Over at the Dangerous Idea, Victor Reppert has posted on the issue of predestination and free will. More specifically, he has addressed the supposed “solution” some Calvinists offer to the sensitive charge that they deny the concept of free will. The proposed solution is known as compatibilism. He makes an interesting point and has, as usual, spawned a vigorous discussion in his comments.
Compatibilism basically “solves” the free-will/determinism conflict by redefining free will. Free will is commonly understood to mean the ability to choose between alternatives. But if all decisions are predestined, humans obviously do not have free will. Compatiblism says that free will is compatible with predestination so long as it is defined to mean the absence of external coercion. It matters not, in this view, that the internal forces (the nature of the person at issue) compels a certain outcome. So long as no one holds a gun to the head of the chooser the act is free.
As an initial matter, I am not ready to accept the notion that the man with a gun to his head has no free will. I think in most cases they still do, so long as they have the rational capacity to weigh the factors in the situation and choose a certain course of action. History is not without examples of people knowingly giving up their lives because they choose certain death to gain some other benefit; be it to preserve the lives of their fellow soldiers, to protect their family, pride and stubbornness. The choice could even be made under the false impression that the threat is unreal. Obviously, from a moral perspective, we understand that the element of coercion present with the express threat of force can mitigate the guilt that might usually apply to the conduct undertaken due to the threat of force. For example, a bank teller who hands over money to a robber is not guilty of theft. In other circumstances, such a threat is not an excuse. The law does not recognize a coercive exception for murder, for example.
In any event, the attempt to redefine free will to mean the absence of external coercion strikes me as unpersuasive special pleading. It is better to admit—if Calvinism be true—that free will is an illusion. Many modern naturalistic philosophers would agree with this. It may be bad public relations, but it also may be an accurate understanding of the place of the will within Calvinism.
One example that I think demonstrates the illusory nature of the kind of free will granted by compatibilism comes from Douglas Adam’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The RAEU is literally a restaurant equipped with a time machine and a powerful force field that is situated in the future when the universe collapses in on itself and ends. Diners enjoy their dinner with a spectacular view of the end of the universe.
The hero, Arthur Dent, and company end up at the RAEU and are preparing to order dinner. Here is what happens:
He sat down.
The waiter approached.
'Would you like to see the menu?' he said, 'or would you like meet the Dish of the Day?'
'Huh?' said Ford.
'Huh?' said Arthur.
'Huh?' said Trillian.
'That's cool,' said Zaphod, 'we'll meet the meat.'
- snip -
A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.
'Good evening', it lowered and sat back heavily on its haunches, 'I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in the parts of my body?'
It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters in to a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.
Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.
'Something off the shoulder perhaps?' suggested the animal, 'Braised in a white wine sauce?'
'Er, your shoulder?' said Arthur in a horrified whisper.
'But naturally my shoulder, sir,' mooed the animal contentedly,'nobody else's is mine to offer.'
Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal's shoulder appreciatively.
'Or the rump is very good,' murmured the animal. 'I've been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot of good meat there.'
It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.
'Or a casserole of me perhaps?' it added.
'You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?' whispered Trillian to Ford.
'Me?' said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, 'I don't mean anything.'
'That's absolutely horrible,' exclaimed Arthur, 'the most revolting thing I've ever heard.'
'What's the problem Earthman?' said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal's enormous rump.
'I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing there inviting me to,' said Arthur, 'It's heartless.'
'Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten,' said Zaphod.
'That's not the point,' Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. 'Alright,' he said, 'maybe it is the point. I don't care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just ... er ... I think I'll just have a green salad,' he muttered.
'May I urge you to consider my liver?' asked the animal, 'it must be very rich and tender by now, I've been force-feeding myself for months.'
'A green salad,' said Arthur emphatically.
'A green salad?' said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.
'Are you going to tell me,' said Arthur, 'that I shouldn't have green salad?'
'Well,' said the animal, 'I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.'
It managed a very slight bow.
'Glass of water please,' said Arthur.
'Look,' said Zaphod, 'we want to eat, we don't want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare stakes please, and hurry. We haven't eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.'
The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle. 'A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,' it said, 'I'll just nip off and shoot myself.'
He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.
'Don't worry, sir,' he said, 'I'll be very humane.'
It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.
Now, under a compatibilist view of free will, the Dish of the Day is freely choosing to become steaks. It is under no external pressure whatsoever. It sincerely desires to be eaten. It has no desire to be saved or spared. Its nature determines its choice. It lives only to become dinner. It chooses to become steaks and gleefully carries out his own demise, ever considerate to the feelings of the diners.
But, one could argue, the Dish of the Day is not free from external pressure because it has been genetically modified to make this choice. It has no choice because its nature was altered. The problem with this counter is that it is a defeater of the entire notion of compatibilism. Any reasonable conception of “nature” will have to allow for the prior influences that produced the nature.
Of course, this does not disprove predestination or demonstrate that we have free will. But I think Reppert is on to something when he argues that compatibilism fails to render both doctrines true.