The Incoherence of Theistic Determinism – Moral Responsibility

by Max Andrews

This post may have several editions with further elaborations.  My goal is to provoke thought and question the feasibility of theistic determinism (that is, God causes all things).  There are hard and soft-determinists, the soft proponents wanting to say there is a compatibility of human freedom and determinism.  I want to generalize hard and soft-determinism as one general referent.  To be upfront, I hold to a soft-libertarian view of human freedom.  We are morally responsible for our actions, we have the cognitive faculty to choose between opposites, we are able to initiate and cease a causal chain of events, all decisions/choices are not all causally determined but internally originated within the agent, and there are certain will-setting moments that restrict our options/choices.  Our freedom is a derived freedom, I believe, an aspect of the Imago Dei.  Our freedom is a gift.

Theistic determinism is possible, I won’t simply dismiss it as impossible.  However, I do believe that it is infeasible.  There is a possible world in which God causes all things and all human actions.  The only relative necessity that follows from that is that there would be no sin if God were to cause all things.  Why?  I’m assuming that God cannot cause/be responsible for evil and that if one is causally related (initial cause or direct cause), then that person is responsible.  The initial cause would follow from a personal agency (God) and a causal relationship following that cause (in a mechanistic manner, remember, no freedom if God causes all things).  Just as an agent wields a cue stick hitting the cue ball, which hits the eight ball, which drops into the corner pocket, what is responsible for the eight ball sinking the corner pocket? The cue ball hitting it. What is responsible for the cue ball hitting the eight ball? The cue stick wielding agent. Who is responsible for that sole agent? The agent. In the illustration the effect we will discuss as the referent is the eight ball sinking the corner pocket.  The direct cause of the eight ball sinking the corner pocket is the cue ball striking it.  The initial cause that set in to motion the causal chain of events, is the agent.  To drop the illustration, whether or not God sets in motion a chain of events or is the direct cause for an action (an intervening cause or a puppeteer), God is responsible for the chain of events.  This seems to be the biblical witness, that we are responsible for what we do.  The person who [intentionally] left the key under the doormat to allow the murderer in at night is an accomplice and is guilty of some type of crime/sin, to what degree is irrelevant (is it okay for God to cause evil just a little?).  The accomplice to the murder enabled the evil event to take place (there’s a difference between enabling and permitting, to be discussed later).  The only way for God to be absolved from being causally responsible for sin is to introduce another agent into the equation.  This agent must meet the requirements of soft-libertarianism because that is the only way to remove the causal connection from God.

The difference between enabling and permitting is an issue of responsibility.  Enabling is contributing to the causal chain of events in some form that brings about the intended end goal/event.  Permitting is God allowing something to occur/exist other than himself while entailing a negation enabling an evil event.  Permission of evil is only possible if there are other [libertarian] free agents involved.  Permission does not necessarily entail moral culpability.  Permission would entail moral culpability if there were not a morally sufficient reason for allow the evil event to occur.  However, enablement cannot be relieved of moral culpability because causing evil for morally sufficient reason is nothing short of a contradiction for a God who determines all things.  It’s not like God got caught off guard in a moral dilemma and had to choose between “the better of two evils.”  He can void the world of evil by creating a world without evil.  That is the only coherent world where God determines/causes all things.  We don’t live in this world.  We live in a world where we are causes of our own evils.  To say that we are responsible for our sin, yet God determines all things and we have no libertarian freedom is nothing short of an implicit contradiction.  If I want to affirm that proposition, then I can blame my pencil on misspelled words and not be wrong for doing so.

Why make an argument for determinism to make someone choose to believe it?

20 Responses to “The Incoherence of Theistic Determinism – Moral Responsibility”

  1. Good stuff! To further clarify your illustration, you might consider pointing out that the cue stick and cue ball are not personal agents, which is what differentiates them from the initial cause. It is this change from a “what” to a “who” in your line of questions that indicates where moral responsibility lies. One can make the inference from the surrounding text, but I think it’s worth emphasizing.

  2. Dude, I agree with you that (libertarianly) free will is a necessary condition for moral culpability. But, the action theory literature is chock-full of good arguments for a division between ‘autonomy’ (free agency) and ‘self-control’(responsibility), two notions you’re conflating here by so quickly dismissing soft-determinism. ‘Determines’ and ’causes’ needn’t be (or, so the soft-determinist says) the same thing. In fact, the soft-determinist would cry “foul!” at that suggestion, and she’d have good reasons for it.

    Maybe you already know all this; but, this seems to be an all-too-easy dismissal of a difficult and important topic.

    • Hey Roger, what I meant by grouping hard/soft determinism together was to merely use them as the same referent. I can recognize that they are distinct, and they are, and I do think they both fail, but when I refer to “determinism” I was referring to the both of them. That’s all I meant by that. I don’t think any foul has been committed (unless the soft-determinist doesn’t want to be called a determinist). I think using the two as a common referent didn’t misrepresent either thought, rather it was general. In the illustration, there could be an autonomy of an agent within the cue balls (making the illustration more detailed). I don’t think I made any strawmen or misrepresentation, rather I left out details and gave a general objection due to causal responsibility. I plan on explicating my objections to determinism throughout my next few posts so I’ll be sure to do this one next (just in case I do miss an actual foul I can clarify myself).

  3. You’ve shown that such a generalized determinism (as useful as such a characterization can be) is incompatible externally with your concept of moral responsibility. You have not shown any internal incoherence within the deterministic concept of anthropology or moral responsibility. Would a poster child for determinism agree that God can only permit evil? Would he also agree that soft libertarian freedom is a necessary ingredient of existence in Imago Dei? I think not.

    As to why a sovereign (determinist) God would desire a world with evil, we need not punt to incoherence. Scripture gives us the reason, should be able to bear it:

    What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.

    • Hey Caleb, thanks for your comment and reading the blog! As far as the internal coherence within one’s school of thought, I would need you to explicate what you deem appropriate for an agent to be responsible for X. As I’ve argued, responsibility is initial/direct causes or enabling. To avoid a strawman, I’ll leave it there to allow you to clarify. As far as generalize, I have generalized as a referent (when I refer to “determinism” I refer to both hard/soft). What I’ve presented I don’t think the schools would disagree with on the grand scale.

      Would he also agree that soft libertarian freedom is a necessary ingredient of existence in Imago Dei? I think not.

      I agree with you here. I think you either misread or misunderstood my point there. I was rather explicit, it my point of understanding, it’s not even an argument I make. I concede that it’s not a necessary gift (which is implicitly contradictory itself!); rather, there is a possible world in which man possesses the Imago Dei and determinism (hard or soft) is true. I contend with that because in light of the evident evil in the world God cannot be responsible for such evil without intervening agents (hence the continuation of my case on causal relationships). I would invite you to simply reread my point, because I agree with you.

      As far as your Romans 9 reference, I think that is a few logical moments down the road. I think it’s certainly an issue of election/reprobation, which is post an establishment of human freedom. So you would be presupposing human freedom in your interpretation, yet you cite it to show that there is freedom. I’m presupposing freedom in my interpretation, because I dealt with that prior to addressing that interpretation. I certainly think there’s a historical aspect to Romans 9, but I believe it’s more particular than historical. I think it’s an awesome testimony for why the reprobate exists (in light of his free rejection of God). That’s a theodicy blog post in itself!

      I’ll be posting more in my series on this, please continue to dialogue with my my determinist friend :-)

      • Well Max, I suppose my main criticism is that this blog isn’t a demonstration of incoherence. You must yourself demonstrate from outside sources where a determinist holds incoherent propositions. Again, what you have here is a “why I am not a determinist” essay, not an analysis of the incoherence in the work and thought of others.

        It is also interesting that the place in Scripture which seems to most clearly and directly speak to this issue is for you “down the road” a bit. This is probably just the fruit of analytic method. But, when you beg the question “Can the determinist God create such a world as the one in which we live?”, the biblical answer to that seems immediately salient to me.

        • Caleb, I believe I’ve already demonstrated the internal incoherence (see my comment on Schopenhauer’s taxi in another comment reply). I’m assuming that there is a casual connection [and/or enabling] to responsibility. I’ll need you to propose a model for how one is responsible for an event that doesn’t involve causal relationships that I’ve described. If I’m wrong in assuming that that’s how you would prescribe responsibility to someone then I’ll need you to explicate that and then I can reevaluate the position (forgive me if a threw a scarecrow at you lol, I’ll do what I can to sincerely evaluate the best position). From what I’ve read in the determinist literature, most leave it at a simple paradox (though I believe it’s more than that, it’s an implicit contradiction). Thanks for the interaction :-)

  4. Hey Max,

    I have a few questions that have more to do with epistemology, than the details of your argument, so just bear with me. :)

    You say,
    “I’m assuming that God cannot cause/be responsible for evil…”

    Well, your obvious assumption underpinning this assumption is that God is incapable of embodying/obtaining personal responsibility for any evil. That God (the Christian God I presume), is wholly good and disinterested in all evil.
    My question is this: What empirical (or even existential) data exists in nature (or our personal experience of it) to prove your assumption (please don’t answer “easy, the bible!”)? In other words, how do we know God, in her fullness and absolute moral entirety, could not embody some kind of evil? Could it simply be that the notion of an “evil” God makes us uncomfortable with the theodicy needed to maintain certain metaphysical positions, therefore we perpetually attempt to maintain the idea that God is only good and wholly other than evil? If God is at least somewhat evil (and obviously this discussion can only take place if both of us adhere to notion of universals), what does that do to our understanding of Christianity and it’s subsequent effects on society? I’ve struggled with questions like these for a few years now and just thought throwing them up here might produce some good discussion and potential insight for us all. I look forward to your response.

    • Hey Vince, thanks for your sincere and serious inquiry. I think there are three good reasons to believe that God cannot be responsible for evil. To explicate my presuppositions. I believe that if one is responsible for an action, it is due to the causal relationships as I discussed in the post. With that said, the first reason I believe God must be good and cannot be responsible for evil is experiential. We come to know objective morals and ethics by experience. But where does it come from? Where can the objective deontic ethics and values be grounded? It cannot be accounted for by abstract objects, they bear no causal relations giving me a duty to do anything good, and it cannot be grounded by natural origins. There is a possible world in which humans evolve in a different way, thus creating a different socio-biological construct, thus negating the necessity of objective values. Our experience and objective morals and values must be grounded in a holy and good personal being (Bing Aquinas: This we all know to be God).

      My second reason is complementary to the experiential, and that’s the nature of this good personal being the moral argument gives. The ontology of this being must be maximally perfect. If responsibility for evil is itself evil, then this being cannot exist if this being is responsible for evil. It’s ontologically inconsistent and incoherent to have a semi-perfect being. All things being equal, good is greater than evil, good is to be considered the more perfect.

      My third reason to believe that God cannot determine or be causally responsible [determining] sin is by revelation. Philosophy aside, our Scriptural evidence suggest that God is holy and good (theme of Leviticus) and you’ll find that God cannot cause sin (Implication by Jas. 1.13).

      I think the determinist must deny the causal responsibility for sin and develop another model for how an agent is responsible for any event. I think the Bible bears witness that when we sin, it’s because we did it (or that we are causally related to the evil event). If we are judged by this standard of responsibility, how can God be in Schopenhauer’s taxi? I hope I answered your question.

  5. Hi Max-this is another very interesting blog post. Thanks!

    I just wanted to make a brief comment on causality and moral responsibility. You wrote:

    “there would be no sin if God were to cause all things. Why? I’m assuming that … if one is causally related [to evil] (initial cause or direct cause), then that person is responsible.”

    What I’m wondering is, why do you think that God would be morally responsible for something if He was the initial or direct cause of it? I just don’t think this is an assumption which the bible makes. There are lots of places in Scripture which portray God as the primary/initial cause of something, but in which man is still held responsible for that thing. Take Job for example. In the narrative, satan, thieves and robbers are the direct causes of evil. But at the end of the book, it says that *God* was ultimately the one who brought all this evil upon him:

    Job. 42: 11; “they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that THE LORD had brought upon him”

    This shows that God can be the ultimate cause of something, yet also *not* morally responsible. Because of this, and many other verses like it, I don’t think it’s biblical to think that if God is causally involved in evil events, He is morally responsible for them. What d’you think?

  6. Hi Maxeo,

    Here is how I resolve the problem.

    My definition of a free agent:
    A free agent is a free agent if it can make decisions that are based on reasons and knowledge but not otherwise forced by circumstances external to what essentially makes up the free agent (e.g. functioning cognitive faculties are part of the free agent, but the influence of alchohol, biochemical depression or other malfunctions are not).
    Plus my definition of morally responsible:
    A free agent as defined above, is morally responsible for the decisions it makes.

    This definition would not exclude a reasoning computer, if such a thing truly existed. That sounds like a cheat, but this is how I construct my philosophy of these things. The reason I dont believe in libertarian free will, is not theological / calvinist notions (although I do believe the Bible tends in that direction), but by thinking about what libertarian free will really means; I have come to the conclusion that it is incoherent itself. To the extent that a decision is based on reasons and beliefs, it is in a very real sense predetermined / deterministic / predictable, and to the extent that a decision is not based on reasons and beliefs, it is phenomenologically identical to a random event. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, free will = randomness??!! Ooops: in my view something is wrong with this conception of free will, so I dont roll with it, and prefer my definition above.

    I think that libertarian free will sneaks some ‘common sense’ but incorrect elements into its conceptions of free will and moral responsibility, and it leads it to the above impasse. Specifically, I think that possibility of tracing causation beyond the moral agent, is irrelevant to the question of whether it is itself able to make decisions freely, or is morally responsible. We all make decisions based on information provided by others. Does that make that person morally responsible for decisions I make on the basis of that information? I think, no. He is responsible for his own actions (which could included lying), but not for mine, even if he technically caused them.


  7. Loved it! I totally agree with everything you discussed!

  8. Hi Max,

    I just discovered your blog, thanks to Jonathan M. Thanks Jonathan!

    Your whole discussion sounds like echoes of discussions I have been having with friends on compatibilism. I used to hold to compatibilism several years ago, but as I worked through the problem of evil as a student at Biola, I reached the painful conclusion that such a god is at least complicit in human evil, and thus not a viable candidate for the God of Jesus. That is a proposition I cannot endorse on pain of impiety.

    The difference between hard and soft determinism, as I see it, is whether or not God is sharing responsibility for the crimes of man. In the former case, man is not guilty. In the latter, there is synergy in crime. Some form of libertarian scheme is necessary to preserve God’s innocence.

    I am now working on a form of limited libertarian freedom as well.

    As for your question, <>

    I suppose the determinist of either ilk would say that there is no purpose, besides God’s (and perhaps his accomplice). The event creates the occasion to incorporate an idea into our system of belief, by necessity, and without our permission.

  9. Max, do you think it is a valid distinction to differentiation between natural movement and the moral component of the movement? I.e., in some sense God may effect the natural movement by providentially sustaining it, and yet only permit the moral evil as a quality of the movement. Is this coherent?

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