Freedom is Extramundane

In the post Stochastic Sempiternity, commenter Bedarz Iliaci was uncomfortable with the notion that nature proceeds stochastically, as I there suggested. He insisted that the world must evolve deterministically in order to make any sense, and especially if rational agents such as we are to make sense of it, or of our acts in relation thereto; so that the irruption therein of inputs from rational free agents such as ourselves – and, ergo, the source of our freedom – must be to us ultimately mysterious, as flowing into the rational, determined world from some supra-mundane realm. I paraphrase him, hoping he will correct me if I have got him wrong in any important way.

Mr. Iliaci suggested that, in order to see better what he was talking about, I might profitably refer to some arguments of Fr. Stanley Jaki in his Miracles and Physics. This I did, and can now say that, compelling as Fr. Jaki’s arguments are, they do not seem to me to contradict my suggestion that nature proceeds stochastically.

Jaki excoriates the notion that the Uncertainty Relation of quantum mechanics can open room in the natural world for the causal effects of free rational agents. He argues that our inability to predict quantal events with perfect certainty does not at all justify an inference to the notion that such happenings are somewhat undetermined with respect to their causal antecedents, and therefore ontologically free. Furthermore, we ought to be cautious in making such an inference, for it would lead to a conception of nature as radically disordered at the most fundamental level.

I think Jaki is right. The inference to ontology from epistemology is unwarranted, even if it is in practical terms insuperable.

But I don’t think it matters.

The suggestion that nature proceeds stochastically nowise relies upon any ontological wiggle room that quantum mechanics might have opened up.

Events are exhaustively determined by their precursors, or they are not. There are no other alternatives. If they are thus determined, then no event can be ever other than what it is, there is no such thing as contingency – thus, notice, no such thing as causal relation – and there is no possibility of free action of any kind. That’s just all there is to it.

In that case, our existence qua free rational agents is simply an illusion. Cogito, sed non sum. But what doesn’t exist cannot do anything, including thinking. So if we don’t actually exist, we can’t think that we don’t exist.

Thus to think that you are not free – or to think anything else – you must exist and be free.

I agree with Mr. Iliaci that free actions cannot be rational except in respect to some orderly context. To act in respect to a world in such a way as to be coordinated thereto, that world must first be ordered in its own right, and prior to such acts. That is to say, simply, that it must be certainly in and of itself wholly definite, wholly one thing rather than any other. Only thus could it even be possible for us to err in our understanding of what it is. And for a thing to be wholly definite, it must be immutable.

The world in respect to which our free actions are ordered, then, must present itself to us at every instant in the first place as wholly determined.

This is not controversial. It is only to say that at any given moment, our past must be really and truly past.

How then can this present moment of our life be free? There is only one way: if as still becoming, and thus not yet fully definite – i.e., not yet fully actual – it is not yet a part of the wholly determined, wholly actual world. Until an event has completed the process of coming into being, it does not yet actually exist to have causal relations with its actual past. Only once it is actual can it have actual relations. Once it has finished becoming, and is fully definite, then and only then is it wholly determined in respect to that past. Then, and only then, can we see how it is completely and rationally ordered to its past. Then, and only then, is it completely a part of its world.

This present moment, then, is undetermined by its precursors because it is not yet fully coherent with its world.

None of the foregoing would change if quantum mechanics were someday completed. So the claim that becoming proceeds stochastically does not at all depend upon quantum mechanics, or upon any other scientific theory. Yet it is interesting – and, perhaps, indicative – that quantum mechanics seems (at least for the moment) to agree with – that is to say, does not contradict – the notion that becoming does not proceed deterministically.

All of which is by way of saying simply that I am pretty sure that Mr. Iliaci agrees with me, and I with him: the source of our freedom must be to us ultimately mysterious, as flowing into the rational, determined world from some supra-mundane realm.

15 thoughts on “Freedom is Extramundane

  1. In order to be unpredictable to enemies, prey, and predators, and in order to try different things to discover what works, a conscious entity’s behavior must be partially random. This randomness we perceive as free will

    It does not matter whether the root source of randomness is thermal noise, quantum indeterminacy, or phase drift between free running clocks.

    • Randomness as free will is again the same sort of misunderstanding as Jaki wrote as against QM as source of freedom. Let’s read Aquinas on free will:

      Man has free choice, or otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain. In order to make this evident, we must observe that some things act without judgment, as a stone moves downwards; and in like manner all things which lack knowledge. And some act from judgment, but not a free judgment; as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment; because it judges, not from deliberation, but from natural instinct. And the same thing is to be said of any judgment in brute animals. But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. For reason in contingent matters may follow opposite courses, as we see in dialectical syllogisms and rhetorical arguments. Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite courses, and is not determinate to one. And in that man is rational, it is necessary that he have free choice.

      Free will is related to rationality. The acts of rational thought are supernatural in that they proceed in logical ground-consequence chains, and not in physical cause-effect chains. Randomness, I take to mean something that has nothing to do with ground-consequence chain, but:

      1) Classically, it follows physical cause-effect chains but these chains are too obscure or too numerous for us to keep tally in detail.
      2) Quantum mechanically, there is no physical cause-effect chain. The wave function collapses and where it would collapse is undetermined.

      Thus randomness is practically an absence of both logical and physical causation.

  2. Kristor,

    You are again ignoring a point I have made before. You say if events are exhaustively determined by their precursors, then we can not be free. Have you read CS Lewis on Miracles? He defines Nature as the great interlocking system of physical causation, all proceeding deterministically. The supernatural intrudes on this nature, and we are partly supernatural, partly natural creatures.

    Thus, deterministic Nature does not limit our freedom; in fact makes it possible.

    I do not know what you mean by stochastic. You need to give examples.

    If they are thus determined, then no event can be ever other than what it is, there is no such thing as contingency.

    Now, you need to sharpen this idea of “contingency”. The creation itself is contingent as recognized in the dogma that God created it freely.

    The proper way would be to probe the natural-supernatural border and to question if the autonomous Nature as we have defined it, a great system of interlocking chains of causation, is this nature a useful concept? Is it really autonomous? Or maybe the supernatural intrusion is all the way in and the chains of physical causation are at bottom chains of logical causation?

    • You are again ignoring a point I have made before.

      I’ve been trying as hard as I can to address all the points you have made. Which point was it, exactly, that I seem to have ignored?

      You say if events are exhaustively determined by their precursors, then we cannot be free. Have you read CS Lewis on Miracles? He defines Nature as the great interlocking system of physical causation, all proceeding deterministically. The supernatural intrudes on this nature, and we are partly supernatural, partly natural creatures.

      I have indeed read Miracles, although it has been about fifteen years since I looked at it.

      If Nature proceeds deterministically, then – as “deterministically” is understood in common parlance, and as I have been using it – there is no metaphysical possibility of any change in its course, no matter what the source of such a change might be (i.e., no matter whether such a change was exogenous or endogenous to Nature). In that case, there is no way for the supernatural to intrude upon Nature (or for us to be free). I did not read Lewis as saying that there is no way for the supernatural to intrude upon Nature! If on the other hand Nature normally proceeds, not in a purely deterministic way, but rather in an *orderly* way in accord with the laws of its own nature – which is what I recall Lewis to have said – and cooks along nicely under its own steam, with God intervening as he sees fit to change or influence its course, then *it is not proceeding deterministically.*

      As I recall Miracles – again, it is a long time since I read it – the main argument Lewis there gave was that the Laws of Nature, that constrain its own purely creaturely acts, are not the Laws of Supernature. The Laws of Supernature – what Aslan would have called the Deep Magic – are the laws of that world of worlds, upon which our world supervenes, and in which it lives, moves, and has being.

      I do not know what you mean by stochastic. You need to give examples.

      The Wikipedia page on “stochastic” would be a good place to start. It gives lots of examples from different areas of study. Quoting:

      The results of a stochastic process can only be known after computing it.

      This is almost a paraphrase of what I have several times suggested in these two posts: ex ante, the outcome of the present moment is indeterminate, as not yet being fully real, or therefore definite, thus either knowable or determinable; ex post, the logic of the process by which a moment has come to pass, and of the causal path that led from the past to the completed character of that moment, is evident (at least in principle).

      The Wikipedia page on “stochastic process” provides a clear differentiation between stochastic and deterministic procedures:

      In probability theory, a stochastic process … is a collection of random variables; this is often used to represent the evolution of some random value, or system, over time. This is the probabilistic counterpart to a deterministic process (or deterministic system). Instead of describing a process which can only evolve in one way (as in the case, for example, of solutions of an ordinary differential equation), in a stochastic or random process there is some indeterminacy: even if the initial condition (or starting point) is known, there are several (often infinitely many) directions in which the process may evolve.

      The application to human creativity as it is experienced from the inside is clear and compelling. One knows the criteria for success of the solution one wants – even if they are defined only by the statement, “something nicer than x,” or “this problem gone” – but does not know the precise form of the solution. Many different forms are possible, and among that multitude there might be many that will work well to meet the criteria of success (e.g., there are infinitely many quartets that Mozart might have written; he had to choose from among them). So one tests different combinations of ideas to see what works best.

      “If they are thus determined, then no event can be ever other than what it is, there is no such thing as contingency.”

      Now, you need to sharpen this idea of “contingency”. The creation itself is contingent as recognized in the dogma that God created it freely.

      Contingent means not logically necessary. If a world proceeds deterministically, then while the existence of the world as a whole may be contingent on God’s free act of creation, once given that act every aspect of that world will follow with relentless logical necessity. It will have only one possible history.

      Or maybe the supernatural intrusion is all the way in and the chains of physical causation are at bottom chains of logical causation?

      Yes. But note that the logical relation between an event and its mundane past is not of an entailment of the former by the latter, but of compossibility. E.g., my enjoyment of a beer this evening is compossible with, but not entailed by, what is happening right now; but my transformation into a carburetor this evening is logically incompossible with this world.

      • The results of a stochastic process can only be known after computing it.

        And what do you say to physicists and engineers and astronomers that have been computing and predicting phenomena for hundreds of years?

      • Some systems are simpler than others, or have fewer degrees of freedom. They’re still stochastic, but they are very well behaved, so that they can be modeled as if they were deterministic.

  3. XB!

    Kristor, you appear to privilege “our” present as “the present.” Is this justifiable? Why is our “now” the “real” now? From an eternal perspective, “now” is as much Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon as the human colonization of Mars, no?

    As I’ve mentioned to you before, I share Mr. Iliaci’s inability to understand the course of our level of reality as anything but determined. We do perceive ourselves as free, but we are not privy to the inner calculus at the foundation of our decisions. Why do we choose this rather than that? Unless such choice follows a rational order, then our will — our freedom — becomes as meaningless as if we were puppets for great cosmic children. Arbitrariness is not the more precious just because it originates within the self.

    Perhaps, contingency is simply how things appear to us rather than being something applicable to things in themselves. We recognize necessary truths, but we are not omniscient and thus we fail to see why what appears to us as contingent necessarily follows in the timeline of the universe, or at least in our universe (if there are other possible worlds — not simply in the mind [of men and God]).

    Though I am not a Kantian (by far), I think that some sort of double vision is required here so that we may understand a causally ordered world while also acknowledging this bizarre, divine quality of rational agency that we call free choice. I do not know how they fit well together, but then, no wise man has ever explained it very clearly.

    • The analysis applies to all creaturely nows. If they are extramundane until they are complete, they are ipso facto extratemporal, at least with respect to the time of their world.

      If contingency is just an illusion, just “how things appear to us,” then we are not free. That’s all. Our impression that we are free is in that case simply wrong.

      It is indeed puzzling to think that a determined procedure is also free. It would be equally puzzling to think that “yes” is “no” or that good is evil, or that [(2 + 2 = 4) & (2 + 2 = 5)]. I conclude first that it would be better not to reject reason so as to rescue determinism. Having decided that, and knowing that I must in consequence reject either freedom or its contrary, I conclude that freedom, as an essential and ineluctable aspect of experience per se, is real, whereas determinism – which is after all an optional, recondite philosophical doctrine that contradicts experience as such – is false. Adequacy to quotidian experience is the fundamental epistemological threshold.

      What does “XB” mean?

      • Христос воскресе! Christ is risen! (XB!)

        Kristor, I do not wish to give up rationality (what is left after such a move?) or to deny our perception of freedom. However, what is that freedom that we perceive? We are aware that we make decisions — that we exercise our will — based upon some inner movement mysterious to us. We are free because that movement is not coerced by outside forces, as when we suffer violence. Yet, those inner movements seem to respond to outside forces through fear, desire, estimation, judgment, and such.

        I imagine that all beings that have some sense of this freedom. A bird who acts does so, we reckon, by instinct. Yet, in acting according to instinct — to that inner order — the bird would feel itself free . . . and very much unlike it would feel were it roped or caged. For those who object to my reference to an animal, I propose God himself — the very epitome of freedom. The nominalists, Calvinists, and uglier legions of Mohammedan scholars rightly value God’s freedom, but they err when they think that God’s perfection, goodness, and knowledge negate his will. God is free to be the best because that is what he is (to use language unfit for God). In this, God is wholly and completely determined, but he remains free because that determination is his own essence. God cannot cease to be God; God cannot be nothing — and all negations of divinity depart being (and its divine source) and head toward nothingness.

        I suspect that the key to unraveling the perceived contradiction between determinism and human freedom is something akin to God’s freedom. May we not also be determined and free, if the determining factors of our decisions accord with our inner nature?

        Here is a thought experiment. Imagine an unfallen human being — imperfect in that he is not God nor many of the other creatures who manifest aspects of God’s perfection, but still lacking in wayward sin. This man is certainly free, and yet what would he choose but the best decisions according to his limited knowledge, perspective, and situation? His practical reason would be wholly perfect, and yet the circumstances of the outside world — which we can easily conceive deterministically — set the course of our virtuous man’s mind and action. If this unfallen man is determined yet free, why do you have a problem with freedom for fallen man? Indeed, the more sinful man is, the less able he is to attend to the true workings of his deliberative faculty and therefore the more unfree and “arbitrary” he is. The common way of thinking about liberty is truly perverse.

      • Ah, of course. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

        Your comment is fascinating, and takes the discussion in a different direction altogether – a direction not contemplated in my discussion with Mr. Iliaci, although of course it was lurking in the background. Allow me to try to set up the distinction between the two questions, at least so far as I have understood them.

        Consider a moment O in the life of a man. O is not yet actual; he is in the process of coming to be. So his existence is virtual. “Virtual” is an apt term because it conveys that O has the power or potential, the virtue or excellence, of attaining full actuality – a completion which will make him fully definite, and in so doing make definite his causal relations to his past, and likewise make him accessible as a historical datum to his subsequents, thereby specifying his place and role in history.

        Now there are causal inputs that O inherits from his worldly past – from, as we might nowadays say, the region within the light cone of the spatiotemporal locus where O is concrescing. But the impact of these mundane causal inputs to O will not be clear even to O until he has finished concrescing them into a definite package. And because spatiotemporal relations are causal relations (the importance of a past force in the final constitution of O being, e.g., an inverse square of his distance from the center of that field of force), this means that, in the final analysis, the spatiotemporal locus of O will not become clear, definite, specific, until O has finished concrescing. Until he does, his position – like every other aspect of his final character – will be somewhat hazy, and his occupancy of that position will be merely probable; there will be other loci nearby that are also probable loci of O.

        Nevertheless we may say that O “takes,” or “takes up,” or “takes the measure of,” or “measures” the past of the vicinity that is destined to be his own. As O comes to be, he zeroes in on just what he is, and therefore just where and when he is.

        There are also inputs to O that do not arrive from the worldly past of the vicinity of the locus of O. They do not arrive from creatures. As both Mr. Iliaci and I have suggested, there are inputs to O that arrive from extramundane sources – from supernature. It is these inputs that get O going in the first place, ex nihilo – i.e., out of a situation in which there was no O anywhere at all, and that could not therefore by itself generate any O – and that provide O with the form that he will express in his completed actualization, and together with the form of O also the nature of that form, and with that nature also the ends proper thereto given the circumstances of O’s locus.

        Notice: ends. There is more than one proper, rational way for O to fulfill the nisus to express his Divinely provided nature. These options are all availed to him in God’s Middle Knowledge, which is as present to him as his own being; for the whole being of God is everywhere. Some options are equally good, some not. For example, if O were singing, we might say that whether he sustained a note at pianissimo, or gently swelled to a delicate piano, the difference of interpretation might make no difference to the overall beauty of the music; whereas if he missed the mark altogether and sang out of tune this would not be the case. In other words, O has real options, and therefore must decide what he shall make of himself, given his available inputs. But unfortunately, thanks to the fact that O is only finitely intelligent, the relative goodness of his options is ever somewhat obscure to him. He can easily err. And this condition of limited intelligence is for creatures inescapable.

        So there are two sorts of causal inheritances that O must integrate in completing his process of coming to be: those from the creaturely past, which we might as well call horizontal, and those from the divine pleroma, which we might as well call vertical. The Patristic name for the vertical input to O is logos spermatikos: seed of the Logos.

        Determinism, as it is usually understood, is the doctrine that the horizontal inputs to O determine his character completely, with no possibility of any divergence therefrom. I have understood Mr. Iliaci to have been arguing that determinism in this sense is true, *and* that there is a vertical input to an immaterial procedure that ends up with the completion of O. The immaterial procedure is where our freedom lies.

        Now I agree with this picture, but for one little quibble: I think that the horizontal inputs to O *cannot* quite determine his character completely. If they did, there would be no room “left over” in O for his vertical inputs, or for any procedures internal to O.

        The question you now raise is subtly different. It is whether O is determined by the full panoply of his inputs, both horizontal and vertical; and, if so, whether the freedom he experiences is just the free expression of his nature as given by his vertical inputs.

        I think the answer here, too, must be no. The vertical inputs to O include the whole contents of God’s Middle Knowledge of what is possible to a being such as O at the worldly locus he is taking up. God knows that O could sing loud or soft, flat or sharp, and so forth. And if God knows these things are possible to O, then they *just are* possible to O, ipso facto. It is God’s eternal knowledge of the possibility of flatness and piano that avail these options to us. Because God knows that O could really sing flat or sharp, therefore O can really sing flat or sharp. If God knew that O could sing only one way, then nothing but that way would be available to O. If in that case O felt free, his freedom would be an illusion.

        Thus we are driven to the conclusion that even though he has inherited from God a notion of what it would be good for him to do, mutatis mutandis, nevertheless O still has some work to do. He begins with the end in view: shifting metaphors back to archery, he can see the stick rising out of the ground at the end of the shooting range. That’s his target. He can feel his bow, feel the arrow, the breeze, hear the murmurs of the crowd. But the arrow will not shoot itself. He must shoot it. And he might miss.

      • I should note also that while your adduction of the unity of God’s nature and his expression thereof is beautiful and alluring, I don’t think it quite works for the analysis of creaturely becoming, because no creature is actus purus, as God is. Unlike God, creatures are neither simple, nor therefore at one with their natures. So we can’t be both free and necessary, as God is.

  4. Joseph writes,

    The nominalists, Calvinists, and uglier legions of Mohammedan scholars rightly value God’s freedom, but they err when they think that God’s perfection, goodness, and knowledge negate his will.

    1. I resent being lumped in with nominalists and Moslems. We differ significantly.

    2. I must have missed that part of the Bible we interpret as meaning that God’s perfection, etc., negate His will. I can’t find it in my Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, either. Then again, I cannot claim to have read the entirety of the Reformed canon, so I know I am ignorant in this area. Could you enlighten us, please?

  5. Pingback: The Etiology of Evil | The Orthosphere

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