The Vanishing “I”



(The FreeThinking Theist)


December 11, 2017


Tim, you suggest that the determinist would probably think, or be committed to thinking, that either God or nature evaluates our beliefs (one of these is “the ‘thing’ evaluating and judging” our beliefs). But at the same time, you allow that on determinism we have mental states, presumably including these evaluative mental states (about our beliefs) that God or nature forces on us. This puzzles me, because I take it that to evaluate a belief *just is* to have an evaluative mental state about a belief.

So we should be the ones doing the evaluating even on determinism; it’s just that we are forced by God or nature to do it as we do. And God’s or nature’s forcing us to have these evaluative states does not entail his or its doing the evaluating. Would you agree? After all, nature intuitively can’t evaluate things anyway, since it doesn’t think. And a perfect being would not evaluate our beliefs in the way we normally take ourselves to evaluate them. The evaluations that seem to be ours are fallible and jointly inconsistent insofar as they are truth apt. One would think that naturalistic and theistic determinists would’ve noticed these absurd commitments of their views by now, or that their opponents (like you) would’ve brought them up!

– Ben

Tim’s Response:

Thank you for your in depth question about evaluating beliefs. Indeed, Ben, it certainly appears as if you are evaluating my beliefs. The question is raised: is this just an illusion or is it reality? I contend that if one assumes and presupposes a deterministic worldview, then it is the former.

Your question, although well stated, seems to miss the point of my prior arguments in which I believe you are referring. I am not asserting that God or nature is “evaluating” anything. I am saying that the evaluatory thoughts you feel that YOU are governing are caused and determined by things external to YOU if exhaustive determinism is true.[1] This is problematic as you point out, the forces of nature are non-thinking and arational (non-rational) kinds of things. Given naturalism, can one sensibly think that his cognitive faculties are reliable? Alvin Plantinga has argued that if naturalism is true (the view that God or nothing like God exists), then one’s cognitive faculties are merely a product of blind evolution which is not concerned with truth value. Rather, it is concerned with survivability. But my argument is different than Plantinga’s. Indeed, I am noting that one’s beliefs are not merely the result of survivability; rather, I am noting the deterministic process of physics and chemistry and the events of nature which are outside of human control.

Either way, if naturalistic determinism is true, then one’s cognitive faculties are not reliable and hence, one cannot reliably reason. Thus, there is an intrinsic defeater to the belief that this view of naturalism is true.

It is just as bad, however, if the theist asserts that God forces all thoughts and beliefs upon all people all the time (Divine Determinism). Disagreement amongst individuals, on this divine deterministic view, implies that God would be forcing many people to believe false propositions. But if God determines the manner in which YOU feel as if YOU are judging your beliefs — and my beliefs — then YOU stand in no position to know if God is forcing you to possess correct thoughts or not. All one is left with is question-begging assumptions (but these fallacious thoughts would not be under your control either)!

It is hard for the atheistic naturalist to make sense of intentional states of consciousness. Indeed, as I mentioned in I Think, Therefore I Am many naturalists deny the self (the thing you call “I”) exists. At least the Christian determinist can easily explain intentional states of consciousness via the soul created in God’s image (See The Image of God). Be that as it may, for the sake of argument suppose intentionality exists on naturalistic determinism just as it would on a divine deterministic view. Although a human would possess mental states of and about things, he would not possess any ability as to WHAT he will think of and about, or HOW he will think of and about things. These thoughts are not up to the thing you call “I” and are not up to you but things other than you. Thus, the thing you call “I” is left with no epistemic grounds to rationally affirm a current mental state. At best, all the self is reduced to on any deterministic view is a mere bag of beliefs — none of which are up to the bag![2]

You said, “So we should be the ones doing the evaluating even on determinism; it’s just that we are forced by God or nature to do it as we do. And God’s or nature’s forcing us to have these evaluative states does not entail his or its doing the evaluating. Would you agree?”

I agree that nature or God is NOT doing any “evaluating” in these scenarios. However, I also contend that neither are YOU! At best, on any exhaustive deterministic view, one is left with the mere illusion of evaluating, weighing, and judging other thoughts and beliefs. These thoughts and beliefs of and about other thoughts and beliefs are simply not up to the thing you call “I” if determinism of any stripe is true.

On a side note, you note that a “Perfect Being” (God) would not evaluate our thoughts in the same manner that we would. Although this misses the point, it is quite interesting and perhaps demands an additional article be written! Indeed, it seems rather impossible for an omniscient being to “evaluate thoughts” in the same manner that finite beings who are quite limited in knowledge would. I contend that God is “not rational” *in this sense*; rather, God is all-knowing and knows the truth-value of all propositions perfectly without beginning. When humans choose to begin approximating to God’s perfect standard of knowledge, we engage in the process of rationality.

Rationality, therefore, is similar to morality. God is perfectly all loving. When humanity chooses to approximate to the universal love God has for all persons (See The Omnibenevolence of God), we engage in objectively good and moral behavior (See Does an Objective Moral Compass Point to God?).

I digress. The salient point is this: on divine exhaustive determinism, God would be the one causing all thoughts and beliefs of and about all things, and also how everyone thinks of and about all things. That is to say, none of your thoughts and beleifs are up to you on any deterministic view. Moreover, I have argued that God as a “Perfect Being” would not causally determine anyone to believe false propositions are true and then punish them for holding beliefs that were impossible for them not to hold (but this is another topic for another conversation).

Finally, you note that one would think that other naturalistic and theistic determinists should have “noticed these absurd commitments of their views by now, or that their opponents [like Tim Stratton] would’ve brought them up!”

Well, if all thoughts of all people are always causally determined by things other than the thing aware of beliefs, then these determinists of the past simply had no ability to come to these correct conclusions. Something external to humanity would have determined that no human to this point would have realized these absurd commitments that follow from their deterministic assumptions. If all is determined by God or nature, then God or nature may have just determined me to be the first one to connect these dots! With that said, however, it seems erroneous to assert that since Tim Stratton is the first to notice these absurd commitments, therefore, Tim’s argument must be false!

Be that as it may, I am not the first person to argue in this fashion or “notice these absurd commitments” of deterministic views. Although the Freethinking Argument is a syllogism original to me, C.S. Lewis pointed out some of these problems long before I was born. Although I was unaware of his work (in this field — I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia) prior to first crafting the Freethinking Argument, great thinkers of the past have argued in a similar fashion. Lewis defended a similar line of argumentation in his 1947 book, Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Thirteen years later, in the second edition of Miracles, Lewis significantly revised and expanded his argument. Many others have noticed problems like these and have crafted similar (yet different) arguments. Just as William Lane Craig stands on the shoulders of great thinkers of yesteryear (such as Al Ghazali and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz) to craft unique syllogisms and defend arguments, I also stand on the shoulders of giants like C.S. Lewis and others who provide foundations for my unique syllogism.

Moreover, it is not just Christian thinkers who have argued in this manner. As I pointed out in I Think, Therefore I Am,” naturalistic philosophers like Dr. Alex Rosenberg contend that the thing you call “I” does not exist. In his book, An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he concludes:

“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)

This atheistic philosopher denounces the existence of the thing you and I call “I” and makes it clear that if naturalism is true, the thing you call “I” is not free to think, act, believe, evaluate, or estimate anything — ever! Consider Jorn Paulsen’s notes regarding estimation:

“Sometimes our beliefs come about as a result of. . . ‘patternicity’. This sort of thing has evolved due to ‘believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is only the wind does not cost much, but believing that a dangerous predator is the wind may cost an animal its life’. Some beliefs are cheap, if you will. ‘The problem is that we are very poor at estimating such probabilities…'”

This is an understatement on any deterministic view. Not only are humans “poor” at making these “estimations,” on determinism, you and I do not make any estimations at all. Physics and chemistry (or God) determines those thoughts. If one assumes all is determined (by God or nature) and disagreement follows (or not), then we are at an epistemic loss. You and I would not be able to evaluate our thoughts because, at best, “you” and “I” are nothing but passive observers on any exhaustive deterministic view. To reiterate the problem, this serves as an undercutting defeater to what the thing you call “I” thinks is true! As the notable philosopher of mind, John Searle states:

“Actions are rationally assessable if and only if the actions are free. The reason for the connection is this: rationality must be able to make a difference. Rationality is possible only where there is a genuine choice between various rational and irrational courses of action . . . If the act is completely determined then rationality can make no difference. It doesn’t even come into play…” (Rationality in Action:2001:202)

It follows that if you think you are free and autonomous to at least occasionally evaluate some of your thoughts and beliefs — not to mention the thoughts and beliefs of others — then you should freely reject naturalism or any deterministic view. But if you still disagree, well, perhaps the illusion of your existence was simply determined to do so!


Many atheists have gone to great lengths to affirm their faith assumptions. In doing so, they either deny or doubt their own existence. William Lane Craig has the following to say to anyone who has tricked themselves into believing this absurdity:

Descartes held that his own existence is undeniable, because in order to doubt my existence there has to be someone who is entertaining those doubts. So I love the story of the philosophy student who burst into his professor’s office early one morning, bleary-eyed, unshaven, he’d been up all night, he’d been reading Descartes, and he said to the professor, “You’ve got to tell me; do I exist!?” and the professor looked at him and said,

“Who wants to know?”

Bottom line: If it is assumed that things external to the thing you call “I” determines every single thought and belief of the thing you call “I” — then the “I” begins to vanish, if not completely disappear! I contend it is unwise for the thing you and I call “I” to make such absurd assumptions in the first place.

So, Ben it seems to me there are not any reasonable options for anyone holding to exhaustive determinism, whether it is naturalistic or theistic. Let me present a couple of options: (1) One can admit that determinism serves as an undercutting defeater to all our thoughts and beliefs and thus “give up” holding to determinism. (2) One can remain unreasonable.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Tim Stratton


[1] I am not suggesting that one can choose to believe any old thing at any time (direct doxastic voluntarism). I am arguing for indirect doxastic voluntarism. If one never has an ability to make any free choices about what one will or will not consider, what one will choose to think about, how one will choose to think about it, or any ability to ever weigh, judge, estimate, or evaluate any thought, then one has no reason to affirm any belief. (See “Can We Choose Our Beliefs?” and “Free Your Mind”).

[2] On naturalism brain states equal mind states and are determined by prior physical states of affairs along with the laws of nature and events outside of human control.

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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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