Free agency, states Hugh McCann, exhibits three essential features. First, free actions cannot be “the product of independent event-causal conditions. An autonomous agent has to be a center of novelty—a point from which, to the extent he influences it, the history of the world takes a new beginning” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 101). If an action is coerced by forces external to the agent or determined by the firing of neurons in the brain or by one’s strongest desire, then it cannot be said to be free. One is only free if one might have done otherwise, as libertarian theorists like to remind us. To the extent my decisions can be sufficiently explained by a set of nomic conditions and states that antedate my decisions, I do not enjoy genuine autonomy; I do not exercise direct control over them. “Far from being able to control their influence through my decision,” McCann observes, “they are in fact controlling me” (“Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 591). With David B. Hart we may question whether the incompatibilist position offers a convincing explanation for human action, but at a this-worldly, existential level it enjoys a strong intuitive appeal, as well as a measure of support in the Eastern patristic tradition. As St John of Damascus writes:
Strictly all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands. Now deliberation is concerned with equal possibilities: and an ‘equal possibility’ is an action that is itself within our power and its opposite, and our mind makes choice of the alternatives, and this is the origin of action. The actions, therefore, that are in our hands are these equal possibilities: e.g. to be moved or not to be moved, to hasten or not to hasten, to long for unnecessaries or not to do so, to tell lies or not to tell lies, to give or not to give, to rejoice or not to rejoice as fits the occasion, and all such actions as imply virtue or vice in their performance, for we are free to do or not to do these at our pleasure. (De fid. orth. II.26)
The possibility of choosing an alternative would therefore seem to be a necessary condition for human freedom. I might have done otherwise.
Second, free agency will “feel” spontaneous to the agent. “When we engage in decision and volition,” McCann explains, “we do not feel that something is happening to us, or that we are being acted upon. We feel energetic and unconstrained—as though we are starting something” (p. 102). This phenomenal quality is unmistakable. Of course, determinists assert that the quality is illusory. We only feel, they say, that we are in control. Yet without this sense of independence and personal autonomy, we probably would not even think of ourselves as distinct persons.
Third, free agency is intentional. We mean to do exactly what we do, when and where we do it. We intend both the goal and performance of our action. Free acts do not just happen to us. We do not will to do something accidentally or inadvertently. Intention is the content of decision. If I decide to go on holiday in Colorado, I necessarily intend to go to Colorado, and in so deciding I have initiated the implementation of my intention. McCann elaborates:
When I decide, I see myself as a center of spontaneity in the world. Rather than being controlled by my circumstances, I see myself as exerting control over them. In particular I see myself as freely determining which of my motives shall find fulfillment in my behavior. And what makes this freedom libertarian is that in deciding, I see myself as controlling my decision itself: as settling the issue of whether it shall occur at all, and what its content shall be. So when I decide to take my vacation in Colorado, I am determining in that very act not just what I shall do about my vacation, but also what I shall decide about it. That is what is implicit in my decisions being intrinsically intentional and nonaccidental. If they were not so our decisions would be things that befall us, and libertarian freedom would reduce, even from the point of view of the agent, to blind happenstance. (“Freedom of the Will,” p. 591; also see McCann, “Making Decisions,” and his entry on “Action” in The International Encyclopedia of Ethics)
Absence of physical or natural necessity, spontaneity, and intentionality—however we formulate the relation between divine and creaturely agency, these three features properly characterize the freedom of both God and man.
At this point McCann hastens to exclude from consideration what he calls the model of command and causation (see the lengthy quotation on divine creation in my article “Eternal Now“). Think about God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis 1: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” One might easily interpret the divine act as a command (“Let there be …”), followed by the intended effect (the appearance of light). If divine and human agency is construed along these lines, then outright determinism is the result. God thinks the mental command “Let there be Al Kimel typing these lines on his computer,” and voila! here I am typing. The divine fiat is followed by the consequence. My typing is no more free than the billiard ball that falls into the corner pocket.
We are prone to represent creation in terms of a model of command and causation: thus, in the present case, to believe that if God is indeed creatively responsible for our decisions and volition, these must occur through a mechanistic relation. He must first engage in some activity specifically directed to creation, some sort of command or concurrence, which in turn has the event-causal consequence that we will the things we do. If such were the case, it would indeed be plausible to think that involving God as creator in our decisions must destroy creaturely freedom, for then the relation between the operation of God’s will and ours would be perfectly analogous to what would obtain if our decisions were caused by our strongest desire. The apparent active quality of deciding would be destroyed, and we would be just as passive in deciding as we are in experiencing the onset of desire. (Creation, p. 103)
This point is critical for a right understanding of McCann’s position. As we shall see in subsequent articles, he will argue for a version of noncompetitive double agency. His position thus needs to be carefully distinguished from deterministic views that envision Deity as causing volitional acts in the same way that creaturely beings cause events. McCann proposes an alternative reading of Genesis 1. Instead of reading the text along the lines of event-causal sequence, we might read it instead as presenting a kind of fait accompli. The wording of the text “implies that in the very command itself, the appearance of light was achieved, that in the very exercise of God’s creative will, dry ground finds its existence” (p. 43). The world in its actuality is the content of God’s eternal decision to create, analogous to the way intention is intrinsic to human decision.
There can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately efficacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created. A fortiori, there is no nexus that binds God’s will to ours, nor is there any causal distance whatever between God and us or any of our willings. Indeed, there is not even causal contiguity. Rather, we and all that we do have our being in God, and the first manifestation of God’s creative will regarding our decisions and actions is not a command that causes those acts, but nothing short of the acts themselves. (p. 103)
McCann does not discuss specific philosophers and theologians as representatives of the command and causation model. I surmise he is thinking of folks like St Augustine, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Domingo Báñez, Jonathan Edwards, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and Paul Helm. Despite differences between their respective theologies, these men share one feature in common: they deny libertarian freedom.
Applied to human willing, command and causation models would certainly restore God to full knowledge and governance of the world, but only at the expense of making his will as governor an independent determining condition of creaturely willing—the very thing any definition of libertarian freedom must rule out. If the relationship between God’s will and ours took this form, the spontaneity of free will would be gone; we would have every right to feel we were mere puppets, and God the puppeteer. The problem is substantially similar for views that provide God a role in creaturely action, but treat it as a concurrent or assisting one, in which his action is both independent of ours, and necessarily efficacious with respect to it. Here too it is possible to guarantee God full sovereignty and omniscience; but as long as his action is conceived as independent of ours, the situation regarding freedom ends up no better. (p. 106)
Freedom from coercion, manipulation, and nomic determinism, yet total control by the transcendent Creator—one certainly can’t fault McCann for lack of ambition and daring. But can he pull it off? Stay tuned.