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Determinism Denies Your Freedom

“Determinism” is not an everyday word, but we feel the effects of this philosophical view every day—usually in the unspoken assumptions of popular scientific journalism and critiques of religion. It is helpful to be aware of what this view involves and why it is untenable.

Determinism in its most general sense could be described as the theory that the history of the world—all events and their order of occurrence—is fixed and unitary. In other words, there is only one possible history of the world down to every last detail. There are several types of determinism: logical determinism, theological determinism, biological determinism, scientific determinism. In this article I will concentrate on this last and most familiar form.

Scientific determinism stems from a belief that modern science, especially physics, has successfully proved that all reality is material and operates according to fixed laws of action and reaction. It is the philosophical position that any event of any sort is fully explainable (and thus, in principle, predictable) by a pre-existing chain of physical events necessitating it.

In a world where science has been elevated to the status of a quasi-religion and its spokesmen to the rank of high priests, we are bound to encounter people who hold this position. It is well to note that the attitude or frame of mind underlying it strikes at the root of religion as such, impeding conversations about anything—God and the human soul, Christ and the Church, sin and grace, even good and evil—that is not strictly empirical or susceptible of laboratory analysis.

Science Explains It All . . .

This view found its rudimentary expressions in the writings of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and their contemporaries, but attained a dogmatic consistency in the blatant materialism of Thomas Hobbes, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Voltaire, and Baron Paul Henri d’Holbach. These writers exaggerated the reach of physical science and claimed that experimental physics was the model for a total explanation of reality. Later on, Charles Darwin’s theory fed into this powerful stream. His godless account of biological diversity showed itself well adapted for integration into a larger philosophy of scientific determinism. The rapid and spectacular advance of technology, born from the marriage of modern physics and capitalism, seemed to verify beyond all doubt the materialistic mentality behind both.

Given that people nowadays have been more or less habituated by textbooks, teachers, and news media to accept scientific determinism as fact, the apologist should start by explaining that the position is essentially a belief or dogma. It cannot be deduced from empirical knowledge, which must always be imperfect (no scientist would dare to claim that he knows or could know all the “laws of nature” and all the data required to predict future events). It cannot be considered self-evident because it contradicts the experience of freedom, which has more weight than any theory. The one who puts forward determinism as a universal explanation lays it down a priori, that is, as an axiom and without sufficient evidence. Empirical science can never go beyond the boundaries of the measurable or observable, and, as a consequence, is simply unqualified to make judgments about the existence or non-existence of anything beyond its limited field.

. . . Or Maybe Not

Let us consider seven instances where scientific determinism founders.

1. It is meaningless to speak of universal “laws of nature” unless they have been instituted by a lawgiver. Matter, as such, is not capable of giving laws of behavior to itself. That means that material things are not the source of these laws; rather, they presuppose laws when they act and react in an intelligible manner.

Moreover, how did material things come to exist, not merely as matter, but as matter functioning within a system that leads to the formation of stable and orderly structures? Do atoms just mysteriously “know” where to go to in order to make up a certain molecule in a certain kind of organism?

The materialist will have sophisticated answers, of course, about how one system gives rise to another and how this environment happens to be suited to that reaction or result. But buried in the fancy language is the same problem: “begging of the question.” They have assumed that which is supposed to be demonstrated.

2. A living animal (or one of its organs) is obviously and radically different from a dead animal (or dead organ) even though the material stuff out of which they are made seems to be the same. Therefore, some principle other than and greater than the material parts must exist to account for the life of a living thing. This principle, according to the Western tradition, is the soul. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas teach that plants, animals, and especially human persons are animated beings (from anima, soul). It is the soul in each organism that contributes its distinctive nature and controls its activities. The presence of a soul in living things testifies against the materialism that usually accompanies scientific determinism.

3. The human intellect has a unique power: It is capable of knowing simultaneously things that are mutually exclusive. For example, hot and cold are properties of a body (physical object) and cannot exist at the same time in the same respect; a body can either be so hot or so cold, but not at once perfectly hot and perfectly cold. The intellect, however, in knowing hot knows also cold, and in fact knows the one in and through the other. Your mind can be all hot and all cold, inasmuch as you are able to g.asp these opposites at the same time. More than that, intellect conceives of hotness and coldness, which are more than mere degrees belonging to some body—they are essences, “whatnesses.” These reflections help show that the intellect is not a body, for something is seen to be true of it that can be true of no body whatsoever.

Now, because the intellect has a power over opposites or contraries that no physical organ has, and because it attains a knowledge of universal things that stand beyond the scope of any sense power, the intellect must be immaterial. Since matter is the very cause of a thing’s being corruptible (i.e., able to break down and fall apart), the intellect in itself is incorruptible—it will never break down and fall apart. Hence the soul of man, insofar as it is intellectual, is immortal. What is more, the soul is not subject to opposition from or coercion by material causes. In other words, no body can make you change your mind, unless your mind changes itself. This is a powerful sign that the intellect (or better, the intellectual soul, which includes free will), has its feet planted in the material world by way of the sense powers, but holds its head aloft in a spiritual world where the stakes are truth and falsehood, good and evil.

4. The determinist claim that free will is an illusion flies in the face of our immediate and unshakable awareness of freedom over moral actions. It undermines praise and blame, reward and punishment, and the practice of justice, which renders to each what he deserves. If man is not the free cause of his actions, how can he be praised for defending his family from crime, or punished for murdering a fellow human being? All social life and jurisprudence is founded on the fact of moral freedom, which we know with a certainty far greater than any scientific hypothesis commands. Some people use the expression “pre-scientific knowledge” to refer to the fundamental experience of the natural world and of ourselves that not only must come before, but must dominate the interpretation of, all subsequent knowledge. Some scientific theories are reminiscent of a man on a ladder sawing off the planks that support him, or a tightrope walker ready to sever the cord that holds him up.

5. Nothing is a cause unless it has power to cause. No physical thing gives itself power to cause, but always receives this power from something else. Moreover, no physical thing is the cause of its own being, but exists only as a result of prior beings. Thus, for each cause, one must seek the source of its causality; for each being, one must seek the source of its existence. If there is not, prior to all physical causes, a non-physical origin of the power of causality, then nothing could ever begin to cause and nothing would in fact occur. Posterior causes depend on prior causes; if there is not, prior to all physical beings, a non-physical origin of their existence, then nothing would exist—all of which is absurd. The existence and causality of material things therefore depends entirely on a perfectly immaterial uncaused cause of both being and motion—namely, God. Far from doing away with God, scientific determinism cannot make any sense at all without implicitly assuming him—or rather, without arbitrarily transferring divine attributes to matter and chance.

6. The exponent of scientific determinism is guilty of a dramatic inconsistency between his thinking and his life. His dogma tells him that he is not free, that he is not responsible for his actions, and similarly that nobody else is free or responsible; yet in his life he behaves as a free person towards other free persons, exacts duties of himself and others, and shows mercy or cries out for justice when wrong has been done. His dogma tells him that his wife and children are basically automatons, yet, if he is a good man, he loves them and could never actually believe that the unique relationship he has with them—the experiences they have shared, the meeting of his future wife, their marrying and rearing children—is no more than a lockstep parade of meaningless atoms.

7. If someone asserts that determinism is true, has he come to understand something true about reality as a whole? If so, how can this truth, which is universal, timeless, and independent of all particular events, be merely an effect of material causes? It already reaches into a domain no longer subject to—indeed totally outside of—the strict chain of physical cause and effect to which the theory appeals. There is no room for truth as such in the world of the determinist; the man who says “determinism is true” refutes himself in the very act of speaking.

Nevertheless, the apologist should bear in mind that determinism, as a quasi-religious dogma, is passionately and stubbornly clung to by its adherents, who have often, so to speak, pre-determined the outcome of the dispute before it even gets under way. An apologist is more likely to be successful with ordinary people who have given credit to determinism only because it is repeated ad nauseam in textbooks and the media. Their half-hearted endorsement of it, or of some.aspects of it, is thus more easily shaken.

Reviewing the weak theories that attempt to rob us of our freedom, we might well desire to cry out again with St. Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1); “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).


Theological Determinism

Another form of determinism is theological determinism, which holds that God, as the supreme sovereign being, is the only agent or cause in the universe, making secondary causes or sources of action other than him impossible.

Theological determinism has taken many and varied shapes over the centuries, most notoriously in the theory of double predestination characteristic of John Calvin and other Reformers, but also in the opinion of the singular causality of God (the divine being is the only real cause of anything) that is defended in some Islamic schools.

The orthodox Christian position, on the other hand, stresses the compatibility of the rational creature’s God-given causality and freedom with the universal causality and providential governance exercised by God as the source and goal of all being. Indeed, Catholic theology has always understood God’s own creative activity to be the wellspring of creaturely being, goodness, and freedom. We are most free when God is most at work within us; we are most un-free when his action has been repudiated or obstructed by our own selfish actions.

It is interesting to note that theological determinism—which flies in the face of our undeniable experience of freedom and evacuates human behavior of meaning—has never survived long in the sphere of Christianity. It tends to be replaced over time either by orthodox belief or by a practical atheism (with its ethical counterpart of nihilism, which in practice equals narcissism). In other words, either one has to mature to the point of seeing that God and man are not competing on the same playing field, or else one will end up rejecting God as a rival who threatens human self-realization.

Further Reading

For the intellectually adventuresome, St. Thomas Aquinas defends the reality of human freedom in four major texts. See especially:

  • Disputed Questions on Evil, qu. 6 (“Whether man has free choice of his acts or chooses of necessity”);
  • Disputed Questions on Truth, qu. 24, art. 1 (“Is man endowed with free choice?”);
  • Summa of Theology, First Part, qu. 83, art. 1 (“Whether man has free will?”); and
  • Summa of Theology, First Part of the Second Part, qu. 13, art. 6 (“Whether man chooses of necessity, or freely?”).

For further reading that is relevant to this topic, though in a more general way, I recommend Peter Kreeft’s C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium: Six Essays on the Abolition of Man and Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism.

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