Reaching Reliable Beliefs



(The FreeThinking Theist)


November 24, 2020


Dr. Stratton, in your book you point out that if our thoughts and beliefs are causally determined by physics and chemistry, then they are not reliable. I agree since physics and chemistry are not intentionally aimed at true beliefs. However, related to that, you also say that even if God casually determines all of our thoughts and beliefs all the time, then they still aren’t reliable. God is an intentional being (much different than physics and chemistry), so why would human beliefs be unreliable when the source of all knowledge can aim our cognitive faculties at truth? 

– Lucas

Dr. Stratton’s Response: 

Thank you for your question, Lucas! When discussing the FreeThinking Argument or the Proper Function and Freedom Argument, the word “reliable” is meant to convey something to the effect of “being trustworthy to consistently allow the agent to reach true beliefs.”

Reliabilism, in the discipline of epistemology, is a theory that one’s beliefs are only justified when formed via a trustworthy psychological processes. That is to say, beliefs are justified if and only if (iff) the belief was produced by a trustworthy process. Elliott Crozat has pointed out some problems with this view:

“According to reliabilism, one’s belief is justified iff produced by a reliable psychological process. But what exactly is a reliable psychological process? The standard answer is that a reliable process is one which is truth-conducive. But what does it mean for a process to be truth-conducive? Again, the standard answer is that the process is truth-conducive insofar as it usually produces true beliefs. Now, consider a further question: how often must a process produce true beliefs in order to qualify as truth-conducive? 100% of the time? That would reduce reliabilism to a form of externalist infallibilism, which undercuts the reliabilist’s motivations to avoid infallibilism and skepticism. 99% of the time? That seems too strict. 75% of the time? That seems arbitrary. Why exactly 75%? Why not 74%, or 76%, or some other frequency? Indeed, any specific frequency greater than 50% and less than 100% seems arbitrary.”

With that in mind, consider Thor’s brother from The Avengers: if Loki (a.k.a., the “god of mischief”) exhaustively causally determines (in some form or fashion) all thoughts and beliefs all the time, then how can this be referred to as a “reliable process?”

Indeed, even if Loki causally determined this process to reach many true beliefs, the “god of mischief” also causally determines a plethora of false beliefs that the agent is also causally determined to happily affirm. If that is the case, then how could one rationally affirm that one’s current beliefs regarding this topic do not fall under the category of “causally determined happily affirmed false beliefs?” This seems to be anything but reliable. 

Current Events

Perhaps a real world example involving the American 2020 election provides a helpful illustration. The reliability of the Dominion Voting Systems has been called into question. In fact, President Donald Trump tweeted the following on November 12th:


To be clear, I am not taking a position on this political matter. Think of this as nothing but a thought experiment. Allegedly, whistleblowers have come forward claiming that the programming of the Dominion Voting Systems intentionally allows for nefarious activity (even if the majority of the votes are tallied correctly). In a close election, however, a small percentage of incorrectly tallied votes could lead to the affirmation of a false belief regarding who actually won the election of 2020. Supposing that these allegations are true (for the mere sake of thought experimentation), even though Dominion might get the majority of votes tallied correctly, Dominion would also be an unreliable system to determine the Presidency.

This (possibly true) thought experiment demonstrates that if the programmer of a system is untrustworthy, then the system itself is untrustworthy (even if it usually works). That is to say, as soon as a nefarious programmer is affirmed, the reliability of the system is undercut. 

Perfect Being Theology

The “programmer” of human cognitive faculties, however, is anything but nefarious. Indeed, our creator is not a “deity of deception,” a “divine false prophet,” or a “god of mischief.” God, by definition, is a maximally great being! With perfect being theology in mind, I contend that a maximally great God would not purposefully/intentionally causally determine humans to “aim” at or form false theological beliefs every time humans affirm false theological beliefs.

Indeed, if exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) is true, then God is literally the ultimate determiner (via direct or secondary causation) of heresy. God would be actively causing (in some form or fashion) people to believe in atheism, satanism, skepticism, gnosticism, and radical Islam. Muhammad, then, in an ultimate sense really would have been “commanded” (causally determined) by God. This fundamentally changes the nature of God from Truth itself (John 14:6) to a divine false prophet.

The creator of the universe is not a “divine false prophet” or a “god of mischief.” God is a maximally great being! It follows that God would not always causally determine every false belief. Thus, when humans “miss the mark” (i.e., happily affirming false theological beliefs) this is not causally determined by God. Thus, EDD (in any form) is false.

This truth can be expressed by way of the following syllogism:

1- If God causally determines Jack to affirm false theological beliefs, then God is not a maximally great being.

2- God is a maximally great being. 

3- Therefore, God does not causally determine Jack to affirm false theological beliefs (that’s Jack’s fault).

Why is this “Jack’s fault?” Consider the words of epistemologist Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton:

“. . . human beings are without excuse for failing to see what is clear to reason. This assumes that humans are rational beings and CAN use reason if they want to. Rationality at this level assumes free will in the sense of liberty to think critically at the basic level. We are always free to use reason to critically analyze our basic beliefs.”

As I explain in Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism, if God is a maximally great being, then EDD is false (and humans are free in the libertarian sense).[1]

Moreover, my book also references Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). This argument shows that there is an undercutting defeater against the beliefs of the evolutionist who also affirms naturalism since his belief forming faculties are not aimed at truth, but rather, survival. Of course, this does not entail that he never attains true beliefs — it is simply showing the problem of not being aimed at truth. I go a step further to show that on EDD — the “E” (exhaustive) is vital to grasp — one’s beliefs are not aimed at truth either.

What are they perfectly aimed at? God’s will  — they are aimed at the center of God’s will and they never miss (in that sense, they are 100 percent reliable, but in the sense that humans find worth having, they are not). Again, this is not to say that God does not causally determine some true beliefs, but it is merely to point out that on EDD, your thoughts, judgments, evaluations, and beliefs are always “aimed” at exactly what God desires you to think and believe at a given moment — even if it is aimed at “happily affirming false beliefs.”  

Now, some exhaustive determinists, like Guillaume Bignon, think that “properly functioning faculties” can save them from this problem. But, as explained elsewhere, the HOW does not matter. EDD is EDD. Consider the following: If God creates and causally determines Jack to possess cognitive faculties which in turn causally determine Jack to infer and affirm true beliefs 51 percent of the time and to happily affirm false beliefs 49 percent of the time, then — in a sense — it could be said that Jack’s causally determined cognitive faculties are “reliable” when it comes to affirming mostly true beliefs. However, once EDD is factored into the mix, it follows that every instance of Jack’s happy affirmation of FALSE beliefs (49 percent of the time) is due to the fact that God either (i) manipulated Jack to happily affirm a false belief, or (ii) God causally determined Jack by way of cognitive faculties — intelligently designed by God — to causally determine Jack to happily affirm false beliefs.

That is to say: If God causally determines Jack to possess cognitive faculties which, in turn, causally determine Jack to affirm false beliefs regarding X, then it is impossible for Jack to infer or affirm better or true beliefs regarding X.

The Consequence Argument

This follows from Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument (CA). This informal version of the CA argues against naturalistic determinism, but one can simply replace the “laws of nature” with “God” and “His will” when dealing with  EDD:

“If determinism is true, then our [thoughts, beliefs, and] acts are the consequences of the laws of nature [or God’s will] and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are [or what God wills]. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own [thoughts, beliefs, and] acts) are not up to us.” (Van Inwagen, Essay, 16)

The CA assumes two “rules”:

Rule AlphaThere is nothing anyone can do to change what must be the case (or what is necessarily so).

Rule BetaIf there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and nothing anyone can do to change the fact that Y is a necessary consequence of X, then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y either.

This rule seems to be explicitly obvious because if an event necessarily occurs from a necessary entity, then the event itself is necessary and we are powerless to stop its occurrence. This has been called the “Transfer of Powerlessness Principle,” and as Robert Kane says: “our powerlessness to change X ‘transfers’ to anything that necessarily follows from X.”

The CA suggests that if EDD is true, then humans are powerless or not responsible — in an “up to us” sense — for our thoughts and beliefs (let alone our actions) because something or someone else (like the “god of mischief”) causally determined exactly HOW a person would think and believe regarding a certain topic. Moreover, if EDD is the case, then there is no ability to think or believe otherwise (even if one should think or believe otherwise). 

The point is this: the CA demonstrates that the “how” one is causally determined is irrelevant. Causal determinism is causal determinism. EDD is EDD. Thus, Jack’s belief-forming process, would not reliably be aimed at truth, but it is perfectly aimed exactly at what the “god of mischief” wants Jack to think and believe — which is not necessarily truth. 

Moreover, as I explain in my book, if EDD is true, then Jack would stand in no epistemic position to freely evaluate any belief or set of beliefs if the “god of mischief” is the one who causally determines the way Jack feels that “he” is evaluating anything. If something outside of human control causally determines exactly how Jack evaluates a proposition, then Jack has no ability to judge it otherwise. If Jack has no ability to evaluate the proposition otherwise, then Jack stands in no position to know if the proposition should have been judged otherwise. This is why rational affirmation (call it “justification” if you prefer) is impossible on EDD.

Epistemologist, John DePoe, has recently supported my case by exposing this problem in Debating Christian Religious Epistemology:

“From the traditional view of humanity, epistemology must address the role of personal agency to avoid dehumanizing the human agent as nothing more than a mundane relata in the cause-and-effect machinery of the world. Even when Reformed Epistemology adds theological elements to the nomological sequences that are supposed to yield epistemic goods, ultimately the human agent is downgraded from being a person with active powers of rationality to a passive cog that is at the mercy of causes beyond one’s control and awareness for acquiring those epistemic goods.”

Reformed Epistemology (proper functionalism) without qualification seems non-problematic.[2] However, once Reformed Epistemology is married to EDD, then Jack (along with every human), is relegated to nothing but a “passive cog” with no active powers of rationality to infer or affirm better or true beliefs. Jack can only hope and assume (not that those are up to his “passive cogness” either). However, if one does possess the power and ability to see that he does possess the power and ability to reject incoherent thinking in favor of coherent thinking, then he affirms his libertarian freedom.


Bottom line: if humans have the power to decide what we OUGHT to believe (based upon intelligently designed and properly functioning faculties that allow the libertarian freedom to think in appropriate circumstances), then, if they are “careful,” humans can reject irrational thinking in favor of rational thinking. This requires libertarian freedom.

This is why I argue that proper function (at least occasionally) entails libertarian freedom. 

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


[1] If exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) is true, no person’s cognitive faculties have ever really failed. From Adam and Eve to Hitler (and to you), no cognitive faculties have ever been anything but “proper.” They function perfectly, exactly as God has causally determined them to function, 100 percent of the time. With this in mind, if one affirms proper functionalism along with a proposition that cognitive faculties function properly most of the time, then one has rejected EDD.

In other words errors in human thinking are causally determined by God and are not errors at all (from God’s perspective) or they are due to humans being free thinkers and failing to take our thoughts captive (2 Cor 10:5).

[2] Alvin Plantinga is the best-known defender of Reformed Epistemology and proper functionalism. Accordingly, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God (not that one cannot have arguments or evidence for the existence of God). Interestingly, Plantinga rejects exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) as he has championed the free will defense against the problem of evil in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil.



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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