Free Will and Determinism


#1

Is a Catholic required to reject the compatibility of free will and determinism, as advocated by such philosophers as David Hume or John Locke? Must a Catholic accept agent libertarianism—the view that we make undetermined choices, which we are fully responsible for? Would failure to do so constitute heresy?


#2

[quote=MichaelLewis]Is a Catholic required to reject the compatibility of free will and determinism, as advocated by such philosophers as David Hume or John Locke? Must a Catholic accept agent libertarianism—the view that we make undetermined choices, which we are fully responsible for? Would failure to do so constitute heresy?
[/quote]

I am really not sure how one would reconcile free will and determinism. The proper understanding of free will excludes determinism.

Since God is all knowing, He obviously knows what we will choose before we choose it; but that does not mean He has predetermined our choice. God tells us what He wants us to do and what He wants us to avoid. He then gives us the ability to choose to obey, or not. Since He is all knowing, He knows before hand what we will choose, but that does not mean He has forced us to make a certain choice. If God did not know what we would choose, before we made our choice, it would show a defect in His knowledge.

Just because God knows what choice we will make does not mean our choice was predetermined: it just means that God is all-knowing.

Is it a heresy to try and reconcile free will and determinism? I’m not sure if it is a heresy, but it is an error and very dangerous. If it is not a heresy, it could easily lead to heresy.

I would suggest reading the following encyclical of Leo XIII. It is very good.

vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_20061888_libertas_en.html


#3

RSiscoe,

        I’m not so much concerned with predestination, as with what constitutes freedom and moral responsibility.  Consider a child who is about to make the ***first*** decision that he would be considered morally responsible for.  Up to this point, who he is has been determined by things that he is **not** morally responsible for; his genetics, environment, and perhaps his soul (provided by God).  Now what is going to determine the first choice for which he is responsible?  It seems to me that either this decision proceeds from who his is when he makes this decision (as determined by his genetics, his soul, and his life experience) or from something else, aside from him.  Obviously, if it does not come from him, he cannot be responsible for it.  If it does come from him, well, he still can’t be held responsible *for being the sort of person* who will decide one way vs. another; given that he did not choose his genetics, environment or soul.  It seems that since we *do* want to hold him responsible *for his choice*, we must say that such responsibility doesn’t (really) follow from there having been a possibility that he could have chosen differently, rather we should say that the choice he made demonstrates his good or poor character, and **that** is what we are judging.  How he came to have such character is immaterial.  The compatibilist freedom I would attribute to such an agent consists simply in the fact that he is doing what he wants to do; his choice proceeds from his character, so he is free.

I have never heard of a coherent alternative account of freedom. Some suggest that quantum indeterminacy (which is said to yield true randomness) somehow is involved in our choice making. I don’t see how randomness can make a person responsible for their actions, however. How does the Catholic Church account for freedom?

Thank you for your reply and the link, I looked it over briefly, and will read through tomorrow. Though from what I have seen he doesn’t specifically address the nature of freedom so much as affirm its existence.


#4

God knows what will happen, but by His will we are free to choose our own path.

Sitting next to a family at a restaurant, I see a child making a move, and think “That child is going to spill his milk.” I sit and watch, and sure enough, over goes the milk.

Now, did I cause the child to spill his milk? Did my foreknowledge cause it to happen? Did my willingness to sit and watch cause it?

No, to all of the above. God gives us free will, and what we do with it is our responsibility – and His foreknowledge doesn’t cause us to act as we do nor relieve us of responsibility for our actions.


#5

It is true that we all have certain dispositions and genetics that form our character. We inherit certain traits from our parents, and from the environment around us. However, we also have a rational soul and a conscience that influence our free choice. In additional to this we have the assistence of Gods actual grace which enlightens our mind, and moves our will to choose good. Our genetics and dispositions are part of our lower nature; but we also have a higher nature that is to rule the lower.

Good upbringing and proper intellectual formation are certainly a great help for us, since our will often chooses what our intellect proposes (that is, when we are not merely following the impulses of our lower nature).

We are responsible for our choices in spite of the fact that we may have a certain inordinate disorder within our lower nature. For example, let’s say my father was a theif and I inherited this disposition from him. When I turn 9 years old, I am tempted to steal something. God has stamped the “natural law” upon our soul so that we will know that it is not proper to steal. Therefore, there will be a certain battle within me: the batter between the bad disposition I inherited from my father (the tendency to steal) and the natural law which God stamped upon my reason. Thus we will have the batter between the flesh and the spirit that the Bible often speaks of. Since I have the natural law stamped upon my being, I will be held morally responsible if I were to act contrary to it. The free will stands between the flesh (inordinate movements of the lower nature) and the spirit (the natural law stamped upon our being, which is aided by God’s grace). The free will is not bound to either, but is influenced by both.

Consider these things:
1.) the natural law, which is nothing less than the eternal law of God stamped upon our reason;

2.) the inordinate desires of the flesh;

3.) the assistance of God’s grace, which enlightens our mind and strengthens our will to choose good;

4.) the free will which has the ability to “obey” any of the above.
Make sure you don’t leave any of the above out when you are considering this subject.

Very interesting topic.


#6

I have always seen this one as follows: God is all knowing, and because he does not need our 4-dimensional world to survive, he can travel through any of those dimensions and know what is happening. Thus, before we have consciously made a choice, God can go ahead and see what we choose. Despite the fact that we are still making a choice of free will, God knows what that choice will be before we make it because we do not have the ability to see ahead. Of course, that raises the question of whether or not we will choose that choice or not, but I also believe that God knows all possible permutations of how our lives will play out. And while he can see how things would turn out if we made a certain choice, he still knows which one our free will will chose. I could be wrong, but this seems only logical, with an all-powerful God and everything. It isn’t really determinism so much as God has given us free will but still knows what is going on at all times. I suppose that’s the trip about infinitude, everything has to be at once and not at the same time. Very odd.

Eamon


#7

RSiscoe writes:

“Thus we will have the batter between the flesh and the spirit that the Bible often speaks of. Since I have the natural law stamped upon my being, I will be held morally responsible if I were to act contrary to it. The free will stands between the flesh (inordinate movements of the lower nature) and the spirit (the natural law stamped upon our being, which is aided by God’s grace). The free will is not bound to either, but is influenced by both.” (Emphasis mine)

I’m concerned with the I. Granted that we can have “higher” or “lower” influences on us, what determines our choices? Again, focus on the first decision a person is morally responsible for. We have genetics, the implanted soul, and life experiences—this includes any impact God might have on a person—together these constitute a person’s character. Now suppose a child is faced with the first choice he is to be held morally responsible for, and he chooses to violate a moral prohibition. Why does he so choose? Does this choice proceed from his character or not? If it does not, how can he be held morally responsible for it? If it does, his ‘free will’ cannot consist in any real possibility that he could have done other than what he did (given that he was who he was when he made the decision). Do you see the dilemma? Because this is the first choice for which he is morally culpable, he can in no sense be blamed for being the person he is just before he makes this choice, but the only way to consider him morally responsible for his first action is to say that his choice does proceed from who he is. So moral responsibility cannot arise from indeterminism, rather they must be determined in a specific way: by the (unchosen) characteristics of the actor.

If I have made the dilemma clear, please try to tell me what is really going on in this specific case from a Catholic perspective. Why does the child make one choice rather than another if the choice does not proceed from his character? If you see the child’s identity (the I or the Will) as distinct from his character, where does it come from? Wherever your answer might be, how can the child be responsible for it, given that he has not yet made any choices he is responsible for?

Michael


#8

[quote=MichaelLewis]Now suppose a child is faced with the first choice he is to be held morally responsible for, and he chooses to violate a moral prohibition. Why does he so choose? Does this choice proceed from his character or not?

If I have made the dilemma clear, please try to tell me what is really going on in this specific case from a Catholic perspective. Why does the child make one choice rather than another if the choice does not proceed from his character?

Michael
[/quote]

You’re leaving out an elements mentioned by RSiscoe: the role of grace. The child’s choice is not determined by his character. It is determined by the winner of the contest between his fallen tendency toward evil and the influence of God’s grace toward the good.


#9

[quote=JohnPaul0]You’re leaving out an elements mentioned by RSiscoe: the role of grace. The child’s choice is not determined by his character. It is determined by the winner of the contest between his fallen tendency toward evil and the influence of God’s grace toward the good.
[/quote]

Ok, but how can HE be held responsible for which side “wins”? He is not responsible for his “fallen tendency toward evil” and he is not responsible for “the influence of God’s grace”.


#10

Just to add: I see that you mention the influence of God, but you put that influence into a bucket you call character. From the Catholic perspective, that’s your mistake because it leads you into determinism. Yes, we do have our character, but God’s grace acts at all times UPON that character, urging it to do good. Therefore, we are “responsible” because it all depends on how we “respond” to that grace.


#11

[quote=JohnPaul0]Just to add: I see that you mention the influence of God, but you put that influence into a bucket you call character. From the Catholic perspective, that’s your mistake because it leads you into determinism. Yes, we do have our character, but God’s grace acts at all times UPON that character, urging it to do good. Therefore, we are “responsible” because it all depends on how we “respond” to that grace.
[/quote]

Ok, but what could determine the character’s response, if not the character itself? The child is not the author of of his character, so he did not make it responsive or unresponsive to grace.


#12

[quote=MichaelLewis]Ok, but what could determine the character’s response, if not the character itself? The child is not the author of of his character, so he did not make it responsive or unresponsive to grace.
[/quote]

Are you equating “character” with the entire person? A Catholic would say, I believe, that our character is formed by our background, as you say. Yet, part of that character is a knowledge of natural law, to which we either assent or dissent in every choice.

I can’t say exactly what freedom is, except that it is the ability to make this choice. In the Old Testament, God says “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut 30:19, emph added.)

So, the discussion starts to shift to wheter free will exists or not. You can see that from the earliest days of Israel was the teaching that we could choose good or evil. Otherwise, God has stacked the deck by giving us a certain “character” that makes us unable to choose.

Sounds like it’s Leo XIII time.


#13

[quote=MichaelLewis]Ok, but how can HE be held responsible for which side “wins”? He is not responsible for his “fallen tendency toward evil” and he is not responsible for “the influence of God’s grace”.
[/quote]

The answer to this questions required me to go back to your original question. I read the Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition of “determinism”. If I understand the definition correctly, their can be no compatibility between “free will” and “determinism”. In the case of free will, we all chose a course of action or thinking based on all the knowledge and beliefs that we chose to include in making that choice. In the case of determinism this course of action would be determined by all those prior conditions.

At this point we need to define sin. One definition is that sin is a moral evil, that is, it is not like God. Since He wants us to be like Him, a perfect moral good, anything we do, not do, say, or not say that is not like God, is a sin.

We can sin in two ways, we can do something that is objectively evil, e.g., murder, or we can do something that is either objectively good or neutral for an evil purpose.

So, in your example, if the child has reached the age of reason, that is, he has learned to distinguish good from evil, and choses evil, he has committed a sin. What he is responsible for in this case is his disregard for good in chosing evil. The level of culpability would depend on how knowledgeable he was of the evil. Each of us is expected to continually get better at distingishing good from evil so we can freely as for God’s grace to chose good over evil. He is therefore responsible for recognizing his need for grace and surrendering his will to God’s.


#14

[quote=MichaelLewis]RSiscoe writes:

“Thus we will have the battel [typo fixed] between the flesh and the spirit that the Bible often speaks of. Since I have the natural law stamped upon my being, I will be held morally responsible if I were to act contrary to it. The free will stands between the flesh (inordinate movements of the lower nature) and the spirit (the natural law stamped upon our being, which is aided by God’s grace). The free will is not bound to either, but is influenced by both.” (Emphasis mine)
[/quote]

[quote=]I’m concerned with the I
[/quote]

. Granted that we can have “higher” or “lower” influences on us, what determines our choices? Again, focus on the first decision a person is morally responsible for. We have genetics, the implanted soul, and life experiences—this includes any impact God might have on a person—together these constitute a person’s character. Now suppose a child is faced with the first choice he is to be held morally responsible for, and he chooses to violate a moral prohibition. Why does he so choose? Does this choice proceed from his character or not? If it does not, how can he be held morally responsible for it?

The choice is influenced by his character, dispositions, etc, but not determined by them. The choice rests solely with the free will. The will is independent of the movement of the lower nature. Our lower nature (and by this I mean our genetics, dispositions, etc.) are separate from our will. They influence it, but they do not force it to chose. Let’s say that two people were trying to get you to do two separat things. One told you to jump off the bringe and the other told you to step back from the edge. You stand between the two of them who are trying to influence you. In the same way, the free will stands between the lower nature and the reason (which as the natural law of God stamped upon it). The will freely chooses between the two, even though both had an influence on it.

[quote=] If it does, his ‘free will’ cannot consist
[/quote]

in any real possibility that he could have done other than what he did (given that he was who he was when he made the decision). Do you see the dilemma?

A person is not what they are tempted to do: they are what they actually do. If I am tempted to fornication, yet resist this sinful act, I am not thereby a fornicator. If I am tempted to steal, yet resisit this temptation, I am not a thief. We are what we do (what our free will chooses to do), not what we are tempted to do. We all have inordinate movements of our lower nature as a result of orignal sin. Inordinate movements of our lower nature do not make us who we are, rather they influence what we do. We are what we do, not what we are tempted to do.

If is true that “self” (as the Bible often calls the perverse movements of our lower nature) has been corrupted by original sin. But fortunately we also have a free will so that we are not forced to obey what “self” desires. “If thou wilt be my disciples”, said Jesus, “thou must deny thyself…”. Why? Because “self” (lower nature) has been correupted.

continue…


#15

[quote=] Because this is the first
[/quote]

choice for which he is morally culpable, he can in no sense be blamed for being the person he is just before he makes this choice"

Right, he is not to be blamed for the inordinte movement of his lower nature (the person his “self” is), or from any temptation of the devil. We are not responsible for these, since they are not under our control. What we are responsible for is what we choose to do. If we choose to consent to these movements, or temptations, and thus act contrary to our reason, then we are morally responsible.

[size=3] but the only way to consider him morally responsible for his first action is to say that his choice does proceed from who he is.[/size]

Choice does not proceed from our lower nature, because our will is free. If we submit to these movements of our lower nature, then we are guilty.

[quote=] So moral responsibility cannot arise from indeterminism, rather they must be determined in a specific way
[/quote]

: by the (unchosen) characteristics of the actor.

This is where your thinking is not correct. Our will is separate from our lower nature. We have a free will! It is true that the movements of our lower nature are not always under our control, but we are not responsible for them. We are only responsible for what our free will chooses to do. If our free will chooses to obey our lower nature, when its movements are contrary to our reason, then we sin. Our lower nature may indeed influence our will, but, since our will is free, it does not determine our actions.

That is why I originally said that I am not sure how a person can reconcile free will and determinism, when they have the proper understanding of free will. Free will means that it is not bound to the movements of the lower nature, but is free to obey them or not. The movements of the lower nature are not determined by us, that is true, but, since we have free will, we can either choose to submit to these movements or we can chose to obey our reason.

Did I answer the question?


#16

Davidv writes:

“In the case of free will, we all chose a course of action or thinking based on all the knowledge and beliefs that we chose to include in making that choice. In the case of determinism this course of action would be determined by all those prior conditions.”

Not necessarily. For determinists (and compatibilists) the factors that an agent considers in making a choice will depend upon the agent’s psychology, his immediate situation, the influence of God, the nature of his soul, or whatever else you like. The child can choose what to consider, but that choice itself is determined by his characteristics, which he did not choose (or at least did not choose in such a way that we can hold him responsible). The child in question is not culpable in making himself who he is.

“…he has learned to distinguish good from evil, and choses evil, he has committed a sin. What he is responsible for in this case is his disregard for good in chosing evil.”

And WHY did he choose evil? WHY did he disregard good? The agent, the decision maker, the part of him you would say is responsible choosing what factors to consider (I take it that this is the first choice the child is morally responsible for on your account) is what concerns us. Why is it that one child’s first morally relevant choice will be for the good, and another’s will be for evil? Surely the difference must reside in the children themselves; but they didn’t create themselves! How can we hold either child responsible? How can libertarian moral responsibility get off the ground to begin with?

Michael


#17

[quote=MichaelLewis]Davidv writes:

“…he has learned to distinguish good from evil, and choses evil, he has committed a sin. What he is responsible for in this case is his disregard for good in chosing evil.”

And WHY did he choose evil? WHY did he disregard good? The agent, the decision maker, the part of him you would say is responsible choosing what factors to consider (I take it that this is the first choice the child is morally responsible for on your account) is what concerns us. Why is it that one child’s first morally relevant choice will be for the good, and another’s will be for evil? Surely the difference must reside in the children themselves; but they didn’t create themselves! How can we hold either child responsible?
Michael
[/quote]

The reason is that the capacity to make that choice is always present regardless of how dark the character. Think of free will as being a property of personhood, just like mass is a property of matter. WHY the choice is made depends on how well the child listens to the calling of grace, which is external to him and therefore NOT determined by his character. As St. Paul writes, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” That is, an infinite, omnipotent God always can supply enough grace to overcome any finite human’s character defects. Yet, this same God never coerces us, but lets us freely choose. Why else the Biblical injunction to choose? If we really can’t choose, it makes God a bit of a liar in that passage.


#18

RSiscoe,

Wherever you want to place the Will, in higher nature, lower nature, or a middle nature, there must be some reason as to why it chooses one way over another. Whether the child’s will is so disposed as to choose evil or good, the child had nothing to do with it. You want set the will up as a judge: it considering reasons or impulses for doing good or evil, and deciding which path to take. That’s fine, but this judge, wherever you locate it, is not self-creating. How can you blame it for being the sort of agent that will choose evil over good in a particular case? I’d rather just say that we have (all things being equal) a bad judge, a bad agent, a bad person. It could have chosen differently if it were a different sort of creature, but it is as it is, so it chooses as it chooses. If it does choose to change itself, being on the whole bad (or to accept God’s grace to enable it to change) that choice will also follow from its nature. (And not ness. its “fleshy” nature; its elevated, angelic ‘Will’ will decide between flesh and spirit, if you like.) Do you understand that I’m not talking about the lower ‘self’ discussed in scriptures?

Michael


#19

[quote=JohnPaul0]The reason is that the capacity to make that choice is always present regardless of how dark the character. Think of free will as being a property of personhood, just like mass is a property of matter. WHY the choice is made depends on how well the child listens to the calling of grace, which is external to him and therefore NOT determined by his character. As St. Paul writes, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” That is, an infinite, omnipotent God always can supply enough grace to overcome any finite human’s character defects. Yet, this same God never coerces us, but lets us freely choose. Why else the Biblical injunction to choose? If we really can’t choose, it makes God a bit of a liar in that passage.
[/quote]

If how well the child listens is not determined by him, how can he be blamed for not listening?


#20

[quote=MichaelLewis]Ok, but what could determine the character’s response, if not the character itself? The child is not the author of of his character, so he did not make it responsive or unresponsive to grace.
[/quote]

Michael, think about it like this.

It is kind of like you have two natures, a spiritual nature which is the soul, and a physical nature which is the body. The physical nature is governed by desires for food and sex basically. It desires pleasure. The soul desires God. This is not just some souls, God created all souls with a good disposition. These two natures are completely seperate. Now, there is a battle between these two natures in the one body. You desire to do what is sinfull, but you also know that it is wrong and you desire to do what is right. Just because my body says I want to steal that candy bar, my soul does not have to follow that. The nature that overcomes the other in the battle is the winner.

God gives us grace so that we will know what is right and what is wrong when we are tested, and it also may give us strength.

For example, the little child that is about to make his first decision in life, he has two natures that are at odds. He has the choice to follow what is of the spirit or what is of the flesh. Either way, one has to win over the other.

If you want me to clarify anything please tell me.


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