On Determinism

We look back on our life from its conception to where we now stand. Everything seems like it “must” have happened in a definite, sequential way. Otherwise, what we are now could not have happened. Even slight deviations in this line that resulted in our existence would change or prevent what we are.

We might easily conclude that we “had” to be what we are. If we did not exist, who would notice our absence or much care? That something free is also involved in explaining our existence is said to be an illusion. The world and everything in it are determined to be as they are.

Of course, if everything were “determined,” we might wonder: “Well, what determined it?” Was whatever it was that determined it also itself determined? But when we think of these things, we usually are happy that events turned out the way they did. Otherwise, we could not exist. We usually think that it was not a bad deal that we came about. Yet this nagging feeling persists. This “deterministic” explanation misses something basic.

Chesterton said somewhere that, if the world is determined, it makes no sense to say “thank you” to the waiter for bringing the mustard. To give thanks implies that something that did happen need not have happened. Of course, we could say that, whether we give thanks or not, we are equally determined. Looking back on either, they cannot change. However adequately determinism may explain the events of the past, it seems inadequate for things now and not yet, things that come to pass because we choose them to.

Aristotle tells us that ethics has to do with those things about which we can attribute praise or blame. Ethics refers to the things that can be otherwise, things that we ourselves put into existence or change. We can either do them or not do them; do them this way or that way. It makes no sense to praise or blame someone for his deeds if what he did had to happen apart from any agency of his own.

Likewise, if the murderer “had” to commit the crime, it is unjust to blame him for anything. In recent times, this same approach to what were once called “sins of the flesh” has served to take much of the guilt and most of the pleasure out of these much attended to activities. In a deterministic world, “I love you” means nothing.


If the world is determined in all its dimensions, nothing freely happens in it. Nothing can be said about it except that it happened. Just why we bother to say anything at all, if all is determined, is not clear to me. Thus, if a tight end makes a great catch, it seems useless to cheer him. Indeed, our cheer is as determined as his catch. The world is all a big illusion.

Another version of determinism holds that God does absolutely everything. No real secondary causality exists. We cannot do anything. Every apparent act is really God’s act. No connection is found between what we do and what happens. Things could be the opposite of what they seem to be. In this view, everything is free because God is unlimited. He can make what is into its opposite. He can make murder or adultery to be virtues, so relax. You have nothing to worry about. You just seem to have been doing something. All is God.

Now I want some laws to be determined. If I drop a glass on the floor, I want it to break. If it does not, the laws of gravity would not hold for anything. If these laws did not work, I should be floating in the air and so would the glass.

But we are a people obsessively concerned with freedom, wherever it came from. Why all this talk of determinism? Can I not make myself into what I want to be? Why am I bound to any laws that cannot be otherwise? Why can’t something be right one day and wrong the next or right in this place but wrong in the next?

In the world, one agent is found that is actually free to do certain things. He cannot change the laws of gravity or morality. But he can choose not to abide by them. If he decides not to observe the laws of gravity and jumps off a cliff, they pick up his remains below. His defiance did not cause gravity to cease working.

If a human being breaks the laws of morality, consequences likewise follow. Otherwise, why break them? Such acts carry with them the mark of their origin. The world is also filled with deeds that need not have happened but did. This is the world in which praise, blame, and thanksgiving exist. It is not determined until we freely determine it.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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