Ditch Determinism and Forget Fatalism

Determinism might be a nice theory, but we cannot live that way:

Let me begin by noting that if we wanted to go much deeper into this topic, we could distinguish between fatalism and determinism. But for my purposes here I will use the terms in a similar fashion, as I discuss that which greatly minimises the significance and importance of choice.

There are various varieties of reductionistic determinism. We have for example Marxism, which reduces everything to economics, or Freudianism, which reduces everything to sex, or Darwinism, which reduces everything to matter. And we can have religious determinism, as in Islam, where Allah is capricious, and life is fatalistic.

Lest some folks argue that Christianity – or versions of it – are deterministic, I beg to differ. Some claim that Calvinism is. But as I have argued elsewhere, while Hyper-Calvinism can be, the great bulk of the Reformed camp oppose that, and are not fatalists, nor do they claim that humans are not responsible for their actions. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/09/04/divine-sovereignty-and-spurgeon-the-soul-winner/

Issues of right and wrong certainly suffer with determinism. Indeed, when it comes to things like morality, I have long argued that the Darwinian and new atheist take on this is certainly not helpful given its dogged determinism. I have often quoted Richard Dawkins in this regard:

Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature, Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

There are so many more such quotes one could post here from the atheists on this. Matter is all that matters in their worldview, so talk of good and evil is simply meaningless. As Michael Ruse put it: “I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.”

In a deterministic world, we not only jettison all notions of right and wrong, good and evil, but even things such as love. If there is merely fate, then talk of love and meaning simply evaporates. Sadly I often bump into folks pushing this silliness, either in my reading or in real life.

I recently posted something about fate on the social media. I had mentioned the old song Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). One fellow said something in response that was quite bizarre. Because I do not know the fellow very well (he is a newly accepted friend), I was willing to let it go, even though I did pen a reply to him. Here is what he had said:

“It is a point of view, not necessarily an ideology. The illusion of free will is due to the impossibility of knowing ALL of the consequences of a decision. Since we don’t KNOW the future, … the illusion. The rest is fate. For when we look back and analyze how things come to be, there is no choice.”

And this is the reply that I did not post there, but I will offer here:

Thanks **** Is that what you believe? Of course you know that entire libraries exist with volumes penned over millennia discussing these matters, so it is futile to hash it out here in tiny FB comment boxes! But 3 quick replies if I may. If there is no free will (and yes, that term can be understood in various ways, philosophically, theologically, and so on) – because of genetic determinism or whatever – then there is no point in having this discussion. Indeed, we should all ignore what you have to say on this just as we ignore everyone else. Real significance in what we say and do only comes about with some element of volition involved. Given that you chose to comment here, that is why I have chosen to reply. If you really had no choice in this, and it just happened, inexplicably, then we might as well just delete your remarks now!


In most things it really does not matter about knowing ALL the consequences of a decision. When you bought a car, bought a house, or found your wife, you did not know ALL the consequences of those decisions. When you did medical work, you seldom knew ALL the possible consequences of what you did. So what?! Did this belief you hold to paralyse you from doing all that you did? And given that you DID choose your wife while rejecting other females, that sounds like choice to me, and some sort of free will. I don’t think your wife would be all that thrilled if you told her you did not choose her – that it was just fate. We could go on like this all day: have you ever told your wife you love her? Why even say that, if there is no free will but just determinism of some sort?


And of course Christians believe that we DO know the future. The God who exists, who is outside of time and space, and has created both, has revealed it to us – or at least significant parts of it. He also reveals to us what has happened in the past and has commented on it. So we have some solid understanding of why we are here and where we are headed. History in other words is significant, because he is involved in it, and so are we – in a non-deterministic manner!


But as I say, it is rather foolish to try to solve all this here and now!

About all I know of this fellow is that while he is a conservative, he is not a Christian, and he has said he is interested in Buddhism. So mostly I am just praying for him at this stage. And the above discussion is not meant as an attack on him, but as a critique of rugged determinism. I do not know how anyone can live this way. It all might sound good as a theory, but no one in the real world is able to live out such a philosophy.

What is love?

And my point about his wife was not a cheap shot. If a person like this really does believe this sort of stuff, then I would think any wife might start having some second thoughts! Again, it might be nice for some prof in a classroom to wax eloquent about all this, claiming that only matter matters, or that there is no choice, or that love is not real because it cannot be tested in a science lab, etc., (and yes, I am here conflating somewhat materialism and determinism, although they often do go together).

But when this academic goes home at night, and if he has a wife, does he push that nonsense on her as well? If so, she would have a very good reason to reconsider the guy. If a wife is told that she is loved, she wants it to be real – and not the product of impersonal genes or whatever.

So love is a choice. Love is not just a feeling, but is willing the highest good of the other person. Here is that notion of “will” again. So many great thinkers have made this case. A few quotes of many from some philosophers, theologians and apologists are relevant here:

“To love is to will the good of the other.” Thomas Aquinas

“[Love] is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.” C. S. Lewis

“Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” C. S. Lewis

“What exactly is love? It is will-to-good or benevolence. We love something or someone when we promote their good for their own sake. Love’s contrary is malice, and its simple absence is indifference.” Dallas Willard

Note how volition and choice are mentioned each time here. Without genuine ability to choose, we have no ability to love. So those pushing an ideological or philosophical determinism are of necessity ruling out love in their worldview. Again, that might make for interesting theory, but it sucks as a way of living – and relating to others.

So we really must ditch determinism. We really must forget about fatalism. They do not offer much that is helpful or useful as to who we are and to the world that we live in.

[1649 words]

14 Replies to “Ditch Determinism and Forget Fatalism”

  1. Bill, your point “love is not just a feeling, but is willing the highest good of the other person” is certainly something worth pondering on.

    Things like love thy neighbour are regularly quoted by CiNOs and non-Christ followers, along with the whole ‘love is love’ mantra, but lacking in such discussions is what love actually is. And Hollywood is worse than useless given it presents a purely emotional paradigm, which may or may not be lifelong, may or may not require commitment, and may or may not end in divorce. Very much not the Biblical model.

    If love is about desiring the highest good for another, or for others, our approach will be radically different to someone who doesn’t recognise the God of Scripture, and\or defines love differently.

  2. It seems many reformed theologians have been unable to utter three terrifying words:

    “I don’t know.”

    Yes, almighty God works all things according to the immutable counsel of His own omnipotent and holy will.

    Yes, men are free and accountable for their own willful volitions.

    God decrees what He forbids, and that without in any way being tainted by sin or evil. He renders evil certain without actively willing it. (Proverbs 16:4) How does He do this? I have no idea and it’s none of my business.

    The Westminster divines did as good a job as is possible for finite fallen creatures in my estimation, of tackling this group of divine mysteries.

  3. It’s not only hypercalvinism, Catholics have our own version of this debate- the Dominicans and Thomists line up on the determinism side of it, while Catholic Molinists, Malebranche and Erasmus line up on the free will side. While we worship an omnipotent and omniscient God, it is imperative that humans recognise that we do have the ability to act rightly and justly and make deliberative, moral choices to do so. Divine omniscience and omnipotence is a quality reserved for our Lord and Saviour alone, who is perfect, and as humans, we do not share those capabilities. That means that our conduct is open ended within our own perceptions and intellect, and we should heed the words of our moral instructors and authorities (although questioning them when they get out of synch with divine will and intent is also permissible- human institutions partake of original sin and are therefore fallible- even churches sometimes- look at the toleration of the abhorrent institution of slavery until the eighteenth and nineteenth century).

  4. You haven’t considered the possibility that Dawkins is right. There is no empirical evidence that God exists, and the Universe certainly looks like it is devoid of purpose and meaning. That is not to say that life is without meaning. We make of life what we can, and showing care for and empathy with others makes for a happier existence. We don’t need a God to have reasons to live an honest, honourable and happy life.

  5. Thanks Veronica. But have you considered the possibility that IF Dawkins is right in what he said in that quote, then you are wrong – dead wrong?! Did you actually read his quote? Read it again! If his wording is too much, a short, accurate paraphrase would go like this: ‘Crap happens, so get used to it.’ He specifically says that life is “meaningless” and with “no purpose, no evil and no good.” How in the world do you get things like honesty and care and honour out of that? In the world of Dawkins and all philosophical naturalists, such things are just gibberish – they do not exist. If you ditch God, you most certainly DO need reasons to live an honest, honourable and happy life – and they are not forthcoming on THAT worldview.

    Morality is only something we get and apply to persons. A personal God can readily account for right and wrong – but a meaningless impersonal universe can NOT. And who cares about “happiness’ anyway if you embrace that worldview? Genetic determinism is a dog eat dog world, with the survival of the fittest the main game – it has nothing to do with happiness and the like. Sorry, but I will stick to a world filled with meaning, purpose, love and care, because a loving, caring and purposeful God exists.

  6. Thanks Bill. Humans became the dominant species because we evolved an advanced consciousness, which produced conscience and human morality. We are not mindless automatons. We might all wish there is an afterlife, but wishing doesn’t make reality.

    If there is a caring God who created morality, why are our lives filled with seemingly random peril from natural disasters and devastating diseases such as cancer? I know you have written at length on the theodicy problem, but the alternative reasoning is the simplest explanation for why crap happens.

  7. Thanks again Veronica. Um no, you do NOT get meaning from non-meaning, morality from non-morality, personhood from non-personhood, mind from non-mind, rationality from non-rationality, purpose from non-purpose We might all wish that these goods can somehow magically arise from such a dead-end worldview, but wishing doesn’t make reality.

    And your key word is “seemingly” – that makes all the difference. Unless you have perfect and infallible perception, insight and understanding of all things (you know, kinda like God), then life will be full of ‘seeming’ events. And that rather lame charge is easy enough to answer. When my son was a toddler and got a splinter in his foot, I hoped it would just work its way out. My wife was wiser and knew better, and rightly insisted that we had to remove it, painful as that might be for him. Guess what? In those brief painful moments as we worked to get that splinter out, it hurt him like mad. He wanted us to stop. All a toddler can think at the time like this is: ‘Why are my parents causing me so much pain and suffering?’ To his tiny mind it “seemed” that we were ogres and monsters, when the exact opposite was the case. It is no different when we finite, fallible and fallen creatures presume to know better than God, and think we are more wise and more kind. Sorry, our puny minds need a bit of humility here.

    The Judeo-Christian position of course is that God created a good world. Mankind decided to tell God to get lost, thinking that they could better run the show. That is where all sin and suffering arises – not in God. It is the same as the three-pack a day smoker telling his doctor to get lost, because he knows better and can do what he wants – and then seeks to blame the doctor if he gets lung cancer. Sorry, that just doesn’t cut it.

    And of course the ‘simplest explanation’ is not always best – nor does it help in the least in many cases. If a thug comes to your house, rapes and kills you (God forbid), the simplest explanation would be, ‘Crap just happens, so get used to it.’ This will not stand up in a court of law, nor will normal people accept this, even though it might be the ‘simplest explanation’. But given your meaningless impersonal and amoral world that is all we are left with.

    Moreover, if there is a God who exists, he would be far from “simple” in terms of who he is and what he does and how he relates to us. How could it be otherwise?

    Sorry, but I will just stick with the most logical, rational, sensible, moral and helpful set of explanations going thanks. I am afraid I just do not have enough faith to be an atheist.

  8. Me to Richard Dawkins; so what you’re saying is it doesn’t matter whether I listen to you or not. Also if good and evil don’t exist than right and wrong can’t exist either and if you aren’t right I’m not wasting my time.

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