The FreeThinking Theist VS a Free Will Skeptic



(The FreeThinking Theist)


November 17, 2020

I recently made a video for the FreeThinking Ministries YouTube channel entitled Divine Determinism and the GOD OF MISCHIEF. In this video I point out that if naturalistic determinism is true, then all human thoughts and beliefs are causally determined by the forces of nature, the initial conditions of the big bang, past events, perhaps some quantum mechanics, and all other things outside of human control. Since these naturalistic events would be causally determined by processes which are not intentionally aimed at truth, then human thoughts and beliefs would not reliable in the sense of being truth-conducive (this is especially the case when it comes to metaphysical and theological views).

I go on to explain that exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) has similar problems regarding reliability (See, A Rational Refutation of Divine Determinism). After all, if EDD is true, then God always causally determines all thoughts and beliefs. Initially, one might think this to be unproblematic since God is an intentional agent who has the ability to “aim human beliefs at truth.” The problem with EDD, however, is that human beliefs are not aimed at truth, but rather, God’s will (i.e., exactly what God wants you to think and believe). That is to say, with respect to Smith, his beliefs are “aimed” (causally determined by God) at the truth value (either true or false) of the proposition which God wills that Smith believe.

Given the preponderance of a plethora of disagreeing views about theological issues (even amongst Christians), it stands to reason that God’s will is not necessarily for humans to affirm true theological beliefs (this also includes the beliefs regarding free will and determinism). Thus, theological thoughts and beliefs (not to mention a multitude of other thoughts and beliefs regarding other issues) are not reliable in the sense of conducing to truth. On exhaustive divine determinism, God causally determines many people — all people — to affirm false beliefs. This does not seem to describe a Maximally Great Being, but rather, this view describes a low view of God (as A.W. Tozer put it) that relegates the creator of the universe into nothing but a “god of mischief.”

The FreeThinking Argument, however, provides a forceful defeater against a “passive external reliability” and the importance of being able to think and deliberate in a libertarian sense. Moreover, as I explain in my book, Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism, it is consistent with the fact that God is a Maximally Great Being.

The YouTube video led to a lively exchange with a friend who is a “free will skeptic” and a doctoral candidate. The preliminary comments can be found by clicking on the YouTube link above. Below you will find the meat of my conversation with Zach (along with some additional content and a few clarifying edits).

The Debate

Zach: //The question I raised was whether being [exhaustively] determined or having faculties which are not aimed at truth implies that, as you state in your book, one’s beliefs are not reliable or reliably formed. That is why I asked what experts and lay people mean by reliable. I have little evidence you understand the term, let alone your own premise using the term.//

Tim: You are asking the wrong question, Zach. You ought to be asking me what I mean by “reliable.” Since this is my argument, it is irrelevant what “experts and lay people” mean by “reliable.” Moreover, in the context of this argument, it is clear that by “reliable” I mean something to the effect of “being trustworthy to consistently allow the agent to produce true beliefs.”

In an article co-authored with Elliott Crozat, we note that as a theory of justification, reliabilism states that justification is determined by a reliable psychological process; i.e., one’s belief is justified iff the belief was produced by a trustworthy process.

As Crozat has pointed out:

“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, if Loki (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 guarantees a plethora of false beliefs that the agent is also causally determined to happily affirm.[1] (If that’s the case, then how could you rationally affirm that your current beliefs regarding this topic do not fall under the category of “causally determined happily affirmed false beliefs”?)

I contend that a maximally great being would not purposefully/intentionally causally determine humans to “aim” at or form false theological beliefs every time humans affirm false theological beliefs. Indeed, if 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 was “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 Zach 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 Zach to affirm false theological beliefs (that’s Zach’s fault).

As I explain in my book, if God is a maximally great being, then EDD is false (and humans are free in the libertarian sense).

Moreover, since you have my book, Zach, you will note that I reference Plantinga’s 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” 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% 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, judgements, 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” (which could be exemplified right now, although you could never know it). You had earlier implied that exhaustive determinism isn’t the problem, but the HOW one is exhaustively determined is the problem. The “how” is irrelevant, Zach.

Consider the following: If God creates and causally determines Zach to possess cognitive faculties which in turn causally determine Zach to infer and affirm true beliefs 51% of the time and to happily affirm false beliefs 49% of the time, then — in a sense — it could be said that Zach’s causally determined cognitive faculties are “reliable” when it comes to affirming mostly true beliefs. However, if EDD is factored into the mix, it follows that every instance of Zach’s happy affirmation of FALSE beliefs (49% of the time) is due to the fact that God either (i) manipulated Zach to happily affirm a false belief, or (ii) God causally determined Zach by way of cognitive faculties — intelligently designed by God — to causally determine Zach to happily affirm false beliefs.

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

This follows from Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument. The “how” one is causally determined is irrelevant. Causal determinism is causal determinism. EDD is EDD. Thus, your belief-forming process, Zach, would not reliably be aimed at truth, but are perfectly aimed exactly at what God wants you to think and believe — which is not necessarily truth. Moreover, on your view, you stand in no epistemic position to freely evaluate any belief or set of beliefs if God is the one who causally determines the way you feel that “you” are evaluating anything. This is why rational affirmation (call it “justification” if you’d like) is impossible on EDD.

Epistemologist, John DePoe, has recently supported my case by exposing this problem:

“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.”

This is a fantastic summary of what I expressed in my book. On your view, Zach, you are nothing but a “passive cog” with no active powers of rationality to infer or affirm better or true beliefs. You can only hope and assume (not that those are up to your “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.

Zach: //If an argument has 100 premises, and you are trying for a sound argument, all I need is to show reason to doubt one of your premises. It seems clear that this premise of yours, connective lack of truth aim with lack of reliability, is not properly motivated. Thus, your argument is a failure.//

Tim: Thanks for the lesson in how to defeat a syllogism, Zach. With that said, it takes more than a mere doubt to defeat a premise. One can possess a bit of doubt regarding the first premise of the Kalam, for example, while still affirming that it is probably true. If that’s the case, then the premise is good and the syllogism is sound. If one judges a proposition as “probably true” (even if there is some doubt), then the argument moves forward. But the problem is that on your view, YOU do not have the ability to judge a premise as “probably true” or “probably false.” That has been decided by something other than you and causally determined you via primary or secondary means to affirm whatever it is that comes out of your mouth (even if it is objective poppycock).

Be that as it may, the manner in which I have defended my premises and the thought experiments offered supporting them, have yet to be defeated. It might be the case that the “god of mischief” is causally determining you to think this is “clear” when in reality, those who are free to think in a libertarian sense can see that your assertion is not clear at all. With that in mind, refute or “rationally doubt” this proposition: “If God causally determines Zach to happily affirm a false belief, then it is impossible for Zach to infer or affirm a better or true belief.”

Good luck with that, Zach.

Here’s what follows: If one cannot infer the best explanation because he is causally determined to affirm a worse and false explanation, not to mention that an ability to rationally infer the best explanation (as John Searle has explained) requires a range of options each compatible with one’s nature, then one has no ability to judge what beliefs might be better (or true) or what beliefs are just plain bad (since his false belief is “locked in,” as it were, by something or someone else).

Moreover, if one cannot infer better or true beliefs, then one cannot rationally affirm if he ought to infer a better or true belief. If that’s the case, then justified beliefs go down the drain. That is highly problematic, but if justified beliefs are required for reason-based knowledge then say goodbye to this important kind of knowledge (on your view).

Zach: //Again, I challenge you to be a man of courage and define the term ‘reliable’ in a way an ordinary speaker or expert reliabilist would understand the term as their own, and then tell us why we don’t have reason to think God could exhaustively determine someone to have beliefs that are true more often than not.//

Tim: What does “courage” have to do with defining a term? Moreover, what is wrong with defining reliability in terms of how I wish to use it? After all, this is my argument under discussion. 

Be that as it may, your “challenge” (and an ad hominem distraction at that), simply shows your lack of understanding regarding my view. Of course God could causally determine you to hold true beliefs (I have never argued, asserted, or implied otherwise). Indeed, God could causally determine you to always hold true beliefs. But surely, this does not describe the way things are. I doubt that even the “god of mischief” would causally determine you to affirm your own infallibility. The problem stems from the fact that God (or rather, “god”) is also the same one who causally determines ALL of your happy affirmations of false beliefs. So, unless one affirms infallibility, then one has rationality problems.

Zach: //The fact that God could determine that some beliefs are false does not give reason to think the majority are false.//

Tim: You seem to keep missing my point, Zach. Namely, that EDD would undercut our justification for our beliefs. If EDD is true, then you do not have access to the “reason to think.” Perhaps 51% of your beliefs are true. Perhaps 91% of them are false. YOU stand in no position to rationally affirm either percentage if your evaluative thoughts are causally determined by the “deceiver” and they are not up to you as a “first thinker.” Be that as it may, EDD (don’t forget that pesky “E” means every evaluative thought and every belief all the time) entails exactly what you always think of and about and exactly HOW you always think of and about it (if EDD always describes reality) — all of your thoughts and beliefs (even if true) are always aimed at the will of the “god of mischief” who causally determines all people (note the “normal cases”) to happily affirm false theological beliefs, and you have no ability to know what happily affirmed theological beliefs of yours are false. That “evaluation” is beyond your reach, causally determined by Loki. Thus, you offer no rational affirmation, and thus, in that sense, your affirmations are not reliable (they are not yours at all if they are causally determined in one way or another by the “god of mischief”).

Zach: //Some people at the University of Oklahoma are bald, but I can easily affirm that that does not tell me that more people have lots of hair than are bald. It’s basic logic.//

Tim: Thanks again, for the lesson in basic logic, Zach. Be that as it may, what I argue for is not based upon empirical evidence (that’s a different kind of knowledge). On top of that, you seem to tacitly assume libertarian freedom in an attempt to argue against libertarian freedom when you said, “I can easily affirm.”

Did you — the thing you refer to as “I” — really do the inferring and affirming, or did “the god of mischief” causally determine this inference and affirmation? If it was the “deity of deception” then how can YOU (not the “deity of deception”) rationally affirm anything, especially when it comes to the metaphysical propositions debated here? 

Zach: //Your claims would need to be more than that most or all people get many things wrong.//

Tim: False. You have completely missed the point of my arguments, Zach. I simply need to demonstrate that if EDD is true, your belief-forming processes are not aimed at truth, but rather, at the center of the god of mischief’s will (who is not trustworthy since he causally determines all affirmations of false beliefs). Just as the advocate of the EAAN does not need to show “most or all people get many things wrong.” The problem is the fact that if both naturalism and evolution are true, then one’s belief-forming faculties are not aimed at truth (even though it is still possible for humans to hold some true beliefs or mostly true beliefs). This is especially problematic when it comes to metaphysical and theological beliefs (like the one’s under discussion here).

Zach: //It would have to be about being unreliable on the reliabilist or ordinary speaker’s terms. Define your terms and answer the actual question.//

TimI’ve been clear enough, Zach. Loki can causally determine you to affirm mostly true beliefs, but since Loki also casually determines you to affirm many false beliefs, you never know what theological beliefs you ought to affirm and which one’s you ought to reject. Zach is at an epistemic loss (even if he happens to be right on a few issues, he can never know it).

Zach: //Thus, Tim, I end where I began. You make the claim that faculties that are not aimed at truth are not reliable.//

Tim: I reiterate: If your beliefs are not aimed at truth, then there is no reason (not that you could evaluate reasons on your view) to think they will hit truth (not that it’s impossible to hit a few “lucky shots”). Do not confuse luck with justification. If Loki causally determines you to think correctly on a certain view, you are LUCKY that the “god of mischief” decided to causally determine you to affirm true beliefs on that matter, especially considering the fact that Loki causally determines so many others to affirm false beliefs on the same topic.

Zach: //Richard Swinburne, along with others like Mohan Matthen, have provided examples that counter that claim.//

Tim: Swinburne once offered a passing comment by way of a footnote in The Evolution of the Soul: 

“(2) It has been argued that any argument for determinism would be self‐defeating . . . This argument has, I believe, no force at all. The mere fact that our beliefs are caused is no grounds for holding them unjustified. Exactly the reverse. I argued in Chapter 7 that to the extent that we regarded them as uncaused or self‐chosen, we could not regard our beliefs as moulded by the facts and so likely to be true. The point is rather that if we see some belief to be caused by a totally irrelevant factor . . . then we rightly regard it as unjustified. But a belief that determinism is true could be both caused and justified, if caused by relevant factors, e.g. hearing relevant arguments.”

On exhaustive divine determinism, however, our thoughts and beliefs (including what and how we “regard,” not to mention what we “could not regard”) are not ultimately “moulded [causally determined] by the facts,” but rather, by the “god of mischief.” Moreover, this quote is irrelevant in that it misses the main point of my arguments, that humanity would stand in no position to evaluate truth claims or the ability to judge if an argument is “relevant” — or not (if EDD describes reality). After all, Loki could causally determine Zach to judge an argument as “relevant” when, in fact, the argument is irrelevant. So, if the designer of one’s cognitive faculties is a “god of mischief,” then the mere fact that one’s belief is causally determined is grounds for holding said belief unjustified.

To support my case, I would like to see Swinburne or Matthen “counter” the following while assuming EDD:

“If Loki causally determines Zach to happily affirm false beliefs regarding X, then it is impossible for Zach to infer or affirm better or true beliefs regarding X.”

Or the following:

“Zach cannot decide what he OUGHT to believe if Loki causally determines what Zach will believe.”

Zach, with “oughtness” in mind (and if your view is true), you are not able to determine if you OUGHT to be skeptical of the libertarian freedom to think. Thus, you seem to hold inconsistent beliefs (not that you could help it if Loki is running the show). You — your thinking, judging, weighing, and evaluating — is nothing but a “passive cog” being caused and determined by something or someone else. Moreover, if Zach has no ability to infer the best explanation, then can it be said that Zach is reliable?

Sure, perhaps Loki could cause Zach to affirm some, many, or mostly true beliefs through a deterministic process causally determined by the “god of mischief.” However, this is a problem because Zach has no way to know what beliefs are true or what beliefs are false. This is the case because all of Zach’s so-called “judgements and evaluations” are also causally determined by the same “god of mischief” who causally determined Zach to happily affirm the false belief in the first place.

This is what William Lane Craig has referred to as “vertigo!”

Zach: //What is reliable true belief formation, and is there a plausible interpretation on which the exhaustive divine determinist can [RATIONALLY] affirm that God determines her to believe truly more often than not . . .//

Tim: I contend that reliable true belief formation requires a hybrid view of sorts. When it comes to “reason-based knowledge” the libertarian freedom to think is vital. Other kinds of knowledge (like how to cross the street) might not require such freedom. Be that as it may, and as noted above, even if God causally determined you to affirm true beliefs 51% of the time, they are still not aimed at truth if EDD describes reality — they are 100% reliable and certain when it comes to the will and desires of the “god of mischief.”

Even if your cognitive faculties were designed and causally determined by God to causally determine you to always affirm every belief exactly as they are always affirmed (both true and false beliefs), your cognitive faculties are still aimed at the will of the same “god of mischief” who causally determined Zach to think incorrectly and happily affirm false beliefs some or much of the time (perhaps 49% of the time or more). You simply have no ability to rationally affirm if your beliefs are true 51% of the time (or any other percentage) if the creator of your cognitive faculties is a deity of deception. After all, once you affirm that this “god of mischief” causally determines all false beliefs all the time, then why assume that the same “god of mischief” has causally determined you to attain true beliefs at least 51% of the time?

Heck, it could be the case that Loki causally determines you to believe that you are always the smartest guy in the room (or on the internet) when the objective truth is that the “god of mischief” causally determines you to misevaluate the majority of metaphysical, epistemological, and theological issues. On your view, you do not stand in an epistemological position to know if you OUGHT to think otherwise. Try to evaluate my last comment. Oh wait, the “god of mischief” will causally determine that much for you as well (unless you are wrong about EDD). If the “god of mischief” has causally determined “your” evaluation, should said evaluation be trusted?

Zach: //. . . on say, Bergman’s view that we do not need to be in a position to be aware that we are justified?//

Tim: If the “god of mischief” causally determines Bergmann to assert such things, how can Bergmann know if one OUGHT to assert such things? Moreover, I’ve offered an argument to the contrary when it comes to “rational responsibility” or the ability to rationally infer or affirm better or true beliefs. I do not claim that ALL instances of knowledge or rationality require this much (to state otherwise shows a severe lack of understanding), but that some vital instances do require both intentionality and the libertarian freedom to think. After all, if one is not aware of the competing alternative views under discussion here, then how can one rationally affirm or reject either of the competing alternative views under discussion here? (Note that this requires both intentionality and libertarian freedom.)

Zach: //. . . if so, then you need to revise or retract a major point in your book and argument against determinism.//

Tim: Well, Zach, to this point you’ve provided no reason to do such a thing. In fact, you’ve assumed the very thing you believe that you are causally determined to argue against.

Zach: //Before that, I suggest you actually present the best of compatibilism before saying that how they actually characterize themselves (e.g., through reasons responsive mechanism [RRM]) is irrelevant.//

Tim: I provided the academic definition in my book (See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and also attacked Jonathan Edwards’s version based on “greatest desires” (since my book is primarily aimed at theological determinists). Moreover, if RRM is combined with EDD, you get the exact same rationality problems but for different reasons. The RRM is not necessarily the problem — EDD is!

One last thought: Plantinga’s “proper function” account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant, one’s “belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers” are functioning properly — “working the way they OUGHT to work.” Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a “design plan,” as well as an environment in which one’s cognitive equipment is optimal for use. On EDD, however, everything always happens exactly the way God causally determines it to happen (in one way or another). The “oughtness” then pertains to what beliefs you affirm (even if they are false). That is to say, even when you affirm a false belief, that is what OUGHT to have happened on an EDD view (if a competing and true belief occurred, it would not have been causally determined by God, and thus, EDD would be false). With truth in mind, if one OUGHT to reach and affirm true beliefs, and fails, it is because he had the ability to do so. If God caused an agent to happily affirm a false belief, and the agent happily affirmed the false belief, then everything happened exactly as God, or rather, “god,” intended.

However, 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 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.

After all, if you do not possess the ability to reject incoherent thinking in favor of rational thinking, then you are either infallible, severely lacking, or something has gone terribly wrong. 

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


[1] 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:


Apparently, 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 of who deserves to be the POTUS. Supposing that these allegations are true (for the mere sake of illustration), even though Dominion might get the majority of votes tallied correctly, Dominion would also be an unreliable system to determine the Presidency.

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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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