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The Problem with Compatibilism

One concept that is key to Calvinism is compatibilism. Compatibilism is a concept of the human will that claims that human freedom is compatible with determinism. This is necessary because Calvinism is deterministic. According to compatibilism, our choices are free because our choices are in accordance with our deepest desires, our motivations, our character, etc. In short, human freedom is the freedom to do what we want. It is not the freedom to do otherwise than what we actually do. I want to take a closer look at this concept of compatibilism.

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen has given an argument against compatibilism called the Consequence Argument. I find this argument convincing, and I will attempt to give a paraphrased version of it, adapted for theological determinism.

If compatibilism is true, that means that my choice is determined by a deterministic cause within myself. That is what I hear when a compatibilist says that my choice is in accordance with my desires, character, etc. My desires, character, etc. must be deterministic causes, in order for my choice to be compatible with determinism. But then, the deterministic cause within myself that caused my choice, must itself be caused. It cannot be uncaused. That would be indeterminism, which compatibilists deny. So the deterministic cause must itself be caused by a deterministic cause. Let’s say that cause is also inside of me, in some way. That additional deterministic cause is itself determined by another deterministic cause within me, and so on.

This chain of deterministic causes cannot terminate within me. That would be self-determinism, or agent causation, which compatibilists deny. So at some point, one of these deterministic causes within me must be caused by a deterministic cause outside of me. Then that cause must be caused by another deterministic cause outside of me, and so on. This chain of deterministic causes terminates in the eternal divine decree, which is the deterministic cause from which all chains, or trees, of deterministic causes originate.

In this model, my choice is caused by a chain of deterministic causes that originates in the divine decree, passes through a chain of deterministic causes external to myself, then passes through a chain of deterministic causes internal to myself, and then terminates in my choice. In other words, my choice is caused by a chain of deterministic causes that merely passes through me. It is not caused by me. And how can I be responsible for a choice that is caused by a chain of deterministic causes that merely passes through me, rather than being caused by me? How is that genuine human freedom? I do not see how it is.

That is the fundamental problem with compatibilism. Genuine human freedom is not compatible with determinism. If determinism is true, then human freedom is an illusion. All of my choices are caused by deterministic causes, and those causes are caused by other deterministic causes, all the way back to a first cause that has nothing to do with me. In the words of van Inwagen, if determinism is true, then my choices are not “up to” me. Compatibilism is not freedom. It is just determinism with some extra steps.

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