Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle

I came across the following article not long ago, and made a close reading of its arguments, many of them broadly Christian in outline, on the subject of material determinism. Original in black, my comments in bold italics. I hope they don’t overly detract from the flow.

From Catholic Answers Magazine (Volume 19, Number 4)
Determined to Deny Your Freedom
By: Peter A. Kwasniewski

“Determinism” is not an everyday word, but we feel the effects of this philosophical view every day—usually in the unspoken assumptions of popular scientific journalism and critiques of religion. It is helpful to be aware of what this view involves and why it is untenable.
Determinism in its most general sense could be described as the theory that the history of the world—all events and their order of occurrence—is fixed and unitary. In other words, there is only one possible history of the world down to every last detail. There are several types of determinism: logical determinism, theological determinism, biological determinism, scientific determinism. In this article I will concentrate on this last and most familiar form. Scientific determinism stems from a belief that modern science, especially physics, has successfully proved that all reality is material and operates according to fixed laws of action and reaction.

No. This demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of science, which could never prove something so ambitious to its own satisfaction, much less yours. What you describe is the self-limitation of all scientific inquiry. It can only work with material phenomena. To see it as holding the philosophical position that any event of any sort is fully explicable (and thus, in principle, predictable) by a pre-existing chain of physical events necessitating it is also mistaken, though this is a fine philosophical definition of determinism. Science can only use the tools it has, so full explanations as science sees them must be couched in the language and employ the tools that science provides. For instance, why I get cancer and you don’t is explicable by science to a degree, but no researcher would claim that explanation is complete in a metaphysical sense, nor would any claim that any empirical explanation whatsoever is ever satisfactorily completed as explanations always lead to further questions. The core issue here is that science applies the philosophical position of determinism to a very limited sphere of study, all involving perceptual experience. You seem to be setting science up for a fall with these hyperbolic definitions.

In a world where science has been elevated to the status of a quasi-religion and its spokesmen to the rank of high priests, we are bound to encounter people who hold this position. It is well to note that the attitude or frame of mind underlying it strikes at the root of religion as such, impeding conversations about anything—God and the human soul, Christ and the Church, sin and grace, even good and evil—that is not strictly empirical or susceptible of laboratory analysis.

This may be true if scientists are unwilling to admit the limitations of their method, but most seem all too willing to acknowledge them. Scientism, not science, fits the definitions you give here, and scientism is easy to refute. Yes, science “impedes” conversations about anything non-empirical, just as it ought to, for that is its sole sphere of action. But nothing stops religionists from diving right in.

Science Explains It All . . .
This view found its rudimentary expressions in the writings of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and their contemporaries, but attained a dogmatic consistency in the blatant materialism of Thomas Hobbes, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Voltaire, and Baron Paul Henri d’Holbach. These writers exaggerated the reach of physical science and claimed that experimental physics was the model for a total explanation of reality.

Yes, don’t forget Poincare and other thinkers who championed what passed for science in the nineteenth century. This sense of unbounded optimism is always a temptation for science, but the view you reference was especially popular in the era before science was as strictly defined as it is now. Bear in mind that the provenance and power of “science” as an activity have tightened over the years, and the trust that eighteenth and nineteenth century writers placed in the future of science has since been challenged by the increasingly rigorous requirements of empirical research. What Voltaire thought of science is as irrelevant to its current status as what Plotinus thought of religion. Pompous self-importance and inflated truth claims are particular temptations of the human sciences, but these are not what we think of when we think of scientific success (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“).

Later on, Charles Darwin’s theory fed into this powerful stream. His godless account of biological diversity showed itself well adapted for integration into a larger philosophy of scientific determinism.

Slanderous. Read the last sentence of On the Origin of Species! Still, just as Copernicus removed the necessity for angelic rotation of the spheres, Darwin removed the necessity for the Great Watchmaker to establish biological diversity and complexity. I suspect biology will soon remove the necessity of God from biological creation and cosmology is already working on a universe originating from nothing. But what is the alternative? To reject evolution and modern cosmology in favor of miraculous creationism and geocentrism? I have written extensively in these pages of the temptations of coherentism, whose virtual circles of personal truths need only be supported by the principle of non-contradiction and of the immediate contradiction religionists face when they attempt to claim absolutist truth about external reality using these same means (see post titled “Religion and Truth). It is certainly defensible to make truth claims about the transcendent reality we cannot know so long as they cohere with what we do know, but to prefer private belief to correspondence knowledge violates not only the proofs of correspondence but also the only proof open to coherentists. It is a childish error of willfulness.

The rapid and spectacular advance of technology, born from the marriage of modern physics and capitalism, seemed to verify beyond all doubt the materialistic mentality behind both.

I had no idea physics and capitalism were even dating! Seriously, how are they connected? They may both be godless in their subject areas, but the pews are filled with practitioners of both on the Sabbath, so these fields conduce to atheism no more insistently than any others. Yet again, it seems to me science’s silence on metaphysics might be interpreted as an admirable restraint on a subject it can never know.

Given that people nowadays have been more or less habituated by textbooks, teachers, and news media to accept scientific determinism as fact, the apologist should start by explaining that the position is essentially a belief or dogma. It cannot be deduced from empirical knowledge, which must always be imperfect (no scientist would dare to claim that he knows or could know all the “laws of nature” and all the data required to predict future events).

Again, odd definitions. “Deduction” means to draw a conclusion not explicit in the premise, so it strikes me as wrong to say truth cannot be deduced from empirical knowledge (though the use of “fact” in the passage shows a lamentable mental sloppiness: see “Eskimos Have Two Words for Snow“). The methodology of science ensures that it is the best means available to arrive at certain kinds of truths. The error here is to consider absence of evidence as evidence of absence. The empirical endeavor simply cannot speak to the issues you value. Its silence should not be interpreted as a rejection of your value system but rather as a blindness to it. I think your quarrel should be with modern theology that stupidly accepts the narrow focus of empiricism as a kind of limitation or criticism of religion’s core values while at the same time modeling its theology and pastoralism on the flimsiest of human sciences (see “Must Religion Retreat?)”. The use of “dogma” is interesting, for it references a common criticism of the scientific enterprise: that it pretends to be based on fact yet is actually predicated on non-verifiable assumptions. On that charge it is clearly guilty. Let us call these assumptions “axioms,” rather than “dogma” so that we may avoid religious equivalencies. The principle of non-contradiction is one such axiom as is the inductive method. These assumptions are based on a deeper axiom: that reality is fundamentally rational (Heisenberg and Godel have taken aim at the latter, an attack crucial to postmodern critiques of natural science. See “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). These axioms are working premises rather than dogma. They underlie the investigation, but as early twentieth century theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity have revealed, they are open to criticism and revision using the very same techniques scientists employ in their everyday pursuits. Contrast this pragmatism with religion’s absolutist reliance on the inerrant and revealed truth. Imagine how religionists might respond to assaults on their dogma! You don’t have to. Study the Reformation (see “Premodern Authority“).

It cannot be considered self-evident because it contradicts the experience of freedom, which has more weight than any theory.

Nice point, but the phenomenological sense of freedom does not necessitate an ontological reality. We may feel free without being free (see ‘The Determinism Problem“).

The one who puts forward determinism as a universal explanation lays it down a priori, that is, as an axiom and without sufficient evidence.

Now this is just silly. It is neither an axiom nor a priori, but is a deduction drawn from experience. You may argue it is the wrong deduction, but to call it a priori is simply an error of definition. Once we see the claim to determinism as an a posteriori  conclusion validated by a near infinitude of experiential instances, the truth of determinism as a foundation stone of empiricism seems unassailable.

Empirical science can never go beyond the boundaries of the measurable or observable, and, as a consequence, is simply unqualified to make judgments about the existence or non-existence of anything beyond its limited field.

Yes! Now with that in mind, go back and revise everything you have accused it of till now. Don’t malign it for ignoring religion and God when it cannot do otherwise and don’t take its silence on metaphysical issues as dismissal.

. . . Or Maybe Not
Let us consider seven instances where scientific determinism founders.
1. It is meaningless to speak of universal “laws of nature” unless they have been instituted by a lawgiver. Matter, as such, is not capable of giving laws of behavior to itself. That means that material things are not the source of these laws; rather, they presuppose laws when they act and react in an intelligible manner.

No. A “law” of nature is simply a large explanatory hypothesis that answers the “how” of some physical question. You are correct in saying that things cannot create laws: these are products of human interpretation. We say the law of gravity dictates the attraction of two masses in a vacuum, but the masses don’t know the law. They do act according to its dictates as we would if falling toward the earth from an airplane. But a law of nature is merely a logical explanation of phenomena, not a prescription dictating behavior, and as such it requires a mind to make the analysis. Such analysis provides real predictive power. Nothing in the nature of natural laws necessitates an external source or creator; all that is required is a mind to explicate the law based on careful observation and rational analysis. Sounds pretty determinist to me, for what is a natural law but a replicable prediction?

Moreover, how did material things come to exist, not merely as matter, but as matter functioning within a system that leads to the formation of stable and orderly structures? Do atoms just mysteriously “know” where to go to in order to make up a certain molecule in a certain kind of organism?

Also a red herring. Does water know to freeze at 32 degrees or boil at 212? Again, matter responds to forces acting upon it in predictable ways. That means determinism. Otherwise, we couldn’t be accurate in our predictions and science would collapse into magic. The totality of these actions produces a “system” which magnifies the predictability and therefore the determinism operating in the system. The system doesn’t predict or know it is a system. We do. Theoretical cosmologists and theologians may find in such macroscopic interlocking order evidence for divine intervention that empiricists might never observe in the microscopic determinism of phenomena (See “The Latest Creationism Debate“). But, I hasten to add, such confirmation could never be scientific simply because the explanation involves notions not open to perception and– pity poor science– it can only deal with phenomena.

The materialist will have sophisticated answers, of course, about how one system gives rise to another and how this environment happens to be suited to that reaction or result. But buried in the fancy language is the same problem: “begging of the question.” They have assumed that which is supposed to be demonstrated.

Huh? Is this a blurry version of the cosmological proofs?

  1. A living animal (or one of its organs) is obviously and radically different from a dead animal (or dead organ) even though the material stuff out of which they are made seems to be the same. Therefore, some principle other than and greater than the material parts must exist to account for the life of a living thing. This principle, according to the Western tradition, is the soul. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas teach that plants, animals, and especially human persons are animated beings (from anima, soul). It is the soul in each organism that contributes its distinctive nature and controls its activities. The presence of a soul in living things testifies against the materialism that usually accompanies scientific determinism.

You are on higher ground here as you are not challenging science but transcending it, which seems to me your best bet. Science certainly can describe the difference between a live and a dead body, but it must be silent on the existence of the soul that animates it. Ockham’s Razor does play into this, though. We don’t need angels pushing the planets around the sun when we can offer centripetal force, though they still might be doing that. We don’t need Apollo driving his chariot across the sky, though he still might be there. So it is with an animating force. Organisms are more than matter. Life requires energy transfers through biological and chemical systems that cease to function at death and this empirical physical change adequately explains the difference between life and death. Maybe there is a soul involved in this arrangement, but Ockham’s Razor makes it unnecessary in order for pathologists to fully explain the perceptual factors involved. Unfortunately, you cannot prove the existence of a soul any more than your opponents can disprove it, so your argument is unlikely to be a powerful one against active opposition.

  1. The human intellect has a unique power: It is capable of knowing simultaneously things that are mutually exclusive. For example, hot and cold are properties of a body (physical object) and cannot exist at the same time in the same respect; a body can either be so hot or so cold, but not at once perfectly hot and perfectly cold. The intellect, however, in knowing hot knows also cold, and in fact knows the one in and through the other. Your mind can be all hot and all cold, inasmuch as you are able to grasp these opposites at the same time. More than that, intellect conceives of hotness and coldness, which are more than mere degrees belonging to some body—they are essences, “whatnesses.” These reflections help show that the intellect is not a body, for something is seen to be true of it that can be true of no body whatsoever.
    Now, because the intellect has a power over opposites or contraries that no physical organ has, and because it attains a knowledge of universal things that stand beyo3. The human intellect has a unique power: It is capable of knowing simultaneously things that are mutually exclusive. For example, hot and cold are properties of a body (physical object) and cannot exist at the same time in the same respect; a body can either be so hot or so cold, but not at once perfectly hot and perfectly cold. The intellect, however, in knowing hot knows also cold, and in fact knows the one in and through the other. Your mind can be all hot and all cold, inasmuch as you are able to grasp these opposites at the same time. More than that, intellect conceives of hotness and coldness, which are more than mere degrees belonging to some body—they are essences, “whatnesses.” These reflections help show that the intellect is not a body, for something is seen to be true of it that can be true of no body whatsoever.
    Now, because the intellect has a power over opposites or contraries that no phnd the scope of any sense power, the intellect must be immaterial. Since matter is the very cause of a thing’s being corruptible (i.e., able to break down and fall apart), the intellect in itself is incorruptible—it will never break down and fall apart. Hence the soul of man, insofar as it is intellectual, is immortal. What is more, the soul is not subject to opposition from or coercion by material causes. In other words, no body can make you change your mind, unless your mind changes itself. This is a powerful sign that the intellect (or better, the intellectual soul, which includes free will), has its feet planted in the material world by way of the sense powers, but holds its head aloft in a spiritual world where the stakes are truth and falsehood, good and evil.

Well, that was a long trip! This Platonic argument was countered by Aristotle, who argued that the Forms were neither perfect nor divine but were rather conceptualizations built up from experience. This argument was developed ad nauseam by the “realist” opponents to nominalism in the high Middle Ages, but as no convincing resolution of the argument settled the question, it seems to me all the old nominalist and conceptualist arguments can still be made against this one. My position is that a concept like justice is not a real object any more than hatred is– though I hold that both are objects of thought that allow us to recognize and discuss their nature– but that does not mean that either is divine in any way. This is not to disprove the Platonic argument. It can neither be proved nor disproved. But as a completely natural counterargument suffices to explain the phenomena in question, this argument against determinism is not necessarily convincing. BTW, it is a huge leap to go from conceptualism to immortality, so I would say your argument makes some unsupported jumps along the way here even if the initial Platonic points prove defensible. For instance, it certainly is not logically necessary for a nonmaterial substance to have entirely contrary qualities to a material one. Because one thing is contrary to another in one sense does not necessitate it being contrary in all. Men and women are opposites in regard to gender but identical in many other respects. So too may immaterial qualities be like material ones in some respects but not all. At any rate, conceptualist notions of qualities like “consciousness” posit an objective or at least intersubjective reality rooted in that consciousness rather than in some Platonic realm.

  1. The determinist claim that free will is an illusion flies in the face of our immediate and unshakable awareness of freedom over moral actions. It undermines praise and blame, reward and punishment, and the practice of justice, which renders to each what he deserves. If man is not the free cause of his actions, how can he be praised for defending his family from crime, or punished for murdering a fellow human being? All social life and jurisprudence is founded on the fact of moral freedom, which we know with a certainty far greater than any scientific hypothesis commands. Some people use the expression “pre-scientific knowledge” to refer to the fundamental experience of the natural world and of ourselves that not only must come before, but must dominate the interpretation of, all subsequent knowledge. Some scientific theories are reminiscent of a man on a ladder sawing off the planks that support him, or a tightrope walker ready to sever the cord that holds him up.

You seem to mistake wishing for knowing here. I would love to think I am free. Also that I will not die. Both of these convictions are strong in me. But if I face facts squarely, I know I will die. And if I look at the various arguments against determinism in regard to free will, I find that compatibilism, libertarianism, and various attempts to find room for human freedom are wishes rather than arguments (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem“). I concede that we feel free to choose, but we are wrong about many things we come to naturally, and even unpleasant truths must be faced. Still, I think you have this one backward. If we have free will, we are not determined. But because we feel like we have free will is not proof that we are not determined. Wish it were.

  1. Nothing is a cause unless it has power to cause. No physical thing gives itself power to cause, but always receives this power from something else. Moreover, no physical thing is the cause of its own being, but exists only as a result of prior beings. Thus, for each cause, one must seek the source of its causality; for each being, one must seek the source of its existence. If there is not, prior to all physical causes, a non-physical origin of the power of causality, then nothing could ever begin to cause and nothing would in fact occur. Posterior causes depend on prior causes; if there is not, prior to all physical beings, a non-physical origin of their existence, then nothing would exist—all of which is absurd. The existence and causality of material things therefore depends entirely on a perfectly immaterial uncaused cause of both being and motion—namely, God. Far from doing away with God, scientific determinism cannot make any sense at all without implicitly assuming him—or rather, without arbitrarily transferring divine attributes to matter and chance.

This is certainly what the Deists say and it is a strong argument. Thanks, Aquinas. It seems right to argue that the only way to break the causal chain is to posit an uncaused cause. If the universe had no moment of creation, then everything that could happen would already have happened and we would have reached perfect entropy. Cosmology is doing a bang-up job with multiverses and so on to push the moment of original creation back, but infinity is a long time and I doubt that cosmology will ever be equal to taking that on. Still your strongest point, but I would like to stress Aquinas’s point, one echoed by C.S. Lewis, that calling a creator “God” does nothing to imbue Him with any of the other qualities we like to attribute to the Judeo-Christian divinity (Please see post on “C.S. Lewis,  Religious Knowledge and Belief. And if we seek to follow Paul’s advice in Romans 1:20 and infer the nature of the divinity from the universe it created, I cannot imagine we would produce the Judeo-Christian God, particularly if we don’t begin with the Biblical version of creation. Any honest induction from the nature of creation should produce a creator who loves material diversity far more than individuals, a conclusion supported both by the size and complexity of material reality and by the fragility and waste implicit in biological evolution.

  1. The exponent of scientific determinism is guilty of a dramatic inconsistency between his thinking and his life. His dogma tells him that he is not free, that he is not responsible for his actions, and similarly that nobody else is free or responsible; yet in his life he behaves as a free person towards other free persons, exacts duties of himself and others, and shows mercy or cries out for justice when wrong has been done. His dogma tells him that his wife and children are basically automatons, yet, if he is a good man, he loves them and could never actually believe that the unique relationship he has with them—the experiences they have shared, the meeting of his future wife, their marrying and rearing children—is no more than a lockstep parade of meaningless atoms.

Not really. This seems a corollary to argument four and the same counterarguments apply. We know we are going to die, but nonagenarians keep on eating nonetheless. So do twenty-year-olds whose death in cosmic spans will follow immediately. Why act in a way that violates the basic facts of existence? Because we have hope, which is all this point offers. I am convinced that free will is tied to the Kantian categories, specifically causation, in questions of goodness, so though we feel we possess natural freedom, and therefore bear the burden of choosing, we are actually determined. Since we don’t know what the determining influence is, we feel it doesn’t exist. But people were bound by gravity long before anyone knew what it was (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). In any case, our beliefs often seem at odds with the known facts of existence, but the conflict should challenge our beliefs rather than the facts.

  1. If someone asserts that determinism is true, has he come to understand something true about reality as a whole? If so, how can this truth, which is universal, timeless, and independent of all particular events, be merely an effect of material causes? It already reaches into a domain no longer subject to—indeed totally outside of—the strict chain of physical cause and effect to which the theory appeals. There is no room for truth as such in the world of the determinist; the man who says “determinism is true” refutes himself in the very act of speaking.

This is a restating of your third argument but is much weaker. Conceptualism offers a long history of explanation for terms such as “truth” that traces back to Aristotle’s original rejection of the origin of the Forms. David Hume does a clear job of catching one up to progress from the Greeks to the Scottish Enlightenment, though not much has been worked out since, but the argument you give here would also make unicorns and Klingons not only real but of divine origin. I would add that the man who says, “Determinism is false” should never expect his car to start in the morning. Consider the literally thousands of chemical, electrical, mechanical, metallurgical, and physics processes involved in an automobile’s creation and operation, from the making of the internal combustion engine to refining of gasoline, from radiator to exhaust gasses. Each is based on determinism as is every bit of natural science. The notion that God made a miraculous universe died a well-deserved death beginning in the Renaissance. Its adherents seem not to appreciate that a miraculous universe would be a literally chaotic one, one not open to reason and experience: in other words, the medieval world. To trash human reasoning so willingly seems to me to be a deeply ungrateful act of betrayal to the divinity believers profess to worship (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return“).

Nevertheless, the apologist should bear in mind that determinism, as a quasi-religious dogma, is passionately and stubbornly clung to by its adherents, who have often, so to speak, pre-determined the outcome of the dispute before it even gets under way. An apologist is more likely to be successful with ordinary people who have given credit to determinism only because it is repeated ad nauseam in textbooks and the media. Their half-hearted endorsement of it, or of some aspects of it, is thus more easily shaken.

I am afraid you are guilty of this charge, and the success you desire smacks more of religious proselytizing than of a deep investigation into the methodology of science. I once again challenge you and those you seek to convert to visualize the appalling consequences of living in a universe unintelligible to reason, for surely that would characterize one devoid of material determinism. Such a universe would hardly be a “cosmos,” an orderly creation, but rather the “Pandemonium” Milton envisioned as the realm of devils.

Reviewing the weak theories that attempt to rob us of our freedom, we might well desire to cry out again with St. Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1); “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

I admire Dr. Kwasniewski confronting the issue in such a disciplined way, and his characterization of science does have some validity in regard to the excesses of scientism, which is certainly a problem that science and its popular adherents sometimes fail to confront sufficiently. But as the lines were drawn long ago by Popper and others, there seems no excuse for scientists or educated laymen to cross that line. For an opponent of science to attack the excesses of scientism seems to me an act of bad faith, for the two have long been disentangled, and the proper sphere of science should by now be well-appreciated by practitioners and the rest of us who profit by its technology, rigorous subject disciplines, and deep view of material reality, none of which necessarily dissolves faith and all of which may serve to deepen and broaden it. My most serious objection to the premise of this article is that it chooses the worst possible point of attack. Can anyone take seriously an assault on material determinism in this age of scientific triumph? As I have tried to make clear, such an assault hammers at the very foundation stone of the entire empirical enterprise (and any rational enterprise as well). Such a reactionary appeal to pre-Reformation epistemological positions would have been hopeless in 1700. It seems worse than quixotic to pitch it today in the face of the manifold daily proofs we see of the predictive power of the natural sciences. Science exists because of its explanatory power. Its truth is confirmed by the interlocking paradigms of its discrete subject disciplines, its reliance on the precision and logic of mathematics as its language platform, and, most obviously, its technological marvels. All of these rest squarely and exclusively on the truth of determinism. Why religionists fight this lost cause puzzles me, particularly when they can use some of these same arguments to contrast material determinism with human freedom, attributing the latter to a difference of kind only explicable by postulating the existence of a soul. Dr. Kwasniewski gets half of the argument right –our sense of freedom argues for a spark of the divine–but to grant that same freedom to the material universe by denying determinism puts him in the same boat with those he attacks, only he accuses them of wishing to make man matter without freedom while he wishes to make all matter free. Religionists might consider broadening the gulf between humans and nature rather than narrowing it. Science cannot help itself: it only examines perceptual reality and so must limit its study to our material being. Its glory is that it accepts its limitations and excels within them. Religionists should agree to accept theirs, and stop fighting for a cause long since lost. They might still triumph if they pick their battles more wisely.


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