Monday, July 20, 2009

My Final Post on Choice/Determinism Debate with Steve

Steve Hays and I have been discussing choice and determinism. However our last two posts have shown a significant increase in talking past each other rather then moving deeper into the topic. While I could give a line by line response, I would for the most part simply be repeating arguments I already presented. I am taking that as an indication that it's time to wrap things up (for now).

My primary argument has been as follows:

P1: The bible says we choose
P2: Choosing rules out determinism
C1: So the bible rules out determinism.

P1 is plain in that every English translation of the terms bâcha and eklegomai as choose. Further, the concept of choice crosses linguistic barriers, because it describes something we all experience daily. It would take a conspiracy theory to even suggest that the meanings have shifted over time without scholars noting the change and translating bâcha and eklegomai differently.

I supported p2 by citing multiple dictionaries which define choose as selection between possible alternatives. But determinism denies possible alternatives, so these dictionary definition of choose rule out determinism.

I grant that determinists could develop a useful definition of choose that harmonizes with their philosophy. But I deny such a definition should be used to understand scripture. The bible was written for the common man; as can be seen by many of it's books being addressed to this and that church and the Nation or People of Israel.

I also note that the wiktionary defines choose as select. But I also note it defines select as choose, so under-defining terms leads to unhelpful tautologies.

While Steve poked at P1 and provided a tautological definition of choose (decision), his primary thrust has been at the notion that determinism rules out alternative possibilities. While he grants that determinism rules out alternative possibilities at a metaphysical level, he none-the-less maintains that in an epistemic sense of possible, determinists can hold to alternative possibilities. So he concludes I am eisegeting the dictionary - reading in absolute possibilities when it could be understood as relative possibilities.

I grant that an epistemic sense of possible is both valid and common, but I deny that a determinist could hold to possible alternatives even in an epistemic sense. The epistemic sense of possible alternatives rules out determinism. Further, the epistemic sense of possible isn't a valid candidate for defining choose.

The epistemic sense of possible is a relative sense as opposed to an absolute sense. Given the facts I have; such and such can happen. The process of logical reasoning results in us concluding something is free from logical contradiction; thus we call it possible in an epistemic sense. Further, it only takes into account what we know; other truths that we don't know may contradict the idea in question. So something that may be absolutely impossible may be logically possible and something that may be logically possible may be epistemicially possible.

Steve cited a gambler as an example of a determinist with possible alternatives in an epistemic sense.

Steve: I cited the gambler to illustrate the fact that human agents can deliberate over hypothetical possibilities, and decide on one–even though only one of these hypothetical possibilities is a live possibility–and the gambler knows this at the time he’s deliberating and deciding what to do next.

One of the problems is the gambler does not decide on one of the hypothetical (epistemic) possibilities. He wishes the card to be 2 rather than 3, but he doesn't choose for the card to be 2 rather than 3. He chooses to draw or not - to take his chances. It's not as if 2 and 3 are face up on the table and the dealer is letting the gambler pick one. If it was, he really would be choosing 2 over 3. Steve himself notes: The gambler goes into the game knowing in advance that his choices have no effect on the order of the cards. And yet his choices are made with a view to the order of the cards. If the gambler did decide on one of the epistemic possibilities, the example might be relevant, but he doesn't, so it's not relevant.

Another problem is that the epistemic sense of possible is an impersonal possibility, not a personal possibility. It says what is logically possible, not what is causally possible. Choice is about an agent's abilities, but the epistemic sense of possible isn't about an agent's abilities. Steve counters that choice often takes an impersonal object, which is true but besides the point. In the epistemic sense, the possibility is impersonal, not the object. Is the agent able (or at least think he's able) to select the object? If so, it's a personal ability, not an impersonal possibility. The gambler could reason the card's spontaneous combustion is logically possible given what he knows, but that doesn't mean it's in his power (or that he thinks it's in his power).

A third problem is that Steve uses alternative possibilities - meaning more than one possibility. But determinist's think there can be only one possibility at a time. Determinism rules out not just twofold actualities, or just twofold possibilities but also twofold epistemic possibilities. If 2 is possible, 3 is not - and vice versa.

To avoid this third problem Steve runs into a fourth problem - he has expresses alternative possibilities as epistemic possibilities, not just not knowing if the two things are impossible. As soon as he moves from the negation (I don't find these things to be logically impossible) to the assertion (based on what I know these things are possibilities), he undermines determinism.

In addition to the main line of debate on epistemic possibilities, Steve has been pressing me on whether choice relates only to mental resolutions or also to the extra-mental execution of the choice. I have responded that it doesn't matter, because determinsts don't believe in the ability to choose otherwise or the ability to do otherwise. So it's an unneeded rabbit trail, but my answer is that choice can be used either way depending on the object of choice and responsibility attaches primarily to the internal mental resolution.

Steve has cited the example of someone choosing between careers, thinking he can do both, but external circumstances would prevent either from coming to fruition. Initially I took this example as Steve defending of the idea that freedom amounts to the hypothetical: if X is my greatest desire, I can choose X. That was the topic at the time. However, perhaps Steve was transitioning from hypothetical possibilities to epistemic possibilities. I should have picked up on it sooner, but the card player example made it clear.

The med students sense of possibility is different than the card player example. The student thinks he can control the outcome; the card player knows he can't control the order of the deck. The student's possibility is personal, causal and metaphysical, but the possibility in the card example is impersonal, logical and epistemic.

The fact that the student thinks he can realize his goal introduces a second level possibility: given what I know it's logically possible that this is absolutely possible (rather than given what I know, I think this is logically possible). The reasons why determinists can't hold to twofold epistemic possibilities have already been cited and clearly determinists can't believe in twofold absolute possibilities.

I will let Steve have the final word on this debate. I want to thank Steve for his taking the time to dig into these important topic with me. Steve really challenged me to think. I hold no ill feelings toward Steve and ask him to forgive me if I offended him in any way.

Here's the posts from the debate:


arminianperspectives said...


Very good summary. I think you did a fine job defending your position against numerous attacks and proved, in the end, that your argument holds up quite well. Thanks for taking the time.

God Bless,

Godismyjudge said...

Thanks Ben, it was a long ride!

God be with you,