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Predestination or Free Will? (Post 13)

We are exploring external conceptual problems that make Calvinism less plausible than its alternative–Arminianism. Last week, I outlined one external conceptual problem based on our default understanding of freedom. This week, I’ll look at a second external conceptual problem for Calvinism from philosophy: the fact that we have souls. 


The Reality of the Soul Must Be Considered

When a view reflects reality, it makes sense of what we already know to be true. When consistency exists–one theory meshes well with another theory–we have a marker of truth. 

Conversely, if a view is inconsistent with other knowledge we have, we have strong reason to suspect the view in question. Therefore, we look for consistency between and among theories.

One fact of reality which must be accounted for by other theories is the fact that we have souls. Therefore the view of freedom most “at home” with the reality of the soul is to be preferred. As philosopher Roderick Chisholm puts it, in order to solve the problem of free will we must first focus on the “self or the agent—about the man who performs the act.”*

The existence of the soul is required on the libertarian view of freedom, but not necessary on the soft determinist view. This makes soft determinism less plausible than libertarianism. And since Calvinism is dependent on the soft determinist view of freedom, this is a problem for Calvinism as well.


We Have Good Reason To Believe Souls Exist

The soul is the immaterial part of our being. Technically it is an individuated human nature, as I’ve discussed here. It is the possessor of our mental life: our thoughts, feelings, desires, and so on. It is that which is “us” even though our bodies, memories, and relationships change throughout our lives. It is that which lives on after the death of our bodies. In essence, it is that which makes me me.

As I’ve argued here, there is overwhelming support from philosophy that we have a soul. In other words, there is overwhelming evidence that naturalism is wrong–we are more than merely “matter in motion.” 

This fact is not only shown to be the case philosophically but assumed to be the case in many other fields of study. Theology assumes we have a soul, as I’ve discussed here. Psychology assumes we have a soul, which can be cared for through counseling. (Otherwise, if all we are is material, all problems are solved by medication, and thus we only need psychiatrists, not psychologists or counselors). 

In fact, all the social sciences assume there is a soul (whether admitted or not), for all assume there are factors driving human behavior beyond mere brain chemistry. (Think of explanations in sociology for why people gather in social groups or explanations in economics for why people exhibit certain spending habits). 


Soft Determinists Don’t Need Souls

Yet on the soft determinist view a soul is unnecessary. Whether or not a soul exists has little to do with whether “one” is “free.” All which is required is that beliefs and desires exist, for together these determine “one’s” choices. For the soft determinist, saying “he” chose is synonymous with saying “specific beliefs and desires” caused a choice. (For the soft determinist even terms like “one” and “he” are out of place, for these are markers for an individual–for a soul.)

This is not a problem, and in fact is welcomed by the physicalist, who believes all we are is matter. Thus the “person” is nothing but a bundle of properties, including beliefs and desires (known as the Bundle Theory of human persons). There is no underlying self/soul/person to be worried about. There is no pesky immaterial soul that has these beliefs and desires.

But for the Calvinist, this poses a significant problem. Scripture assumes that immaterial realities exist, including souls. The Calvinist cannot argue against the existence of the soul based on naturalistic assumptions (as well as the strong philosophical evidence for the soul, once the naturalistic bias is rejected). 

Yet the idea a soul doesn’t fit well with the Calvinist view of freedom. Soft determinism, the view necessary for Calvinism to be true, insists that choices are not the result of a self, soul, or agent. Rather, they are fully and completely the result of beliefs and desires. If a soul does exist, it doesn’t do anything. It is merely an “innocent bystander.” Beliefs and desires do all the work in choices, whether or not there is a soul present. 

The soul, then, as proven through philosophical reasoning, poses an external conceptual problem for Calvinism.


Libertarianism Requires we have souls 

On the other hand, the soul is completely “at home” within the libertarian view of freedom (and thus the Arminian view of salvation). It is the soul that has beliefs and desires. And based on these beliefs and desires, it is the soul that chooses to do what is in accord with these beliefs and desires, or what is contrary to them. 

Furthermore, we can even say the soul is necessary, on the libertarian view. A soul must exist in the first place, to be the agent making the choice between two live options (the definition of libertarian free will). This is why the libertarian view has always been a strong argument against physicalist views of the person (the view that there is no soul–we are just highly-evolved matter).

The fact that libertarian free will fits so well with the existence of the soul is further reason to embrace this view of freedom. 

Objection: Let’s Have the Soul and Soft Determinism Too!

Of course, the Calvinist may respond by simply positing the soul exists, even though it is not responsible for choices. Furthermore, they can argue that while beliefs and desires are the cause of choices, they need somewhere to “live”–they need a soul to exist within.


Response One: The Principle of Parsimony

This objection is problematic in at least two ways. First, it violates a tried-and-true method to discover truth–The Principle of Parsimony, also known as “Ockham’s Razor.” This basically says the simpler explanation is usually the right explanation. In other words, don’t multiply explanations beyond what is necessary to adequately explain the phenomena in question.

This axiom is often used in scientific explanation. One of the most famous examples occurred in the debate between Ptolemy and Copernicus. Given the data, both views could be supported. However, the view of Copernicus was much simpler (as illustrated here). The heliocentric model was thus deemed superior.

The Calvinist objection is contrary to this axiom, for it posits more than is necessary to explain the phenomena. By its own reckoning the soul is not active in the process of choosing, as an agent. Rather, choosing is completely the result of belief-desire sets (the definition of soft determinism). Since beliefs and desires are all that is needed to explain choice, why posit a soul? This only complicates matters. 

So the Calvinist’s positing a soul seems ad hoc, at best. It should be rejected, on the basis of the Principle of Parsimony.


Response Two: Which Soul?

The Calvinist may go on to argue that beliefs and desires need something to “live” within, in order to do their work (to do the choosing). Beliefs and desires dwell or inhere within souls, making them necessary. Several things may be said in response.

First, this supposition is contrary to the Bundle Theory of human persons, which offers an explanation of how “we” can be understood to be identical to a bundle of properties, including beliefs and desires, properly related. Thus, properties adhere to one another without needing to inhere in anything else (i.e. the soul).

The Bundle theorist must first be refuted, showing we have good reason to posit the existence of a soul. This is not hard to do for the libertarian/Arminian, who posits a soul must exist because choices are caused not by beliefs and desires, but by an agent (a self) who has these beliefs and desires. 

Refuting the Bundle theorist is much harder for the Calvinist. Since choices are not caused by agents, but belief-desire sets cause choices, the Calvinist view is much more consistent with the Bundle theory. As such, the Calvinist has much more work to do in order to refute the Bundle anthropology and justify the assumption that beliefs and desires must inhere within something more basic (a soul or self).

Second, even if the Calvinist is successful in showing beliefs and desires must be “had” by a soul, the question still remains “whose soul?” This question is easily answered by the libertarian/Arminian. There is a deep relationship between the agent and his or her beliefs. The agent has the beliefs, and the beliefs influence the agent’s decisions.

However, while the Calvinist may also assume there is a deep relationship between the beliefs and desires and the person/soul/agent, it is harder to prove this assumption is true. She is committed to the position that the soul is irrelevant in the act of choosing. It is only beliefs and desires which matter–which cause our choices. 

But we know that in some cases we are affected by outside forces. A strong gust of wind knocks us down. A warm day causes us to put on shorts. Therefore, why is it not equally possible that outside beliefs and desires, perhaps in the mind of God, are the cause of our choices, rather than “our” beliefs and desires which reside in our souls? If this is the case, we do not need to posit a soul to be the “haver” of these beliefs and desires. 

The Calvinist must show why it is more reasonable, on her view of freedom, to posit beliefs and desires which cause choices reside in the individual’s soul. If this challenge can’t be met, the reality of a soul remains as an important external conceptual problem for the Calvinist.

Finally, the Calvinist can simply admit that there is a soul (given the assumptions of biblical authors and philosophical support), and soft determinism is also true. However, doing so is not an argument in favor of the view. Rather, it is the acknowledgment that there is no argument. The Calvinist is simply asserting both are true, though how this is so can’t be explained or argued for. This may be the case, yet makes reality inconsistent in an important way. This is usually not a marker for truth.


So the reality of the soul/self/agent is a second external conceptual problem for Calvinism. Next week I’ll explore a third. Until then, grace and peace.


P.S. If you were following my friend Drew Trotter’s series Loving Your Neighbor by Watching the Oscar Best Picture Nominees, it wasn’t the last post last week – there are two more posts! You can read about the final movies 1917 and Parasite.

*Roderick Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self,” The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, 1964

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