“I Think, Therefore I Am” — not according to determinists!



(The FreeThinking Theist)


September 18, 2017

René Descartes (1596-1650) is probably best known for his Latin philosophical statement, “Cogito ergo sum.” This phrase is best translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.” This proposition provides a strong foundation for one to build further knowledge upon instead of resorting to extreme skepticism about everything. Descartes believed “the very act of doubting one’s own existence served—at minimum—as proof of the reality of one’s own mind. That is to say, there must be a thinking thing—in this case the self or the “I”—for there to be a thought.”[1]

However, there seems to be a growing number today who assert otherwise! In fact, many atheists who hold to a view that nature is all that exists (naturalism) — and that all reality is relegated to what science can ultimately test and discover — are beginning to doubt their own existence! This view follows from the idea that if nature is all that exists, then it seems that all would be determined via the laws (and events) of nature. If all means all, then all thoughts and beliefs are caused and determined by things other than the one claiming to be thinking. Thus, on this view, the one claiming to think is not really thinking (or thinking things through) at all — things external to or other than the self are causing and determining all of these thoughts. Those who assert they are not thinking have no access to Descartes’ conclusion — “Therefore, I am.”

Naturalistic Atheists 

Lest one assume I am attacking a straw man, this view is defended by some of the world’s leading atheists in academia today. Consider Dr. Alex Rosenberg’s beginning of the tenth chapter from his book, An Atheist’s Guide to Reality:[2]

“The illusion that there is someone inside that has thoughts about stuff is certainly as old as the illusion that there are thoughts about stuff. . . if the physical facts fix all the facts, there can’t be a me or you inside our bodies with a special point of view.” (p. 214)

A few pages later Rosenberg reiterates:

“Scientism must firmly deny [the self’s] existence. The self, as conveyed to us by introspection, is a fiction. It doesn’t exist.” (p. 217)

These quotes are too good to stop:

“Now that we see that the self is an illusion, it should be easier to give up the notion that the self is free.” (p. 238)

In a nutshell, Rosenberg claims “I do not exist” (other naturalists such as Hume, Dennett, Harris, Blackmore, and the Churchlands make similar statements)![3] With this view there are no selves, no persons, and no first-person perspectives. That is to say, the thing you and I call “I” does not exist on this particular naturalistic view. Many atheists maintain that the thing you call “I” is nothing but an illusion, but if the thing you call “I” does not exist, then the thing you call “I” cannot freely think. This fact serves as an intrinsic defeater to any argument offered in favor of a deterministic view because “your” thoughts on the argument are not up to you at all.

This is an absurd view and one who believes he does exist is completely within his rational rights to reject naturalism — if this is what logically follows from the naturalistic world view assumed by most atheists. It is shocking to witness the extent some are willing to travel to deny God’s existence. In this case, in order to reject the existence of God, many atheists are willing to deny their own existence as well! This view is not only absurd but self-defeating. After all, as William Lane Craig has noted, if I am having an illusion that I exist, then I exist because *I* am experiencing an illusion! Therefore, the mere fact that I am having an illusion proves that I exist — and thus, this particular naturalistic worldview is false!

Deterministic Christians 

Some Christians, however, are making statements which are just as absurd; statements which also begin to erase the existence of the self! If one affirms that ALL is exhaustively determined by God or nature, then it follows that ALL thoughts and beliefs are also determined by God or nature (at least if all really means all)!

If all of your thoughts and beliefs are not “up to you” (but things other than you) then *YOU* are not in a position to evaluate your current state of mind — because these evaluatory thoughts would also be caused and determined by things other than you! The thing you refer to as “I” is not in a position to evaluate or judge any thought as true, false, or even probably true or false. This would include the “disagreeing thoughts” you may possess regarding my statements (even if my statements are true). All of those beliefs are not your own and thus, YOU stand in no position to ever judge your state of mind — or anyone else’s. This is what William Lane Craig has referred to as the “vertigo” of determinism:

“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.”

Dr. Craig demonstrates that any deterministic view reduces to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum). The self (what you refer to as “I”) virtually vanishes on any exhaustive view of determinism (natural or divine)! If “I think, therefore, I am,” is true, then if things other than you determine all of “your” thoughts, then YOU are not really thinking or thinking things through at all! All one is left with is nothing but a mere state of mind, a “bag of beliefs,” or something less.

Truth corresponds to reality.[4] So, if one is simply forced to believe a false proposition is true and has no ability to properly judge, weigh, or evaluate any thought or belief (since those thoughts are also not up to him either) — including the determined thoughts he has about his determined beliefs — then all that remains is question-begging assumptions (but one is not in control of these fallacious thoughts either). If all is determined by things other than you and I, then you and I do not have any idea if our current states of mind correspond to reality or not. If all is determined, all thoughts and utterances cannot be otherwise and you and I have no control over anything we think, say, or do. Thus, as Craig noted above, if you are not free in some autonomous sense to ever evaluate your state of mind, then prepare for vertigo and absurdity.

It Gets Worse 

Many atheists like Rosenberg not only deny free will, but also reject intentional states of consciousness. The theist who affirms exhaustive divine determinism is not quite as bad in the same sense — as the human soul can account for an awareness of and about things (intentionality) — but then it becomes worse in another sense! For the theistic determinist, humans still possess intentionality and are aware of and about things. However, if humanity is never free and autonomous to think, then humans simply cannot freely choose WHAT they are going to think of and about — or HOW they are ever going to think of and about any of their ideas and/or beliefs. Those are all ultimately determined by God if divine determinism is true.

So, at least this theistic view seems to explain intentionality (the awareness of and about things); however, now we are left with a God who gives humans consciousness with no ability to choose or not-choose anything. Thus, the human who is powerless to choose to avoid hell is consciously aware of the pain and suffering he or she experiences into the infinite and eternal future for so-called “choices” they were powerless to make.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ: the Bible is clear that we possess libertarian free will and “self control” (Proverbs 16:32; 2 Timothy 1:7; Titus 1:8; Titus 2:4-5; 2 Peter 1:3-6). If one possesses the ability to be in control of one’s self, then the self exists and is not always determined by things other than the self! Let the atheists make incoherent statements. Christians ought to be the most logical and reasonable people on the planet!

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim, the FreeThinking Theist, Stratton


* A special note of thanks to Eric Hernandez for providing some helpful links and resources! I encourage all to check out Eric’s website at erichernandezministries.com.

[1] To get your feet wet (if your feet exist) start with this intro to “Cogito ergo sum.” 

[2] Alex Rosenberg’s book, An Atheists Guide to Reality, is, in my opinion, the best book about atheism from an atheist’s perspective! I think Rosenberg does far more than his atheistic contemporaries in academia today taking his atheistic/naturalistic beliefs to their logical conclusions. Although I do not think Rosenberg takes them all the way to their logical destinations (which would require him to admit atheistic naturalism is false), he does get closer to the truth than the majority of his peers.

William Lane Craig debated Rosenberg a few years ago. Click here to watch the video of the debate. Click here, here, and here to listen to Dr. Craig’s three podcasts recorded soon after the debate.

[3] As atheist philosopher Paul M. Churchland explains in his book, Matter and Consciousness, “The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. If this is the correct account of our origins, then there seems neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.”

“There are no mental states at all—no one has ever been in a mental state of pain, of having a thought or belief, or sensing something. Richard Rorty and Paul Churchland are two contemporary advocates of eliminative materialism.” Philosophical  Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 259

[4] “In its simplest form, the correspondence theory of truth says that a proposition (sentence, belief) is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case.” J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For a Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press, 2003), 135.

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About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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