William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Summary Against Modern Thought: God’s Acts Aren’t Necessary

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

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Series was interrupted by Easter last week. We’re back on track now. Don’t forget to review!

Chapter 23 That God does not act of natural necessity (alternate translation)

[1] FROM this it may be proved that God acts among creatures not by necessity of His nature, but by the judgment of His will.

[2] For the power of every agent that acts of natural necessity is confined to one effect. The consequence is that all natural things always happen in the same way, unless there be an obstacle; whereas voluntary things do not. Now the divine power is not directed to only one effect, as we have proved above. Therefore God acts, not of natural necessity, but by His will.

Notes Think of a machine which goes bing! when you press the red button. The machine does so because it has no “choice.” It is made to go bing! and go bing! it does when the premises (pressing the red button, the innards in some state) are fixed. It goes bing! “unless there be an obstacle” like, say, a short in the wiring. The person pressing the button can choose not to, though.

[3] Again. Whatever implies no contradiction, is subject to the divine power, as we have proved. Now many things are not among those created, which nevertheless, if they were, would not imply a contradiction: as is evident chiefly with regard to number, the quantities and distances of the stars and other bodies, wherein if the order of things were different, no contradiction would be implied. Wherefore many things are subject to the divine power that are not found to exist actually. Now whoever does some of the things that he can do, and does not others, acts by choice of his will and not by necessity of his nature. Therefore God acts not of natural necessity but by His will.

Notes Recall “Whatever implies no contradiction, is subject to the divine power” means even God cannot do what is impossible. The rest of this little proof is lovely and simple.

[4] Again. Every agent acts according as the likeness of its effect is in it: for every agent produces its like. Now whatever is in something else, is in it according to the mode of the thing in which it is. Since, then, God is intelligent by His essence, as we have proved, it follows that the likeness of His effect is in Him in an intelligible way. Therefore He acts by His intellect. Now the intellect does not produce an effect except by means of the will, the object whereof is a good understood, which moves the agent as his end. Therefore God works by His will, and not by a necessity of His nature…

[6] Further. That God works for an end can be evident from the fact that the universe is not the result of chance, but is directed to a good, as stated by the Philosopher (11 Metaph.). Now the first agent for an end must be an agent by intellect and will: because things devoid of intellect, work for an end as directed to the end by another. This is evident in things done by art: for the flight of the arrow is directed towards a definite mark by the aim of the archer. And so likewise must it be in the works of nature. For in order that a thing be rightly directed to a due end, it is necessary that one know the end itself, and the means to that end, as also the due proportion between both; and this belongs only to an intelligent being. Since, therefore, God is the first agent, He works not by a necessity of His nature, but by His intellect and will.

Notes Much is packed into this paragraph. Note the deep teleology and its necessity in all things, a necessity which proves God’s intellect and will must be (as we have seen over a long chain of proof) at the base of everything.

[7] Moreover. That which acts by itself precedes that which acts by another: because whatever is by another must be reduced to that which is by itself, lest we proceed to infinity. Now that which is not master of its own action, does not act by itself; since it acts as directed by another and not as directing itself. Therefore the first agent must act in such a way that it is master of its own action. But one is not master of one’s own action except by the will. Therefore it follows that God, Who is the first agent, acts by His will and not by a necessity of His nature.

[8] Again. The first action belongs to the first agent, as the first movement to the first movable. Now, the action of the will naturally precedes the action of nature: because the more perfect is naturally first, although in some particular thing it may be last in time. Now the action of a voluntary agent is more perfect: a proof of which is that among us agents which act by will are more perfect than those which act by natural necessity. Therefore to God, Who is the first agent, that action is due which is by the will.

[9] Further. The same is evident from the fact that where both actions are united, the power which acts by will is above that which acts by nature, and uses the latter as an instrument: for in man the intellect which acts by the will is higher than the vegetative soul which acts by a necessity of its nature. Now the divine power is above all beings. Therefore it acts on all things by will, not by natural necessity.

[10] Again. The will has for its object a good considered as a good: whereas nature does not compass the idea of good in general, but the particular good which is its perfection. Since, then, every agent acts for as much as it intends a good, because the end moves the agent, it follows that the agent by will is compared to the agent by natural necessity as a universal to a particular agent. Now the particular agent is compared to the universal agent, as posterior thereto, and as its instrument. Therefore the first agent must be voluntary and not an agent by natural necessity.

Notes More teleology! We and God only act because of an end. Ends must therefore exist. Of course, our biology undergoes changes which we do not will, but this doesn’t imply we don’t have will. Birds fly overhead and causes changes in our visage, which are also changes in our body states, but we still have will, we still act towards ends. And so does God. It therefore behooves us to understand these ends, why we (and God) think ends are good and why they are sometimes bad. Stick around.

16 Comments

  1. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 3, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    That God works for an end can be evident from the fact that the universe is not the result of chance, but is directed to a good

    Ooh. Wait for it….

  2. To the extent that an action is not from necessity, then it necessarily is random. In any given aspect, it must either be constrained or unconstrained, it cannot be both. Either there are no degrees of freedom, or there are degrees of freedom.

  3. To the extent that an action is not from necessity, then it necessarily is random.
    acts of free will are not random except to the observer perhaps.
    The appearance is of randomness.

  4. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 4, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    To the extent that an action is not from necessity, then it necessarily is random.

    Not necessarily.

  5. Briggs

    April 4, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    “Random” is only a state of mind, therefore actions cannot be random or not random. Our knowledge of them can be, of course.

  6. Randomness is normally a claim about a state of mind because normally a deterministic cause exists in reality, even if it is not known. Randomness thus normally reflects a kind of ignorance.

    But to say that there is an actual lack of necessity is to say that the cause does not exist. So, yes there is ignorance, but it becomes ignorance of a reality that you assert does not actually exist.

    When the underlying aspect of reality does not actually exist, then it seems wrong to claim that the ignorance of that aspect of reality is a mere state of mind.

  7. “acts of free will are not random except to the observer perhaps.”

    I agree with that, Joy.

    However, if an act of free will is not random, then it arises in necessity.

    If “a lack of randomness implies a necessary cause”, then “a lack of necessary cause implies randomness”.

  8. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 4, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    However, if an act of free will is not random, then it arises in necessity.

    No, they are different criteria. If I am consulting a menu at the diner, for example, I need not pick the pork chop with sauerkraut nor the broiled haddock nor any item at all. (I can decide on none of the above.) But that I do not necessarily pick any particular item, neither do I pick one at random.

  9. “But that I do not necessarily pick any particular item, neither do I pick one at random.”

    I don’t see it. To say that you do not necessarily pick any particular item entails the possibility that you might have chosen otherwise, and thus that there is some degree of freedom available to you that is unconstrained by prior cause. Do we agree so far?

    As I understand it, Catholic doctrine may entail (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05793a.htm) a deterministic view of physical laws, including the physical constraints on human conduct, such that God’s foreknowledge of events can be seen to arise from the certainty of those events happening, rather than the other way around. This includes inevitability in your choices. You really cannot have chosen otherwise, given the way God created the universe. This in no way means that God wills for us to fall into sin, although it is inevitable that we will.

    However, I believe that this article is on the complementary view that God’s decrees are not similarly deterministic. God’s decrees are not constrained by necessity in the way that your personal choices are.

    My confusion arises here because I believe that Briggs has opined that there is an ontological rationale for determinism. I haven’t seen an articulation of this rationale, but I don’t understand how there can be an ontological rationale for holding that physical events are necessarily deterministic, while holding that God’s decrees are not.

  10. Physical determinism holds ONLY for lifeless objects. Living things possess a certain degree of freedom from the laws of necessity that form the subject matter of physics.
    As Aquinas wrote, stones move by necessity, sheep move by instinct and men move by deliberation.

  11. If man is free, then why are there traffic jams where everybody wants to go in the same direction?

  12. Shack Toms,
    The act of knowing is determined by the thing known. Physical causation, determinstic or otherwise, has nothing to do with it. It is a separate realm altogether.

  13. Shack Toms, and I should have added,
    ….because everything has an ultimate cause so there is no chance or randomness only appearances of such and so random means unknown cause.

    Thought is not understood, mind is not understood or is mysterious.
    This does not mean that it necessarily follows the same laws in the same ways . There must be spirit or call it metaphysics or call it something else.
    If not it would be, I believe , better understood without resulting in a circular argument about randomness.

    ““However, if an act of free will is not random, then it arises in necessity.
    If “a lack of randomness implies a necessary cause”, then “a (lack of necessary cause implies randomness”.)”

    (“lack of necessary cause implies unknown cause.”) Which to me implies the start of a chain, a new event. i.e. free will or thinking or mind would be an example of this. Unknown means it could be anything even outside of what we currently understand about physics.

    Thinking and free will cannot be a result of ‘random unguided processes’. Physics alone do not allow for physical matter organising itself or reasoning itself. I don’t know how else to put it.

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    April 5, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    To say that you do not necessarily pick any particular item entails the possibility that you might have chosen otherwise, and thus that there is some degree of freedom available to you that is unconstrained by prior cause.

    Certainly, but this does not make the act “random.” My issue was that “undetermined” does not mean “random.”

    In fact, “random” as we typically encounter it requires painstaking design to achieve. See any casino for examples.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician,

    I think your point might be that randomness is unbiased indeterminacy. If what you mean is that “undetermined” does not mean “random” because an act may be undetermined and still not have the distribution expected of a random process, then I agree.

    I think that Briggs holds that randomness refers to ignorance about deterministic cause. So if there is no randomness, then all causes are known and deterministic, and there can be no indeterminacy. Therefore, any degree of indeterminacy implies the existence of randomness.

    Of course the indeterminacy may only be a matter of ignorance of causes that really do exist, but that isn’t what St Thomas is talking about with respect to God’s acts, in that case there really are no causes.

    I agree that any underlying randomness may be thwarted to some degree. I think your casino example shows that this thwarting can be unintentional. And although some natural processes exhibit apparent indeterminacy, I agree with you that it may require great care to eliminate, or compensate for, all sources of bias.

    To also use the casino as an example. Even if the outcome of die rolls were random, the casino would still make money on craps. That is because the deterministic part, the rules governing the payout, influence the outcome, despite the presumed randomness of the rolls.

    The casino’s profits exhibit apparent indeterminacy in that they cannot be precisely predicted from the prior facts at hand, but they are not completely random. So if that is the distinction you are making, then I agree.

    However they can only be truly indeterminate if somewhere along the line there is some aspect of the cause that is truly random.

  16. Shack Toms,
    ‘So if there is no randomness, then all causes are known.’
    All causes are not known which is why there is the appearance of randomness not actual randomness.

    I’d say.
    ‘So if there is no appearance of randomness, then all causes are known.’
    There is no actual randomness only appearance of randomness.

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