Calvinists and Compatibilists Fail Again to Make Compatibilism Believable: The Hypothetical Otherwise Choice

Some compatibilists seek to temper compatibilism’s determinism by denying the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) by various means, such as the proposed hypothetical otherwise choice known more technically as the hypothetical analytic.[1] Calvinists are prone to seek refuge in the hypothetical otherwise from the harsh unbiblical determinism entailed in compatibilism but it fails as all other attempts to harmonize compatibilism with Scripture do.

According to compatibilism, properly defined, determinative antecedents (one’s past) provide a person’s greatest desire from which one freely chooses; therefore, it is a predetermined free choosing without a choice between accessible options in the moral moment of decision. Given one’s past, a person could not have chosen differently than he did, in fact, choose. At the moral moment when a person chooses to love God or hate God, tell the truth or lie, commit rape or rescue a woman from rape, compatibly speaking, that person acts freely so long as that is his greatest desire, but he cannot act differently given the same past. Therefore, it is a predetermined free choice without a choice between accessible options, i.e., accessible alternative possibilities.[2]

In an attempt to deflect such undesirable entailments of compatibilism, a compatibilist may say that had a person desired to act differently, he could have chosen to act differently. This argument is based on merely a hypothetical otherwise choice rather than an actual otherwise choice. The hypothetical otherwise choice is more formally known as a hypothetical analytical otherwise choice vs. an actual otherwise choice. Regarding the compatibilist’s use of the hypothetical or conditional ‘could have done otherwise,’ Bernard Berofsky says, “The first prominent philosopher of the twentieth century to advance a compatibilist solution to the free will problem based on a conditional or hypothetical analysis was G.E. Moore (1912).”[3]

While it is trivially true that if the compatibly free person had desired to act differently, he could have, that response does not truly answer the specific question. The real question is, could a compatibly free being have chosen differently in the moral moment of decision given the same past? The answer is no. Because, given one’s past, he could not have had a different greatest desire from which freely to choose differently in the moral moment of decision. For example, could Adam, given his same nature and past, have chosen not to sin? No! Robert Kane comments regarding the hypothetical otherwise choice for compatibilism. He says, “It¬† might be true that you would have done otherwise if you had wanted, though it is determined that you did not, in fact, want otherwise.”[4]

Kane goes on to say, “You could have done otherwise would only amount to the counterfactual claim that you would have done otherwise, if (contrary to fact) the past (or the laws) had been different in some way, for example, if you had wanted or desired or chosen otherwise.”[5] Therefore, the hypothetical otherwise choice, hypothetical analytic, fails to diminish the unflinching micro-determinism of compatibilism. Kane notes that Bernard Berofsky, a compatibilist, is “among the critics of conditional or hypothetical analyses of power and ability. He thinks compatibilists should look elsewhere if they wish to blunt the force of incompatibilist [libertarian] arguments.”[6]

Compatibilism leaves Calvinism with God ultimately determining what every person thinks or does, whether righteous or sinful, and they could not have chosen to act against God’s ultimate causation. Ultimate causation is not relieved of ultimate responsibility because man is the proximate cause, and there are other intermediate causes.

This micro-determinism continues after a person becomes a Christian.¬†Sometimes Calvinists seek to relate the determinism of compatibilism only to salvation or the lost person only being able to choose to do evil. But salvation does not change the person’s moral nature from compatibilism to libertarianism. Thus, every Christian who obeys or does not obey God, prays or does not pray, gives or does not give, evangelizes or does not evangelize ad infinitum is doing precisely what God determined he could only choose to do. This means that God is commanding many of his children to obey him and punishing them for not obeying when, in fact, he predetermined they could not obey him; he calls all to be faithful and spiritual when he did, in fact, determine that many of those so commanded cannot be faithful and spiritual.

Conversely, he warns of unfaithfulness and its consequences to many whom he predetermined to be faithful so that they cannot be unfaithful. And, truth be told, if experience is even marginally reliable, he has determined that even the Christians he determined to be the most faithful, he also determined them to sin and sin often. That is where the teachings of Calvinism place God, which I believe is far outside of the biblical portrait.


[1] COMPATIBILISM: Determinism and moral responsibility are compatible, hence the name. This compatibility is not achieved by compatibilism being less deterministic than hard determinism. Rather, it is achieved by defining free choice to mean as long as a person chooses according to his greatest desire, he has made a free choice for which he is morally responsible; even though given the same past, he cannot choose differently in the moral moment of decision.

Consequently, the difference between compatibilism (soft determinism) and hard determinism is not to be found in the levels of the deterministic nature of each since they are the same. Rather, the difference is compatibilism simply contends people are morally responsible for their choices if they are made according to their greatest desire, and hard determinism says they are not. Therefore, moral responsibility is the product of defining free choice as a person acting in accordance with his greatest desire even though the desire is determined.

LIBERTARIAN: Man is not determined. He has the actual ability to choose between accessible options, at least in some scenarios. Libertarians contend determinism is not compatible with moral responsibility. Man possesses actual otherwise choice and can, therefore, act or refrain in the moral moment of decision, given the same past within a given range of options.

Extensivism argues God endowed man with this ability, which is an aspect of being created in the image of God. God determines the range of options. Adam’s range of options, the result of creative grace, was greater than mankind’s options after the fall. Fallen man can still choose between options, but the range of options is less than man had prior to the fall. This lessening includes losing the ability to make choices that are inherently righteous or spiritually restorative (making one right with God) based solely on creative grace. In order to make an inherently righteous choice or one that is spiritually restorative, God had to provision redemptive grace (grace enablement), which he did.
[2] Calvinists, compatibilists, speak inconsistently with compatibilism when interpreting Scripture, life, following God, prayer, preaching, teaching, counseling, and discussing ideas. To see this, one only needs to listen to them or read their sermons and writings.
[3] Bernard Berofsky, “Ifs, Cans, and Free Will: The Issues” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 182. Berofsky is a professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.
[4] Robert Kane, “Contours of Contemporary Free Will Debates” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13.
[5] Robert Kane, “Contours of Contemporary Free Will Debates” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13.
[6] Robert Kane, “Contours of Contemporary Free Will Debates” in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 14.