An Argument Against Theistic Determinism


For many theists, the commitment to theistic determinism seems to undermine free will and moral responsibility. The intuition is something like this: If God determines all my actions, then I couldn’t be responsible for my actions. Here’s an argument that formalizes that intuition:

Let there be an agent X who performs an action, a, that brings about an effect, e.

  1. If God determines X to a, then God is the personal explanation of a
  2. God determines X to a
  3. Therefore, God is the personal explanation of a
  4. For X to be morally responsible for a, X must sufficiently explain a
  5. If God personally explains a, then X doesn't sufficiently explain a
  6. God is the personal explanation of a
  7. Therefore, X doesn't sufficiently explain a
  8. Therefore, X is not morally responsible for a

By “personal explanation”, I mean something like this:

  • X personally explains e iff e can be fully explained by X’s intentions I and X’s bringing about e (Swinburne 2004, ch.2).

By “sufficient explanation”, I mean something like this:

  • X sufficiently explains e iff X’s bring about of e contains an original component that cannot be traced to prior causal antecedents of X.

In other words, it can’t be only the causal antecedents of X that explains e. For X to sufficiently explain e, it must be the causal antecedents and X’s contributions that bring about ePremise 1 is drawn from theistic determinism. We can summarize Theistic Determinism (TD) as follows: "God decides everything that is going to happen and it happens because of God’s decision, and so God has exhaustive control over the world” (Furlong 2019, ch. 1).

So if God determines an agent to act, then God will personally explain why the agent did what he did. God as the personal explanation does not mean that God is the only cause of the agent’s action. God could cause agent X to cause action A to bring out an effect E, but God would still personally explain E. By my lights, premise 1 seems clearly true for those committed to theistic determinism. 

Premise 4 states that an agent is morally responsible for an action if he sufficiently explains the effect. Suppose Alex is driving his sports car S and is abruptly cut off by another vehicle V1. In a fit of road rage, Alex hits V1 and totals it. While the chain of explanation may start from V1’s cutting of S, it would not fully explain why V1 was struck by S. Rather, Alex’s intention and actions would be a satisfying explanation of V1’s totaling. Thus, We can hold Alex morally responsible for V1 being totaled by appealing to his act of driving S to hit V1 and his intention to hit V1 in his road rage.

Premise 5 asserts that if God is the personal explanation of e then the agent is not the personal explanation of e. Suppose God determined the previous scenario, then the appeal to Alex’s intention and action would fail to personally explain the totaling of V1. This is because we can make a further appeal to God’s causal activity and His reasons for doing so that would fully explain the totaling of V1. Alex’s causal activity would be traced back to prior causal antecedents from God. God as the personal explanation for the totaling of V1 would be entailed by theistic determinism since everything that happens would be due to God’s decision. So even if it was up to Alex to hit V1 with S, God’s decision to determine this event would fully explain the totaling of V1. It follows then that if Alex doesn’t personally explain e, then Alex is not morally responsible for e


Here are some objections to the argument:


  • Overdetermination 

One worry is that premise 1 is false since there could be instances of overdetermination, that both God and the agent determined to bring about e. However, I don’t think this objection succeeds, because under thiestic determinism, an agent’s action and its effects are both explained by God’s decision, and whatever happens, is due to God’s exhaustive control over the world. One way to put it is that God’s act of determination fixes the fact that e occurred. Thus, God’s determination is “sovereign” over all other forms of determination.


  • Multiple full explanations

Premise 5 can be rejected on grounds of a Dual Source Account (DSA) of free will, where God causing me to act is simultaneous to my action. Under this model, all of God’s causal acts are basic actions in which He brings about an effect, but not by means of anything (See W. Matthews Grant 2019, ch.4). I have several responses to this:


  1. The DSA relies on the Extrinsic Model of Divine Agency (EDA) which leverages the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS) and Immutability. Certain theories of DDS such as the Thomistic model will face formidable objections (See Joe Schmid) and Immutability also faces objections (See Mullins). If one is of a non-classical theist persuasion, then DSA will not be a satisfactory account. 
  2. Grant’s model explicitly endorses libertarian free will while denying theistic determinism. It seems then that DSA does not require one to commit to theistic determinism, so the argument would not be directed at them in the first place.
  3. While DSA does not require a commitment to incompatibilism, many of its proponents seem to either i) deny classical compatibilist approaches to free will or ii) affirm libertarian free will. Thus, if DSA is to be an objection to my argument, it must affirm theistic determinism. But if that’s the case, DSA would simply be a compatibilist response. 


  • Compatibilism

For compatibilists, this argument might be unconvincing due to premise 4. They might offer an alternative account of sufficient explanation that does not involve origination in the incompatibilist sense. Compatibilist accounts of free will such as Reasons-Responsiveness, Rational Abilities, and Agent Causal views already grant that agents do not sufficiently explain their actions but are still morally responsible for them. The discussion would likely move towards incompatibilist objections such as the Consequent Argument or the Manipulation Argument against compatibilism. But for those who seek to move towards compatibilism as a response to my argument, a sufficient explanation would simply have X contribute something to e even if causal antecedents of X would fully explain X’s action and e as long as it doesn’t involve coercion and an improper history. The tradeoff would be for the objector to deny a strong view of origination when it comes to free actions. 


In this post, I laid out an argument that theistic determinism undermines moral responsibility. I then offered a defense for each major premise before going over three objections and my responses to each objection.

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