Creation and Providence (Pt. 3)

The relationship between creation and providence is not one that is often considered. Usually when we talk about creation we think about the “7 day” or the creation/evolution debate. When we talk about providence we usually speak of God’s providence in “helping me get that job” or “keeping me from getting in that car accident.” In this blog we will be talking about creation and providence in ways that we don’t usually think about.



Compatibilism is the view that an action is free when an action a person performs is the action that that person wanted to perform, not when a person has alternate possibilities. In other words to say that an agents’ action is free is to say that the action is spontaneous, it flows from who or what that agent is. As an example of a compatibilist free action consider two drug addicts. Drug addict 1 loves and enjoys the fact that he does drugs, drug addict 2 hates drugs and wants to stop. Both drug addicts will end up doing drugs because they are addicted; they have no alternate possibilities. It seems right to say that drug addict 1 was free because she did what she desired, while drug addict two was not free because her action was not in line with her will. Both were determined to act in a particular way but drug addict one was free even though she did not have alternate possibilities.

The advantage of the compatibilist view is that it is compatible with a view of God’s providence that says that God determines the actions of his creation, and thus does not take risks. So if one is a compatibilist one can say that humans and God achieve their ends freely.

However there is a problem with compatibilism, namely that it seems as though for agents to be morally responsible, the agent must have alternatives to their actions. This notion has been called the principle of alternative possibilities. According to Harry Frankfurt this principle states that a person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done otherwise.  In other words a person is morally responsible only in situations where this person has alternatives as to what she can do. So if we keep the notion that God determines agents’ actions, it seems as though we lose the grounding for moral responsibility.

So in order for compatibilism to be a viable option, we must somehow maintain the notion of moral responsibility while affirming that God does not take risks and that humans are free agents. Is this possible? I believe that it is. Harry Frankfurt’s article “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”[1] shows us how. In it he comes up with the following thought experiment: Suppose a man named Black wants a man named Jones to kill the mayor.  Also suppose that Jones wants to kill the mayor for reasons independent of Black’s reasons.  Black is willing to do anything so that Jones will kill the mayor, but Black prefers that Jones does not come to know this so Black makes it the case that Jones does not even know he exists. When an opportunity arises for the assassination to occur Black waits until Jones makes up his mind as to whether or not he will follow through with it.  However if Black suspects that Jones will not kill the mayor Black takes steps to ensure that Jones kills the mayor.  Jones would do this by expelling some chemical into the air that will make Jones kill the mayor.  So it is the case that regardless of what Jones had decided to do before the assassination Black will have his way. In other words, there are no alternate possibilities, Jones will kill the mayor. Since Jones kills the mayor it seems as though Jones did not have alternate possibilities but Jones was still morally responsible for the assassination. Thus Frankfurt shows that the principle of alternate possibilities is false, and moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Because he shows this, a major objection to compatibilism is deflected. Having defeated a major objection to compatibilism, we can go on to affirm that God does not take risks when it comes to his providential purposes and that humans are free agents.

[1] Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” The Journal of Philosophy 66, no. 23 (December 1969): 829-839.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

2 thoughts on “Creation and Providence (Pt. 3)

  1. Black (The Evil-Villain Version Of God) is still morally responsible for the mayors death even if no one (including Jones) knows about his involvement in releasing the chemical that forced Jones to kill the mayor. I don’t see how lack of witnesses = lack of guilt, so perhaps you can clarify. Furthermore we can assume God (Black) would at least in one scenario not desire the same thing as Jones (Man), so if Jones didn’t desire the mayor to die but Black released a chemical causing Jones to kill the mayor then in violates the first principle you listed about Compatibilism.

    Much Love Waz, Still have to harass you even from Cambodia haha.

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