September 23, 2018 by lucieromarin
You can probably deduce my mood from this post’s title. To those who believe in free will, I apologise for my tone and add that I do not claim to be a saint. To those who do not believe in free will, all I can say is that when I took the Superhero Test online, I came out as the Incredible Hulk. So what choice have I?
Every now and then, someone sends me an article that reminds me why, in the end, I do not aspostasise. Recently, a bunch of folks thought I needed to read the latest news article about how science has, only just recently, proved the non-existence of free will. Ordinarily, I don’t care what people think about this if they’re not hurting anyone, and I know that none of these persons will ever sit in a witness stand and defend a murderer or a rapist on the grounds that he wasn’t free, and, honestly, how can you put a plate of spaghetti or a pretty girl in front of a hungry man, and expect him not to feed? So this round must just have been one round too many.
The research is invariably presented along these lines: “A group of scientists ran an experiment in which forty people were hooked up to a machine and asked to smell cooking bacon. While they smelt the bacon, the machine showed that in every single case, a cluster of cells lit up in the brain and chemicals rushed about. After the chemical-rush all the subjects said they wanted to eat the bacon.”
Thus, having established scientifically that bacon smells good and that people like to possess good things, the researchers conclude, “So much for free will.” In one case, this ‘discovery’ was accompanied by commentary to the effect that free will is an invention of Christianity introduced to make blame and punishment possible. Another person’s psychology lecturer explained, on the strength of such experiments, that we have a will, but it isn’t free; the best we can hope for is that environment can influence it positively. And science now teaches us that you can’t help what you are!
Let’s work backwards:
1.The attempt to deny the existence of free will by science-based argument is not new, recent, or a by-product of anything modern or philosophically liberated. When Aristotle questioned or denied the existence of free will, he did so on exactly the same grounds as modern scientists, stating that atoms within us are all rushing about in a predetermined way and that their way of moving us means we haven’t really chosen our actions. Cicero questioned the role of free will for the same reason. At most, all that modern science has done is get a screenshot of something that philosophers posited 4,000 years ago, without the advantage of cameras, microscopes or anything else. Rather than boasting about this achievement, why not ask why it is that the researchers don’t know that Aristotle had their idea first?
2. Do follows be. What a thing does follows what it is. Flying follows being a bird but does not follow being a man. A car that cannot move is either not a car at all (maybe it’s just a painting of a car) or is a broken car. A hen that does not lay is either not a hen or is a hen that needs to see a vet. A will that does not will freely does not will. Therefore, it is either not a will at all or it is a broken will. If it’s not a will, it’s irrelevant to our discussion. If it’s broken, we should be asking how it got broken. Which leads us to the next point (eventually).
3 a) The concept of free will predates Christianity by centuries. It is present in the Jewish scriptures, in Stoic philosophy and in Chinese philosophy of the fourth century before Christ. (Interesting sidenote – the philosophy of Meng-Tzu, [usually rendered ‘Mencius’] mentions a global flood.) The concept has a tentative presence in the Bhagahvad Gita – tentative and undeveloped, but real. One may wish to argue that Christianity did something particular with the idea, but to call the idea a Christian invention is flat ignorance of history.
b) Calvinist Christians have been denying the existence of free for a full four hundred years before any modern researcher came along. They claim that the will, which was originally free, is now so smashed up and broken as to be irrelevant. You’ve discovered that you didn’t choose your hair colour or your gender? Calvinists add that you don’t choose your afterlife, either, and they defend their claims with reference to Christian Scriptures. Obviously, the rest of us dispute their claims, but Christian believers in double predestination are as real a presence in Christianity as anyone else, and it is no good simply erasing their brand of thought from sweeping statements about Christianity.
c) You may wish to argue that individual Christians used the idea of free will to support their system of reward and punishment. This is not the same as proving that it was invented for that purpose. Where is the evidence that that was anybody’s intention? One might demonstrate that certain farming methods destroyed the environment; that is not the same as proving that those methods were introduced for that purpose. One might argue that social media has turned a generation of children into bullying narcissists with amazingly short attention spans. That’s not the same as proving that every parent who gave a kid a phone did so with that end in mind.
d) Free will is the difference between a charge of manslaughter and murder. The law sees this, as does the family of each dead person in question. Free will is the difference between cult-membership and healthy human love. Cult-survivors know this. But both the faux-scientific and the Calvinist perspective presuppose a reality that is entirely binary. They think that if freedom of the will can be influenced, then there’s no such thing as freedom at all. If the body is in any way related to the soul, then there’s no soul. And there’s only Heaven and Hell – or nothing. The binary thinker is so overthrown by the slightest nuance that, confronted by the nuance, he’ll throw out the whole idea and say that the thing was never really there. Catholicism, meanwhile, especially in Thomism, has eschewed this way of thinking for centuries, and, far from being a black-and-white system beating people over the head with an invention, deploys a range of nuance and definition so varied as to be bewildering to some. Our idea of the afterlife comprises not just Heaven/Hell, but Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Limbo of the Unbaptised and the Limbo of the Patriarchs. A heretic could be a formal or a material heretic. A cause might be formal, material, efficient, or final. A sin can be mortal or venial. Baptism can be by water, by blood, or by desire. Ignorance can be vincible, invincible, culpable or inculpable. There are four temperaments, and all their combinations, together with upbringing, education, health, and opportunity, can make any number of personalities. A soul can be vegetative (a plant soul), sensitive (an animal soul) or human. And the will can be influenced not only by the intellective appetite, but by the concupiscible or the irascible appetites.
e) St Paul missed the memo about stark thinking when he wrote, “My own actions bewilder me…inwardly, I applaud God’s disposition, but I observe another disposition in my lower self which raises war against the disposition of my conscience.” Anyone who’s ever caught the scent of meat on a fast day knows that that is about! How does it work? The concupiscible appetite is the one that moves towards pleasurable goods. It’s the part of you wants the bacon. Of course it lights up your brain! It deals with the preservation of life (mostly food and sex) so it will always be the first part of you to move. Then your intellective appetite, the part that says, “Ah, yes, but I’m on a hunger strike to free Tibet/I’m a vegetarian/it’s Friday,” presents that knowledge to the will, and the battle begins. Whether you lunge for the bacon depends not on the existence or non-existence of your will, but on what you’ve done with the will you have. If you’re greedy and selfish, you might ignore Tibet and go for the bacon. But this can change, and every conversion story is the story of the will learning to pull away from the concupiscible appetite and towards the intellective appetite.
f) In case you’re curious, the irascible appetite is the one that goes for arduous goods. Those are the goods that are generally rewarding but take some effort to get. Your concupiscible appetite cries out for a hamburger, but you’d have to walk three blocks to get it. If your irascible and concupiscible appetites work well together, you’ll take the walk. If they don’t work together, you’ll call uber eats. And you’ll have awful trouble getting to Sunday Mass – not because of that horrible doctrine of free will, but because your concupiscible appetite, in the form of a giant sloth, is currently the ruler of your interior castle.
g) Nobody has recently discovered anything about free will. At best, they’ve confirmed things that we already taught. That’s hardly a reason to gloat or to tell the man who murdered a child in cold blood that he’s actually just as okay as the man whose car spun out of control on an icy road and hit someone. And for pity’s sake, don’t go and tell a trauma survivor that she can’t will anything, or that when Amanda Lindhout lay starving and bound in her rapist-captor’s cell, saying to herself, “I choose peace,” she wasn’t really choosing anything, or, if she was, it was only her socio-economic status plus some handy brain-chemicals making that choice for her.
h) The really odd thing is that none of this information is difficult to find. All it takes is functioning digits and Google. You don’t even have to be able to spell anymore – Google will do that for you. It makes you wonder why people don’t find this information before they make their pronouncements or publish their papers. That’s modern research, I guess.
Now please excuse me but I picked up some Marvel movies at an op-shop yesterday, and I have to go and drown in the eyes of Robert Downey Jr. Speaking of concupiscible appetite. Heh.