Press "Enter" to skip to content

Predestination or Free Will? (Post 14)

We all desire to become better people. And so we work toward this goal. This includes choosing the beliefs and desires we will embrace and act upon. These choices in turn form our character. This common experience must fit our view of freedom. Yet, this reality doesn’t fit well with the soft determinist’s understanding of freedom. This is another external conceptual problem for soft determinism, and therefore, for Calvinism, which depends on soft determinism’s definition of freedom.


Our Everyday Experience

Examples occur every day of us making choices that determine our actions and ultimately define our character. For instance, you may think, “I desire to be healthy, and I believe that if I eat right, I will make progress toward this goal.” You then make choices throughout the day in accord with this belief and desire. You choose not to have a second slice of pie. You choose to go to the gym instead of watch a movie. You become more and more a person marked by self control and discipline. Or perhaps you make choices contrary to your beliefs and desires by having that second slice of pie or being a couch potato all weekend. In these cases, your belief and desire inclines you to make one choice, but you choose the opposite. These choices slowly shape your character as well.

Or perhaps you have the desire to grow in your relationship with Christ, in order to, “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:10) Accompanying this desire is the belief that if you develop certain practices, you will fulfill this desire. These practices may include designating time each week to study the Bible, meeting with a more mature believer regularly to mentor you, and joining a church in order to be part of a community of believers. Over time your character becomes more and more like Christ.

But this belief and desire doesn’t seem to determine your choices. You often choose not to study the Bible at the time you had set aside, you don’t pursue developing a relationship with a mentor, and you don’t make church attendance a priority. You seem to be choosing against (contrary to) your beliefs and desires. If this continues you will find that a decade later you are no more like Christ than when you first believed.


Our Common Experience Must Be Explained

As these and hundreds of other examples illustrate, our choices don’t seem to be determined by our beliefs and desires. Rather, they are determined by choices we make, which are sometimes in accord with and sometimes contrary to our beliefs and desires. How can we best understand this?


The Libertarian Explanation

The libertarian expects this to be the case. On this view we all have beliefs and desires, which influence our choices. But ultimately these beliefs and desires do not determine our choices. Rather I (a self, soul, or agent) am the one who ultimately chooses. I consider my beliefs and desires, and often choose accordingly. 

But other times I don’t. I sometimes choose against my beliefs and desires. I have what is known as “counter-causal” freedom: the ability to choose between two live options–the one in accord with my beliefs and desires, and the one contrary to my beliefs and desires. So I can choose to eat right and exercise, or not. I can choose to practice habits of spiritual formation, or not. No matter how strong my beliefs and desires are, the ultimate determining factor is whether I choose to act upon them.


The Soft Determinist Explanation

However, it is much harder for the soft determinist to make sense of these examples. Soft determinism holds that our beliefs and desires determine our choices. Therefore, if this view is true, given the belief and desire above concerning our health, we could only choose to say “no” to the extra piece of pie and “yes” to the gym visit. And given our beliefs and desires about spiritual formation, we could only choose to study the Bible, meet with our mentor, and attend church each Sunday.

But clearly this is not the case. Our beliefs and desires do not determine our choices. This reality gives us good reason to reject the soft determinist view of freedom. 

The soft determinist may attempt to solve this problem in one of three ways.


1. Second-Order Beliefs and Desires

First, the soft determinist may respond that our first-order beliefs and desires are determined not by an agent (self/soul/I), but by second-order beliefs and desires (see here [Response 3] for an explanation of first-order and higher-order capacities, including beliefs and desires). It is these second-order beliefs and desires which cause our first-order beliefs and desires, which cause our choice. 

For example, I have the second-order desire to live as long as possible. This causes my first-order desire to be healthy. I also have the second-order belief that doctors know best what helps me live longer. This causes my first-order belief that exercise is important. 

In this case my second-order belief-desire set causes my first-order belief-desire set. The soft determinist argues this is all which is required, because these are ultimately still “my” (second-order) beliefs and desires, which cause my choices. And the same occurs for all other choices we make. Problem solved. 

Yet employing second-order beliefs and desires to explain our first-order beliefs, desires, and therefore choices, only pushes the problem one step back. Now we must ask what causes these second-order beliefs and desires. For the soft determinist it still can’t be an agent who chooses the beliefs and desires to act on, since all choices are fully determined by one’s beliefs and desires. So these second-order beliefs and desires must be caused by still higher-level beliefs and desires. 

Of course, pushing the problem back to a higher, third-order set of beliefs and desires encounters the same problem yet again. At this point the soft determinist is trapped in an infinite regress, always needing to push the question back one step to the next-order beliefs and desires.

This is not an adequate solution, for no matter how far back in the causal chain we go, we still only find beliefs and desires that determine choices. And this does not explain the data of experience. Therefore, this response fails. 


2. Libertarianism Can’t Explain The Agent’s Choice 

Secondly, the soft determinist may argue that the libertarian view has problems of its own, which are greater than those of soft determinism. Specifically, the soft determinist can argue that the libertarian does not have an adequate explanation of choice either. If beliefs and desires do not determine one’s choices, then choices are completely random and arbitrary. But we know they are not. Our choices are based on what we believe will produce the desired results, and we would never choose otherwise. So the soft determinist can argue that beliefs and desires do cause our choices.


Libertarian Response #1: Category Fallacy

In response, the libertarian can point out that this objection is a category fallacy. Category fallacies are fallacies of logic when the wrong questions are asked of something (in other words, something is put in the wrong “category”). 

The problem of mixing categories is captured by the common phrase “When pigs fly.” This is said to indicate something will never happen, because things in the category of “pigs” aren’t also in the category of “things that fly.” 

An example of a category fallacy is asking, “What color is the smell of a rose?” This is an absurd question because we know that a color is not in the category of things that smell.  An example we often hear is someone asking,  “What caused God?” As Aristotle and others have argued convincingly (which I’ve discussed in point 1 here), there must be an uncaused cause of all things–a first cause to “get the whole thing going.” This is the uncaused cause, which is referred to as God. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask “What caused the thing that is uncaused?” because the “what caused” question only applies to things in the category of caused things. The question does not apply to God, as he is not caused.

In a similar way, the soft determinist is asking, “What caused the agent, who by definition make choices that are not caused, to be caused to choose as she did?” In other words, “What caused the choice of an uncaused chooser?” Only if the agent’s choices are determined does this question make sense. But that is precisely the point of libertarianism: the agent is not determined to choose anything–all choices are live options. 


Libertarian Response #2: Final, Not Efficient Causation

A second libertarian response is the soft determinist is confusing efficient causes with final causes. Briefly, there are four types of causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Think of your house. If asked “What caused your house?” you could answer in four ways, all correct. The lumber, plaster, and other materials caused your house (the material cause). The workers who showed up on the job site and built the house were a cause (the efficient cause). The blueprints drawn up caused your house (the formal cause). And your desire for a home caused the house (the final cause). 

So efficient causes are states of energy that produce an effect (in the example above, the energy expended by the workers on the job site). These are also the forces studied in physics (along with matter, or material causes). These causes are deterministic. This is what grounds scientific discovery. When efficient causes are present, as they interact with matter they will always produce an effect. For instance, when a billiard ball is moving in a certain direction at a certain velocity, it will always cause the ball it hits to move at a specified direction and velocity (because it is causally determined).  

The soft determinist’s objection assumes (1) the only type of causes are material and efficient causes, and (2) therefore, if there is no material and efficient cause, choices must be completely random. The libertarian rejects the first assumption, and so the second assumption does not follow.

It is false that the only types of causation are material and efficient causation (which are deterministic). Rather, final causes play a crucial role. When we choose, we do so because we desire to reach a given goal (e.g. having a home). Yet this type of causation is not deterministic. Final causes are not the type of causes which compel us to do accordingly. They are more like invitations to consider acting in a certain way in order to obtain a given end. But ultimately I can choose whether to do so or not. 

Making this distinction between efficient and final causes clarifies why choices are not arbitrary, yet at the same time are not determined. This is a second reason why this objection fails. 



I’ve written enough for one post. Yet there is one more soft determinist response to be considered against this external conceptual problem, one raised explicitly by Calvinists. I’ll consider this objection next week. Until then, grace and peace.


  1. Ken
    Ken June 11, 2020

    Wondering if Arminianism will be brought into the conversation. I’m enjoying these topics!!

  2. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace June 12, 2020

    Good to hear from you, Ken! Actually, implicitly I’m bringing Arminianism into the conversation all along the way. There are only two options–either we are free in a libertarian sense (which is the view taken by Arminianism) or we are free in a soft determinist way (which is the view taken by Calvinism). So if soft determinism is false, Calvinism can’t be the right explanation, and Arminianism must be the correct view.

    In posts #2-4 I outline the ways Calvinism and Arminianism define predestination and freedom. In posts #5-6 I discuss the biblical support for both Calvinism and Arminianism. Then in posts #7 on I discuss how to decide between the two.

    Hope that helps!

  3. Caroline
    Caroline July 5, 2020

    Hi Stan

    Did you go to Miami University of Ohio?


  4. Stan Wallace
    Stan Wallace July 6, 2020

    Yes, I did. Did you as well?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.