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Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers Account of Ockham’s Notion of Free Will

The following is the first of two posts dealing with Servais Pinckaers account of two different conceptions of human freedom: freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference.  Pinckaers thinks that the notion of “freedom of indifference” is bogus, and that the more classical view of free will, freedom for excellence, is much better.  NOTE:  Ockham’s Other Razor is my label, and does not occur in Pinckaers.

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Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

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Freedom for Excellence vs. Freedom of Indifference

Moral theories characteristic of the patristic age and the great scholastic periods were dominated by questions of human happiness and the virtues and conceived of human freedom as freedom for excellence.  Modern moral theories are predominated by notions of obligation and commandments and assume a notion of human freedom called freedom of indifference (329).

St. Thomas explained freedom as a faculty proceeding from reason and will, which unite to make the act of choice. … For him, free will was not a prime or originating faculty; it presupposed intelligence and will.  It was rooted, therefore, in the inclinations to truth and goodness that constituted these faculties (331).

Ockham, on the contrary, maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts.  ‘For I can freely choose,’ he said, ‘to know or not to know, to will or not to will.’  For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. (331).

Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers’s Short Narrative of Moral Theory

Pinckaers is partial to Thomistic moral theory and assumes that freedom for excellence is much richer a concept for moral theory than notions of freedom of indifference (329).  His disdain for moral theories based on the notion of freedom from indifference is not intended to be subtle in his account of its origins and contours.  Pejorative language pervades his description of what he thinks the notion of freedom of indifference causes in moral theory—a “destruction” of the harmony between humanity and nature (333), a “banishing” of considerations of human nature and spiritual spontaneity (333), a “rupturing” of the human soul (335), “the upheaval of all moral ideas and their systematic organization” (335), a “shattering” of the beautiful Thomistic order (337), a “disruption” of the field of moral theory that yields bizarre and uncoordinated contours of human action (338).

The chapter’s basic narrative goes something like this: Moral theories were getting along wonderfully with a rich and orderly account of human nature and morality (based on Aristotle and the Fathers but expressed perhaps most fully in St. Thomas) when Ockham came along and tampered with the notion of human freedom in a way that ruptured the unity and coherency of moral theory and led to unnecessary disjunctions and false dichotomies.  Ockham’s view of human freedom was like a germ that infected every aspect of moral theory, completely restructuring it and redefining all its parts.  Moral theories have been infected with this disease ever since.

Although perhaps less known, this was Ockham’s Other Razor—the one that took the harmonized parts of the beautiful Thomistic synthesis between human nature and morality and cut them up into disjointed pieces.  By Pinckaers’s judgment, Ockham’s Other Razor slit the throat of Thomas’ brilliant synthesis, bleeding the life out of dynamic moral theory.

Pinckaers’s Fuller Account of Ockham’s Other Razor

In Ockham’s view of human freedom, although many things can potentially influence the will, nothing can be allowed to determine the will outside itself—not human reason, not God’s will, or human emotions/desires/passions (331).  Thus, it has to have the ability to choose to do what is contrary to reason, God’s will, and human passions.  So, for example, it can choose to be happy or not be happy.  This will is the ultimate self because even if one aspect of “the self” desires something with great passion, the will has to have the power to say “No!”  This freedom was thought to be at the very core of human nature—the very “being” of a person (332).  Pinckaers concludes that “this is doubtless the origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness, which has been effected in our times” (333).

It is called freedom of indifference not because the human will cannot be influenced by something other than itself, but that it always must retain enough “indifference” (or autonomy) to never be determined by such outside influences, for if it is determined by anything outside itself, it is not ultimately “free.”  In fact, “it even seemed that freedom could find no better way of asserting itself than to struggle against” human sensibilities, habits, passions, etc. (335).  Only one passion can be considered primitive to man—his passion to self-affirmation, “to the assertion of a radical difference between itself and all else” (338).

No past action can determine any future action; all human action occurs in “isolated succession” such that personality, Pinckaers argues, becomes unintelligible (336-37).  Pinckaers complains: “Human discontinuity is one of the basic tenets of Ockham’s psychology” (338).  In this view of human freedom, anything that one might conceive of as being able to have a great deal of influence over the will is set against it (loyalty, reason, natural inclinations, desires, God will)—they become a threat to human freedom (340).  This also effects the doctrine of God.  The moral will is capricious because God is absolutely free—it cannot be derived from the nature of things (342).  Since God’s will is revealed in the human conscience, moral theory can be worked out apart from an account of God (349).  Reason’s imperatives, however, are irrational (they are not grounded in the nature of things or in the nature of God, 348).

Conclusion

A litany of accusations is leveled throughout Pinckaers’s account of Ockham’s view of human freedom that the reader must carefully consider.  It is the “origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness” (333); it demands  human action occur in “isolated succession,” and thus makes what we call “personality” ultimately unintelligible (336-37); it sets God’s will over against the human will as one higher capricious will against a lower capricious will (342); it makes God’s will irrational because it is not based on the nature of things or on the nature of God himself (348); it creates all sorts of unnecessary dichotomies between freedom and law, freedom and grace, subject and object, etc. (350).  There is much overlap between Pinckaers’ critique of freedom of indifference and the more extensive critique leveled by American theologian Jonathan Edwards.

The next post will explore what Pinckaers offers as an alternative to Ockham’s notion of freedom: freedom for excellence.

Blogshot __–___–_______–10.17.10

1. Bryan Cross from Called to Communion: Reformation Meets Rome posted a piece written by David Anders about how John Calvin led him to Catholicism.  Interesting and ironic piece.

2. That reminds me. In case you missed it, a big leader in the Anglican Church just converted to Rome. Read about the splash here.

3. Ever wondered how Catholics view The Great Schism? For an interesting and informative historical survey of this Schism by Devin Rose, subscribe to his podcast: Catholic Apologetics and Faith Formation Podcast. He also has very interesting lectures about The Ecumenical Councils, The Papacy, Marian Dogmas, etc. He is a great lecturer and engages with classic Protestant arguments and concerns.

4. Ever wondered how close Eastern Orthodoxy is to Evangelical Christianity? Listening to Bradley Nassif’s Podcast, Simply Orthodox, has convinced me that they are closer than one might think.

5. The most interesting podcast I’ve listened to in a long time was a podcast at The Carnegie Council by Gregory Raymond: After Iraq. He draws comparisons between Ancient Greece and Persian Warfare ideology and modern American Warfare ideology. It was so interesting I went back and listened to it about 4 times in the past year.

6. A little chat about different strands of evangelicalism.  I thought Owen Strachan had some particularly weighty comments.

7. For some good laughs:

Quotations on Justification from Saint Mark The Ascetic, part 1

St. Mark was an early fifth century monk also known as Mark the Monk or Mark the Hermit.  The following quotations are taken from his writing entitled “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts” in The PhilokaliaVolume One, compiled by St. Nikodimos and St. Makarios, translated and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983).  The numbers that follow the quotations do not indicate page numbers but paragraph numbers.

One of the interesting things to note about St. Mark’s writing on this subject is his unwillingness to teach easy-believism, yet his equal unwillingness to teach that God gives us heaven or hell based merely on an examination of our external works.  St. Mark teaches that Christ will judge each man “according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith” in Christ (§22).  Whether we get into heaven or are condemned to hell, Mark teaches, depends on whether our works were done with faith in Christ.  This is a little different from the typical evangelical way of speaking about salvation.  This means it is based on works (in some sense), yet it is ultimately based on faith.  Could this early Father of the church be teaching something compatible with evangelical doctrine?  Let the reader decide for herself. And let her also feel free to leave her answer in the comment thread. 🙂

Those who, because of the rigour of their own ascetic practice, despise the less zealous, think that they are made righteous by physical works.  But we are even more foolish if we rely on theoretical knowledge and disparage the ignorant.  Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works.  For everything is established by being put into practice (§11-12).

When we fulfil the commandments in our outward actions, we receive from the Lord what is appropriate; but any real benefit we gain depends on our inward intention.  If we want to do something but cannot, then before God, who knows our hearts, it is as if we have done it.  This is true whether the intended action is good or bad.  The intellect does many good and bad things without the body, whereas the body can do neither good nor evil without the intellect.  This is because the law of freedom applies to what happens before we act. (§15-17).

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they posses true faith.  Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them.  Both are mistaken. A master is under no obligation to reward his slaves; on the other hand, those who do not serve him well are not given their freedom. (§18).

When the Scripture says “He will reward every man according to his works” (Matt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom.  On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer. (§22).

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