Helm’s position
June 6, 2004 — 19:42

Author: Jon Kvanvig  Category: Divine Foreknowledge  Comments: 6

In Paul Helm’s entry in the IVP book on freedom/foreknowledge, he maintains a strong view of sovereignty and a compatibilist account of free will. He also denies the transitivity of causation, apparently to avoid the objection that God causes all of our actions.
There are several problems with this response, the most troubling coming from van Inwagen’s consequence argument, I think (I’ll have more to say about that argument in this context later). But apart from the consequence argument, which relies on concepts of necessity and bypasses talk of causation entirely, I don’t see how the denial of transitivity will help here. If we adopt a compatibilist account of free will, we’ll hold that an action is free when and only when it is the product of the right kinds of internal causes. In order to preserve freedom on this account from encroachment by God’s sovereignty, failure of transitivity will have to occur in every case in which human actions are free. No mere denial of the transitivity of causation can secure such a happy coincidence. So, as far as I can tell, the denial of the transitivity of causation is a necessary condition for preserving the compatibility of compatibilist free will with the strong view of sovereignty. It does not come even close to being a sufficient condition for preserving that compatibility.
Suppose then that there is no general assurance that there is the needed happy coincidence. Then Helm’s position on the compatibility of free will and sovereignty requires a different form of compatibilism than that above. He needs to say that an action is compatibilistically free if, but not only if, it is the product of internal causes. Amending the theory in this way yields an account of free actions that is incomplete.
So either way, the strong Edwardsian position that Helm defends on the relationship between freedom and sovereignty is incomplete.

  • I haven’t read the Helm piece. I may have this book. If so, I’ll have to look more carefully.
    It seems to me that you don’t need to deny that God causes every event if you hold to a compatibilist view and then distinguish between primary and secondary causes, as Aquinas did. I would have thought that this was closer to Edwards anyway. Then the work comes not in figuring out which events God causes but in figuring out which of the events that God causes are the ones God is morally responsible for. It comes to the same issue, but this seems to be the more honest way to go.
    As for the internal cause/right kind of internal cause issue, I’m not sure why Helm can’t do something like the following. Compatibilism says that we’re free when we’re caused by the right kind of internal cause. Then he’ll fill out what the right kind of internal cause is. Then he’ll deny transivity of causation and argue that the things that black causation transferral are the same kinds of things that make internal causes the right kind. It seems plausible to me that whatever kind of internal cause is the right kind necessary for freedom would also be the same kind that would absolve God of responsibility, whether you describe it as preventing God from causing it or just see God’s action as a secondary cause.

    June 7, 2004 — 10:41
  • jon kvanvig

    I think Jeremy’s approach is better than the one Helm actually adopts, the approach in terms of primary and secondary causation (note: it is not Edwards’s position, since on his view all causal power belongs to God). Helm doesn’t say why he opts for a different account, but it may be this reason: he wants a complete compatibilist account of freedom, according to which an act is free if and only if it has (the right kind of) internal causes. If we suppose that both God and we cause our behavior, never mind which is primary and which is secondary, the complete compatibilist account implies that the action is both free and not free.
    So maybe a better compatibilist account here is that an act is free iff it has the right kind of internal causes and those causes are primary causes of the act.
    The only troubling feature here is the need to distinguish primary and secondary causes, but that’s a topic for another post!

    June 7, 2004 — 16:30
  • That’s right. I forgot about that Malebranchean streak in Edwards. He probably fits the portrait of occasionalists better than Malebranche himself did. (He definitely fits it better if Nicholas Jolley is right that Malebranche’s occasionalism is merely causal determinism.)
    Has there been any recent literature on primary and secondary causes? I know the scholastics did it to death, but as far as I know the libertarian orthodoxy among Christian philosophers (against which Lynne Rudder Baker just published an excellent paper in Faith and Philosophy) hasn’t led to much interest in this sort of thing. I suppose historians of Aquinas and Leibniz have probably done some work on this, but I’m unfamiliar with any details.

    June 7, 2004 — 20:40
  • jon kvanvig

    The best recent stuff that I know of on primary/secondary causation of is by Fred Freddoso at Notre Dame: two papers especially, whose titles begin with “God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes,” one in Phil Perspectives 1991 and the other in ACPA 1994. Phil Quinn has done some work on occasionalism, as have I with Hugh McCann. This part of phil of religion having to do with a theistic philosophy of nature has been relatively underdeveloped in the recent revival of interest in the philosophy of religion.

    June 8, 2004 — 7:04
  • jon kvanvig

    Forgot one other Freddoso piece that’s very nice. It’s in the Tom Morris volume “Divine and Human Action.” Title something like “Medieval Aristotelianism and the Case against Secondary Causation in Nature.”

    June 8, 2004 — 7:38
  • Ron Barlean

    I appreicate your philosopy comments, even though they are too abstract to be of much practical understanding. I did read a comment that seemed so far out that I am wondering if the people engaged in the debate have lost touch with reality. The statement was: “figuring out which of the events that God causes are the ones God is morally responsible for”. Possibly I am missing the context, so forgive me if I have. The truth is: God does in fact cause all things, both the good and the bad. Even so, the bad has a purpose, that when fully understood, which man cannot do, is necessary because God’s plan is perfect. Therefore, the idea of involking human morality on God is incorrect. Who are we to question God. I think it is enough to just try to comprehend God. The deeper I look, the greater the beauty.

    October 9, 2005 — 18:24