God’s act of choosing

Classical theism holds that God is absolutely simple, which is to say that there is no absolute distinction within him, sometimes summarized by the phrase “all that is in God just is God.” For Thomists, this entails that God must be purely actual, which is to say that there is no mixture of potentiality and actuality in him as there are in his creatures—everything in God is one act. But if everything is one act, then how could he have acted otherwise? I have discussed this in the past, where I criticized the reasoning behind this question, so here I want to delve a bit more into the positive account of how I think about God’s freedom.

The basic problem is that the following statements seem incompatible with one another:

  1. God engages in the same act in every possible world.
  2. This act of God occurs in the same circumstance in every possible world.
  3. God determines which possible world is actualized.
  4. A different possible world could have been actualized.

It might not be clear why (2) is necessary, but if it weren’t then we could easily explain how the same act results in different possible worlds with reference to the difference in circumstances in which the act occurs. Such a move is not open to the Thomist, however, because if the circumstance of God’s choice differed between possible worlds then it would be contingent, and we hold that God is the cause of all contingent truths. Denying (3) amounts to denying that God is the creator and denying (4) amounts to a modal collapse, both of which are problematic. In my opinion, the answer isn’t to be found in denying any of these statements, but in clarifying what is involved in this single act of God.

The one act of God involves many things that for us obtain in different acts: by this one act, God knows, and chooses, and causes, and loves, and so on. These things are diversified in us because they result from the actualization of diverse potentials, but in God there is no potentiality and therefore no such diversification. Since the one act of God involves various such aspects, one aspect might help us to understand something about this act that another does not. In particular, if we consider the act in terms of free choice, then I think we can understand how the above four statements are compatible with one another.

Something that is often discussed in the context of free choice is the ability to choose otherwise. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think we should elevate this to a universal requirement of free choice, but it does apply in many cases. Regardless, we should certainly say that it applies in the case of God’s choice of which possible world to actualize. In cases where it does apply, we say that an agent in circumstance C freely chooses A only if they could have chosen something other than A in the same circumstance. The “circumstance,” here, is taken to include the entire state of affairs causally prior to the choice by the agent, including the agent’s own psychological state. Understandably, then, one objection that is sometimes leveled against such views is that it seems impossible to explain why the agent chose as they did rather than the alternative.

It seems to me that we can give an explanation that aligns well with our intuitions about our own choices. If we suppose that a reason for preferring one option over another results in a corresponding power for choosing that option rather than the alternative, then the fact that we can have reasons for various options means we will have the corresponding powers for choosing between those options. Imagine that Alice is choosing between two incompatible options, A and B. Then the circumstance C prior to her choice will include reason RA for choosing A over B and reason RB for choosing B over A. In this case, RA will result in a power in Alice to choose A rather than B, and RB will result in a power in Alice to choose B rather than A. Assuming that Alice in fact chooses A rather than B then RA will explain her choice, and conversely if she chooses B rather than A then RB will do the explaining. In either case, then, C has the sufficient resources to explain the choice that Alice makes, even though she could have made a different choice.

However, there needs to be more in the picture if we are to fully account for Alice’s choice. After all, if Alice had all these reasons but then something external forced her to choose one way or the other, then we wouldn’t say that she freely chose anything. Because of this, we need to include an additional condition, to the effect that a free choice is something that arises from the agent themselves rather than being externally imposed upon them. From an Aristotelian perspective, this means that a free choice must result from an act within Alice, in which the agent moves themselves from being impressed by reasons for her different options to pursuing one of those options rather than the others. More generally, this “act of choosing” or “act of arbitration” is one in which the agent comprehends all the reasons for the various options, arbitrates between them, and exercises the relevant power for choice that is grounded by the relevant reasons.

Now, this act of choosing will be the same regardless of which option ends up being chosen. We can retroactively qualify in terms of the particular choice that was made—as the act of choosing A or the act of choosing B—but this will just be a world-relative way of thinking about an act which in itself is unqualified and the same in each world—the act of choosing between A and B. After all, the act of choosing is part of the explanation which is supposed to be compatible with either choice. And if there were distinct acts of choosing A and of choosing B, then neither would be compatible with the contrary choice.

So, in the case of human choice, we can distinguish between three stages. In the first stage we understand something as worthy of pursuit for some reason, which includes it among the options of our choice and constitutes a power for us to pursue it. In the second stage, we apply the act of choosing, whereby we comprehend the options, arbitrate between them, and exercise one of these powers. This transitions us to the third stage, wherein we actually pursue the option we chose in the second. We may speculate that in some choices (such as the choice to believe something) there is really no third stage. But at least in most cases, the third stage is necessary in humans because we will need to move or change ourselves in some way in order to pursue anything.

Human choice is broken up into stages like this because everything we do is achieved through the successive actualizations of various potentials. By contrast, in God there are no potentials, and therefore no need for such a succession. God does not need to discover anything, or deliberate over the options by considering one feature and then the next. Instead, in his one act he knows the options immediately and altogether. As such, both first and second stages of the above process occur together: God comprehends the options and arbitrates between them all at once. Furthermore, God does not need to change himself in order to pursue the option he chooses. He doesn’t need to get his body in position or start thinking about something else before he can do something, but immediately causes his choice. So either we should say that there just is no third stage with God, or that it occurs along with the first two.

The upshot of this is that God’s one act involves an act of choosing, and an act of choosing is something which allows for alternate outcomes. So, while it’s true that God does the same thing in every possible world, the thing he does involves choosing which world to actualize, and is therefore compatible with any number of worlds resulting from it.