Free will and final causation

In a Peaceful Science thread continuing the discussion of the view mentioned in my last post, John Harshman criticises what he calls the incoherence of the very idea of free will.

His critique echoes the usual problems raised in this matter by philosophers: if human decisions are caused, as in compatibilist schemes, they appear to be deterministic and not free. On the other hand, if they are spontaneous and uncaused, they are not decisions but random events. Either way, rational choice is an illusion.

John’s approach – apparently coming close to reductive materialism – presents the problem in stark form as:

…the fundamental incoherence of free will, that in order to be free it must be both uncaused and non-random.

And in reponse to my reply, he writes:

Are you talking here about compatibilist free choice, in which our ability to choose is the result of physical, causal processes in our brains, or are you talking about libertarian free choice, which again I would consider incoherent? Nothing you say here seems to consider whether there is any causation outside of ordinary, efficient causation, and if there were what sort of thing it would be.

You see the problem? Uncaused choices are incoherent, and compatibilist choices are the result of efficient causes in our brains (and, presumably, behind that to a deterministic causal chain extending eight back to the Big Bang). There is nothing else but “ordinary efficient causation”, so free will is, at best, an epiphenomenon or, worse, an illusion.

But the problem here is primarily a philosophical one. Early modern science decided, for convenience, to deal only with material efficient causes, and naturalist philosophy decided, on no very firm grounds, to make material efficent causation an absolute. On naturalism, all events must be explicable within a single self-contained system of efficient causes.

But that’s demonstrably false even from quantum events, for which no efficient causes from within the system of nature can be found, or even shown to be possible. And in the matter under consideration, human will, it can only be maintained by the absurdity of making the central fact of our existence – our human experience – an illusion.

I guess an analogy is the ancient philosophy of Parmenides, who argued logically from the absurdity of the idea that non-being can exist to the conclusion that change is impossible. At the time, people must have considered that since everything about them was manifestly changing – including the arrival from nowhere of Parmenides’ teachings – there must be an error somewhere. But Parmenides replied to the effect that this was mere folk psychology, and that the impresson of change is an illusion.

Such nonsense couldn’t last, of course – the problem was one motive for Aristotle’s developing his concept of potency and act in created things. The new categories solved the intellectual dilemma and showed the common experience of change to be reliable.

Exactly the same kind of problem exists with respect to free will – naturalism simply lacks sufficient categories to explain common realities like mind and will, and has to fall back on making them out to be illusions. The alternative is that naturalism is wrong.

My own suggestion for a solution on the thread was also Aristotelian: that other forms of causation (formal and, particularly, final) are equally as real as efficient causation and actually independent of it. In fact, in terms of logical order, final cause precedes efficent cause in any chain of events. All we have to do, to allow free will, is to say that the human mind has the ability to create final causes, and so to instigate the fresh chains of efficient causes needed to reach those goals. By choosing different goals, the will determines different chains of events.

One can couch that in quasi-scientific terms, if one likes, by saying that the will (meaning here the ability to make true choices, not the choices themselves) is an emergent phenomenon, which is another way of saying that preceding efficient causes are insufficient to account for it fully. It is not unique in that:

There are metaphysical issues in this idea of choice as final causation in relation to God as the cause of all things – perhaps we would be implying that human choice receives its efficient causation directly from God, rather than indirectly through him from nature. But that is a secondary matter. The core is that given the reality of final causes, their logical priority over efficient causes is obvious. And they are real because we base our entire lives on them, including decisions to write posts in denial of free will.

In the case of God, as Creator of all things ex nihilo, his first act is to conceive a purpose, from which flows his creation of a chain of events to bring it about.

“Let there be lights to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years; and let them be for lights to give light on the earth.” And God made the two great lights… to govern…

In the case of human decisions, our universal experience absolutely matches that: we do not make a decision to activate neurons, which activate muscles, which move objects, which reach outcomes. We decide to mend the roof, or write a book on a particular subject, or seek glory and immortality; and our actions are directed towards those goals, which may be far in the future.

The efficient cause is called a cause with respect to the end, since the end is actual only by the operation of the agent. But the end is called the cause of the efficient cause, since the efficient cause does not operate except by the intention of the end. Hence the efficient cause is the cause of that which is the end, for example walking in order to be healthy. However, the efficient cause does not cause the end to be the end. Therefore it is not the cause of the causality of the end, i.e., it does not cause the end to be the final cause; for example the doctor causes health to actually exist, but he does not cause health to be the end. Aquinas, De Principiis Naturae #28.

It is literally impossible to account for our actions apart from those final goals. To call such goal-directed decisions illusory or incoherent is a counsel of despair arising from a desperately inadequate metaphysics. Concepts should explain realities, not explain them away.

Since the subject came up in connection with the Eden narrative, let me apply this thinking to that story. Even if one thinks the story untrue, the psychology is absolutely unexceptional. So what caused Eve’s decision to eat the fruit?

It’s certainly true to say it did not arise, like Parmenides’ impossible change, from nothing at all. Augustine called his free will libero arbitrio, the phrase implying not causelessness, but deliberation leading to a free choice between alternatives.

So the serpent’s deception, against the background of the command of God, the authority of Adam and so on, did not cause Eve to eat the fruit, but did prompt her to deliberate. Otherwise all people would always succumb to the same temptations, and they don’t.

The text explains her motives, and when we read it we never in doubt that they are plausible.

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate.

She’d never tasted it before, but she formed an impression of how it might taste, and the desire to experience that. That was compounded by the beautidul appearance of the tree and, more specifically, by the thought of how good it might be to be wise. The formation of final causes (formed by deliberation on what the serpent had said) was her act of free-will, and the efficient causes of reaching out and eating followed from that. Only by some confused and murky thinking would they be held to result directly from any efficient causes before that.

Thomas Aquinas expresses this in terms of the will as inclination or desire – which is only, again, to admit the centrality of final causes. Those desires can be towards the things implanted by creation, or in sin towards what is not God’s will for us.

Independance from a causal chain of efficient causes is, on reflection, an absolute necessity if mankind was called by God to rule the earth. You can scarcely rule that which causes all your actions. You cannot cause that which causes you.

One final thought: I would suggest that, far from the closed system of nature proving free-will to be an illusion, the manifest existence of free-will falsifies the myth of a closed system of efficient causes in nature. In fact, I would go so far as to say that each and every event in the universe is, directly or indirectly, the effect of one will or another. Final causation is the governing principle of the universe, efficient causes being its handmaidens.

Those wills – of angels, humans, and perhaps animals – themselves form a network of causation that is far richer than the one-dimensional system of the materialists. But like all things, even those wills form part of a cosmos because, in some way, they are governed by the supremely free will of God.

How that works is one of the deep mysteries of theology. But though Eve’s choice was manifestly as free as the choices we make day by day (more so, actually, since it was the last decision made before the human will fell into the bondage of sin), it was somehow encompassed within the will of God, for he chose his Church before the creation of the world in Christ – the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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