Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Lo! That Smiling Sky, and This Unsounded Sea": Reason and Free Will in the Psychology of Aquinas


I was impressed—after two or three hours of hard reading—to find this argument against crazy old Ahab in the seventh chapter of my book on Aquinas’s theology of human nature:

Consider a case where I am taken hostage and forcibly dragged along as a human shield. Here it is clearly not the case that I contribute nothing to the action—I contribute the shield. What can be said is that my desires do not concur in the action. As the Treatise puts it, “we call that violent which is contrary to the inclination of a thing” (82.1c). Aquinas seems to have improved on Aristotle in this regard.

Aquinas believes, as we have seen, that everything acts for an end. It does not straightaway follow that he believes everything has some appetite. What needs to be asserted, in addition, is that everything acts naturally for an end. The world might be such that this is not the case. We might imagine that some things have no natural ends of their own to pursue, and that they act only when forced to act. More radically, we might imagine that everything in nature works this way, and that God, or some cosmic puppeteer, moves objects when he sees fit. This is not the role Aquinas gives to God. Aquinas’ God is not a control freak; he delegates causal authority, giving his creatures the capacity to pursue their appropriate end. In the case of natural agents, those ends are specified by God, but nevertheless God gives his creatures their own internal means of achieving those ends. “Everything that comes from God takes on some nature that directs it toward an ultimate end. So natural appetite must be found in all creatures that have an end” (III SENT 27.1.2c). Acting naturally toward some end requires having an inclination toward that end. Such inclinations are what Aquinas calls appetites.

As Pasnau will go on to show, while the actions of plants and non-rational creatures are guided by internal mechanisms which give them only a limited amount of free will—when sheep are being pursued by a wolf, their instinctive reaction is to turn and run—humans are given a much broader scope for determining their choices. Our decisions are made, not by something outside, but by something within us. Thus (as Zoellner and Dr. Herbert have both pointed out), Ahab’s analogies in the famous “Symphony” passage are deliberately designed to undermine the point they ostensibly make:

But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I? By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Ahab confuses not only natural objects, but also rational with non-rational creatures, to his own damnation. I want to see if I can break down the complexity of Pasnau’s broader argument in Chapter 7—I would love to have a proper understanding of desire and freedom. This is the sort of learning you carry with you forever.

7.1 Natural Appetite

“Of the human soul’s various capacities, only two—intellect and will—distinguish us as human.” According to John Damascene (and by extension Aquinas), we are made in the image of God by virtue of being “intellectual, free in our decisions, and capable on our own.” (I would question the omission of love from this list, but I suppose love of the kind God desires is only really possible for someone who possesses those three qualities). Freedom and capability both depend on the capacity of will.

What we call “the will” is really the rational appetite: it is an appetitive power guided by reason. (As we know from Thomas Aquinas and the Passions, an appetite is what gives us a certain inclination towards something—for example, a stone is inclined to fall down; it is drawn to the earth). However, “in our case these inclinations come in the form of desires,” which a stone has not. “So the will operates, producing desires, and these desires in turn lead to action on the part of our mind or body.” The will produces inclination, which leads some further agent—the soul’s power of motion—to produce movement to that end. As Aquinas writes, “Every animal that moves does so in order to pursue something desired and intended.”

The assertion that all things have appetite “is an indirect consequence of Aquinas’s teleological view that every agent—that is, anything that does anything—acts for an end… Fire spreads, ice makes things cold, the mind thinks. Objects do not produce random effects, but are inclined in certain specific directions.” Of course, an agent may act towards an end without possessing any cognitive sense of that end. Some things direct themselves towards an end (humans, for example, and animals to a lesser extent), and others are directed towards their end by something else, in two different ways: one, “only by being forced and moved by that which directs them,” or else through an “internal principle,” such as fire, which is “inclined by its form toward… generating that which is like it” (80.1c).

7.2 Voluntary Agents

However, if all desires were strictly natural, animals would be greatly inhibited in the range of their choices. This is why they have also been given a second, more complex kind of appetite: animal or sensory appetite. Cognition supplies information, which provides the capacity for appetites of wider scope. “The external senses, memory, and the estimative power all contribute to shaping animal appetite. Indeed, the central purpose of the various sensory capacities is to ensure that animals are motivated in the necessary ways. For ‘the movement and action of an animal follow apprehension’ (78.4c).”

Aquinas then argues that the animal appetite is a special capacity of the soul, not merely an extension of animal cognition. “The appetites possessed by our cognitive powers are natural appetites, and as a result they are characteristically limited in scope. Sight, for example, has an inclination for seeing. Animal appetite, in contrast, is something over and above these various natural appetites. It is animal appetite that looks out for the needs of the whole organism: at this level an animal desires a thing ‘not because it is appropriate to the act of this or that capacity,… but because it is appropriate to the animal as a whole [simpliciter]’ (80.1 ad 3). Animal appetite is what translates sensory information about the environment into an inclination based on what is appropriate to an organism of that kind.” (For example, “Whereas plants move themselves toward a predetermined end, animals are capable of determining their own end, by taking in information from the surrounding environment”). “This is something over and above the cognitive capacities.”

Then Pasnau makes the crucial point: “This capacity to be aware of the environment, hence to grasp the possibility of acting for one end or another, gives animals a partial claim on being voluntary agents”:

Positioned halfway between natural… and rational appetite (the human will), animal appetite puts its possessors in a murky gray area between freedom and necessity, responsibility and determinism. As we will see, Aquinas believes that animals are voluntary agents, but not fully voluntary. They take part somewhat in freedom, and are capable of making decisions, but they are not capable of making free decisions. By examining the capacities and limitations of this animal appetite, we can better come to understand what makes human beings free and responsible agents.

Animals may possess a sense of their environment, for example, but cannot apprehend the character of the things they desire, nor the relationship between means and ends. As a consequence, animals lack the deliberative faculty inherent in humans, and, because they are incapable of deliberation, “are not voluntary agents in the fullest sense.” Deliberation requires reason and “the capacity to grasp universal concepts”; hence only rational creatures can be fully voluntary. Animals can make certain kinds of judgments based on the capacity of their estimative power, but there is no comparison, no inference, no deliberation. For example, as Aquinas notes, swallows all make their nests in the same way, and while bees are known for their diligence, their diligence only extends to a certain area—the craft of making honeycombs. They are limited in judgment. Moreover, “an animal, at the sight of something desirable, cannot not want that thing, because… animals do not have control over their inclination” (QDV 22.4c).

Pasnau concludes, “In looking carefully at the case of nonhuman animals, Aquinas is working his way toward a genuinely explanatory account of freedom and indeterminacy, an account on which we can point to the exact respect in which various animals are and are not free.”

7.3 Rational Choice

Aquinas establishes the following conclusions in Question 83:

a1. Free decision is a consequence of rational judgment.
a2. Free decision is a capacity, not an act or a disposition.
a3. Free decision is the capacity to make choices.
a4. Free decision is the same capacity as will.

There’s nothing very controversial in the last three statements; so of course Pasnau spends the bulk of his time on an explication of the first: “Human beings necessarily have free decision, from the very fact that they are rational.”

Because human beings make judgments “from a certain rational comparison,” and not by some irresistible instinct, of the sort that compels the sheep to flee when the wolf attacks, we are acting by free judgment, or “free decision,” the ability to judge by rational comparison (collatio). Pasnau writes, “Although reason might at first glance suggest one line of action, matters are never so clear that there are not other possibilities. Practical deliberation does not have the inevitability of mathematics.”

Aquinas then gives two reasons why there is plenty of room for indeterminacy in the decisions with which we are presented (82.2c). First, “there are some particular goods that have no necessary connection with happiness, because a person can achieve happiness without these.” (And in fact, as Pasnau notes, most things are not directly connected to our happiness). Secondly, because in this life we don’t adhere to God with complete certainty, we are unable to recognize with total clarity what should be done or not done at a given moment. “Thus,” writes Pasnau, “all of our actions, even the most important ones, are free and undetermined.”

But in what does deliberation consist? In our ability to second-guess. “To have free decision is to be capable of such second-guessing, to be able to contemplate whether our first inclination is really right, or whether we might be better off doing things in another way. Other animals, in contrast, have no such ability. The swallow is determined to build its nest a certain way, the dog is determined to bark when provoked. Their actions are determined ‘because they are unaware of the reason for their judgment’ (QDV 24.2c).”

Pasnau notes, “To be free from determinism and necessity is to be capable of inspecting the reasons behind our judgments, and to change our mind should circumstances warrant.” Aquinas describes this freedom variously as either “free decision,” “free judgment,” or “freedom of will.” (Aquinas does not often speak of free will, because the desired final end of all creatures is happiness [“the complete and self-sufficient good that is the ultimate end of human life”], and it is impossible for a creature deliberately to do something which would make it unhappy, except for some greater purpose which it expects to bring happiness in the end; and the will, strictly speaking, is that desire for happiness as the ultimate end, which no one can subvert.)

However, since humans lack a perfect understanding of that in which happiness consists, and since our specific means of attaining happiness is not determined by nature, as it is with swallows and bears, we are left with a broad range of choices. “We can choose freely because we can think in general terms about what happiness might consist in. Accordingly, Aquinas often explains our capacity for free decision in terms of our capacity for understanding universals.”

Pasnau concludes, “His interest is in the mechanisms that make free decision possible. In his view, the best argument for the existence of free decision is a clear understanding of these mechanisms. Once we see that free decision can be accounted for in terms of other capacities that we don’t doubt ourselves to have, there is no reason to fear that free decision is something unnatural or mysterious. As usual, Aquinas is working to take the mystery out of human nature.”

7.4 Freedom

In the fourth and final section of Chapter 7, Pasnau seeks to gauge to what extent human decision is determined by reason and will. It is crucial to the metaphysics of Aquinas that the will is moved of itself, that it is not moved by another capacity. “Not only human beings as a whole are their own causes, but even the will in particular is its own cause. ‘The will is in control of its act, and has it to will and not to will. This would not be the case if it did not have the power to move itself to will’ (1a2ae 9.3sc).” Thus the will is the cause of its own choices.

Why is this so important? Up to this point in the chapter, Aquinas has largely insisted on the role of the judgment in shaping the decisions of the will: first, in the sense that the will’s freedom is explained in terms of the intellect’s capacity to deliberate; second, in the sense that the will is dependent on the intellect for making its decisions (“it is necessary that every motion of the will be preceded by an apprehension”). The will cannot operate without some sort of causal determination—a determination which, so far as we know, comes from reason.

So far, then, the will seems completely subservient to the reason: “like an administrator whose only task is to rubber-stamp directives sent down from above, the will seems relegated to the rather meaningless formality of endorsing what it cannot help but endorse.”

But if that interpretation is the right one, it raises the question why Aquinas didn’t simply eliminate the will from his system altogether. Moreover, “Human choices would seem severely constrained by the findings of… deliberation. We would seem necessitated, not by the instincts of nature, but by the cold process of reason… We would not, in particular, be able to go beyond or against reason. Further, such intellectualism seems badly at odds with human nature. Our choices are guided by reason, clearly. But since when are human choices determined by reason?” We are not Houhouhnyms; if our will was completely subjected to reason, we would not be free.

Aquinas responds by establishing a complicated causal relationship between reason and will. “From one end, the will is the efficient cause that moves the intellect.” In other words, “the reason considers what the will tells it to consider” (or, in Aquinas’s delightful phrasing, “the will wills the intellect’s cognizing”). From the other end, “the intellect moves the will”—not, however, by exercising efficient causality, but by “supplying information about the will’s final cause, the object that has been judged to be good.” Thus the intellect does not push the will forward; rather, as Aquinas writes, “the intellect rules the will not as if by inclining it toward what it tends toward, but by showing it where it ought to tend” (QDV 22.11 ad 5). Thus the intellect “never necessitates any choice on the part of the will” (p. 227).

“The will’s choices are influenced by reason, not determined by reason.” Yet, as a contingent power, it must be determined by something. And what is that something, for Aquinas? It is the will itself. “The will’s movement comes directly from the will and from God” (QDM 3.3c). “Aquinas even suggests at times that this self-movement is essential for free decision… As regards determination, the will is moved by its object, through intellect. As regards exercise, however, ‘it is clear first that the will is moved by itself.’ The content of the will’s choice is determined by intellect, then, but the choice itself is determined by the will” (227).

But Aquinas apparently has an even more interesting point to make. “The will moves itself… in cases where the will’s choice to pursue a particular choice is motivated by its choice to pursue a broader goal.” For example, I will to become healthy, so I will to take medicine. Here there are two tiers of willing—we will one thing for the sake of willing something higher—what Pasnau calls “higher-order volition” (preferences, options, choices). Thus we are distinguished from animals and all other lower creatures not only by our ability to make rational judgments, but also by our ability to have volitions that direct our volitions.

Now Pasnau drives home his point:

To see how Aquinas is giving the will a real role in the process of choice, we need to focus not on sudden desires for a certain end, but on long-term dispositions that govern our day-to-day choices. The will does not simply endorse the passing judgments of reason, in a neutral fashion, but subjects those judgments to the higher-order aims that shape who we are. The will, in other words, contains habits or dispositions that influence the course of its operation (see 1ae2ae 50.5). Reason may tell us to cheat, but the will can insist on honesty; reason may counsel silence, but the will may urge us to speak. In such cases it is the will that is in control, in virtue of its fixed dispositions and desires, which hold independently of reason’s dictates (considered in the short term). The will cannot entirely repudiate reason, but the will shapes reason just as much as reason shapes will. The will can, for instance, force reason to stop thinking about something. Also, the will can direct reason to look at something in a different way. (For example, don’t think about what you might buy with the money you found; think about how happy someone will be to get it back.) In such cases our higher-order desires take charge over the process of deliberation, turning our thoughts in the direction in which we want them to go.

Aquinas gains much from complicating his account this way. First, he connects his action theory with his moral theory, inasmuch as crucial virtues (justice and charity) just are dispositions of the will (see 1a2ae 56.6). Second, he gives his account an added measure of realism. Human choices can now be explained not just in terms of rational calculations, but also in terms of our deeper commitments. Third, free decision now takes hold in another dimension. Until now that freedom has seemed to consist entirely in reason’s capacity to make one judgment or another—its being open to alternatives. Now we can see how the will might be free to accept or reject that judgment. The dictates of reason may or may not conform to our higher-order volitions.

Ultimately, human freedom remains rooted in reason. Our higher-order volitions themselves are determined by reason—or, if they are not, then at least they are subject to change (hence not necessitated) in virtue of our rational capacities. This is as it should be, not just because it is what Aquinas constantly says, but because we should not aspire to give the will the sort of freedom that would sever it from the control of reason. Aquinas views the relationship between reason and will as a back-and-forth exchange, extending over the course of our lives so that, time after time, ‘it is again necessary that the motion of will precede counsel, and counsel precede the act of will. And since this cannot go on to infinity, it is necessary to postulate, with respect to the will’s first motion, that the will… is moved by something external, by the impulse of which the will begins to will’ (QDM 6c).’ This initial impulse comes from God, who not only creates the human soul but somehow puts the soul into motion, beginning the long dialogue between our rational powers.

In other words, God has structured our souls in the most perfect way possible for possessing and exercising freedom of the will. How beautiful!

I think of that oft-quoted line in the Psalms, “I will praise Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). In the past whenever I’ve thought of that verse—and I think when most people think of that verse—we think of the body, which is certainly marvelous in itself, but because we can’t see the soul in its beauty and complexity, its wonders pass us by unseen. Yet the body is not all; the soul is an exhilarating thing—not least because of what it says to us about the One who fashioned it. “For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!”

P. S. I think the Spirit of God may actually be moving me to study the things I’m studying right now… Earlier while I was editing, I put my iTunes playlist on random, and almost the first track that played was the eighteenth canto of Dante’s Purgatory, in which Virgil apparently instructs Dante in Aquinas’s revelation of the nature of reason and freedom of the will:

When he had completed his argument, the lofty scholar
Looked with eagerness at my face, to see if I was satisfied.
And I, with a new thirst, was silent, since within I wondered,
“Could he perhaps be displeased with all these questions
Of mine?” But that pure father, who had recognized
The timid longing I would not express, spoke first,
And thus encouraged me to speak.
I said,
“Master, my mind is made so sharp by the light you shine,
I see clearly now all that your words speak of, or analyze.
Therefore I pray you, define love for me,
Which is, as you tell me, the minister of every good deed,
And its contrary.”
He said, “Focus your intellect’s sharp eyes
On me, and let the error of the blind who lead the blind
Be evident to you. The soul, being created quick to love,
Responds to everything that pleases it, as soon as pleasure
Wakes it into life. From what is real, your power to apprehend
Takes an image which it displays in you, forcing your mind
To turn towards it; and if turned, the soul inclines
Steadily to it. This propensity then is love,
Just as flames ascend, because the nature of fire compels it
To fly to that sphere and element where it will last longer,
So does the soul when caught up in desire
Move the loving mind; and until the thing it loves
Has made it glad, will never rest. See how far
From the truth they have wandered, they who insist
That any kind of love in itself is good love, and praiseworthy.
Love’s substance seems worthy to be admired,
But not each seal is good, though the wax is.”
“What you say, and my own attending wit,” I answered,
“Clearly show me what love is; but that has filled me
With still greater doubt. If love comes from without,
And the soul moves only on that one foot,
What merit is there then in going straight or crooked?”
And he to me: “I can explain to you as much
As reason sees; as for the rest, wait for Beatrice.
It is the work of faith. Every substantial form,
Which is at once bound to matter, and yet distinct,
Contains within itself a certain power, unknown,
Unseen, except in its effects, just as green leaves display
The life in plants. Man does not know the source
Of his knowledge of primal notions, nor why he turns
To desire’s primal objects, which are in you as the instinct
To make honey in bees. Such primal will deserves
No blame or praise. Now, so all other longings may conform
To this first will, there is innate within you the power of reason,
Which ought to be the keeper of the threshold of consent.
That is the principle on which is based the judgment of your merit,
As it garners and winnows good and evil loves.
Those men whose reason reached the roots of things
Learned of this liberty innate in man. Their endowment
To the world is ethics. Even if we grant that necessity
Is the source of every love that fires you, you still have the power
To restrain such love. This noble power is what Beatrice means
By freedom of the will. Remember that, if she should ever
Speak of it to you.”

See the union of theology and poetry! It really can be done. Chesterton of course wrote the definitive word on the subject in Chapter 6 of his “biography,” Aquinas: The Dumb Ox:

He very specially possessed the philosophy that inspires poetry; as he did so largely inspire Dante's poetry. And poetry without philosophy has only inspiration, or, in vulgar language, only wind. He had, so to speak, the imagination without the imagery… It is often difficult to understand, simply because the subjects are so difficult that hardly any mind, except one like his own, can fully understand them. But he never darkens it by using words without knowledge, or even more legitimately, by using words belonging only to imagination or intuition. So far as his method is concerned, he is perhaps the one real Rationalist among all the children of men.