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The Illogicality of Determinism – Further Considerations

The Illogicality Of Determinism – Further Considerations

In “The Illogicality of Determinism,” I point out the absurdity and contradictions of arguing for determinism.¹ The sheer pointlessness of the exercise is staggering. The “determined” arguer has no choice as to what is believed. Whether to argue or not cannot be chosen. His own convictions are not the result of rational argument, but of physical causes. One is dealing with a self-confessed madman immune to rational discussion, according to his own convictions. Thomas Bertonneau writes in a private communication:

“These materialist-deterministic theories are to epistemology and ‘cognitive science’ what deconstruction is to the study of letters. They are not theories in any meaningful sense; they are denials that any genuine theoretical knowledge is possible, and as such they belong to the nihilism of the prevailing Age of Endarkenment. Because they deny axioms, these pseudo-theories invite evaluation not according to epistemological criteria, but according to forensic criteria. What is the motive? The motive is to silence people by denying the order of being and the structure of reality, that is, to stultify argumentation by throwing the terms into confusion. And what is the motive of that? It is to clear the field so that one might dominate others rhetorically and so subjugate them to one’s libido.”

Determinists must know that, insofar as they are right, they are wrong; and that, given their premises, any words that they speak are absolutely otiose. And yet they fall not into the appropriate muteness. Epistemological hypocrisy is inseparable from the deterministic position.²

In reality, “The Illogicality of Determinism” should be regarded as a sufficient and complete demonstration of the stupidity and self-contradictory nature of arguing for determinism. Yet, I find myself strangely compelled (!) to try to hammer one last nail in the coffin, bearing in mind the madness of arguing with madmen. The travesty and self-defeating nature of a theory so many professional philosophers claim to hold or at least to regard as perfectly respectable is hard to bear. In an extended dialogue a proponent of determinism divulged to me total disbelief in rational persuasion.  Why then try to persuade me?  An admission at the beginning would have spared us the useless exchange.

Agency, Intelligence and the Big Bang

In this analysis of physical determinism, it is necessary to keep emphasizing that the determinist’s dictum is that all events are the result of cause and effect chains stretching back to the Big Bang. If the determinist is allowed to focus on relatively brief periods of time, the theory’s plausibility is increased. In some cases the determinist interlocutor even steps in and out of the determinist perspective in the attempt to defend the theory. Here the determinist may claim that though moral responsibility does not exist in a deterministic universe it is necessary to maintain the fiction that moral responsibility does exist in order to justify imprisoning criminals since the threat of imprisonment acts as a deterrent. But deterrents imply that some other action is possible. A deterrent is not the same as total enforcement.

The determinist is stepping outside a deterministic framework and considering what ought to be done and what policy to pursue as though real choice was involved. Making himself an exception to determinism, arguing for a policy and trying to persuade an interlocutor of the wisdom of this policy, is to be involved in a contradiction. This maneuver also relies on starting a little chain of deterministic causes; one with a beginning, if not an end. The free action is like a compressed spring. Once the spring is released, the marbles fall where the force of the spring dictates and they fall forever.

Some of these rhetorical ploys can be forestalled by reminding the determinist that thoughts and policies and all the rest have been determined since the literal beginning of time in this universe according to determinism. There is only one spring, the Big Bang, and everything else is marbles. The determinist machine includes both the spring and the marbles. Policies, thoughts, persuasion, arguments are all irrelevant except as they can be reduced to physical causes and effects in an endless chain. The determinist cannot step in and out of a deterministic universe whenever it suits his purposes.

Determinism removes agency from the world. Everything is part of a series governed by physical forces. The Big Bang uses and discards anything and everything in this causal chain; a rock one minute, a human the next. The concept of agency implies responsibility for actions and purpose driven behavior. “I,” the agent, am acting. But for the consistent determinist, if anyone or anything is “acting,” it is the Big Bang.

So agents do not exist and neither does person-specific intelligence. The Big Bang is impersonal – just a spring and marbles. We do not credit marbles with agency or intelligence. The inclination to either praise or blame someone’s intelligence or stupidity is as absurd as praising the pinball for finding the hole.

The Appearance of Intelligence in the World

Intelligence exists or at least appears to exist. Many organisms appear to respond sensibly and intelligently to events that they were unaware would occur. These reactions to the unexpected often seem to involve goal-driven, purposive behavior, such as avoiding danger or gathering food. From the creature’s point of the view, the event is random, but the response is often appropriate.

The appearance of intelligent behavior creates a difficulty for the physical determinist since, according to him, the responses and counter-responses have all been predetermined since the Big Bang. This means two things, among others. One is that the Big Bang seems remarkably omniscient in having created the conditions that have led inexorably to this intelligent behavior by organisms and environments that were billions of years from even existing. Two is that what seems like intelligence must be reduced to physical causes, and talk of purposes, drives, etc., must be eliminated. “Goals” pull from the future. A goal is an outcome or state of affairs that often does not physically exist yet. A goal is connected to the organism by desire, but “desire” is just folk psychology for the determinist. One mindless physical event leads to another mindless physical event due to physical causes. A philosopher cannot introduce mental phenomena like desires and purposes into his analysis. For determinism to work, these things must be reducible to physical causation.

Nonphysical minds and mental phenomena by definition lie outside the realm assumed to exist by physical determinists. Dualism or spiritual monism must be rejected, otherwise the possibility of escaping or deviating from the chain of physical causation would ruin his theory.

Determinists must be prevented from appealing to an ontology of desires, purposes, intentions, etc., not permitted by their metaphysics. Physical determinism requires mechanism of a particular kind. Machines have designers and purposes, but the determinist rejects both. Relying on the kind of thinking introduced during the scientific revolution, purpose and teleology are removed from the world and are to be explained mechanically. The heliotropic flower is not trying to maximize its exposure to the sun. The flower has cells that get smaller or bigger depending on their exposure to sunlight which has the effect of maximizing the results of photosynthesis. This tendency has been “selected for.” Flowers that do this have out competed flowers that do not.

Deviating from an ontology and metaphysics of mechanism will spell death for a physically deterministic theory. Choosing between hypothetical alternatives, for instance, must be an illusion. No choice takes place if one of the choices was never an option in the first place. And “evaluating” is again just folk psychology. No top down causation, mind to body, must be relied upon. The “mental” must really be the physical. Only body to body causation can exist.

Unpredictable Events Exist, so How did the Big Bang Predict Them?

If the response of an organism to an event seems purposive and intelligent, the response cannot be merely improvised and flexible on the spur of the moment for the determinist. Every event is supposed to have been predetermined since the Big Bang, so spontaneity is outlawed. Spontaneity is not consistent with a deterministic machine – it must merely appear to be spontaneous and driven by mental phenomena. So if the organism does the “right” action, such as a life-preserving action, this must merely be chance that it has this outcome or the outcome must have been “planned” from the very beginning, from the moment of the Big Bang. If right actions are merely chance, then it is a mystery why people are not more frequently hit by cars while crossing the road.

The determinist cannot speak of heuristics either. Heuristics are just rough and ready rules of thumb. Their nature is too imprecise, with too much wiggle-room for improvisation and unpredictable decisions. Knowing a heuristic does not allow the prediction of exactly which behavior will be chosen or even whether the heuristic will be abandoned. The whole point of heuristics is that they are not to be followed when inappropriate and their existence is the implicit acknowledgement of the possibility of being wrong. Heuristics imply flexibility and choosing between alternatives. They are goal-driven and as will be argued further below, goals do not exist.

Predetermined behavior requires perfect prediction and an advanced plan for every unique situation. Without those features, the behavior will not fit the circumstances and will be relatively chaotic in terms of optimal outcomes, preserving life, etc..

Some Events are Truly Unpredictable, Even in Principle

Some events are not predictable. Therefore, a mechanistic pre-programmed, rule-governed response will not work. Chaos theory, for instance, purports to demonstrate why some phenomena will always be unpredictable. The halting problem too proves with no shadow of a doubt whatsoever that given an arbitrary computer program and a given input there is no way of knowing for sure whether the program will finish running or not. A computer program is a kind of rational argument with each step leading to the next following an unbroken chain of logic. A valid argument is one in which, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Any error among the premises will mean that the argument is invalid. In a computing context, it means that computer program will never finish running. It will jam or get stuck in a loop. If the halting problem were solvable, it would mean that the validity of an argument could be determined without actually going through every line of the argument or program. Its validity could be known in advance. But, it turns out, the program must be run to find out.

The unsolvable nature of the halting problem means that so long as computers exist, people will continue to look at the equivalent of little green circles going round and round and will have to wonder whether to wait a bit longer for the program to finish running, or to exit. There is no way to tell in advance, for all programs, whether, given an input, the program will halt. So, it is provable that not everything can be predicted, and yet, we appear to see rational and intelligent behavior in the face of non-rule driven phenomena.

Consciousness Does Exist and Has a Causal Role to Play

The simplest and most obvious explanation for the existence of intelligent responses to the unforeseen is that consciousness and minds do indeed exist – that when we think about a problem and decide what to do, this decision is one that a person is capable of making freely and rationally, evaluating reasons/evidence, looking at alternative courses of action and then acting. This conforms to our everyday experience.

For this to be possible, mind must be capable of following lines of thought dictated by logic and reason, and thus the mind cannot be the product only of nonmental physical forces that follow the rules of physics, not logic and reason. If physics ruled the mind, then thoughts would be the result of mindless physical processes and any apparent meaning to be found in our thoughts would be a mere coincidence. If physical processes are mindful – driven by meaning and intentions, then the full reality of mind is reintroduced and is taken to guide physical processes, superseding mere physics. This is not something the determinist can allow.

Computers, on the other hand, are rule-governed devices. As such a preprogrammed method of dealing with every contingency must be written for them which means that completely unforeseen events will lack an adequate response.

Not so Fast, writes the Determinist

Some determinists find something question begging about referring to physical events as mindless in this context. Yet mind would be entirely redundant in a wholly rule-driven universe governed by endless unchangeable causal chains. Mind could be an epiphenomenon, but no more. A nonphysical mind cannot be permitted to turn around and affect matter.

If “Mental” Events are just Physical Events, Drop the Folk Psychology Nomenclature

If what we call “mind” and “rational thought” is just another name for purely physical forces, it would make more sense to drop the terminology all together and focus on our nice physical causal chains. The qualities that minds and thought possess would then be no different from other physical things and so they, and all things related to them, would seem to be an empty set with no distinguishing features.

For the physical determinist, there are just behaviors selected by “nature” and “evolution” which  is all really just “The Big Bang.” The Big Bang has invented nature and evolution and selected the rules and behaviors that they exhibit. It dreamed up the dinosaurs and the birds. It knew the comet would hit the Earth. In fact it created the comet and made the collision happen, and set up replacement species for the dinosaurs. It invented natural selection and punctuated equilibrium, life, cell function, sexual reproduction. It set up debates about evolution. It caused paleontologists to note that evolution as a theory did not line up with the fossil record. The Big Bang invented racism and murder, morality and religion. In the 1960s, the Big Bang caused mankind to confirm that there was a Big Bang after having caused humans to believe in a steady state theory for many years.

Determinism would Fit a Universe where from a Meaning and Survival Point of View, Events are Chaotic

Mindless physical determinism would make sense in a universe that contained no teleology and was devoid of purposes and intentions, which is exactly what many materialists would like to believe about the universe. Such a universe would, from a meaning point of view, be entirely random and chaotic. Blind, purposeless physical forces would rule. Perhaps stars and planets would have evolved, but certainly not life. Life is too precarious to be governed by randomness and chance. For instance, every living being must be purposive – it must desire to stay alive. When a person attempts to squash an ant, the ant runs hither and thither trying to evade the descending finger. The ant tries to respond intelligently to the finger’s unpredictable maneuvers.

It does not help to assert that evolution “selected” animals that had these purposes because that does not answer where the purpose came from. The materialist-determinist has said there are no “purposes,” just blind physical forces.

The physicalist-determinist is likely to assert that when someone tries to squash an ant, both the desire to squash and the desire to evade do not really exist. “Desires” are just folk psychology.  The determinist has to argue that the actions of the human and the actions of the ant are the product of purely physical forces and those forces are the product of cause and effects chains reaching back into the Big Bang. The appearance of “desire” is anthropomorphic both in the ant and the human. People do not have desires either. They have causal chains. Those who embrace the dismissive phrase “folk psychology” are committed to de-anthropomorphizing humans too.

Getting rid of desires and purposes and replacing them with physics means that the movements of the finger and the movements of the ant have been predetermined since the beginning of time. When the ant appears to be “evading” the finger, it is an illusion. Evasion implies intent and agency.

Intelligence and Purposeful Behavior in the Universe Requires the Big Bang to be Intelligent and Omniscient

The movements of the ant certainly appear intelligent and “rational” so to speak. Again, the simplest explanation is that the ant is autonomous. It has a mind of its own. Since it is conscious it is not entirely rule-governed. It can improvise a response to the unpredictable question of what exactly someone is going to do with his finger. There is intelligent, purposive behavior driven by a desire to stay alive. For the determinist, on the other hand, the behavior of both ant and finger was determined before human fingers and ants even existed.

The determinist scenario requires an all-knowing God figure who has governed the initial field of cosmic dust resulting from the Big Bang in such a way that stars will form, then planets, then solar systems, then life and then evolution until fingers and ants appear. It has written a rule that in this particular interaction between finger and ant, the ant will zag when the finger zigs, it will then zag again, zag one more time, hesitate and then run under the iPhone temporarily – the iPhone that the Big Bang God knew was going to be invented and be resting on that counter-top right when it was needed and that the teenage daughter of the house will not have unexpectedly borrowed because she had temporarily mislaid her own phone or have mistaken it for hers.

Why are Accidents the Exception and Not the Rule?

If people were constantly being hit by cars and general chaos reigned, then physical determinism might be a bit more plausible, or if people were constantly responding to each other with non sequiturs and other nonsense. But the idea that since the Big Bang occurred, the Big Bang “knew” a car was going to come around the corner at just that moment and that it would get the pedestrian to withdraw his foot and wait until the car had passed is truly beyond belief. How did the Big Bang even know “pedestrians” and roads and cars were going to exist to keep making it look like actions were intelligent? And from whence comes all this benevolence? Why does the Big Bang care? Less sarcastically, how come car accidents are the exception and not the rule?

Physical Determinists are Hostile to the Idea of God and Mind, Taking our Ordinary Subjective Experience of Free-Decision-Making to be an Illusion, but Logically require a Big Bang that has Many of the Qualities of God and Minds

Apparently, if ten billiard balls are lined up on a pool table in a row and the first one is hit, the  mathematics is so complicated and uncomputable that there is no way of predicting where the last billiard ball will end up. But that is comparatively simple compared to the conversations that take place on a daily basis where to all appearances people are constantly giving reasonably intelligent sounding responses to questions and comments that they did not know were going to occur. Chaos theory claims that weather patterns are unpredictable and yet a person who had no conscious knowledge that it was going to rain, takes out her umbrella just on the day when it rains, not before and not after, and uses it. The human, driven by purely physical deterministic forces gets it “right.” Her behavior coincides with the relevant states of affairs and appears to be intelligent and rational, given her desire not to get wet; except, intelligence, rationality and desire have nothing to do with it according to the determinist.

Arguing with determinists does seem rather like being a finger to their ant. Doors that should be closed and locked forever will be magically opened again when it argumentatively suits them. Evolution “selects” desires they write – but in other contexts they will claim that desires do not exist. That’s folk psychology. Purpose does not exist for the materialist. Goals exist in the future and pull a creature towards them. Mechanism involves pushing only. The God of the Big Bang pushes and guides nearly everything to live another day.

Determinism withdraws from mind intentionality, intelligence, teleology; goal-driven behavior, foresight and decision-making. What we call a “decision” is at most a temporary pause in a predetermined process and truly deserves the name folk psychology. But it then imbues the God of the Big Bang with all these qualities and more. Omniscience and omnipotence would seem to be requirements also, given the relatively orderly behavior of humans and other creatures and the way their behavior is so well coordinated with their environments.

Determinism gets rid of intelligence and meaningful responses to complex situations from the agents involved only to situate these things at the beginning of the universe.

The most prodigious foresight and intelligence is being attributed to the Big Bang; qualities formerly attributed more plausibly to God Himself. The Big Bang is utterly magic.

On a grand scale the Big Bang orchestrated and determined the rise of nature and biological evolution before either one existed, made sure they function reasonably well, kept us on our toes by bringing about climate change – anthropogenic climate change does not exist even in theory, by the way, since “we” are not doing anything; humans are not freely acting agents – and on the tiny, trivial level of utter banality has taken the trouble to decide whether a particular person will find the keys she will mislay in forty years time. Now that’s smart.



1. Richard Cocks, “The Illogicality of Determinism,” The Orthosphere (blog) (19 March 2016)

2. Correspondence, Thomas Bertonneau to Richard Cocks (6 July 2016).


This was originally published with the same title at SydneyTrads; also see The Illogicality of Determinism.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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