Divine causality and human freedom

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Divine causality and human freedom


Quote:Is the conception of divine causality defended by classical theists like Aquinas (and which I defend in Five Proofs of the Existence of God) compatible with our having free will?  The reason they might seem not to be compatible is that for Aquinas and those of like mind, nothing exists or operates even for an instant without God sustaining it in being and cooperating with its activity.  The flame of a stove burner heats the water above it only insofar as God sustains the flame in being and imparts causal efficacy to it.  And you scroll down to read the rest of this article only insofar as God sustains you in being and imparts causal efficacy to your will.  But doesn’t this mean that you are not free to do otherwise?  For isn’t it really God who is doing everything and you are doing nothing?

No, that doesn’t follow at all.  Keep in mind, first of all, that Aquinas’s position is concurrentist rather than occasionalist.  The flame really does heat the water, even if it cannot do so without God’s cooperation.  You might say that God is in this way like the battery that keeps a toy car moving.  The car’s motor really does move the wheels even if it cannot do so without the battery continually imparting power to it.  It’s not that the battery alone moves the wheels and the motor does nothing.  Similarly, it is not God alone heating the water.  The flame, like the motor, makes a real contribution.  Now, in voluntary action, the human will also makes a real contribution.  It is not that God causes our actions and we do nothing.  We really are the cause of them just as the flame really causes the water to boil, even if in both cases the causes act only insofar as God imparts efficacy to them.

A critic might respond that that is all well and good, but while Aquinas’s position avoids occasionalism, that does not suffice to save free will.  The flame really does heat the water, but it does not do so freely.  So if divine cooperation with the will is like divine cooperation with the flame, how is the will any more free than the flame is?

The answer is that God’s cooperation with a thing’s action does not change the nature of that action.  Impersonal causes act without freedom because they are not rational.  Human beings act freely because they are rational.  That God cooperates with each sort of action is irrelevant.  Suppose, per impossibile, that you and the flame could exist and operate without God’s conserving action.  Then there would be no question that whereas the flame does not act freely, you do, because you are rational.  There would in this scenario be no additional divine causal factor that might seem to detract from your freedom.

Of course, this scenario is impossible.  Again, for the Thomist, neither the flame nor your will could exist or operate for an instant without divine conservation and concurrence.  But the point of the per impossibile scenario is to emphasize that God is not some additional causal factor within the universe the presence or absence of which might affect the specific causal situation in the way that the presence or absence of oxygen would affect the flame’s causal efficacy, or the presence or absence of temptations and other distractions would affect your will’s causal efficacy.  Rather, God is the metaphysical precondition of there being any causality at all, whether causality of the unfree kind or of the voluntary kind. 

Here’s an analogy...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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