Can We Sensibly Believe in Determinism and Deliberate?

By Allen Crostic


July 15, 2017

As I reflect on the last twenty years of my life, I’m struck by how much my theological outlook has changed. This is especially the case regarding my view of Divine providence. For sixteen years, I was a theological determinist; that is to say, I believed that God causally determined everything that came to pass, including every creaturely choice and action. Moreover, given the chain of sufficient causation from God’s decree, nothing – not even any creaturely choice or action – could have been otherwise.[1] In other words, on this deterministic view, even though it may appear that there is more than one possible future at any given moment, really, in light of God’s strong actualization of His decree, there are no alternate possibilities.[2]

I was also a compatibilist; meaning that I held that free will and such a deterministic outlook were compatible.[3] This view was reinforced when I attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, twelve years ago. There, my systematic theology professor taught us that the notion of man possessing libertarian free will was not only false, but incoherent.[4] Today, as someone who now affirms human libertarian freedom, there is much that I find problematic about the deterministic view. In this article, however, I want to discuss just one of the reasons I first started to doubt my previous way of thinking on this matter.

Inconsistencies on the Horizon

My confidence in theological determinism was first shaken in 2005 as I was working on my thesis for my philosophy degree. In my paper, I largely interacted with Peter Van Inwagen’s consequence argument, which seeks to show that free will and determinism are incompatible. Admittedly, Van Inwagen was solely concerned with nomological determinism, which is the thesis that every event, including every human choice and action, is the inevitable and necessary result of the laws of nature and antecedent states of affairs. Notice, however, that both nomological and theological determinism have the same ramification: whether it is due to past events and the laws of nature, or to God’s strong actualization of His decree, both views entail there is only one unique possible future at any given moment. Little did I know that one of Van Inwagen’s insights regarding this entailment would leave a significant rock in my shoe — one which would continually poke at me for years to come. Namely, he invited me to reflect on the existential implications of determinism (whether it’s of the theological or nomological stripe). That being said, I will now ask you, the reader, to do the same.

Consider this: Even if determinism were true, what would it be like to believe – to truly believe – that it was true? In other words, even if it were the case that there was only one possible future at any given moment, what would it be like to consistently believe this? Notice that my question is an epistemological one. In other words, it is not dealing with the truth or falsity of determinism, but with one’s belief in determinism. For I contend that even if determinism is true, the conjunction of (1) believing that determinism is true and (2) deciding about anything at all is impossible. Put another way, I contend that belief in libertarian free will – that there is more than just one possible continuation of the present – is necessary for acts of deliberation.[5]

Van Inwagen proposes the following thought experiment to illustrate this point. Imagine you are in a single room with a single door. As you are thinking about whether to leave, you suddenly hear a click that may or may not have been the sound of the door being locked. You are now uncertain about whether the door is locked, and therefore uncertain about whether it is possible for you to leave the room. Van Inwagen then raises the question, “Can you continue to try to decide whether to leave the room? It would seem not.”[6] You cannot decide to leave because you no longer believe it is possible (regardless of whether it really is possible). Of course, you can decide to get up to check the door (since you believe that this is possible for you), and then decide whether to leave on the “condition” that the door is unlocked. “But that is not the same thing as trying to decide whether to leave the room.”[7] Van Inwagen concludes:

This thought-experiment convinces me that I cannot try to decide whether to do A or B unless I believe that doing A and doing B are both possible for me. And, therefore, I am convinced that I could not try to decide what to do unless I believed that more than one course of action was sometimes open to me. And if I never tried to decide what to do, if I never deliberated, I should not be a very effective human being.[8]

Pause and let this sink in for a moment. This means that I cannot refrain from believing that alternative possibilities are available to me if I am to deliberate about anything at all. In other words, even if determinism is true, I have to believe it’s not true in order to decide between two or more courses of action. Once I come to see this, I can no longer rationally affirm determinism.

Possible Responses

What might a determinist say in response to the above thought experiment? At the time, when I was a determinist, my initial response was to argue that acts of deliberation only require that it seems to the agent that there are alternative possible courses of action. My metaphysics professor did not go easy on me here. He asked me what the force of “seems” was in my proposal. After all, he pointed out, some seemings are so strong that they guarantee belief. For example, it is plausible to think that if it seems to me that I’m in pain, then I’m guaranteed to believe that I’m in pain. If the seeming in this proposal is this strong, then when it seems to me that there are alternative possible courses of action, I will be guaranteed to believe that there are such courses of action. But if this is the case, deliberation will require believing that there are alternative possible courses of action, which is just what Van Inwagen claims.

On the other hand, some seemings are not so strong. For example, it may seem to me that a stick is bent when placed in water, but I don’t believe it, since I believe that this seeming is an illusion induced by light refraction. Notice, however, that for these seemings not to guarantee belief, I must believe that they are mere seemings – mere appearances or illusions. Perhaps this is the force of “seems” that the determinist has in mind. But it does not strike me as plausible to think that deliberation only requires this kind of seemingness. For now, the seeming to me that there are alternative courses of action is analogous to the seeming to me that the stick is bent. In other words, I believe that it is a mere appearance that there are alternative courses of action open to me; that is to say, I believe that, although it appears that there are alternative courses of action open to me, really there are not. But if I positively believe that there is but one possible course of action open to me, I do not see how I can genuinely deliberate about what to do.

At this point, the determinist may protest and make a second suggestion, namely that deliberation only requires that one be ignorant about which apparent alternative possible course of action is the genuine unique possible one. This, however, seems too weak a requirement for deliberation. Perhaps deliberation does, indeed, require ignorance. But it seems to me that if the ignorance is coupled with positive belief that there is but one unique possible course of action, then I simply cannot genuinely deliberate about what to do. What would that be like? Suppose I deliberate about whether to keep typing or go to bed. Moreover, suppose I’m ignorant about what course of action I will take. So far so good. But suppose I also believe that only one of those courses of action is possible – that only one of them is open to me right now. How is my ignorance about which course of action will occur relevant to whether I am genuinely deliberating? It seems to me that if I really believe that only one course of action was open to me, then it would make no sense to deliberate.

Consider the following analogy: I cannot deliberate about whether to travel back in time or run faster than the speed of light. Why? It’s because those courses of action are physically impossible. Perhaps you’ll say, “Well, that’s because you believe that those actions are impossible for you.” Exactly! This is why it seems that believing in alternative possible courses of action is a requirement for deliberation.

The Implications of this Argument for Theological Determinists

In my opinion, this insight about deliberation is one of the strongest philosophical arguments for the irrationality of determinism. Again, this means that if determinism is true, I must believe it’s false in order to deliberate. This issue seems particularly problematic for those Christians who believe in a God who causally determines every creaturely choice and action. For this would mean that in order to deliberate about anything, we must, out of necessity, believe a falsehood about God – namely the alleged falsehood that He does not causally determine our every thought and deed.

I want to be as explicit as possible lest anyone misunderstand me. This would mean that the God of truth – the God who is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life – created us so that our ability to make decisions, even on the most mundane matters, crucially depends on our believing a falsehood about Him. Can we sensibly hold this? Put another way, this would mean that I was created in such a fashion that I can only decide to believe in the God of theological determinism by refraining from believing in the God of theological determinism. For these reasons, it seems to me that the epistemologically self-conscious person in general, and the epistemologically self-conscious Christian in particular, cannot rationally believe determinism is true.


[1] Strictly speaking, God’s decree is necessary but, with His concurrence, is sufficient for everything that comes to pass.

[2] God strongly actualizes a state of affairs when He causes it “to obtain through a direct exercise of His causal power (e.g., God’s creating the universe, parting the Red Sea, raising Jesus from the dead).” By contrast, God’s weak actualization refers to His “causing a state of affairs to obtain by placing an agent in circumstances in which He knew how the agent would freely act. (e.g., Saul’s suicide).” Dwight Stanislaw, “Molinist Dictionary,” [date accessed: 7/1/17]. On theological determinism, God actualizes His decree only via strong actualization.

[3] Incompatibilism, by contrast, is the thesis that free will and determinism are not compatible.

[4] Libertarianism is the conjunction of incompatibilism and the thesis that we at least sometimes have free will.

[5] Although few philosophers affirm that the ability to do otherwise is a necessary condition of libertarian freedom, most agree that this ability often accompanies libertarian free actions.

[6] Peter Van Inwagen, Metaphysics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002), 214.

[7] Ibid, 214.

[8] Ibid, 214-215.


About the Author

By Allen Crostic

Allen Crostic grew up in Richmond, VA. Although he comes from a Christian family, he was an agnostic during much of his high school and early college years. It wasn’t until 1996, when he took his first philosophy class, that he began thinking critically about God’s existence in general, and the possibility of divine revelation in particular. Ultimately, he emerged from that process as a Christian. Years later, he returned to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003 to earn his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Allen enjoys teaching at his local church and is passionate about helping others to understand and articulate what they believe and why. He is scheduled to graduate with a Master’s of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics this December from BIOLA University.