Aquinas: Free Will, Again

In 1a.83, Aquinas starts thinking about free will, which is definitely different to will apparently. Our focus is on 1a.83.1, where Aquinas asks explicitly whether people have free will. Obviously there’s quite a bit of overlap here with last week, so we’ll start off by briefly looking at the distinction between will and free will in Aquinas.

The distinction is drawn up explicitly in 1a.83.4, where Aquinas just literally asks “whether free will is a power distinct from the will.” As far as I can make out, the basic distinction is that free will is your ability to choose, while your will is closer to desire. So you can will something, you can want it, but that doesn’t mean you’re able to get it. You might will yourself to fly, but – you know, you can’t. You can’t will that. Free will, however, is more associated with the ability to make free choices. I noted last week that the definition of ‘free’ seems really fucking hairy, so we won’t get too caught up on it for now. Just be aware as we’re going through that it’s one of the broader theoretical problems with the idea.

So Aquinas starts off saying no, we’re not free in our decisions. He cites a whole bunch of quotes from different people and places, and we’ll boil down some of them real quick. You might remember last week Aquinas argued that people only desire goodness. Sometimes they desire it in the wrong way, but for Aquinas, people can only desire goodness. We also touched on the idea back here. Given that people can only desire goodness, then, you’d think the world would be pretty good. So what’s gone wrong? Well, Aquinas says, maybe people just aren’t really as free as they think they are. “For anyone free to decide does what he wills. But man does not do what he wills. For St Paul admits, ‘For I do not do the good I will, but rather the evil I hate.'” Basically, we all desire goodness, but we also just don’t do good things. We do bad shit. And if we desire goodness but do evil, we’re not doing the things we desire, so therefore we’re not free to act in accordance with our will.

What’s more, if you were free you would have self-determination, but you don’t have that. “For it says in Proverbs, ‘The heart of the king is in the hand of God and He turns it whither He will.'” You can’t decide what your heart wants – God picks, and you’re just a little puppet dancing along. There’s a similar quote used from Jeremiah: “Man’s way is not in his power, and it is not given to a man to direct his steps.” So, Aquinas reasons, “man is not free in his decisions.” 

Well, okay, what’s Aquinas got to say against all that? He starts off by quoting Ecclesiastes: “In the beginning God made man and left him in the hands of his own counsel.” If we’re left in the hands of our own counsel, that probably means that we’ve been given the free will with which to make our decisions. According to this verse, it sounds like we do actually have free will. Aquinas then goes on to say that if we didn’t have free will, “counsels, precepts, prohibitions, rewards and punishment would all be pointless.” That’s not really proof per se – maybe those things are all just pointless.

In defending his position, then, Aquinas draws up a bunch of theories around how decision making happens. First, “some things act without judgement, so a stone falls to the ground; all things that lack knowledge are like this.” Fair enough – we don’t expect decision making from non-living entities. “Others act from judgement, but without freedom; thus brute animals.” The basic argument here is that animals just act on instinct. They don’t make choices per se, they just kinda instinctively do things. I’m not a hundred percent sure if that idea stands up to our current understanding of animal neurology, but okay, fine. “But man acts through judging that something is to be shunned or sought after through his ability to know.” We have a higher cognitive function – we can reason and do all these complicated mental processes that instinct-driven animals can’t do. Therefore, because we can rationally contemplate things, we have free will. We can actively make decisions between different options. Rocks don’t make decisions, and animals don’t either, apparently, because they’re just acting on instinct. Humans are the only ones who have free will, because we’re the only ones who rationally think through their decisions before making them. Not a great argument, but that’s what it is.

For the responses, Aquinas changes gear a little. He explains St Paul’s example of sin as doing the things we hate by suggesting an internal conflict between reason and desire: “though sense appetite responds to reason it may resist it somewhat with desires in conflict with reason’s decision.” The reply harks back to 1a.81.3, where Aquinas is talking about aggressiveness and desirousness, which – what the fuck? Why is that not just ‘desirability’? Weird – but okay, whatever. There’s a neat quote from Aristotle, who says “the soul rules the body like a despot, but the intellect rules the appetite like a constitutional monarch.” Your soul has 100% absolute control of your body, but as for your intellect and appetite, it’s like when “anyone governs free men who, while subject to a leader’s rulings, nevertheless may in their own right oppose his decisions,” as Aquinas elaborates. So when St Paul does not do the good he wants to do, he still knows what that good is, because he’s a reasonable person. He’s just ignoring his reason in favour of his desires.

There’s definitely some psychological reality to this idea that Aquinas is putting forward. Think about, like, a movie scene where two people have sex despite both knowing that they shouldn’t. Or – actually, the bit in Django Unchained where Schultz shoots Calvin Candy. He knows it’s a bad thing to do, and he knows it’s going to get him killed, but he just can’t help himself. Just before Schultz gets shot in turn by Calvin’s gun man, he says to Django “I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist,” throwing his arms wide in a shrug before getting blown away. They’re both fictional examples, but they feel like they’re repeating something from our lived experience. We know what that’s like, that feeling of ‘I shouldn’t but I will.’ Maybe you don’t find it convincing as an explanation of how all sin functions – I certainly don’t – but it’s got some psychological reality to it.

The second response is more complicated, and it’s – honestly it’s way too hefty to deal with at the tail-end of a post. I’ll raise it and leave it unresolved. It’s the point about how the Bible says God shapes the hearts of XYZ people and therefore they don’t have free will. Aquinas replies that “Freedom does not require that a thing is its own first cause.” On the one hand, this argument makes a sort of sense. Your genetics are entirely determined by the genetics of your parents – you don’t have any control over them. From that perspective, your identity and choices are going to be really strongly shaped by your genetics, as well as by your upbringing and your social milieu and so on. Theoretically, none of those things invalidate your free will, even though they’re hugely formative experiences that are outside your control. That’s essentially what Aquinas is saying – as a person, you can have your identity and person caused by any number of external factors, but that doesn’t invalidate your free will. Free will doesn’t require that you are your own first cause.

And that’s all good and fine, but it kinda feels unsatisfying. Let’s repeat the quote from Jeremiah: “Man’s way is not in his power, and it is not given to a man to direct his steps.” We could also repeat the Proverbs example, but I think a better instance is in Exodus: God is getting all chatty about Pharaoh, and He goes “but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let you go” (4.21). First off, why the fuck would God do that? Secondly, okay, we’ve got the argument that free will doesn’t require you to be your own first cause, but it doesn’t explain these quotes. I’m not saying it’s incoherent in itself, but it just doesn’t explain or incorporate these quotes. How can we say that humans are free at all if it’s not given to us to direct our own steps? How can we say that the Pharaoh had free will when God is hardening his heart? Could Pharaoh have released the Israelites? If not, well, see point one – why the fuck not? Doesn’t it seem kinda weird and shitty to force someone to do something and then punish all the Egyptians for what you made them do? That’s really the big problem for me – the system that Aquinas is putting forward might be fine in itself, but it’s not suitably resolving the Biblical issues that were raised in the first place.

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