Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

Phlogiston and You!

In the Natural Sciences class I’m taking, we’ve spent the last couple weeks working through various attempts to understand the nature of heat. As it turns out, Bacon “got it right” early on by proposing that heat was in some sense motion, but it is surprising how tenacious the view of heat as some type of “fire particle” was. The theory of phlogiston (i.e., fire-matter united with other types of matter in chemical compounds) was so stubbornly adhered to that the person who (arguably) discovered what we would now call oxygen thought he had actually produced something called “dephlogisticated air,” and even Lavoisier, who properly discovered and named oxygen as such, maintained a variation on the phlogiston theory with his notion of heat particles called “caloric.”

We started the class the the pre-Socratics, and I was working my way through Being and Time during those weeks, so for me this whole class has been framed by the “question of the meaning of Being.” It seems to me that a lot of these problems could’ve been avoided had the scientists in question thought more attentively about that question. For instance, it seems to me that in all their texts, there’s a latent conceptual distinction between heat-as-substance and heat-as-effect — why should the latter be limited to cases where the former is present? And if it shouldn’t, what work is the notion of a heat-substance really doing? Can’t there “be” heat in some sense even if it’s not a substance?

Further, it seems to me that the advent of modern science in rebellion against Aristotelian scholasticism follows a familiar pattern where surface-level polemic masks a deeper solidarity: in this case, both share the metaphysics of substance. I wonder if a more authentic return to Aristotle and specifically to his theory of potentiality as one of “the ways in which being is said” may have provided a more fruitful conceptual framework.

Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.


I’ve read a ton of Aquinas this weekend, and one effect of the incredibly monotonous format for me was that I started to feel pity for the “it seems” positions each article starts with — you know Aquinas is just setting them up for a fall. This led me to a thought: someone needs to take all the positions Aquinas rejects and advocate them as a consistent system of theology.

The biggest challenge is that you’d have to say God doesn’t exist, but surely you could work with that (turning it into a rejection of the analogia entis rather than the common-sense meaning of “God doesn’t exist,” perhaps).

God as Black Hole

In my Medieval Christian Thought class, we’re getting close to the end of a solid two-week block of Aquinas. One of the guiding principles of my pedagogy is that one should read a “whole text” to the extent possible, and I chose to use Book I of Summa Contra Gentiles, meaning that we’re close to knowing all that it is possible for human reason to know about God without the aid of revelation — certainly a good thing to have under one’s belt.

The more I really think through Aquinas’s concept of God, which is a fairly representative account of the traditional monotheistic concept of God, the more I find it to be appalling and even a little terrifying. Continue reading “God as Black Hole”

A new proof of the existence of God

Proofs of the existence of God have fallen on hard times. We are far from the days when Anselm could berate the Fool for his failure to see that God’s existence was inherent in the very concept of God, and even from the heyday of Aquinas’s “five ways” to prove the existence of a Creator. Anthony and I have, however, devised a new proof of the existence of God that is not only fully rigorous, but also reflects much of the thinking underlying Christian practice today — a stirring example of faith completing reason. It goes as follows:

  1. We see all around us that the world is awash in sinful and perverse acts.
  2. Now God is the only standard by which we can know these acts as sinful and perverse.
  3. If God did not exist, then the sinful and perverse would be completely acceptable.
  4. But this is absurd — and therefore God must exist.

All we need now is a catchy name like “the teleological argument” or “the argument from design.” Perhaps the “argument from homophobia”?

Nature, grace, and anachronism

In the literature on Anselm, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a real anxiety to make sure that Anselm isn’t “really” trying to get all the way to the necessity of the Incarnation by “pure reason.” The reason this explanation is necessary in the first place is that Anselm certainly appears to be doing that and doesn’t seem to view the attempt as problematic on a methodological level. In doing so, he is following in a proud tradition — for instance, Gregory of Nyssa’s “Great Catechism” is able to get to the Trinity and even to the creation and fall by means of something like the common sense of the Hellenistic world, though he recognizes that the Incarnation is going to be difficult to swallow. His general principle is to use Scripture for those who respect Scripture, and reason for those who accept only reason. Convincing the former is thought to be easier (though the historical record doesn’t seem to bear that out), but there isn’t a sharp division between the two that I can see.

I think that the reason for the anxiety about Anselm’s approach is that people are reading it in terms of Aquinas’s nature/grace distinction — i.e., reason can get you to a certain point (where Aristotle winds up), and then you need revelation, which is not contrary to reason but whose contents couldn’t be predicted using reason alone. The Trinity, for example, is firmly on the “revealed” side of this distinction, yet Gregory and Anselm both appear not to be worried about the fact that their reasoned argument has gone way over the line.

The reason for their lack of concern is probably that that line wasn’t a big concern of theirs, and we don’t need to read them anachronistically as though they knew about the nature/grace problem and were really concerned not to be doing something like “natural theology” because that would be somehow impious. Instead, maybe we should read them as doing what they’re actually doing — that is, assuming that the world described in Christian revelation is actually this very world where we are. If that is the case, then of course reason should be able to recognize the inner necessity of God’s actions in the world, because God is after all acting in this very same world where our reason finds its home.

I have a bunch of things that I want to say here but can’t fully support yet. For instance, I object to Aquinas’s two-tiered system first of all because it’s so inelegant. Another thing: maybe Barth’s polemic against “natural theology” should’ve gone further and also rejected the kind of “revealed theology” that’s defined in opposition to “natural theology.” Etc. I’m aware that there are all kinds of nuances that I’m not capturing here — sorry about that.

Audio of “Nature is not…”: An Apophatic Critique of Nature

As promised, though coming sort of late, here is audio of my AAR presentation and the Q&A time. The quality varies, but for interested parties there it is. A word of warning regarding the Q&A, it is for all three papers and so you may feel lost at times. Commenters discard and Old Doug Johnson can be heard during the Q&A though, so that’s fun.

AAR presentation of “Nature is not…”: An Apophatic Critique of Nature


Comments welcomed, but not encouraged.

The Role of Faith in Choosing Whom to Read

I’ve pretty much given my life this year to reading Thomas Aquinas. You can tell I’m not a Thomist, or even very sympathetic, because I haven’t prostrated myself before his memory with a long, overly-dramatic title, like “The Blessed Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas”. He is, of course, those things to the Catholic tradition as Pope Leo XIII made him the exemplar of philosophical and theological teaching. Of course Aquinas is very important to Western (philosophical) theology in general, as well, and is often taught in broadly secular philosophy of religion courses. The question I’ve had while reading him, however, is why am I reading him? Or, more precisely, why would anyone read Thomas Aquinas unless they were already sympathetic to his project?

The answer to this isn’t entirely obscure (though, perhaps, my reason for asking it remains so for now). I’m reading Aquinas because when I recently read him for a course I didn’t find what I expected to find. This lead me to read some more and to find some lines of thought that I think are helpful for thinking about the congruent problems in philosophy of nature and philosophy of religion. There is also a heuristic reason I’m using Aquinas in this project; he stands as a kind of crystal for ideological statements about the power of certain forms of thought, specifically Catholic metaphysics and politics. By challenging this reading through a perverse cross-breeding of Spinoza I hope to challenge, maybe even destroy, two equally annoying ideological positions – what can be called the debate between ideologues of transcendence/analogy and ideologues of immanence/naturalism. The success of this project is far from guaranteed and I find myself coming constantly to my own ideological register, always unsure of whether or not I’ve surpassed it.

That is why I am reading Aquinas, but why would anyone else read him? While most courses overemphasize the natural theology or purely philosophical (i.e. without revelation) nature of Aquinas’ thought, it would be a mistake, and not merely an anachronistic one, to completely go the other way and claim him to be a theologian on par with Karl Barth. Simply put he is part of the history of philosophy and is important for understanding the development of Western thought. But is there any reason to read him in any depth outside of purely historical reasons? Stated otherwise, does his thought work? Does it demonstrate anything? Or is it hopelessly dependent on outdated science? Even theologically I wonder if it works in the dogmatic register. I’m not convinced that Aquinas has a particular Christian understanding of God as he often lapses into speaking about God as if God were only the Father, that the incarnation is a sort of secondary quality of God, but then always back tracks and affirms the creedal dogmatics. Still, I remain unconvinced that he isn’t here just going through the motions of affirming the Christian God, while if he was faithful to his own system he may find himself to be a bit more heterodox.

Now, this seems clear to me when I read him, but I also recognize that I’m reading him with a project in mind and that I’m looking for the cracks in his system rather than for its consistency. But I wonder if people read Aquinas, or really whomever, with the plan of making sure they answer all the questions that need to be answered. I wonder if anyone would read Aquinas if they didn’t already have some sympathy for him, or rather for what he is supposed to be. Do we read these figures to assure ourselves of our faith and belief in what we know they stand for? And, if so, why? After all, we don’t need Aquinas or Deleuze to say things we can say with our own arguments. Why not simply make the argument? Do we really have to first make a decision, say to be Catholic, and then work out its truth from there? Or can we refuse the decision and let the truth come without then falling into the infinite deferral of liberal thought?

I can’t say for certain yet if I regret giving my life this year to Aquinas. I’m not sure if my leap of faith has failed or if I simply never took one in the first place.