Free Will and God: Am I Free?

The past two post I’ve talked about freedom: Finding Freedom Through Unbound and Freedom From Perfectionism. Yet neither blog post makes sense if we are not free agents. So I decided to ask myself, how do I know I have free will?

Well the easiest answer is that the Church teaches it to be so

God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. (CCC 1730)

But that wouldn’t be any fun and a very short blog post. So today, I am tackling the question of how we have free will.

The Topic of Free Will

Buckle up, dear readers, we are in for a bumpy ride. This topic is so challenging and yet fascinating to me. It intersects with a wide variety of fields of study. You have theological questions: If God is all-knowing, doesn’t God predetermine our choices? Philosophy questions exist: what is the nature of this kind of control: does free will exist at all. Lastly, you have ethical questions: is it possible to be held accountable if there is no free will?

To keep it short, I will focus on the theological question.

Theology and Free Will

Theology assumes the existence of a free will. The Bible states,

It was he who created humankind in the beginning,

and he left them in the power of their own free choice.

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,

and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

He has placed before you fire and water;

stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.

Before each person are life and death,

and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sirach 15:14–17 (NRSV))

So if free will exists, how is that compatible with God’s omniscient? Two major thinkers addressed this question: St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine is often misunderstood. His teachings are often exaggerated to support ridge predeterminism. Yet the reality is that St. Augustine believed in free will. According to St. Augustine, God has an infinite store of motives. God also has the foreknowledge of motives to which the will of each human will consent.

I know it is confusing, but maybe an example will help.

Imagine you are standing in line at a hamburger and hot dog stand. The stand is cash only. Hamburgers are $5 and Hot Dogs are $1. You see that the person in front of you has only $2 in cash. Thus you know that the person in front of you will be buying hot dogs. God’s foreknowledge is similar to knowing how much cash the person has in front of you.

St Augustine’s teachings would be the beginning of the Church’s theology regarding free will.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas built on the foundation of St. Augustine. In some ways, St Thomas Aquinas may have complicated the relationship between free will and God.

In order to understand free will, we must first understand the nature of the will. Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of man. Both Aristotle and Aquinas think that man has rationality. This rationality contains the will.

So What is the Will and Is it Free?

Aquinas divides rationality into two parts: the intellect and the will. The former has three functions: Understanding, judgment, and argument. The will has two parts: free will and motive.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all humanity is motivated by the good. In other words, no one intentionally does evil. All actions are done for the good of the person. Humanity is still open to choose from a multitude of good things.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, man has free will as a rational agent. Yet this will is moved towards the good by God.

Wait, what, how can God move our will and still be free?

How God Fits In?

St. Aquinas a much smarter man than me anticipated this question and responded to it.

it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.(ST. I. Q83 A1 ad 3)

What on earth is St. Aquinas saying?

Basically, he is saying that God caused the world to act the way it does. Yet God is the originator of everything does not take away our freedom. God created us to desire the good. Yet we are still free in our choices of the good.

Example from my own life. I can choose to read or I can choose to watch Netflix. According to Aquinas, I am going to use my intellect to choose the one that will lead to my ultimate happiness. My free will must choose the one my intellect deems appropriate.

Does the fact that my will is influenced by an outside force make me less free?

Final Thoughts

When I started researching and writing for this blog post, I thought for sure that free will entailed both being free from external forces and free from deterministic inner motives. Yet the more I read about St.Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine the more I’m persuaded otherwise. Obviously, in today’s society, we take the free will for granted. We assume blindly that free will exists. Yet the implications of such a statement greatly influences both theology and secular ethics. I believe that as long as I am free to make choices, the presence of inside or outside influences do not affect me.

For more on St. Thomas Aquinas and free will, watch Thomas Aquinas on Free Will

Death Just Got Weird: Reviving Pigs Brains

cemetery with grave stones reminding people of death

“Bioethics is a fascinating field of philosophy because we don’t have to make this shit up”

Professor Arras said that countless times in my many lectures on bioethical issues. I have never felt that more clear than when I read the headline:

Scientists- We kept pig brains alive 10 hours after death. Bioethicists- “Holy shit.”

Explanation of the Experiment

Basically, the scientist decided to test the hypothesis that brain death is irreversible. They took 32 pig’s brains from slaughtered pigs. They waited for four hours. Then the pig’s brains where plugged into BrainEx for six hours. (if you want a detailed description on how the system works please see here). The study concludes that certain brain cells were alive. The cells were not communicative with each other. Yet, they were performing basic functions. Thus, the scientist created all sorts of problems for ethicists.

Death

I spent most of my undergrad philosophy career studying death and dying issues. When we die is a fascinating question. One that has implications for us spiritually.

Life After Death

Catholics define death as a separation of the soul from the body. So do we have a soul? Certain people are blessed to have an experience of what life is beyond the grave. For the rest of us, we have this inner longing for something more than biological. It is this inner longing that points to the Catholic understanding of the soul. There are 7 reasons to
“believe in a soul.
One is the philosophical idea that the existence of one thing necessitates the existence of another. For example, the existence of a male dog necessitates the existence of a female dog. The desire for something more than our biological self necessitates an actual immortal existence.

What is the Soul

Ok, so we have proven that an immortal soul exists in humans. My question has always been where and what is it? I always assumed consciousness was the location of the soul.

I was wrong

The soul according to Catholic thought is the life force of the body. It does not just reside in one part but animates the whole. For this reason, the soul is unquantifiable. Thus, science has had to resort to other philosophical meaning about death.

Scientific Death

There are 3 different views on when we die. The views are whole-brain death, the essence of the human person, and circulatory-respiratory standard. All three fail to pinpoint when you die.

Whole Brain

Death occurs when either circulatory and respiratory functions stop working. Death also comes when the whole brain including brain stem has stopped working. Two problems with this definition. First, the brain is not responsible for the integration of bodily functions. A brain dead patient can still perform the functions of life. This includes healing wounds and digesting food. Second certain individuals with lock-in syndrome are considered brain dead. Yet these individuals actually are aware. Thus it appears one can be alive even when brain dead.

Essence of a Human Person

For these people, it matters not that an organism performs biological functions. What matters is what makes us human. If we lose what makes us human, we are dead. Proponents argue that what makes us human is the capacity for consciousness.

The problem with this view is that it ignores humanity’s biological nature. We are more than mere minds. Common sense tells us that we still exist even if we lose our mental capacity.

Circulatory-respiratory Standard

Death occurs when circulatory-respiratory functions stop working. It explains the difficult cases such as locked-in syndrome and prenatal humans. Yet it fails to account for the importance of mental life. Humans are more than body’s that can pump blood and breathe. Second, it creates problems for organ donation. The dead-donor rule only allows organs to be donated from dead persons. If respiratory function still exists then under the Circulatory-respiratory standard the person is still alive. It is better to get organs from a patient on a ventilator. Yet this would be illegal under the dead donor rule.

What About the Pigs

The revival of the pigs begs two philosophical questions. First, was the experiment to revive an animal ethical? Second, What does this imply for those undergoing brain death? If cells in the brain can be revived, can we really say a person with no brain functioning is dead? If such a person is not dead, can we ethically procure organs from them? It calls for a new standard of death. One that recognizes that death is a gradual progression. We are not minds trapped in an organic body. Nor are we mere organic bodies, but we are both.

Nature is Ensouled: A Response

Nature: blue sky, grass, rocks

that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time. Romans 8:22

I love Twitter.

Catholic twitter is regular twitter except for all the people you follow are Catholic. It is a happy place mostly. Occasionally you will get people riled up about something. I still have not forgotten the dancing priest outrage. Last month, an article, Nature Is Ensouled written by the Center for Action and Contemplation had people talking.

People were accusing Father Rohr of being heretical. Intrigued, I took a look. Skimming the article, my eyes fell on this statement,

I’m not saying God is all things (pantheism), but that each living thing reveals some aspect of God. God is both greater than the whole of our universe, and as Creator inter-penetrates all created things (panentheism). No exceptions.

Father Rohr seems to be suggesting Panentheism is compatible with Christianity. Now to the average person, what Father Rohr is saying may sound appealing even correct. I wasn’t so sure. Not satisfied I sought to research.

In my research, I learned that New Age focuses on harmony and communication with nature1. This sounds good on paper. Even I can understand the appeal. I have always felt that nature had a deep inner beauty.

I value knowledge.

Thus I understand the appeal of a lounging to discover some inner connectiveness. Yet there are three problems with this.

1. Relationships

The Christian God is relational. God wants a relationship. If Father Rohr is correct then I need to “discover the soul in other things to live in union with the source of all being.” 2 Yet discovering some hidden soul is completely opposite of Christian values. I don’t need to become one with nature, rather, I need a relationship with Jesus Christ.

2. Searching in vain

The Bible is just one big love letter from God. The stories in the Old and New Testament show how God is pursuing humanity. I typically don’t give into romantic sentiment. Yet I love the idea of being pursued by the Divine creator. I don’t get that with new age religion. Rather New Age teaches that I have to search for the divine.

3. Who is God?

I am made in God’s Image.

I have a rational soul.

God is my creator.

Ultimately. New Age Mysticism challenges me to define these three fundamental truths. Yes, both New Age and Christianity believe animals do have souls. The difference is a matter of degree. In Christianity, animals have material souls. These souls decay and die. Yet New Age insists that animals and God are intertwined 3.

It is so easy to fall into error. It is easy to be taken in by the longing for interconnectedness. I understand the appeal of wanting a deeper connection with the divine. Yet I would not trade in a relational deity for an impersonal essence. I am sad that an institution with Catholic roots would fall far from the truth. The earth’s redemption may come (Romans 8:22), but let us focus on growing deeper with Christ.

  1. https://www.allaboutspirituality.org/new-age.htm
  2. https://cac.org/nature-is-ensouled-2018-03-11/
  3. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html#1.4.%20The%20New%20Age%20and%20Catholic%20Faith
forest and two paths

Relativism: is it self-refuting

Section I: Introduction

So I stumbled on a Q & A video from Lizzieanswers. One of the questions asked Lizzie to share her thoughts on Relativism. She was asked at 5:15 of the video, why she did not believe in relativism and what was philosophically wrong with it? She answers that relativism is self-refuting. Is she correct? Perhaps relativism is not a truth claim at all, but rather a critique of how humanity comes to know the truth.

In the media and in society, you hear people say all the time, you do you or who am I to judge another’s belief. In fact, I used to be the same way. I embraced moral relativism in my undergrad philosophy courses. My chief reason was that different societies accepted different practices. Most people argue that murder is universally wrong. Yet there are tribes that practice ritualistic cannibalism. I had assumed that differences in morals across cultures meant that there was no objective moral truth. In those same courses, I wrestled with philosophers, who stood for objective truth.

Section II: What is Relativism?

Before I can explain whether Moral Relativism is true or false, I have to break down what relativism is. It turns out that relativism is much more nuanced then it first appears.

A. Global relativism

Global relativism is captured by the oft-repeated slogan “all is relative”. The claim is that all beliefs, regardless of their subject matter, are true only relative to a framework or parameter. This type of relativism first appeared in Plato. Greek philosophers liked to write as if they were having a debate with someone else. They create a pseudonym to represent an argument that they don’t agree with. Plato created this guy named Protagoras. He argued that all truth depended on the belief of individuals. Plato, being the smart individual that he is, pointed out that if all truth is relative to the individual then nothing is true. Protagoras cannot establish the truth of his claim. (Baghramian, Maria and Carter, J. Adam, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/relativism/.)

B: Local relativism

Relativists have attempted to avoid Plato’s critique by still holding on to objective truth in certain areas. For example, they may wish to say that claims based on sensory information are still objectively true. Modern relativists typically target a self-contained area. For example, a modern relativist might say that the area of morals is relative to the individual. Being relativist about a certain area makes you a local relativist. As a local relativist, your arguments are not logically inconsistent. For example, the statement, all moral claims are relative to an individual, is not itself a moral claim. Thus it is not self-refuting. This statement can be defended objectively.

Section III: Arguments in favor

So why might someone want to be a relativist? I know for myself I was guided by the principle of tolerance. As the world gets smaller, you get to connect with some pretty awesome people. Yet these people may have a different belief system or a different set of values from you. Out of respect for them, you may be reluctant to think that their viewpoint is wrong. Thus out of respect, you may think, hey, maybe we are both correct. We just have a different framework.

Yet, does tolerance require us to accept all people’s opinions as correct? Perhaps we can respect each other without acknowledging all views as correct. Otherwise, why bother having disagreements at all.

Section IV Arguments against

A. Self refuting

Anytime relativism is brought up, the self-refuting argument is always mentioned. In fact, Lizzy makes the same argument in her video. The idea is that if all truth is relative, then the claim is not objective, but is also relative. If it is relative, then I don’t need to accept it. If it is absolute, then there are claims that are objective and not all truth is relative. Thus relativism is false. This argument works against global relativism.

In some cases, Local relativism may also fall into the trap of being self-refuting. Local relativism relies on frameworks. If local relativism tries to justify one framework over another, it runs into the same problem. So If you are a local relativist, you must either conclude that relativism is false or conclude that no framework is absolutely right.

B. The Other Problem with Local Relativism

Now, maybe you are fine with concluding that no framework is morally superior. Yet such a conclusion has philosophical implications. One of my favorite questions to study is why do we believe what we believe or what justification do we have for our beliefs. Yet if relativism is true, there would be no reason to ask these questions. The ability to provide good reasons depends on conceptual ties to a higher truth.

Disagreements are a part of human nature. When you and I disagree, we usually believe that the other is incorrect. We use assertions to persuade the other of our viewpoint. Relativism ignores this fundamental truth.

Relativism attempts to be tolerant of other cultures. Yet, what would happen if I was from two very different cultural backgrounds? I would have to choose the one I thought was correct. Relativism offers me no guiding principle. I will have to make an arbitrary choice.

Conclusion

If you know anything about me, you know that I love deep philosophical conversations. I love debating moral theology. Connecting with people different from you gives you a chance to rearticulate what you believe. It does not require you to abandon the pursuit of truth and declare everything is arbitrary. Yet, relativism requires exactly that. Otherwise, relativism becomes self-refuting.

The Retrieval of Ethics: a Review

Introduction

From 2008-2011, I studied at the University of Virginia. I majored in philosophy with a minor in bioethics. I fell in love with the discipline of philosophy. I loved asking deep questions. One summer, I drove my mom crazy. I had been reading these deep philosophical books. I desperately wanted someone to discuss these big ideas. For example, I read, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book tackles deep issues such as cloning, organ donation, and the meaning of life. I never considered myself a good philosopher. Thus, I was completely shocked when I was nominated Most Outstanding Philosophy student. The award comes with a prize. The prize was a book titled The Retrieval of Ethics, by Talbot Brewer. I had promised to read his book. Yet life got in the way. The summer of my graduation I had neck surgery. Reading in a neck brace is no easy task. After my surgery, I entered law school and divinity school at Regent University. Needless to say, the heavy course work left little time for leisure reading. In 2018, I dusted off the book from my bookshelf and began to read. Admittedly, I struggled to understand the deeper philosophical arguments. Often I would re-read pages over and over underlining what I thought were the key points. In the end, Talbot Brewer says something interesting about our desires.

Three Dogmas of Desire

Brewer argues that modern philosophy needs to reconsider the nature of human agency. Brewer shows that the below argument is insufficient to explain human behavior.

  1. Desires are attitudes towards propositions
  2. Desires are distinguished from other propositional attitudes by the proper direction of fit between the world and mind
  3. Can formulate a rational explanation of any action by tracing it to it a belief/desire pair consisting in a belief that action will bring the world into conformity with some proposition and a desire takes the same proposition as an object[^1].

Brewer calls these three statements The Dogmas of Desire. He denies that statement 3 is true. Belief/desire pairs are not necessary or sufficient to provide a rational explanation. Belief/desire pairs are insufficient. There may be some object in which it may be impossible to determine how it could be good or worthwhile[^2]. Likewise, desires are not necessary. It is possible for an object to be intrinsically good and not desired by the actor.

Dialectical activities

Propositionalism is the idea that all action is a species of production. Thus it cannot explain why an action might be chosen for its own stake[^3]. According to the third dogma of desire, all desire action is calculated. This calculation produces some state of affairs in accordance with the idea in the actor’s mind. For example, I desire a pumpkin pie. Thus my actions would be calculated to make pumpkin pie come into existence. Yet according to Brewer, there is a certain type of actives that do not fit this model.

Brewer coins the term dialectical activities. This term describes the type of activity propositionalism cannot easily explain. He defines dialectical activities as all those activities whose point lies in any intrinsic goodness that is opaque to those who lack experience[^4]. His first example is our desire for God or a divine entity

Desire for God

Brewer argues that desires are not merely a set of movements towards different goals. Rather there exists a unifying principle. Brewer states that “The most comprehensive dialectical activity is the activity of living a good life.”[ ^5]. He turns to Augustine’s Confessions. in order to support this statement. Brewer describes how Augustine’s earlier desires were not substituted by his longing for God. Rather all of his earlier desires were a futile attempt to fulfill the longing he already had. Thus Brewer concludes that dialectic desires exceed a desirer’s articulation of it[^6]. Yet a desirer may arrive at a fuller articulation after experience[^7]. Brewer coins this attribute as perfectibility.

Brewer furthers his argument with references to Gregory of Nyssa and Plotinus. The former described the desire for God as a memorizing attraction to a good wholly present[^8]. This cannot fit the propositional framework since the desire is directed at a person, not an object[^9]. Plotinus described the human encounter with the Good. It was not as an intellectual exercise, but rather the response to an attraction. Furthermore, Plotinus thought that goodness comes not from striving. Rather it comes from “a loving desire oriented towards a divine mind”[^10]. Brewer uses these examples to make a philosophical statement on human agency. Yet philosophy is not the only area which needs to reclaim dialectical activities. Religion also needs to emphasize the dialectical nature of a desire for God

Impact on Religion

If Brewer is correct, then our desire for God is best oriented towards encountering a person. We cannot desire God out of a desire to be good or a desire to be one with God. This has implications for religious formation. The church has emphasized programs and parish’s renewals. These help to stem the tide of those leaving the church. Yet these programs and renewals aim at education or community building. Very few programs offer opportunities to encounter God.

I volunteer with the youth. I can get bogged down with teaching the information. I forget that encounters with God are really important. Youth encounter God through the Bible, sacraments, and adult leaders. Faith formation programs need to show how God satisfies our the longing. They need to show why other desires will be futile attempts. Philosophically speaking, humans need an overarching desire to unify their life. If they cannot find it in the sacred, they will turn to the secular.

[^1]: Brewer, Talbot. The Retrieval of Ethics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 16.

[^2]: Brewer, 35.

[^3]: Brewer, 37.

[^4]: Brewer, 39.

[^5]:Brewer, 49.

[^6]: Brewer, 51.

[^7]: Brewer, 51.

[^8]:Brewer, 57.

[^9]: Brewer, 58.

[^10]: Brewer 59.

Why Theology Needs Philosophy

Introduction

One of my goals for last year was to meet new people. I achieved that goal by joining some meetups with random strangers. One of my favorites has been TAGS, Tidewater Area Gaming Society. They meet monthly and play strategy board games. Another favorite of mine has been the Philosophy club. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. When the leader of the philosophy club stepped down, I felt called to take over. Ancient Greek philosophers made me realize the commonality they have with Christian metaphysics. In fact, theology needs philosophy to defend and advance the theological positions. Until 1920’s logical positivism, philosophers created logical arguments for the existence of God.

Before I studied philosophy, I had never really grappled with the hard questions of life. I was generally agnostic regarding God’s existence. The class, History of Philosophy Modern, introduced me to ontological arguments. We as a class focused on Descartes’ ontological argument for God. This argument impacted me. It made me realize that belief in God can be logically justified. It opened me up to experience a real encounter with God. The latter made me the Christian I am today.

Descartes’ argument

Descartes’ main purpose was to establish how do our minds know. He sought this information by crafting a thought experiment. In this experiment, Descartes asks the reader to imagine that an evil demon is tricking them. Thus everything that they sense is an illusion. What information would a person be able to know beyond their senses? Descartes concludes that beyond a doubt we possess an intellectual perception. This results in the famous phrase, “ I think, therefore I am.” In order for an intellectual perception to be true, it must be clear and distinct.

Descartes argues that he clearly and distinctly perceives God as an infinite being. This idea of God must have a cause. The cause must exist in objective reality. Thus God exists in reality. If God is infinite then he is also supremely perfect. A supremely perfect being would not deceive. If that is the case then God would plant the same set of innate ideas in all finite minds.

Why Ontological Arguments Are Important

Atheists typically object that the above argument does not endorse religious sentiments. I would agree. The logical arguments only proves that a supremely perfect being exists. For me, the notion that God’s existence is self-evident made me question my own denial. Philosophers caring about God made me ask why I did not question God’s non-existence.

When I enter divinity school at Regent University, I took systematic theology. I loved the class because it attempted to systematize theology in a logical way. The professor and I debated about whether a belief in God can come independent of experience. I do concede that faith is a gift from God. Faith comes from a radical encounter with the divine creator. Yet religious faith does need rational justification. We are not called to blind faith. Philosophical arguments can help provide a rationalization for faith experienced.

Work Cited

  1. Meister, Chad. “Philosophy of Religion.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/, 1/23/19
  2. Nolan, Lawrence, "Descartes’ Ontological Argument", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/descartes-ontological/.