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Friday, February 17, A.D. 2012
Whence the Will?

The recent posts “Abortion as a Sacrament” and “Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will” have elicited some interesting commentary. For today’s post, I offer Kristor’s comment about the unintelligibility of the undetermined will:

You write:

I find it difficult to understand anything undetermined. The world that we witness is one of intelligible causality, and it is bizarre to think of the will as free. Yet, we have the experience of a faculty that suggests uncaused action.

I sympathize. I don’t have any answers, but I do have a clue. It seems to me that the mystery of the freedom of the will is deeply linked to the mystery of the coming into being of novel entities. A being that is determined ex ante cannot be really said to come into being at the point when it attains actuality; for, really, it is not a separate entity at all, but rather a mere function of its factors, an *aspect* of its factors. It is not, apart from its factors; so, it is not. If we are to say then that we really do exist, it must be the case that we are undetermined ex ante, at least a little bit. And the “ex ante” refers to priority in the orders both of time and of logic. But this is to say that there is an element of our coming into being which is ultimately mysterious - which is, precisely, not intelligible.

NB that this doesn’t make the world fundamentally unintelligible. It just means that the world is intelligible, through and through, *but only ex post.* [This is tantamount to saying that creatures are contingent, for an entirely perfectly completely predictable event would be, not contingent, but necessary - the two notions, of contingent being and of not completely intelligible being, have their source in the same wellspring.] Looking back, we can see the reasons for things. Looking forward, from within the moment of creation, the springs of our being are hidden from us. Where did this moment I am now “in” come from? It came, ultimately, from nothing, so far as we can tell. The mystery at the seed of each moment of our own becoming may be “what it’s like to be created ex nihilo.” Nothingness *just is* unintelligibility, no? In a world governed by a rational omnipotent God, there could be no such thing as an unintelligible actuality. So, what is, is ipso facto intelligible, through and through, at least in principle. What is not, and what is not yet, are not intelligible; if they were, they would already be (they would be past); but this is just the same thing, is it not, as to say, “what is not, and what is not yet, simply do not exist.”

If we do really exist, then, we were not completely determined ex ante. And this gap in intelligibility, this volume of as yet but partial existence, seems to be the playground of the will.

How fitting that Heisengberg should have discovered an irreducible uncertainty at the root of physics, that absolutely rules out prediction, even in principle. How fitting that the physicists who study consciousness generally locate human freedom in the ontological room opened up by that uncertainty.

I now recall that in our discussion last year of the Falls both of Adam and Lucifer we both took note several times of the sheer unintelligibility of evil. I recall also that the zero both of goodness and rationality (& ipso facto of intelligibility) is the zero of being.

So the mysteries at the roots of freedom, of being, and of evil may be all impenetrable because we and our acts come ultimately from nothing.

I never could understand how the uncertainty principle allowed for free choice. It always annoyed me when I heard it invoked in discussions about the will. However, Kristor’s point makes it defensible. How the study of being and the basics baffles me!

For instance, I often wonder just how—and what—we are in the mind of God. If creation is the unfolding of the divine ideas in time and space, then it seems that not only essences of kinds but also anything that is intelligible exists in the divine mind, including each “nexus” of intelligible universals that inform every moment of the world in motion. Any particular being in time and space manifests many forms in an orderly way; its peculiar appearance in the world at any given moment provides a meeting point of constituting ideas in the intelligible structure of being. Perhaps, there are threads of such nexus that correspond to particular things, and maybe there are forms for such relational patterns, like henadic strings in the fabric of reality.

I have never found the Aristotelian doctrine convincing that “matter” is the individuating principle, even if we interpret matter liberally as a potential time and space for being to manifest in some particular way. Each particular moment brings together a great host of formal input, and I do not see the need for a non-formal, receptive principle to render it understandable. However, as Parmenides understood, becoming suffers from a lack of intelligiblity. Each “snapshot” in time and space may instantiate formal reality, but what is the relation between such snapshots? Movement, change, and continuity therein appear to my metaphysically challenged mind to require some shady power that makes room for the odd dance between being and non-being—some additional stitching that accompanies those threads of particular beings that persist though change through time. Perhaps, Kristor’s point about every moment’s having an ex nihilo quality has something to do with the hazy truth to which the Peripatetics’ treatment of matter reaches.

In metaphysics, we deal with the most fundamental objects of the mind, and I do not expect to grasp much of the truth. I think that philosophical insights are mere glimpses, and we should remember that ontology is the map rather than the territory, to use one of Kristor’s images. If we commit ourselves too dogmatically to one particular map, we might fail to notice several aspects of the land. Of course, it is not always easy to figure out how different maps correspond, especially when we are traveling in unfamiliar country. Accordingly, I feel no shame in trying to harmonize Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant, and others even though I realize that their approaches differ radically. Consider our sense faculties as a metaphor; each power approaches an object in its own special way. The information collected by seeing will differ from that gained by hearing or touching. Yet, the object is the same. Likewise, I suspect that mechanistic physics and teleology understand different aspects of nature, and perhaps different philosophical schools also understand that which underlies nature complementarily.

Update: Kristor asks about henadic strings. Read the comments for a fuller explanation.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 17, Anno Domini 2012
Philosophy | Metaphysics • (4) Comments
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