Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 16, 2007

God, Cause and Free Will

An interesting exchange has been going on down in the Problem of Sin post in regards to the relation between God's will and our actions. Sapientiae amator says:
Two points: first, regarding the statement that God holds all creatures in existence. This is true, but more than this, he is the cause of every existing thing. This does not include merely substantial creatures, but also every other kind of being. In other words, it is not enough to say that God causes me to exist and then I go out and do stuff that God does not cause. This is because my actions are also beings, and therefore must reduce to him as first cause just as much as I myself, as a being, must reduce to him as first cause. When I snap my fingers, God is the cause of that act just as he is the cause of me. The same applies to every act, even acts of sin. What we can say about those is that insofar as they are evil, they are not beings, since evil is a privation of being; but no act is purely an evil. It always has some actuality, some being, to it, and must therefore be produced by God. So God is the cause of acts even of sin, although not insofar as they are sins but insofar as they are beings.

The second point is really more of a question, and is the more important. It appears that your reason for rejecting the above idea is that it would seemingly remove free will. I don't see why this is the case. That is, it would only followed if freedom included in its very definition the fact of not being caused by another. It's not clear to me that this is necessary in order for an act to be free. To give an example, are the acts of fictional characters free? It seems that they are, despite the fact that they are products of the author. God stands to us as an author to his characters--even though he "writes" the story of the universe, we the characters are nevertheless free and responsible for our actions.
And Anothercoward adds:
sapientiae - so far, I'm sold. But what of choice? It's one thing to say that God upholds us and upholds our actions ... but does God uphold us in such a way that we freely choose absent the compulsion of His determinism between options/possibilities/good+evil?

In other words, we know that God is not compelled to do anything. Yet when dealing with this topic, we get very dangerously close to ignoring that fact. And as an extension, I think we forget that whatever we are, we are in His image. And I do believe that extends to the nature of the compulsion of will - that God has created us to be (largely) free in our decisions - which means that before there are decisions/actions, there are very real possibilities to choose between. Now God being unimaginably perfect and perceptive, it's hard to imagine how that works - but I think it's more difficult to imagine that it's beyond Him, particularly given all that the faith teaches.
All this may seem a bit abstruse, but although your average joe may not think of these questions in these terms, I think there is a great deal of real relevance to this kind of discussion. One of the things I find whenever I talk religion with my Evangelical co-workers is that the relationship between free will, God's knowledge and power, sin and salvation is still very much an debated question among Christianity as a whole, although from a Catholic point of view it may at times seem like an issue which is settled except for a few scholastic fine points.

Now, I confess, when we start to talk about whether actions are beings, we're starting to get out of my accustomed depth. I'm pretty sure I read a bit about this view back in college, but as it's not necessarily the way I think about things myself, I'm rusty.

If we think of our actions as beings (or whatever they are -- they're clearly something) then I think we must think of our own wills as their primary cause. (I did some thinking and reading and eventually decided I'm not up enough on Aristotelian/Thomistic causality to try to couch this in those terms, so be aware I'm specifically not doing that. If a real Aristotelian or Thomist has a moment, perhaps he can do us that service.) Since God created each of us, and hold us in existence, and created us with the ability to make decisions freely, he must be the ultimate cause of our actions, to the extent that God keeps in existence through his will creatures who do whatever it is that we do. (I'm intrigued by the notion of fictional character's having free will, though in a certain sense I'm not sure what it means. I would say, though, that I think a good author "allows" characters to behave as people naturally would in the situations they are placed in, while poor authors "force" characters to go through the motions like puppets.)

However, the sense in which we say God is the cause of our actions is not, I would tend to think, the sense in which we normally use "cause" in everyday conversation, simply because God does not will us to sin -- definitionally, since sin is acting contrary to God's will. This is where I seem to run into problems talking to some Evangelicals -- some of them see it as impossible to act contrary to God's will, saying that since God is all powerful, clearly nothing could happen that is contrary to his will.

This is where I clearly part company with those who see the Problem of Sin as, well... a problem. It seems to me not out of keeping with God's omnipotence to see him as creating beings (in his image) that have the free will to either act in accordance to his will, or act otherwise. (In that sense, I don't see how you could have free will and yet not be capable of sinning, though obviously you could have free will and always use your will correctly and not sin.)

4 comments:

AnotherCoward said...

So, is there something that I said that you disagree with? (Honored to be quoted by the great Darwin :) ) Or are we more or less in agreement? It seems like that ... but I'm trying to figure out if you're saying something different than what I've said.

Sapientiae Amator said...

Anothercoward: It's one thing to say that God upholds us and upholds our actions ... but does God uphold us in such a way that we freely choose absent the compulsion of His determinism between options/possibilities/good+evil?

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I am saying that God is the cause of every being whatsoever, including our actions and the movements of our wills. He does not, however compel us to do anything. In a way, the problem is precisely what Darwin touches on in this post, which I address below; namely, that God does not cause anything in the way that we do. We tend to think that because when we cause something to happen, it is forced to happen, therefore the same is true when God causes something to happen. However, since God is omnipotent, when he produces something, he produces it both with respect to its actuality and with respect to its modality; that is to say, it comes to be not only the sort of thing he wills it to be, but in the way in which he wills it to be. Thus, if God wills that something happen of necessity, it will happen and happen necessarily. If he wills that something be done freely, it will be done, and it will be done freely. In short, even though God is the cause of our acts, we are also causes of our acts, and they are within our power. We are able to choose to do or to not do the things that we do. I am not sure if this addresses your question, though.

Darwin:

Since God created each of us, and hold us in existence, and created us with the ability to make decisions freely, he must be the ultimate cause of our actions, to the extent that God keeps in existence through his will creatures who do whatever it is that we do.

I agree, although the way in which you phrase this makes me suspect that you understand it differently than I do. I would argue that God is the ultimate cause of our actions in the sense that he is the ultimate cause of everything that exists. By a simple act of his will, he produces everything that has ever existed or ever will exist, from our substance to our accidents to our actions. He is not the only cause of these things, though; when they come to be in the order of time, they are brought about by secondary causes as well, among which are our wills.

(I'm intrigued by the notion of fictional character's having free will, though in a certain sense I'm not sure what it means. I would say, though, that I think a good author "allows" characters to behave as people naturally would in the situations they are placed in, while poor authors "force" characters to go through the motions like puppets.)

Yes and no, I think. It is certainly true that characters who fail to be in character and whose actions thus seem forced are signs of a poor author. Even in this case, though, the characters still act freely as far as the story is concerned (though they are of course less believable as characers). On the other hand, if I write a story about some guy who is turned into a zombie slave by alien mind control rays, this character would no longer act freely in the world of the story; there would be a real difference in the character's actions after this point in the story as opposed to his actions earlier--even if my authorship is poor enough that the guy wasn't really believable in the first place. The reason for this is that even though fictional characters are fictional, they still have a kind of existence, since they are beings of reason. This existence is what allows us to make true and false statements about them. For example, "Mr. Darcy is male" is true, while "Mr. Darcy is female" is false. (No comment on the truth/falsity of "Dumbledore is gay" ;-) Similarly, it is true that Mr. Darcy acts of his own free will, while it is false that his acts are compelled or unfree. My point is that this latter fact was in Austen's power to decide; if she had instead created Mr. Darcy as a zombie slave, it would be false that he acts of his own free will. In other words, because authors have a much more real kind of existence than their characters, they have the full power over their creation which I ascribe above to God; they can even make acts to be free or unfree as they wish. This is infinitely more true in God's case, since the difference between God and his creatures is infinitely greater than the difference between Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy.

However, the sense in which we say God is the cause of our actions is not, I would tend to think, the sense in which we normally use "cause" in everyday conversation, simply because God does not will us to sin -- definitionally, since sin is acting contrary to God's will. This is where I seem to run into problems talking to some Evangelicals -- some of them see it as impossible to act contrary to God's will, saying that since God is all powerful, clearly nothing could happen that is contrary to his will.

Again, I sort of agree and sort of don't. That God is not a cause in the normal sense is clearly true, as I noted above--he is a cause in a much more preeminent sense. Stated in the form you put it, I would agree that God does not will us to sin, since this seems to mean "will us to sin precisely as such." The acts that we do when we sin, however, God does will, just not as sins. For example, if I go out and drink too much and get drunk, I have committed a sin, which God does not will--but I have done so by performing an act of excessive drinking, which is a kind of being, and which therefore God has eternally willed to produce, else it would never have been produced. This is what St. Thomas calls the "natural species" of the act, which is distinct from the moral species. So God wills to produce an act of excessive drinking, and I sin by performing this act, but God does not will me to sin, though he knows that I will sin when I perform this act which he wills to produce. He knows that I will commit this sin because the act in which the sin consists is something he makes, not because he is a kind of outside observer who derives knowledge from seeing my actions. His knowledge is the cause of things, not vice versa. "All things were made through him, and without him was made nothing that was made."

None of this is to say that I do not also produce the act of drinking excessively or that I am not responsible for doing so. But I am a secondary cause in producing this act, and can do so only in virtue of God's primary causality. The moral defect in the act, like any evil, is a privation of being and therefore does not need to be produced. It is rightly ascribed to me, not to God.

People like the Evangelicals you describe say what they do because they see that it must be true in some sense. The relevant distinction is basically the one above--odd as it sounds, although we can act contrary to God's will, nothing can come to be which God does not will. This is why St. Thomas, certainly no Evangelical, can say both that God does not will sin, and that the will of God is always fulfilled. Sin is contrary to God's will in one order, yet falls inside (I choose this phrase carefully) his will in another order. Hence, when St. Paul raises this objection in Romans 9, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?", the answer is not that everyone can resist his will; rather, St. Paul implicitly acknowledges that God's will cannot be resisted--yet goes on to remind us that he does still find fault, and justly so; we are still responsible for our own acts.

All right, I'll stop. Sorry about the length of this comment.

Darwin said...

anothercoward,

I think we are in agreement. The 'great Darwin'? Is that like the great Gatsby? Do I get to drink all the time and run people down in my car?

sapientiae,

I have the feeling that our disagreement is perhaps not as great as my initial reading suggests, and yet I think that's because you're talking about God "willing" and "causing" things in a way I'm not sure I fully grasp.

But then, I guess this is a set of problems I just don't quite get. Given that God chose to create beings with free will (and thus the capacity to sin) it doesn't strike me as a violation of God's omnipotence that we can act contrary to God's will.

In your example, I guess I would say that God directly wills to create a being which is _capable_ of an act of excessive drinking, but that the "being" of the act of excessive drinking is strictly willed into being by the drinker -- God is only the cause of that being to the extent that he's the cause of the cause. (There could be no acts of excessive drinking without God having created beings capable of that act, but God does not will the commission of the act.)

So with the exception that God is at the end of the chain of being for the act of excessive drinking, I wouldn't say that God wills it.

Maybe given the way we're using terms, it's a dristinction without a difference. I guess I don't see the need to prove that God wills everything -- but then, only to the extent that I'd also see anyone who claimed, "Ha, I beat God on this one. He didn't want that to happen!" as celebrating a victory that doesn't exist.

Ilíon said...

It seems to me that in creating us as free moral beings, God has granted us a certain degree of (for lack of better word) "power" over himself; that for our benefit he has freely placed a limitation upon himself and given it into our hands and our choices to affect his being. It seems to me that our sin is so grievous because we, in effect, (again, for lack of a better word) "force" God to participate.

If we say (and we do say) that the existence of all things is upheld by God, and if we mean it when we say it, that what does this saying mean?

Well, for one thing, when we suffer, God doesn't merely *allow* our suffering; and he's not merely an outside or passive observer of it, as someone watching a movie. It seems to me that we must mean that God experiences our suffering from the inside, with us fully; not as an observer, but a participant. He *knows* what we suffer, because he suffers it to.

Or again, when we act with compassion to ease the suffering of others, God isn't merely watching and logging it in a record book, as it were; he is there, he is acting with us and through us.

I suspect that those thoughts aren't too shocking.

But, the flip side may well be -- when we *cause* others to suffer, when we sin in general, God is also experiencing those acts or events -- things which are contrary and alien to his very nature -- from the inside. How we must "torture" him, daily.

If we say he upholds the existence of all things, it seems to me this must mean God upholds our acts of good and our acts of evil.

To anthropomorphize: What great pains we must be to God, in all our doings; and yet, he wills us to exist.