Free will, Determinism, and Predestination

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The concept of "free will" developed slowly. Discussions of the "will" arose only when ancient philosophical descriptions of intentional action came into contact with religious concerns about human and divine freedom. The predominant contemporary understanding of freedom as a completely undetermined choice between any two alternatives was introduced at the end of the Middle Ages. It is not clear how to reconcile free will with modern and contemporary science.

Ancient Greek Philosophy

The Greek understanding of freedom has its roots in legal codes that distinguish between intentional and nonintentional action. Socrates' (469399 b.c.e.) understanding of human action reflects the Greek emphasis on the importance of knowledge for intentional action. Moreover, he appears to think that every agent acts for what is good, and that this good is good both in itself and for the agent. According to Socrates, virtue is knowledge and vice is ignorance. No one acts against what he knows to be good. Plato (427?347 b.c.e.) adopts this Socratic view, although in his later works he emphasizes that the passions have an influence on what the agent knows. The good person not only has reason, but his reason is directed toward the good.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) thinks that the Socratic account cannot explain incontinence, which is the condition in which someone does what he knows to be bad. He departs from this account by distinguishing between theoretical knowledge, which is about what cannot be changed, and practical knowledge, which is about what can be changed. The practically wise individual (phronimos ) has that knowledge that is relevant to the action and acts upon it. Every voluntary action requires that the agent know what he is doing. An agent does not deliberate about the end, which is human happiness. Every human desires happiness. The agent deliberates only about the means that are within his power. The incontinent agent suffers from a temporary ignorance of what is good for him but always acts for the sake of something that appears to be good. For example, an incontinent person might know that chocolate cake is unhealthy, and yet his attention is drawn not to its badness but to its tastiness. He eats it not because it is unhealthy but because it is tasty.

Although Aristotle is not overly concerned with determinism, he does stress that human action requires contingency. Practical knowledge is about those events that can be changed by human action. His discussion of how future contingents are known reflects this connection and becomes important in later discussions. For Aristotle, the statement that there will be a sea battle tomorrow is neither true nor false because the event is contingent and consequently not determined by and knowable from previous events. In contrast, the Stoics believed in a strict determinism in which everything is ordered to the best. Humans cannot change the outcome of events. Nevertheless, the Stoics allowed for freedom and responsibility in that they thought that humans should understand this order and adapt themselves to it.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Unlike ancient philosophers, Jews and Christians believe that the whole world is contingent at least in the sense that God could have decided either to create it differently or not to create it. Everything that exists is the result of God's free choice. Moreover, the Jewish Scriptures emphasize the importance of a covenant between humans and God whereby humans freely follow its conditions. For Christians, the Epistles of Paul explain the struggle between the flesh and the spirit within a Christian. This influence of Jewish and Christian Scriptures, combined with his own moral experience, enabled Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.) to develop the first explicit doctrine of the will.

Although the word voluntas existed previously, Augustine was the first to use it similarly to the way in which the word "will" is now used. He underwent an intellectual conversion to Christianity without at first changing his behavior. Consequently, he was compelled to reconsider the problem of incontinence. According to Augustine, the explanation of why someone is unable to do what he knows to be good is that his will is disordered. He does not use the term "free will" but "free choice" (liberum arbitrium ). Nevertheless, he thinks that on account of their will, humans can choose to do what is right or wrong.

Although Augustine developed his understanding of the will in a primarily moral context, Greek Christians developed a parallel notion in their defense of the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus Christ has both a divine and a human will (thelesis ). John Damascene (c. 675c. 749) summarized the Greek teaching and emphasized that reason has its own appetite. Some later Christians base their understanding of the will as a rational appetite on his thought. Just as the senses desire what is pleasant to them, so does reason desire what it apprehends as good.

The Jewish and Christian Scriptures contributed greatly to the recognition of what we now call the will. Nevertheless, they also raised the problem of how to reconcile human wills with God's will. Although Jews and Muslims share a common belief in providence and human freedom, for the most part they have developed different approaches to explaining their compatibility. The most influential medieval Jewish position developed in response to the Muslim attempt to combine the Koran's emphasis on human freedom with the emphasis in the hadith (the body of traditions relating to Muhammad and his companions) on providence. The earliest Muslim position, namely the Mu'tazilite, distinguished between God's causality and that of human acts, for which humans are praised or blamed. God is not responsible for sin. In contrast, the Ash'arite position is that humans appropriate an act that comes from God. Although humans are responsible for their actions, they do not act independently of God. The Sunnis adopted this account, although there is no clear explanation of what this appropriation is. The greatest medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides (11351204), reacted strongly against the Ash'arite position. His reaction is at least partially based on the Jewish Scripture's insistence that God's covenant with the Jews requires a free response. In general, Muslims emphasize God's providence, whereas Jews emphasize human freedom.

Christians share the same difficulties as Muslims and Jews, but they also hold the doctrine of predestination, according to which God's providential decision to save some humans is prior to their response. Augustine developed this teaching in opposition to the Pelagian position that humans can obey God's commands and merit heaven without the special form of help from God that is called grace. He argued that human freedom is severely damaged by original sin and that humans are unable to perform meritorious actions on their own. Moreover, Augustine and his followers responded to a position that was later described as Semipelagian, according to which humans have the first choice in accepting or rejecting grace. The Western Church condemned Pelagianism and Semipelagianism.

Augustine's description of predestination presented many difficulties for later Christians. God moves the will, and yet the will moves freely. The agent cannot be primarily responsible for good actions, yet he is solely responsible for his bad ones. Final perseverance in grace precedes merit, although reprobates are punished only on account of their sin. Although the tension between these beliefs is most strongly felt during the early Protestant Reformation, even in the Middle Ages many thinkers emphasized some aspects of Augustine's thought at the expense of others. For example, in the early Middle Ages the Predestinarians argued that reprobation is parallel to predestination. Just as God freely wills to save some before considering their merits, so he wills to eternally punish others apart from their offenses. Predestinarianism was strongly condemned by the Western Church. Consequently, later Catholic theologians were careful to avoid Pelagianism on the one hand and predestinarianism on the other.

Scholastic Christian Thought

Thomas Aquinas (12251274) attempted to harmonize Augustine's account of predestination and human freedom with Aristotle's understanding of human action. Following John Damascene, Aquinas describes the will as a rational appetite. Although humans cannot choose whether to desire the ultimate end, namely happiness, they can choose between different proximate goods. He distinguishes the liberty of exercise from the liberty of specification. The liberty of specification is that freedom that has its root in reason's ability to consider alternative courses of action. The liberty of exercise rests in the will's ability to act or not to act. Scholars disagree over how significantly Aquinas's account of free choice differs from Aristotle's account of intentional action.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas thought that deliberation must be about contingent events that are not knowable as future. Unlike Aristotle, Aquinas clearly held that God is omniscient and omnipotent. How does God know future contingents? Following the early Christian writer Boethius (c. 475525), Aquinas held that God knows future contingents not as future but as they are present to him eternally. Even God could not know them as future. How does God's providence extend to contingent events such as free human acts? God causes necessary events to happen in a necessary way and contingent events to happen in a contingent way. God is the complete universal cause of a free act, even though the agent is its complete proximate cause. Following Augustine, in his later writings Aquinas clearly states that predestination is antecedent to any foreseen merits and that original sin has made it impossible to live a fully virtuous life without grace. There is no reason on the part of the individual why God chooses to save him and allow another to sin and be damned.

Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, and many theologians were concerned that the reception of Aristotle's works was leading to an intellectual determinism that compromised human freedom. In particular, Franciscan theologians regarded the will as the ultimate root of human free choice, although many Dominicans followed their brother Thomas's emphasis on the intellect. Although the Franciscan John Duns Scotus (c. 12661308) broadly agreed with Aquinas's account of predestination and God's eternal knowledge, he had a weaker understanding of original sin and emphasized the will over the intellect. Like Aquinas, Scotus thought that the will has an inclination to the good, but he distinguishes between the inclination toward the just and the inclination toward the advantageous. Freedom results from the ability to choose between the two.

The Franciscan William of Ockham (c. 1285c. 1349) comes much closer to the modern understanding of "free will," according to which an agent has a liberty of indifference whereby he can make any choice whatsoever. Moreover, Ockham adopts an alternative understanding of predestination according to which at least some are predestined on account of their foreseen merits. He thinks that God has knowledge of future contingents from the perspective of the past, and that both God and the agent are immediate partial causes of a free action. Consequently, God cannot internally move the will of even the great saints but must either put them in suitable circumstances or withhold his causal action when they would sin. Ockham's views on predestination were influential throughout the later medieval period, and they led to a medieval Augustinian reaction. But the greatest reaction was to occur during the Protestant Reformation.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

Martin Luther's (14831546) theological education exposed him to a largely Ockhamist understanding of human freedom and predestination. He reacted strongly against this approach by denying that the human will is significantly free apart from grace and apparently by holding that predestination and reprobation are parallel. Although medieval theologians had described this position as predestinarianism, modern and contemporary scholars often call it double predestination. Subsequent Lutherans modified his position. Similarly, John Calvin (15091564) explicitly rejected the medieval understanding of free choice and may have adhered to double predestination. However, later Reformed theologians such as Pietro Martire Vermigli (15001562; also known as Peter Martyr) defended the medieval distinction between predestination and reprobation. There is not one official Reformed position on predestination. For example, Reformed theologians split over whether God's eternal decree that some will be reprobate is prior or posterior to his permission of Adam's sin. In general, later Protestant Orthodoxy permitted views on Predestination that were less severe than those of the early Protestant Reformers.

There was a variety of early Catholic responses to the Protestant Reformers, since Catholic theologians were variously Augustinian, Thomist, Scotist, and Ockhamist. Even humanists such as Erasmus (1466?1536) were worried about the apparent denial of human freedom. The new Jesuit order reacted strongly by emphasizing a free human cooperation with grace. The Jesuit Luis de Molina (15351600) taught that God decides what someone will do only by foreseeing what he would do in a set of circumstances and then creating the agent and those circumstances. In general, Jesuits held an Ockhamist understanding of God's causation whereby both God and the agent contribute to the agent's action. Dominicans such as Dominic Banez (15281604) and John of St. Thomas (15891644) were the most important critics of the Jesuit positions. John held that the Protestants and Jesuits both err in thinking that a predetermination by God's grace is incompatible with human freedom. Moreover, he thought that God wills to deprive the reprobate of grace and glory, and that this decision is prior to the permission of Adam's sin. The Dominicans claimed with some plausibility that they followed the teachings of both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Pope Paul V declared that the Jesuits were not to be called Semipelagians and the Dominicans were not to be called Calvinists, and they were both allowed to teach their respective positions until further notice.

Contemporary theologians and philosophers of religion still read with sympathy the works of Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Luis de Molina. Nevertheless, the Augustinian and Thomist accounts of predestination have few contemporary followers. Many now adhere to "open" theories according to which God has no complete foreknowledge of and control over human actions. Earlier Christians would have rejected such views for denying God's omnipotence and omniscience.

Modern Science and Human Freedom

In the seventeenth century modern science seemed to provide a mechanistic understanding of the world that threatened human freedom. René Descartes (15961650), the father of modern philosophy, held a dualistic theory whereby physical events are determined although human actions have a liberty of indifference because the soul is not material. In general, modern and contemporary philosophers have been determinists, compatibilists, or libertarians. Determinists hold that everything is physically determined and that there is no human freedom. Libertarians such as Descartes hold that human actions are free and that the free agent must have a liberty for choosing alternative possibilities that are not determined. Compatibilists such as David Hume (17111776) hold that human freedom is entirely compatible with physical determinism. Most compatibilists think that the indeterminacy of libertarians would only make the free actions arbitrary. Immanuel Kant (17241804) appeared to be a hard determinist with respect to the world of appearances and a libertarian with respect to the real world.

Contemporary philosophers still fall roughly into one of these three categories. Although a combination of chaos theory and quantum mechanics has now thrown into doubt determinist scientific theories, many philosophers think that the new science has no significant impact on debates over human freedom.

The history of ideas shows that there is no one concept of "free will." Instead, concepts of human freedom develop in response to perceived threats such as ignorance, God's omnipotence, intellectual determinism, and physical determinism.

See also Christianity ; Islam ; Liberty ; Reformation ; Scholasticism .


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Free will, Determinism, and Predestination

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