Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Causality and "Doing"

In a recent discussion, it was brought to my attention that causing some act is not doing some act. I suppose that in considering two different senses that's quite true. First, if I press "play" on my DVD player, I am not doing the action of reading the disc (even though I caused it). But these are two different senses of "cause." In the physical sense, I did cause the button to press which placed a series of intermediate physical causes resulting in the desired effect of the DVD playing. Anyone who insists I did not play the DVD is just mistaken.

Let's consider a thought experiment. Suppose there is a nuclear bomb, a single domino, and a mad scientist supervillain. She wants to destroy the region of the world where she is, but has a whimsical side as well. She sets the scenario so that when she flicks her finger on the domino, it falls and triggers the bomb (suppose she has enough time to get away or does not care if she dies). Has she detonated the nuclear bomb? Of course she has. She has both caused and performed the action.

Now let's add one more domino, and line it up so that when our supervillain scientist strikes the first domino, it, in turn, strikes a second, and that second domino detonates her nuclear bomb. Has the addition of the second domino affected the causal or "doing" relationship? It seems not. For the mechanism was still caused to run by the supervillain. Moreover, the counterfactual truth of "if the first domino were to strike the second, it would fall and trigger the bomb" is not a sufficient cause of the bomb's being detonated. Now add a third, and a fourth, and so on, until an infinite series of dominos are set up so that each one triggers the next to fall, until eventually the nuclear bomb is triggered. Even in the case of an infinite number of intermediate causes, the mad scientist supervillain has still caused and done the action of detonating the nuclear bomb.

The same goes for God in hard determinism. In this case, God causes each and every action (including sinful ones). It would not matter if he used one or many intermediate causes to bring the action about; he has done it (especially since, on hard determinism, the subject lacks free will). What of soft determinism and compatibilism? This fares no better. Think back to the DVD analogy. According to compatibilism, human beings can only act in accord with their nature. It is the same as when the power button is pressed on the remote; the DVD player can only act in accord with its nature. But if I have caused and done the action of playing the DVD, then God has caused and done the actions of human beings, including sin. In this case, we now have an argument:

1. If determinism is true, then God causes and does acts of sin.
2. Determinism is true.
3. Therefore, God causes and does acts of sin.
4. God cannot cause and do sin.
5. Therefore, determinism is not true.

Obviously, we have a reductio; we can hold (1, 2, and 3) or we can hold (1, 4, and 5), but we cannot hold all of the premises. The first part of this post substantiates (1), so that can be safely accepted. (3) and (5) are entailed conclusions, and so cannot themselves be denied. So, we can safely create another premise:

6. Either determinism is true or God cannot cause and do sin.

The only obvious way of escape is to claim that God can, indeed, sin. I am not sure if anyone would take this escape route. If anyone would, it's worth remembering that God would therefore not be the paradigm of moral goodness. There is another way. (1) can be denied on the grounds of theological voluntarism. That is to say, while (1) is true in that if determinism is true, then God causes and does acts that for humans would be a sin, these are not sins for God. This is because God can simply will to do them, and whatever God wills is right. There are a number of consequences to this. First, the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma comes to light: morality is not really objective, but arbitrary. That not only seems absurd on its face, but one would have a hard time even coherently defining such nonsense. Second, it would mean obviously absurd things, such as that God could will the torturing of babies, or that God could lie, or any number of things. In any case, it seems much more plausible that God cannot cause and do sin than that determinism is true!


  1. Hey Randy! What do you think about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son? Some would say that this is an example of God doing something sinful. I think as a defense it has been said that God has the freedom to take life when He so pleases. Although this does seem like a reasonable defense, does that mean that we have to walk around tip-toeing that God doesn't ask us to murder our children? Or perhaps someone else?


  2. Hey Robby! I actually have a blog post on this very subject! I encourage you to search for it in the box above, but I'll make a few comments. First, I agree with the standard defense that God has no obligation to extend someone's life. In that case, the usual retort in complaint is that it seems one can never prove God commits sin. Well that is no problem of mine! What I expect they really mean, however, is that God could do just anything and everything and it would not be counted as sinful. But that would not follow. God could not, for example, command us to rape and torture. God cannot command murder, and that is most germane to your comment. So, technically speaking, God could never command murder, even if he would command you to kill your loved ones. But it's worth noting a few things: one, almost everyone agrees Isaac was a fully-grown man, possibly over 25 years of age, during this incident. That he did not resist despite realizing he was to die is amazing. So there's not really biblical precedent for killing babies and such (lest someone bring up the Canaanites, there are at least two good answers--one of which is that hyperbolic statements render it unlikely that babies were killed at all). Second, the account of the story indicates that they understood an offering would be provided, and that both Abraham and his son would return (this is corroborated in Heb. 11 with the amount of faith he had). Third, even if we decided that God could command the deaths of babies and whatnot, it's just not very likely. The odds are so overwhelmingly against it you should be more worried about your previously-unknown evil twin coming to kill you. :)

    1. I think I found it :)


      Excellent blog. I actually never knew that Isaac was full grown hah. But I just wanted to stretch out the last portion of your response. My question is really concerning the last sentence, "The odds are so overwhelmingly against it you should be more worried about your previously-unknown evil twin coming to kill you. :)"

      It seems like you are attaching a probability to what God will/would do. But how do we know it is improbable? Is it just that, so far as we know, He doesn't ask people to do that very often? Or is there a deeper intrinsic reason? Perhaps something to do with if God did command that often it's likely more people would end up hatting Him than growing in their faith.

    2. Sorry for not getting back to you earlier! I readily confess probability is epistemic. For all that we know, which is a decent amount, God does not do that. And, importantly, the one time in all history he did command it, it was a) not to a moral innocent (such as a child or mentally-disabled person), b) not apparently permanent (cf. Heb. 11), and c) not actually acted upon. Your intuition about consequences may well be right on here!

    3. It's all good! It's given me some time to think about it. I've so far, with your considerable help, formulated 7 reasons for why this act should not be consider immoral. However I am having problems with my point #5: "That he (Isaac) did not resist despite realizing he was to die is amazing."

      From reading the scriptures in Genesis 22 (NIV) I can't find anything in there that says he did or didn't resist. How do we know that exactly? It says in verse 7b, “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” This seems to show that the entire time on the way up the mountain, even when they were almost there, Isaac didn't exactly know what was happening (although he may have had an idea given it was just the two of them hah).

      Once at the top it says, 9"When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son."

      I'm wondering, why would he bound his son up? I would think it would be because, like it was with most burnt offerings, so the offering wouldn't jump out of the fire and run away! I mean if you were about to burn a sheep, it would likely do that. But you see, Abarham pulls out a knife to end his son's life that way (at least he didn't burn him to death lol :P). So with his son dead, why would he need to bind him up? Do we say that this is simply tradition, or did Abraham have to force his son?

      However, the language of "lay his son down" doesn't seem to spark any real act of forcefulness. What's your take on it?

    4. Hey hey Robby!

      I think we have good reason, if not a completely airtight one, to think Isaac did not resist. First, no record is given of his resistance. Second, Abraham was well over one hundred years old (around 120-130, if I remember correctly) and was considered a very old man then. If Isaac had wanted to resist, he would have been able to do so (remember, because of Abraham's age, he was likely anywhere from a middle-teenager to a man in his mid-20s). Next, Isaac was there to hear his father say "I and the boy will return" after they were to make the sacrifice. Whatever else the story of Isaac's offering is supposed to convey, trust in his father is one of them. Finally, the binding is symbolic--and a powerful one at that. As soon as Abraham turned to Isaac with the rope, the non-verbal message would have been clear. It's not airtight, but it is certainly more plausible than not that he did not resist, and that he was no little boy.

    5. I appreciate it Randy! Excellent take as usually hah. I did get your message on facebook. I'm actually having my wife help me write out everything we talked about before I send it to you! Then you can take a look :D

    6. That sounds great, really looking forward to it man! :)

  3. There are two differences between your mad scientist example and God. First, whereas the mad scientist wants to destroy part of the world, and acts intending to bring about that destruction, God does not intend for his creatures to sin. One may argue from this difference to God's not doing acts of sin, or to the non-culpability of his doing acts of sin, given he had the best intentions. Second, even if determinism is true, it may make a difference that the causal intermediaries are agents. Since only agents act, only agents can be responsible for doing things, and this explains why your mad scientist is so obviously responsible for destruction: he is the only agent who appears in your causal story. On the other hand, in a complete history of the world we have many agents to choose from in describing who does what, and in this case, it makes sense to describe doings as belonging to those agents nearest in the causal nexus.

    1. I agree that these differences are real, and it is for that reason I reject a compatibilist view. Essentially, what the objection offers is that while it appears that, on compatibilism, an agent really isn't responsible, in reality they are. But that simply begs the question in favor of compatibilism. My argument is that it looks like for all the world these agents are merely intermediary causes, no more responsible for their actions in a moral or societal sense than a bat is responsible for breaking a window when used by a person. Now perhaps there is some argument to overcome it, but the point is that it looks for all the world like compatibilism renders people as dominoes or machines, even while it appears that people are truly responsible for their actions. In that case, it's so much the worse for compatibilism.


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