Thursday, February 08, 2018

Is determinism unlivable?

I think that you’ve successfully identified a problem with determinism in general, Leif, of which Calvinism is but a specific instance, given the Calvinist’s view that God determines everything that happens.

A determinist cannot live consistently as though everything he thinks and does is causally determined—especially his choice to believe that determinism is true! Thinking that you’re determined to believe that everything you believe is determined produces a kind of vertigo. Nobody can live as though all that he thinks and does is determined by causes outside himself. Even determinists recognize that we have to act “as if” we had free will and so weigh our options and decide on what course of action to take, even though at the end of the day we are determined to take the choices we do. Determinism is thus an unliveable view.

This presents a real problem not just for the Calvinist, but for the naturalist. For insofar as naturalism implies that all our thoughts and actions are determined by natural causes outside ourselves, free will is an illusion. But we cannot escape this illusion and so must go on making choices as though we had free will, even though we don’t. Naturalism is thus an unliveable worldview.

i) It's hard to find much of an argument here. Even if libertarian freedom were true, some aspects of human experience are undoubtedly deterministic. For instance, when Craig hit adolescence, he found himself attracted to females. That's naturally caused by hormones. Is it unlivable to be casually determined to find women physically appealing? Empirical evidence would seem to suggest that men have found that pretty easy to live with!

ii) Or consider the role of habit in human behavior. We train our minds to remember certain tasks so that we don't have to consciously think about them. Like learning a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, learning to sightread music, learning to play a sport, learning the route from one place to another, learning to read a text. Much of this operates at a subliminal level. We've programmed our minds to do certain things automatically. 

Now, if we had to stop and think about what we were doing, about how to do it, that might have a paralyzing effect–but of course, that defeats the purpose of forming mental habits! The whole point is to delegate that to the unconscious part of your mind so that you don't have to consciously execute every step in the process. 

Is that kind of mental self-programming unlivable? Hardly. To the contrary, it would be unlivable if we couldn't free up our conscious attention span. It works because we don't have to be aware of it. 

iii) How does Craig's argument actually disprove determinism? If determinism is true, then agents do in fact live consistently with that reality. They have no alternative. If determinism is true, then what they feel about it has no impact on the reality of their determinism. Their actions will be determined whether they know it or not. 

If my beliefs and actions are determined, this doesn't imply that I know what the determinants are. I just make up my mind based on the conscious and subconscious factors that feed into belief-formation and decision-making. 

If I knew ahead of time what I was determined to do, then that would introduce a countersuggestive dynamic. But a determined agent doesn't know in advance what he's been determined to do, so abstract belief in determinism has no particular impact on the outcome. And to the extent that belief in determinism affects the outcome, that in itself is just another determinant in the outcome. 

iv) The fact that we consider alternate courses of action doesn't mean those are all viable options. After all, we can imagine many unrealistic courses of action. And their impossibility may not be apparent, if we don't act on them. In some cases their impossibility becomes apparent when we attempt to act on our choice. It turns out our choice was shortsighted and oversimplified the variables. In reality, there were many impenetrable barriers in the way of realizing our chosen pathway. Surely that's a commonplace of human experience. Has Craig never found his plans frustrated by uncooperative factors beyond his control? 


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Craig's own Molinism mitigate free will to some degree, or at least provide an explanatory mechanism for him to approach compatibilism? That is, although he believes people have libertarian free will, and that God is somehow beholden to that, he also believes that God has the power to determine which possible world to enact, effectively determining which free-will decisions will actually occur.

    1. Craig would say God determined which feasible world he actualized, yet choices within are can be purely contingent, undetermined.

      X being a creaturely choice, we all agree that...

      1. Necessarily, if God foreknows x, then x will happen
      2. God foreknows x
      3. Therefore, x will happen

      However, Molinists and Calvinists also agree that the following argument is fallacious:

      1. Necessarily, if God foreknows x, then x will happen
      2. God foreknows x
      3. Therefore, x will necessarily happen

    2. Thanks for your reply. I'm interested in the distinction. Categorically, I understand the use of the term "necessary" with regard to a conditional syllogism. For example, in "If God foreknows x, then x will happen," "God foreknows" is sufficient but not necessary for knowing that "x will happen," and "x will happen" is necessary but not sufficient for knowing that "God foreknows." Therefore, I suspect that you are using "necessarily" in a different categorical way. Could you clarify for my understanding?

    3. Kinda like passengers on a cruise ship are moving in all different directions inside the ship, yet in another sense they're all headed in the same direction as the ship is headed.