Every time this topic is raised, I cannot help but think of a classic remark by the Reformation theologian, John Calvin. And thinking of it is always disturbing because I’ve not been able to relocate it since reading it long ago. But somewhere Calvin remarks:

If the Bible contained no miracle stories, people would say “How  can we believe this is God’s Word? If it were, wouldn’t God have done miracles to attest that it is?” But the Bible does contain miracle stories, so people say: “How can I believe this? It has miracle stories in it!”

A few years ago, the noted skeptic, Michael Shermer, reported an experience for which he still cannot think of any explanation: a non-working radio that had belonged to his wife’s grandfather in the ‘70’s suddenly played love songs for them on their wedding day in 2014. By that time, it had lain unused for over 15 years, and has never played again despite all efforts to get it working. Nevertheless, in reflecting on that event, Shermer still affirms his commitment to what sounds like physical determinism:

 This is another way of saying – as I have often – that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations. *If Shermer really does mean to affirm that all things have only physical causes, then there are several things that are seriously amiss.

One is that Shermer makes the quoted statement in the context of attacking the claim that miracles prove God exists. But that is a straw man since it is certainly not the Christian position. Jesus himself said that even if he performed a miracle right in front of those whose hearts were hardened against God, they would not believe. In an earlier essay on this Blog, I pointed out that the biblical idea of the relation between belief in God and miracles is the reverse: for those who already believe in God miracles can be confirmed, but they do not entail that God exists.

For those who believe in God no proof is necessary; for those who don’t, no proof is possible. That’s because belief in God’s reality is based on experiencing God, not on proving He exists.

Another problem with Shermer’s confession of faith quoted above, is that it requires that human choices and judgments are also completely the result of physical causes, so that there is no such thing as freedom of judgment or choice. This is called determinism. If determinism is correct, then human choices, too, must be determined by antecedent physical causes. But in that case, nothingis ever freely chosen. The first obvious consequence of this position is that it makes no sense to hold anyone responsible for what they do. Some determinists accept this consequence and affirm that no one ever really is responsible in any significant sense. But they fail to realize that it is not only freedom of choice and responsibility that is destroyed by their determinism, but freedom of judgment as well. That position, however, is a self-imploding disaster. For if all judgments are forced on us by physical causes, then nothingis ever really believed for reasons.

That would have to include not only all of science, but also Shermer’s confession of faith in determinism. That, too, would likewise have to be forced on him by antecedent physical causes just as are all other beliefs held by all other people.

In short, determinism undermines itself. If it is true, it could never be known to be true; it could only be believed because physical causes had accidentally come together so as to force its advocates to believe it. On the other hand, if determinism really is a rational judgment held for reasons, then determinism is false: not all events, beliefs, and judgments are the accidental by-product of the confluence of purely physical causes, because some are decided on the basis of weighing evidence (including self-evidence) and coming to reasoned conclusions.

Roy Clouser, PhD

Blog Philosopher-in-Residence

Prof. Emeritus

The College of New Jersey

* From “Do anomalies prove the existence of God?” originally published on Slate.com as part of a Big Idea series on the future of religion.