Free Will and the Problem of Hypothetical Analogies

When debates over Calvinism arise, a frequent and careless charge made against it that it implies we don't really have a choice about what we do. If Bernie Sanders were to win the 2020 election, it would not be because a majority of people (electors?) chose him, but because they voted for him without actually having a choice in way they do. If I stay up until 2 AM tonight, I would not have truly chosen to do so, but rather I was determined to do it by God. This seems unacceptable, especially when the action involved is sin.

To make matters worse, some Calvinists embrace the charge. Rather than deny it, they simply grant that we don't really make choices. This is unfortunate, as it raises several unnecessarily difficult questions about God, human will, ethics, etc., and "God can do what He wants," while true, is not something we should feel comfortable invoking lightly. God has revealed Himself in certain terms; by doing so He all but explicitly invites us to attempt to understand His ways in light of these terms. Just denying the existence of choice ends up being a pointless non-solution to anything.

Now, there have been many responses over the years to the claim that Calvinism (or similar views on the human will) renders people without choice, or without free will. I do no intend to get into these. Instead, I want to focus on what I perceive as a subtle mistake used in this argument and a variety of similar arguments on other topics. The error is basically a form of question begging, but it's easy to miss.

The basic problem is that claims about Calvinism removing the existence of choice assume a particular non-Calvinist understanding of choices is normative and objective. To put it a different way, the problem is that they assume we know what a choice is, that a choice has properties X, Y, and Z, and that, since perhaps Calvinists must deny Z, Calvinism therefore renders a world without choices. The question is never raised as to what choice is to begin with.

An analogy might make my objection to this kind of argument more clear. Take a world where nobody has ever dissected a horse before, and, for some reason, it is a matter of debate whether horses have one heart or two hearts. Imagine that one person shows a horse to his friend and says, "Horses have one heart. But you believe that this magnificent beast has two hearts. Therefore you don't believe in horses." (Imagine further that, in a hasty response, his friend says, "Quite right, horses do not exist, and that beast you are on now is not a horse.")

Now, the problem with this should be fairly obvious. The disagreement between this man and his friend is not really over whether horses exist. They all see and experience the reality of these strong and fast creatures good for riding, loading, and (in some countries) eating. What they really disagree about is whether the internal nature of the horse is constituted this way or that way. Horses exist: this is an objective fact accessible to both of them. What is genuinely under dispute is exactly what things are true of horses. It would be self-evidently absurd for either party to frame the debate so that, because one side understands horses as creatures with single hearts, those who believe in dual hearts believe horses don't exist.

If it's not clear, this is exactly what tends to happen in some kinds of debates over things like "Calvinism" and "free will." The objective thing we can and should all recognize and agree on is that choices exist. We mentally encounter them every day. Not one person old enough to think about the topic has gone without the conscious experience of deliberating and selecting, of weighing thoughts or feelings and then acting on them. We have all opened a dresser drawer and evaluated two pairs of pants before actually putting one of them on our legs.

This should be a common reference point: choices do exist, and we experience them constantly. So we should clarify the terms of the debate. It is not whether we choose things that is really a question, but how and why we come to make choices. It is not whether the running beasts exist, but whether these same existing beasts actually possess a single heart each or more than one.

Of course, framing the problem this way does not necessarily bring us close to solving it. But it's a key clarification nonetheless. Conversations about these topics will be much more fruitful if we can move from the more superficial questions, like "Do we choose God?", to things that actually make a difference, like "What conditions must exist for a person to choose God?" or "What exactly does it mean to choose, and how do we end up doing it?" or "How and to what extent might choosing abilities be limited?" These questions are not as exciting in a headline, but they have far more potential than what passes in passing.