A Robust Depravity – A Return To Calvinism

Total Depravity ill-defined:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

R.C. Sproul

To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”

Phillip Ryken

These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. I believe they are also lacking. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of Calvinism is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP right. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.

Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that did not escape traditional Augustinians.

Agreement gives way to oversight

Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God! Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is merely the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. The miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral affects of the fall. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.

God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I’m finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12

When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? (Pause)

Do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to what we typically read from those who try to uphold Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he possibly can be – both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can be, how do we not eclipse that it is for sinful reasons that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully?

So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra?

For one thing, that assessment is usually based upon works alone – that which we can observe. Yet God judges motive and the intentions of the heart. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do other than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either be worse?

Satan and image bearers

Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men most of the time are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than she does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can possibly commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as she can be or desires to be. (One fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man includes conscience, whereas with Satan that is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, even man’s conscience is totally depraved. Depraved consciences often produce acts born out of fear of God, but never out of reverential fear.)

Man’s natural affection is utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for restraint suits him for sinful motives, which too will be judged sinful on the last day. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that man can become increasingly hardened, but not any more depraved. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be.

Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.

Lord over motive and sinful good

When conscience restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and pardon, man can do no spiritual good. In other words, external good is internally sinful. It is that essential component of Total Depravity that is absent in contemporary Calvinism. Perhaps it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions behind his conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence).

If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever. In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more depraved, just like the converted cannot become more regenerate. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.

I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism the accent has been placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful things. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the utterly evil intentions of the ungodly by their sinful passion for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinfulgoodacts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated, whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are sinfully motivated.)

When we water down Total Depravity, grace isn’t so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.

The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by no other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really all that splendid after all.

Assent Alone And The Gospel


Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than one wills to believe the rose is red. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed.1 However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.

Clarkians and easy-believism advocates promote that we are justified by belief alone. One is justified by assenting to “Jesus died for me.” Another extreme comes from “Lordship Salvation” advocates who define trusting in Christ in terms of commitment of life, which eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. The focus of this post is on the former error.2

Clarkians will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context it is suggested that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to “trust” the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true for true believers, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in something because it is believed to be true. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by reliance. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to deny implicitly the need to trust willfully upon Christ alone for salvation.

Clarkians redefine trust so that they might appear confessional since the Westminster standards clearly speak of not just “accepting“ the gospel as true but also relying upon (i.e. trusting in) the finished work of Christ. (It’s not just equivocal but also a downright case of special pleading to define “trust” as a synonym for assent and then on top of that limit its use to assent. Clarkians should out rightly deny trust rather than suggest they affirm it. The trust they equate with assent is not the trust of the Reformed tradition for that trust is metaphysical and volitional. It does not mean assent. It presupposes it!)

Assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or lack of trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.)

Assents or beliefs are propositional attitudes that can be distinguished from volitional, metaphysical movements. For instance, choices are mental activities that engage both the intellect and the will. This is more recognizable once we consider that choices involve both judgment and reliance. What one deems as true can result in a choice to rely upon that which the judgment contemplates, but the intellection of belief need not give way to volition. This is sufficient to demonstrate that belief and volition are not the same things though they often go together. This observation would seem rather uncontroversial in the Reformed tradition. It was presupposed in Jonathan Edwards’ writings and was taken up by men like R.L. Dabney, A.A. Hodge and even William Cunningham. Yet contra this popular view, Gordon Clark believed that it is an illusion (an illusion, mind you!) to think that such acts of intellection differ from volition. Clark went so far to say that belief in a chair is volitional.

If assent and trust were synonyms, then either both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust). If assent and trust are indistinguishable concepts and, therefore, mean the same thing, then it would be unintelligible to say that we rely upon anything we believe; nor would it be sensible to think that we believe anything we rely upon. Intellectual assent without reliance leaves no room for relying upon Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel. Obviously, the concepts are indeed distinguishable as well as distinct principal acts of saving faith.


1 Even when the will is engaged in choosing, we don’t will belief. Doxastic Voluntarism is a philosophical surd.

2 In the not so distant future I plan to address the gospel according to John MacArthur and the nature of faith as the instrumental cause of justification. MacArthur fails to distinguish and ends up conflating the disposition of reliance upon Christ with the sanctifying grace that inevitably produces a faithful commitment of life to Christ.



Middle Knowledge and Calvinism

Middle Knowledge (MK) is God’s knowledge of all true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF). As the word middle suggests, this knowledge falls between other types of knowledge. Specifically, MK is situated between God’s natural knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of all necessary truth, and God’s free knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of his creative decree. (MK is logically prior to free knowledge yet posterior to natural knowledge.)

Calvinists typically deny MK for two reasons. Firstly, proponents of MK typically affirm that the objects of God’s MK are contingent choices – choices that would occur under certain circumstances yet somehow might (might not) occur under those same circumstances. Given the contingent nature of such metaphysically free choices, counterfactuals of creaturely freedom cannot be true – in which case they cannot be the object of knowledge, including MK. However, an objection such as this is not based upon a denial of MK per se but rather it is an objection to a particular view of free will that would render CCFs unknowable. It’s a rejection of MK by association.

In discussions on Scientia Media, Dabney did not demur.

“As I showed you, when explaining this scientia media, in the hands of him who holds the contingency of the will, it is illogical; in the hands of the Calvinist, it becomes consistent.”

As Dabney also states,

“Let us not be scared by unpopular names. It is a knowledge conditioned on His own almighty purpose, and His own infallible sense, relative. But this is not a dangerous sense. For only lay down the true doctrine, that volitions are efficiently determined by dispositions, and there is, to God, no shadow of contingency remaining about such foreknowledge.”

So, for Dabney:

“Volitions are caused. The efficient causes of volitions are the soul’s own dispositions; the occasional causes are the objects providentially presented to those dispositions. Even we may, in many cases, so know dispositions as efficiently to procure, and certainly to predict, given volitions, through the presentation of objective causes thereof. An infinite understanding may so completely know all dispositions and all their complex workings, as to foretell and produce volitions thus in every case, as we are able do in many cases.”

Dabney believed we needn’t shy away from MK. Since CCFs are not contingent choices but rather caused choices, Dabney affirmed God’s foreknowledge of CCFs on the basis of the surety of their fruition. However, with respect to Dabney we cannot be sure, or so it would seem, that he believed that God knows all would-counterfactuals as a subset of God’s natural knowledge or his free knowledge. Consider, Dabney grounds God’s knowledge of such counterfactuals not in God’s self-knowledge either of possibilities or what he would do but in God’s infallible knowledge of dispositions and volitions of un-instantiated essences. That is no different than the MK of Molinism. Furthermore, Dabney draws an analogy of our knowledge of the predictability of the volitions of others (which certainly is not sourced from our self-knowledge) to God’s knowledge of CCFs, arguing from the lesser to the greater as a matter of degree, not kind. For Dabney God simply knows more than we do about the intricacies of the free moral agent in view. That’s how he can know CCFs. In both cases (for God and man) knowledge would be sourced from without, not within.

Dabney does not positively index God’s knowledge of counterfactuals to natural knowledge of possibilities or free knowledge of true CCFs. If anything, he denies those options. Of course, to Dabney’s credit he positively denies pure contingency of choice and affirms causal determinism. In that respect he distances himself from a Molinistic use and need of MK but not from MK itself. However, what is absent in Dabney’s analysis is how God can know “the occasional causes” that will affect the “soul’s own dispositions” in a manner that will produce a specific volition and none other. Who or what is the truth-maker of propositional CCFs for Dabney? Does Dabney require a MK that’s based upon inference from casual necessity? It would seem so (especially given his lesser to greater analogy). 

Dabney in the spirit of Calvinistic scholastics recognizes that through the presentation of objects to dispositions, volitions are caused and, therefore, implicitly necessary (though free in a compatibilist sense). On this basis we find the second reason Calvinists have often rejected MK – as superfluous since such knowledge would seemingly be captured under another category of divine knowledge. But for Dabney and many Calvinists like him, where is the propositional object of MK grounded? Certainly not in metaphysical contingency, which is the grounding of Molinism (though not acknowledged by Molinists). Notwithstanding, the only truth-maker of CCFs implicit in Dabney’s thought is the necessity of creaturely volition that is produced from dispositions as a necessary consequent of objects providentially presented to the soul. So, rather than ground CCFs in the non-causal effect of pure contingency, Dabney grounds CCFs in the efficient cause of volition from disposition (or act from will). That God providentially orders the occasional cause of objects that efficiently incline disposition causing a resultant volition is not to ground the counterfactual itself in God’s sovereign determination of which way a disposition would be inclined. In this respect Dabney is no different from the Molinist. His position entails eternal propositional CCFs that are not known according to God’s knowledge of what he could or would do. God’s knowledge would be eternally receptive in this respect. 

MK is not merely an unnecessary distinction for the Calvinist, it’s a misleading misnomer. Yet for many Calvinists MK sill is required, not because they affirm libertarian freedom but because they believe God knows CCFs not by free determination or knowledge of possibilities but rather only through an “infinite understanding… [of] all dispositions and all their complex workings,” making it possible for God “to foretell and produce volitions thus in every case.”

Since for the Calvinist possible worlds identify as feasible worlds (i.e. all possible worlds can be actualized), all possible counterfactuals of creaturely freedom should be seen as grounded in God’s natural knowledge of all possibilities available for actualization. (Infeasible worlds are consistent descriptions of reality that God cannot actualize. For the indeterminist God cannot know infeasible worlds through natural knowledge, hence God’s need of MK, in a Molinist sense, to know any libertarian free choice and consequently feasibility and infeasibility.) Since God possesses the (natural) knowledge of all possible CCFs, the knowledge of all possible CCFs cannot be situated in the middle between natural knowledge and free knowledge. In that critical respect, God does not have middle knowledge of possible CCFs. 

It seems to me that Calvinists often identify possible CCFs as would-counterfactuals. Therefore, from a Christian compatibilist perspective, given that premise, it is often thought that would-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are properly catalogued under God’s natural knowledge, God’s knowledge of necessary truths. (The actualization of possibilities are not necessary truths, but such abstract possibilities are necessarily known.)

Calvinists ought to think of CCFs not merely in terms of God’s necessary knowledge of all possible CCFs but also in terms of God’s free knowledge of would-counterfactuals. After all, not all possible counterfactuals are would-counterfactuals! Given the same state of affairs God could determine different resultant dispositions to act. Given an identical state of affairs, God could determine a fragrance or song from yesteryear to causally produce a disposition either to look at an old photo album, pick up the phone to call someone or something else. These alternative possibilities would not be indeterminate might-counterfactuals of libertarian creaturely freedom but rather true possibilities available to God, part of God’s natural knowledge, from which God could determine and freely know any true CCFs.

If God preinterprets particulars to give them their causal meaning or relationships, then what God could actualize would be an object of his natural knowledge, whereas what God would actualize would be an object of his free knowledge – i.e. a matter of his sovereign determination of how moral agents would be inclined given any object presented to the soul. So, if there are true CCFs, then they would be a matter of God’s free knowledge. 

Properly understood, God’s knowledge of all possible CCFs is included in his natural knowledge. If God has knowledge of counterfactuals that he would actualize, then that knowledge would have to be a matter of what God freely knows. Yet once we recognize that the set of true CCFs is a subset of possible CCFs, we then can see that true CCFs aren’t necessarily known as contingently true but rather freely known as contingently true. Therefore, we must expand our understanding of free knowledge to more than the creative decree if free knowledge is to capture true CCFs, that is to say would-counterfactuals.

Free Will and Compatibilism, a brief sketch

Discussions on “free will” inevitably lead to analysis of (a) moral responsibility, (b) the limits of metaphysical freedom – from autonomy and pure contingency to necessity and causality, and (c) divine foreknowledge. What is indubitable is that moral agents, when they choose, are morally accountable. Therefore, if determinism is true, then determinism must be compatible with moral responsibility. Secondly, if moral agents must possess freedom in order to be morally accountable, then there must be a kind of freedom that is compatible with determinism.

Although we might feel as though we have possibilities within fixed relevant states of affairs antecedent to any volitional act, we would not in any strong sense; nor would free moral agents be the ultimate source of choices but rather, from a Reformed Christian perspective, God’s eternal decree and divine ordering of providence outside of man would be the locus of ultimate source. For the Reformed Christian, the freedom that is compatible with determinism is not just the most desirable freedom; it is the only kind of freedom, without which moral accountability would be destroyed.

Incompatiblists Define The Debate & Set The Trap

Incompatibilists maintain that the power to do otherwise is a necessary condition for freedom. If we are powerless to change the past along with the governing laws of nature and if volitional acts are necessitated by such, then such acts are a necessary consequence of the past of which we are not the ultimate source nor in a position to fully control. This basic “argument” against determinism should not have caught any thinking compatibilist off guard. It merely cashes out as a complaint that libertarian freedom is not compatible with determinism. (No surprise there.) It does not address the freedom of compatiblism.

But why should freedom be seen as the power to do otherwise and not merely the ability to do as one wills? What if freedom merely is the liberty to do what one desires without impediment? In other words, rather than the ability to exercise power of contrary choice, why isn’t the essence of freedom the possession of those cognitive capacities that produce different willed acts given different states of affairs?

Accomodations For PAP Backfire

Classical compatibilists have tried to work within the strictures of alternative possibilities. Although classical compatibilists don’t affirm a strict ability to do otherwise, they have traditionally affirmed a version of the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) couched in hypothetical or conditional terms. Although Jane could not have done other than x; she could have done not-x had she willed. Such an accommodation to PAP has been met with criticism. For one thing, it doesn’t meet the incompatibilist demand of radical freedom to do otherwise. (Again, no surprise.) Secondly, it is alleged by more than incompatibilists that for Jane to will contrary to how she would, such freedom to will entails regress. The first criticism fails for lack of evaluation of conditional analysis on its own terms. The second criticism fails because conditional analysis does not posit actual ability to do otherwise. Accordingly, the hypothetical condition of willing to do otherwise, which was merely intended to satisfy PAP on a conditional basis, was never intended to cash out as actual ability to do otherwise. Therefore, an incompatibilist’s objection that such hypotheticals fail to establish actual ability to do otherwise should never have been met by a compatibilist’s appeal to hypothetical ability, let alone back and forth ad infinitum. The objection that determinism does not comport with actual ability to do otherwise is something the compatibilist should gladly concede, not appeal. Full stop.

Compatibilists never sought a theory of metaphysical access to alternative possibilities. Actual ability to do otherwise was not being defended, let alone on the basis of a conditional ability. Conditional analysis was merely a way of illustrating a theory of freedom that entails responsibility when one has liberty to do as one desires according to cognitive capacity. The analysis remains particularly useful with respect to the matter of responsibility when we stop to consider the difference between (a) one’s moral ability to act as one wills, and (b) one’s natural inability to, say, fly if one wills: Jane could morally-x if she willed. Jane could not physically-y if she willed. The goal was to put forth a kind of alternative possibility that complements moral accountability. Being able to x if one wills to x is sufficient for responsibility. Furthermore, the implication of conditional alternatives, given determinismis that counterfactual desires would be ultimately sourced outside the will, again making any regress-appeal to defend actual ability (to will and to do other) an undesirable project for the compatibilist. (We could just as easily observe that guidance control does not satisfy the requirements of regulative control, but so what? That compatibilism does not meet all the demands of incompatibilism is neither surprising nor interesting.)

Dispositional Analysis, An Improvement?

Notwithstanding, PAP yielded much good. The discussion advanced. Certain compatibilists have been moved by the “consequence argument” to consider freedom to do otherwise not according to ability but dispositional powers: Jane does not need to be able to do x if she has the power to try. Although arguing from a position of dispositional powers gets out from under regress or circular objections, there was no conundrum to begin with for the compatibilist who employed conditional analysis with a singular intent. We may also say that dispositionalism, although a helpful tool in the compatibilist toolbox, does nothing to advance a metaphysical arrangement for freedom to do otherwise, but why should it?

Although analysis of dispositional powers allows us to consider free will in the realm of natural ability and inability in a focused sense, it also entails a limited sense. Although Jane could not fly with her arms if she willed to do so, she would be free to exercise the power to try. The former consideration of doing what is tried escapes dispositional consideration. Whereas conditional analysis offers a fuller picture. Conditional analysis could correctly conclude not just a lack of freedom to fly due to natural inability (Jane could not fly if she wanted), but also an ability to try to fly if so willed. (If Jane willed to try to fly she would try to fly.) Therefore, conditional analysis loses nothing in this respect relative to dispositional analysis, but it retains something outside dispositional analysis. Moreover, conditional analysis would seem to have an advantage with respect to an analysis of responsibility. A crippled Jane (for no fault of her own) would not be responsible to take walks with her child in the park because she could not do so if she willed. An analysis limited to dispositional powers, by the nature of the case, could conclude a freedom to try to walk but offers nothing with respect to the potentiality to succeed at walking. Freedom to try is not always sufficient for moral accountability, whereas the freedom to do in a conditional sense would imply accountability. The conditional analysis of classical compatibilism offers much with respect to understanding freedom and responsibility in light of determinism.

A Semantic Regress Accomodation

Another contemporary attempt employed by compatibilists to get out from under the supposed regress condundrum is to speak in terms of what would have been necessary if x were now true. Rather than speaking in conditional terms: “Jane could have done not-x had she willed,” it is now considered advantageous to speak in terms of: If Jane were feeding her baby, she would have married rather than remained single. The focus was no longer fixed on hypotheticals that change a fixed future by altering the past – e.g. I could have x had I willed to have x. Instead the focus shifted to an agent’s power to act in a way that contemplates a different past. Such an approach doesn’t posit acting contrary to what the past caused but rather contemplates acting in a way that would entail a different causal past for acts present or future. Although a more refined and perhaps insightful way of addressing PAP, I find this to be more a semantic distinction without a profound difference relative to classical compatibilism given that (a) conditional analysis in the first place should not have been evaluated on strict incompatibilist terms (i.e. on the basis of whether it makes room for the power to choose otherwise) and (b) if “Jane were feeding her baby and, therefore, married in another possible world” is no less susceptible to misguided arrows such as those that point to an alleged compatibilist regress conundrum. (Paper will never resist incompatibilism’s ink.)

Both classical and contemporary compatibilism in this narrow sense are approaching the weight of PAP from different angles but saying nothing distinctly different relative to compatibilism simpliciter. (Refinement of a general thesis in the face of objections does not entail complete abandonment.) In the final analysis, it’s not the ability to exercise power of contrary choice but rather the possession of certain cognitive capacities that produce different acts given different states of affairs that is relevant to compatibilism.

Second Order Volition, A Step Toward Completing The Picture

Another tool in the compatibilist toolbox pertains to: first order desires; will; second-order desires; and second-order volition. A beast and a human can have the same first-order desire to eat ice cream. When the first order desire gives way to action, the will to eat ice cream fully obtains. Unlike with beasts, moral agents have a capacity to deliberate. Moral agents approve on a second-order what they desire, or else they disapprove and refrain. The resultant action is a second-order volition. The point is, moral agents desire what they will. They approve of their desires. They desire their desires. This is an improvement relative to classical compatibilism because it not only addresses freedom of action but also takes a step toward completing the free will picture by incorporating a “mesh” of first and second-order desires that is both intuitive and particular to choices in contradistinction to brute instincts, perhaps addiction and phobias too. For the determinist it is no concern that moral agents acquire their wills through a deterministic chain as long as we possess the wills we want. Although this brief discussion on second-order features distinguishes moral agents from lesser creatures (as well as offers distance for non-volitional physical addictions and phobias perhaps) it too is not likely to satisfy the incompatibilist’s demands for a particular kind of control, source and alternative possibilities.

For The Fun Of Frankfurt

A survey like this would not be complete without referencing Frankfurt. It has been discerned that if one could be fatally prevented from doing other than x when it is true that she would do ~x, then to x can be secured as the only possible act. Doing other than x would become impossible. When xing is done, it would obtain without possible alternatives. Therefore, the ability to do otherwise is not a necessary condition for moral accountability if the possibility of libertarian freedom can be prevented from being exercised other than in one direction. (Of course, there are counter arguments to Frankfurt’s challenge to PAP.)

Incompatibilism Has Some Catching Up To Do

At the end of the day, there are insurmountable problems with libertarian freedom that relieve the compatibilist from always assuming the burden of having to work within PAP. Just to name a few…

  1. Grounding objection / God’s foreknowledge
  2. Nowhere is LFW taught in Scripture; yet determinism is, as well as moral accountability
  3. If LFW were true, without a Word from God establishing LFW we’d have to be omniscient to know something was not the ultimate source of our wills
  4. Given LFW, either our choices are not moral or an infinite regress accompanies all choices
  5. Accidental or historical necessity
  6. Choices are rational, not random