Friday, June 10, 2011

Aquinas' Intellectualism

From Mike Flynn: "The will is determined always to the good, but the intellect does not always know perfectly what is good, and a particular object may not be good from every perspective.  If it were good from every perspective, the will could not freely withhold consent."

Question: What if the intellect did know perfectly what was good? If I'm understanding the Thomistic intellectualist position right, in that case we would make perfectly good choices.

For one, this appears to contradict Christian theology. God is all-good from every perspective. Yet the fallen angels are in their state because of their choice to sin against God. This is inexplicable given the framework where the will would be unable to freely withhold consent.

It also appears to cause problems for our personal responsibility. After all, what we choose depends on what is in our intellect. What is in our intellect is what first comes through our senses (according to Aquinas in De Veritate). So what we choose is dependent on what comes through our senses. This would imply that whether we make good or bad choices and become good or bad people is ultimately dependent on our "sensory history", i.e. whether or not we are fortunate enough to have had the types of sensations which would lead to our apprehending the types of truths which would cause us to act well. And if that's the case, it seems our action is ultimately just a matter of our having this flux of sensory stimuli rather than another. This isn't much better than the materialist picture; we're not the proper source of our actions.

Another problem is that some people have better intellects, if that makes sense. Of course, someone with a good intellect may not have a very congenial sensory history. This would explain why smart people can turn out wicked. But for those who have better intellects and better sensory histories, being directed to the good will come much easier to them insofar as they can apprehend truth and goodness more clearly than others. Thus, by chance, they're at an unfair advantage.

It seems safe to say that this means when we're punishing criminals we're ultimately (a) punishing them for not being gifted with a good intellect or (b) punishing them for not having the right sensory history. However, one should not be punished for external contingencies beyond one's control.

5 comments:

Principium Unitatis said...

Alredo,

Yet the fallen angels are in their state because of their choice to sin against God. This is inexplicable given the framework where the will would be unable to freely withhold consent.

It would be inexplicable if the fallen angels were omniscient before their fall, and their will was not flexible to deviate from the highest good. But they did not have the beatific vision before their fall. Neither were they omniscient, nor was their will inflexible to departure from the highest good.

This would imply that whether we make good or bad choices and become good or bad people is ultimately dependent on our "sensory history"

Dependent on, is not determined by.

Thus, by chance, they're at an unfair advantage.

It is not "unfair" for God to give greater good to some than to others. (Otherwise, he could only make one kind of creature.)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

awatkins69 said...

Thanks for commenting Bryan.

Regarding the first point, I think it is best illustrated by considering what actually happened. When God created the angels some chose to sin, others did not. Given Aquinas' view that will follows upon intellect, the only reason some could have sinned is due to some defect of intellect or knowledge. Now, God did give some angels "lesser" intellects, but it can't be the lesser intellect per se which caused some angels, as Lucifer is considered in the Jewish/Christian tradition to have been an angel of the highest order before his fall. It's also hard to see what knowledge would have caused an angel to have fallen. Angels are not subject to the contingencies we are as regards knowledge. The only thing left is an act of pure will, which makes little sense on Aquinas' view of will.

Regarding the second point, that the will is dependent on and not determined by our intellect, I don't see how Aquinas' framework has the necessary tools to make us not determined by our intellect (and hence by our sensory experience). Aquinas can say that we arbitrate between choices due to our epistemological limitations, i.e. we don't perfectly cognize what is good. Two problems though. One is that epistemological limitation seems to be a weak foundation for free choice between alternatives. Moreover, when we arbitrate by an act of will, Aquinas would seem to think that even that act of arbitration must follow upon some prior act of intellect; otherwise, Aquinas is really just a voluntarist at the ultimate level.

Regarding the third point, that it is not unfair for God to give some to more than others, that much I can concede. The problem is that Aquinas and the Christian tradition would say that God then imputes the same amount of responsibility to each and expects the wicked person who happens to be born into bad circumstance or have a lesser intellect to behave just as well as the person who was lucky to be graced with a greater intellect and greater knowledge (because of their fortunate sensory circumstances). This seems unjust. Not to mention considering the Thomist's strong view of divine providence where God in his power brought about these circumstances himself; that God would punish his creatures for actions which he is the ultimate cause of (insofar as he created them with lesser intellects and providentially put them into less congenial sensory circumstances) seems flatly inconsistent with our understanding of God's justice.

Of course, my problem may just be that I'm misunderstanding Aquinas, and that he really is a voluntarist deep down. Best.
-Alfredo

Principium Unitatis said...

Alfredo,

Given Aquinas' view that will follows upon intellect,

"Follows upon" does not mean "necessarily submits to what intellect presents as the highest good."

One is that epistemological limitation seems to be a weak foundation for free choice between alternatives.

It is not the foundation for free choice for Aquinas. Rationality is, since rationality necessarily includes a will. God has free will (in the sense of freedom between alternatives) for Aquinas, and yet God doesn't have "epistemological limitation." So "freedom between" alternatives does not depend on epistemic limitations. But, epistemic limitation are a *necessary* condition for the possibility of sin. But necessary condition is not the same thing as foundation.

Aquinas would seem to think that even that act of arbitration must follow upon some prior act of intellect

True, but see my first statement in this comment.

Aquinas and the Christian tradition would say that God then imputes the same amount of responsibility to each

I don't see that anywhere in Aquinas. For Aquinas, God does not require any person to do to do more than he can do.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

awatkins69 said...

Thanks for the reply Bryan.

"'Follows upon' does not mean 'necessarily submits to what intellect presents as the highest good.'"

Here's my main question then: excluding cases of "akrasia" or "weak-willedness", what would cause the will to choose, say, a lesser good over a higher good? If we say it "just does" choose one over the other and stop there that might work and terminate our regress, but we'd be taking on what I've called a "voluntarist" interpretation of Aquinas.

The other interpretation, which I mentioned before, is that the choosing of the lesser good is itself due to some act of the intellect. Now, either this act of the intellect determines the will to choose or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then we still have to ask why the will chose the lesser good over the other if it wasn't determined: once again, maybe it "just did" or it was determined by an act of intellect. But the regress has to stop somewhere, doesn't it?

Hope that's all clear. Blessings.

Principium Unitatis said...

Alfredo,

what would cause the will to choose, say, a lesser good over a higher good?

To look for a determining or necessitating cause behind a free choice between goods is already to have accepted a presupposition which denies that there is a will. The will is a first mover. You can't get 'behind' a choice to some cause behind the will.

but we'd be taking on what I've called a "voluntarist" interpretation of Aquinas.

If all you mean by 'voluntarist' is that the will can choose lesser goods [presented as lesser by the intellect], then of course Aquinas is a voluntarist. That's uncontroversial. Usually, when people use the term 'voluntarist,' however, they mean something stronger than that.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan