JOST on conceptual problems in divine free will

Difficulties Concerning God’s Free Action 

Although the truth of God’s free choice is firmly established by both faith and natural reason, it is contradicted strenuously by difficulties which human discourse can scarcely extricate itself from.

The difficulties reduce to three heads:

1.) From indifference. This aspect of freedom seems incompatible with divinity, though liberty cannot exist without it. Power or will is signified as a principle that in the very being of the act can either perform or not perform an action and so would have to lack a positive perfection that would be a divine perfection, e.g. he might not will to save a Jew whom he could have willed to save. Willing is signified as an act cannot have an indifference with respect to being elicited or non-elicited by a power since it is not an act exercised by a power, as it is in us – God being pure act in second act. But to apply oneself to act or not there is not an indifference in an act exercised by a power.

2.) From Immutability. This characterizes God and his acts in every way, so the liberty that can turn itself to either of two options does not seem like it can belong to him. If, however, immutability belonged to his act, along with a mutability in our thought of his action relative to an object, it is not clear why God could not will something that he did not will previously in time, sinc e this would not require a real change, but only one in our ideas of his action.

3.) From the Motive. That is, from the thing that is needed to determine the will to the very thing that is willed. It is not clear by what God’s will can be determined or why it would more incline to one thing as opposed to another. The will, after all, is not determined as a potency, since, Goven that God comprehends all things, his intellect does not propose some motive for willing or not willing the world that is actually established. Still, it is certain that if God had not willed to produce the world, there would be no motive influential enough to make him do so. So how can he be moved to one thing rather than another when all motives for acting or not acting are equal, such that, whatever happened, would be fitting?

Various Opinions

I would submit that all that thought with the mind of the Church and in a sane manner about divine liberty understood that divine liberty could not be placed in God as it is in us, sc. by the multiplication of acts exercised by the will or by its non-exercise. Our will, to be sure, consists in initiating or witholding an act, but this is not so with the divine liberty, since it is pure act, the last act of willing, unified, multiform while ruling out division, and nothing less than the absolute essence of God. We do not explain divine freedom as the exercise or retention of an act from a power of will but as one and the same act as relating to and connoting a created object, as a power actively indifferent and either actively joining an object to itself or not, not as passively receiving or having the perfection of act from the object, though, when it is given in act, it is not in its power to either relate or not relate to the object. Because some heretics cannot elevate their mind to understand another mode of liberty not exercised as it is by us, they deny a real liberty in God…


Gospel, philosophically.

Finite goods, by definition, can’t give an everlasting and complete rest to the will, so either (a) we have to love finite goods for the sake of something that can give such rest or (b) we have to renounce the hope of such a thing.

Only the infinite is other than the finite, but knowing there is an infinite good does not of itself assure us that it will share itself with us. So on option (a) all the finite goods of one’s life are directed to an infinite-good-sharing-itself. To believe that there is such a thing is faith; to trust in its action is hope; and our friendship of union with it is love. 

Option (b) is any act that rejects that one can orient one’s life to an infinite-good-sharing-itself, which is mortal sin. 

Rationalism and the object of intuition

Rationalists revived the Ontological Argument, but one interpretation of their thought always threatened to undermine it while another promised to put it on a new foundation. The first interpretation was that the object of the intellect was the possible.

Late German Rationalism defined the object of the intellect as the possible as possible since the object of the intellect is anything that falls under the principle of contradiction and so is anything not impossible, i.e. the possible. The possible thus became a first principle to account for the generation of the world from rational principles.

This was a possible interpretation of Rationalism even in Descartes, who starts by making the exterior world an object of doubt and therefore could be interpreted as saying that the objects of the intellect have to be taken first as things that may or may not exist: again, as possible.

But since describing something as existent isn’t a way of talking about it as possible, if the object of the intellect is the possible as possible, existence can’t belong to the concept of anything. Regardless of what role we see existence as playing in ontology, it can’t be seen as part of anything’s concept and so the Ontological Argument clearly fails.

But even that last conclusion is too narrow: if existence cannot be part of the concept of something then, to translate this Scholastically then nothing can be known to exist per se and first, nor per essentiam to which all else might exist per participationem. And so both Ontological Arguments and Cosmological arguments will be unsound. While one could express this by saying that the Cosmological argument depended on the Ontological one, it would be truer to say that if the object of the intellect is the possible as such then all arguments for the God of classical theism fall for the same reason.

In watching Descartes start this tradition, however, it’s clear that he had nothing like this in mind. We can read him as saying that the exterior world can only be initially given as possible, but he explicitly rejects the idea that the exterior world is what the human intellect is primarily ordered to knowing. This is the whole point of the piece of wax example, which is itself only a development of what is implicit in the cogito. The object of the intellect is just what the intellect is ordered to knowing, and this is not, Descartes argues, particular things like This piece of wax I might wave in your face and press with my fingers, but an invariant realities like “wax” as substance or my self as invariant object of thought. Things thus become objects of intellect qua invariant, meaning a maximally eternal and incomposite substance will be most of all what the intellect knows. While Descartes initially gets bogged down in Scholastic jargon in an attempts to prove there is a God, the better argument is the one he gives later: in thinking of God I see he is the eternal and simple reality, and so he must exist.

Assume you had a proof that the the object of the ears was what could cause pressure waves in fluids. It follows that if I am hearing what is most hearable, there is a pressure wave in a fluid. Descartes, however, is satisfied that he’s proven the object of the intellect is invariant substance. So it follows that if Descartes is intellecting an the most invariant substance that there must be such a thing. Again, assume that (a) eyes see color and (b) that X’s color is more evident than anything else. It would follow that in having X as an object of sight it would be impossible for there to be a clearer and more distinct experience of color. For the same reason, on Descartes’s assumptions it is impossible for there to be a clearer and more distinct awareness of an invariant substance than in having God as an object of the intellect.

In other words, Descartes agrees with the Late Franciscan scholastic tradition that intuition of a proper object is of something existent, but he denies that sense objects need to exist, and so he denies that they can be properly intuited objects. Rather, direct intellectual intuition, as with the cogito, is of invariant realities, and so the maximally invariant reality is maximally the object of intuition, and so is most of all known to exist.

Malebranche can be read as making this Cartesian line of reasoning more explicit, though it is structurally a part of Leibniz’s system too, who doesn’t seem to peg intellect to possibility but to perfection, since his ontology is essentially a development of the ways in which htings fall away from maximal perfection.

St. Augustine’s “venia” argument

One of Augustine’s main theses in De bono coniugali is that sex between married persons for reasons other than begetting children involves venial sin. Here’s his argument:

[T]he Apostle allows marriage as matter of pardon (venia): for who can doubt that it is extremely absurd to say, that they have not sinned, unto whom pardon (venia) is granted. But he allows, as matter of pardon (venia), that sexual intercourse, which takes place through incontinence, not alone for the begetting of children, and, at times, not at all for the begetting of children; and it is not that marriage forces this to take place, but that it procures pardon for it; provided however it be not so in excess as to hinder what ought to be set aside as seasons of prayer, nor be changed into that use which is against nature, on which the Apostle could not be silent, when speaking of the excessive corruptions of unclean and impious men. For necessary sexual intercourse for begetting is free from blame, and itself is alone worthy of marriage. But that which goes beyond this necessity, no longer follows reason, but lust. And yet it pertains to the character of marriage, not to exact this, but to yield it to the partner, lest by fornication the other sin damnably. But, if both are set under such lust, they do what is plainly not matter of marriage. However, if in their intercourse they love what is honest more than what is dishonest, that is, what is matter of marriage more than what is not matter of marriage, this is allowed to them on the authority of the Apostle as matter of pardon: and for this fault, they have in their marriage, not what sets them on to commit it, but what entreats pardon for it, if they turn not away from them the mercy of God, either by not abstaining on certain days, that they may be free to pray, and through this abstinence, as through fasting, may commend their prayers; or by changing the natural use into that which is against nature, which is more damnable when it is done in the case of husband or wife.

The whole argument turns on what was, for Augustine, the Latin translation of the greek συγγνώμη as venia in Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians. 7 : 6, where Paul is responding to a question the Corinthians posed him:

Concerning your question [whether]: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

Since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession (for Augustine – secundum veniam), not as a command.

Augustine spotlights venia and builds a theory of sexual morality on it. As Augustine reads the text, the word venia in line 6 describes Paul’s teaching on sex in v. 1-5, and things are venia ] when they are pardonable (which is why the term was transliterated into English as venial). If we reconstruct Augustine’s line of thought, it seems to be something like this:

1.) Paul describes sex as “pardonable” or “a matter of pardon” (secundum veniam.) 

2.) Only sinful things need to be pardoned.

3.) Since perpetuating the species can’t be sinful, Paul must be talking about sex other than this.

4.) So sex other than for what preserves the species is sinful.

I’ll put my response in terms of pro and con:


1.) As usual, Augustine’s argument is a firmly rooted development of the sacra pagina. 

2.) Augustine argues for a radiantly clear sexual ethic, leaving no doubt over what is sinful and what isn’t.

3.) Augustine can explain why Paul allows marriage but does not see it as ideal, sc. it is not ideal because it often or usually involves something sinful but pardonable.

3.) Augustine’s ethic has explanatory power in other areas of theology. For example, it explains Christ’s eschatological claim that the resurrected neither marry nor are given in marriage. Since on Augustine’s theory reproduction alone saves sex from being sinful, and neither sin nor the need to reproduce belongs to those with eternal life, we can see exactly why Christ would say what he says.


1.) The whole argument turns on the word venia in Paul, but venia does not appear in the present critical translations into the Vulgate, being replaced with indulgentia

2.) Even on the venia reading, it does not have to mean pardonablePermissible and without offence are also both possible readings. No one seems to follow Augustine’s interpretation.

3.)  Given that Paul’s claim is that he is not commanding but venia, one would expect Paul to be saying that sexual activity is permissible but not required. If Paul has just given a long argument for the power of sexual urges and the need for an outlet, one would expect he would want to clarify that he was not saying they were so powerful as to require everyone to have such an outlet.

4.) In the verse following venia Paul says that he would wish that all be celibates, but that “each has his own gift from God”. This “gift” language suggests the gifts Paul will speak of later in Chapter 12 of this same letter, which are not gifts that make a difference between what is sinful or not but are special charisms among those within the mystical body that allow for different services within the church. Celibacy is thus analogous to miracles or prophesy or (miraculous) speaking in foreign languages, and so the absence of celibacy is no more “pardonable because sinful” than is the absence of the ability to do miracles or prophesy. When Augustine divides marital sexual activity from celibacy as the sinful from the non-sinful he misses an opportunity to tie Paul’s teaching on sexuality into his larger teaching on gifts in 1 Corinthians, meaning that Augustine is not just misunderstanding the moral status of sexual activity but also the way in which celibacy is a special charism that builds up the Church.

5.) As soon as one recognizes that Paul is responding to a question directly posed to him by the Corinthians (and there is a long history of theologians failing to recognize this about 1 Cor. 7) Augustine’s interpretation of Paul’s mind becomes strained to the point of being bizarre. On A’s account, the Corinthians are supposedly supposed to infer the moral necessity of reproduction simply from a single ambiguous word, despite such necessity being nowhere mentioned.

If Paul had Augustine’s reproduction account of sexuality in mind, we’d need an account of why Paul failed to give it and chose instead to insinuate it by a maximally-esoteric single-word allusion. But what then? Here’s what: we’d have an account not mentioned by Paul, invoked to explain something that Paul didn’t mention. Epicycles on epicycles.






CNS knowledge and its other

Let any finite structure giving rise to knowledge be called a central nervous system (CNS). If a cognitive power has any structure at all it can only detect some defined class of objects to the exclusion of all other possible ones, i.e. to make an ear means making something that doesn’t taste. It follows that (CNS) makes an umwelt, i.e. a world mixing objective factors and the subjective condition of the organism. As Von Uexkull explained, the cow relates to the flower as food, the insect as a water source, the bee as a cache of nectar. Each CNS takes in the same object, inflected and filtered through a cognitive structure serving animals of different sizes, needs, etc. The interpenetration of these two factors makes for the proper object of a CNS.

But that whole last paragraph presupposed we had knowledge of “an object” (or, in the example, of “a flower”) common to any umwelt. More importantly, any object qua objective – again, like our idea of “flower” – is not treated as part of an umwelt and and so cannot be given by a CNS as such. Aristotle called this ~CNS power nous; STA called it intellectus.

The axiom omne cognitum in cognoscente secundum modum cognoscenti has a different sense for CNS knowledge and ~CNS knowledge. In CNS knowledge the modum cognoscendi enters into the cognitum: whether water is freezing or comfortable depends on what sort of animal one is, as does whether the hunting vest is the same color as the leaves or not. Berkeley made a whole career out of these sorts of arguments, though he put them to a different purpose. But noting the different relations that CNS’s have to an object requires an object that lacks such relativity, and so can only be given in ~CNS knowledge.

STA claimed that we couldn’t have quidditative knowledge of ~CNS objects, but only of what was given to a CSN concretely (which made for natural science) or in the state of abstraction as such (which is, in different ways, either logic or mathematics). This doesn’t mean that CSN objects suffice to account for natural science or math: neither could be sciences without some sense of objects, reality, truth, and no object of science can be viewed as peculiar to a human umwelt. That said, the knowledge we have of objects outside this domain is non-quidditative and only graspable by causal inference from the sensible world, comparison to it, or negation of it – which is exactly how we’ve understood ~CNS knowledge here.

While CNS knowledge is an umwelt formed by the interpenetration of world and organism, human knowledge is formed by the interpenetration of CNS knowledge and ~CNS knowledge. In keeping with what was just said in the last paragraph, the common word “interpenetration” does not have a single meaning, even if it speaks to a coalescing of act and potency (which are themselves said with analogous meanings).

The object of the CNS clearly interpenetrates the organ on the common level of the physical. The organ must be physically assembled before detecting objects. It’s just this common physical existence that makes the umwelt. The sheer objectivity of the ~CNS makes its existence independent of demands for physical interpenetration and so it can have any relation to physical reality. ~CNS knowledge allows for a sort of activity that could generate the physical as such.


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