- How does Aquinas argue that we have free will? Evaluate the success of his reasoning. In the process of doing so, consider whether his arguments for freedom of the will remove challenges presented by divine providence, predestination, and reprobation.
Aquinas argues that a multiplicity of behavioral causes would be inexplicable if free will were not assumed to be operated on by them, including counsel, exhortation, command, and prohibitions. Yet we see uses of these constantly, both in our daily lives as well as in Scripture, with the rational expectation that they are meaningful and rational activities. In addition to this, he also sets forth that there are three classes of action. The first without judgment, such as the action of a stone when dropped. The second class of actions is made by judgment, but one that is informed by nature and involuntary. This is illustrated by the instinctual behavior of animals who react to threats without having reasoned out the dangers, but whose responses are dictated by the nature of the animal, whether to run in the case of weaker animals or to fight if the animal possesses such a capacity.
But with man, reason is the guide to judgment, or at least man carries with him the capacity to make reason his guide, and it is by virtue of his rational judgment that man is said to not only possess will, but a free will, for reason allows judgment to follow a diversity of paths, whereas the first two classes of action were limited by their nature, the first because its nature had no aptitude for making judgments, and the second because its judgments were singularly dictated by the natural instinct of the creature. Thus the rational nature of man dictates that he must necessarily possess free will.(I.83.1, respondeo) Opposed to this position, Aquinas sets for five objections: That man acts against his will, that man is incapable of willing things, that the will is not independent of God, that man is not the master of his acts, and that nature dictates mans ends.
To the first objection, Aquinas counters that our wills are moved by a multiplicity of internal factors, including appetite and reason(I.83.1, ad 1), and while the appetites use reason to formulate the means to their own ends by means of particular reason, they may also run afoul of reason, and resist it, should universal reason formulate an ends contrary to the designs of the sensitive, or instinctual, appetite.(I.81.3, respondeo) Given this, it is easy to see how a man might become conflicted between various desires competing for the wills judgment.
In responding to the second objection, Aquinas notes that while the will is free, its freedom is limited to its capacity to act. Hence, while not able to determine those acts outside of its ability, this does not impinge on its freedom within that class of actions in its grasp.(I.83.1, ad 2)
For the third objection, Aquinas argues that it is possible to have two causes for the act of the will, an immediate cause, and an ultimate cause. The will is the immediate cause of those actions of its own choosing, but that God, as the first cause of all, including the will, is thus the ultimate cause of all, including those actions which are determined by the free will. Thus, God wills the action to be, but he wills it to be so through the voluntary judgment of the will, even as he wills other acts to be determined by involuntary causes. He operates in all things in accordance to their nature.(I.83.1, ad 3)
The fourth objection is easily dismissed by Aquinas, who merely notes that to will something is not necessarily for that thing to come to pass, for there are a variety of external factors to the will that can effect the outcome. It is the choice, and not the execution of that choice, which is determined by us.(I.83.1, ad 4)
Finally, Aquinas answers the fifth objection by stating that while the general principles that man seeks are indeed independent of the will, such as the desire toward happiness, that these principles are in turn interpreted by the various temperaments and dispositions, and these in turn are subject to reason, by which man weighs and measures them, one against another, and so determines the final interpretation of the general principles as governed by man’s nature. Hence, man is free, insofar as he is free to interpret the governing principles of nature and then how he might implement that interpretation.(I.83.1, ad 5)
Does this explanation, however, rise to the level of satisfactorily securing justification for belief in a free will? I fear it may not. The reasons for this are simply that while he dismisses the Aristotelian principle that freedom necessitates self-sufficiency, it is insufficient to merely point out that something can be the cause of something else without being the cause of itself. Freedom, if it is to be free, must mean self-determination, and yet it is unclear how much self determination can be had when the act is necessitated by divine will. To merely state that it is accomplished through voluntary means is in no way sufficient to demonstrate that it is so. If God causes it, whether directly or through the mediation of some other intermediary cause, it happens of necessity due to the divine will being fully actualized. So long as God’s will extends not only to the will, but also to the objects of the will, it will remain a difficulty to demonstrate that the act was voluntary in any other manner than that the man was unaware of being thus moved by a necessity outside of his own being.
In addition to the above concerns, which I think one could have even if one was willing to grant the basic assumptions Aquinas brings to the question, one could also question the bright line he draws between natural instinct and reason. For while it is clear that humans have a superior capacity for reasoning (insofar as the determining criteria is judged by mankind), it is not clear that this is in some sense a distinct process from what is occurring in other animals. In fact, as Sextus Empiricus pointed out, even in something as apparently lowly as a dog, there appears to be some kind of faculty for reasoning at work and exhibited in a number of divergent circumstances.(Sextus, pg 50-51) Rather, what we seem to observe is instead of distinct types of appetites, natural and intellectual, we see a gradient of intellectual sophistication, with humans arguable at the apex of the scale, but distinguished only in by degree of complexity, rather than of a wholly other nature.
Thus, in as far as Aquinas is willing to attribute the actions of these other creatures as being involuntary and derived solely from their natural instinct, it seems entirely without justification to discontinue such a judgment merely because the creature being evaluated is ourselves. For we are not privy to the internal machinations of these other creatures, nor do we see our own mental activities so clearly that we can safely determine that they are voluntary and undetermined by our own natures. In fact, it would seem to beg the question, for it would appear that what Aquinas is attributing as indicating an involuntary judgment in other animals is exactly the sort of thing he says we have no choice over for ourselves, these general principles that dictate to us the fundamentals of our judgment and thus govern our wills. Yet, while one demonstrates the involuntary and irrational nature of the animal, in us it proves to be no impediment at all to liberty and volition.
References to The Summa Theologica of Aquinas
are done using standard numbering of part, question, article, and article subsection.
Reference to Sextus Empiricus used pagation from Sextus Empiricus: Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, & God, Edited by Philip P. Hallie and translated by Sanford G. Etheridge, New Revised Edition 1985, published by Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN.