For Fr. Kimel

Fr. Kimel asked me to explain why St. Thomas’s account of predestination is not a sort of determinism, and he sent a link to a post where he gives a presentation of the theories of several contemporary Thomists on how divine action allows for human freedom.

The Thomists that Fr. Kimel quotes do a good job at presenting St. Thomas’s ideas. All I can do is try to present the problem a little more systematically, and with an eye to putting it on what I think is its ultimate foundation. I take the main problem to be this: how can one and the same action be both by oneself and by another? In Part I I’ll give an account of human freedom itself, in Part II I’ll give two reasons why STA thought that any natural action had to be understood as both done by itself and by another.

Part I

For the Thomist, freedom is self-action with respect to contingent being. Since every contingent thing is somehow incomplete or imperfect, God is free with respect to creation but not with respect to his own existence while human beings are free with respect to both. Human freedom not only actualizes various contingencies in the world but in the human person himself, making him either good or evil. This is why human freedom needs to be regulated by prudence, that is, by the habitual practice of using freedom so as to actualize the contingencies of oneself well. But if  (A) the human person himself, in the very exercise of freedom is indeterminate in this way, and (B) every indeterminate existence is a way of depending on a determined one, then the human person in the exercise of his own freedom is a way of depending on something other than itself.

Premise (B) is clearly doing most of the work of the argument, and it has a fishy Scholastic smell about it, but it’s the beating heart of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics – the ontological and logical priority of act. Temporal or historical order differs from ontological and logical order because, in the latter, the perfect exists first. It follows from this that to notice any contingency at all commits one to an ontologically and logically prior entity which will feature in a causal account of what the contingent thing is doing and why it exists at all, and the reality of prudence speaks to just such a contingency in the human person.

Part II

But again, how can the person be self-determining and yet determined by another? Aren’t “by oneself” and “by another” as opposite as straight and curved? I’ll make two claims (A) the difference between acting by oneself and by another admits of a tertium quid, namely to act by a gift. (B) A universal cause, and the effect that proceeds from it, are each in their different ways a tertium quid.

(A) Consider three scenarios of someone shoveling snow off a driveway:

1.) Mary shovels snow off her driveway with her own tractor.

2.) Mary had John shovel off her driveway with his own tractor.

3.) Mary borrowed John’s tractor and cleared her own driveway.

Now assume you asked Mary “Hey, great job clearing off all that snow, did you do it yourself?” In scenario (1), she’d give an unqualified ‘yes’; in scenario (2) she’d give an unqualified ‘no’; but in scenario (3) she couldn’t say simply yes or no. When we act by something borrowed, or by a gift, our action is not completely from ourselves or from another; and so in the measure that we see our existence and action as a divine gift, there will be a similar bivalence. This is why St. Thomas defines “nature” as an aspect or piece of the divine art (ratio divinae artis) that is given to things (indita rebus) so that they might act for themselves. By making nature essentially something given or borrowed, it takes on this bivalent ontological status that its actions are both by itself and from another.

(B) The physical cosmos of STA was dominated by universal causes. He thought that the sun and the stars were such causes and that they governed and united all the reality of the sublunar realm. This was all false, and so St. Thomas can now no longer point to divine causality as analogous to the causality that holds the universe together, and this will leave many of his claims about God’s action without valuable analogues in experience. But there are still clear cases of universal causality, like the way a choice can cause a some physical event or (on a realist understanding of natural laws) the way the law of gravity causes something to fall. Say I choose to drive a nail into a board. In order to do this, the hammer has to act on the nail just as much as the nail acts on the hammer. Hammer and nail make a single causal system, of which both are parts. But the choice to pound the nail doesn’t interact with the hammer. You can change the action of the hammer by grabbing it, or simply by forgetting where you put it, but this doesn’t change the choice to pound anything. The same is true if we are realists about causal laws. If I fall off a building the law of gravity is causing a very significant change in my own life, but my falling isn’t changing anything about the law of gravity. It remains the same equation that it ever was.

In other words, the crucial note of a universal cause is that it effects results without interacting with them. Now in one sense this makes the result entirely dependent on a universal cause. Pounding a nail can be viewed as nothing other than my choice to pound it; a falling object can be viewed as nothing other than a particular value for the universal law. But there is another sense in which this non-interaction gives rise to a total independence of the effect, for if the universal cause is not a part of a causal system including the effect, then the effect itself is a whole when considered apart from the universal cause. So here again we find a bivalent existence of action by self and action by another.



  1. Roland said,

    March 3, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Could you share the link to the original post from Fr. Kimel?

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