William Klein on D.A. Carson's compatibilism

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I've had occasion to complain before about a problematic discussion of Calvinism in a book review by William Klein (in that case in discussing David Peterson's commentary on Acts). His more recent review of David Allen and Steve Lemke's Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism critiques D.A. Carson in a way that I also think is a bit unfair, and he doesn't represent the terms of debate accurately, even apart from the fairness issue.

Here's what he says:

In various places the authors expose misunderstandings that Calvinists sometimes exhibit about those who oppose them, or how they confuse categories in their uses of terms. As one example, S. Lemke exposes D.A. Carson's misuse of the category of "compatibilism" (pp. 150-152). It does not mean that human freedom and divine sovereignty are compatible (this is the way that Carson uses it). Everyone--whether Calvinist, Arminian, or open theist--affirms that. Rather, as correctly understood, compatibilists assert that true human freedom is compatible with hard determinism. Those are more difficult to reconcile.

This is at once both right and wrong. He's right in saying that Carson uses the term 'compatibilism' differently from how philosophers typically use it. But I think he's wrong in offering this as a criticism, and he's certainly wrong in how he says the word is generally used. His misuse of the term is, to my mind, much worse than Carson's.

Compatibilism, as philosophers use the term, is the view that freedom is compatible with one's choices being predetermined. Carson doesn't seem to me to use it that way. His actual definition is in terms of divine sovereignty, not in terms of predetermination. If God is entirely sovereign over anything that occurs in a way that whatever happens is exactly as God intended, then it need not be predetermined by God but just anticipated by God in a way that, had God wanted something else to happen, God could have intervened. Carson's definition of compatibilism leaves that open.

To be fair, though, Carson's discussions of this all include expressions along the lines of "absolute freedom to the contrary" to describe the kind of view of sovereignty that he's denying. If someone has the absolute freedom to do something that even God can't intervene with (without removing the person's freedom), then it's not the kind of divine sovereignty he has in mind. Carson, then, is indeed denying libertarian freedom of the sort that provides the only way besides predetermination. So his definition itself does allow for this, but what he goes on to say shows that he doesn't really intend that result.

Klein's mistake is much worse than that, though. That's just being unfair to Carson's whole approach by focusing on the terms of his definition, ones that the rest of his discussion does clarify. But in trying to correct Carson, Klein makes a much worse blunder. He gets the definition of compatibilism entirely wrong and defines it as to be totally contradictory. He says compatibilism claims the compatibility of free will and hard determinism (as opposed to the correct definition, which is that it's the compatibility of free will and determinism).

Hard determinism is the view that determinism is true and incompatible with freedom. Soft determinism is compatibilism, i.e. the view that determinism is true but compatible with freedom. Both hard and soft determinism accept the same metaphysical view of determinism. What makes hard determinism hard determinism is that it adds the separate claim that determinism and freedom are incompatible. What makes soft determinism soft determinism is that it's compatibilist. So to claim that compatibilism (i.e. soft determinism) is the view that freedom is compatible with hard determinism is to charge compatibilism not just with holding two views that conflict (which incompatibilists do think of compatibilism) but asserting of it that it holds such an explicit contradiction as to leave no room for argument. Of course anyone claiming hard determinism is compatible with freedom is holding contradictory views, because hard determinism simply is the view that determinism is true and not compatible with freedom. But that doesn't make compatibilism contradictory, because compatibilists specifically deny hard determinism.

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