Bryan Caplan  

Determinism and Motivated Reasoning

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Martin Luther is near the top of my list of Utterly Wrong Thinkers I Enjoy Reading.  He writes beautifully, logically, and candidly.  In this revealing passage, he explains why he finds free will so emotionally threatening and determinism so emotionally comforting.  From The Bondage of the Will:
For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation. For, on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of it amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons, seeing that even one demon is mightier, than all men, and no man at all could be saved; and on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty and to fight as one beating the air, since even if I lived and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God. For whatever work might be accomplished, there would always remain an anxious doubt whether it pleased God or whether he required something more, as the experience of all self-justifiers proves, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost through so many years. But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him. "No one," he says, "shall snatch them out of my hand, because my Father who has given them to me is greater than all" *John 10:28 f.]. So it comes about that, if not all, some and indeed many are saved, whereas by the power of free choice none at all would be saved, but all would perish together.



COMMENTS (7 to date)
J Storrs Hall writes:

Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.

Greg G writes:

Interesting post Bryan. I used to be more interested in the quite spectacular variety of preposterous things that people believe simply because they are taught by the religions they grew up with. Lately I am more interested in why people believe what they believe.

My current theory is that everyone believes what they find most emotionally comforting. So then, most people are more frightened by the idea of death than the idea of eternal life. But not everyone.

When Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with a terminal illness he said it was like being at a party and being told you have to leave. But he said eternal life is like being at a party and being told...you can never leave.

Sieben writes:

I wonder what kind of people he knew. He seems to think it's obvious that man < demons. Many men would disagree and be happy for the challenge.

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Greg G writes:

He knew many kinds of people but you are right that he never did lack for certainty.

Ahmed writes:

Question: Is it free will or determinism?

Answer: Both.

The greatest mystery in life is the merging of the personal and divine will. Joseph told his brothers:
"You meant it for evil but God meant if for good."

Secondary causes are only a veil to occupy the common people. God's elect see through the causes to the Causer of causes. —Rumi

Joel writes:

Bryan - this reading of Luther's soteriological beliefs is, to say the least, shallow and ham-handed. Many classical Christian theologians - including Luther, even in TBOTW - affirm the reality of human agency within our secular, time- and space-bound universe. It does your argument no good to deny (my inference) the existence of a supernatural/ superrational/noumenal universe/sphere, and then hastily label Luther as a determinist when he's contemplating in that sphere with respect to humanity's relationship to the divine. Perhaps you should spend more time with Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas - as they deal with this question at greater depth - and then try reading Luther again before you put him in your Utterly Wrong Thinkers club.

MikeP writes:

I've got to agree with Joel.

This passage in no way expresses that Luther "finds free will so emotionally threatening and determinism so emotionally comforting." This passage expresses that Luther finds God's judgment based on grace rather than on works emotionally comforting, roughly because it changes Pascal's Wager from a continuous optimization problem into a discrete one.

It is difficult to understand how one could come to the conclusion that Luther fears free will qua free will from this passage: it expresses almost the exact opposite!

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