Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Free Will and God's Providence
Part III. The Problem of God's Grace

"Do not say 'It is the Lord's doing that I fell away',
for he does not do what he hates.   
Do not say 'It was he who led me astray',
       for he has no need of the sinful........
It was he who created mankind in the beginning,
       and he left them in the power of their own free choice."
Sirach 15:11-15
The objections to Free Will stated in Part II of this series were
  1. Physics gives only one future for the Universe;
  2. Our brains are pre-wired, so moral choices are not possible;
  3. Our environment determines what our moral choices will be;
  4. God's grace determines our actions.
I countered the first three objections in Part II, and  in Part III (here) will examine the most difficult, #4, using in part propositions set forth by Fr. Luis de Molina, a  16th century Jesuit theologian and philosopher.   Before giving these arguments, I should summarize the Church's position on free will and God's foreknowledge.   Please note that as a theological novice, I would be grateful for corrections and emendations where I err or am wanting.    The term "grace" in what follows is used without definition or exegesis (that would need a book), but my meaning is that of "Actual Grace" (God's gift undeserved by us), the push the Holy Spirit gives us to do moral deeds and salvific acts.


"To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination", he includes in it each person's free response to his grace..."For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts (The Passion of Jesus Christ) that flowed from their blindness." - CCC, 600
A brief account of the history of the teaching of Catholic theologians on free will and God's grace is given below.   For a more extended explanation  see the references below.*  In the Old and New Testaments are many references to the tension between God's Will and man's free will (including the most excellent one from Sirach, given above).    See  On Grace and Free Will for a compendium of these.


St. Augustine of Hippo laid the foundations for the Church's teaching on God's grace and man's free will in his treatise against the Pelagian heresy, "On Grace and Free Will".     His arguments, based on Scripture, can be summed up in the following quote:
".. not only men's good wills, which God Himself converts from bad ones, and, when converted by Him, directs to good actions and to eternal life, but also those which follow the world are so entirely at the disposal of God, that He turns them wherever He wills, and whenever He wills [emphasis added]— to bestow kindness on some, and to heap punishment on others, as He Himself judges right by a counsel most secret to Himself, indeed, but beyond all doubt most righteous." St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, Ch. 41


If it is by grace given by the Holy Spirit that God affects men's will, and if, as St. Augustine says, this is done "wherever He wills, and whenever He wills", where is man's free moral choice? In order to unravel this theological knot, we have to think about how God bestows grace, given His omnipotence, His omniscience, and His will to create good.  

To give in detail the theological arguments on this question would require a chapter, not a blog post, so I'll summarize the extreme points of view by an example.   (For fuller accounts refer to the references below, particularly Controversies on Grace.)      Consider St. Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of another prisoner at the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, to die by starvation and carbolic acid injection.   We can think about  this salvific act in two ways:

  • Scenario 1--God wills that St. Maximilian Kolbe acts as he does and knows by His "Free Knowledge" that St. Kolbe will perform this salvific act.  He knows that because he wills to give him grace ("efficacious" grace) to perform the act.  
  • Scenario 2--God knows by his "Middle Knowledge" that St. Maximilian Kolbe, given God's grace, would perform this salvific act, but the performance of the act is dependent on St. Kolbe's free will assent to that grace.    This grace is "neutral", that is to say it is neither "efficacious" nor "sufficient".   ("Sufficient grace" is that which would be given by God even though He knows it will not be used.)
Scenario 1 reflects the Thomistic interpretation of Grace and Free Will, emphasizing the supreme sovereignty of God, His omnipotence and omniscience.    The Thomists add an extra impetus, Divine Premotion or Predetermination such that good moral actions will "infallibly result", but since these actions are not necessarily invoked, free moral choice is still available to the agent.  Both Boedder and I are puzzled by this:
"If we object to this that it is exceedingly difficult to understand how a creature thus predetermined can possibly have the actual use of its freedom, our opponents do not deny that there is some mystery in this. But they refer us to the incomprehensibility of Divine causation at once most sweet and most efficacious." Physical Premotion and Predetermination, Bernard Boedder, SJ.
The philosopher Robert Koons has attempted to explain this apparent "incomprehensibility"  by symbolic logic, legerdemain that establishes the identity of the propositions below,  such that free will is still operative:
  • The character of X is such that he freely wills to do the morally correct action in circumstance C;
  • God predetermines the moral choices of X by efficacious grace.
(I have to confess I don't understand the symbolic logic manipulations or the final conclusion.)

Scenario 2 gives a Molinist interpretation, emphasizing the importance of man's  free will.    There are variations of this position--Congruism, Syncretism--that vary the importance of God's sovereignty in relation to man's free will.     Thomists object to the Molinist position because it apparently sets limits to God's authority.   I don't agree with this objection.    God gave Adam and Eve freedom to commit Original Sin, as a necessary consequence of free will.      If He did not, if all we do--sinful and good--is by His will, not ours, then we are puppets on a stage;  the whole notion of moral responsibility fails.


As a Catholic I pray privately and in public for the Holy Spirit to give me the grace to do the right thing and for those I love to do also.   If our actions are pre-ordained by God then these prayers are futile, and that I cannot believe.   Thomists object that active praying, absent God's pre-ordained outcome for the desired event, smacks of the Pelagian heresy that man can save himself without the grace of God.    The theologian Thomas Flint counters this argument:   praying for the Holy Spirit to make you better, for example to rid yourself of an addiction, is praying for God to do something TO you, not FOR you and is certainly dependent on God's grace.

Finally we come to what the initial thrust of this series of posts was all about:  can we hold those who commit sins morally responsible for their actions and can we forgive them for their sinful deeds.   Given the Thomist view,  that God predetermines our moral behavior, I don't see how one can hold sinners responsible for their actions and so forgiveness is automatic.    Given the Molinist view, that we are freely responsible for our actions, then we can be held responsible for sins.   But as Christians, we can forgive the sinner, but not the sin.

Finally I'll say that I'm not entirely satisfied with the Molinist interpretation.   It seem to me that if God knows what we will do--even if he does not determine that we do it--we are not totally free in our moral choices.    There need to be options, different possibilities for what we can do, in order that freedom of choice--free will--be exercised.     In the fourth post of this series I'll explore what quantum theory might offer to give this freedom, with God's complete knowledge of the future and will for what occurs to hold.

Controversies on Grace, The Catholic Encyclopedia
Divine Providence, the Molinist Account, Thomas Flint.
Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom, Robert Koons.
Molina / Molinism, Alfred Freddoso.
On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine of Hippo.
Physical Premotion and Predetermination, Bernard Boedder, S.J.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Free Will and God's Providence
Part II: The Moral Responsibility of Evil-Doers

British woman who joined ISIS calls for beheading of Christians

New York man charged with hate crimes for seven 'knockout' assaults

Homegrown jihadist shoots N.J. teen
8 times, calling it a ‘just kill’: report                Headline, Washington Times, September 18th, 2014 

Scandal of the 1,400 lost girls in Rotherham      

Headline, Times of London, August 27th 2014

Fort Hood shooter sentenced to death for 2009 killings

"God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. "             C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity 
Those are disturbing headlines (and meant to be)!   Why does God allow such evil?    The answer is given by C.S. Lewis above, and with his quote I might end this post.    But there are those who object "there is no such thing as free will" and consequently,  moral responsibility for one's deeds is a non-issue.   So we should answer their attempt to reject God's troublesome gift, freedom of choice.


I'll repeat what I said in the first post: "If the universe is deterministic, plays out according to set physical laws, there can be only one future and there can be no free choices.   If, as special relativity suggests, there is a particular past, present and future for each  particular reference frame, so that all is encompassed in a block universe, then everything is laid out before us, independent of our actions."

Or, as the philosopher Michael Lockwood would have it:
"To take the space-time view seriously is indeed to regard everything that ever exists, or ever happens, at any time or place, as being just as real as the contents of the here and now. And this rules out any conception of free will that pictures human agents, through their choices, as selectively conferring actuality on what are initially only potentialities." Michael Lockwood, The Labyrinth of Time
The scientific arguments against Lockwood's claim will be given at greater length in another post, but there is one common-sense refutation--if I were to believe it, why should I write this post?    To put it another way
"People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, and must act otherwise, every time they deliberate.  The great American philosopher Charles Pierce argued that a belief that cannot be consistently acted on cannot be true. If he’s right about this – and I believe he is – then determinism must be false." Greg Boyd, Three Arguments against Determinism. 


If then universe is determined, as in objection 1, it would follow that whatever we did and thought was purely a function of our brain states, and since these brain states are physically set, there is no way to make free moral choices, no such thing as an immaterial soul to oversee our actions.   On the other hand, even in a indeterministic universe the claim of most cognitive scientists would be that the assembly of neurons, the concatenation of biochemical and electrical events in the brain, determined our acts.   Neuroscientists cite much research, ranging from the 19th century case of Phineas Gage, whose character changed radically after a railroad spike was driven through his frontal lobe, to that of the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who argues that split brain phenomena show free will does not exist.  

Neuro-materialistic arguments against free will can be summarized thus:
  • Material damage to the brain causes change in behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Psychoactive drugs change behavior and moral attitudes.
  • Therefore behavior is determined only by the physical nature of the brain and the biochemical/electrical events occurring therein, and there is no such thing as free will.
In his book, My Brain Made Me Do It, Eliezer Sternberg has argued by analogy against this neuro-materialistic proposition.   Consider a jet fighter;  it can crash because of damage to the wings, the jet engines, faulty fuel, etc.   But even when it is fully functional, it needs a pilot to fly it.    Similarly the brain can crash due to damage or harm to its parts or to bad biochemistry, but there is still something else--which I choose to call a soul--a pilot, needed to make it function.

There is another, stronger argument against neuro-materialism. Consider identical twins (same DNA). If moral behavior is determined only by the physical and chemical natures of the brain, one would expect these genetically identical twins to behave alike--if one is a criminal, so would the other be, with 100% concordance. However, a Danish study has shown only a 52% rate for concordance between identical twins (compared to 22% for fraternal twins). Moreover, this study has been criticized as neglecting linked environmental behavioral factors by Carey: "The results suggest that the genetic influence on registered criminality may be more modest than previously thought."

Nevertheless, neuroscientists conclude that free will is an illusion, on the basis of experiments involving simple, inconsequential choices.   The most cited of these is the Libet experiment, which shows a brain potential exists before a subject is consciously aware of making a choice.  On the other hand  Timothy Bayne and Eliezer Sternberg say that the Libet experiments do not justify free will skepticism.   The most significant  objection, which Sternberg supports by several detailed examples of moral/ethical decision problems, is that the Libet experiment (and others) involve inconsequential choices, choices which do not require reflection, consideration of an unlimited set of moral and situational factors.   Sternberg classifies these kinds of decisions as "boundless", that is to say decisions that cannot be determined algorithmically, as might be done in a computer, unlike those processes that proceed almost without conscious deliberation (like riding a bicycle).   Since ethical decision making is "boundless", it cannot proceed solely from algorithmic brain processes, but requires another agency.  

I am not foolish enough to argue that ethical behavior does not involve physical and chemical characteristics of the brain, or that heredity might not have some influence on the capacity for making good moral choices.   I suggest that the brain is, like the jet fighter in Sternberg's analogy, a necessary vehicle for something else--the soul, the will, conscience--that which is endowed in each person by the Holy Spirit at conception.    How this matures as the human matures, how it acts for each of us is still and may remain a mystery.


The best (and most entertaining) case for nurture as the prime element determining moral behavior is the "Gee Officer Krupke" routine in West Side story.   It encompasses all the factors--parental neglect, economic deprivation, bad moral influences--that sociologists claim as causal for criminality.  

However, there are two objections to nurture as the sole determinant.    First, there are many examples of people who have escaped poor economic circumstances, racial prejudice, bad parenting to become models of moral behavior.    Second, there are many examples of people in good economic circumstances, with good parents who do evil deeds.     Thus economic circumstances and parental care are neither neccessary nor sufficient conditions for evil behavior.    If we look at the headlines above, many of those involved--the rap singer who converted to Islam, the Fort Hood shooter, the 9/11 terrorists--were comfortably situated economically or even well-to-do.    For every "knock-out" criminal who comes from a single-parent environment, there is another that gets to be a judge or politician.

Again, the influence of a poor environment--economic or parental--can not be overlooked.   But it is not the only or the sole factor in moral behavior.    There is that small, still voice within us that tells us what is right or wrong, implanted at birth, the " ius naturale est quo natura omnia animalia docuit", the natural law which underlies the behavior of a rational being.

NOTE (added later):   a recent study at St. Mary's College, University of London has shown that terrorists are more likely to be well-off and educated.


In his arguments against the Pelagian Heresy, On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine said
"There are some persons who suppose that the freedom of the will is denied whenever God's grace is maintained, and who on their side defend their liberty of will so peremptorily as to deny the grace of God. This grace, as they assert, is bestowed according to our own merits. It is in consequence of their opinions that I wrote the book entitled On Grace and Free Will." 
Whether God's arbitrary (?) bestowal of Grace negates Free Will will be dealt with at length in the next post on this topic, as will how we should deal with forgiveness, given that free will and moral responsibility exists.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Free Will and God's Providence.
Part I: An Introduction to the Problem

 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?  Matthew 18:21 (KJV)
"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." Deuteronomy, 30:
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”  C.S. Lewis.
"Of course I believe in free will. I have no choice."  Isaac Balshevis Singer, The Salon Interview 1987.


In the past decades we have seen outrage after outrage committed by religious terrorists, gangs, members of drug cartels--the murder of Christian, Jewish and Arab children, the rape of Christian nuns, the trafficking of women and girls, "knockout" beatings of whites, the teaching of hate.   In this post I'll not discuss how these villains attempt to justify their acts on the basis of religion or deprived socio-economic status.   Rather, I want to address the following questions.
  • Do the terrorists commit these deeds freely, as we understand Free Will?
  • If they do act freely, how is it possible, for us as Christians, to forgive them?
  • Whether or not their actions be free, is there a way to see this evil  as compatible with or proceeding from God's Foreknowledge?
There will be three posts which attempt to study these acts as a case study in terms of the general subject of Free Will and God's Providence.    The first (this one) will attempt to define the problem.   The second will rebut  physicalist assertions that there is no such thing as free will and will therefore support the contention that we are morally responsible for our actions.     The third  will discuss how free will is compatible with God's Foreknowledge and Divine Will,  in a context provided by the Middle Knowledge of Luis de Molina (Molinism) and how this might enable us to "forgive" those who commit evil.


" 'Free Will' is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives." Timothy O'Connor, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Timothy O'Connor's definition above of Free Will sets the stage for stating the problem, although one important adverb has been omitted from his definition: rather than "agents to choose" I would write "agents to choose freely".    One might also add "after due deliberation and reflection".  

What are the objections to Free Will as thus defined?  

  • First, if the universe is deterministic, plays out according to set physical laws, there can be only one future and there can be no free choices.   If, as special relativity suggests, that there is a particular past, present and future for each  particular reference frame, so that all is encompassed in a block universe  and everything is laid out before us, independent of our actions.
  • Second, if our genes determine our personality, character and intelligence, how can there be different ways for us to choose, and thus to be free?
  • Third, if, on the other hand, we are formed by economic and social circumstances that mold our morals and attitudes, what ethical options are then open?

Or, if as some would have it, the randomness of quantum mechanics governs our decisions, how can this randomness be reconciled with conscious deliberation and free choice?
Where is the entity within us, the soul, that can act freely?


"By His providence God protects and governs all things which he has made... even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures"  First Vatican Council, Dei Filius
As a Catholic, I believe in a transcendent, omnipotent and omniscient God.   "Omnipotent" means God can do what He wills, all that does not contradict the laws of logic or of necessary truths--God  can't and wouldn't make 2+2=5 or a four-sided triangle.    "Omniscient" means God knows what has happened, is happening, and will happen.    God is eternal, so that past, present and future (in any frame of reference) are in His ken.  (Not all theologists agree with this last dictum.)    Such is Divine Providence, God's omnipotence and His omniscience, including His Foreknowledge, the knowledge of the future.

Thus God knows whether I will do my daily prayer, sleep late and miss Mass tomorrow, get angry at the slow driver in front of me next week,...But if God does know all my actions, past and future, where is my freedom to do differently?   Supposedly God has given me free will to choose, but if he knows what I will choose, am I truly free, even if I think I am?  That is the problem of reconciling Free Will and God's Foreknowledge.


If we do not have free will can we be held to be morally responsible for evil acts?  Insanity--lack of knowledge of the moral implication of our acts--is a defense against murder and claims of "irresistible impulse" have been used to deny guilt.
The Catholic Catechism gives
"Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."1857
The phrase "deliberate consent" implies a free will consent, so we might ask whether  addiction, genetic predisposition, socio/psychological factors  could be considered mitigating factors.   The theologians are not in total agreement, but some do propose that addiction and other conditions negating free will mitigate the gravity of sin.    Or, as the Jets proclaim to Officer Krupke in West Side story, "It's just our upbringing that gets us out of hand".


So, what we have to examine in the next posts are
  •  Do those committing these acts have free will, i.e. do they commit them with "full knowledge and deliberate consent"?
  • Does God know beforehand that these acts of terror will be committed?   And, if so what does this say about God permitting evil and allowing free choice?
  • And, given the answers to those two questions, what does "forgiveness" mean, and how do we effect it?


(I've been on a steep learning curve in this set of posts--there's a vast literature  both on the web and in texts, and I'm only going to cite a very few of these that I've found particularly useful.)
Robert Kane, Reflections on Free Will and Determinism
John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will.
Timothy O'Connor, Free Will (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Eliezer J. Sternberg, My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility
Alfred Freddoso, Molinism
St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will
The Block Universe of Special Relativity
Other references will be added in subsequent posts.

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.