Lonergan on Aquinas on Causation

Below is an excerpt from Bernard Lonergan’s incredible book Grace and Freedom, discussing Thomas Aquinas’s views on causation and how they relate to Aristotle’s views on the topic. Except for the term “actio” I’ve replaced Latin phrases with their English translations in square brackets.

Causation is the common feature of both operation and cooperation; its nature is of fundamental importance in this inquiry. But if St Thomas certainly disagreed with Hume, who held causation to be purely subjective, it is less clear what object he considered to constitute the objective reference of the proposition “A causes B.” Was causation for him something in between A and B? Or was it simply the relation of dependence of B on A? Or was it some entity added to A as actually causing? Let us take each of these three views in turn.

As to the first view, that causation is in between cause and effect, St Thomas constantly and explicitly denied it in the case of divine activity. Avicennist biology had distinguished between a [a moving power commanding (something)] and a [a motive power effecting (something)], and St Albert had drawn a parallel distinction between the [divine created power] and a [divine uncreated power]. But St Thomas, while he used the biological opinion at least in his commentary on the Sentences, always asserted that God was his own virtue, operated without any mediating virtue, indeed operated [by the immediacy of power]. The matter is less clear with regard to causation by creatures. Even in later works there is a variety of expressions which appear to imply something in between agent and recipient. Still, it should seem that these are but modes of expression or of conception; for what is in between, if it is something, must be either substance or accident; but causation as such can hardly be another substance; and if it were an accident, it would have to be either the miracle of an accident without a subject, or else, what St Thomas denied, an accident in transit from one subject to another.

On the second view, causation is simply the relation of dependence in the effect with respect to the cause. This is the Aristotelian position presented in the Physics and explained by St Thomas as follows. First of all, this analysis prescinded from the case of the mover being moved accidentally; for instance, a terrestrial body acts through contact and cannot touch without being touched; but this does not prove that the cause as cause undergoes change but only that the terrestrial body as cause does so. In the second place, it was argued that the emergence of a motion or change involved the actuation of both the active potency of the cause and the passive potency of the effect. In the third, place the thesis was stated: one and the same act actuates both potencies, and this act is the motion produced in the object moved. Fourthly, there came the ground of this position: if causation, actio, were an entity inherent in the cause, then, since it is a motion, it would follow either that “[every moving thing is moved],” or else that motion inheres in a subject without the subject being moved; but the latter is contradictory, and the former would preclude the idea of an immovable mover; therefore, causation is not inherent in the cause but in the effect. Finally, the objective difference between action and passion was explained: both are really identical with the motion of the recipient; they differ notionally, for action is this motion as from the cause, [movement of this as from this], while passion is the same motion as inhering in the effect, [movement of this as in this].

It would seem that St Thomas accepted this Aristotelian analysis as true and did not merely study it as a detached and indifferent commentator. Not only did he repeat the same exposition in commenting the parallel passage in the Metaphysics, while in the De anima he argued that sound and hearing, instances of action and passion, must be one and the same reality, else every mover would be moved; but in works that are entirely his own the same view at least occasionally turns up. In the Summa theologiae the definition of actual grace appeals to the third book of the Physics for the doctrine that “[an act of a mover is a movement in the thing moved]”; the analysis of the idea of creation was based upon the Aristotelian identification of action and passion with motion; and the fact that this identification involved no confusion of action with passion was adduced to solve the object against the Blessed Trinity, namely, that since the divine Persons were identical with the divine substance they must be identical with one another. Still, this is not the whole story. In his commentary on the Sentences St Thomas brushed aside the notion that action and passion were on and the same reality, while in the parallel passage in the Summa theologiae a solution is found that does not compromise the authority of Aristotle. This difference involves a change attitude, prior to the Pars prima and perhaps posterior to the De potentia, raising the question of the initial Thomist view.

In earlier works, then, the theory of causation seems to have been worked out on the analogy of the familiar distinction between the [being towards] and the [being in] of the relation. In action one has to distinguish between a formal content described as [from an agent] or [as proceeding from an agent to another], and on the other hand, a reality, substantial or accidental, termed the [principle of action] or the [cause of action] or even loosely actio. This terminology is to be found no less in the commentary on the Sentences than in the De potentia, but at least in the latter work it also is quite clear that the formal content is no more than a notional entity. In the two passages quoted below, the reader will be able to verify the following six propositions: (A) change from rest to activity is change in an improper and metaphorical sense; (B) the reverse change from activity to rest takes place without any real change in the agent; (C) when the agent is acting there is no composition of agent and action; (D) what remains unchanged is the [principle] or [cause of action]; (E) what comes and goes without changing the agent is the formal content, [from an agent]; (F) the analysis holds even in the case of a created agent such as fire.

And so a relation is something inhering (in a subject), though that does not result from the mere fact that it is a relation; as action, too, from the fact that it is action, is considered as from an agent, but as an accident it is considered as in the acting subject. And therefore, there is nothing to prevent an accident of this kind (B) from ceasing to be without (involving) a change of that (subject) in which it is, because its being is not realized insofar as it is in that subject, but insofar as it passes on to another; with the removal of that (passing on), the being of this accident is removed (E) in what regards the act but remains (D) in what regards the cause; as is the case also when, with the removal of the material (to be heated), the heating (F) is removed, though the cause of heating remains (De potentia, q. 7, a. 9, ad 7m)

But that which is attributed to something as proceeding from it to something else does not enter into composition with it, as (C) neither does action (enter into composition) with the agent… without any change in that which is related to another, a relation can cease to be through the change alone of the other; as also is clear about action (B), that there is no movement as regards action except metaphorically and improperly; as we say that (A) one passing from leisure to act is changed; which would not be the case if relation or action signified something remaining in the subject (Ibid. a. 8 c.)

If our interpretation of these passages is correct, then at least in the De potentia St Thomas had arrived at a theory of action that was in essential agreement with Aristotle’s. Evidently the two terminologies differ completely: on the Aristotelian view action is a relation of dependence in the effect; on the Thomist view action is a formal content attributed to the cause as causing. But these differences only serve to emphasize the fundamental identity of the two positions: both philosophers keenly realized that causation must not be thought to involve any real change in the cause as cause; Aristotle, because he conceived action as a motion, placed it in the effect; St Thomas, who conceived it simply as a formal content, was able to place it in the cause; but though they proceed by different routes, both arrive at the same goal, namely, that the objective difference between [to be able to act] and [to actually act] is attained without any change emerging in the cause as such.

This real agreement in terminological difference solves the problem of St Thomas’s thought on causation. John of St Thomas listed the passages in which action is placed, now in the agent and now in the recipient; from this he drew the conclusion that action, according to St Thomas, was inchoatively in the agent and perfectively in the recipient. But in point of fact St Thomas simply had two ways of saying that action involved no new entity in the agent; and so far was he from differing really from Aristotle that he seems to have been quite unaware of even his terminological departure from the Aristotelian position. This latter fact not only solves Cajetan’s perplexity over the apparent divergence between the commentary on the Physics and regular Thomist usage but also provides the most conclusive evidence against such as position of Billuart’s that a real distinction in the agent between [power to act] and [the act itself] is one of the pillars of Thomist thought.

Virtual existence

It might not seem like it, but a proper understanding of virtual existence can be significantly helpful when trying to understand the structure of human communities. To this end, I’d like to spend some time thinking about this puzzling notion here.

Substances and aggregates again

You’ll recall that, in our discussions about substantial activities, we spent a fair amount of time introducing the notion of substance. There we said that a substance is something which has intrinsic directedness towards an end, or equivalently something which has intrinsic causal powers.

The guiding intuition here is that when a substance does something it is the substance itself doing it, as opposed to its parts or something external. So, the doing is intrinsic to the substance as opposed to its parts or something outside. Now, we use the term characteristic behaviours to pick out what something does always, or for the most part, given the kind of thing that it is; that is, how it behaves so long as it’s not being “blocked” in some way. Plants and animals grow to become healthy adults unless prevented by genetic defect or environmental factors, hydrogen combusts under certain circumstances unless prevented, the phosphorous in a match head will ignite when struck unless prevented, and so on.[1] We mentioned before that the only way such characteristic behaviours can be made intelligible is in terms of that thing’s being directed toward that behaviour by virtue of the kind of thing that it is. And this directedness, you’ll recall, needn’t be the result of conscious deliberation.

Putting this all together we get that if the doing of something always or for the most part is intrinsic to a thing, then so is the directedness towards this behaviour. Similarly, since a thing can’t do something without the power to do it, if the doing of something is intrinsic to a thing then so are the causal powers needed to do it. It is roughly along these lines that we (following Aristotle and the Scholastics) come to understand substances in the terms mentioned above. For a longer discussion of this, as well as responses to objections, I suggest you read Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics.

In contrast to substances, aggregates are those things which have only extrinsic directedness or causal powers. That is, an aggregate’s causal powers are reducible to the sum of the causal powers of its parts and what is imposed on it from outside.

A pile of rocks would be an obvious example of an aggregate. Its power to hold something 2 meters above the ground is merely the sum of the individual rocks that make it up. Above Aristotle used an example of a bed, which is merely an aggregate of the materials (wood and metal) that make it up.

Some aggregates, because of their complexity, are less obviously aggregates. Examples of these are things like watches and computers. A watch’s power for time-telling is imposed on it by us, and its power for the circular motion of its hands is merely the sum of the powers of its parts such as the conduction of electricity and so on. Similarly for a computer or a calculator.

The pile of rocks would be a table to the extent that it is intended as such by the individual or community that has access to it. Here it would be the sum of the parts together with an outside intention that make the pile of rocks a table.

With the watch there is nothing intrinsic to it or its parts that enables it to tell the time. This is something derived from us on the outside, as interpreters of the mechanical symbols we used in the watch’s construction. If you took us out of the equation, all that would remain are cogs, electrically stimulated, moving other cogs and pieces of metal at a fairly constant rate.

I suspect this is less clear to many of us in the case of computers. But this is more a function of our ignorance about how computers work than anything substantial about computers themselves. In this case various electrical components alternate their charges by interacting with one another, typically terminating in patterns of colours on a screen or sounds from a speaker. Sure, we’ve managed to do this faster and with smaller components, but there is nothing of significant difference (at least not for our purposes) between this and purely mechanical computers. We impose meaning on these patterns of colour and sound, and thereby impose on the computer the ability to compute things that are not intrinsic to the metal or electrical currents themselves. This is not unlike we impose material symbols and utterances with meaning in written and spoken communication.

Now, between substances and aggregates the substances are more ontologically fundamental. Or, as it has been put, substances are the most fundamentally real things. Of course, both aggregates and substances depend on their parts, but (1) aggregates are always made up of substances, and (2) with substances there is also a sense in which the parts depend on the whole. A full examination of (1) will require a deeper understanding of per se causal chains than we have space here to discuss so, as before, we’ll put this off until another time. We will spend the rest of our space here attempting to make inroads to understanding (2). Throughout these attempts we will being using the insight that what a thing is (its nature) is closely tied up with its directedness, characteristic behaviours, and causal powers. Indeed, we said last time and have noted elsewhere, that a thing’s nature just is what it is directed towards.

The actual existence of parts in aggregates

Now, an aggregate’s causal powers and directedness are by definition not intrinsic, but rather extrinsically derived from its parts and from outside. Thus we find that aggregates don’t really have a nature or existence over and above the substances that make them up and the ends imposed on them from outside. That is, their nature and existence are wholly reducible to extrinsic sources, and it is therefore by reference to these extrinsic sources that these aggregates are intelligible.

Furthermore, the substances that make up (or impose on) an aggregate retain their intrinsic directedness, characteristic behaviours, and causal powers. We use the term “actual existence” to refer to the way in which these substances exist, and say that they are “actually present” in (or around) the aggregate.

This is consistent with saying that, by virtue of being part of an aggregate these substances have their characteristic behaviours and causal powers influenced by one another. In this case they don’t take on new behaviours or powers, but rather have their behaviours and powers redirected through interaction with one another. Think, for instance, of how cogs influence each other in mechanical clocks or how pipes redirect the flow of water.

The virtual existence of parts in substances

What can we say, then, about parts of substances? A substance does have a nature and existence over and above its parts and outside imposition. It’s nature and existence are not wholly reducible to extrinsic sources, and it is therefore to some extent intelligible apart from these extrinsic sources. At this point we must tread carefully, for it is easy to misunderstand what is being said. In the interest of clarity, then, we make a distinction: a part of a substance can be considered in two ways, either (1) in itself or (2) as a part. In the former case we consider the part in isolation from the substance it belongs to, and in the latter case we consider the part in the context of the substance it belongs to.

We can illustrate this distinction with some examples. A previously mentioned example of a substance was a water molecule. We pointed out that “water boils at 100°C while hydrogen, considered in itself, boils at -252.9°C and oxygen, considered in itself, boils at -183°C.” On the other hand, hydrogen and oxygen, considered as a parts of water, boil at 100°C. In some ways this is obvious, for the continued existence of the water depends on the continued existence of the hydrogen and oxygen that make it up, and since water doesn’t combust when it comes into contact with fire it follows that neither do its parts. On the other hand, I’m sure that for many of us hearing something like “the boiling point of hydrogen is 100°C” causes somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction. In a way this highlights the point of the distinction. Presumably we have such knee-jerk reactions because of what we learnt in chemistry class. But chemistry, like many sciences, seeks primarily to understand the essential features of the objects it studies, and therefore typically studies these objects in isolation from outside influence. They therefore have little to say about these objects when considered as part of another. So such knee-jerk reactions are neither surprising nor hindering to our discussion.

Another example of a substance previously mentioned was an animal. For each of the organs an animal has we can consider it in itself or as a part. In this case we typically have the reverse intuitions as above: with the molecules we are accustomed to thinking about them in themselves, but with organs we are accustomed to thinking about them as parts. Consider, for instance, the claims “hydrogen boils at -252.9°C” and “the heart pumps blood”. The former tells us how hydrogen behaves in isolation from outside influence, and the latter tells us what the heart does in the context of the rest of the body. Now, considered in itself, “an organ is merely a clump of flesh which decomposes if left to its own devices.” Indeed, don’t we see this all the time with severed limbs and corpses? On the other hand, considered as parts organs “are each capable of their individual functions in the body (walking, grasping, thinking, sensing, pumping blood, and so on) and they are all capable of participating in the life of the animal”, where by “life” we mean the ability of a thing to “produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is”. For example, compare what happens when you cut a severed hand (or some other non-living thing) and when you cut a living thing. The latter will repair itself to some extent whereas the former will do nothing.

You’ll notice from the examples given that the characteristic behaviours, directedness, and causal powers of things can differ quite significantly depending on whether we’re considering them in isolation and or as parts. Therefore, so do their natures: a clump of flesh is a significantly different kind of thing to a heart pumping blood, a free hydrogen atom is a different kind of thing to a hydrogen atom in a water molecule, and so on. An implication of this is that the things considered in themselves are not actually present in the substances they belong to, at least not in the same sense that the things considered as parts are. In these cases, we say that the things in themselves are “virtually” present in the wholes they belong to.

What of the parts considered as parts? They are directed by the nature of the substance and derive their causal powers from the substance. I don’t mean that the substance is something separable from its parts, for of course it is constituted by them. Rather, it is on account of the parts being configured together so as to produce a whole which is capable of more than the mere sum of its parts, each considered in itself, that the parts cease to behave like they would in isolation and take on a new nature grounded in the overall configuration itself. It is because of this configuration of the substance that the parts have different causal powers, behaviours, and directedness. It is in this sense that the parts all together take on the nature of the substance and share in it’s existence. And it is this sense that parts depend on the substance they belong to.

A hylomorphic account of virtual existence

Let’s summarise what we’ve said so far. In aggregates the parts considered in themselves actually exist, since they continue doing what they do in isolation. And although they continue behaving as they would in isolation, they can nonetheless have this behaviour redirected by the other parts of the aggregate. Finally, in aggregates there isn’t really a distinction between the parts considered in themselves and the parts considered as parts.

In substances the parts considered in themselves virtually exist, since they do not continue doing what they do in isolation. By virtue of how they are configured in the substance, they behave in a new ways which share in the existence of the substance. Finally, in substances there is a distinction between the parts considered in themselves and the parts considered as parts.

Now, we might be tempted to see the word “virtual” and think that what’s being claimed is that the parts of substances, considered in themselves, do not make any causal contribution to the substance they belong to. On the contrary, Scholastics call this “merely logical” existence and distinguish it from virtual existence. Something has merely logical existence when its existence is wholly dependent upon intellectual activity. Examples would be fictional stories, imaginary friends, hallucinations, and dreams. On the other side of the spectrum are substances, which, as we’ve been saying, have actual existence. In this context this entails that they “fully” exist independently of intellectual activity. Virtual existence sort of stands in between these two opposites: to some extent they have mind-independent existence, and to some extent they are dependent upon intellectual activity. This may sound slightly strange, but this conclusion is implicit in what we’ve been saying. Their partial dependence on intellectual activity derives from the fact that while they are part of a substance they do not behave as they do in isolation, and so it requires intellectual activity to “fill in” what’s currently absent. Their partial independence of intellectual activity derives from the fact that the parts could not be configured so as to constitute the substance unless they were as they are in themselves. For instance, it is precisely because of how hydrogen and oxygen molecules are in themselves, that they can come together to form a water molecule.

We can shed some light on this somewhat strange property of virtual existence by means of the Aristotelian theory of hylomorphism.[2] According to hylomorphism every material thing is composed of “form” and “matter”, where by matter we mean some otherwise indeterminate substratum and by form we mean the configuration of the matter that determines it to this rather than that. So stated, hylomorphism is completely general, and we illustrate it with three very different cases.

First, there’s the sense in which we’re talking about material substances like trees, dogs, humans, water molecules, wood, and so on. Our matter is the “stuff” we’re all made out of, and our forms are the configurations of this matter into the various kinds of material things there are. We humans have our matter configured in a way quite differently from how the matter in the tree outside or in my pet cat is configured. It is on account of these different forms that we have our distinctive behaviours, directedness, and causal powers, and on account of which we are called humans, trees, and cats.

Second, there are things like written or spoken sentences or pieces of music. With the sentence the matter would be the words or letters and the form would be the syntax together with some kind of “semantic coherence” (since syntax alone isn’t enough). With the music we have something similar, but I suspect there syntax is enough.

Third, there are actions. Here, I think, is where we begin to see the generality of the form-matter distinction. Consider the motion of my hand into your face. This movement itself is indeterminate between at least two possibilities: either I am punching you or I am doing something else and have hit you by mistake. As such, the movement is the matter of my action. What is the form? Surely it’s my intention. If I intend to hurt you then the action is me punching you, otherwise it is a mistake. So, while the form-matter distinction primarily applies to material substances, at the end of the day it goes far beyond this to almost everything.[3]

Now, using the form-matter distinction we can say the following. Something merely logically exists if it has neither form nor matter in reality, but is only understood or imagined in such terms. Something actually exists if it is constituted by the composition of form and matter which are intrinsic to it; that is, the thing is made up of its own form and matter. And something virtually exists if it is constituted by the composition of intrinsic matter and extrinsic form; that is, the thing contributes its matter to the form of something else, or equivalently the thing’s matter is informed by something else.

This captures, in the technical jargon of hylomorphism, what we were talking about earlier with the parts making contribution to the configuration of the substance and thereby participating in its existence. It also enables us to make sense of the partial dependence of virtually existing things on intellectual activity: such activity is necessary to “fill in” the missing intrinsic form, but not the matter.

Notes

  1. We’ve spoken about these kinds of generalisations before, at which point we called them “Aristotelian categoricals”. John Haldane, in his talk Aquinas and Realism, calls them “generics”. David Oderberg, in his paper Essence and Properties, calls them “properties”, along with Scholastics more generally.
  2. We won’t be able to do complete justice to the theory now, so if you’re interested in more than what I have to say here I recommend all the resources I’ve listed on my resources page under the sections “Hylomorphic dualism” and “Hylomorphism in general”.
  3. One might be tempted to equate form and structure. While in some cases these are the same (music pieces, for example), this is not true in general. See David Oderberg’s paper Is Form Structure? for a more detailed discussion of this.

Substantial and aggregate activities

In the Physics Aristotle gives his famous definition of a substance, which he refers to as a thing that “exists by nature” or as a “natural object”:

Some things exist by nature, others are due to other causes. Natural objects include animals and their parts, plants and simple bodies like earth, fire, air, and water; at any rate, we do say that these kinds of things exist naturally. The obvious difference between all these things and things which are not natural is that each of the natural ones contains within itself a source of change and of stability, in respect of either movement or increase and decrease of alteration. On the other hand, something like a bed or a cloak has no intrinsic impulse for change — at least, they do not under that particular description and to the extent that they are a result of human skill, but they do in so far as and to the extent that they are coincidentally made out of stone or earth or some combination of the two.

The nature of a thing, then, is a certain principle and cause of change and stability in the thing, and it is directly present in it — which is to say that it is present in its own right and not coincidentally. (Physics II.1 192b8-b23)

Edward Feser summarises this definition from Aristotle by saying,

The basic idea, then, is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior — the ways in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts — derives from something intrinsic to it. (Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’ Fifth Way)

Aristotle and the Scholastics would later argue that the only way to make sense of the fact that things always, or for the most part, behave in certain ways is if they are by nature directed towards such behaviour. That is, if they have an inherent tendency or directedness towards such activity as an end. (cf Physics II.8 198b34-199a7) This intrinsic directedness towards an end, then, is the nature of thing:

The point is that those things are natural which undergo continuous change, starting from an intrinsic source of change and concluding at a particular end… it is clear that a thing’s nature is a cause, and that it is the kind of cause I have been saying — namely, purpose. (Physics 199b15-18, 32-33)

It must be recalled that neither Aristotle nor the Scholastics who followed him thought of this directedness or “purpose” as necessarily involving intelligence or deliberation from the things so directed.

This is particularly clear in the case of non-human animals, whose products are not the result of skill, enquiry, or planning. Some people are puzzled by how spiders, ants, and so on make what they make — do they use intelligence, or what? … It is ridiculous for people to deny that there is purpose if they cannot see the agent of change doing any planning. After all, skill does not make plans. If ship-building were intrinsic to word, then wood would naturally produce the same results that ship-building does. If skill is purposive, then, so is nature. (Physics II.8 199b26-30)

Again, Feser explains:

In other words, that goal-directedness does not require conscious deliberation is evident from the fact that a skilled craftsman can largely carry out his work without even thinking about it—”on autopilot” as we might put it today, or without first “making plans,” as Aristotle puts it. But if this is possible for someone with such skill, there is in Aristotle’s view no reason not to think it also possible for natural objects. This is the force of the ship-building example: If there were something in the very nature of wood that “directed it” toward the end of becoming a ship, then what in the case of human craftsmanship results from deliberate design — a ship — would in that case result “naturally” instead, that is, without conscious deliberation at all. Indeed, “it looks as though things happen at the plant level too which serve some purpose” in just this way, even though plants do not deliberate — for instance, an oak derives from an acorn without the acorn planning this result — and there is also of course the example of “non-human animals, whose products are not the result of skill, enquiry, or planning.”

So substances are those things which have an intrinsic directedness towards an end. Because this directedness is tied up with a thing’s characteristic behaviours, and characteristic behaviours are tied up with a thing’s causal powers, we might equivalently say that substances are those things which have intrinsic causal powers. By intrinsic, here, we mean that the directedness or causal powers of the thing are not (1) imposed from some outside agent or (2) reducible to the sum of the its parts considered in themselves. Aggregates (or “heaps”), on the other hand, have only extrinsic directedness or causal powers.

Let’s consider some examples of each. On a molecular level, a water molecule is a substance, for it has causal powers which are not reducible to the powers of its parts. For instance, water boils at 100°C while hydrogen, considered in itself, boils at -252.9°C and oxygen, considered in itself, boils at -183°C. The same goes for other powers.

On a more macroscopic level, individual animals are substances. Considered in itself, an organ is merely a clump of flesh which decomposes if left to its own devices. However, when the organs co-exist in an animal they are each capable of their individual functions in the body (walking, grasping, thinking, sensing, pumping blood, and so on) and they are all capable of participating in the life of the animal, where life is:

… the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is… (David Oderberg, Teleology: Inorganic and Organic)

Consider, for instance, how you develop from a baby in your mother’s womb to a fully-grown adult, or how body heals itself when damaged, or how you don’t just decompose (unless you’re sick in some way). None of your organs, considered in themselves as mere clumps of flesh, are capable of these things and so you are not merely the sum of your organs.

A pile of rocks would be an obvious example of an aggregate. Its power to hold something 2 meters above the ground is merely the sum of the individual rocks that make it up. Above Aristotle used an example of a bed, which is merely an aggregate of the materials (wood and metal) that make it up.

Some aggregates, because of their complexity, are less obviously aggregates. Examples of these are things like watches and computers. A watch’s power for time-telling is imposed on it by us, and its power for the circular motion of its hands is merely the sum of the powers of its parts such as the conduction of electricity and so on. Similarly for a computer or a calculator.

From wholes to activities

All this is by way of introduction for what I really want to talk about here. The space was not wasted, however, for what we have introduced will serve us well in what follows. Thus far we’ve been discussing the distinction between substantial and aggregate wholes. My aim here, however, is to make a parallel distinction between substantial and aggregate activities.

A substantial activity, then, is one which has intrinsic directedness towards an end. That is, its directedness is not (1) imposed from some outside agent or (2) reducible to the sum of the its parts considered in themselves. In order for us to understand this we need to be clear on how an activity has directedness, and the best way to achieve such clarity is by considering how substances engage in activities. For our purposes here, it will be sufficient to distinguish between three groups of substances: non-animals, non-rational animals, and rational animals.

By non-animals I mean inorganic substances (rocks, water, atoms, …) and non-animal organisms (that is, vegetation). What distinguishes animals from non-animals is that the former have some form of sentience (and, typically, an ability for self-movement). Since non-sentience involves not being able consciously move to an end it seems we have two options with regards to how activities involving non-animals have directedness: either their activities don’t have directedness, or the directedness of their activities derives from the directedness the substance has in virtue of its nature.

What distinguishes rational animals from non-rational animals is that the former have the ability to (1) abstract universal concepts from particulars (“Socrates is a human“), (2) combine these concepts into judgements or propositions (“All humans are mortal”), and (3) string these propositions into arguments for conclusions (“Therefore, Socrates is mortal”).[1] So within animals we distinguish between non-rational animals, which are only conscious of particular things via sensation, and rational animals, which are additionally conscious of the universal concepts that pervade all the particulars. By virtue of their consciousness animals are capable of directing their actions towards specific ends in addition to the ends set for them by their natures.

For instance, a cat is by nature directed towards certain characteristic activities such as walking on four legs and eating certain types of food, as well as developing such morphological features that make these possible. However, because this cat is hungry and conscious of that bird it directs and moves itself towards that bird in order to eat it. All the while, however, the cat is not conscious of universal concepts (as such) like “being hungry”, “birds” and so on. Much of its “reasoning” is driven by instinct and nature. But this does not invalidate the claim that it has a measure of self-direction which it derives from its consciousness of particular things. Rational animals, because they are also aware of universal concepts, are capable of directing themselves in accordance with a richer set of ends.

The Porphyrian tree for corporeal substances. Leaf nodes represent species and edges represent specific differences that divide each genus up.
The Porphyrian tree for corporeal substances. Leaf nodes represent species and edges represent specific differences that divide up each genus.

Whether an animal is rational or not, ultimately its intention is what determines the direction of a given activity. Consider, for instance, the movement of my hand into your shoulder. What I intend to achieve with the movement is what determines whether this action is me punching you or merely an accident (which would be the case if I was intending to get something else and misjudged our relative positions).

With these distinctions in hand we ask the following question: how are substantial and aggregate wholes related to substantial and aggregate activities? It seems obvious that substances are capable of substantial actions and aggregates are capable of aggregate activity. But does this exhaust the possible relations?

The possibility of substantial activity by aggregate wholes

There are only two other options we could consider. The first is substances performing aggregate activities, but in the interest of time we’ll leave this to one side.

The second option is that of an aggregate performing a substantial activity. Such an activity would require an aggregate of substances to direct their otherwise disparate activity toward a common end. Is this not what we find in various teams and associations throughout human society? A sports team works together to win the game, an orchestra works together to play their piece well, the various employess in a company work together for the sake of the company, the various military personnel work together to achieve victory in war, when two friends pick up a large object together, and so on.

At this point we must be careful, lest we fall into error and think some such activities substantial when in fact they are merely aggregate. Take the example of the members of an orchestra performing their piece. This is an example of substantial action because each intends to contributes to the same performance. It’s this shared intention (or something like it) that makes the activity substantial, and not just that the sound produced is a combination of the sounds of the various instruments. After all, even aggregates involve combinations of their parts. By contrast, consider the musicians behind stage before the performance starts, while they each tune their respective instrument. An observer standing backstage will hear the combination of all the various sounds they make as they do this. The making of this combined sound will be merely an aggregate activity. Why? Because there is no shared intention directing the musicians to a common end. Rather, in this case each musician intends merely to tune their own instrument independent of the others. So when we aggregate the various tuning activities we end up with an aggregate of ends and therefore an aggregate activity.

So aggregate wholes can indeed engage in substantial activities, and they do so when and only when the members of the aggregate intentionally work together toward some common end.

But we can take this further. You’ll notice that the examples I listed above all involved aggregates of rational animals. This was not accidental, for only aggregates of rational beings are capable of this kind of substantial activity we’re considering. We see why when we reflect on what’s involved in working together with others toward a common end.

First, working together involves recognising both you and another falling under the same category of “part” in some sense. It requires that we understand the roles we’re responsible for and how those roles contribute to the achievement of the end in sight. Often (if not always) this will require that we understand the rules which encode our responsibilities. All of this, and more, requires a capacity for being conscious of universal concepts like “part”, “whole”, “role”, “responsibility”, “rule”, “expectation”, and so on. Since only rational beings are conscious of universal concepts, it follows that only rational beings can work together toward a common end.

Second, working together toward a common end requires that we be conscious of the end as common. Briefly, common ends are ends that can be enjoyed by multiple members without thereby being diminished. They are opposed to private ends, which are always diminished when shared.[2] For instance, if there is a loaf of bread between me and someone else, the more the I eat the less there is for the other person to eat. Siblings will know that the time I spend playing on the computer is time my brother cannot play on the computer. Consider, however, the examples we mentioned earlier: winning a sports game, the musical piece, the good of a company, victory in war, the picking up of a car. All of these are shared amongst the members in the corresponding aggregate, but are not thereby diminished. The same victory in war, for instance, is equally had by everyone in the winning nation.

Now, from the examples given it seems clear that particular things (or combinations of particular things) considered as particular can only serve as private ends. By contraposition, it follows that in order to be conscious of an end as common requires that we be conscious of universal concepts. Therefore only rational beings can be conscious of, and direct themselves toward, common ends.

Notes

  1. The Scholastics called these the “acts of reason”, and labeled them (1) grasping, (2) composition and division, and (3) reasoning. Each of the acts of reason are dependent upon the earlier ones for their operation. Technically, (2) is richer than merely the ability to form propositions: it also enables rational beings to form universal concepts of things they haven’t experienced yet. For instance, once we have an concept of a horse and the concept of blackness we can consider the combination of these two concepts without having ever seen a black horse.
  2. Of course this is not the whole story, and common ends tend to be notoriously difficult to talk about (see, for instance, Marcus Berquist’s Common Good and Private Good). The particular qualification I want to add here is that while common ends can be shared without thereby being diminished it doesn’t follow that sharing always leaves it undiminished. For instance, orchestras are limited in their size because once they get too big they become unmanageable. The same goes for political communities and friendships and presumably any community. Furthermore, including bad musicians in an orchestra might also diminish the end insofar as those musicians get in the way of the orchestra performing well. But in these cases it is not the sharing per se that is diminishing the end, but rather the sharing with too many people or sharing with bad musicians. With private goods, no matter how you share you will always diminish your ends. Because this qualification doesn’t affect the overall thrust of my argument, I chose to just mention it here in the footnotes.

 

 

Why it’s called “motion”

I can’t believe it took me so long to realise this. Aristotelians sometimes (read: often) use the word “motion” to refer to change of any kind. Thus it is much broader than how we might use the word today. It’s certainly broader than mere change in location, but even we use it in a broader sense that.

But why? Why would you call change, in general, motion? Good question.

One of the questions Aristotle had to grapple with (and which we tend to ignore these days), is how change is possible and what it is. He realised that any instance of change is the actualisation of a potential. When a hot cup of coffee gets cold, for example, what is happening is that the cup’s potential for the being cold is actualised by the coldness in the surrounding air (say). When I pick the cup off the ground and place it on the desk, I am actualising the cup’s potential to be a meter above the ground (say).

So all change involves the actualisation of potentials. But does every actualisation of a potential involve change? No.

Go back to the cup sitting on the desk. Say it’s been sitting on the desk for a while now. Its location isn’t changing, but the desk continues to actualise its potential to be a meter above the ground. (If this potential weren’t being actualised, then the cup wouldn’t be a meter above the ground in the first place!) But this actualisation of the cup’s potential clearly isn’t an instance of change.

So there are some actualisations of potentials that are change, and some which aren’t. What separates the one case from the other? Surely it’s that change involves the movement from potential to actual. That is, it’s not merely that some potential is being actualised, but also that that potential wasn’t being actualised before. So, to use fancy genus-species language, the genus of change is the actualisation of a potential, and the specific difference is by movement from potential to actual.

As a side note, since efficient causation just is the actualisation of a potential this specific difference helps us distinguish between something like state causation versus something like event causation, as these terms are used in modern parlance. (I say “something like” because the Aristotelian thinks that (1) substances are the fundamental kinds of causes, not states/events, and (2) whereas typical construals of state/event causation involve one state/event causing another, Aristotelians typically understand cause and effect as two aspects of the same state/event.)

Whatever begins to exist has a cause

Consider the following argument:

  1. If it’s possible for a thing to come into existence without a cause, this possibility is grounded in a property of the thing itself, or a property of nothingness.
  2. This possibility is not grounded in a property of the thing itself, nor in a property of nothingness.
  3. Therefore, it is not possible for a thing to come into existence without a cause.

That possibilities are grounded in properties of things seems quite intuitive. In (1), we exclude the option of there being a property of an external thing that grounds this possibility, for it’s difficult to see how that would be a case of something coming into existence without a cause. (2) follows from the fact that only things that exist can exemplify properties. Nothingness, since it is the absence of all being, therefore doesn’t have any properties. Nor does the thing itself exemplify any properties prior to its existing.

Middle knowledge or Molinism?

[UPDATE: I’ve actually modified the related post since I wrote this one. I’m leaving this post here, though, because I still think it’s got an interesting thought in it]

In my recent post on God’s providence I discussed a view which I called “middle knowledge”. To some this might have been confusing, for this position is also sometimes called “Molinism”, after the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. Molina is responsible for introducing the doctrine of middle knowledge to reconcile libertarian free will with a strong view of divine providence, and as such the term Molinism is often used to designate the position I was talking about. Admittedly, that probably would have been a better label to use, although I tend to use the term “middle knowledge” to avoid confusion between Molinism as philosophical framework for providence and Molinism as a collection of doctrines about soteriology. This has happened in the past where people use the word “Calvinism” where they actually should use the word “compatibilism.”

One reason one might prefer the term Molinism, is because it more clearly encompasses the theses of libertarian free will and middle knowledge. While I was thinking about this, it dawned on me that while middle knowledge doesn’t technically include the thesis of libertarian free will, it does entail something very much like it: first, recall that the facts in God’s middle knowledge are contingent. This means that what agents freely do is not causally determined by their circumstances or God, which entails some form of the Principle of Contrary Choice. Second, recall that the facts are not determined by God. What else could determine the truth of these facts? Well, us! So something like libertarian free will plausibly follows from the doctrine of middle knowledge.

Of course this is really all just a matter of semantics. For the remainder of the blog post series, I’ll probably use start using “Molinism” as the term for the view.

Divine simplicity and constituent ontologies

I’ve recently begun reading about Aristotelean-Thomistic philosophy. In A-T metaphysics, the doctrine of divine simplicity has a central place. This is the doctrine that God has no parts, be they physical or metaphysical. From this it follows that he is identical to his nature, to his existence, and to each of the divine attributes. Now this may sound really strange to some, but I recently read the SEP article on Divine Simplicity, and the distinction between constituent and non-constituent ontologies is both informative and helpful in making sense of divine simplicity. Worth a read.

God’s control and our free will

This is the second post in a series of posts on God’s providence. Last time we looked at a bunch of passages from Scripture which weigh in on the question. This time, as the title suggests, we’re going to talk about the relationship between God’s control and our free will.

In our first post, we asked two questions:

  1. Does God have the ability to control or direct human choices and actions?
  2. How often does God exercise this ability?

I think it was plain from last time that God does have the ability of directing human actions (cf. Gen 50:20, 1 Sam 2:25, Luke 22:22, Acts 4:27-28) and that he uses this ability to direct all history (cf. Prov 16:9, Eph 1:11). Now we turn to our current question: “How does God direct human actions?”

Some views on providence and free will

When I was younger I would often ask about how on earth God could direct human history without removing human responsibility. At the time, unfortunately, no-one around me was sufficiently equipped to answer the question and my question often got shrugged off with one of those, “oh well it’s just a mystery” kind of answers. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mystery per se. After all God is a person and we can’t presume to know the motivations for his actions all the time, just like I can’t know the motivations behind the actions of anyone around me. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make sense of it, at least for the sake of showing the Christianity is a coherent worldview. A correct understanding of this relationship between God’s control and our responsibility will also counteract faulty thinking. I’ve found it happen too often that Christians who haven’t thought about divine providence fall into fatalistic thinking, which is quite unbiblical.

As it turns out, there are a number of models that seek to elucidate this relationship. We’ll begin by listing of a number of different answers that have been given, and then we’ll focus on the details of two of these answers specifically. The first class of models are what we might call “meticulous control” models. These models hold that God can bring about any possible choice in a human. The second class we might call “directing control” models. These hold that God can control outcomes of human actions, but can’t necessarily bring about all of the possible outcomes. This may sound weird, but we’ll see how we can hold this kind of model with a strong view of divine providence. The final class we might call “negligible control” models, and I’m sure you can guess what they hold. We won’t be concerning ourselves with this third class of models, because I think they’re unbiblical (although some very clever theologians don’t, which is worth noting).

In this post we will be discussing compatibilism (meticulous) and Molinism (directing) as potential answers to the question we posed earlier. I myself currently hold to the latter of these two, although I have held a a fair number of different views in the past, and I don’t really mind which you prefer yourself.

Free will

Before we discuss these models we need to introduce some distinctions with regards to free will and moments of God’s knowledge. First, there’s the distinction between compatbilistic versus libertarian free will. The compatbilist says that a choice being free is compatible with it being causally determined. Some compatibilists take this to include being caused to choose one way or the other by something external to the person doing the choosing (called external causal determination), whereas others only take this to include being caused by factors internal to the person doing the choosing, like their desires or will. As far as I understand, all compatibilists will agree that God can cause me to choose something and that choice will be free so long as it does not go against my will or nature.

Now, libertarianism is incompatibilistic. The libertarian says that an agent’s choice is free only if it ultimately arose from the agent and is not causally determined. There are some variations on this, but this is the basic idea. For the libertarian, even if God caused a person to choose something that was consistent with what they wanted, that choice would not be free.

The difference, in terms of choices being determined can be stated from the perspective of possible worlds. Imagine an agent A is in a circumstance C. For the compatibilist, A necessarily makes a choice S and is free. For most forms of libertarianism, A there will be some possible worlds in which A chooses S and other possible worlds in which A chooses otherwise. This is called the principle of contrary choice (PCC). As far as I’m aware the libertarian needn’t take PCC as a necessary condition for a choice to be free, but in this post we’ll assume the PCC for the sake of simplicity.

Moments of God’s knowledge

On classical theism, God is omniscient. However, certain things God knows depend on other things he knows. We can distinguish between up to 3 “moments” of God’s knowledge. These moments are logically ordered, in the sense that some depend on others. But they are not temporally ordered, since God had all this knowledge from eternity “before” there was time.

The first moment is God’s natural knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of all necessary truths. This includes all possible worlds, that is, all the different ways history could have gone. So, we’ll say that God’s natural knowledge is his knowledge of everything that could happen. God does not choose the content of his natural knowledge. So, natural knowledge is necessary and not chosen by God.

The last moment is God’s free knowledge. This is God’s knowledge of everything that will happen. God has this knowledge because of his decision of which possible world to actualise. As such, God does choose the content of his free knowledge. So, free knowledge is contingent and chosen by God.

Now there is a third moment called God’s hypothetical knowledge. Depending on our view of God’s providence this is gets placed differently in the order of things. How much we focus on it also differs with the views of providence, as we’ll see now. God’s hypothetical knowledge is his knowledge of everything that would happen. What I mean is the following: we can all agree that there are facts of the form, “If person A were put in a circumstance C, then he would choose S”. The libertarian can say, for example, that in any given circumstance, there is only one thing we would choose, even though there a lots of things we could choose. As I said, where we place this knowledge is determined by our view, and this is what we’ll be talking about now.

Compatibilism

Say we’re compatibilistic about free will. The next question is how God determines what will happen. Does he place us in circumstances which causally determine our choices, or does he actively cause our choices? We’ll call these two views soft compatibilism and omnicausality respectively. For both, God’s hypothetical knowledge is part of his natural knowledge. Although typically, on omnicausality, God’s hypothetical knowledge isn’t a particular focus since that’s not the primary means by which he brings about his purposes.

I won’t say much about soft compatibilism, since it’s very similar to Molinism, which we’ll discuss below. The key difference being the type of free will in focus. The soft compatibilist, I presume, would say that when the person is put in a given circumstance, the factors in the circumstance (be it the person’s nature, feelings and will at the time, their character, etc.) causally determine, and therefore necessitate, the choice that person will make. It’s worth noting that compatibilists don’t think that any causally determined choice is free: only non-constrained choices. In his book, No one like Him, John S. Feinberg has this to say about constraint (pg. 636):

As for constraint, in general it is a force that is not part of a person’s nature, a force which moves them to act against their wishes. Often the constraining force is external to the person, though a psychological neurosis might also constrain someone at act against his will.

Omnicausality seems quite strong, but if I were a compatibilist I think it’s the one I’d go for. The version of this view that I have in mind is the one explicated by Paul Helseth in his contribution to the book, Four views on divine providence (his contribution is summarised quite nicely here). As far as I can make out, Helseth takes omnicausality to be a consequence of the doctrine of concurrence. Essentially, this doctrine holds that God is the primary cause of everything that occurs in the world. On Helseth’s account, this means that he is also the cause of free creaturely choices. This isn’t to say that he is the only cause of these choices, but rather that he causes the choice along with the agent. Helseth distinguishes between God as the primary cause and the agent as the secondary cause of the agent’s choosing. God’s causal work, among other things, is what enables the agent to make their choice in the first place. I’m sure Helseth, along with the soft compatibilist, would be quick to include the nuance about non-constraining causation as a necessary condition for free will. Unfortunately, we can’t delve too deeply into the details of Helselth’s proposal here, so I’d recommend reading his contribution to the book and/or the summary I linked to. Needless to say, the view is nuanced, and in my opinion it is defensible.

Molinism

The Molinist places God’s hypothetical knowledge in the middle, between his natural and free knowledge, and calls it middle knowledge. On this view, what it means for the hypothetical knowledge to be in the middle (as opposed to being part of natural or free knowledge) is that it is contingent and not chosen by God. Molinists are also libertarians, and they use middle knowledge to explain how God can direct human history without our actions being causally determined: God ensures that we find ourselves in the circumstances in which we would choose according to his plan.

On this proposal, we can imagine that in the first moment of God’s knowledge (natural knowledge) he has all the possible worlds laid out in front of him. Then, in the second moment (middle knowledge), some of these worlds are picked out as feasible worlds. These are the possible worlds in which the creatures act according to the counterfactuals contained in God’s middle knowledge. God then picks from the feasible worlds which to actualise, and so he enters the third moment of knowledge (free knowledge).

Some people have taken exception to the “strangeness” of middle knowledge. How can it be that there are contingent facts that are not decided by God? If not God, then what decided them? To put this in more philosophical terms, what grounds the truth of the counterfactuals that make up God’s middle knowledge? This oft repeated question is known as the grounding problem. We’re not going to discuss it here, but I’ve written a post detailing how I think the counterfactuals can be explained (even if they can’t be grounded) and to my mind this greatly reduces the weight of the problem. On the answer I give there, it is us who decide which counterfactuals are true.

We must reiterate that Molinism includes libertarian free will. What this means, at least in general, is that agents can act contrary to how they would act. That is, in a given circumstance there is one thing an agent would do even though there are many things they could do. Consider what this means from the perspective of possible and feasible worlds. Imagine Bob is put in some circumstance C, and imagine further that the counterfactual “If Bob were in C, he would choose A” is true. This means that in every feasible world in which Bob is in C, he chooses A. There are possible worlds in which Bob is in C and doesn’t choose A, but God can’t actualise these worlds, because it would involve Bob choosing contrary to what we would freely choose according to the counterfactuals that happen to be true. On libertarianism, it is a contradiction in terms for God to cause Bob to choose something freely.

Does Scripture dictate which view we should hold?

Some theologians and/or philosophers think that Scripture teaches compatibilism. I obviously disagree. Others think that Scripture teaches something like Molinism (or at least libertarianism). I disagree with them too. I am of the opinion that Scripture is largely underdeterminitve when it comes to reconciling God’s control and our moral responsibility. What I mean by that, is that Scripture teaches two things: (1) that God directs history according to his will, and (2) that human choices are real and that we are responsible for our choices. It teaches these, but it doesn’t tell us how they’re supposed to be reconciled. It is up to each of us to find a model that, in our opinion, best explains the truths Scripture teaches without over-emphasising either of them.

Scriptural passages that go against Molinism?

With that in mind, let’s consider three objections to Molinism, besides the grounding problem which I mentioned earlier. First, we might consider passages in Scripture that seem to suggest that God has more control than what the middle knowledge affords him. In one of the passages we quoted last time, the writer of Exodus tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3-4, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17):

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Surely, our interlocutor questions, this goes contrary to what Molinism says about how God directs human choices? Again, she might point to Ephesians 1:11, where Paul is quite clear that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”  Surely, our interlocutor urges, this goes contrary to the scope of God’s control that Molinism allows for? I’m sure there are other passages that one might bring up, but it seems to me that any passage would be brought against either the means or scope of God’s control on Molinism.

Now, do the passages I mentioned really show what our interlocutor thinks they do? I don’t think so. Firstly, the Molinist would whole-heartedly agree that God works all things according to his will. After all, he decided all of history before he created anything (remember our talk about possible and feasible worlds?) Just because he doesn’t directly causally establish everything doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring it about via some other mediate means. Secondly, we must be careful not to read into Scripture the means by which God brings about choices: the Exodus passages say that God harden’s Pharaoh’s heart. But how does he do that? Exodus doesn’t say; it just tells us the outcome. As a Molinist, I gladly read that and think, “Yes! God placed Pharaoh in circumstances in which he knew Pharaoh would freely choose to reject him.” No problem here.

Based on how we dealt with those two passages, it becomes easy to see why I think Scripture is largely underdeterminitve when it comes to these things. The Biblical authors simply don’t spend time trying to explicate exactly how God’s control is to be balanced with human responsibility. When people claim that this or that passage shows their view to be correct, we must ask ourselves if they are not simply reading their view into the passage.

Scriptural doctrines that go against Molinism?

Ok, perhaps we can’t find a passage that rules out one view or the other. But perhaps Scripture teaches some doctrine which would rule out Molinism. Consider the doctrine of concurrence, for example. We saw earlier that Paul Helseth takes omnicausality to be a logical consequence of concurrence. Is this the case? Perhaps for the type of concurrence that Helseth has in mind, but it seems to me that the teaching of Scripture is also consistent with the type of concurrence described by William Lane Craig here:

With regard to free acts, this serves to highlight Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence. Remember we talked about the doctrine of concurrence a couple of lectures ago which is the doctrine that God concurs with the actions of secondary causes to bring about their effects. So God is the cause, literally, of everything that happens. The fire would not burn unless God concurred with the action of the fire to produce its effect. Molina’s doctrine of simultaneous concurrence is different than the doctrine of his Catholic Dominican predecessors. He was a Jesuit and he disagreed with Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans as well as the Protestant reformers on this. His view is that God does not act on the creaturely will to make it move this way or that, but he acts with the creatural will to produce its effects. Do you see the difference? He doesn’t act on John’s will to move John’s will to A or to not-A. Rather, he acts with John’s will in accordance with what John chooses so that if John chooses A, God concurs with that choice and produces the effect. He doesn’t act on John’s will to bring about A, rather he acts with John’s will so that both John and God bring about A. Therefore, John is completely free. He is not determined by prior causes. So John has libertarian freedom – incompatibilistic freedom. The circumstances in which John acts are freedom permitting circumstances. But God knows how he would freely act in those circumstances. So by placing him in those circumstances, God knows what John would choose and God concurs with John’s free choice to bring about the effect that John would have. So everything that happens is caused by God. In sinful decisions, God concurs with the agent’s choice to produce the effect of the sinful choice but notice he does not move the person’s will to make that sinful choice. That is different from the Calvinistic view where God is the one who determines the choice of the will. Here what God does is he concurs in the choice by producing the effect of the sinful choice, but he does not act on that person’s will to make it choose that way. Therefore, God is not responsible for the sinfulness of the act since he did not move the creatures will to do it. Therefore, God is not the author of sin on Molinism. Out of his desire to permit human freedom, he allows human persons to make evil choices and he concurs in their effects because he wants them to have genuine freedom but he does not make them choose those evil actions. In the case of good actions, God directly wills the things that happen but in the case of sinful or evil acts God merely permits them to happen by concurring in producing the effects of those sinful actions but he does not will directly that they happen and he certainly does not move the creature to make those choices.

Besides the doctrine of concurrence, some people I’ve spoken to have wondered how Molinism doesn’t detract from God’s omnipotence. However, it has been almost universally acknowledged that God’s omnipotence doesn’t entail his ability to bring about contradictions. Since Molinism involves libertarianism with respect to free will, it follows that for God to be able to cause someone to do something freely is a contradiction. Therefore, his inability to do so does not detract from his omnipotence any more than his inability to create square circles or married bachelors.

Scriptural passages that go against compatibilism?

Some libertarians have mentioned that God holding humans responsible for their sins is a Scriptural reason for rejecting compatibilistic. Of course, this is just as mistaken an approach as the first objection against Molinism we considered above. This simply assumes that libertarianism is the only valid view of free will, and therefore the Biblical authors must have assumed it when writing. Again, I say, Scripture does not say one way or the other.

Conclusions

We’ve considered two views on how God’s control and human responsibility can be reconciled (compatibilism and Molinism). Both of these are consistent with the teaching of Scripture, and so it seems to me that the only way to decide between them is by going with the one that we are more philosophically inclined towards. Of course, while we might agree that both are consistent, we might nonetheless be inclined towards one or the other by our reading of Scripture, and that’s fine too. Next we will tackle the problem of suffering.

Modality and the ontological argument

Previously, I outlined what I find to be a compelling ontological argument from Alexander Pruss. In the post, we dispelled the idea that there is a single ontological argument and distinguished between a number of families on such arguments. The one we focussed on is a so-called Gödelian ontological argument, named after the famous mathematician Kurt Gödel. Gödelian ontological arguments construct an axiomatic system and use this to prove, as a theorem in the system, that something like God exists; and this is exactly what we did. If you’ll recall, we proved the following theorem:

Theorem 2 There exists a necessary, essentially omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being.

In fact, we noted that using the same methods we used to prove theorem 2 we could prove that there exists a necessary being who possesses all strongly positive properties. Now, in the proof of this theorem, we made use of a system of modal logic called S5. The goal of this post is to discuss this system, and consider some alternative (and weaker) systems that could be used to arrive at the same result.

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World-types have explanations but not grounds?

On the one hand I personally like the idea of middle-knowledge for understanding the relationship between God’s providence and our libertarian-free choices[1]. On the other hand, I’m what William Lane Craig once called[2] a latter-day Leibnizian, who wants “everything to be brought into submission to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, including facts concerning human free choices.” Of course, in that context he was concerned with the grounding objection to the Molinist’s counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs). It seems to me, however, that the CCFs can be explained, even if they can’t be grounded. Let me explain.

A “subjunctive counterfactual conditional” (or just “counterfactual” for short) is something of the form “Were it/had it been the case that C, then it would be the case that A”. There are different types of counterfactuals: sometimes they describe entailments, and sometimes they don’t. An example of the former case would be some sort of grounding: were it the case the I know 2+2=4, then it would be the case that it is known that 2+2=4. Here the antecedent (I know that 2+2=4) entails the consequent (it is known that 2+2=4), that is in every possible world in which the antecedent it true, so is the consequent.

But there are cases where the counterfactual we’re talking about is not describing an entailment. For example, “If Nixon had pressed the button, there would have been a nuclear catastrophe”[3] In this case, it’s possible that Nixon presses the button and it malfunctions, thus not leading to a nuclear catastrophe. In these cases can we analyse the counterfactual in terms of possible worlds? For those who think we can, they usually analyse the counterfactual by moving to a similar possible world (for a given account of similarity) where the antecedent occurs and seeing what happens to find the consequent. For example, on this account, when we say “If Nixon had pressed the button, there would have been a nuclear catastrophe”, what we mean is that in all the closest possible worlds in which Nixon presses the button, there is a nuclear catastrophe. Of course, this makes what would be the case is dependent upon what is actually the case. That is, the truth of such counterfactuals, on this second analysis, depends on what happens in the actual world, since we need an actual world to judge similarity to before we can pick the similar worlds to check.

The Molinist cannot accept this second analysis when it comes to the CCFs, because she believes that such counterfactuals are true prior to which world is actual. She has two options: (1) introduce a third class of counterfactuals for the CCFs and accept the second analysis above for the non-entailment, non-CCF ones, but deny it for CCFs, or (2) deny the second analysis and any analysis of non-entailment counterfactuals that makes the truth of such counterfactuals depend on which possible world is actual.

I myself am inclined to go with the second option there, since I find it strange that “would” statements should depend on what actually happens, but what I say from here on will relate to both options. If CCFs are not dependent upon the actual world, how is that they can be explained? I claim that even though they are contingent themselves, they can be explained with necessary facts[4]. Before I get there, though, I thought I’d make a quick comment about semantics.

World-types

As you may know, a possible world is a maximal description of how reality could’ve been. You can think of it as a massive conjunction of propositions C, such that for any proposition P, either P or not-P is a conjunct of C. Of course, there’s slightly more to it than that, since we also need that the conjunction is metaphysically possible (ie. that the conjuncts are compossible), but we need not worry about these details here.

By “world-type” I mean a maximal conjunction of CCFs (or, more generally, counterfactuals). Since counterfactuals are themselves propositions, it follows that every possible world contains a world-type, in fact many possible worlds can contain the same world-type. So the Molinist position says that the actual world-type is contingent and not chosen by God. This puzzling situation is what makes the Molinist position so subject to the grounding objection.

Explaining CCFs

Now I fully admit that CCFs might not have grounds. This doesn’t bother me too much, however, because I think they can still be explained[5]. We’ve seen before, that explanations can be non-entailing, so what I seek now is an explanation of the contingent CCFs in terms of necessary facts. Think about a typical CCF: “If Adam were in circumstance A, then he would freely choose to eat the fruit from the tree”. Why is this true? Well, if Adam were in circumstance A, then he would be tempted to eat the fruit of the tree. Or, in terms we’ve used before, if Adam were in circumstance C, he’d be impressed by reason R to eat the fruit. This is necessarily true, since in every possible world in which Adam finds himself in the given circumstance, the same pressures will apply to him (since they’re included in the circumstance). But as we’ve seen in the past, merely being impressed by a reason doesn’t entail that a free agent will chose according to it, so the CCF is still contingent (given something like libertarian free will)[6].

Notes

  1. One day, when I get to writing the rest of my blog posts on God’s providence this statement will be further expounded.
  2. William Lane Craig in “Ducking Friendly Fire: Davison on the Grounding Objection
  3. Taken from a paper by Boris Kment called “Counterfactuals and Explanation”
  4. “Fact” here means “true proposition”.
  5. And I don’t think that all facts need truthmakers in the sense that is required by grounding objectors, but that’s a different issue altogether.
  6. This isn’t an original idea: I got this account of explanation from Joshua Rasmussen in the comments here.