Augustine & Free Will (y)

You know, when I first started looking for this passage I was convinced it was in Confessions, and I spent half an hour or so searching fruitlessly through the second half of Confessions trying to figure out what topic would lead Augustine into a discussion of free will and omniscience. Eventually I figured out that no, I’m a dummy, and it’s actually in City of God. We got there in the end. So Augustine’s talking about Cicero, who’s trying to demolish the idea of future knowledge. Obviously this doesn’t fly with the Christian Augustine, who sets about trying to prove the compatibility of both free will and the omniscience of God.

Basically Cicero’s concern is that if everything is foreknown, then everything is predetermined, which means that we don’t choose it. Think about it in terms of Mousetrap – when you crank the wheel and set off the Rube Goldberg machine, you know it’ll end with the cage dropping on the mouse. There’s a causal link between A and B – so if you know that someone’s going to crank the wheel, you also know the cage is going to fall (assuming it doesn’t break halfway through, you know). Cicero’s argument is that if everything is known, the causal order of things is also known, and if the causal order is known (and therefore fixed) then we don’t truly choose it. Therefore, according to Cicero, God has no knowledge of the future, because that would compromise human free will.

Augustine, by contrast, argues that there are different types of causes. There are natural causes, such as gravity, and there are voluntary causes, such as when we decide to do something. Augustine posits the human will as a cause in and of itself – and I think he’s referring to the will as like the part of us that decides things. He accepts that the human will is both a cause and an effect, in the sense that God created humans and also created their will:

“Thus our wills have only as much power as God has willed and foreknown; God, whose foreknowledge is infallible, has foreknown the strength of our wills and their achievements, and it is for that reason that their future strength is completely determined and their future achievements utterly assured.” (V.9)

So God gives us choice, and knows what decisions we will make in the future. We still have the ability to choose, because God gave us our wills, but He knows what sort of will he gave us, and so he knows how strong or weak our resolution will be. This is a fun little example:

“It does not follow, then, that there is nothing in our will because God foreknew what was going to be in our will; for if He foreknew this, it was not nothing that he foreknew.” 


“Further, if, in foreknowing what would be in our will, He foreknew something, and not nonentity, it follows immediately that there is something in our will, even if God foreknows it.” (V.10)

Our wills are both cause and effect, both something we have received and something we employ to exercise free will.

Question: given that God gave us our wills, and knows how strong or weak they will be, is He not to blame for giving us wills so weak that we fall into sin? I just went looking for the article I wrote on Augustine’s theory of evil, in order to explain this problem, but I realised I haven’t actually written it yet! I’ll write it for next week, and then we can address this problem more fully there.

Leaving aside Augustine’s theory of evil, then, we’ll look at the question in a different way – one that relates more directly to his theory of God’s foreknowledge. Augustine argues that our prayers aren’t useless just because God knew they were going to happen: on the contrary,

“prayers are effectual in obtaining all that God foreknew that He would grant in answer to them.” (V.10)

In the same way, Augustine argues, God would not foresee that we would sin unless we ourselves sinned. There’s actually a great deal of importance being placed here on humans in time – we’re not just living out a pre-scripted empty roleplay. According to Augustine, our lives and our choices matter – the present matters! The human drama of struggle and adversity and choice and conflict – it really truly matters, on a spiritual and eternal level.

What we’re tripping up on here is the relationship between beings who exist in time (us) and God, who exists unchanging outside of time, having created time itself (although we cannot explain when God created time, because before time there was no time with which to refer to the point at which God created time). I wonder if it’s a question of perspective.

Let’s play with that a little bit. In Harry Potter, the choices Harry makes drive the development of the plot. Even though we’ve got the whole story laid out in front of us, he can’t see more than two feet into the future at any given time. Although we can see the big picture, from his perspective there’s a constant decision-making process. There is the perpetual exercise of free will, the ongoing assertion of choice. The metaphor breaks down when you treat Harry as a fictional creation of J.K. Rowling (when you insert her into the metaphor as God, the whole thing goes to pieces), but hopefully you can see this question of perspective.

Let’s try another approach. Moses arguably had free will, even though all of his actions are now in the past. The true record of the actions of Moses is fixed and static – the decisions he made are etched into time, unable to be reversed. Again, perspective: to us his actions are singular and fixed, but to him, in the moment, he would have had a plurality of uncertain futures stretching out before him. It is only our distance from his present moment that allows us to see the path he took as singular and determined, although that singular and fixed quality by no means invalidates the decisions that he made as stemming from his own free will.

I’m not a formally trained philosopher, so I’m not necessarily cognisant of the gaps or flaws in the argument. It’s interesting stuff though! Next week, Augustine & Evil.

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