Sunday, July 7, 2013

Playing Dominoes

There are many subtleties in this discussion of human freedom, and many ways that the debate gets skewed and misdirected by straw man arguments and red herrings. I'm going to attempt to deal with one of these fallacious arguments here, and then in my next post I'll deal with another.

Let's look at a common straw man argument which represents Libertarian Freedom in a way that makes it sound obviously false. This mischaracterization seems to say that to affirm Libertarian freedom is to affirm that man's ability to choose is free from any external pressures or influences. But this is not what Libertarian freedom entails. Libertarian freedom entails freedom from an external cause. Pressures or influences are not causes.

Consider a chain of dominos. The first domino falls, which causes the second domino to fall, which causes the third domino to fall, etc. But the dominoes that fall are not victims of mere "influences" or "pressures." They are victims of causes. That the dominoes fall is a direct, mechanistic result of something pushing the first domino over. The dominoes themselves don't know what's happening to them,  they have no choice in the matter. They aren't really "acting" at all, though they do move… at least for a moment. But their movements are entirely determined by the laws of physics. The dominoes lack agency.

But why did the first domino fall? The first domino fell because someone with agency decided to knock it down. And so we see the stark contrast between agency and the absence of agency.

This, ultimately, is the question we're wrestling with when it comes to human freedom: Are we dominoes, or are we agents?

And if we're just dominoes, then who is responsible for our actions? Can dominoes be held responsible for their actions? Or would we say that the agent must be responsible?

Here's a question: Let's suppose the agent's name is Fred, and let's suppose he knocked over the first domino. Did he do so free from any external influence or pressure?

We could say that the Fred's decision wasn't caused by any external entity, but we can't really say that Fred's actions weren't influenced by some external entity. Maybe, for example, a second agent (Bob) offered Fred $10 to start the domino chain. This could only be described as a "cause" if Fred lacked the ability to reject Bob's offer. But maybe $10 isn't enough. Is Fred free to say "I'm sorry, I won't knock the dominoes over for only $10." If Fred could reject Bob's offer, then the offer is merely an influence. Influences can be resisted.

So, back to the straw man: Is the person who affirms Libertarian freedom saying that our decisions are free from influences and pressures? Of course not!

Most of our decision-making is goal-oriented. That is, we have the consequences in mind when we make decisions. I might decide to turn right at the intersection because going straight would place me on a longer route. A longer route has consequences: More fuel is used and therefore it costs more money. The longer route also takes more time. So to avoid those negative consequences, I choose to turn right. And that choice also has consequences. Since it's a shorter route, it'll use less fuel and won't cost as much and won't take as much time. Those are the positive consequences. But the right turn might have negative consequences, too. Maybe the longer route is more scenic, while the shorter route sends you though an industrial area. Either way we go, there are consequences… both positive and negative. Those consequences certainly do apply pressure within our decision-making process, and so it can be said that those consequences influence our decisions. But those consequences cannot be said to cause our decisions and here's why: There are positive influences and there are negative influences. If influences are causes, then I'd have to choose both. But we know that's impossible.

Libertarian freedom is also called "indeterminism"; the opposite of determinism. It's the idea that my decisions or actions (a decision is an action) are not determined for me by any external entity. In other words, I'm the agent, not the domino.

If Divine Determinism is true, then I'm the domino and God is the agent. And if I am the domino, then I have no agency and I have no responsibility. If I'm not the domino, then I have to be an agent and I have responsibility. There is no third option.

I hope by now it's evident that influences are not causes and that Libertarian freedom isn't about making choices apart from influences. It's only about making decisions apart from external causes. It's only about having agency as opposed to being a domino.

To reinforce this, I'll recycle a quote I used in the post called "Human Freedom: Denying The Upper Story."

In the quote, J Warner Wallace--a Calvinist apologist who rejects Libertarian freedom--seems to appeal to Libertarian freedom (and reject determinism) as he defended the personhood of infants:

    "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 are very simple principles. Holding someone responsible for something requires that they have agency. If they don't have agency and they're really just a domino falling, then they cannot be held responsible.


  1. I think those who are oriented to believe in determinism need to ask themselves a question. Does God send people to hell because He caused (forced) them not to believe in Him?

    I believe that both the way consequences for our actions are portrayed in the Bible and our intuitive understanding that we aren't responsible for actions we had no true choice in making represent pretty conclusive evidence that God does not send people to hell because He caused (forced) them not to believe in Him?

    We suffer the consequences of our actions because we have a true choice in our actions.

    I’d argue that is seems most probable that the only way we could possibly not have true choice in our actions is if (1) God does not exist or (2) God sends people to hell because He caused (forced) them not to believe in Him?

    Neither the determinism advocate nor the Libertarian Freedom advocate believes number one is true. The Libertarian Freedom advocate does not believe that number two is true. The determinism advocate necessarily does believe that number two is true.

    I wrote it quickly. Let me know if there’s a flaw in my logic or if there’s something I’ve neglected to consider.

  2. I think you've got it, Lee. There's one wrinkle worth mentioning, however: Any good Calvinist will promptly correct you and say that God does not cause unbelievers not to believe. They would say that we're unable to believe by default. This is, as Calvinists see it, the doctrine of Total Inability or Depravity. So, on their view God isn't actively preventing us from believing. He doesn't have to, because (again, on their view) we already lack the ability.

    But, the Calvinist would then say that God enables SOME to believe. These are "the elect." The non-elect are merely left alone.

    It's a clever workaround, but what it comes down to is the God is choosing NOT to enable some. Furthermore, he doesn't merely "enable" the elect on the Calvinist view because if God has chosen to enable you, it is INEVITABLE that you will believe. This is the doctrine of "Irresistible Grace."

    If I installed triple Weber DCOE side-draft carbs on my TR6, that would "enable" it to go faster. But I could still go slowly if I wanted to. "Enabling" someone to do something is only an apt description if they are able to choose against doing it. If they aren't able to choose against it, then we have to say that they've been forced.

    So I think it's fair to describe the Calvinist view this way: God forces (because the elect have no choice; they WILL believe) the elect to believe and chooses NOT to force the non-elect to believe, knowing full well that they will endure eternal torment. The question is, why are they enduring eternal torment?

    Well, since God chose to force some to believe but chose NOT to force others, I think it's fair to say they will endure eternal torment because God didn't choose to force them to believe.

    But how does that square with a verse like 1 Timothy 2:3-4?

    "For this [is] good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

    Certainly God, being Sovereign and Omnipotent and everything else, has the moral authority to save everyone. He has the power to save everyone. He has the opportunity to save everyone. And yet just as clearly, not everyone gets saved. So if He CAN save everyone, if He has that ability and authority, and yet He does NOT save everyone, we can only conclude that He doesn't WANT to save everyone. What other option is there? And so this directly contradicts 1 Timothy 2:3-4.

    If you haven't already, read this post from a few weeks back:

  3. Having said that, I think that they way you characterize it actually turns out to be quite appropriate--in spite of the Calvinist's objection--because if God has the ability to enable anyone to believe, but He chooses not to do so, He is--in effect--preventing those people from believing. He is standing in the way of their belief.

    And especially so, considering that, on the Calvinist view, once God has enabled someone to believe it is INEVITABLE that they will believe.