"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Case of the Self-Conscious Calvinist

(First, I should let you know that I’m using “Calvinist” as a catch-all term for anyone who professes some form of theistic determinism, irrespective of whether or not they accept every tenet of Calvinism properly so called. This will save me the trouble of repeatedly typing the somewhat more unwieldy phrase “theistic determinist”.)

Suppose we have a Calvinist who finds himself in a variant of the standard trolley car scenario. There is a trolley car barreling down a set of tracks to which five people have been tied. The trolley car cannot brake. Our Calvinist is on some sort of overpass, standing next to a rather rotund gentleman. The only way our Calvinist can prevent the imminent death of these five innocents is by pushing the fat man over the ledge, thus stopping the trolley. Suppose, now, that our Calvinist deliberates as follows: “What shall God will me to choose? If God wills me to refrain from acting, five innocent lives will be lost. But are not five lives more important than one? On the other hand, if God decrees that I push this man over the ledge, five innocent lives will be spared, but only at the cost my taking the life of a man who is himself innocent. The choice is hard, but the second option appears worse. It was none other than the apostle Paul who counseled us not to do evil that good may come. Therefore God decrees that I choose to refrain from acting.” The Calvinist refrains, and the fat man is spared, to the detriment of the “greater good”.

What interests me here is not whether our Calvinist did the right thing, but rather his method of deliberation. What can we say about a thought process such as this? It strikes me as odd, to say the least, yet there is nothing overtly incoherent about it. Our Calvinist doesn’t seem to contradict himself, yet there appears to be a kind of pragmatic inconsistency. Can someone deliberate like this and at the same time think of themselves as an agent, as someone who is truly the author of their actions? Or would one’s agency “drain away” if Calvinism is true, making our Calvinist either radically mistaken or radically confused about his status as an agent? Note that, if Calvinism is true, whatever God wills takes place, and nothing takes place without God’s willing it to take place. There are thus no states of affairs such that God permits both it and its negation to obtain, leaving the outcome to chance. Does the belief that one can choose what takes place, on the assumption that Calvinism is true, commit one to hold that one can bring it about that God wills something? Assuming that there is no causal overdetermination (that is, that no occurrence has more than one fully sufficient cause), it appears to me the answer is yes, but that commitment seems false, and to most theists, blasphemous. Finally, how does our imagined Calvinist differ from a more typical one, who deliberates as most of us do, without being cognizant of the fact that every one of his thoughts and actions is determined by God? Does the ordinary Calvinist leave something out if they fail to consider the omnipresence of the Divine Activity? I think these questions get at the heart of philosophical debates about agency and free will, because the scenario can be rephrased in terms of other forms of determinism. (For example, consider a naturalistic determinist who begins deliberating thus: “What shall the laws of nature determine me to choose...?" The point is the same, but I think the above account is more striking.) I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I hope that with your comments and criticism we can get a clearer view of the matter.