Friday, May 01, 2009

Theological Compatibilism: A Case of Faith Seeking Understanding

In ‘Helm’s God and the Authorship of Sin’ (a Chapter in Reason, Faith and History: Essays for Paul Helm, ed. M.W.F Stone (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008)) Peter Byrne considers two arguments that I have used in defending God against the charge that he is the author of sin, and finds both of them seriously wanting. The arguments were advanced in Eternal God and The Providence of God respectively

first argument has to do with the defence of theistic compatibilism (as it might be called) against the charge of secular compatibilists such as Antony Flew, that given theistic compatibilism God must be the author of sin. I respond by arguing that if secular, atheistic compatibilism preserves human responsibility, (as Flew claims) then theistic compatibilism may also preserve human responsibility. The second argument has to do with my claim that, with respect to the moral character of God, compatibilist theism is in no better or worse case than free will theism of various stripes. This is because if, on the view of theistic compatibilism, God is the author of evil, then he is compromised in a parallel way by the supposition that evil is the consequence of the exercise of libertarian free choices with which our Creator has endowed us. As Byrne notes, each of these arguments is defensive, and one of them is an explicitly ad hominem argument. I shall consider the two arguments in order.

Theistic Compatibilism

But first, some remarks on the language of ‘theistic compatibilism’. These remarks are not a direct reply to Byrne’s two arguments, but attempt to counter possible misunderstandings that his language indicates.

In Eternal God an attempt was made to separate two claims:

1. That the divine ordination and sustaining of everything down to its last detail, including every human action, is a case of soft determinism, the doctrine that determinism is compatible with human moral responsibility.
2. That divine ordaining and sustaining is consistent with soft determinism.

(1) is obviously distinct from (2), in the following way: (1) is the view that the divine ordination of human actions is a n instance of a thesis (or set of theses) which is, considered historically, about the implications of the creaturely determinants of creaturely action. (2), by contrast, asserts merely the consistency of the divine ordination of everything with at least one version of soft determinism. The two differ on account of the fact that it is asserted that the connection between the divine ordination and creaturely compatibilistic systems is set up by a Creatorly determinant, not a creaturely determinant: the divine ordination is not a creaturely cause in the way that human beliefs and desires are creaturely causes . My argument in Eternal God was merely that if creaturely compatibilism is consistent with human responsibility then a fortiori such responsibility is consistent with Creatorly compatibilism. As I put it
It will be argued that if we suppose that theism is true, and that therefore God ordains and sustains everything by his creative power, then this fact does not provide an additional difficulty for theism. If non-theistic determinism is compatible with freedom then, it will be argued, theistic creation is as well. (EG146)

The point of comparison is between God’s ordaining and sustaining on the one hand, and philosophical determinism on the other, even if what God creates and sustains is an order best understood as a philosophically deterministic order. Later on in the book I referred to possible additional difficulties that allegedly attach to the idea of theistic creation and responsibility, (EG 147) and distinguished on the one hand between human freedom and determinism and human freedom and theistic creation (EG 149), and between the thesis of general determinism and that of God’s creating and sustaining activity. (EG 153) On one occasion the claim that creation is compatible with responsibility only if determinism is was explicitly denied (EG157), and arguments couched in terms of God ‘setting up’ deterministic processes were discussed. (EG 162) It was not argued that divine ordination is itself a straightforward instance of philosophical determinism, and for the purposes of my ad hominem argument against Flew which we will shortly discuss there was no need for me to develop or subscribe to some version of philosophical determinism. In arguing against Flew I needed only to employ whatever version of determinism that he subscribed to.

So in the language that was used, there was a consistent attempt to distinguish between what (in more theological terminology) might be called immanent cause-effect relations, such as those between human desires and beliefs and the actions they prompt, and transcendent cause-effect relations, where God is the ordainer of all human actions, including all their immanent causal antecedents. This distinction was signalled by using different words to refer to God’s causal activity (words such as ‘create’, and ‘ordain’) from those used to refer to immanent cause-effect relations, (words such as ‘cause’ and ‘determine’). In general the phrase ‘theistic determinism’ was avoided, except occasionally when it was used in an ad hominem context (e.g. EG 157), just as claims such as ‘God determines human actions’ or that he is the ‘all-determining cause’ were avoided. Otherwise it becomes difficult to keep the distinction between (1) and (2) in mind.

In the twenty or so years following the publication of Eternal God I have occasionally had the opportunity to develop this point of view, that Creatorly causation (or ordination) has a different sense from creaturely causation. For example,

God is the source of all creaturely power, but the powers of creatures, even when efficaciously empowered by God, are really theirs, and so are distinct from his. If God efficaciously empowers me to type this essay, still the typing of this paper is my action, not God’s. The wicked men who crucified Jesus were the cause of his death, even though he was crucified by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. (Acts.2.23)

One way of expressing this difference might be as follows. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B and C are events) A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C, there is no necessary transitivity in the case of any causal aspects of features of the divine willing permission, if there are any. It is not necessarily the case that God governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather, God may will by permitting that B causes C and so willingly permit C. God’s willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of causation, and those who seek to assimilate God’s willing permission of evil to the actions of someone manipulating a puppet, or to hypnotism, or to brainwashing or programming, have not recognized the true character of such permission.

Judging by the language that he uses in characterising my view, Byrne misses the distinction between (1) and (2). Thus he says that Helm ‘takes Flew to task for talking about an all-determining God as the manipulator of human beings, someone who reduces human beings to mere puppets and then blames them for what he forces them to do. Such language is dismissed as anthropomorphic and castigated for missing the main point that the divine causation of human acts goes through the normal patterns of desire, belief and intention that are the sources of non-compelled human agency’. (HG196, emphasis added.) But the actual remarks of mine referred to at this place have to do with the character of causal determinism, and not with the character of divine ordination. So it is claimed

General determinism does not claim that the antecedent causal factors manipulate. ‘Manipulate’ is a piece of anthropomorphism. The causal factors are usually non-intentional in character, without plans and aims, but causally sufficient for the bringing about of certain intentional, voluntary actions. The question of having or not having the agent’s consent, or of going or not going against his wishes, does not arise. (EG , 152-3)

My point here is not to argue that God does not manipulate his creatures, (though in fact I deny that he does) but that if he does (as Flew claims) then, on Flew’s own atheistic determinism, so do our genes manipulate our actions. It is an ad hominem argument, no more and no less. So Byrne has overestimated my willingness to assimilate standard causal determinism to God’s creative and sustaining (and providential) activity, to say that such activity is a case of such determinism. I deliberately allow for elements of disanalogy, and of apophatism, in our understanding of divine activity. After all, the book has to do with divine timelessness. The significance of this fact will be considered further, in the closing section.

Faith Seeking Understanding

At the outset of his remarks, and also subsequently, Peter Byrne observes that my writings in the philosophy of religion have characteristically been in the faith seeking understanding mode. (HG 193, 195) In this enterprise philosophy plays a subordinate role, subordinate that is, to the dogmatic theology of the faith. When it is at its best, this philosophical mode of enquiry does not attempt to spin a theology out of the resources of human reason alone, nor to force the contours of the theology to bend under the weight of such reason. Rather it seeks to use the resources of philosophical reasoning to elucidate and where possible to harmonise the complex claims of the dogmas. While demonstrating the consistency of sets of propositions would be a fine thing, in the case of Christian theology such harmonising aims may have to be content with showing that an alleged inconsistency within a dogma is not proven. One way to do this is to argue that unwelcome consequences of a dogma do not in fact follow. This is its typical stance, for example, in the case of the Christian dogmas of the Creation, of the Trinity, and of the Person of Christ.

So it is also, I believe, with issues to do with divine sovereignty, human responsibility and sin. This is because, in common with the other instances mentioned, these problems also possesses what might be called sui generis features. Each problem area is a case where, according to the dogma, either we are considering the divine spirit as he is in himself, or as he impinges on some creaturely entity or entities. As a result of this our ordinary analogies and thought experiments, drawn from creaturely relationships alone, cannot fully engage with such Creator-creature relations. This is as it should be. So there is ‘mystery’, a term that is not used as a warrant for mouthing gobbledegook, nor as a philosophical bolt-hole, but as referring to features of theological dogma where obliqueness and opaqueness are to be expected.
However, in furtherance of the Faith Seeking Understanding programme, one can also attempt to elucidate aspects of such a mystery. So it is important for my overall case regarding God and evil that divine ordination is not understood as a straightforward case of intramundane determinism, and that God’s attitude to good and evil is capable of being asymmetrical. In order to maintain these positions I have attempted to offer ways of explicating the first by denying the transitivity of divine causation (as we noted earlier), and of explicating the second by employing Augustine’s notion of willing permission. Neither of these gambits has been needed to be deployed to offer the further defence of the two ‘defensive strategies’ Byrne queries. Nevertheless they are a central part of the overall case for the philosophical cogency of an Augustinian approach to God and sin.

To be clear, such an approach does not amount to a case of theological special pleading. For there are non-theological ‘mysteries’ of a parallel kind, for example, the non-theological ‘mystery’ of the psycho-physical unity of the human being. Materialism has the virtue of simplicity but has difficulty with the content of consciousness and with intentionality. Body-mind dualism, in its various offerings, has difficulty with the relation between brain and mind. Interaction, psycho-physical parallelism, epiphenomenalism, emergence, supervenience – each of these seems to fall short of providing the needed level of understanding, and not unnaturally each is in turn hotly contested. Such theories fall short for pretty much the same sort of reason that human analogies for the divine mysteries are unsatisfactory. The human person is sui generis. In this case, the mystery arises not because of divine transcendence, but from our inability to transcend ourselves. For we ourselves are the cases for which understanding is sought.