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This is effectively a guest post by Ficino, commenter and sometimes contributor here at ATP. Massive thanks to him as I need as much help as I can get these days! I and Ficino have written about this topic previously, linked below.

These were long comments that originally appeared at Debunking Christianity:

Here I try to argue against libertarian free will as promoted by some classical theists.

As the OP indicates, we recognize that foreknowledge seems to rule out free will.
“Knows that” is a truth-entailing operator. If A knows that P, it can’t be the case that not-P.

Scholastic theologians tried to get around determinism by distinguishing among types of necessity, in particular, between the necessity of consequence and the necessity of the consequent. If God (or anyone) knows that P, P is necessarily the case. It is necessarily the case because of the necessity entailed by the “if-then” relation between two propositions in propositional logic. If “If it is raining, then there are clouds” is true, it is necessary – if THAT relation of propositions holds – that there be clouds.

But absolutely, it is not necessary that there be clouds above you at all times. It is possible that there be cloudless skies. So the consequent of the above conditional, “there are clouds,” is not a necessary truth. The consequent by itself need not be necessary, but the relation of consequence in a properly formed conditional is necessary. If God foreknows a person’s choice, on this argument, it is necessary that the choice be so, but it is not necessary that God is the efficient cause of that choice.

I suggest there is a reason, however, why the distinction between necessity of consequence and the necessity of the consequent does not save libertarian free will for the classical theist. This is because of doctrines about the nature of the will and about the Unmoved First Mover.

First, Aquinas holds that acts of the will in rational creatures are a species of motion, since a change occurs. First you don’t will X, and then you will X. Aquinas says many times that an act of the will is a motion: cf. e.g. ST 1a 58.1 ad 1, 59.1 ad 3; 62.2 c; 1a2ae 12.4 c. Desire tending toward something is called a kind of motion, ST 1a 73.2 c. Sometimes he specifies that properly, acts of will are operations and not motions (In I Sent. 8.3.1 ad 2), but from the POV of their first cause, it doesn’t matter whether we call them operations or motions.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas holds that acts of will in rational creatures are “free” because the creature is the source of the motion. For the creature to initiate and be in control of its act of will is a necessary condition for the will’s being free, for “liberum arbitrium.” Aquinas teaches that for the will to be free, it is necessary that: it not be determined toward doing one thing; it be determined by the agents themselves, not by prior causes; the agent act on its own and not as determined by another; the agent move itself as first principle and be cause of its own motion, not have the first principle of its motion be outside itself. (I can supply citations if anyone is interested.)

Second, however, Aquinas holds that God is the first and unmoved cause of every effect, since God initiates and controls every hierarchically ordered causal series “all the way down.” I don’t cite passages; this doctrine is well known. From the POV of motion, the unmoved mover is the mover of every secondary motion, even though secondary motions are derivatively moved or caused by subordinate movers; “in all causes in an order, the effect depends more on the first cause than on the secondary cause; because the secondary cause does not act except in virtue of/by the power of the first cause,” ST 1a2ae 19.4 c.

Therefore, though the act/motion of will of a rational creature is initiated within the creature, that act/motion, like any other, has its ultimate origin in God as first efficient cause/mover. “It is not necessary for freedom that that which is free be first cause of itself; just as it is not required that in order for something to be a cause of a second thing, it be the first cause of that thing. God therefore is the first cause moving natural causes and voluntary causes,” ST 1a 83.1 ad 3. The will initiates or is the cause of the choice and of the act, but it is not the *first* cause.

So how can Thomists maintain libertarian free will? They argue that God acts in each creature according to the mode of that creature’s being/existence, according to its nature. Since humans have rational soul, with intellect and will, their nature includes the faculty of choosing goods, and that faculty is just free will. God acts in them interiorly so as to cause their acts of will to be willed freely, since they are *rational* acts. ST 1a 59.3 c and often elsewhere.

I propose three reasons why the Thomistic defense of LFW fails.

1. The argument is viciously question-begging. What is at issue is, does the human have free will? It begs the question to use as a premise the thesis that humans have free will. Aquinas can only establish that rational creatures have will or a faculty of choosing perceived goods, arbitrium, not that this faculty is also “free,” i.e. the first principle of its own operations or acts. Aq seems only to assert, not demonstrate, that the will in rational creatures is “free”: cf. e.g. ST 1a 60.1 ad 2, ST 1a2ae 1.2 c, etc. To argue that will is free because it chooses betw two possibilities seems to ignore the opponent’s case that the choice that is made is actually determined by factors other than the will; e.g. Aq’s reply at ST 1a2ae 13.6, which asserts things rather than undoes this objection.
As far as I can see, the Thomist equivocates on “free,” sometimes taking it to entail “being the first moving cause” and sometimes not so.

2. Aquinas also allows that God can override the creature’s free will and change it, incline it to choose something else, ST 1a 115 and 116. If God does this sometimes, and can do it always, then the will is not per se free.

3. God’s providence and predestination decree that there be moral evil acts. Too many passages to give citations.

Thomist defenders like Edward Feser counter, “If free choices were not caused by God, they couldn’t exist at all” (Aquinas p. 151). But this reply betrays an ignoratio elenchi, for it fails to demonstrate that the choices are “free” in the required sense.

Two further comments that Ficino pertinently adds are:

On this “God is outside of time, therefore my theology is consistent” stuff…

Aquinas says that God is prior to the world, but this is not a priority of time but of eternity, ST 1a 46.1 ad 8.

Since priority presumes differentiation along some axis of duration, Aquinas has suceeded, not in insulating God from succession within duration, but in concocting a second, upper-storey, God-talky kind of time and then calling it by some other name. If God performs operations such as creation, there is priority and thus, duration. Call the upper God-talky priority by a different name, but I just call it God time.

Aristotle says that one of the characteristics of sophistry is to exploit senses of terms.

And theists get mad when Bertrand Russell points out that Aquinas’ contentions are riddled with “a kind of syntactical confusion, without which much of the argumentation about God would lose its plausibility.”


Aquinas says that God did not create the universe in time because time is a function of a body’s motion through space, and with no space, there can be no time. Time is an effect or property of the universe as created.

But Aquinas keeps talking about what may be possible or not before the world should be made, “antequam mundus fiat,” and so on. Although he denies that God’s relations to creatures are real relations, he says things like “God was not Lord before He had a creature subject to Himself” (ST 1a 13.7 ad 6). There are many such passages.

Aquinas tries to avoid contradiction through his usual tactic of making a distinction in senses or applications of terms. In this regard Aq says that it is not necessary to assume a moment prior to the beginning of time, except in imaginary time (nisi quid imaginatum), just as when we say there is no body outside the heavens, what we mean by outside is merely an imaginary something. So it’s not necessary that there be a time before time began or after it will cease to be, even though ‘before’ and ‘after’ signify time (Comm in Arist Meta XII l. 5, C 2498). Same thing at SCG II.36.7, that to posit that time didn’t exist before it existed is spoken not so as to posit some part of time in reality, but only in imagination; there just was no time before the first moment, as when we say that there is nothing above the heaven, we don’t understand that there exists some place beyond the heaven, but just that there is no place superior to it. In ST 1a 46.1 ad 6 and ad 8, Aq says that we can imagine God as though he acted in time, but he did not, since he produces the thing and time; God is prior to the world but this is not a priority of time but of eternity, ad 8.

I am not sure that the above actually is an advance over what Don Camp said above: “That may seem incoherent from our time-bound perspective. It is not from God’s.”

After all this word chopping, what ground of persuasive credibility is left, beyond just telling us that we have to posit incoherent stuff so that other things that are also posited can be kept on board?

Grab my book that concerns the prime mover argument. (UK here)





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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...