Note on Freedom

‘To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)

So conceived, freedom is both a lot more and a lot less than simple volition – the term ‘free-will’ seems to not be of much help. Freedom isn’t just one more thing that you have – and I think that’s why so much of the debate about freedom goes in circles. It simply can’t be defined as one more quality among others that a person possesses.

It’s more of an anthropological (broadly) question, I guess – and it’s also teleological. Obviously, if one doesn’t think that there is a human nature that is oriented to some good, then freedom can only be volition (which, as seen in the previous post, is more limiting than freeing), if there can be any concept of freedom at all. It seems to me that if one takes a materialistic line which denies human nature in the metaphysical sense, then one is pretty much left with no account of freedom, at least as far as I can tell.

Maximos the Confessor developed some pretty interesting thoughts on freedom and the will – he made a distinction between the gnomic and the natural aspects of the will in human nature. The natural is basically the creature living in accordance with the principle of its nature, working towards the fulfillment of its being – which the Christian tradition says is unity with God. Again, teleological. Gnomic willing is basically what most people would describe as ‘free will’. It’s simply deliberating over a course of action. What Hart noted in the previous post, however, is that the gnomic willing really only imprisons us – if I choose X, my choosing X comes at the expense of choosing Y later on. Our ‘free choice’ results only in fewer options to choose from later. Our natural nature, natural will, is aligned to God – after the Fall, our knowledge of God is lost and replaced by knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer develops this theme a lot in ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’), and as such, our gnomic will,  our deliberation, has to decide from among options what to do, because our natural (pre-fall) knowledge of God is lost. This, as stated above, simply leads to imprisonment by choosing X at the expense of Y:

‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (ibid)

In a nutshell: human freedom, apart from knowledge of God, leads only to imprisonment. The more one aligns themselves with God, the more free they become, but Christian freedom is of a different flavour than most – Christian freedom is freedom for obedience, to quote Donald Bloesch.


Plantinga on Harris on Free Will

This is well worth reading:

‘Sam Harris claims that free will is an illusion. What we ordinarily believe in this neighborhood, he says, is completely mistaken: “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise”; “we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true.” Doesn’t that imply that we human beings are not responsible for what we do? Harris is willing to bite the bullet: “we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility.” Indeed, he thinks that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion: what he means by this is that when we introspect very carefully we find that we don’t really believe what we think we believe about free will.’


Epistemological Note

It seems odd to me that realism actually has opponents. Realism here is the idea that there is a reality independent of us or our perceptions – and that we can both experience and know reality-in-itself. The biggest opposing view, idealism (and by extension anti-realism), seems content to say that since all we experience is the content of our minds, we can’t know reality-in-itself. There’s obviously different kinds of idealism but that’s the basic gist. In the following paragraphs, Gilson provides some sharp commentary on the differences between realism/idealism:

‘We must always remember that the impossibilities in which idealism tries to entangle realism are the inventions of idealism. When it challenges us to compare the thing known with the thing in itself, it merely manifests the internal sickness which consumes it. For the realist there is no “noumenon” as the realist understands the term. Since knowledge presupposes the presence to the intellect of the thing itself, there is no reason to assume, behind the thing in thought, the presence of a mysterious and unknowable duplicate, which would be the thing of the thing in thought. Knowing is not apprehending a thing as it is in thought, but, in and thought, apprehending the thing as it is.

To be able to conclude that we must necessarily go from thought to things, and cannot proceed otherwise, it is not enough to assert that everything is given in thought. The fact is, we do proceed otherwise. The awakening of the intelligence coincides with the apprehension of things, which, as soon as they are perceived, are classified according to their most evident similarities. This fact, which has nothing to do with any theory, is something that theory has to take account of. Realism does precisely that, and in this respect is following common sense. That is why every form of realism is a philosophy of common sense.’

‘This is also why the realist never expects his knowledge to engender an object without which his knowledge would not exist. Like the idealist, he uses his power of reflection, but keeping it within the limits of a reality given from without. Therefore the starting point of his reflections has to be being, which in effect is for us the beginning of knowledge: res sunt . If we go deeper into the nature of the object given us, we direct ourselves towards one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysical of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning towards a psychology, which will reach completion in a metaphysics of knowledge. The two methods are not only compatible, they are complementary, because they rest on the primitive unity of the subject and object in the act of knowledge, and any complete philosophy implies an awareness of their unity.

There is nothing, therefore, to stop the realist going, by way of reflective analysis, from the object as given in knowledge to the intellect and the knowing subject. Quite the contrary, this is the only way he has of assuring himself of the existence and nature of the knowing subject. Res sunt, ergo cognosco, ergo sum res cognoscens [Things exist, therefore I know, therefore I am a knowing subject]. What distinguishes the realist from the idealist is not that one refuses to undertake this analysis whereas the other is willing to, but that the realist refuses to take the final term of his analysis for a principle generating the thing being analyzed. Because the analysis of knowledge leads us to the conclusion “I think,” it does not follow that this “I think” is the first principle of knowledge. Because every representation is, in fact, a thought, it does not follow that it is only a thought, or that an “I think” conditions all my representations.’

– Etienne Gilson, (

I wondered why anyone would take the route of idealism/creative anti-realism (ICR) for a long time. Then it occurred to me that maybe there are more anthropological reasons for taking that route. Hume is famous for saying that there is no self, just a bundle of perceptions. If there is no self, then one can’t really have knowledge – and it seems to be a short leap from there to saying that reality is simply perception or something along those lines. Even if there is reality ‘out there’ it wouldn’t matter.

But then I thought more. It seemed like all that was really getting off on the wrong foot – when we know something, we don’t know it in a detached, objective way. We couldn’t know anything in that way, because we can’t get outside ourselves to be objective and detached. I then read this little bit by Torrance, which I’ve posted here before:

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

That seemed to me to be about right. If we interact in a dynamic and relational way with the world around us, we break through the dualisms that lead to naive realism/IRC. That is, I neither cold observe the real world in a detached way (which is impossible and leads to some odd ideas) nor do I construct reality out of my own experience/perception/mental content. I interact with the world as a personal agent and by doing so am able to know the thing I interact with in itself.

Note on John Philoponus

I’ve been reading some Philoponus lately, as well as a couple of different articles on his thought and its relation to theology and physics. Here’s one article (I’m not sure where the other is, but its by the same author):

Some interesting thoughts are to be found in this sixth-century thinker – including dynamic and relational views of time, space and a theory of light that really is ahead of its time. But its his christological thought that I find the most interesting, because he bases his ‘philosophy of nature’ (for lack of a better term) directly on his christology and doctrine of God, or at least that’s how I read it. To quote a couple good bits from the cited article above:

‘John the Grammarian labored at its Academy purged of pagans by the Emperor Justinian. There he attempted to think together the theological and physical significance of the Word of God in relationship to the world. Because of John’s belief in the teaching of Moses, that the Creation was created out of nothing by the Word of God, he could argue at crucial points with the Master of Greek Philosophy and Physics. Against the Greek vision of the world and the kind of necessities it had posited between the Creator and the Cosmos, Philoponus sought to argue for the rational contingency of the intelligibility of the cosmos based upon its creation out of nothing by the speaking of God in the Beginning. The contingency of the world’s Beginning out of nothing was transcendently grounded, independent of God’s nature, in God’s divine freedom to speak into existence all of created reality, the heavens and the earth, its mankind as His Image, and His Sabbath relationship with them in the Creation. [7] The Cosmos was given existence and motion by the Creator in the Beginning with the divine freedom of His holy love and will and as such was absolutely dependent upon Him for its independent nature and being. As such, it possessed in and of itself no necessity for its existence and subsistence. It could not have been or it could have been something other than it is. The Creation possesses actuality and potentiality that is something out of nothing, the impossibility for Greek thought. But because of the speaking of the divine and sovereign will of a free God, the world is what it is with its mankind in it. It possesses neither an arbitrary ‘nature’ nor a necessary ‘nature’ in its relationship with its Creator. It is what it is in its independent ‘nature’ dependent absolutely upon the divine will for being what it is. It thus possesses a contingent necessity in relation to God, the rationality and intelligibility of which reflects the created and creative freedom of the will of the freely speaking God. The nature of the universe is a contingent nature utterly different from God’s nature and yet absolutely dependent upon Him for its being.’

He was a pretty controversial guy, though – his christological thought landed him an anathema, but I’ll wait for the nxt post to draw that out in a bit more detail.

David Bentley Hart on Freedom

‘Of course, we are inclined (especially today) to think of freedom wholly in terms of arbitrary or pathetic volition, a potency made actual every time one chooses a particular course of action out from a variety of other possibilities. And obviously, for finite intellects, this is the bare minimum that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement. All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover  these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.

A higher understanding of human nature, however, is inseparable from a definition of human nature. To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)

Chesterton on Contingency and Causation

Thinking on the subject of contingency and causation caused me to break out ‘Orthodoxy’, and flip to ‘The Ethics of Elfland’:

‘It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.

Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.

In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’ (G.K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy’)

I think it can be easy to categorize this as a kind of Humean way of thinking – but I think Chesterton was smarter than that. I found this little nugget by Stanley Jaki:

‘Chesterton’s stunning insistence in ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ that science as such gives only logical identities and relations but no realities, should make him appear an interpreter of science to be ranked with a Duhem and a Meyerson.’ (‘Interpreter of Science,’  from ‘Chesterton, A Seer of Science’).

Interesting stuff. It almost seems to me like this is an attack on idealism – that we don’t impose categories on the world but rather make sense of the reality that imposes itself on us.


Musings on Revelation

Let’s say that revelation is the act of God’s disclosure to us. God’s revelation involves communicating true things about Himself – but it is not limited to only propositional data. God’s revelation is of a personal type – but to have true knowledge of anything, one must being in some kind of existential relation to it. On our own we cannot have such a relation with God – the establishing of such a relation is an act of divine grace alone. Since God desires to know us and for us to know Him, His revelation necessarily then involves establishing personal relations between Himself and ourselves. Since even propositional data cannot be gleaned in a relation-less way, God’s revelation to us is throughout relational and personal. However, since we as humans are under the power of sin and cannot of our own accord come into relations with Him, God not only establishes the relations but also the conditions for relations – namely, the eradication of the barrier between us and Him, which is sin. God’s revelation is thus of a two-fold nature: one, the barrier between man and God is eradicated – in Jesus Christ, God has said ‘yes’ to humanity and bridged the gap, so to speak. The second part is the giving of the Holy Spirit, who is both our comforter and teacher and by whom we know Christ.