Freedom. Notes

Free will is the faculty dealing with superabundant goods.

If this is right, the Libet experiments were testing fishing equipment in the desert.

The will finds far more that can fulfill it in the world than it can possibly conform itself to. But it does not coin-flip to choose.

Freedom would be necessary if only to co-ordinate personal history, subconscious life, natural talent, providence.

The computer program seems to do what freedom does: consider the probabilities of possible outcomes and choose the highest or, if there are equiprobable outcomes, flip a coin as a tiebreaker. For us to acquire experience and choose on the basis of this experience, so the argument goes, is just to do sloppily and imperfectly what the computer does in its undistracted retrieval of probable outcomes.  But all this requires no freedom or even consciousness.

the Actual Euthyphro Dilemma

It’s impossible to read Euthyphro without being struck at how utterly off-track the Euthyphro dilemma is.  The dilemma arises in the process of Socrates investigating Euthyphro’s claim that “Piety is what the gods love”. Socrates takes this as the equivalent of “A thing is pious because the gods love it”, then questions how love can work that way, leading to the dilemma.

If you list of why a pet is lovable you get, say: fluffy, big eyes, well-trained, fun to be with, etc. No one lists “because I love them”, for the very good reason that this makes no sense. Love is a response to lovable qualities and not a cause of them.

One of the themes of Euthyphro, however, is Euthyphro’s inability to stay on a point. In a conversation that lasts less than an hour he cycles through no fewer than five different accounts of the topic under discussion, and appears completely powerless in the face of any challenge to what he believes. The “Euthyphro Dilemma” as it actually occurs in the dialogue is really just an aporetic tension of two conflicting beliefs:

1.) Something is lovable because the gods love it (or, conversely, something is evil because the gods hate it)

2.) Love is always a response to lovable qualities of an object.

While this suggests the modern Euthyphro dilemma it is a very different thing, if for no other reason than exceptions to #2 are suggested even by human loves. Loving others does have transformative power and is not just a passive response. Ideas become actual out of our dedication to them, and a whole slough of entities owe their existence to our care for them. Creation stands at the far limit of this – one sense of ex nihilo is to describe the character of the love at the basis of things as a cause and not a response.

But even if God qua creator has a love that is in no way responsive, given creation, i.e. considered hypothetically, the love is responsive. God’s unchangibility and pure actuality belong to him considered absolutely or so far as he is taken as relating to creation as ex nihilo, but taking creation as given is not to consider God in this way. Given creation, God’s love is both transformitive and responsive in such a way that it can both be taken as transforming evil and as responding to it, as elevating the imperfections of things and yet still working within the parameters of what is possible to the imperfect.

The divine debtor theory

The divine debtor theory of atonement is a variant on penal substitution without the horror of a vengeful god getting out his aggression by beating up Jesus.

The human race, though its renunciation of an aboriginal and necessary gift, is a failed project that now dies out in justice. Christ dies instead of human beings, not because human beings need not die, but because they no longer die to satisfy justice.*

Here comes the metaphor: if you owe me a fine and someone else pays it for you, then your giving me money is no longer something owed in justice but something that makes me your debtor.

Here’s the cash value of the metaphor: If death is no longer a punishment (i.e. a sort of good) then it is an evil that is incompatible with God’s existence and so must ultimately be done away with (the argument from evil is sound but simply fails to appreciate that the evils of the universe must be justified when its whole story is told). If the penalty has been paid then my death is an injustice for which God must make some ultimate remedy. The death of Christ is an act done in mercy that allows for the resurrection of the human race in justice.

*Except in the the sense that all unrepented actual sin can require death as a matter of justice. Those dying in such a state have special, extrinsic circumstances excluding them from the intrinsically universal scope of the redemptive act.

Hobbes 101

1.) Hobbes has both a philosophy of the person and of political relations. They are tightly connected and cross-justify each other, but if you only have time to learn one, learn the political philosophy, the success of which is much easier to see and much harder to contest.

2.) Human Equality. For us, human equality is a great point of pride and source of dignity. If all are equal, so we think, we can all be friends and no one has a right to exploit or subjugate anyone. Hobbes agrees with our vision of equality but sees it as much more problematic than we do.

Equality is the absence of greater and lesser, or of natural hierarchies. Bees and termites have natural hierarchies and so are not born equal. Human beings have nothing like this: some are born drones, others workers, others the queen. But government consists in hierarchy, and so human persons by nature have no government. We might have families and even small tribes with recognizable hierarchies, but nothing much beyond this.

3.) The State of War. The absence of hierarchy or rule gives everyone by nature the powers that a king has during war. While there are some limits even here, they are so broad and expansive as to be basically infinite. Kings in time of war do things that, for a citizen in a time of peace, would be called murder, fraud, kidnapping, unjust imprisonment. Notice the problem of what we usually take to be so ennobling and dignifying about free democracy: “Every man a king”.

4.) SPNBH. Every man a king, however, leaves us with an obvious lack of social stability. Contracts need not be honored, long-term planning and co-operation becomes largely a wasted effort, and no one can count on the sort of social mechanisms that are indispensable to have utilities, trade, stable institutions like universities, stores, road-building crews, engineering… In other words, anything recognizably social, ennobling, and beneficial to life disappears. By nature, in Hobbes’s lapidary conclusion, human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish. and short.

5.) The Solution. the political solution consists in man abandoning natural right or in having it taken from him. It is renounced birthright, and so a solution that is inherently unstable and even what a scholastic would call violent, i.e. contrary to a natural impulse.

Athanasius’s Argument from Evil

1.) The human race is a failed project. “If you eat it, you will die” was addressed to the whole race. He ate. In one of the darker points of agreement between faith and reason, theology and biology agree that the human race is just one more species waiting for its extinction event. This is why natural catastrophes and the madness of war (floods, genocides, sieges, earthquakes, and even our own sicknesses) foreshadow the unavoidable natural extinction event, and are interpreted by prophets as anticipations of it, in the way that peak moments in the firework show all make us wonder if we’re looking at the grand finale.

2.) But, says Athanasius, this leads to a divine dilemma:

a.) Dishonor of an image dishonors the model, but man is the image of God. The fall is not just a human catastrophe but a divine dishonor.

b.) If we can do something to help a loved one but do not do so, this is usually understood as making us either unable to help or just negligent. It “argues for limitation” as Athanasius puts it.

c.) Everyone is a natural enemy of what is opposed to its nature and mission, but the corruption of the logos in man is opposed to the nature of the incorruptible Logos and its mission to give this to human persons.

3.) But all of these concede the key premises of the Argument from Evil, the only difference being that Athanasius sees evil as occurring within a historical project that takes the extinction of the human race and its many anticipations as given, and yet as allowing for a double value. Death and the evil that anticipates it are both paths on a historical arc to a pointless annihilation and ways to become conformed to the image of the incorruptible God. This historical arc toward incorruptible existence does not negate but completely presupposes death and extinction and is impossible without it.

4.) Evil is thus an ontological grue-bleen. To turn it into an argument from evil is to see evil as ahistorical and not part of a larger story of fall and recreation, one where our being “like all other species” is presupposed. This likeness to all other species is, though the Incarnation, a means by which the corrupted logos of the human person can be conformed to the image of the incorruptible logos of the Son.


-No one is more capable than a security guard of robbing a place blind, but for all that robbing a place blind is not only outside the job description of a security guard but is completely contrary to what he is. This is the way in which a free will is capable of committing evil.

-The Free will defense is poorly named. No only can God generate a free will that cannot sin, he’s actually done so. This is the procession of the Son from the Father. The free will defense is really the creation defense, though even then it is poorly named since, again, creation can only sin in the way that security guards can rob a place blind.

-Free will – choice – ultimately rests on the fecundity of goods.

-Choice ultimately rests on the reality of possibility.

-Poe tries to pull art out of the domain of intuition and possibility by giving a sort of logos of how he came up with The Raven. It falls somewhere on a continuum between fanciful and silly.

The critique of contemporary conservativism.

While I don’t think it’s fair or even rational, I expect most of those reading this are familiar with critiques of the contemporary popular Left. In the interest of balance I’ll give the critique of the contemporary popular Right.

1.) The Women and Children First Axiom. Since the Sixties Left and Right have fallen into Mommy and Daddy archetypes.  This is fine and perhaps even salutary so far as one makes them co-equal originators of policy, but the whole point of the party system is to force the choice of one option to the exclusion of the other. If that’s the situation you force on persons, everyone picks Mom. Even Dad (cf. the sinking ship/ lifeboat problem).

2.) The Vacuity of “Big Government”. Big is meaningless apart from a judgment of what is appropriate or, in this case, just. Being against big government is therefore being against a government that is larger than is appropriate or just which is, of course, something everyone from Mussolini to Ayn Rand is against. The claim has no more content than that the government ought not to do what it ought not to do. Attempts on the popular Right to actually delineate, even vaguely, the appropriate reach of government fall somewhere on a continuum from politically impossible to the ridiculous. One can make a very good case for limited government by arguing for strict constitutionalism, but the popular conservative movement has never succeeded in doing this. Even the high-water mark of the Reagan presidency failed (in the formidable judgment of its definitive biographer) to be a constitutional movement.

3.) The Deregulation Paradox.  We deregulate out of a desire to stimulate competition, produce new entrepreneurial  initiative, facilitate creative destruction, and do all that other Adam Smith stuff. What we find is that it ends up creating monopolies from Standard Oil to Goldman Sachs who are capable of writing laws for their own advantage so as to crush competition, make all new initiative pointless, ensure that creative destruction will never occur, and open the door to all that Karl Marx stuff.

4.) The Questionable Re-Framing of Moral Problems. Many are conservative because it is the only way for them to be pro-life, pro-monogamy, etc. Leaving aside the vast swaths of agreement between Left and Right on most issues of chastity and sexual justice, the Right will still only allow for moral questions to be framed in a Right-appropropriate way, and it is not clear that this is the most appropriate way to frame them. To take the most significant issue, the Right treats abortion as a individual-rights problem, as though the baby is most analogous to Dred Scott. But there is something absurd in looking at an unborn child in this way, as though the point of ending abortion was to leave the child to its own wits as a free and independent citizen. His absolute dependence is obvious and unavoidable, the only question is whether there is some bond of justice and charity that demands that the bond be maintained. The Right’s tendency to be suspicious of personal dependence occludes something essential in the morality of abortion.

Choice and possibility

Some card games are determined from the moment of the shuffle: War or Garbage or Solitaire can’t be improved by skill. The only skill consists in avoiding mistakes. Program the results of the shuffle into a computer and you can know whether you’ll win before you even start to play, leaving aside sheer ignorance.

Other card games can be improved by skill, though this seems to consist in something that can be done by mechanical calculation. Hold ’em or fold ’em is a matter of guessing the odds. Here too there is not really contingency, only ignorance. Your chances of winning are set from the shuffle, and deviate only from the ignorance of the players.

We can carve out some sense of how skill improves the game, but no sense in which awareness of alternatives makes a difference. If awareness of alternatives makes no difference, then choice makes no difference. In fact, card games do not involve alternatives but only ignorance. Where we can’t tell which of several possibilities is best, we essentially flip a coin in our head, which is exactly what a computer would do in the face of equiprobable alternatives.

But it is doubtful that all human actions can be captured by this sort of analysis. The choice involved in producing an artwork, invention, story, etc. is not generally like this. No obvious sense suggests itself for the choice to paint the The Fall of Icarus or to write the Summa Theologiae. Maybe it is just a matter of the relevant card game being too complex, and if we knew all the possibilities we would see there were no alternatives but only algorithms acting in the face of data and ignorance. But it’s very difficult to see the possibilities of creativity and scholarship being given in that way. If there is a reservoir of such possibilities it would be intuitive and subconscious, and we can’t make sense of a mechanical subconscious. How would one write the code for it? In subtext? To make all things algorithmic is to reject all that is not by nature distinct and explicit, and so to see there as being no reservoir of possibility at all.

The rejection of alternatives thus involves a rejection of real possibility. Possibility is replaced with temporal passage and ignorance. Time allows a single grove for anything to follow, and an unstoppable progression of time, making everything impossible at the times before or after it exists and necessary while it exists. Possibility has no space in which to exist.

to culture

After laying out the natural causes of religion, Hobbes note that they are “made different by culture”. For us, this is a quasi-substance but for Hobbes it is an action – think “agriculture” or the cultures of Petri dishes. Culture is to culture, i.e. to tend to something so as to draw out possibilities that either cannot develop at all or develop well without extrinsic aid. This extrinsic aid is the political order acting by law, which is an extrinsic source of action.

Any notion of culture thus has to be sensitive to both the varieties and the uniformities in the species. As to varieties, culturing German Shepards is a very different program from culturing St. Bernards; popcorn isn’t raised by the same program as sweet corn; dairy and beef cattle follow different regimentations, etc. We can expect something like this to be true of persons too. But what counts as a variety and a uniformity is itself the fundamental political question, and one to which we give conflicting answers – perhaps because these are the only sorts of answer that can be given.

“Seeing things before they happen”

A: …but he wouldn’t be God unless he saw things before they happened.

B: Being God doesn’t consist in doing nonsense, and it is nonsense to see something before it happens. It’s as silly as seeing it after it happens. One can read records or watch recordings, but you can’t read them before you read them. The seer and the seen must be together in one act, and so must be together at once.

A: So God has no idea of the future?

B: I wouldn’t say that – he knows that we speak of something called the future and he knows our opinions about it have no truth value, since the only way we could know it would be to know it before it happened. And I’ve just explained why that makes no sense.

A: Let me re-phrase. Call this moment m1. and this moment m2. Did God know the second at the first?

B: I can give you a yes-no answer if you answer one question: does being at one of those moments preclude you from being at the other?

A: Of course.

B: then no.

A: So you admit God is ignorant.

B: How so?

A: Because he didn’t know m2 at m1.

B: No, I said if your idea of “being at” one of those precludes being at the other, then he was not at the first, but we can give the same reason for why he is not at the second either. God only exists where he acts, and he does not exist at times in the way you are describing.

A: Fine. He exists at all times.

B: Not if this is the same excluding “at” that you were working from before. Mathematical things somehow exist at all times too, but I wouldn’t say that they are as old as the universe, or that they are five minutes older than they were five minutes ago.

A: That’s interesting. If a mathematical theorem could know itself, and it knew time, it could know it would be true in the future. In this sense it would know the future, but not by being in time.

B: Maybe God is the self-knowing theorem of the universe then.

A: This sounds like pantheism.

B: I suppose it could be, but a self-knowing theorem is pretty obviously not anything that looks like a universe to me.

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