; the ability to choose otherwise.

And in a very recent podcast Mr. Wallace discusses the moral culpability of criminals and here he invokes the ability to choose otherwise, sounding very much like an affirmation of Libertarian freedom:

    "When someone commits a crime, we believe they ought to be punished. Hmmm. Think about that for a minute. We believe that people ought to be punished when they do something that we've determined up-front is wrong. It almost sounds like we believe that people had choices, had the freedom to do otherwise. If they didn't have the freedom to do otherwise, then does it make much sense to punish them when they had no freedom to do otherwise? I mean, I've been working on homicides for a lot of years. Have I been working them meaninglessly? Is this work really meaningless in the sense that, you know, do people have moral culpability? And over the years I can say that some of my suspects had a claim that they were not responsible for their actions. And there were times when they would say that, you know, they had some prior physical condition, some excuse, some reason why they were not free to choose otherwise."

This is an excellent argument for Libertarian freedom. It's entirely reasonable and, in fact, self-evident. Mr. Wallace has explained very clearly why it would be unjust to hold someone morally responsible for the choices we make--and that includes what we believe and in whom we choose to place our trust--if we didn't have Libertarian freedom. And yet, inexplicably, Mr. Wallace says that Libertarian freedom is false.

However, if Compatibilism is true as Wallace asserts, then the person had no choice but to commit that crime. They could not have chosen otherwise because to choose otherwise would be to make a decision that runs contrary to their sinful nature.  And yet Mr. Wallace clearly believes that criminals are morally culpable. And I do, too. But that stands to reason because I would affirm Libertarian Freedom. The question is, why doesn't he?

I notice that as we study apologetics, we often point to the adherents to other world views and how they cannot, in the end, live consistently within their view. Francis Schaeffer used a metaphor to help illustrate this which involves a two-story house. Frequently the metaphor is used relative to, for example, objective morality. The upper story of the house represents the view that there is such a thing as objective morality. The lower story represents the view that there are no objective morals. Those who deny objective morality claim to live in the lower story and deny that the upper story exists, but whenever it suits them--and when they think no one's looking--they sneak up the stairs to the upper story. We see this every time an event like the shooting at Sandy Hook or the bombing at the Boston Marathon take place. People who deny that the upper story exists suddenly become upset that someone has done something so awful. But when they do this, they're sneaking up the stairs into the upper story. If no objective morality exists, then there's nothing morally wrong with those horrific acts.

Well, I can apply the same metaphor to the controversy about human freedom; where compatibilism is the lower story and libertarianism is the upper story. Mr. Wallace denies the upper story, but when it suits him, he sneaks up the stairs. The paragraph quote above is like a photograph of a two-story house in which you can see a face peering out the window from behind a curtain on the top floor… that face belongs to Mr. Wallace.

What I've learned from Francis Schaeffer's metaphor is that I should reject those views which cannot be held consistently. For that reason and a couple of others, I have to conclude that compatibilist freedom in this life is a fiction.

In a subsequent post we'll explore these notions of human freedom further and discuss their implications.


  1. I think Mr. Wallace has some reconciling to do.

    I cannot point to a single person I've ever known or heard of who hasn't, in practice, shown that they fall on the side of believing in Libertarian Freedom.

    As for myself, I believe each is a possibility, but my insistence on believing that punishment for injustice is a just thing shows that I find Libertarian Freedom to be a more probable description of the way things are.

    I know that I would be quite angered if I found out that God would condemn people who had no true free will. I think it would be unfair to create a person with a particular nature that the person had no say in whatsoever.

    The fact that I would find such a reality offensive, however, does not make such a reality impossible. It could just mean that my ideas of right and wrong and justice are constrained or limited in way's that God's are not.

    My understanding of justice and of God's word, however, lead me to believe that it is much more probable that we exercise Libertarian Freedom and are not constrained to only exercise Compatibilist Freedom.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, Pete.

  2. This also reminds me of that murder case in the early 20th century where it was argued that a proven murderer should not be held to account because humans have no free will. Each decision, it was argued, was the result of an infinite series of events and thoughts that were beyond the control of the murderer, so it would obviously be unjust to hold someone to account for actions that person had no control over.

    The irony, of course, is that his defense was that the justice system would be acting unjustly to take an action against him when the justice system would necessarily be incapable of free will if what the defense claimed about free will was true.

    If there is no libertarian free will, there can never be a case where anyone could be held to account for his actions, at least not among men.

  3. Thanks Lee! I think you're referencing Clarence Darrow here in your second comment, and your conclusions make perfect sense!

    One point I like to make is that God wouldn't tell us the He's "just" unless He knew that we understood what "just" means. I've heard it argued that we can't tell God what is "just" and what isn't. Well, that's true enough. But again, it would be meaningless and pointless for God to tell us that He is perfect justice if we had no concept of what perfect justice would have to be.

    So I think that we can assess what is "just" and what is "unjust" and when someone makes a claim about God which describes Him acting in ways that, if we were to do the same, would clearly be unjust, then we ought to reject those claims.

  4. This reminds me of something I heard Mark Driscoll say. Might be fodder for the next post!!