The Problem with Deterministic Arguments

, posted by SEA

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a brother named Stephen over at SBC Tomorrow, in which we discussed philosophical determinism and the role it plays in discussions of divine election. I had been discussing an argument that C.S. Lewis had made against materialistic determinism in his book, Miracles, and applied Lewis’s reasoning to theistic determinism, which in some sense is what Calvinism, especially in its more extreme versions, is. Lewis essentially applies naturalistic logic to the thought process of making a logical argument itself: if the person making such an argument is merely determined to think that sequence of thoughts, then there is no reason to believe that that sequence of thoughts is true. This would apply to any logical argument, including the one for naturalism; thus, naturalistic determinism collapses on itself as a philosophical theory–naturalism, if true, could not account for the arising of naturalism as a philosophical theory. I merely applied the same logic to determinism of any stripe, including theistic determinism (the idea that God not only knows but actually determines everything that happens).

Stephen’s point in rebuttal was that everything is either caused or random. If it is caused, then it is determined; if it is random, then we can’t have any confidence in it. Applied to human rationality, then, one can say that our thoughts are either determined or they are random, and if they are random, we cannot place any confidence in their validity. He argued that only a divinely-ordained determinism could get one out of this logical quandary: if God, in fact, is directing our thoughts, then we may have confidence that our thought process–our perception of a logical sequence of understanding–is valid, because it’s being directed by Him.

There are two problems with Stephen’s position. One of them I pointed out to him in the debate: if this logic–that everything is either determined or random–is universally applicable, which Stephen was arguing that it was, then it applies not only to our thoughts but also to God’s thoughts. But God’s thoughts cannot be imagined to be either determined or random. If God’s thoughts are determined, then what determines them? God is no longer God. But if God’s thoughts are random, then God is arbitrary and we cannot rely upon His character. But no Christian believes either of these things. God chooses freely to do what He wills, and He wills not arbitrarily, but consistently with His character.

The other problem with Stephen’s position is that if human thought is either determined or random, then that also applies to the thoughts that are articulated in a philosophy of determinism. Stephen argued that this is true, but if we trust to a divinely-ordained determinism, we can trust that God is directing our thoughts truly.

Unfortunately, this really doesn’t help. A divinely-directed determinism not only means that the person who is arguing for divinely-directed determinism is divinely directed; it also means that the person who is arguing against divinely-directed determinism is also divinely directed. One cannot say, “God is directing my thoughts, therefore I can trust the value of my reasoning,” because one would also have to say, “God is directing everyone else’s thoughts, therefore I can trust the value of everyone else’s reasoning,” which is of course absurd. On this view, you would never know whether the train of thought that seemed reasonable to you (because God made it seem reasonable to you) was reasonable because it actually was true, or because God had divinely decreed that you would believe some nonsense for some inscrutable purpose of His own. I don’t mean that sarcastically at all. All Calvinists believe that the vast majority of humanity believe a lie, ostensibly because in their fallen, sinful humanity they have rejected the truth, but more fundamentally, because God has chosen to withhold from them the ability to believe the truth, for purposes known only to His “hidden will.” So how is one to know whether God has predestined oneself to believe the truth, or to believe a lie?

I can respect, although I disagree with, a type of Calvinism that argues exegetically that, whatever God does or does not determine, He has chosen a limited number of persons on which to bestow salvation. That type of Calvinist and I would only differ regarding Biblical interpretation. But the type that argues that God has ordained every event (including every thought) that occurs, and that therefore individual predestination to salvation is necessarily true, because God’s sovereignty somehow necessarily implies a divine determination of every event–that I cannot believe.

I can’t help it: I was predestined to be an Arminian.

Keith Schooley (comments may be made at the original post at Schooley’s website [editor’s note from 12/8/19: though it no longer seems to be available there])