Sunday, June 3, 2018

Edward Feser On Thomism And Free Will


Just a few months ago Catholic apologist extraordinaire Edward Feser (whose book against atheism I've critiqued and reviewed) wrote a blog post defending divine causality and human freedom. This was linked to me in a debate I had with a Catholic theist. Not surprisingly, I think Feser makes many mistakes in his attempt to claim humans have free will given the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of causality he espouses.

Feser's view that humans can have free will given the Aristotelian principle that whatever is caused or moved is caused or moved by another, is not convincing. Take for example his claim that the AT metaphysic view on human causality is concurrentist, and not occassionalist (like it is in Islam). On occassionalism, god directly causes everything to happen. However, concurentism, as Feser explains in another blog post, involves "secondary causes [that] really have (contra occasionalism) genuine causal power, but in producing their effects still only ever act together with God as a “concurring” cause (contra mere conservationism)." In other words,

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.

Think of how absurd this defense of free will is. I would be tantamount to saying a puppet has free will because it hammers a nail in at the same time the puppeteer is causing all the fundamental activity. I mean, I shouldn't have to explain any further to point out why this is an abysmal defense of free will. It's self evidently absurd.


Moving on, Feser attempts to make sense of this the best he can:

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.

Sorry Feser, but being rational doesn't make you free. A machine learning AI-driven software program can act rationally, and it certainly isn't free. Also, being rational is perfectly compatible with a deterministic universe—you would simply just be determined to be rational, and no freedom of the will would exist. The problem here of course is that Feser's operating definition of free will is inadequate, and this is what almost all disagreements on free will come down to: semantics. He's technically a compatibilist, who thinks free will is compatible with theistic determinism, of which concurrentism falls under.

Semantic disputes are going to become more evident in my critique of the rest of his article below:

Why did you scroll down the page to read the rest of this article? One answer is: because you freely chose to do so. Another answer is: because God has created a world in which that happens.

If god created a world where you're determined to scroll down the page as the result of his ultimate causal power, you did not freely do so. You had no choice in the matter and no ability to do otherwise. So these options are indeed in competition. The only way out of this is to define "freely choose" in such a way compatible with this metaphysic, which is undoubtedly theistic determinism. But again, then it's all just semantics. Feser is simply saying "freely choose" is compatible with god causing you to do everything you ever do.

Feser would, of course, no doubt think otherwise, and he uses a book analogy below, saying:

If such a critic were consistent, then he would also have to say that the gun that the butler used didn’t really fire any bullets, that the bullets are not really what killed the victim, that the judge and jury didn’t really punish the butler, etc. – all on the grounds that it was really the author who did all these things, since, after all, he was the one who wrote the story that way.

This is nonsense of course. All we have to ask are a few questions:

(1) Would it have been impossible for the butler to have done something different when he fired the bullets? Yes or no?
(2) Did the author ultimately cause the butler to fire the shots? Yes or no?
(3) Are the butler's will and actions ultimately caused by the author? Yes or no?

If the answer is yes to any of these, the butler has no free will. Certainly not libertarian free will. The butler had no more choice or say in the matter than a Westworld robot. He was just the character in the author's pre-planned drama that the author determined to kill. Furthermore, Feser says...

But by the same token, to be consistent, we also have to speak of the butler and other characters as if they acted freely.

This is more nonsense. No we don't. All we have to recognize is that the characters in the book are all effects of the cause of the writer. Likewise, if we're all characters in a cosmic drama and god is the author, we are all technically the effect of god's causal power. We could not have done otherwise and nothing we do is technically controlled by us. Feser just keeps asserting we have free will on Thomism. We all expect that of a Thomist, because they know how silly their worldview looks if there isn't free will. But Feser has no logical case here. In the end he writes:

Misgivings about Aquinas’s account of divine causality and free will seem largely to derive from two errors. The first involves reading into Aquinas modern philosophical assumptions about free will and causality that he would not accept, the result of which is a travesty of what he actually thinks about the nature of free will. (Hence all the heavy going about whether Aquinas was a compatibilist, a libertarian, etc. I don’t think he is properly understood in terms of any of the categories that have now become standard, any more than his views on the mind-body problem are properly classified as Cartesian, materialist, functionalist, etc.)

Feser is wrong here again. If you are not the ultimate cause of your thoughts or actions, you don't have libertarian free will. You either have no free will, or some kind of compatibilistic free will. Those are your only options. Looking at the intellect in terms of formal and final causality, if granted, both of these are ultimate caused by god. If all material causes are done by god, your formal causes must be too, otherwise we'd get formal causes that are not in coherence with material causes.

The second error involves treating God as if he were simply one further efficient cause alongside all the others in the universe, only more powerful and further back in the line of efficient causes.

That's not an error. If god is the ultimate cause of everything—meaning, all subsequent or proximate causes are the result of god's ultimate cause, the latter causes have no more free will than the last domino that falls in a series of falling dominoes: the entire series was determined to happen. Feser is a compatibilist but refuses to admit it, and that poses severe problems of how any kind of hell can be justified given that on Catholicism there is no real free will.

I have no doubt a Thomist would want to challenge me on all of the above. But if they want to do so they need to prove how being ultimately caused without the ability to do otherwise, and merely being rational, can properly be called "free will." I've argued it is not and that Feser's explanation for free will is woefully inadequate. His lemmings never seem to get that.

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