Sunday, January 28, 2007


In my previous post I discussed, in a simple and superficial way, what is generally meant by a "free will". As Apolonio rightly pointed out in a comment, we ought not to confuse the notion of a free will with actions that are merely voluntary. I can assent to an act without willing it, and animals, in all probability, act voluntarily even though they are not, strictly speaking, free in the sense that human beings are.

Now it will be necessary to consider a concept that is of particular interest if we are to discuss the notion of free will in the context of the theology of Saints Augustine and Maximos. The term is generally rendered into English as "energy", but that is a rather unfortunate translation, since that English term carries all sorts of connotations that the Greek original does not carry. The Greek word, energeia, literally means an activity, but it has a rather long and convoluted philosophical history that requires a little discussion if we are to make any sense of its use as a theological term.

Consider the following property: "able to speak a natural language". (By "natural language" all I mean is one of the many languages that humans speak but that has not been invented ex nihilo. Examples of the former would be languages such as English, French, German, Latin. Examples of the latter would be "languages" such as Esperanto, Klingon, Quenyan.) All human beings, by virtue of their membership in the species, have this property.

"But wait!" you might say. "Infants don't possess that property. In fact, the word 'infant' means 'incapable of speech'."

Here we introduce some philosophical nuances. Plato and Aristotle used a Greek word, dunamis, to refer to a capacity to do something that is merely potential, that is, the ability to do that thing exists, but it is not being exercised. In the case of the property "able to speak a natural language" Aristotle notes that there are two different kinds of potentialities involved. At the very moment of conception every human being has a potential to speak a natural language in the sense that the human brain is, in a sense, "hard-wired" for such activity. That is, the human brain, unlike other animal brains, finds it particularly easy to pick up such languages, and you may say that humans have a facility for it that other animals don't possess, at least not to the same degree. So even an "infant" a human who cannot speak a language because he has not yet learned one, still has the potential to speak one, on condition that he eventually learn one. He possesses the property even though, at conception, he does not yet possess a brain. He does, however, potentially possess a brain, that is, he will grow one if his development is allowed to progress normally. He does not, however, possess a potential ability to fly under his own power, the way birds do, and this will be true no matter how long he lives and how much he tries to fly under his own power without artificial aid.

Once a human learns his native tongue, however, it will be possible for him to learn other languages. Suppose I know, in addition to English, Latin and Greek. Right now I am writing in English, but I could write this post in Latin. I have the potential to write in Latin because I know the language. This is a different sort of potentiality than the one the infant possesses, because the infant does not know any language, but still possesses the potential to know one, whereas I actually know a language that I am not using, but I possess the potential to use it.

Aristotle called the potentiality possessed by the infant a "first potentiality", and the potentiality possessed by the one who already knows a language but is not using it a "second potentiality". He also called the "second potentiality" a "first actuality", because that sort of potentiality is at the same time a kind of actualization of the first potentiality. When I begin to speak the language that I know, my potentialities are all fully actualized. Aristotle called this the "second actuality" or, to use his technical term, energeia.

In this early, philosophical usage, then, an energeia was merely the state that is the actualization of some potential. Aristotle, famously, defined the human soul as the first actualization of a body having the capacity for life, and the term he used for "first actualization" was prôtê energeia.

If you're wondering why we should be thinking about Aristotle at all in this context, the reason is not far to seek: Aristotle coined the word energeia: it did not exist in Greek (so far as we know) until he wrote his work called Protrepticus, a sort of motivational work designed to get people interested in philosophy. Plato had a similar distinction between potentiality and actuality, but he marked it with the words that mean "having" and "possessing" in Greek. (The word entelekheia, which is sometimes translated as "fulfillment", was also invented by Aristotle, and it may very well become relevant in this context, but I will pass over it for now.) To understand any Greek word fully requires having a very thorough acquaintance with its etymology and the history of its uses. We are rather fortunate, in a way, that the word had such a relatively late origin, since it saves us the trouble of looking through poets, historians, orators, and who knows what all, to get a sense of the term's denotation.

The theological use of the term is as follows. Certain properties are true of God, but he does not possess them in the sense of first potentialities, because that would imply that God will develop over time in a manner analogous to animal growth, and that is impossible for God who is eternal and unchanging in that sense. Nor does he possess them as second potentialities, since that implies that what is true of God now (for example, "omnibenevolent") was at some time not true of God. But that implies both that God is temporal rather than eternal and that it is true to say of God that he is not eternally omnibenevolent, which is not correct. Therefore, whatever is true of God, is true of him as a second actuality, or energeia.

In metaphysics, properties are treated in different ways depending upon one's ontological commitments. If you're a Platonist, for example, you think that every property is an entity in its own right, and that particular things only "possess" properties in the sense of being in a certain kind of relation to those entities. By contrast, if you are an Aristotelian, you will agree that properties are beings in a certain sense, but you will insist that their status as beings is ontologically dependent upon what it is for a substance, such as an individual human being or an individual horse, to be a being. If you are a nominalist, you think that property names are nothing more than names, and they do not pick out entities of any kind but refer rather to the way in which subjective observers experience the world. Many other ways of understanding properties are also possible, these are only a few. For a Christian, it is essential to assert that the being that is God transcends all other beings, regardless of what type of being they are. In other words, even if one is a Platonist, holding that properties are beings, as long as one is also a Christian one must assert that these beings, whatever their status in the sublunary realm, are ontologically dependent upon God, since God's being is fully independent of all other entities, and God is also the cause of all other beings.

So one is confronted with a special problem. Since it is difficult to conceive of any entity, let alone the Christian God, as being a being but having no properties whatsoever, it seems that there is a necessary relation of some kind between being a being and having properties, hence the being that is God would appear to be in some sort of necessary relation with his properties. Since this makes some folks a little squeamish on the grounds that they don't like to think of God being in anything like a necessary relationship with something other than himself, the idea surfaced of asserting that God and his properties are, in some sense, identical. God is love; God is compassion; God is goodness; God is omnipotence, etc. In uses such as these, the "is" turns out to be a kind of "is of identity", that is, it functions almost like a sign of equality.

Looking at the situation in this way, however, while it may comfort the Neoplatonist, makes others nervous. If the "is" here is the is of identity, then by rather straightforward logic, if God is love and God is omnipotence, then love is omnipotence, and that doesn't seem right, at least not when taken literally. Some would solve this problem by drawing a distinction between God "having" his properties" as opposed to "being" his properties. Clearly I, for example, can be an American and a male, and yet we do not think that this entails that the property of being an American is identical to the property of being a male. We do not say "I am American" and mean by that "I, the being who is Scott Carson, am identical in essence to whatever it is that is being-an-American." We mean only "I, the being that is Scott Carson, happens to have been born in the land colloquially known as 'America'."

So what, precisely, is the nature of the relation between God and his properties from an orthodox (minuscule "o") Christian perspective? This is particularly relevant to the question, What is the nature of the relationship between God and his will? One of God's properties is that he wills, and that he wills freely. Willing freely is an activity in which he engages--it is one of his energeiai. In my next installment I will begin to explore the difficulties of this question.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Free Will

In the next few days I plan to write about free will, particularly as the subject is treated in Saint Maximos the Confessor but more generally as a feature of Christian belief. Before I can really get going, however, it will be essential to get clear about the meaning of the key terms involved.

The will is that faculty of the human soul responsible for choice. There was a time, not all that long ago, when this faculty was thought of as the sort of thing that played a role that had once been described by Aristotle as “not without reason”, though in itself it is not a department of the rational part of the soul. In the more old-fashioned writers it is referred to as “the rational appetite”, but I doubt that such descriptions are of much use these days. What is worth noting is that it mediates, in a sense, between the rational faculty and the appetites: when guided by reason, it is the will that enables us to strive towards something that our appetites, all on their own, might not strive for. For example, if I am thirsty while lost at sea, I may desire water to drink. Given that I am surrounded by water, I might be tempted by my appetite for water to drink what is all around me. But that would be foolish, and my reason knows that it would be foolish. If my reason informs my will, I will choose not to drink the salt-water of the sea but to wait and hope against hope for a source of fresh water. If a become desperate, it may be that reason will not prevail, in which case I may surrender to my appetites and drink the sea water, with rather disastrous results.

To say that this faculty is “free” means simply that my choices are not determined by anything that is beyond my own control. For example, consider the following two cases. Imagine that I am standing on a platform in a train station as a train approaches. Just as the engine pulls up, I push my neighbor into its path, killing him. Now imagine the same situation, but instead of me pushing my neighbor, someone behind me pushes me into my neighbor, and my momentum causes him to fall in front of the engine, killing him. In the first scenario, I was free to choose not to push my neighbor, and the fact that I could have acted otherwise than I did suggests that what happened was what I wanted to happen; in the second scenario, although I pushed him, I did not choose to do so and, presumably, I did not want to push him or kill him. In the first scenario I acted freely, in the second I did not. Now so far we are not talking about the will itself, but about a person whom we suppose to have a free will. What about the faculty itself? What does it mean to say that the faculty itself is free? Consider the first scenario, where I chose to push my neighbor into the oncoming train. To say that my choice was free is to say that I could have chosen otherwise. But how do we know that I could have chosen otherwise? We cannot test such a claim, since the event is not repeatable (events of the same type could be set up, of course, but the very same particular event was, of course, is confined to just that event itself). Perhaps, if we were to change the content of my desires such that I did not want to push him into the train, we might find that I did push him anyway, since my willing to do so is beyond my control and I am not free. Or perhaps I am not free in a different sense: free to act other than in accordance with my desires and appetites. If the will really is something distinct from my desires, then presumably I ought to be able to choose not to drink that sea-water even if I really want to. But if I am not free from the rule of my desires, I will drink whatever I desire to drink. So I am not free, and if I push the man off of the platform it is because I desired to do so, even though I may not have willed to do so (or we may say that desiring and willing are somehow the same in such a scenario). What is at stake here, clearly, is moral responsibility: if I do things that I do not will (in the sense that I am not free to choose to do otherwise), then I cannot justly be held morally responsible for my “choices”, since they are not really choices at all. If we are all just robots, with no free will of our own, it would have to be our programmers who are morally responsible for our actions, not us.

Hence the so-called “problem of evil.” If we are not morally responsible for our acts, but are merely proximate causes of them, then the ultimate cause, God, is morally responsible for them, even when they are evil. The Christian cannot accept this conclusion. But contemporary neuroscience appears to show that all mental activity is governed strictly by physical laws and processes, and this very much leaves one wondering where in the world free will could come from.

My particular interest, in my next few posts, will be to work out some of the details of this problem while, at the same time, sorting through some of the things that Saint Maximos the Confessor has to say about the problem. I will use, as a starting point, a relatively recent book by Joseph Farrell, but I will also explore other avenues of analysis.

After all, I don’t really have any choice in the matter. Or do I? I guess we’ll find out.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

AmChurch and Pelosi

Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae often puts things very well. Today he puts the air-headed Alexandra Pelosi in her place extremely well.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Good Dog, Sammie!

Did you ever wish that your dog could talk? Ever wonder what he would talk about if he could? I’m not sure it would really be all that interesting, since dogs have a rather limited outlook on life. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Half Magic by Edward Eager, a story about some children who find a talisman that grants wishes, but only “half wishes” - - you have to wish for twice as much of what you want to get exactly what you want. Was Edward Eager some kind of math teacher or something? I don’t know, but the book is great. One of the children, who does not know that she has the talisman, wishes that her cat could talk, and so then the cat can half talk, half not talk, and the results are both surprising and off-putting. You cannot help but agree with both the kid in the story and the cat that it would have been better if the wish had never been made. I promise I’ll come back to this, but now for something completely different.

In a delightful essay for today’s Wall Street Journal Sam Schulman of The American avers as to how modern day proponents of atheism such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have no new arguments to offer for their position that wasn’t offered by atheists of the 19th century but they lack any of the charm of the 19th century humanist.
What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote - - both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lock-step with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

How can I relate this to Alec Baldwin, you may ask yourself. Well, funny you should ask. It’s not because Alec Baldwin is like some kind of cat that can half talk and half not talk, even though he is rather like some kind of cat that can half think and half not think. About two weeks ago I saw a program on the discovery channel about human evolution that was narrated by Alec Baldwin. I got to thinking about that show again today as I read this piece by Schulman. In the show actors portrayed humans at various stages in their evolutionary history and, rather more interestingly, in various stages of undress intended to correspond, I suppose, to their place in that history. The more primitive, you see, the more naked. It’s a family channel, but this is science, so you can show anything you like as long as it’s scientifically and historically accurate. But I digress - - this is not what made me think of either Alec Baldwin or Sam Schulman's essay. My real point in bringing this up is the fact that the show ascribed the end of earlier hominid lines to a lack of imaginative thinking. Because they couldn’t imagine a future that was any different from the past or the present, they weren’t able to plan ahead or make tools for changing the future or controlling the environment. Hence they were at the mercy of that environment and when it changed faster than they could they died out. Or so the just-so story goes. Like all such stories in evolutionary biology it is sheer fantasy, but it is thought-provoking fantasy. Is the capacity to imagine things really all that big a deal? Does it really mark the difference between a successful species and a failure? Neanderthal and homo sapiens share 99.5% of their genome. We’re practically kissing cousins, and yet they died out during the last ice age because they saw the world too much like Sam Harris.

Yes, that’s right, Sam Harris. After all, who’s got the more prosaic and, well, Neanderthalian view of the world, Sam Harris or Gerard Manley Hopkins? These atheists, especially these fundamentalist scientistic atheists, seem to think that religion is, well “primitive” in some sense. Dawkins, in particular, has argued that it is merely an artifact of a genetic trait that is valuable in its own right because it causes the infant to develop a certain valuable sort of attitude towards its parents but that later in life is just useless and dangerous baggage. This is rather surprising talk for folks who supposedly know about evolution, but it raises an interesting question. What if the trait that allows us to believe in God is something that is valuable for other reasons? Or, even more interestingly, what if it were a trait that not everyone shared to the same extent? Some traits that are shared by more than one species are not the same in the various species. If we were to compare the eyesight of a human being with that of, say a cat, I daresay we would have to admit that each faculty is adapted to a particular function. Cats do a lot of a certain kind of hunting that requires very intense lateral acuity, and, sure enough, if you have a cat - - even one that cannot talk at all - - you will have noticed that they are much more likely to chase after a toy that is dragged across their field of vision than they are to jump into the air after a toy that you are bobbing up and down in front of them (although that’s not to say that plenty of tabbies won’t go for the bobbing toy as well - - after all, what could be more fun than jumping six feet in the air?). Humans, by contrast, hunt in a very different way and our eyesight is better at things like determining depth of field and color contrast. This does not mean that we can’t see lateral movement, only that we may not be as sensitive to it as a cat. And as for color - - well, cats, for the most part, see colors as very pale shades of pastel, if they can see them at all. And dogs - - don’t even get me started on dogs. My dog can't even see a bright yellow tennis ball that is right in front of his nose. Maybe it's because of the size of his nose that he can't see it, but you'd think he'd at least be able to smell that it was there. But anyway. Do dogs and cats care that they can’t see color as well as humans? No, of course not. No, really, they don’t. Oh please, come on, you know as well as I do that the very idea couldn’t even occur to them. So there they are, blithely going about their business as though a bright red fire truck looks just the same color as a pale Gala apple. It’s not an important difference to them, and so they don’t - - or rather they cannot - - detect it. Some human beings are also color blind, and some are even fully blind right from birth. One sometimes wonders precisely what their cognitive grasp of something like vision actually is. If someone blind from birth asserted that it is obviously incompatible with empirical evidence to assert the existence of a faculty like vision, what sort of response could we make? Would we say, “Look here, buddy, the vast majority of people can see things, so just because you can’t don’t go thinking that nobody can even if they had the right faculty.” Would they be angered by that response? Would they think us obscene for saying such things? Of course, nowadays we have a mechanistic story to tell about vision and how it works, but we didn’t always have such a story, and the blind person would have been wrong about vision even if we did not have such a story - - even if such a story were not possible in principle.

So Sam Harris doesn’t believe in God. Indeed, if one were to examine his writings closely it would become quite clear that he cannot believe in God. Though tempting, I don’t suppose that he is literally a Neanderthal, or even a member of some other species that is only 99.5% the same as homo sapiens, but I suppose that it is just this side of possible that the reason that he cannot believe in God is not so much because of the reasons that he alleges - - that such belief is irrational, or obscene, or even obviously contrary to the empirical evidence. These are the sorts of reasons that a dog would give for thinking that there’s no difference between the color of the fire truck and the Gala apple - - they are the reasons one would expect from someone who does not merely not know what he is talking about, but from someone who cannot even possibly conceive of what he is talking about. If a dog could conceive of color vision, and if a dog were a rational creature, imagine what a low opinion we would have of his rational faculty if the dog were to tell us that, because he cannot make any sense out of the idea that the fire truck is a different color than the Gala apple, it follows rather obviously that there is no such difference, and that those of us who believe that we can actually see a difference in the colors are stupid, obscene, and obviously at odds with the empirical evidence. I think we would just pat him on the head and say “good doggie” and leave it at that.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Extraordinary Virtue of Ordinary People

The New York Times carried a story today about a man by the name of Wesley Autrey who leaped onto the tracks of the subway in front of an oncoming train in order to protect a man who had just fallen onto the tracks himself. Both were unhurt, though the other man had suffered a seizure. Read the whole thing here. If you are unmoved by the story then you are a stone.

People like this always say things like "I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help." By saying such things they make what they did even more spectacular than it already was, and demonstrate even more clearly just what it means to be virtuous. I hope Mr. Autrey is standing nearby when I have my seizure. Better yet, I hope I'm standing nearby whenever he needs some help, so that I can have the honor and privilege of doing something--anything--to be of some small service to such a person.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...