Is God’s Freedom More of a Problem for a Libertarian or Compatibilist?

I was listening to a podcast recently which featured a friendly discussion between two philosophers: W. Paul Franks, a Wesleyan libertarian, and Guilluame Bignon, a compatibilist Calvinist.  They talked about several things, and it was a great example of intelligent, civil, and charitable debate between Christians.  Bignon even said that if all people get from the podcast is that they can see that a Calvinist like him can be good friends with a libertarian, it would be a success.  I think that’s a very mature attitude that is missing from a lot of Christians.  I just got his book where he defends Calvinistic determinism, and I hope I can find time soon to read through it.

Nonetheless, here I want to hone in on Bignon’s claim that God’s freedom is a clear counterexample to the libertarian’s argument that one must be able to do otherwise in order to be free (the principle of alternative possibilities, aka PAP) and morally responsible.  God is impeccable (he cannot sin), so this principle obviously does not apply to God, Bignon argued.  Franks holds to source incompatiblism, which either diminishes or even eliminates the need for PAP, but Bignon still argues that it still doesn’t make sense of God’s freedom.

This is far from a new argument from compatibilists.  Interestingly enough, libertarians have used God’s freedom against compatibilists as well.  The argument is that since, traditionally, God is seen as absolutely free, such that he could have created a different world or no world at all, there is a clear example of libertarian free will.  This refutes common compatibilist arguments that libertarian free will is incoherent.  Some compatibilists have responded to this by saying that even God has compatibilistic freedom, but to say that would seem to grate against the traditional view of God’s freedom and also seem to subject God to deterministic forces outside of him, which jeopardizes his sovereignty.  This is one reason why most compatibilists seem to shy away from this option.  If the compatibilist instead tries to say that God’s character simply determines his actions, there is still a sense in which God lacks the freedom that is traditionally ascribed to him because he could not have done other than create this world.  If the compatibilist argues that God’s character only constrains his actions, then the compatibilist has fallen into the libertarian camp.

Perhaps the best way for the compatibilist to answer is that God’s freedom is just fundamentally different than our own because he is God and we’re not.  The problem is that if libertarian free will is true of God, then it is not incoherent.  Some compatibilists are okay with conceding that libertarianism is not logically contradictory but that it is simply not the kind of freedom God gave us.  This would then make the issue more of an exegetical one (what kind of freedom does the Bible imply that God gave us?), but in doing so, one of the common arguments by compatibilists against libertarianism disappears.

Libertarians make important distinctions between God’s freedom and creaturely freedom as well.  A traditional libertarian could say that God can be free in a libertarian sense but nonetheless not sin because his character constrains his choices to those that are not sinful, which is not the case for human beings.  If God chooses A, it can still be true that he could have chosen B instead, provided both options are not evil, but you still have alternative possibilities.  Compatibilists may shoot back that this is not a “morally significant” choice, but that’s strictly not the point: The question is if God’s freedom somehow contradicts PAP, and it does not seem like it does.

Perhaps this still has some problems regarding moral praiseworthiness (why is God even praiseworthy for doing good when he cannot perform evil?), but this is where some version of source incompatibilism can help.  For source incompatibilism, what makes an action free and the responsibility of the agent is if the agent is the ultimate source of the action.  Its determination cannot be traced back to something outside of the agent.  This is obviously true of God; since God has his fully-formed character necessarily, there is nothing outside of God to trace his actions to.  Thus, God is praiseworthy for all of his actions.  However, this is not the case for contingent beings; if God were to simply give people fully formed good characters such that they never sinned, then their actions can ultimately be traced back to God, which creates issues with moral responsibility even if they have genuine alternative choices.  This is why, at least for a time, libertarians can say that the option to sin must be there at least some of the time for men to be significantly free, though that option does not need to ALWAYS be there (for example, when Christians go to heaven).

I know much more can be said on this topic, but it seems to me that the traditional way God’s freedom is conceived is more of a problem for compatibilism than libertarianism.  It removes one of the chief philosophical motivations many compatibilists have for rejecting libertarian free will, and it does not strictly refute PAP.  Even if it creates problems for the traditional libertarian regarding moral praiseworthiness, other solutions such as source incompatibilism are available.


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