Aquinas: Do We Get a Choice?

And it’s time for another Aquinas trap. Do we have free will? God’s will is supreme, and His will is done – so where’s our choice in all this? Aquinas phrases it slightly differently: “Does God’s will impose necessity on things?” Remember that Aquinas distinguishes between wishing and willing – so God wishes that everybody would be saved, but maybe He leaves it up to them as to whether they find salvation? (Spoilers: lol no.) This is 1a.19.8.

So Aquinas starts by arguing that yes, it would seem that God’s will does impose necessity on things. He quotes Augustine: “No one is saved except whom God has willed to be saved. We must therefore beseech Him to will, for if He does our salvation is bound to come about.” So if God doesn’t want it, you’re done. Also, “every cause that cannot be hindered produces its effect of necessity”. We’ve already established that God’s will cannot be hindered or interrupted – you can’t stop God’s will from happening, right. So it’s happening by necessity.

Aquinas begins his response with the thing that we’ve already pointed out. If God imposed His will on everything, “away would go deliberation and free choice and the like”. Free choice has to remain inviolate, so we have to find a way around this problem. One of the other things he notes is that if God did impose His will on everything, “the consequence would follow that everything good inevitably came about”. That doesn’t sound so bad – God just decides everything, and everything turns out good? But again, if that was the case, away would go free will. Is that so bad though? Well, we might hypothesise, God doesn’t want slaves, He wants sons and daughters who freely love Him. It still seems like a lot of effort to go through all of this creation – all the sin and death and pain – just to get free sons and daughters. Isn’t there an easier way?

Well, anyway. Aquinas argues that “The divine will imposes necessity on some things but not on all.” Are some things necessarily contingent? That’s what I’d call them. Apparently, some people have suggested that God makes necessary things happen through necessary causes, and contingent things through contingent causes. That is, the stuff that’s optional has an optional cause that didn’t necessarily have to exist, so in theory it could’ve gone another way. Aquinas doesn’t like that argument though: “no defect in a secondary cause can stop God’s will taking effect.” He also thinks it’s a bit of a wet argument – if we’re saying that God makes contingent things happen through contingent causes, He’s still making them happen. He’s still choosing everything that happens contingently, so there’s still an imposition of God’s will. That is, there’s still no choice for us as humans.

The distinction is on the right path though. Aquinas ultimately argues that there’s some stuff that God wills to happen necessarily, and there’s some stuff that God wills to be contingent. So He doesn’t will the result per se – He sets up a bunch of choices that’re dependent on our actions (that is, choices that’re contingent), and He prepares the various outcomes of our possible decisions, and then He leaves it up to us. So it’s not that He makes contingent things happen contingently, because that’s still just another form of inevitability. It’s more that He’s prepared a bunch of possible outcomes and leaves the actual decision to us.

So in responding to Augustine’s “We must therefore beseech Him to will, for if He does our salvation is bound to come about”, well, Aquinas says that’s correct. But it’s more like saying ‘If God wills someone to be saved, then they’re going to be saved’, Aquinas suggests. So yeah, if God wills something to happen, it’s going to happen, but that doesn’t preclude Him from willing things to be contingent. That’s sort of the response to the second point too – yes, every cause that cannot be hindered produces its effect of necessity”. So when God wills a thing to be necessary, His will cannot be hindered, and it’s necessarily necessary. In the same way, when God wills a thing to be contingent, His will cannot be hindered, and so it’s (here we go) necessarily contingent.

You can see that logic being employed to talk about our free will in general. If God’s will is that we have free will (whatever ‘free will’ actually means), then our free will is only impacted in the sense that we’re forced to have it. It also relates to talking about God and evil – if God chose everything Himself, then there wouldn’t be any evil, because God is by definition incapable of choosing it. However, He leaves us with these contingent situations where we’re able to choose, and sometimes we choose good things and sometimes we don’t – and that’s where evil comes into the picture.

It’s actually interesting where Aquinas says that God “prepares” a bunch of alternate outcomes for contingent situations. He writes that God has “designed” a bunch of contingent things, all of which have “defectible and contingent causes”. God has actually allowed for the possibility of these things going wrong by installing causes that have the option of malfunction. Thus God has “prepared contingent causes”. Is that not in itself kinda damning? According to Aquinas, God literally wrote the possibility of evil into the universe. That seems like some bullshit. The best defense provided by Aquinas is the whole ‘free will for humans’ thing, but… it seems suspicious. We’ll deal more with this topic next week, when Aquinas asks whether God wills evil.

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