William Lane Craig against Calvinism: a response, Part 4 of 5
4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency. Since our choices are not up to us but are caused by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents. They are mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect, much like a man using a stick to move a stone. Of course, secondary causes retain all their properties and powers as intermediate causes, as the Reformed divines remind us, just as a stick retains its properties and powers which make it suitable for the purposes of the one who uses it. Reformed thinkers need not be occasionalists like Nicholas Malebranche, who held that God is the only cause there is. But these intermediate causes are not agents themselves but mere instrumental causes, for they have no power to initiate action. Hence, it’s dubious that on divine determinism there really is more than one agent in the world, namely, God. This conclusion not only flies in the face of our knowledge of ourselves as agents but makes it inexplicable why God then treats us as agents, holding us responsible for what He caused us and used us to do.
Craig already raised this issue in part #3. He claimed there that if God determines our actions, then we are not responsible for them.
Craig apparently thinks you can be an agent, or you can be an instrument, but you cannot be both. The prophets disagree.
In Isaiah 10, it says that Assyria is the rod of God’s anger (v. 5) and that he sends it against a godless nation to capture booty, seize plunder, and trample them down (v. 6). So Assyria was God’s instrument, but does that mean Assyria was not an agent? No, because Isaiah goes on to say that although God sent Assyria to punish a godless nation, that was not Assyria’s intention. Rather, Assyria’s intention was to destroy and cut off many nations (v. 7). In spite of the fact that God sent Assyria to trample and plunder, he nevertheless treats them like moral agents. He goes on to say in verse 12 than when he is finished with all he sent Assyria to do, he is going to punish them.
We see the same thing in Jeremiah about Babylon. God calls Nebuchadnezzar “my servant,” and says he will bring him against Jerusalem and the surrounding nations and destroy them (Jeremiah 25:9). Then he says he will punish them (v.12). God sent the Babylonians to punish the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to destroy the Temple, but then he says he is going to arouse the spirit of the kings of the Medes to destroy Babylon for the sake of vengeance for the Temple (Jeremiah 51:7) and vengeance for the people of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 51:35-36).
So both Assyria and Babylon are used as instruments of God to punish Israel and other nations, and God still treats them as agents by punishing them for what they did. So Craig has made a false dichotomy between being an instrument in the hands of God and being an agent, responsible for their actions.
The difference between a stick used in the hand of an agent to move a stone and a human used in the hand of God to punish another nation is that the stick does not act out of any motive, intention, or desire. It is passive in the whole affair. Humans, however, are active, even when being used by God. We act out of desires and inclinations. We do things on purpose. God was able to use Nebuchadnezzar to do his will because “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wishes” (Proverbs 21:1). When Babylon and Assyria acted, they acted out of their own motives. While God had his intentions for arousing Assyria against Israel, Assyria acted out of its own intentions (Isaiah 10:7), which is what makes Assyria an agent and distinguishes Assyria from a stick.
Craig is quite right in saying we know we are agents. When we act, we do so on purpose. When we do something on purpose, we know that we are doing it because we want to. We are acting out of our own inclinations. That is quite different than having a muscle spasm or an involuntary reflex. Acting out of our own inclinations is perfectly consistent with God determining our actions since God has influence over the heart.
God also has influence over all the numerous factors that go into us having the desires and inclinations that we have. To some degree, we even have some power over each other. I can cause somebody to choose to look at me just by saying, “Look at me.” That creates a motive in them to act, and they act on that motive.
Craig says, “But these intermediate causes are not agents themselves but mere instrumental causes, for they have no power to initiate action.” By the “power to initiate action,” Craig is referring to a libertarian free will act, which is an act that arises spontaneously without any cause, reason, or condition whatsoever being sufficient to determine that act. “Agents,” in Craig’s view are capable of being first causes, i.e. of initiating causal chains without themselves being caused to do so.
But it seems to me that it is on Craig’s view that people are not agents. To be an agent, one must be in control of one’s own actions and do them on purpose. But we have no more control over a spontaneous event than we do over an event that is causally determined by blind mechanistic causes. That is the problem with libertarian freedom. It is hard to distinguish a libertarian act from a random blip or an accident.
Suppose, for example, that your every desire is to turn to the right, and you have no desire whatsoever to turn to the left. But you turn to the left anyway because on libertarianism, no desire is sufficient to determine what you do, and in spite of your desires, you can still do otherwise. Would it make sense to ask why you turned to the left on libertarianism if you had no desire or reason to? No. The answer would be that there is no reason you turned to the left.
In fact, on libertarianism, even if you are influenced by some desire to act, the desire is never a sufficient reason for why you acted as you did. If somebody asks you why you did what you did, the correct answer isn’t, “Because I wanted to,” or “Because I was motivated by a sense of duty,” or anything like that. Rather, the correct answer would be, “Partly because I wanted to, and partly for no reason at all.”
Some libertarians have tried to get past the random blip problem with libertarianism by saying, “the agent is the cause of the free action.” This is what they call “agent causation.” But this just creates more problems.
Since it's the action that we say is free, that must be where the will is located since that is the volition. But the whole notion of free will (at least as Craig defines it) is that the will is not caused. If an action is caused, then it’s not free.
The strange thing about saying "the agent is the cause of the free action," is that it seems to imply that there is a distinction between the agent and the action such that one causes the other.
If the volition or act of will is the same thing as the free action, then what does it mean to say that the agent causes it? Is the agent causation itself an act of the will, or is it a "random blip"?
If it's an act of the will, then to say "the agent causes the free action" seems equivalent to saying, "The choice causes the choice," which doesn't solve any problems with random blips vs. control.
But if it's a random blip, then we're saying, "A random blip causes the choice," which doesn't solve any problems about control either.
It seems like, to be consistent, "free" should modify "the agent causing" instead of "action.” In that case, "The agent freely causes the action." That would be more consistent with libertarian freedom because that way you don't have anything that's free being causally determined.
But then you're still stuck with the random blip problem since there is no reason for why the agent freely causes the action.
I really think compatibilism is the only coherent way out of this quagmire. An action is ones own to the degree that a person's own desires and motives play a hand in bringing about that action. The less hand one's own desires and motives have in bringing about the action, the less those actions are one's own. The more hand our desires and motives have in bringing about our actions, the more those actions are our own. It follows that our actions are completely our own when our desires and motives have everything to do with our actions, i.e. when they determine our actions. That is possible under divine determinism, so divine determinism does not nullify human agency.