Why Is Physicalism Self-Refuting? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, we saw that physicalism seems to inevitably lead to determinism.  Determinism, if you recall, means that every event, including all of your thoughts, feelings, desires, and choices, is determined by the physical conditions antecedent to it.  The renowned atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell said it this way: 

When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is a result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.

If determinism is true, then what follows?  J. P. Moreland points out that “a number of philosophers have argued that physicalism . . .  must be false because [it] impl[ies] determinism and determinism is self-refuting.”  Moreland quotes J. R. Lucas speaking of the determinist:

If what he says is true, he says it merely as the result of his heredity and environment, and of nothing else. He does not hold his determinist views because they are true, but because he has such-and-such stimuli; that is, not because the structure of the universe is such-and-such but only because the configuration of only part of the universe, together with the structure of the determinist’s brain, is such as to produce that result. . . . Determinism, therefore, cannot be true, because if it was, we should not take the determinists’ arguments as being really arguments, but as being only conditioned reflexes. Their statements should not be regarded as really claiming to be true, but only as seeking to cause us to respond in some way desired by them.

Moreland also quotes H. P. Owens:

Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it, I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.

Determinism, and therefore, physicalism, then appear to be self-refuting.  It might be helpful to flesh this out more.  Moreland argues that physicalism, itself, undermines rationality.  The physicalist cannot claim to know that physicalism is true, or claim to believe in physicalism for good reasons, because to know something is true for good reasons requires at least three factors be assumed.

These three factors are intentionality, an enduring I, and genuine libertarian free will.  All three of these are conditions of rationality will be discussed in part 2 of this series.

13 thoughts on “Why Is Physicalism Self-Refuting? Part 1”

  1. “He does not hold his determinist views because they are true, but because he has such-and-such stimuli…”

    Pretty obvious non sequitur piled on a false dichotomy.

    The relevant question is determining which causal relations resulted in one’s current belief — surely you realize that not all belief forming processes are equally truth-preserving. For example, “being born in Afghanistan in the 1990s” is a very strong causal component of many human beings’ belief in Islam. Belief in Islam is non-random with respect to birth there. Whereas some causal chains are extremely good at providing accurate predictions of the contents of future experience. For example, evidence-responsive intersubjective peer review.

    Note also that once again non-determinism i.e. “randomness” does not help you out here. Surely Moreland et al don’t want to claim that their beliefs are more likely to be true because they are random with respect to evidence! When you think about it, “he’s not taking the evidence into account” is generally considered to be a criticism of someone’s reasoning, not an epistemic ideal.

  2. When we’re talking about free will, I think what most people mean is the idea of choice. But the word “choice” is ambiguous. We can interpret it as meaning “one of several possible actions” or it can mean “an action that was inevitable given initial conditions.” We don’t really have the first kind of choice. If you come to a T intersection you have a “choice” of whether to go left or right, but this doesn’t mean that both are possible. Obviously only one is possible and which one it is depends entirely on a deterministic course of events that is entirely out of your “control.” In this sense, determinism does not mean preordained or a conditioned reflex but based solely on the atoms in your brain at that moment of choice given all the physics and chemistry at play. And your brain evolves constantly by input and processing and testing. In contrast to this sense of determinism, there is no equivalent evidence available for determinism for any disembodied super-agency under some ‘other’ control than the brain itself.

  3. That a person ‘had no choice’ in accepting the validity of determinism doesn’t in the slightest ‘refute’ the validity of determinism itself. In fact it has no bearing whatsoever on whether determinism is valid or not. Even if every Christian on the planet was brainwashed into their belief, that would have no bearing on the truth or otherwise of Christian ideas.

    This idea is similar to Plantinger’s argument against naturalistic evolution, and fails for similar reasons.

  4. 1. If calculating machines are ‘determined’ to reach the answers they do, does that mean their calculations are incorrect?
    2. If scientists designed self-aware but determined machines, would them realising they are determined create a paradox?
    3. Would God be able to create a self-aware being like us, but that was determined? According to Moreland the answer is surely not.

  5. This is a stupid argument. I was determined to make this comment. Just like you were determined to make this stupid argument.

  6. In a manner of speaking, yes. What is the alternative? A ‘ghost’ in an invisible command center? Why did you choose the term ‘stupid’ rather than ‘dull’? Did you actually choose?

  7. “Plantinger’s argument against naturalistic evolution” – haha, you can even write the name! Plantinga ‘s argument is not against evolution, you know?

  8. “Plantinga ‘s argument is not against evolution, you know?”

    I might as well say “Ha ha, you put an extra space between his name and the apostrophe!”

    As for what his argument was against, the man himself said: “It is evolutionary naturalism, not Christian belief, that can’t rationally be accepted.”

  9. I think he meant to comment on Paul’s post. Nevertheless, we can surely all appreciate some good irony, no? Not that that makes what he did okay, but it pretty much made my day when I read that.

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