Sean McDowell | May 19, 2018

Determinism's Self-Destruct Button

Along with my regular blog here at seanmcdowell.org, I am now featuring occasional guest posts from some students in the Biola M.A. in Christian Apologetics that I personally had the privilege of teaching. This post is from my friend Tim Stratton, who has an excellent and growing ministry of his own. I simply asked him to write anything on his heart and mind. Check out his ministry and enjoy this post! Sean McDowell

Determinism’s Self-Destruct Button

By Tim Stratton

It has been said that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Consider the following: How much does the color purple weigh? Can God create something that is not contingent upon Him? Is the fourth corner of the triangle an obtuse, acute, or right angle? Where do the vast majority of married bachelors live?

These are examples of incoherent questions, which is proof that stupid questions do exist! Questions like these reveal serious confusion. With that in mind, if one assumes naturalistic determinism (held by the majority of atheists), then, similarly, it makes no sense to ask the following questions:

Are you willing to change your mind?

What would it take for you to change your mind?

If one assumes determinism is true, then they must also assume that these questions are just as incoherent as those found in the opening paragraph. Determinists cannot ask or answer these questions because they do not believe human agents have free will or the ability to change their own minds. This is because they affirm that things external to humans (such as physics and chemistry) causally determines all things — including human thoughts and beliefs.

So, the only related question a determinist can consistently answer is this:

“What would it take for your mind to be changed?”

The naturalistic determinist would have to appeal to physics/chemistry, the initial conditions of the big bang, or perhaps to random events in quantum mechanics. None of these things are up to the determinist, so if their mind is to be changed about anything — including the topic of determinism — then things external to the determinist would have to force and determine them to reject determinism or to change their minds about anything else. If determinism is true, one simply does not possess the ability to freely think, and thus, they are simply held captive and “along for the ride” dictated by the forces of nature.

Those who presuppose determinism have big problems on their hands. Consider the words of Greg Koukl:

“The problem with [determinism] is that without freedom, rationality would have no room to operate. Arguments would not matter, since no one would be able to base beliefs on adequate reasons. One could never judge between a good idea and a bad one. One would only hold beliefs because he had been predetermined to do so. . . . Although it is theoretically possible that determinism is true — there is no internal contradiction, as far as I can tell — no one could ever know it if it were. Every one of our thoughts, dispositions, and opinions would have been decided for us by factors completely out of our control. Therefore, in practice, arguments for determinism are self-defeating.” (Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 128-29).

If determinism is true, then genuine free will does not exist, and if free will does not exist, then free thinking does not exist. Given the determinist’s view, how could anyone ever freely choose to be rational and know they are? If everything is determined by factors external to you — including your thoughts and beliefs and your thoughts and beliefs about your thoughts and beliefs — then your choice to follow the laws of logic and to think rationally would only be an illusion. You have no say in the matter.

If determinism is true, then the determinist who holds to determinism did not come to that conclusion based on their intelligence, and by choosing to examine the evidence to infer the best explanation. They were simply determined by physics and chemistry to be determinists. It has nothing to do with knowledge, logic, or rationality. If determinism is true, then there is no free will either in assessing whether one thought is better than another or not. All that remains is question-begging assumptions and presuppositions. Those are not reasons to think anything; in fact, they are not reasons at all.

If one holds to these question-begging assumptions and presuppositions, they must also assume that it is incoherent to ask them if they are willing to change their minds. With that said, they can coherently consider the much different question, “What would it take for your mind to be changed?”

However, if and how they respond to this question is not even up to them. In my view, this is good reason to freely choose to reject determinism.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.