Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Free Will, Predestination, Augustine and Obesity

Augustine of Hippo in his attack on Pelagius, the British monk who alleged that man has free will and thus can do good acts and achieve salvation, restructured the concept of free will and introduced the concept of grace and perforce led the way to predestination. Simply man cannot achieve salvation unless God grants him individually grace and then his salvation is preordained since he cannot do anything which would then mitigate that end result.

What is the will and what do we mean by free will? Both have significant philosophical and theological facets and understandings.

Augustine fought Pelagius and to do so he had need of clarifying two elements; free will and grace. Now the will was well discussed in philosophical literature with Aristotle expanding upon it in Nicomachean Ethics. The concept of grace as a facilitator was a residual from Paul and his writings. The interaction of the two became a major factor in Augustine’s thought.

Let me first begin with the concept of free will, or the will. In broad terms the will is the human element which allows the individual to make a choice, and in an sense as used by Augustine a moral choice. In contrast the ideas of Schopenhauer allows the will to be expansive and become an integral part of every human action. We will not look at the conjoined will of Schopenhauer but the more dualist will of Augustine. In our particular example the will to say no to a piece of cake or a serving of French fries.

Stump makes the following assessments regarding free will and Augustine (Stump, p 124, Augustine, Cambridge) which I shall paraphrase somewhat. She argues that there are at least two schools of thought regarding free will and they can be characterized as follows:

Compatibilism: The world can be causally determined yet a person can commit free acts with full moral responsibility.

Libertarianism: Consists of two claims:

(i) a person acts with free will only if the act is not causally determined by some exogenous agent, or:

(ii) a person acts with free will only if the person could have acted otherwise.

Stump adds a third form of a “Modified Libertarianism”, it is defined as:

(iii) A person acts with free will only if their intellect and will are the sole determinants of the act.

In all of these cases the will is in many ways a dualistic forced, within the person, whereby the act they take is one amongst many yet this force allows the person to make a choice. The choice presented for selection one could argue have relatively equal compelling arguments, a possibly poor term but reasonable under the selection of having the intellect involved, for their selection.

Thus one may ask does a person who is “addicted” to say heroin have the free will to say no and eliminate that dependence? This would be problematic under many of the above definitions. However we know by experience that people can and do choose to stop drug use, tobacco use, even caffeine use. People stop consuming certain types of food, by choice. Thus is this not a clear example of free will. Yet we know that physiologically the drug addict finds the cessation a painful experience, the cessation of eating can also be physically painful and socially difficult.

Thus free will is part of the equation for Augustine. The other element is Grace, the “gift of God” to assist the will and the intellect in making the correct moral choice. Grace is needed according to Augustine because without it man is all too often prone to make the bad choice, read it evil or sinful. One must wonder whether this would apply to all things that the Augustinian will would be involved in, say eating a date versus a fig. But it is the need for this Grace that allows the will to act in a correct and moral manner. If God gives you grace then you can act accordingly, if God withholds grace then you cannot do the right thing, and for Augustine that would mean ever do the right thing.

Thus in the Augustine context one has a duality of body and will, a will which is fee, and a need for Grace to facilitate right choices. For Pelagius man could perforce of his fee will make those choices, and in a natural extension it would be via that free will per say that many passes or fails the acid test of living a moral life. To Augustine man needed Grace and thus God, by himself, with free will, he was still lost. Thus the Augustinian view of Grace is that being God given you need it to do truly good works, devoid of such good works one is lost, and God grants grace on his own choices and thus one has the Augustinian basis for predestination, and the resultant Calvinistic views.

Now to obesity and genes. Instead of Grace we have genes, and instead of the free will to do right and wrong in a simply moral manner we have the will, assumed to be free, to eat or not eat. The current world view by many is in a sense an Augustinian extension of predestination, if you have the right genes you are fine and if not it is not your fault, the genes made you do it. Namely the strength of will alone is useless.

We need a Pelagius, we need the anti-Augustine to state that indeed man has free will, and that it is the will, in what may be a dualist manner, which can save us, genes notwithstanding. Pelagius may have had a point, albeit pushed to an extreme at the time. Pelagius recognized the power of the will for good and evil, the power of the will to select between what is good for one, albeit uncomfortable, and what is bad. Choosing is what makes humans somewhat unique. Understanding that was Pelagius’ contribution. We should dismiss the Augustinian crutch of some exogenous factor which lets our free will take a back seat.