Love of Theory...

Shrek Pepe Style

...is the root of all evil, as the otherwise quite astute Z Man demonstrates as he fails to see the epistemological corner his penchant for biological determinism paints him into.
Part of what drives the persistence of bad ideas is they seem to address a need among modern people to believe in free will. As the human sciences build the case that we are the product of our genetic coding, the need to believe we can overcome that by force of will becomes stronger. 
The once-formidable atheist crowd has reduced itself to a laughingstock due in no small part to incoherent credal statements like the above. They stumble right out of the gate by playing the same dishonest word games with free will that Lefties play with marriage and choice.

In fact, the entire free will debate springs from a semantic error. Almost everyone on both sides, even "reactionary" biological determininsts, a priori accept the Modernist conceptions of will and freedom. They never contend with free will as it was understood for centuries by the greatest foundational thinkers of the West.

By will, the determinists mean a mental faculty independent of the intellect. By free, they mean wholly unrestricted. At this point it should be clear they're attacking a straw man, but I'll explain further for the benefit of those who attended public schools.

Pre-Moderns understood the will as inextricably bound to the intellect. One might even describe the will as a state of the intellect; specifically, the intellect lacking perfect knowledge. The will is the intellect's drive to acquire the true knowledge it needs to operate. Just as the appetite moves the body toward the material goods it needs for nourishment, the will moves the mind toward intellectual goods. The will is the intellect's appetite--no more, no less.

Another key idea that gets lost in the shuffle is that knowledge implies truth. The idea of "knowing" an untruth is inherently absurd. That's why people who claim to "know" the Earth is flat are justly considered risible. The takeaway is that when the intellect has grasped some piece of true knowledge, the will can't dissent. It becomes determined in regard to that particular item of knowledge.

"But I can change my mind!" I hear the fedora-tippers whine. "What if I clearly see four lights, but a torturer coerces me into believing there are five?"

  1. The objection begs the question by assuming the Modernist concept of free will and preemptively dismissing the Classical conception, viz. the will as an intellective appetite that seeks truth.
  2. This objection actually reinforces the Anti-Modern's point. If you've been coerced, you're saying there are five lights against your will.
Of course one can change one's mind on a subject. By definition, that only happens when the will is undetermined, and only truth can determine the will. When you discard an idea you'd previously held, it's because you've received new information refuting the old idea as untrue. If you still entertain doubts, I invite you to state one untruth you willingly hold as true in the comments.

To recap, the will is an intellectual appetite that moves the mind toward knowledge it lacks until it learns the truth of the matter. At that point, the will is determined and cannot dissent. Thus, the Classical meaning of free will is undetermined will; not the utterly sovereign capacity to think and do whatever I want. The latter interpretation is a pure Modernist conceit.

By starting from the Modernist misconception of perfect free will, the biological determinists not only fail to refute the Classical understanding of limited free will, they never even manage to address it.

"But what about all the scientific studies that prove our actions are genetically predetermined?" asks the guy who fucking loves science. To which I answer: You mean actions like running scientific studies?

Statistician William M. Briggs coined the phrase "Love of theory is the root of all evil." He and his readers came up with another useful term: scidolatry. A prime example is the unprincipled exception material determinists grant to scientists who conduct studies that would otherwise rule out scientists' ability to conduct accurate studies. Unless scientists are superbeings who, unlike the human meat puppet masses, somehow do possess a non-material intellective faculty for seeking truth, their decisions to run experiments, and the way they run those experiments, are wholly controlled by the blind dictates of their genes. Without undetermined will, there's no guarantee the empirical sciences produce results that correspond to reality at all.

"But that's why they're empirical sciences. We can tell with our senses that the results conform to reality."

Not without an undetermined faculty that moves the intellect toward true sensory data, we can't.

That's the intractable problem the material determinists will never be able to get around: You can't deny free will without doing away with the intellect. The only way you can legitimately claim that human will is completely predetermined is if you also claim that everybody knows everything.

Proving once again that material determinism is silly and irrelevant.


  1. Very interesting. Now I am curious as to how 'will' changed meaning.

    1. Theological determinists like Calvin got the ball rolling. Ironic, given that most material determinist atheists attack free will in an attempt to undermine Christianity.

    2. So questions about God's omniscience, assuming to know everything in the future. And whether God's knowing what will happen forces that to happen.

      All right. I now see exactly how that happens. Thank you.

    3. It has more to do with God being eternal. Time itself had a beginning and God created it, He is thus not bound by it.

  2. IF we are but aggregates of atoms, molecules, chemical compounds, and biological structures, all constructed and driven by "the motor of DNA", THEN the Biological Determinists should be astounded that we can communicate by language and understand one another, or question why an English speaker cannot automatically understand a native of Bulgaria.

    The determinists cannot fathom that ability of humans to step outside themselves and analyze their own thought processes is evidence of something startlingly unique. The ability to ask a question about our own existence and mental processes says something supernatural is occurring.

    1. One of Z Man's readers commented that biological determinism means everyone's an NPC, and many other commenters stated their grim resignation.

      Vox has noted the correlation between atheism and autism before. It could be that determinists really can't step outside themselves.

  3. Brian,

    Thanks. This is a great post. I appreciate the refresher about what free will really is.
    I note another flaw in modernism:
    the limitlessness conceit.
    Nothing is limited; everything is infinite.
    Errr no. We die and we have limited knowledge but even with thos limits we can still learn and acknowledge unchangable truths


  4. I fail to see any difference between what you are calling limited free will and determinism.

    1. The various forms of determinism all state that human will is completely predetermined from the outset.

      I argue from the Aristo-Thomist position that human will remains undetermined barring perfect knowledge.

    2. But do you believe that will is determined by that knowledge we do have? That our choices are a result of what knowledge we have been exposed to, and that if two people were given the exact same knowledge they would always make the exact same choices?

    3. Wouldn't the resolution on that knowledge have to be effectively infinite to guarantee the exact same choices?

      As an aside, even given some of the reductive assumptions of determinism, I' not sure that we get to a point where decisions can be seen as wholly deterministic in a repeatable sense. A perfectly repeated decision would require perfectly repeated circumstances down to the cellular level.

      Another question: given strict materialism, and the reproductive failure associated with determinism, what's the difference between strict materialist determinism and viral infection? In that model, only a defective individual would not be revulsed by the idea (sickness/mutation response). So, hard atheists being (I insist, as an autist) a *subset* of autistic disorders would make perfect sense...

    4. "But do you believe that will is determined by that knowledge we do have?"


      "That our choices are a result of what knowledge we have been exposed to"

      No. It's not a mere matter of exposure. Once the intellect has apprehended and given assent to knowledge, the will cannot withhold consent.

      "if two people were given the exact same knowledge they would always make the exact same choices?"

      You're making two Modernist assumptions: 1) That the will is oriented toward pursuing individual preferences and 2) conflating information and knowledge.

      The will is ordered toward the good, specifically, intellectual goods. Everything else is appetite, which even dogs have.

      Remember the caveat that perfect knowledge is required for the will to be determined. There are precious few subjects on which anyone has perfect knowledge. In cases where a great number of people share true knowledge pertaining to some aspect of reality, we do indeed find universal consent. For example, once you learn that 2+2=4, you cannot will yourself to "know" that the sum is 5. The will is determined in that case.

    5. "Wouldn't the resolution on that knowledge have to be effectively infinite to guarantee the exact same choices?"

      Give the man a cigar! This is also why the blessed in heaven cannot sin. They directly behold God, who is infinite good, so their wills are determined with no violation of their freedom.

      "what's the difference between strict materialist determinism and viral infection?"

      There's no substantive difference as far as I can see. Recall that it was Dawkins who came up with the mind virus concept in The Selfish Gene.

      "So, hard atheists being (I insist, as an autist) a *subset* of autistic disorders would make perfect sense..."

      Many of these folks self-identify as NPCs, moist robots, etc. At this point I'm willing to take them at their word. If they truly lack agency and an inner life, they are to be pitied; not reviled. If only they didn't also tend toward solipsism.

    6. Given your premises, it seems to me that the implication is that God, having infinite knowledge, must have no free will at all.

      I expect you are using the words differently than I am. I use will to mean what one chooses to do, not what one believes.

    7. "I use will to mean what one chooses to do, not what one believes."

      A judgment of the intellect is prior to every choice.

      God qua God is not human. He knows things causally as Prime Mover, not contingently through the mediation of the senses. What we call human free will is a pale shadow of God's perfect, radical freedom.

      "Freedom" is really the word we're using differently. True freedom is not whim divorced from telos. It is ordered toward the good.

      God's will is ordered toward knowing Himself, the ultimate Good, which He does from all eternity. One exercises his powers most freely when doing so achieves their natural ends. God's will attains its end perfectly. Therefore God's will is perfectly free.

    8. In human terms, do you believe that being ordered towards the good restricts one's options? That there is only one theoretically perfectly good action in response to any given circumstance and that the sheaf of possible responses is limited by the degree to which we are divorced from perfect goodness?

      That seems to be what you are saying.

    9. "That seems to be what you are saying."

      Not to anyone else, my dude.

      Modernism: not even once.

    10. Well, then, I give up. Despite my best efforts I can make no sense whatsoever of this post.

    11. I.... think it would be accurate to say that with perfect apprehension of all possible goods at a moment, and perfect apprehension including infinite resolution as to how good each is, relative to each other good, that the only two options would be to act in accordance with the (perfectly known) good, or to deliberately act against it for the sake of evil.

      You have to remember that Thomism/Aristotlism have a very specific vocabulary turned to the end of apprehending what must be true in any comprehensible system of reality, rather than to the specifics of actions.

      Also that God, being fully Actual, doesn't have a decision-making process as we understand it. In the Thomist conception, he doesn't gather information, prioritize, and choose; and critically, in choosing move from Potential to Actual. He is the fullness of all that he might be, and as such does not have a state of "might be" or Potential; only a state of Is, or Actual.

      To say "God has no choice" is to mis-state the case in such a way as to confuse it with constraints. God, in fact, as no need of the action we call "choosing". To put it another way, to say "God gets no choice" is like if you went shopping with your Mum and instead of having to choose only one toy, she bought out the entire shop, and you then said "I didn't get to choose a toy!". Rather, you encompassed all possible toys.

  5. Reminds me of a Chesterton statement (I paraphrase because I cannot locate it right now): People often say, "But I might be wrong." However, no one really believes this.

    1. *nods* No man wants to be fooled, and everyone thinks he's pursuing good, despite frivolous claims to the contrary.

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  7. Is this the section of the Summa you're summarizing or is there another piece included?


    Also stumbled on this. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm#pro

    1. "Is this the section of the Summa you're summarizing...?"

      Yes, particularly, "And forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will." Rational intellect and free will are of a piece. You can't deny one without denying the other.

      There's probably more in the Summa. I don't have the whole thing memorized. My argument in the post above is a paraphrased composite of arguments I've heard from other Aristo-Thomist writers.

    2. Well yours was one of the clearest presentations I’ve read, so thank you for that.

      Speaking of AT winters, have any recommendations? Are you at all familiar with Molinist perspectives too or just Thomistic?

    3. I am humbled. Give the glory to God.

      Dr. Ed Feser is excellent at providing in-depth yet clear exposition on Catholic philosophy. Author Michael Flynn, who often comments on John C. Wright's blog, is quite adept at explaining complex philosophical and scientific ideas simply. His civic nationalism flusters some on the dissident right, but he's great on the basics. Of course, I hardly need mention the estimable John C. Wright himself. Dr. William M. Briggs, who I linked to recently, is a sober and incisive thinker. Though a statistician by trade, he can sling a syllogism with the best. Briggs is the only person I've seen win a friendly internet debate with Vox.

      I'd also recommend Dr. Peter Kreeft, though he's more Socratic than Aristo-Thomist.

      Yes, I'm familiar with the Jesuit school of thought on free will. If you don't understand your opponents' position, you don't fully understand your own ;)