by Thomas M. Cothran
God causes all of our actions, including our acts of choosing. He does not merely give mankind the power of choice, he causes the act of choosing itself. We are mere instruments of God’s will. Such is the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas also believes that human beings choose freely, and that the dependence of human volition in its every movement on God does not violate human freedom. On its face, St. Thomas’ view appears paradoxical, even contradictory. And yet a number of recent religious thinkers appeal to the medieval Dominican in their own attempts to reconcile divine providence and human freedom.
2. The Compatibilists
One such school attempts to read St. Thomas as a compatibilist, holding that while God’s providence determines human choice, nevertheless it does not act on the level of natural causality, and so cannot compromise human freedom. One being in the world can coerce another being in the world, at least in principle. But God is not a being in the world; he is the cause of every being. Without God’s providence, there would be no choosing person. And therefore, there is no conflict between divine providence and human freedom. This, roughly, is the view advanced by Herbert McCabe, Denys Turner, and Hugh McCann.
Herbert McCabe, for instance, insists that “to be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.” Denys Turner concurs:
For Thomas the divine action of grace could not “interfere” with human freedom even as it infallibly brings about our justification by means of it. It is too easily taken for granted that to speak of God causing my free actions is necessarily a contradiction. For Thomas far from it: worse, to say that my actions are free only insofar as God does not cause them presupposes a plainly idolatrous conception of the divine causality. For Thomas’s is what philosophers today call a libertarian account of free will: my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause. Here there is a genuine completely disjunctive either/or, it is one or the other and nothing in between. To the extent that an action of mine can be accounted for in terms of any created cause other than my own will, to that extent it fails of freedom.
Hugh McCann is perhaps the most consistent, if extreme example of this view. He likens the relation between God and creatures to that of the author of a novel and the characters within it.
The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature.
What unites the compatibilist view is the conviction that there cannot, by definition, be a conflict between God’s determination of human choices and human freedom. For humans are free, by definition, if their choices are not coerced by things in the world. And God, by definition, is not a thing in the world. At its extreme end, compatibilism enables the view that not only is God able to determine some of our choices, but he in fact determines all of them so that history has no more contingency than does the plot of a novel.
3. The Trouble with Compatibilism
The compatibilist school runs into two related problems. In the first place, they answer the problem of freedom by changing the subject. Most who ask the question of human freedom are asking: might one do otherwise? Could one have done otherwise? But this is not the question which the compatibilists seek to answer. Their approach is to define freedom at the outset as, in McCabe’s words, “not to be under the influence of some other creature,” or in Denys Turner’s words, “my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause”. It is no less arbitrary than adding to the definition of torture the condition that, by definition, it is only performed by non-Americans. It is not an answer; it is a way of changing the subject. One might think that, if the compatibilist approach addresses a different question than the one we would tend to ask, still perhaps it asked the question that St. Thomas seeks to answer, and so at least has the sanction of the tradition. If so, perhaps their answer, drawn from St. Thomas, should inform how we approach other questions of divine providence and human freedom.
As a matter of fact, St. Thomas does consider a view that strongly resembles the compatibilist position with its definition of freedom.
Some have held that the human will is necessarily moved to choose things. But they did not hold that the will is coerced, since only something from an external source, not everything necessary, is coerced.
This, of course, strongly resembles the view of McCabe and Denys Turner, though it does not so explicitly beg the question by excluding God as a cause in the definition of freedom. The human will may be necessitated, it could not ultimately choose otherwise, but nevertheless free because freedom is defined in opposition to external principles.
St. Thomas’ response?
But this opinion is heretical. For it takes away the reason for merit and demerit in human acts, as it does not seem meritorious or demeritorious for persons to do necessarily what they could not avoid doing.
4. St. Thomas’ Notion of Freedom
St. Thomas believes that the question of freedom cannot be reduced to the question whether a person is coerced by something out there in the world, or even the broader category of an external principle. He thinks that defining freedom in such a way is heretical and morally destructive.
So the question the compatibilists prefer to ask is not the question of freedom St. Thomas asks, and the answer they give stands uncomfortably close to the one he condemns. The question of freedom is, in the words of Aquinas, whether persons have “mastery of their own acts, so that they would not be bound to the one or other contradictory alternative.” Does a person have the power to choose either of two (or more) alternatives? Again, “the proper act of free will is choice: for we say that we have free-will precisely because we can take one thing while refusing another, and this is to choose.”
St. Thomas puts the question unmistakably in terms of necessity and contingency. To say that an event is contingent is to affirm a potentiality that could, but need not necessarily, be realized. Conversely, to affirm the necessity of an act is to deny the possibility of an existence of a potentiality that it be otherwise. What St. Thomas affirms is an ontological proposition. To say that a person’s choice between choosing A and choosing B is free is not only to affirm the possibility person might choose A, B, or decline to make a choice at all; it is to declare that the choosing person determines which possibility is realized. If a person’s choice could have been different on the sole condition that person chose differently, then that person is the master of their own acts.
This is the second problem with the compatibilist position. The question of freedom is the question of the existence of a potency, and the principle of non-contradiction prevents both and affirmative and negative answer. Something exists or it doesn’t. Hugh McCann’s proposal of the authorial metaphor may seem to suggest a perspectivalism – from God’s perspective, things are necessary; from ours, they are contingent. However, characters of a novel do not really have free wills because they are not persons; and this is why they are subject to the author’s pre-determinative deliberation.
St. Thomas considers at a number of places the objection that God’s foreknowledge vitiates human freedom. Never does he offer the view that the compatibilists ascribe to him. Instead, he affirms that, while God is a cause of the power to choose, and even the act of choosing, this causality does not determine human choice to one or another alternative. St. Thomas could not be more clear:
We should not say that God left human beings in the hands of their own deliberation without acting upon their will. Rather, he did so because he gave human beings’ will mastery over their acts, so that they would not be bound to one or another contradictory alternative.
To modern ears, the notion of a non-determinative cause sounds quite strange. But readers of St. Thomas may already be familiar with these distinctions. The act of existing is a cause of the corresponding thing’s being; it is the reason something differs from nothing. Formal causes specify things as this or that, a hydrogen atom or an amoeba; and the formal cause is what is expressed as a thing’s nature. Only in God is the act of existing identical with nature. St. Thomas demonstrates that in everything other than God, form must differ from the act of existing. It follows that the act of existing does not specify what a thing is; for that we need a formal cause, and existing is not a formal cause.
Even more famously, St. Thomas insisted that the existing of things depends on God. Things, even an infinite series of things causing each other, cannot account for their existence. The act of existing is not a native principle for any thing; it is present as light passes through air. The formal cause, on the other hand, is native to things. While things are not adequate to explain why they exist, they can explain what they are. The action of a non-specifying cause is perfectly ordinary given St. Thomas’ metaphysics, and a general understanding of his metaphysics gives us a very good idea of just what sort of non-determinative cause God might be in relation to the will.
5. A Theory of the Instrument
If we are to understand St. Thomas’ claim that we are all God’s instruments, and yet free, we need to understand St. Thomas theory of the instrument. The initial difficulty in understanding this theory lies in the examples used. Human tools are unthinking, unfree things. This confusion can be dispelled if we attend to the explanation of instrumentality.
Consider the abacus. Prior to the use of the decimal system, there was no good way of performing numerical operations on large numbers. If we were to subtract 249 from 3,927, we could not place the former number in a row under the latter, align the decimal places, carry over number, etc. A mathematician in a culture that lacks the decimal system needs an instrument that aids in calculation.
The abacus represents a number (e.g., 1, 5, 10, 20, 100, 1,000) with a bead. The beads are arranged on rods, and each rod represents the different quantity. Thus, a bead on the top rod may represent 1, a bead on the next rod 5, and so on. Beads are aligned to the left, and when they are counted, moved to the right of the frame. A mathematical problem that is impossible to do in the mind becomes possible with the abacus.
The abacus is an instrument because it jointly produces an effect with the primary cause (the mathematician). Both the primary and the instrumental cause are necessary to produce the effect. In our example, the abacus alone cannot solve a problem, and neither can the mathematician. The effect which they produce together is the solution. The reason that the abacus is the instrument and the mathematician the primary cause is that there is an something in the effect that requires a higher sort of causality than the abacus could account for. An abacus, on its own, is only beads and sticks; and yet when the mathematician is done, he sees in it the answer. When employed by the mathematician, the counting frame participates in a higher order of reality, for the intelligibility of its effect (the answer) is disproportionate to the instrument considered in itself.
6. Free Instruments
The theory of the instrument combined with the participation of things in God as subsistent being resolves our riddle. For all things, on St. Thomas’ account, participate in being on account of God’s providence. Creatures in their concrete being are an effect of God. Yet God is not the only cause, for they also possess a nature, an imminent principle, that answers the question “what is this?” Existence without a finite nature is not a creature, but God. A nature without existence is indistinguishable from nothing. To explain the creature as an effect requires invoking both something proportionate to the creature (form or nature) and something disproportionate: existing.
And this is just to say that creatures are instruments. An effect that requires two causes, one of which accounts for a higher intelligibility than the other, has what we have defined as a primary and an instrumental cause. God is the primary cause because existence is a higher intelligibility than nature or form. We can fancy whatever creatures we like, but knowledge is had in knowing the creatures that actually are. Understanding is in potency to judgement. God is the universal cause of all that exists, and because existence invokes a higher causal order, all things are God’s instruments.
Now we can clearly understand how it is that God can cause human choices without determining them to one or another alternative. For St. Thomas, a thing’s existing is distinct from its nature. Nature is a specifying cause. Existence only “determines” things to be; how things are determined belong to other sorts of causes. If God causes every occurrence, and human choosing is an occurrence, then God causes all human choosing. Yet God need only make them be; he does not specify them. This is no more perplexing than is the distinction between form and existence. A parting thought. It is often noted, and then forgotten, that phrases like “God causes human choice” or “God wills an event” entail no new difference in God that would be lacking had God not caused or willed. If God is infinite (and St. Thomas is by no means unusual in this claim), then God cannot change. For if God has a potential state other than his actual state, he is by definition finite, for he there is something he is not–that which he is about to become. A great deal of the confusion in the discussion of God’s relation to human events arises from attempting to imagine what it is like for God to cause, or know, or will, or provide. We must be content in the knowledge that imagination pertains only to sensible, material realities, and to know that God, by nature, is beyond the material world.
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Thomas Cothran is a writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He blogs at Interstices Between Philosophy and Theology.