William Lane Craig on Universal, Divine, Causal Determinism

Five Difficulties With the Reformed View of Universal Determinism

“1. Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture. The classical Reformed divines recognized this. They acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom. Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re-interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency.

2. Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed. There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe and the other not to believe. When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true; but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.

3. Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility. In contrast to the Molinist view, on the deterministic view even the movement of the human will is caused by God. God moves people to choose evil, and they cannot do otherwise. God determines their choices and makes them do wrong. If it is evil to make another person do wrong, then on this view God is not only the cause of sin and evil, but becomes evil Himself, which is absurd. By the same token, all human responsibility for sin has been removed. For our choices are not really up to us: God causes us to make them. We cannot be responsible for our actions, for nothing we think or do is up to us.

4. Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency. Since our choices are not up to us but are caused by God, human beings cannot be said to be real agents. They are mere instruments by means of which God acts to produce some effect, much like a man using a stick to move a stone. Of course, secondary causes retain all their properties and powers as intermediate causes, as the Reformed divines remind us, just as a stick retains its properties and powers which make it suitable for the purposes of the one who uses it. Reformed thinkers need not be occasionalists like Nicholas Malebranche, who held that God is the only cause there is. But these intermediate causes are not agents themselves but mere instrumental causes, for they have no power to initiate action. Hence, it’s dubious that on divine determinism there really is more than one agent in the world, namely, God. This conclusion not only flies in the face of our knowledge of ourselves as agents but makes it inexplicable why God then treats us as agents, holding us responsible for what He caused us and used us to do.

5. Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce. On the deterministic view, the whole world becomes a vain and empty spectacle. There are no free agents in rebellion against God, whom God seeks to win through His love, and no one who freely responds to that love and freely gives his love and praise to God in return. The whole spectacle is a charade whose only real actor is God Himself. Far from glorifying God, the deterministic view, I’m convinced, denigrates God for engaging in a such a farcical charade. It is deeply insulting to God to think that He would create beings which are in every respect causally determined by Him and then treat them as though they were free agents, punishing them for the wrong actions He made them do or loving them as though they were freely responding agents. God would be like a child who sets up his toy soldiers and moves them about his play world, pretending that they are real persons whose every motion is not in fact of his own doing and pretending that they merit praise or blame. I’m certain that Reformed determinists, in contrast to classical Reformed divines, will bristle at such a comparison. But why it’s inapt for the doctrine of universal, divine, causal determinism is a mystery to me.”

Craig, W. L., <http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-vs-calvinism>

6 thoughts on “William Lane Craig on Universal, Divine, Causal Determinism

  1. Elton Hollon September 22, 2014 / 8:09 am

    I used to be a libertarian about freewill, and I conducted research in the philosophy of action for a couple years at UCR in the shadow of Nelson, Watson, and Fischer. My understanding of freewill and theological determinism has changed dramatically due to work on freewill outside of theological discussion. Having said this, I hope the interested reader finds some helpful comments in this brief post. In response to the arguments listed by Craig, we need to keep in mind other factors. When we do this, I think a different appreciation emerges. For example:

    1 states that universal, divine, causal determinism (UDCD) does not offer a coherent interpretation of scripture. It is true that free action is implied in various biblical passages, as is listed by Craig. However, this recognition in and of itself does not default into indeterminism, because compatibilists affirm the reality of free action too. Thus, the compatibilist acknowledges the aforementioned textual strands. Notice, furthermore, that theological determinism is also present in some apocalyptic texts like Daniel. During times of oppression, exploitation, etc. this emphasis is made in order to reinforce the belief that God is in control of history and is meant to strengthen the faith of God’s people. Thus, it should be noted that universal, divine, causal indeterminism is unable to provide a coherent interpretation of scripture, because some of the texts affirm determinism. The Bible seems, then, to affirm both free action and theological determinism, and this in consistent with compatibilism but not libertarianism about free action.

    2 states that UDCD cannot be rationally affirmed, because your decision to accept or reject the theory is already fixed by causal laws and the past. Unfortunately, this argument is too strong, because even most indeterminists think that laws of nature have a probabilistic influence on our actions. Thus, even indeterminists cannot avoid the conclusion that causal laws and the past causally contribute to our actions. To say otherwise is to over-empower the agent, as Frankfurt notes, rendering our free actions miraculous. Surely this would be an incredible conclusion. As Nagel states, our free actions do not come out of nowhere. The sheer fact that causal laws influence our behavior, deterministically or indeterministically, does not support the claim that an affirmation of either position is irrational.

    3 states that UDCD makes God the author of sin and precludes responsibility, but this is not a foregone conclusion, because whether we find ourselves in a deterministic or indeterministic world we are related to the causal laws and the past. In neither case do we hold the causal laws and the past accountable for our immoral conduct even though they have a causal influence. In the same way, we should not hold God accountable for our misconduct simply because God may be related causally to our actions. Neither does our relation to the causal laws and the past, whether construed deterministically or indeterministically, eliminate our being responsible for our actions.

    4 states that UDCD eliminated human agency, but it should be evident by now that this is not a foregone conclusion for the same reasons that I’ve listed in my response to 3. In either a deterministic or indeterministic world we still stand in a causal relation to the laws and past, so that whether the laws and past fix an outcome with a higher degree of probability, say 100% probability in contrast to 80% probability, seems irrelevant to agency.

    5 states that UDCD turns reality into a farce, but this argument depends on one or more of the aforementioned arguments, and so amounts to no more than a personal misgiving or recitation of what has already been offered.

    Having said these things, it may still be true that we find ourselves in an indeterministic world. Thus, the compatibilist is able to be more objective, because they can affirm the conceptual compatibility of free action with (theological) determinism without being committed to the truth of determinism. The libertarian makes a stronger conceptual claim that free action and (theological) determinism are conceptually incompatible.

    I hope these remarks stimulate thought on a very interesting subject.

    • Arminian September 23, 2014 / 8:50 am

      Hi Elton,

      Thanks for taking the time to write in. I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, but I’ll certainly read over your observations and see if I need to start rethinking any of my own views.

      Thanks again and best regards,


  2. Mackman September 26, 2014 / 7:58 am

    The view that “Free action is miraculous” doesn’t strike me as the “incredible conclusion” you take it for. It MUST be miraculous…see Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross.”

    “”I was told that there was a difference between the grass and a man’s will; and the difference was that a man’s will was special and divine. A man’s free will, I heard, was supernatural.”

    “Rubbish!” said Turnbull.

    “Oh,” said MacIan patiently, “then if a man’s free will isn’t supernatural, why do your materialists deny that it exists?”

    In a materialist universe, without divine intervention, reality – and therefore the actions and will of man – is utterly deterministic. A certain result MUST follow a certain cause. Therefore, if free will exists, it MUST be miraculous: There is no other explanation for it at all, and this presents me with no difficulty.

    • ehollon2014 September 27, 2014 / 5:13 am

      Hello Mackman,

      Thanks for the Chesterton quote and for sharing your thoughts on the post. Chesterton’s argument seems to be to be something like:

      1) If freewill exists, it must be miraculous.
      2) Freewill exists.
      3) Therefore, it must be miraculous.

      Of course, the quote doesn’t mention any reason in support of 1, and this is the key premise. The argument is that freewill is conceptually incompatible with determinism (which Chesterton conflates with naturalism), and, since we know we’re free from our own experience, we know that we are working miracles or something like this. Even if I grant the relevant agent causalist conditions of freewill though

      S’s action a is free iff i. S has alternative possibilities
      ii. S is the source,
      iii. etc.

      there’s still no good reason to think 1 is true. There are possible worlds in which agent S performs some action a freely, yet the laws and past also codetermine a. Imagine a world in which God has established a kind of Leibnizian pre-established harmony permitting of downward causation. Thus, even the libertarian agent causalist account of freewill does not support 1 on the basis of conceptual grounds alone. So there’s no good reason to believe 1, and there’s good reason to reject it.

      It seems to me that empowering the agent in this way is positively incredible and faces a number of problems. First, it assigns to us prerogatives and powers most Christians reserve for God. Second, if my actions are miracles, why then can I not work different types of miracles? Why is my miraculous power constrained in such a way that I cannot raise the dead? The only thing I can think of is, natural laws! So it looks like I have miraculous power to break some laws but not others, and this is arbitrary. If I truly had miraculous power, it wouldn’t matter which laws I break. Third, we should be able to detect increases in energy in the brain when we act freely, because actions are not accounted for by natural laws and the past so the energy must come from somewhere. However, neuroscientists are not detecting any such thing, to my knowledge anyways. This is the thermodynamic problem. Fourth, it’s also simpler to believe that our free actions do not require miraculous intervention into the natural world, since our actions are explicable in terms of prior laws and the past. This isn’t really that striking. Even many libertarians reject the claim that our free actions are miraculous. This view is a distinctive consequence of a particular sub-species of agent causalism, and most libertarians are event causalists or different types of agent causalists who appeal to quantum indeterminacy. Thus, libertarianism does not commit us to miraculous action.

      You can say that our actions are miracles, but this is different from showing that they are. Personally, I think that some of our mental states causally interact with physical states of the brain, but I think both brain states and mental states over-determine actions so that there need be no violation of natural law (Eugene Mills). It could also be that some of our mental states are epiphenomenal, do not causally contribute to actions (David Chalmers). However we accommodate the existence of phenomenal mental states and natural laws, it doesn’t appear to be a promising direction to liken our actions to miracles. This looks to me like what you might call a bullet-biting strategy. You need to answer the question: Why think our free actions are miracles?

  3. Mackman September 30, 2014 / 1:27 am

    Sigh. I didn’t say that this proved free will. I said, “If free will exists, it MUST be miraculous.” Obviously this is no argument for or against the existence of free will: It is merely an argument against your continued assertion that speaking of free will as miraculous is untenable. Although perhaps “supernatural” would be a better word.

    As for your counter-argument, “Well, if that’s miraculous, why can’t I do OTHER miracles”…if I had listed all possible arguments that I thought might arise against my post, this wouldn’t even have made the list, it’s so absurd. Are you being serious right now?

    “If God empowers me to make meaningful choices, why can’t I raise the dead too?” That’s an incredible non-sequitor, and I hope you see that. Miracles have NEVER been understood to be an “all-or-nothing” thing like you’re pretending them to be.

    And yes, I came across the “quantum indeterminacy” argument in Platinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies.” Although in that work, I believe that Platinga actually names the ability for humans to collapse those indeterminacies as a gift from God: A result of the imago dei, I think. Still supernatural/miraculous.

    I doubt I’ll post again. Your “Why can’t I raise the dead” argument (and I use the term incredibly loosely) makes me think that any further dialogue will be pointless.

    • ehollon2014 October 1, 2014 / 4:06 am

      Hey Mackan,

      Thanks again for the post. I’m glad we agree that your quote from Chesterton doesn’t prove that freewill exists., but it also doesn’t prove that it would have to be a miracle. If freewill were defined in terms of agent causes bringing about some event for which there are no antecedent physical causes, then it would be miraculous. We can agree on this, but you need to give arguments for the conclusion that this is the right construal of freewill. The arguments I’ve listed in the previous post show that this definition runs into some serious problems. While Plantinga may explain things in terms of God’s allowing the agent to collapse indeterminacies, other event-event causalists certainly do not think of their view involves the miraculous. Whether they are right about this, however, they still face some of the problems I’ve alluded to that alternative possibilities and source conditions are not necessary for free action viz-a-viz Frankfurt counter-factual intervener cases and the causal histories of all events.

      As for my question why can I have a steady flow of miraculous power to work free action but not work other miracles, I’m surprised you have reacted the way you have. It is simply not absurd to raise the point. The biblical record is that Jesus and others worked miracles with the power of God. Presumably God is the source of the power and works many different kinds of miracles. If each of our free actions were miraculous though, it is a serious question to ask why and how the laws constrain our ability to only regularly work those types of miracles and not others, because the power comes from us and not God in this case. The question doesn’t seem to me to be absurd, and yes I’m perfectly serious. It is an honest question that raises a problem with the view that free actions are miracles but it seems arbitrary to say that we can only work one type of miracle and not others. The laws do not constrain God in this way, why do they do so to us? In any event, I’ve not construed the question as an argument but only mean to raise discussion, so I haven’t actually drawn a non sequitur from any formal argument.

      Why think free actions are miracles?

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