Determinism, Timelessness, and Accountability

Midterm for “Metaphysics” with Karaan Durland at Austin College, Spring ’00

Logical and Theological Determinism

Often pure logical reasoning leads philosophers to counter intuitive conclusions. By contradicting long held beliefs some arguments may seem to pull the rug out from under the entire history of human action. We traditionally act as if we can hold people morally accountable for their actions, in general. The cases of logical and theological determinism, however, lead to the conclusion that people do not have free will, thus we can not hold people morally accountable for their actions. Theological determinism presents the strongest case, simply because of greater complexity which accompanies loaded words, such as God, making the argument thicker to wade through and refute. William Rowe provides a helpful framework for muddling through the case, as initially addressed by Aquinas, and Aristotle deals with logical determinism.

Determinism throws out nearly the entire framework from which we work every day, in everything we do. You normally assume that people act in a manner that they can control. If someone trips you, you’re liable to ask why he or she did it. And you probably don’t expect an answer along the lines of, “God made me do it,” or, “It is true that I tripped you, therefore I couldn’t have avoided it.” These are the answers that theological and logical determinism claim represent the most accurate reality of the situation. Doesn’t seem very effective for exciting change in deviant behaviors does it? Let’s take a look at these two arguments and see if we must blame the tripping incident on God, truth or can hold the tripper responsible for her or his actions.

Logical Determinism follows an argument of these lines:

  1. Every Statement is either true of false.
  2. Therefore, claims about the future are either true or false.
  3. Then, there is no free will.

The jump between 2 and 3 is a little trickier than the first progression, so let’s take a closer look using our tripping example. As you walk down the street it is either true or false that some maniac will come running around the corner and swipe your feet right out from under you. If it is false, then you can’t make it happen. If it is true, then you can’t avoid it. That means, even if you knew what would happen, you couldn’t jump out of the way, stop walking or do anything to avoid the trip. We’ll access the validity of this argument shortly, but let’s get theological determinism on the table first.

The argument for theological determinism goes like this:

  1. God knows everything before you do it.
  2. If God knows what you will do before you do it, it is never in your power to do otherwise.
  3. If it is never in your power to do other wise, there is no free will.

So, God knew that that crazy kid would jump out of nowhere and lay you on your butt, and He still let it happen!

OK, so what do these two views have in common, you ask? They both claim to dissolve the truth of free will. They both claim to absolve people of moral accountability. And on a deeper level, they are both based on a truth outside of temporal dimensions. Claiming that something is true even before it happens, requires a perspective outside of time, that can view the past and future, as well as the present. God evokes this notion of a plane external to time more so than truth, but both often fall into our everyday language usage as the common, time bound concepts that we more commonly encounter. The common understanding easily transfers to the more complex concepts if we do not frequently remind ourselves of their great complexity. For example, God is so commonly referred to as a man in language and illustration that one may neglect consciousness of His/er gender transcendence. In the same manner, people treat truth and God as if they abide by temporal rules like occurring at a specific time or place.

As far as the discrepancies between the arguments, they lie in the designated vehicle of timelessness. Logical determinism attributes the timeless aspect to logic, and theological determinism attributes it to God. Logic grounds itself in the human ability to reason. The subjective concept of a timeless God with the mortal ability to “know” things is a basic assumption to the argument. The greatest threat to our freedom probably comes in the theological determinism because logical determinism is easier to argue. Its deals with more concrete issues, whereas theological determinism evokes the immensely subjective notion of God. The truth considered in logical determinism is more easily discussed than God, who can be defined in infinitely many different ways.

Challenge of Logical Determinism

  1. Predictions are neither true nor false.
  2. Therefore, truth isn’t timeless/eternal.
  3. God is timeless/eternal.
  4. Then, God is not a truth, but a belief about the timelessness.

Two methods challenge logical determinism via its premises and framework. The first method discounts premise number one of the original argument outline, by claiming that not every statement has a truth-value. The premise assumes that every statement is either true or false. In Aristotle’s consideration of logical determinism, “On Interpretation”, he explores this method as well as another. The second method asserts that an event can not have a truth-value until it occurs.   Truth, as we can most accurately define it, is based on empirical investigation and data. If an event has not yet occurred, we can not very well access its validity because of the lack of empirical data available. So because we can not access the truth-value, the event essentially does not have one. So the statement, “I am about to fly over this waterfall”, has no truth-value. It is neither true nor false, until I actually do fly over the waterfall. In fact, only if never in my life do I fly over the waterfall, could the statement be false. Aristotle thus distinguishes between statements with potential truth-value and manifested truth-value, claiming that potential truth-value does not count as truth.

Some people prefer to claim that truth exists beyond our ability to know it. These types of assumptions form many belief systems like the existence of God, or a timeless ethical code. The eternal nature of these beliefs places them in the same category as predictions about the future, potential truths. So if we want to throw out logical determinism by discrediting the first premise and asserting that not all statements have a truth-value until they occur, we must admit that all of the beliefs we hold as eternal truths exist merely as beliefs, holding no truth until fulfilled. Perhaps it would benefit our language and logical process to distinguish between these two concepts of “fact about the past”, and “eternal belief” or “belief of the future” with more clearly defined terms which don’t overlap.

Theological Determinism Challenged

Theological determinism is not as easily redefined by mere term shuffling. Based on how you define God, theological determinism holds the potential of a very strong or very weak argument. If one considers God in terms of limited human characteristics, then it is easy to claim God does not exist and throw the entire argument out by discrediting this very basic assumption of the argument. However one can not as easily deny that a certain organizing principle regulates all of life. Even if you label it physics we can refer to it as God. We have no reason behind why the laws of physics work, but they organize life into the complexity that we live. One can also not easily deny that there exists a summed whole of all action of humanity across the bounds of time. This sum is easier to conceive of assuming that humanity will come to an end at some point in time, but can also exist as a more complex subject for an infinitely enduring humanity. If God is defined as an organizing principle, then theological determinism basically becomes causal determinism and takes on a whole other set of criticisms. If God is defined as the sum of all that has ever existed and ever will exist, from outside of time, then theological determinism presents a formidable paradox. Rowe utilizes this definition of God as timeless to challenge theological determinism, but I claim that it also supports the argument. Let’s look closer at the four interpretations of this argument that Rowe presents and see how theological determinism stands up to them.

The simplest of Rowe’s methods for reconciling the counter intuitiveness of theological determinism is to claim that we are not free, that our intuition about the situation leads us astray.

His second method formulates a definition of freedom compatible with God’s omniscience. When freedom is defined by a person’s ability to do what they choose rather than by their power to do other than they choose, the conflict dissolves. God’s knowledge that you will walk on Mars keeps you from not walking on Mars. You no longer possess the power to do otherwise. Thus if freedom lies in the power to do otherwise, you would not be free. God’s knowledge that you will walk on Mars, however, in no way conflicts with your choice to walk on Mars. So as long as freedom is the ability to do what you choose, then freedom doesn’t conflict with divine foreknowledge. Let us, however, consider freedom as the power to do otherwise, since it seems reducing it to the ability to do what we choose makes the concept a little empty.

Method number three chooses to restrict God’s knowledge, to prevent restriction of our freedom. This seems rather arrogant. How can anyone possibly claim that the definition of omniscience doesn’t know something, so that we can assert our own powers? This method is argued in two ways, one relying on the logical determinism challenge that predictions are neither true nor false, the other returning to the previously mentioned definition of God outside of time. If predictions hold no truth-value before they occur then naturally God will not know it. This makes sense, but as we established earlier, saying that truth isn’t timeless kind of limits God’s ability to exceed the status of a mere belief, by virtue of His/er being a prediction of timelessness. And we can’t really throw the notion of freedom out the window based on a mere belief can we? So to agree truth does not exist is to say that God does not exist, and we can not use an argument that in conclusion invalidates one of its premises.

With God’s perspective stationed outside of time, foreknowledge lacks meaning because God exists before, after and during everything that happens. To support method three, Rowe claims that God cannot possess foreknowledge because foreknowledge would require placing God in time, an inaccurate constraint. But does God not exist at all times? He does possess a certain knowledge at a time prior to the time we gain this knowledge, but God’s knowledge can not hold to the same definition as our knowledge, because of it’s origin at all times, whereas ours stems from the past. Thus method three fails, because we can not limit God. Perhaps it would be more effective in recognizing our limitedness in comparison with God and drawing the inconsistency from this.

The final method claims that God’s knowledge does not restrict our power to choose otherwise. This claim would assert that we could change the past. Rowe argues that this invalidates the method of interpretation, but I propose a perspective from which it may find acceptance. The only part of the past that would change is God’s knowledge of what will come. Then the rebuttal brings up the point that timeless God doesn’t really abide by the same rules of cause and effect that we time-bound people do.

So if one claims that God knew before I came into this world that I would own an orange kitten named Cheesy Stripes, it would not cause this future possibility, but would exist as an expression of the future itself. This leads us to the conclusion that the future causes the past.. One tests a truth claim by judging its effectiveness. I suppose we could look at every occurrence as an effect, and therefore, clue of what may lie ahead. This is, in fact, similar to viewing past events as causes, as we intuitively do. If you prefer not to accept this concept as a whole, persuasion and legitimacy for my claim might lie in the fact that the only part of the past required to change is the foreknowledge of God, which does not in fact exist alone in one time, but in union with all times. Thus the past, as such, remains unaffected.

One idea that we can draw out of this conflict with intuition, is that God ties everything together, regardless of order according to our time. Thus decisions are made from beyond our time plane, from that timeless, God place where decisions don’t exist by virtue of their being a process in time. So, all of our decisions are really an expression of God’s infinitude. Choice exists only for us within the constraints of time. Thus theological determinism poses the greater threat to freedom, because once you realize that we have a limited perspective due to the blinders of time, you see that one can easily view the relationship between cause and effect in reverse. We can not transfer our limitations of perspective to God.

The strongest argument against theological determinism is the timelessness of God. The strongest challenges to this claim are that predictions hold no truth-value and therefore God has no truth value, because S/He is no more than a prediction of timelessness, and that God would not make evil decisions. As to the evil decisions complaint, one could easily argue that it is a limited human perspective which assigns the label “evil”. From God’s perspective that so-called evil may have resounding implications in lessons for humanity and character development unachievable by other means. I can only rely on intuition as an affirmation to the timelessness of truth.

Moral Accountability

Having acknowledged all these attacks on theological determinism we can now address the issue of moral accountability from the framework of determinism. If God holds the final authority in making decisions, why punish people for their actions?

The purpose for holding people accountable for their actions is to ensure that those actions do not happen again. We can place the blame wherever we want. Often enough a criminal’s environments, home life, or past victimization will drive them to commit a crime. We cannot punish these factors. In the same manner, we can not punish God. We only know to use the techniques that work. Whether they work because people have free will and through teaching their wills can be directed in a more healthy direction, or because God determined there to be a positive correlation between criminal reform and holding them morally accountable for their crimes. Moral accountability, whether logically reasonable from all directions or not, still deserves implementation, because we have no other recourse.


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