Can Determinism Be Self-Defeating and Also True?

In this month’s second installment of Praxis philosophy nights, the gang and I discussed a peculiar epistemological (how do you know?) problem with certain metaphysical (what is the nature of things?) views. Can a view be self-defeating – and therefore unbelievable – while also being potentially true? Impossible, you say? You may be right. But there is something to this question, and we went well over-time discussing it.

First, let’s define our terms:

Self-defeating, adj. Ideas or statements whose falsehood is a logical consequence of the act or situation of holding them to be true

The determinism vs. free will debate happens to be a real crowd pleaser and great red meat for any philosophical discussion. Are our actions self-determined by our own conscious wills (the free will position), or are our choices and beliefs determined by external causes often outside of our conscious awareness (the determinist position)?

We get a little bit into this debate during the course of our conversation, and we have differing opinions about the usefulness of this question and its implications. But the main points of our discussion are 1) to ask if determinism is self-defeating and 2) to ask if it’s sensible for a belief to be self-defeating but also potentially true.

The argument that determinism is self-defeating goes as follows:

Premise 1: If determinism is true, then each person’s beliefs have been pre-determined.

Premise 2: If a person’s beliefs have been pre-determined, then they are not held rationally.

Premise 3: An argument for causal determinism presupposes rationality.

Conclusion 4: Therefore determinism is self-defeating.

Credit to the online forum where I found this expression of the syllogism. Read the original and more arguments on determinism.

This syllogism illustrates how determinism’s free-will and compatibilist critics claim that determinism “defeats” itself. And yet determinism’s proponents also seem to have some very strong arguments and inductions that all actions are indeed determined by outside forces. Modern philosophy’s predominant naturalist/materialist metaphysical framework all but requires determinism, and there is nothing self-contradictory in the idea of materialism or determinism themselves. The contradiction is only in our reasoning, if the syllogism given above is true.

See how we tackled this unresolved debate, and maybe you can formulate your own answer.

Our conversations take us further and further away from simple and clear resolutions, so if you have one, by all means post it in the comments! In the meantime, we’ll continue our philosophical strength-training. With paradoxes like this one, we’re prepping our minds with some of the hardest philosophical material available. With any luck, these conversations are giving us the philosophical abs of steel we’ll need when we make complex decisions about personal and professional beliefs and ethics.

Want to try your own philosophical strength-training? Check out the free 30-day philosophy course designed for the Praxis community. 

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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