Calvinism Among Philosophers
February 17, 2007 — 10:09

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Divine Providence Free Will Problem of Evil  Comments: 7

Keith DeRose reflects on Calvinism and philosophers. Why amidst a resurgence of Calvinism in mainstream evangelicalism (both among theologians and at the popular level) has there been virtually no change in the libertarian orthodoxy in Christian philosophy? Keith seems to agree with Dean Zimmerman that this has to do with having to put up a more serious defense of Christianity with secular philosophers, since most Christian philosophers are in secular philosophy departments, and most Christian theologians are in Christian seminaries and colleges. I think that’s probably right as a sociological explanation.
I do find it somewhat interesting given that I (as a Calvinist) find the Calvinist response to the problem of evil to be more thoroughgoing in its consequences (even if more difficult to motivate in its foundations), as a number of Christian philosophers throughout history have held. After all, if Calvinism is true, then every bit of evil is fully explained with no remainder. But it’s at the foundations of a response to the problem of evil that most Christian philosophers are turning to libertarianism. It’s also in the face of considerable social pressure against libertarianism, given that compatibilism is now the default in the philosophical world (a situation interestingly parallel to the dominance of materialism, with many Christian philosophers holding on to dualism).
I’ve got some more detailed thoughts on this at my personal blog, but I thought it was worth directing Prosblogion readers to this discussion without subjecting all of you to the details of how a Calvinist will view this whole issue. Those who want to see that can read my lengthier reflections there.

  • It is worth pointing out that while compatibilism might be the default position amongst contemporary philosophers generally, it is not clear that compatibilism is the default or most widely accepted position amongst philosophers that work on problems related to free will and moral responsibility.

    February 17, 2007 — 20:49
  • James, I think that may be right. I wonder if that is a result of most compatibilists simply being uninterested in something they have already settled in their own minds.
    We see a similar situation in philosophy of time. Eternalism is the majority position, almost a consensus, among metaphysicians in general. Yet in the philosophy of time literature those who are presentists or growing block theorists still represent a large amount of the actual writing on the issue. I think that’s because most metaphysicians think the issue has been long settled, particularly by physics.
    We don’t see a similar situation in philosophy of mind with dualism. Hardly anyone in philosophy in general or in philosophy of mind is a dualist. What’s funny about this is that I hold the majority view on the former two issues, where philosophers want to resist the majority in the literature, but not on the latter issue, where hardly anyone wants to defend the view I hold.

    February 18, 2007 — 8:09
  • Heath White

    Perhaps another reason for the libertarianism among many Christian philosophers is (i) the arguments for incompatibilism are pretty good, especially when the compatibilism on offer is the pre-1980 variety; (ii) therefore, many of the founding fathers of contemporary Christian philosophers (Plantinga, Wolterstorff, van Inwagen) were libertarians, and they have had a large impact on later generations of Christian philosophers. It’s worth observing that Plantinga and Wolterstorff spent a long time teaching at Calvin–not a secular environment at all.
    It would be helpful, in looking at the free will problem from a religious point of view, to have a list of propositions affirmed/denied by the different theological traditions.

    February 20, 2007 — 9:22
  • Heath, both Plantinga and Wolterstorff spent considerable time in graduate school in a secular environment, and philosophers spend most of their time outside their own institutions at secular departments and secular philosophical conferences. Very few theologians, particularly among evangelicals (the group Keith was primarily discussing), did their Ph.D. work among primarily atheists and agnostics, and most of their professional conferences at least involve majority theists. Neither is true for most philosophers.

    February 20, 2007 — 9:33
  • Another reason for theists to be suspicious of compatibilism is that the best kinds of compatibilism (pace Fischer) make determination a necessary condition for responsibility. But such an assumption is rather problematic when applied to God. It may imply modal fatalism, for instance, and is difficult to reconcile with omnipotence. Furthermore, seeing God’s creative choice as the ultimate explanatory point requires an indeterministic choice.
    Finally, although Calvinists will not be impressed with this, theists have a special reason to be incompatibilists. A standard compatibilist view is that if one is made to act a certain way by another person, one is not free (this may need some qualifications). But if determinism holds and the initial conditions are set by God, then it seems we are made by God to act a certain way (though there are issues related to double effect involved in filling in the argument, and maybe the argument cannot be filled in) and hence are unfree on compatibilist grounds.

    April 3, 2007 — 6:59
  • By modal fatalism, do you mean necessitarianism? There’s an interesting-looking paper in the latest Faith and Philosophy arguing that this isn’t a bad-making feature. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued.
    One thing a Calvinist might want to do is what I think Leibniz has in mind by distinguishing between moral necessity and metaphysical necessity. He says it’s morally necessary for God to do no wrong, but it’s not metaphysically necessary. I’ve been wondering if perhaps what he means is that it’s metaphysically necessary given God’s nature but not logically necessary. We’ve discussed this before here.

    April 3, 2007 — 8:08
  • Thanks for the link to the past discussion. There are texts where Leibniz appears to define the difference between moral and metaphysical necessity as follows:

    • metaphysically-necessarily(p) iff there is a valid finite proof from not-p to a self-contradiction
    • morally-necessarily(p) iff there is a valid proof, finite or infinite, from not-p to a self-contradiction

    Rescher’s interpretation is that he means this. There are also texts that don’t fit quite so well with this–he does say that God’s creating the best is only morally necessary. But he may be making (only verbally?) a de re / de dicto slip.
    Let L1 be metaphysical necessity and L2 be moral necessity. Let D be a complete description of the actual world. Then Leibniz can, and on his own grounds should, coherently say things like:

    • L1(God exists). (Why? Because the ontological argument is a finite proof.)
    • L1(if God creates, God creates the best possible world). (Why? Because L1(God exists) and Leibniz thinks there is a finite proof that God could not create anything but the best. Indeed, he gives that alleged proof.)
    • L1(If there is a best possible world, God creates) (Similar reasons as before.)
    • L2(a world satisfying D is created) but not-L1(a world satisfying D is created).
    • L2(a world satisfying D is best) but not-L2(a world satisfying D is created). (Leibniz has to say this if he is to assert the claims in the previous point. Leibniz argues that figuring out whether something is going to be a part of the best world requires an infinite investigation of how it fits with the rest of the infinite world).
    • L2(there is a (unique) best world). I think Leibniz on his principles should say that not-L1(there is a (unique) best world), since an infinite investigation would be needed to check that.
    April 3, 2007 — 9:20