Thursday, July 21, 2011

A puzzle about prayer

Consider x's faithful Christian prayer that y would always avoid some sin. (Perhaps x=y, and perhaps they are distinct.) Such prayers are indeed offered, and yet it does indeed happen that sometimes y does commit that sin. This is more puzzling than cases where x prays that y be healed of some physical ailment, because sin is much worse, perhaps "incomparably worse", than any physical ailment.

Libertarians have the beginning of a story about cases like that. For God to ensure the literal fulfillment of such a prayer would require God either to take away from y the opportunity to commit the sin or to take away y's freedom, and in both cases God would be depriving y of a good. God won't give us a serpent when we ask for a fish, and he may well not give us a serpent even if we ask for a serpent. I am inclined to think that God always gives us a gift that is in some sense at least as worth getting as the one we asked for, and it may well be that it is better to get the opportunity and freedom to sin, together with the grace to resist temptation if one rejects not the grace, than to get none of these, but avoid the risk of sin.

Compatibilists have a little bit more difficulty with the puzzle, I think. I think they will say a story about how God is glorified by y's punishment and/or redemption after the sin. I think this works better if one is a universalist (I really think that in the end a Calvinist view of grace forces one into universalism), since the universalist can at least say that there is always redemption, and hence while x doesn't get exactly what x prayed for, y's redemption, which is what x presumably really wanted most of all, is still assured by other means. But it is tougher if one is not a universalist.


Heath White said...

Suppose the sin x prays for y to avoid is “any mortal sin.” Then (it seems) it is better for y to have this prayer answered, than to engage in mortal sin, unless repentance and redemption can be guaranteed (e.g. by universalism). So, barring universalism, the reason God might have for not answering this prayer would have to appeal to God’s glory, or the righteousness of punishment, or some other good not specific to y. And then, it seems to me, the libertarian and compatibilist stories are on a par.

Marc Belcastro said...

I presume that with respect to most (if not perhaps all) sins, the temptation to sin precedes the sinful action, (assuming the person yields to the temptation). And if this is the case, then, as others have undoubtedly suggested, it would appear that 1 Corinthians 10:13 creates a further problem for the compatibilist story. How would the compatibilist reconcile (i) God's efficaciously causally determining y to yield to temptation and commit sin s, and (ii) God's promise to provide a way for y to escape so that y may presumably resist the temptation and avoid s? Even if the appeal to God's glory or the goodness of punishing sin is justified, it seems to me that the compatibilist story will experience some difficulty taking the above passage seriously.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Suppose Molinism and theological compatibilism are false. Then the only way that God can ensure y does not commit a mortal sin is by taking away y's freedom to choose whether to sin mortally or not. By taking this freedom away, God would be taking away the possibility of y's freely choosing not to sin mortally. And so we can have a story about why God would do so that involves a benefit specific to y.

Objection: A possibility of a good is not a benefit.

Response: It is plausible that to endanger someone is to impose a harm on her. By the same token to impose a possibility of a good is to benefit. This is particularly clear in the case where whether the possibility is realized depends on the individual.

If I were a non-universalist Molinist or theological compatibilist, I would go for the options you mention, with a special focus on the good of punishment as that is specific to y. I think the specificity to y is important. I don't know that the promises of God's answering prayers would be adequately fulfilled if I prayed that my daughter be healed in body, but instead some stranger was healed in soul and my daughter received no benefit. If on the other hand my daughter was healed in soul, I would count the prayer as fulfilled.

JSA said...

@Marc - Most compatibilists read Paul as being a non-universalist compatibilist, so 1 Corinthians 10:13 makes sense through that lens. It looks like he's just saying, "If you sin, it's all on you"

JSA said...

The puzzle posed seems like a subset of the general issue of reprobation. Even libertarians need to contend with the fact that it is with God's prerogative to sometimes cause a person to sin. That is, the commission of sin needn't be always, in all cases, a libertarian free decision.

Or does the libertarian view admit no possibility that God would cause a person to sin, no matter how rarely?

Heath White said...

Let’s grant that the best outcome is y’s both having the freedom to sin mortally, and not doing it. But the question then is whether it is better to (a) have the freedom, and exercise it, thereby sinning mortally, or (b) not have the freedom to sin mortally. Within (a) there are the subcases (a1) one freely sins mortally and repents, and (a2) one freely sins mortally and does not repent.

My thought was that (a2) was the worst of the options, and one might reasonably pray that it be avoided. But that prayer can be answered only by either taking away the freedom to sin mortally, or by ensuring repentance (e.g. through universalism or some kind of perseverance of the saints). I take it that neither option appeals to you.

So there will be cases where (potential) prayers to avoid (a2) will not be answered. Now, if (a2) is the worst of options for y, God’s reasons for not answering this prayer cannot very well appeal to goods for y. So either (a2) is not the worst option for y (maybe (b) is a worse option), or God has non-y-specific reasons for denying the prayer. Of those, I would take the latter disjunct, but it seems you take the former. Is that about right?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thinking about rankings like that is helpful.

I think I'd like to put it this way:
A. y freely chooses not to sin mortally
B. y has no free choice whether to sin mortally
C. y freely chooses to sin mortally.

I am inclined to rank them in this order, though some may think the value of freedom is so great that C is rationally preferable to B.

Now, unless Molinism or theological compatibilism is true, God isn't deciding between A, B and C. Rather, God is deciding between B and something like:

AC. Either A or C will happen, with its being up to y which, and with a moderately high probability (say, 50-80%) of A.

It could be that the state AC is in some relevant sense a better thing for God to bestow on y than B is. If so, then God might well answer the prayer by bestowing AC (perhaps with a probability of A on the higher end of the freedom-non-impairing range) rather than B.

JS Allen:

"Even libertarians need to contend with the fact that it is with God's prerogative to sometimes cause a person to sin."

There is distinction between the foreseen and the intended. God can legitimately non-intentionally cause a person to sin.

David Parker said...

Some of the bright readers here might enjoy a recent post I did on moral freedom in heaven.

Considering working it into a paper...then maybe they'll let me skip philosophy 101 when I apply to an undergrad program. :-) Comments welcome!

Marc Belcastro said...

JS Allen:

>> "Most compatibilists read Paul as being a non-universalist compatibilist, so 1 Corinthians 10:13 makes sense through that lens. It looks like he's just saying, 'If you sin, it's all on you'."

I'm not sure I understand how considering the passage from the perspective of a non-universalist compatibilist helps alleviate the apparent difficulty. For, to my mind, it's that perspective which appears to generate the problem. Paul teaches that God provides a way to escape the temptation so that we may avoid yielding to it, but if God causally determines us to sin (on some occasions), embracing the way of escape is impossible. But if choosing the way of escape is impossible, how can it legitimately be a way of escape?

JSA said...

@Marc - A non-universalist compatibilist, by definition, believes that God has pre-ordained at least one person will be condemned. This puts the compatibilist in the very awkward position of defending against the claim that God is responsible for at least one sinner's mortal sin (since it was pre-ordained, the sinner didn't have a choice).

The compatibilist doesn't really have a good answer, other than to protest that God isn't the author of sin, no matter what it looks like on the surface. Romans 9:11-21 can be interpreted as just such a defense, and I see 1 Corinthians 10:13 as just what I would expect from a compatibilist responding to the claim that God is the author of sin.

I agree that 1 Corinthians 10:13 works with a libertarian perspective, but it's the sort of wording I would expect from a compatibilist as well.

JSA said...

@Alexander -

"There is distinction between the foreseen and the intended. God can legitimately non-intentionally cause a person to sin."

OK, I think I'm just ignorant of the libertarian interpretations of things. Would it be correct to say that those who God reprobates are those God could forsee would have mortally sinned anyway? If so, I think that makes sense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that's what the Molinist would say about reprobation.

I guess I just see reprobation as more like foreknowledge of non-acceptance of salvific grace, but I don't have this worked out.

Heath White said...


I understand how the compatibilist and the Molinist would have God choosing between A, B, and C. I also understand how the open theist would have God making the choice between AC and B (or maybe he is stuck with AC) and having to do some kind of expected utility calculation, since whether A or C occurs is genuinely unknowable even for God. I (quite seriously) do not really understand the simple foreknowledge alternative. Could you explain a bit more?

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the simple foreknowledge view, there are only categorical facts about the future, not Molinist-type conditional facts about the future.

Typically, non-probabilistic deliberation uses conditionals, at least some of which are counterfactual: "were I to do A, A* would result; were I to do non-A, B* would result." So the categorical facts about the future are not directly helpful for non-probabilistic deliberation.

The categorical facts about the future can be used in deliberation, however, wherever no circularity in the order of explanation results. For instance, God can make use of how Heath chooses on July 1, 2008 to decide what prophetic inscriptions about Heath to place on Pluto on July 1, 1980, as long as the content of the inscriptions is not explanatorily prior to how Heath chooses on July 1, 2008 (this explanatory non-priority is easier ensured if they're on Pluto, but can also be ensured in other ways--for instance, Peter forgot the prophecy about his denying Jesus). The crucial thing is that one has to avoid circularity in the explanatory order.

In the case we were discussing, however, on the simple foreknowledge view things go just as they do on the open theism view. Suppose in the actual sequence, y freely refrains from the mortal sin (the happy option A). God cannot, however, make use of this fact in deciding whether to make a free choice that includes mortal sin as an option for y. For the decision whether to make such a free choice possible is explanatorily prior to A.

On the simple foreknowledge view, God's foreknowledge of some event E is not deliberatively available prior to the decisions that causally contribute to E. So prophecy must be explanatorily isolatable from the prophesied event, perhaps by miraculous intervention.

I think, in light of the Adams circularity objection to Molinism, that the Molinist has to say something quite similar, and hence has to say that God's knowledge of the conditionals is not deliberatively available prior to the decisions that contribute to the conditionals' being true. In other words, I think a Molinist who takes the Adams argument seriously is in a very similar position to the simple foreknowledge theorist.

Note that the compatibilist does not entirely escape these circularity and isolation issues if she is an indeterminist about divine choices (as I think Calvinists should be). For there, too, there will be cases where some foreknowledge cannot be deliberatively made use of. When deliberating whether to do X, God cannot make use of his foreknowledge that he will do X.

In fact, the phenomenon that some divine foreknowledge cannot be used in deliberation may even be there if someone is a determinist even about God (as Jonathan Edwards was). It is hard to see how a perfect predictor could freely deliberate unless he could bracket his predictions about his future decisions from his deliberation.

So, quite possibly everyone has to say that God somehow can and must bracket foreknowledge of his decisions from the deliberation that produces (or partly constitutes) these decisions. The simple foreknowledge theorist and the Molinist who takes the Adams circularity argument seriously has to suppose further bracketing of knowledge of the created future.

Heath White said...

On God’s foreknowledge of his own decisions: I take the traditional and, I think, very appealing view that God foreknows his decisions by deciding on them. I would think that view would appeal to everyone.

If you are right about Molinism, that deep-sixes the whole point of the approach. Ouch.

In the case we were discussing, however, on the simple foreknowledge view things go just as they do on the open theism view.

That is what I suspected. This suggests that there are two quite different strands of discomfort with OT: (1) it undermines God’s control/sovereignty/providence—i.e. God has to take a lot of risks, and consequently is not so trustworthy; (2) it undermines God’s omniscience—i.e. God doesn’t know the future, the way he’s supposed to. Obviously all parties are going to have further things to say.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. That is a nice move about God's foreknowledge of his decisions, assuming his decisions are not dependent in any way on the decisions of creatures (except insofar as God has decided what the decisions of creatures will be). But are divine decisions determined by God's nature or character? If so, then he has another epistemic route to them: he can derive them from his nature or character. And he has to bracket that. If, on the other hand, divine decisions are not determined by God's nature or character, then I think your story does work, assuming God's decisions are atemporal (which I agree with, too).

2. I think simple foreknowledge does have an advantage over open theism in the trustworthiness department, since God can issue trustworthy prophecies when there is the appropriate explanatory isolation.