Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The metaphysics of the will

Last month, at a conference at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Newburgh, NY on Aquinas on Human Action and Virtue, I presented a paper on “The Metaphysics of the Will.”  You can listen to audio of the talk at the Thomistic Institute’s Soundcloud page.

The outline for the paper that I refer to during the talk is as follows:

I. Introduction

II. Substances and their powers

III. Rational substances

IV. Against voluntarism

V. Freedom of choice

VI. The postmortem fixity of the will

You can find audio of my other Thomistic Institute talks here.  Audio and video of other talks and the like can be found at my main webpage.


  1. I've been looking forward to this since last week when someone posted a picture of your talk on Twitter.

    I was glad to see you argue against intellectual determinism.

    Would you say the Will has the power of choosing which of the practical syllogism the intellect provides? In other words, it's in the power of the will that deliberation is ended?

    Otherwise Aquinas would seem to follow Aristotle who had to attribute incontinence of the will to sin down to ignorance. Which destroys culpability

  2. If the will is absolutely fixed on either good or evil after death AS WELL AS after, then does that mean Lazarus was sinless after his resuscitation by Jesus?

    If Lazarus' will was fixed on good, and as Feser himself says elsewhere, was impervious to changing that decision even if it returned to it's body, then Lazarus was completely sinless and never did any evil after he was brought back from the dead.

    1. It was more properly described as a resuscitation rather than a strict resurrection (which would mean a different *type* of body).

      So it's different because the body isn't tailored to the soup in the same way. I'd add that for Aquinas (and Feser) the brain and in particular corporeal mental imagery is necessary for thinking (and thereby willing). So special help is needed by God for a human intellect and will to function in unnatural circumstances. If God knows Lazarus is going to be resuscitated, he could fail to give him this help. In other words, Lazarus would have an inert intellect will and as such not have made a choice.

    2. @Aristotle's jedi,

      Isn't it the case that the human will is fixed on it's decision precisely because it is inert?

      The intellect and will, upon seperation from the body, are cut off from all natural forms of acquiring knowledge, and so the fundamental choices the soul made prior to seperation from the body are set to stone precisely because the seperation from the body entails the intellect being frozen in it's choices due to not having the changeability arising from corporality.

    3. No you are forgetting that the brain and mental imagery in particular are *necessary* conditions for a human to think and choose. (On how I would see things anyway, I don't claim ed or anyone else endorses this).

      As such, help from God is needed for a disembodied *human* intellect and will to function.

    4. If special help from God is required for human intellect and will to function disembodiedly, then the immortality of the soul (at least an immortality that includes thinking and willing) cannot be proved from natural reason apart from Revelation, unless perhaps you want to argue, somehow, that God *must* give this special help.

    5. It wouldn't touch the immortal *existence* of the soul being showed through natural reason. It would just show that it doesn't function.

      Even if God doesn't help a human soul to function in unnatural circumstances it wouldn't follow that the human soul doesn't exist, only that it's inert.

    6. I think I misread you initially. I don't think you would disagree with my responce, but that you had a different point, namely, we couldn't show through natural reason that we must have immortality after death (an existing soul that is inert hardly sounds like an after life).

      I think that's correct, I don't think we can know through reason that we will have life in the hereafter. I do think that's something properly speaking must come through revelation. Although, that our soul exists after death is still very significant!

  3. Glad you made it out of Newburgh, NY without getting mugged. A welfare town like no other....

  4. Also, with regards to the indifference of the will; indifference of the will is usually stipulated in cases of morality and other such general cases. It is correct in these cases to say that the will is ordered towards the good and so the will cannot morally be indifferent in such cases. It is also obviously correct that the will is ordered towards goodness in general and so any object that is good in principle an object of the will.

    But how does freedom of the will work out in cases of morally neutral goods? Say I have to choose between a banana and ice cream. I love ice cream more, so I will naturally always prefer it to a banana. But if someone challenged me by saying that freedom of the will entails being able to choose differently because my will isnt necesarrily determined to any particular created good, I would then force myself to choose the banana instead of the more preferred ice cream. What is the reason for me choosing banana instead of IC? Its proving ones own freedom - that is the additional good annexed to the banana, and thus is why the banana is chosen instead of IC.

    But if the will is always attracted to the greater good (akin to the intellect being attracted to the greater certainty) then where is the freedom of the will there? I could certainly have chosen the IC instead of B because of this - in order to prove my will wasnt determined to the B because the "proof my will is free" was annexed to it. But that would mean "proof my will is free" is instead annexed to the IC instead of B, and "proving my will is free" is certainly a greater reason and good annexed than "enjoying the taste of either IC or B".

    So it seems that the greater the good annexed to an object is, the less freedom the will has because the will is more attracted to the greater goods.

    One way out of this dilemma is to say the will has the freedom to annex this good to whatever object it wants, so both IC and B are free objects of the will in this regard. But this faces the same problem, namely why did the will annex "proof of free will" to B or IC? This must have a reason, and it seems this reason must be sufficient to make the will choose to what it will annex the good, and so we have a circular trap and the problem is only pushed back a stage.

    What do you think?

    1. "One way out of this dilemma is to say the will has the freedom to annex this good to whatever object it wants, so both IC and B are free objects of the will in this regard. But this faces the same problem, namely why did the will annex "proof of free will" to B or IC?"

      That would go down the Leibnizian route. If free will needs contrastive explanations, then the intellect will only have one option.

      So we take the route explained in your first sentence, along with the intellects providing alternative possibilities through different conceptual perspectives, the will is the choice or the consent of one conceptual perspective over another.

      For more reading;

      Tobias Hoffman on whether Aquinas is an intellectual determinist;


      Peter Furlong's dissertation defending Aquinas as a libertarian and answering some of the issues you bring up;


      Kelly Gallagher's masters dissertation is a good addendum to Furlong's going over similar ideas;


      For more specific papers on whether free decisions that lack contrastive reasons (why agent A chose option B *OVER* option C - in other words a reason which sufficiently determines a choice) succumb to the luck objection or not (Furlong deals with this above as well);

      Meghan Griffith has a good paper explaining why agent causation accounts of free will avoid luck but event causal ones don't (Aquinas is an agent causationist) ;

      https://philpapers.org/rec/GRIWAA (note: you'll probably need to email her for a copy. This is the title and description)

      Timothy O'Connor (who's actually been cited by Gallagher, Furlong and Hoffmann as a modern philosopher whos position has large overlap) ;


    2. @Aristotle's jedi,

      Thanks for all the links!

  5. Early days, but does anyone know the theme of next year's conf at Mount Saint Mary's? Also, any recommended texts/articles/etc re: Aquinas and the PreSocratics would be most appreciated.

  6. Muh great grandpa's cousin lived in Newburgh NY and a bunch of thugs broke into his house and beat him and his wife up.

  7. Ed, I have a question about he last part of your paper. You seem to be arguing (or at least that Thomas says) that when we die, our intellects do not operate in the ordinary way because we don't have our bodies and thus don't have access to our senses, imagination, memory. We also don't have other appetites intruding on the act of the intellect to draw our attention away from the good the intellect poses to us. Therefore, we cannot CHANGE our minds, (like the angels), because we don't have the activity of senses and other corporeal-based functions to bring a stimulus that could present some new reality to bear.

    I would suggest that this glosses over something: in order for us (after death) to will AT ALL, we have to think - we have to think the good which the will inclines toward. And in order to have that intellectual act AT ALL, we (having human nature) have to have the support action of the imagination, memory, etc that is just way in which the human soul works. For instance, one could posit that instead of the intellect having a normal imagination working, God can supernaturally intervene to supply to the intellect what it normally receives by support from the imagination. Similarly the support of the memory. (This kind of support is pretty much pre-supposed in the notion that the saints can "hear" our pleas for aid.) Hence while it is true that we do not actually have OUR OWN imagination and memory active, we (could) have something that serves the same function anyway.

    Further, while the angels do not reason discursively naturally, we do. It is, therefore, puzzling to suppose that after death we "think like the angels" non-discursively, knowing the WHOLE of a science in knowing the principles, in a single act. The notion that by losing the body we would come (automatically, naturally) to reason in the same fashion the angels do, almost implies that our bodies really just get in the way of reason, and that we will be all the better off without bodies. But we are meant to have bodies, being corporeal is in our definition. (It would also seem to suggest that Adam and Eve were made less than perfectly, in that they did not reason angelically, either.)

    As an alternative, (and this is just a half-considered idea so maybe it just can't work), could we argue that (a) those who are in heaven cannot change their minds because, seeing God directly, it is impossible for the intellect to form a concept of something else that is better, or that there even might be something else better. Those who are in hell cannot change their wills, because such a change requires grace, and God no longer offers grace to them after death: the period of repentance change is divinely and providentially determined to THIS life only, and the period of definitive judgment and punishment then implies finality. An everlastingly ongoing temporal world in which people never have a final, definitive judgment would only work with never reaching heaven, either, which is contrary to the eternal plan for humans.

  8. Also, people who after death go to purgatory DO undergo interior change: they lose their imperfections by which they have inordinate desires, and come to have perfectly ordered desires. These inordinate desires are IN the will but are (often) OF objects of the appetites and passions, e.g. the appetites for food or sex, or the passion of anger. We don't know exactly how it is that the suffering of purgatory perfects us, (well, maybe Thomas did), but presumably the soul in purgatory suffers in a way that helps reform the soul so that the appetites and passions cease to bend the will their way, and instead the will rules them and orders them to The One Universal Good. So far as I know, the traditional account of purgatory entails that this purgation occurs over time and thus is a CHANGE in the soul, it is not an all-at-once act. (Nor does it do any good to suppose that it is a long series of smaller all-at-once changes that individually each occur in an instant, for there is then no reason for the period of time for purgation.) But both the change that occurs in the soul, and the extension of it over a duration, seems to imply some sort of connection to the same sort of intellectual operation as we do while alive, and not the sort of intellectual operation by which the angels act.

  9. I've got problems with the idea that the resurrection body doesn't allow for the person to will a different ultimate good.

    For a physical body allows reasoning to occur, even on Feser/Lagrange's account the depraved can still reason. I don't see how the depraved physical body (which fits the depraved soul) means that the damned still can't reason to a different ultimate good. It would have to be that the body somehow doesn't allow this possibility which is weird as reasoning and willing are essentially incorporeal even though the can be influenced by corporeal things.

    The analogy of the clay pot doesn't help. In life, our wills can choose and intellects reason and this is essential to the rational soul. This capacity is still there after death and in the resurrected damned body. The clay pot that a dried no longer has the potential to change as it did when it was wet. I don't see how the an intellect and will no longer have the potential to reason and think. Because if they do then it is possible for the damned to change their minds once physical.

    1. At least for the blessed who see God face to face, their intellects are so suffused with the vision of God that they (a) cannot be fooled as to the possible existence of some OTHER good greater than God, and (b) they cannot be led to disregard seeing God to look at some other good as if it might be greater than God. Their attention cannot wander away to some other good because their whole intellect is utterly satisfied and completely at rest in beholding perfectly the One Truth that suffices to answer to every need or want of the intellect. Indeed, it is the perfect security of knowing that there is no possible movement away from this all-fulfilling Vision of Truth that completes the rest and joy the soul takes in having God as its immediate object of act. Nobody can change his mind when he cannot be persuaded to look at something else.

    2. @Tony,

      Part 1 of 2.

      Their attention cannot wander away to some other good because their whole intellect is utterly satisfied and completely at rest in beholding perfectly the One Truth that suffices to answer to every need or want of the intellect.

      This is true when we speak of the intellect not being able to reject God due to God being Goodness Itself, and being the absolute object of the will.

      But I've always been interested with how this relates to our capacity to will and enjoy multiple created goods when having the Beatific Vision. This is also related to how one views the being of creatures as compared to the being of Being itself.

      If God is Being itself, and creatures have being, then this entails that creatures have God. So God is the existence of creatures, and creatures are merely finite degradations of God's being into something finite. But if Being is the being of creatures, then following agere sequiter esse, occasionalism follows as well. The being of creatures is Being, and so all of creation becomes merely a manifestation of God, and the activity of creatures is the activity of God. Whenever we enjoy a created good, we are actually enjoying a manifestation of God, just like when we see moonlight we are only seeing reflected sunlight. But this can't be true, for our being is truly our own and not the Divine Being, and thus is properly distinct from divinity. Being itself is thus not our own being, or the formal principle of our being, but the cause of our created being distinct from our created being. God may be Being itself, but our little "b" being is distinct from Being just as blue moonlight that is caused by sunlight is distinct from sunlight. The moon may depend on sunlight to generate it's own blue moonlight, but the blue moonlight is not merely a reflection of sunlight per se.

      Now, a Neo-Platonic view of God as goodness itself may seem in some ways to make creation meaningless and without existential weight. If the good of creatures is super-eminently present in God, but infinitely more, like every integer is contained within an infinite set as well as everything else, then the difference between any creature and God is like the difference between a crudely drawn painting of an item on a food table, and the food table with all of it's foods as it is in reality. And while our hunger for food may somewhat rest in a painting of food insofar as it resembles the real food, we would instantly forget about the painting and no longer take delight in it when faced with the actual food table and all of the assorted foods, far exceeding the single item portrayed in the painting.

    3. @Tony,

      Part 2 of 2.

      But such a view of the BV as putting all created goodness in the dust seems...disturbing and disappointing. And seems like an univocal view of God, rather than analogical, since one sees God as being an infinite goodness that is in the same genus as created goods, instead of Value itself that gives meaning to created values instead of overshadowing them like a mere value but to an infinite degree.

      Furthermore, Christ Himself had the BV as a matter of dogma since the moment of His conception, yet He still not only desired created goods, but even weeped over created things. If the BV absolutely satisfies our will to the point where it can desire no more, or makes us look upon created goods as merely bad copies of Goodness itself that are worthless, then the life of Christ serves as Divine Revelation to us to show us that it fortunately isn't so.

      So seeing the BV doesn't make us view created goods as being merely bad copies of Goodness itself, nor does Goodness itself pre-eminently containing all created goods mean that all created good is undesirable when compared with Goodness itself. On the contrary, because Goodness itself transcends created goods, it actually gives value to created goodness as being their exemplar cause. If we reject the Eckhartian view that the good of creatures is good by the Divine Goodness, then the goodness of creatures is no longer empty or hollow, but truly their own.

      God then is no longer in competition with created goods, making them non-existent because of His being. But rather, God is to be seen as Value itself which gives value to created values. And just as Value itself reveals the value created values have, so too seeing God (who is Value itself), far from making us depreciate or forget about created values due to our will being overloaded with Value itself, continues to make us see the true value of creation, just as the light used to read a book doesn't depreciate the contents of the book due to it's supreme status as transcending the book, but only makes them intelligible in the first place, and thus valuable.

      In other words, when seeing the BV, the human mind will continue to operate naturally, seeing created goods as being truly valuable and worthwhile. It will even continue to desire created goods, because even in this life, while our will can only be satisfied by Goodness itself, it is still satisfied and made happy by created goods and desires them as good, and so seeing the BV should make no differene to this.

      The only difference is that, with the BV, our will is going to be even more satisfied because it possesses God. Created goods will still truly affect it, and they will even add to the will's happiness and beatitude. And just as God truly delights in His created good, and enjoys it and truly loves it, and even became Incarnate to weep over losing it to show us how much creation truly matters to Goodness itself, so it will be the case with us.

      What do you think, though? Is the above analysis of the BV correct? Is the relation of God to creatures as optimistic as described above, since the other view (BV making us unable to enjoy anything else, making us view created goods as bad copies that no longer mean anything and are worthless) is certainly not hope-inspiring?

    4. Joe, I completely agree that in having God in the BV, we do not cease to be able to enjoy other goods - quite the reverse, we will enjoy them all the more.

      My point was that in having the BV we will be unable to draw our attention away from God in order to enjoy some other good (or to behold some other good). We will enjoy all the other goods in the very midst of beholding God in the BV. E.G. in rejoicing over having the friendship of St. Joseph and St. Michael, great heroes of creation, we will enjoy their friendship through and in the BV, especially because our friendship with them will be precisely in virtue of both they and we loving primarly that which is best and highest, and loving every other good in virtue of loving it as God loves it. We will love St. Joseph and St. Michael by reason of being united with God's will (though remaining distinct from Him) and loving them as God loves them, i.e. in friendship with them because they are first in friendship with God.

      Thus enjoying all other goods will not be a distraction to knowing and loving God in the BV. In knowing creatures by basking in how God sees them we cannot be drawn to imagining having them apart from God. In knowing them through God's own eyes, we will see them as good precisely insofar as having them is consonant with loving God first, and it will thus be impossible for the intellect to regard a perspective in which they appear as good NOT as flowing out of loving God first.

      And St. Thomas regards this impossibility as part of the condition of being blessed, for blessedness requires (in part) the sure and certain knowledge of the eternal persistence of that happiness, for the prospect of a possible (even if unlikely) loss is incompatible with the satisfaction of the desire to be ALWAYS enjoying this good.

    5. @Tony,

      My point was that in having the BV we will be unable to draw our attention away from God in order to enjoy some other good (or to behold some other good).

      The main reason we won't be able to draw away from God is precisely because He is the source of our absolute happiness, and so to draw away from the BV would be like drawing away from perfect happiness. And it's not like the BV is going to stand in the way of us completely enjoying any created good.

      We will enjoy all the other goods in the very midst of beholding God in the BV.

      It depends on what you mean by this. If you mean to say that we will literally be aware of and enjoy all created goods simply by seeing the BV, then this would mean we won't even need to interact with the goods, just see the BV. But this is awkwkard, and most likely false.

      Another meaning this would have is that, in seeing the BV, whenever we encounter a created good we will know that it exists with absolute certainty, and this will increase our joy because doubt will no longer be possible and certainty will add to our joy.

      In knowing creatures by basking in how God sees them we cannot be drawn to imagining having them apart from God.

      I agree with this, but would only make the qualification that seeing creatures how God sees them does not interfere with a diversity of preference among the saved. Some may see one particular good as being better or more important to them than another (I'm not talking about sinful preference of a good we are obliged to not prefer, or any such thing), and that itself reveals God's glory in creating multiple perspectives with different preferences which see different goods differently.

      In knowing them through God's own eyes, we will see them as good precisely insofar as having them is consonant with loving God first, and it will thus be impossible for the intellect to regard a perspective in which they appear as good NOT as flowing out of loving God first.

      I do agree with this, but some might interpret "loving God first" as saying that we should love created goods for the sake of God alone, or that they are only good because of our love for God, which would be false.

      God / Goodness itself created everything for it's (the creature's) own sake (creation also exists for God's sake, but that doesn't conflict with it existing for it's own sake; in fact, Love by nature wills the good of the other for it's own sake, so God's sake transcends and contains the creature's sake!) , and God's / Goodness's glory is most revealed when we love another being for it's own sake. Loving something for the sake of God is not in conflict with loving it for it's own sake.

      In fact, one way of indirectly worshipping God / Goodness itself is in delighting and enjoying the things of creation, and loving creation for it's own sake simply. And we do this simply because it is wonderfully and obviously Good to do so. It is Good that things have their own sake.