Misconceiving free will as imperfect freedom

Two experiences of freedom: Take “freedom” as the sense that the outcome of our actions is up to us and could be otherwise.

First, consider the feeling we get from standing in front of a set of options about something important and feeling that we could go either way and are without decisive reason(s) for choosing one path over the other. In such a condition, any need to decide is a cause of anxiety, and any analysis of the options comes to be experienced in the same way. Freedom in this sense is obviously no perfection. It is a dread that we beg and pray to be delivered from, and much of the edifice of religion is dedicated to removing it (from auguries to oracles to vocation discernment retreats). Any secular replacement for religion has to provide therapy for sort of freedom (punditry, gurus, appeals to “the latest scientific findings”). Growth in prudence is concomitant with minimizing this this sort of anxiety in the face of the contingent. Not only is such freedom not found in God but wisdom is more godlike to the extent that it is free of it. As someone who spends his whole professional life with students making decisions about their future I have to deal with this imperfect freedom daily.

Second, there is a freedom that we spend all of our pre-adult life trying to attain and much of our adult life trying to exercise, sc. to do what we enjoy or what we know we ought to do without the leave of others. This freedom is what we do if all onerous needs of the body and other obligations are taken care of. We experience it as children in amusements and parties but the experience matures into the exercise of talents or of the self-expression that consists in doing what we were made to do. Freedom in this sense is most of all characteristic of God and is the highest sort of perfection. Freedom in this sense “could be otherwise” because we recognize that we could be ignorant or fail to actualize the harmony between what is and what ought to be, or at least because recognize that this sort of freedom will manifest itself in ways that are different from our own.

Imagining free will as the ability to choose between alternative mistakes freedom (1) with freedom (2). Indeterminancy is a sort of ignorance, anxiety and dread that, by definition, is “resolved” by departure from reason – by coin flips or a blind “I guess so?” assertion of will. Placing God in front of these alternatives – in front of “possible worlds” in the sense of the condemnations of 1277 or Leibniz or Analytic philosophy – is to start from a misconception that will poison everything. It’s the equivalent of making God a dithering teenager on a vocation-discernment retreat or a scrupler wondering if she should go to communion.

Freedom (2) is largely uninterested and even non-cognizant of alternatives and cares only for the harmony of essence and self in operation, or of those parts of us that are ennobling and given with those that are in our control. We establish the maximal freedom (2) in God by the proofs of the identity of his essence and self.



  1. June 20, 2016 at 9:18 am

    What condemnations are you referring to when you write “Placing God in front of these alternatives – in front of “possible worlds” in the sense of the condemnations of 1277…”? I did a quick search and I can find not one of the 219 propositions condemned in 1277 to include anything about God’s freedom [see: http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf%5D. In fact, doesn’t God’s having freedom to create the world, rather than it’s being entailed by his nature, follow from such statements as this one:

    “It is not surprising that novelties of this kind have already borne their deadly fruit in almost all branches of theology. It is now doubted that human reason, without divine revelation and the help of divine grace, can, by arguments drawn from the created universe, prove the existence of a personal God; it is denied that the world had a beginning; it is argued that the creation of the world is necessary, since it proceeds from the necessary liberality of divine love; it is denied that God has eternal and infallible foreknowledge of the free actions of men – all this in contradiction to the decrees of the Vatican Council.[5]”
    ~Humani Generis, paragraph 25 [http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html]

    It seems to me that it does. Am I just missing something here? Thoughts?

    • June 20, 2016 at 10:18 am

      I was thinking about paragraph 34 that condemns the impossibility of multiple worlds. The point of the sentence in the OP was not to condemn the condemnations but to gesture in the direction of the many different ideas of “many worlds” in relation to divine power.

      The quotation you give from HG is fine, but for my own part I’d argue that it is a misstep to say that creation is not necessary and therefore possible. “Freedom” even for us is most of all harmony of self and essence, not an actualization in the face of incompossible alternatives. For us, the essential is always necessary since the essential is unconscious or subconscious, and so there is always a real division between essence and self activity in us that makes what arises from essence “necessary”, i.e. out of our control. But this is exactly the sort of ontological division that is overcome in divine existence. Te divine freedom is therefore immediately grounded in the simplicity of self and essence.

      • June 20, 2016 at 2:13 pm

        I’m afraid I remain confused at your choice of words. You characterized the first kind of freedom as being one in which “we could go either way and are without decisive reason(s) for choosing one path over the other.” However, if God has decisive reasons for choosing to create rather than not then it seems that either (i) God must create a world (i.e., at least one), or (ii) God isn’t obliged to choose the better of two options. The first, however, is explicitly denied by Catholic teaching. If God did create, but needn’t have, then either (ii) or God chose to create with a freedom of the libertarian sort hinted at in your first characterization of freedom. Am I missing something here?

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