Moving beyond Sproulian Compatibilism

Below are excerpts from R.C. Sproul’s, What Is Free Will?

We have seen Edwards’ [1700s] view and Calvin’s view [1500s], so now we’ll go into the Sproulian view of free will by appealing to irony, or to a form of paradox… I would like to make this statement: in my opinion, every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined. Again, every choice that we make is free, and every choice that we make is determined.

Sproulian or just a version of (Classical) Compatibilism?

Now that sounds flatly contradictory because we normally see the categories of “determined” and “free” as mutually exclusive categories. To say that something is determined by something else, which is to say that it’s caused by something else, would seem to indicate that it couldn’t possibly be free.

But what I’m speaking about is not determinism. Determinism means that things happen to me strictly by virtue of external forces. But, in addition to external forces that are determining factors in what happens to us, there are also internal forces that are determining factors.

Though apparently unaware, Sproul certainly is advocating a kind of Determinism. (See James Anderson for various species of Determinism. See my former blog, Reformed Apologist, for review and link to Paul Manata’s case for Reformed Theology as a kind of Determinism.)

What I’m saying, along with Edwards and Calvin, is that if my choices flow out of my disposition and out of my desires, and if my actions are effects that have causes and reasons behind them, then my personal desire in a very real sense determines my personal choice.

For Sproul, choices cannot be separated from desires, though the two must be distinguished. By choices Sproul is not identifying desires as choices, for he plainly states that choices flow out of desires. Furthermore, given the determinative causal place he assigns to desires, Sproul is identifying choice not as the determinative desire itself, which will (and “must”) be acted upon, but as effects that proceed from externally caused desires. In other words, the determinative desire is not the choice, but it’s the proximate cause of the choice.

For Sproul, the following chain holds true:

External Influences —> Internal Desire —> Choice

If my desires determine my choice, how then can I be free? Remember I said that, in every choice, our choice is both free and determined. But what determines it is me, and this we call self-determination. Self-determination is not the denial of freedom, but the essence of freedom. For the self to be able to determine its own choices is what free will is all about.

For Sproul choice is the action itself – that which is caused by internal desire or “according to the strongest inclination at the moment.”

Back to something Sproul said earlier:

But, in addition to external forces that are determining factors in what happens to us, there are also internal forces that are determining factors.

The “internal forces that are determining factors” are not chosen, nor do they cause intentions that effect “choice.” Rather, the internal forces that have determinative power are the intentions themselves, or what we might call the desires. For the Compatibilst it’s intention that brings causal force upon an action of choice.

Let’s go deeper:

At the heart of the free will debate is the cause of the intention to act.

The question is not whether free moral agents make choices or whether they flow from the agent or her intentions. The pertinent questions have to do with how intentions, if they cause volitional actions, can be morally relevant if they don’t originate with the agent as their ultimate source. Similarly, what is it for an agent to possess sufficient control over those causal influences that precede the proximate cause of any free choice? Need an agent regulate or merely guide causal influences? Must she ultimately or merely proximately cause her choices? Must there be a mesh of desires, whereby moral agents approve of their intentions?

Putting this together from outside-in, Compatibilism entails that external determining factors can cause internal intentions. In turn, internal intentions, that are externally effectuated, cause at least some “free choices” (i.e. actions that proceed from them.)

A common Incompatibilist complaint might be phrased thusly. If an internal intention triggers a volitional act, and the intention is imposed upon the agent from without, then how can the agent act but only one possible way given the preceding causal circumstances that are outside the agent’s control? Where is freedom of choice under such constraints? Fair questions.

The simple point I’m trying to make is that not only may we choose according to our own desires but, in fact, we always choose according to our desires. I’ll take it even to the superlative degree and say that we must always choose according to the strongest inclination at the moment. That is the essence of free choice—to be able to choose what you want.

Allowing for lack of attention to John Locke (1680s) and Harry Frankfurt (1980s) with respect to Sproul’s last statement, Sproul is correct that if actions causally proceed from inclinations, and if we define such actions as choices, then surely such choices are according to inclinations. As for how helpful that is, I’m not quite sure. Add external causal-forces to the mix and we soft-determinists might have some ‘splaining to do!

More to consider:

Sproul provides accessible talking points. How they might advance discussion with a thoughtful Incompatibilist or provide an adequate defense for one with a Reformed leaning against Arminianism at it relates to Divine Decree and Free Will is, I think, another consideration. Perhaps further reflection is appropriate to develop a robust defense of how free will is compatible with causal divine determinism, and how one might perform an internal critique of free will Incompatibilism. The free will debate has advanced in the last 300 years beyond Sproul’s use of Edwards, especially with respect to the most sophisticated stripe of theological Incompatibilism called Molinism. (Philosophical-Theology Molinism tag here.)

Now that Sproul has at least spade some soil, we might want to unearth some deeper questions like, does any prominent free will view lead to heresy? Can any side of the debate make sense of intentions? What, if anything, is lacking with compatibilist freedom as it relates to responsibility that supposedly makes libertarian freedom desirable or necessary? Is libertarian agent-causation ill defined or even defensible?

My hope is this post and the links I’ve provided might cause one to desire and actually go beyond Sproul – to choose to think harder about these things. (Pun intended).