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Human Freewill and Divine Predestination

Antony Flew untangles some confusion about David Hume, St Thomas Aquinas and the fiery fate of the damned.

Discounting journals of natural philosophy (i.e. physics) the first philosophical journal to be established in the UK was Mind, founded in the second half of the nineteenth century. To this day the annual philosophers’ jamboree in Britain is a Joint Session of the Mind Association, consisting of subscribers to Mind, and the Aristotelian Society, which publishes the papers presented to the Joint Session as a Supplementary Volume to its own annual Proceedings.

Mind continues to occupy a preeminent position among scholarly journals of philosophy. So there is surely some significance in the fact that the first item in the issue current at the time of writing, that of April 2002, is an article by Helen Beebee and Alfred Mele entitled ‘Hume’s Compatibilism’. It is remarkable that this article not only contrives to make no quotation from or reference to any work by David Hume but also manages to avoid mentioning any philosophical question which could possibly interest anyone other than professional philosophers. It is even more remarkable that the relevant work of which mention is thus eschewed should be An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which has from its first publication generated wider and fiercer controversy than any of Hume’s other works. Beebee and Mele preface their article with the conventional Abstract:

Humean compatibilism is the combination of a Humean position on laws of nature and the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. This article’s aim is to situate Humean compatibilism in the current debate among libertarians, traditional compatibilists, and semi-compatibilists about free will. We argue that a Humean about laws can hold that there is sense in which the laws of nature are ‘up to us’ and hence that the leading style of argument for incompatibilism – the consequence argument – has a false premise. We also display some striking similarities between Humean compatibilism and libertarianism, an incompatibilist view.

Hume and Predestination

Fully to understand what Hume was about in Sections VIII and XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – the sections ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ and ‘Of Particular Providence and of a Future State’ – and why he made his points as gently as was consistent with clarity, we have to appreciate – what Helen Beebee and Alfred Mele either have never noticed or do not want to remark – that Hume lived in a world in which everyone (else) accepted, albeit with different degrees of attention and enthusiasm, the truth of the doctrine that we are all Divinely predestined to an eternity either of extreme torture or of blissful worshipping.1 Hume had himself in his youth at Ninewells in the Border country been regularly exposed to predestinarian sermons in the hardline Calvinist Kirk of Scotland. But in those days, and for more than two centuries thereafter, a worshipper in the Church of England could, after reading Article 17 (‘Of Predestination and Election’) of the 39 Articles of Religion at the end of the Book of Common Prayer, ask himself whether he was one of those who can “feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things” or whether he was “a curious and carnal person” predestined to damnation?

This doctrine of predestination is quite certainly Biblical, and it was equally certainly preached by the only Christian contemporary of Jesus bar Joseph any of whose writings are available to us today. For St Paul, who clearly had a first-class philosophical mind, saw at once and without hesitation the logically necessary implications of maintaining that the Universe and everything and everyone in it were created and are sustained by an omnipotent and omniscient personal Being who nevertheless punishes creatures inordinately for delinquencies of which He himself is necessarily the necessitating cause:

For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy upon whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me. Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man who art thou that replieth against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour and another into dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Romans IX, 17-24)

So What is Free Will?

Helen Beebee and Alfred Mele are apparently unaware of the need to distinguish between the colloquial sense ‘of his or her or their own freewill’ and the artificial philosophical sense of ‘free will’. In the former sense, actions performed of an agent’s own free will are contrasted with those performed under some form of external coercion or constraint. In this sense of the words Martin Luther was, most certainly and most emphatically, acting of his own free will when, for instance, standing before the Diet of Worms, he said: “Here I stand, I can no other. So help me God.” The fact that human beings often, in this sense, act of their own freewill is completely compatible with the doctrine of Divine predestination. Thus Luther in his Dialogue with Erasmus insisted that:

… by ‘necessarily’ I do not mean compulsorily but by the necessity of immutability (as they say) and not of compulsion. That is to say, when man is without the Spirit of God he does not do evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of his neck and forced to do it, like a thief or robber carried off against his will to punishment, but he does it of his own accord and with ready will. (see Luther and Erasmus, Westminster Press 1969 p.139)

The term ‘compatibilist’ was introduced into British philosophy during the first decade after World War II to describe the position of those (myself included) who contended that to assert that some action was performed of the agent’s own free will is completely consistent with insisting that the sense of that action was, whether by God or Nature, causally necessitated. Against those contending that we human beings are all endowed with free will in some fresh sense of that term, which makes this endorsement inconsistent with the ultimate causal determination of the senses of all our choices, the compatibilists of that now-remote period requested to see the necessary demonstration.

To describe a view as Humean is of course not equivalent to saying that it was the view of Hume himself. But it is very strange, not to say perverse, to develop and describe as ‘Humean compatibilism’ a view different from the form of compatibilism which Hume himself accepted. Yet that is what Beebee and Mele do. In their version of Humean compatibilism we are free in the philosophical sense of ‘causally undetermined’. In Hume’s own version, we are free in the everyday sense of ‘free from external constraint’. That is manifest in his acceptance of the conceptual consistency of the doctrine of Divine predestination. He was not able to describe that acceptance as such since neither the concept of ‘compatibilism’ nor the concept of ‘freewill’ as a causally undetermined characteristic had yet been introduced. I should myself like to know, and will be grateful to anyone who will reveal to me, when and by whom and in what form that sense of ‘freewill’ was first introduced.

As if it were not already sufficiently perverse to introduce a privately constructed concept of ‘Humean compatibilism’ when it would have been perfectly possible to represent Hume’s own compatibilism, Helen Beebee and Alfred Mele insist on arguing from the in fact gross inadequacy of Hume’s account of laws of nature to the conclusion “that there is a sense in which the laws of nature are ‘up to us’.”

Since the Laws of Nature mentioned in the Treatise are, like the Law of Nature discussed in Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, normative we have to go for Hume’s account of descriptive laws of nature to Section X (‘Of Miracles’) in his First Enquiry, an account which is notoriously inadequate. For it is essential to both sides of the argument here that a miracle, if it were to occur, should constitute an altogether exceptional overriding by Divine power of a Divinely supported order, and not in any way merely some sort of irregularity in something which is ‘up to us’.

Burn, Baby, Burn

Those who know of the Church of England only in its present secular decline will perhaps be surprised to learn that once upon a time its Commission on Doctrine unhesitatingly affirmed “that the whole course of events is under the control of God” and appreciated that “logically this involves the affirmation that there is no event, and no aspect of any event, even those due to sin and so contrary to the Divine will, which falls outside the scope of His purposive activity.” (from Doctrine in the Church of England, Church House Publishing, 1922 p.27.)

Today many thoroughly-instructed Roman Catholics may be surprised to learn that the same appalling doctrine of Divine predestination has been, and presumably still is, an essential element in their faith. Thus Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae contains a Question of ‘Predestination’ in which the Angelic Doctor lays it down that:

As men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation … Reprobation implies not only foreknowledge but also is something more… (Summa Theolog. I, xxiii, 3)

What and how much that something more is, the Summa Contra Gentiles makes clear:

… just as God not only gave being to things when they first began, but is also – as the conserving cause of being – the cause of their being as long as they last … so He also not only gave things their operative powers when they were first created, but is also always the cause of these in things. Hence if this divine influence stopped, every operation would stop. Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as its cause. (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III.)

This is spelt out more fully in two later chapters:

God alone can move the will, as an agent, without doing violence to it … Some people … not understanding how God can cause a movement of our will, have tried to explain … authoritative texts wrongly; that is, they would say that God ‘works in us, to wish and to accomplish’ means that He causes in us the power of willing, but not in such a way that He makes us will this or that … these people are, of course, opposed quite plainly by authoritative texts of Holy Writ. For it says in Isaiah (xxxvi, 2)2 ‘Lord, you have worked all your work in us’. Hence we receive from God not only the power of willing but its employment also. (Bk III, Chaps 88-89)

The Angelic Doctor, however, is always the devotedly complacent apparatchik. He sees no problem about the justice of either the inflicting of infinite and everlasting penalties for finite and temporal offences or of their being inflicted upon creatures for offences which their Creator makes them such that they freely choose to commit.

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God … they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned … the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed, while the pains of the damned will cause it indirectly … the blessed in glory will have no pity for the damned. (Summa Theologiae, III Supp. xciv, 1-3.)

As used to be said in my day in the unhallowed other ranks of the Royal Air Force: “F—— you, Jack; I’m fireproof!”

© Prof. Antony Flew 2003

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Reading University.

1 I suspect that I am not alone in responding to that alternative with Maurice Chevalier’s answer to the question: “How do you feel about achieving your eightieth birthday?” “Well, it’s better than the alternative.”

2 Aquinas chose to quote this passage from the Old Testament rather than the passage from Romans quoted above because his Summa Contra Gentiles was directed to Jews and Muslims.

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