Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 2: Freedom for Finite Creatures

Frankfurt begins his lectures in Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right by noting that human cognition is unique for "introducing a sort of division within our minds" (p. 4) that allows us the ability to reflect upon, monitor, endorse, or sanction our inner lives. This ability is both a blessing and a curse. As far as curses go:

"[Our ability for introspection] generates a profound threat to our well-being. The inner division that we introduce impairs our capacity for untroubled spontaneity. This is not merely a matter of spoiling our fun. It exposes us to psychological and spiritual disorders that are nearly impossible to avoid...Facing ourselves, in the way that internal separation enables us to do, frequently leaves us chagrined and distressed by what we see as well as bewildered and insecure concerning who we are. Self-objectification facilitates both an inhibiting ambivalence, and a nagging general dissatisfaction with ourselves." (p. 4-5)

But this very same ability is also the source of our rich inner experiences:

"By the same token, however, our capacity to divide and to objectify ourselves provides the foundational structure for several particularly cherished features of our equips us to enjoy a significant freedom in the exercise of our will; and it creates for us the possibility of going beyond simply wanting things, and of coming instead to care about them, to regard them as important to ourselves, and to love them." (p. 5)

Thus, as we monitor our inner lives we find two sorts of things going on. On the one hand, we see thoughts, motives, and desires that we fully endorse and resonate with. I love my children and I wholeheartedly endorse and own this feeling within me. That love is me. I identify with it. I hold on to it as a marker of self-definition.

But on the other hand, we also find things within us that we resist, reject, censor, or even loath. Desires such as these we externalize from the self. We know these things are inside us, but they are not inside the self, the locus of my being and will. Thus, if we act on these desires we feel overthrown, like the self has been cut, lacerated, or wounded. Consequently, we resist, fight against, and punish these aspects of our internal lives:

"Let us suppose that a certain motive has been rejected as unacceptable [to ourselves]. Our attempt to immunize ourselves against it may not work. The resistance we mobilize may be insufficient. The externalized impulse or desire may succeed, by its sheer power, in defeating us and forcing its way. In that case, the outlaw imposes itself upon us without authority, and against our will. This suggests a useful way of understanding what it is for a person's will to be free."(p.14)

It is this dynamic--identifying with or rejecting internal states--upon which Frankfurt bases his notion of human freedom:

"When we are doing exactly what we want to do, we are acting freely. A free act is one that a person performs simply because he wants to perform it. Enjoying freedom of action consists in maintaining this harmonious accord between what we do and what we want to do.

...Just as we act freely when what we do is what we want to do, so we will act freely when what we want is what we want to want--that is, when the will behind what we do is exactly the will by which we want our action to be moved. A person's will is free, on this account, when there is in him a certain volitional unanimity."
(p. 15)

However, there are clearly times when we act in ways that go against our will. Those are times when we resist or censor our inner motives or desires. In those moments the experience of freedom vanishes:

"Of course, there are bound to be occasions when the desire that motivates us when we act is a desire by which we do not want to be motivated. Instead of being moved by warm and generous feelings...a person's conduct may be driven by a harsh envy, of which [we] disapprove but [are] unable to prevent from gaining control. On occasions like that, the will is not free." (p. 15)

Thus, Frankfurt's notion of free will is one that involves volitional unanimity, the wholehearted endorsement and identification with what we willing, doing, and desiring. This, according to Frankfurt, is the only kind of freedom possible for finite creatures:

"[S]uppose that we are doing what we want to do, that our motivating first-order desire to perform the action is exactly the desire by which we want our action to be motivated and that there is no conflict in us between this motive and any desire at any higher order. In other words, suppose we are thoroughly wholehearted both in what we are doing and in what we want. Then there is no respect in which we are being violated or defeated or coerced. Neither our desires nor the conduct to which they lead are imposed upon us without our consent or against our will. We are acting just as we want, and our motives are just what we want them to be. Then so far as I can see, we have on that occasion all the freedom for which finite creatures can reasonably hope. Indeed, I believe that we have as much freedom as it is possible for us to even conceive." (p. 16)

How does this notion jibe with the free will vs. determinism debate? Frankfurt's comment is this:

"Notice that this has nothing to do with whether our actions, desires, or our choices are causally determined. The widespread conviction among thoughtful people that there is a radical opposition between free will and determinism is, on this account, a read herring. The possibility that everything is necessitated by antecedent causes does not threaten our freedom. What it threatens is our power. Insofar as we are governed by causal forces, we are not omnipotent. That has no bearing, however, upon whether we can be free." (p. 16)

To summarize, Frankfurt's conception of human freedom, agency, and autonomy focuses upon volitional unanimity, the wholehearted embrace of motives, desires, and actions.

I think this formulation is very helpful for theological projects. That is, this formulation allows us to focus on the volitional integrity of the agent as the issue to be discussed, theologically speaking. This allows us to move past the traditional debates regarding human choice and the moral status of those choices. For example, in conventional conversations concerning free will and determinism the focus is on agent p making choice y and if the agent was omnipotently free in making that choice. If the agent was not, can the agent be held "morally responsible" for choice y?

With Frankfurt's formulation in hand, the conversation shifts to more hospitable terrain. This conversation focuses less on the omnipotent freedom of the agent's "choosing apparatus" and more on the volitional integrity and unanimity of the agent. That is, what does the agent want? And is the agent wholeheartedly embracing those wants? Further, making an agent free,therefore, is less about removing (or worrying about) deterministic constraints and more about achieving volitional unanimity. To get the agent wholeheartedly embracing certain motives and desires.

This vision, it seems to me, gets the theological conversation going in a very fruitful direction.

Have a great weekend! Thanks for reading.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 2: Freedom for Finite Creatures”

  1. I think I understand the point that having volitional integrity and unanimity would produce a satisfying choice from an agent's internal perspective, I thought a critical component to free will vice determinism was an assent to objective, external ideals - "truth" or "rationality" as concepts?

    I suppose my point is that while volitional integrity would leave a subjective agent with no frame of reference to believe anything other than her choices were truly free, that wouldn't really mean the agent was free to choose based on an assent to objective values, right? And if that assent is lost, it seems that volitionally integrated choices might only seem be be based on free choice, when it reality they are not.

    In other words, it appears that volitional integrity is a "third way" between free will and determinism, but in reality it seems to be dodging the real issue. I see the real issue between determinism and free will not as a subjectively satisfying choice, but as a choice made in light of external truth and reality - that our noetic equipment is somehow connected or has access to a frame of reference beyond merely the stimulation of our brains to something real and external that can drive our choice, legitimately, even in a volutionally disintegrated direction.

Leave a Reply