Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What is determinism?

The word “determinism” gets bandied about quite often by Arminian critics of Calvinism. Yet the term is rarely defined. Let’s begin with a working definition:

Traditionally determinism has been given various, usually imprecise definitions. This is only problematic if one is investigating determinism in a specific, well-defined theoretical context; but it is important to avoid certain major errors of definition. In order to get started we can begin with a loose and (nearly) all-encompassing definition as follows:

Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

The italicized phrases are elements that require further explanation and investigation, in order for us to gain a clear understanding of the concept of determinism.

The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that everything can, in principle, be explained, or that everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise. In other words, the roots of determinism lie in what Leibniz named the Principle of Sufficient Reason. But since precise physical theories began to be formulated with apparently deterministic character, the notion has become separable from these roots. Philosophers of science are frequently interested in the determinism or indeterminism of various theories, without necessarily starting from a view about Leibniz' Principle.


What’s instructive about this definition, or something similar, is that if you reject determinism, then that commits you to the belief that reality is ultimately inexplicable and irrational.

Arminians constantly assail determinism. Yet indeterminism is a recipe for irrationality.

1 comment:

  1. It looks to me like this definition is referring to physical determinism, rather than theological determinism, viz: "given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law."

    It seems to me that, in the context of discussion between Calvinists and Arminians, a better definition of theological determinism would be this:

    TD: theological determinism is true if, and only if, for an agent (S) choosing whether to act (A) at time t, the outcome A or ¬A is actualized inevitably because of a prior action on the part of God.

    That's as precise and non-wordy a definition as I can reasonably think up after ten minutes. Anything stronger becomes a caricature of the Reformed position as I understand it. But the obvious problem here is that this definition applies equally to Arminianism. That's what I was trying to get Billy Birch to see in the comment thread of 'How Calvinism (Determinism) Makes God the Author of Sin'. The precise nature of God's "prior action" differs between the two views—on Calvinism, it is God's decree and existential causation which render the outcome inevitable; in Arminianism, it is God's permission and initial instantiation of this-world-and-no-other which render the outcome inevitable. But in either case, the outcome is rendered inevitable by God's prior action.

    Am I misunderstanding determinism? Does it actually require a stronger definition which entails existential causation? It doesn't seem to me that it does. Perhaps one could define some kind of causative determinism—but determination, in and of itself, doesn't entail a specific theory of causation, unless I am much mistaken.