Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 1: Frankfurt on love, will, and normativity

I keep reflecting on issues concerning free will, moral agency, and soteriology. In my past posts on this subject I’ve offered critique more than offering something constructive. However, I’ve recently read a book that I think helped move my ideas in a more constructive direction.

First, for new readers, a recap of positions I’ve argued for in past posts. Consider these my Eight Theses, propositions you'll be exposed to if you read this blog regularly:

1. We are living in what I’ve called the post-Cartesian world. That is, with the rise of neuroscience and behavioral genetics, Cartesian dualism is growingly untenable.

2. A casualty in the post-Cartesian world is what I’ve called strong volitionalism. Strong volitionalism generally takes the form of “free will” or notions of “radical autonomy.”

3. Thus, in the post-Cartesian world weak volitional models will begin to predominate. Weak volitional models will have more anemic visions of human will, agency, and autonomy. The will is more contingent.

4. Given the contingent nature of the will, traditional notions of moral agency will need to be revised. Specifically, moral luck becomes an important issue that needs to be dealt with.

5. Moral luck will reconfigure notions of moral praise or blame with notions of moral fortune or misfortune.

6. These post-Cartesian adjustments will need to be accommodated by theological systems both systematically and practically.

7. Systematic theological considerations will need to focus on post-Cartesian views of the cross, salvation, afterlife, eternal reward/punishment, and theodicy.

8. Practical theological considerations will need to focus on post-Cartesian spiritual formation, social justice, missions, and evangelism.

Sprinkled throughout this blog are posts where I have (and many of you have) commented on issues #1-8. Sometimes we have discussed the post-Cartesian situation (e.g., are we really in it?). Sometimes we have debated free will vs. determinism. Sometimes we have wondered about salvation or evangelism in the post-Cartesian situation. Sometimes we have wondered about the implications of determinism for theodicy. And sometimes we’ve wondered about the specter of nihilism in the post-Cartesian world.

What has troubled me in my prior posts and comments on these topics is that I seem to do a lot of complaining. I’ve complained a lot about how theologians should more seriously consider the post-Cartesian situation of theology. However, complaining may be fine but it’s not very helpful. Yet, my own efforts at a constructive response to the post-Cartesian situation have been piecemeal and, thus, to me at least, unsatisfactory.

However, a recent book by Harry Frankfurt entitled Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right has suggested to me a path by which I could pull some of my ideas together into a more parsimonious package.

There are a few points that intrigue me about Frankfurt’s ideas. First, he is a weak volitionalist. Second, he has carved an interesting pathway through the thorny and tired “free will vs. determinism” debate. He doesn’t solve the debate, but he does allow for interesting conversations to proceed as that debate rumbles on. Third, Frankfurt links the will with love. And finally, Frankfurt links both the will and love with normativity (i.e., our ethical concerns). And it is this linkage between will, love, and morality—clearly a connection of deep interest to both psychologists and theologians—which is the key insight that I’d like to build on.

Basically, Frankfurt sees both love and the will as key facets of normativity. Thus, Frankfurt starts off this book with this:

…love is constituted by desires, intention, commitments, and the like. It is essentially—at least as I construe it—a volitional matter. In my view, then, the ultimate source of practical normative authority lies not in reason but in the will.
Clearly, love, will, and normativity are foundational concerns for theology. Thus, any attempt to link the three in a weak volitional manner must surely pique our interest, particularly in our post-Cartesian situation.

So, in the coming posts I’ll work through Frankfurt’s analysis with an eye on creating a post-Cartesian theology (practically and systematically).

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5 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 1: Frankfurt on love, will, and normativity”

  1. Richard,

    I'm a relatively new reader here, but I have enjoyed your work very much so far. Could you say a bit more about what you mean about being in a 'post-cartesian' world? Descartes's soul is philosophically quite problematic, I agree. But there is an older tradition of thinking about the soul (represented by Aristotle, St. Thomas and many others of course) as the form of the body. As I understand this position, it is something of a middle ground between Cartesian dualism and a strictly reductive physicalism. (John Haldane has argued something like this in his article in a book he recently edited called "Mind, Metaphysics, Values" or something to that effect).

    Is this kind of thinking about the soul present at all in psychological theorizing?

  2. Hi Shane,
    I've talked with a few theological friends about this issue. In psychology, we don't use the word "soul." We speak of mental processes (like emotion, cognition, memory) and the brain. The post-Cartesian situation is the close identification of mind with brain. The problem with this identification, theologically speaking, is that brain is a physical system. And this raises the specter of determinism. (A good discussion of this is Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. Some of our M.Div. students read this in their training to get feel for the post-Cartesian situation.)

    Regarding your insights, I believe that models (old and new) of the person that draw a closer identification with body and soul are better situated, as far as discourse with science is concerned, in the post-Cartesian situation. But the question is, have these theological models been updated given the advances in areas like neuroscience and evolutionary psychology? That is, there are implications for aligning the mind or soul with the brain. One of the implications, as I see it, is weak volitionism, the idea that a mind state or soul state, due to its identification with the brain, is going to be contingent upon brain state/condition, genetics, learning history, and evolutionary history. The mind/soul is going to be boxed in (if not determined by) the physical system it has been identified with.

    I guess another way to say it is this: When theologians speak of the Person they should bring to that conversation the notion that the Person, as an agent, has a learning history, has an intrinsic nature shaped by evolutionary history, has genetic predispositions that affect choices, and even might have certain brain conditions/pathologies. And, the more stuff we add to this list (or the deeper we understand this list), scope for strong volitional (free will) models will correspondingly dwindle.

    In the end, this is a cross-disciplinary project. There is a lot of spadework to be done. As a psychologist I'm working from a theologically impoverished position. I just come at the issue from my side. So, I appreciate the trained people on the other side weighting in. Thanks for joining the conversation. It's one I have here a lot.

  3. Richard,

    I came across glut of articles on the mind, consciousness, etc. at this site yesterday:


  4. Hi Richard, just wondering... what connection, if any, do you make between the human "Person" and God as a "Person"? Would you say that God has "history" or "predispositions", and how would you define those? Also, are you saying that the "weak volitional" view stems from these "Personal" characteristics, regardless of God's "will" or "predetermination"? Just wanted to get some clarification, I'm a bit slow at grasping concepts sometimes. Thanks!


  5. Jason,
    Thanks for the link. The argument I made in the post after this, owes a lot of Chalmers' book The Conscious Mind.

    Is God a Person? Hmmm.... Well, if we define a Person as an autobiographical agent (which I think is the consensus definition), then I'd say God's a Person. Has God a history? Well, he seems to have a history with us. Beyond us, I'm not sure how to guess at God's activities. For dispositions, some seem to believe, that even God has volitional necessities (e.g., He can't will evil). So, is God free to will his own will? Can he change his dispositions? That is (see my Frankfurt quote in the comments in the post above), does God, as we do, find Himself caring about things beyond his own choosing?

    Things to ponder over coffee...

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