March 2007

The will acts. But what is an action?

An action is a type of change or process, but obviously not one that is produced by something else or acted upon. When I throw a ball, this is not an action the ball performs. To call something an action is to refer a change or process to an entity and not something else. Yet not all sets of changes which we can refer to some entity are actions. All of the things I have done in the last hour do not constitute an action. An action has a certain type of integrity or wholeness.

The kind of wholeness it requires can be seen by considering the mystery of follow through. Anyone who has thrown a ball, or played golf, tennis, or baseball knows the importance of follow through, the portion of the motion that occurs after the ball has left the hand, or bat, or racquet, or club. But it is something of a mystery how the motion after the contact point can have any effect upon the ball, since it has already left. The solution to this mystery lies in the fact that all of these things are actions and function as they do precisely because of the type of continuity specific to actions. In an action, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the parts are transformed within the whole. Because a good motion or stroke is a single continuous whole, in order to be doing the right thing at the point of contact, it must be part of a whole which contains, and is transformed by, the follow through. The will is the agency that produces events with this type of integrity or wholeness.

This type of wholeness requires a detachment that is able to resist distractions and external influences, but also a subjective engagement that ties the elements of a process together into one whole. This combination of engagement and detachment ties the moments of our lives together into unities, in which the contents of experience are transformed and take on meaning in relation to a larger whole. Sometimes this is in the service of some external harmony which we allow to organize our action, as when we dance or sing or tap along with a piece of music. Here the order inherent in some external action serves as a guiding principle for our coming to be in that moment. Sometimes we order our own coming to be according to a harmony that we make up as we go along. This type of will is the improvisation of the order that transforms and gives meaning to the moments of our lives.

Is the will free? Events in us that are the result of external influences, of us being acted upon are not free. Collections of events that never have the type of continuity or wholeness that allows their elements to be transformed in relation to the whole are not free. Philosophical theories of free will have tended to look for some part of us that is not connected to any causal influence and, hence, can act free of any causal determination. But a wholly undetermined event would be arbitrary. If every few moments a random, undetermined twitch took control of our bodies, it would be free, but it would not be an action. It would not be us that did it, and what resulted would not have meaning as a result of our creative agency. Freedom is not a condition that allows us to act as an unmoved mover, starting causal chains of events out of nothing. Freedom is something we achieve, that must be caused by our agency; it is something that we do.

Can we be free if we live in a world governed by causal laws and if no part of us exists outside of this world? If we act, it can. Freedom is the relationship that our agency has to the emergent wholes that it creates. Causal laws relate events to other events. The will creates new events by creating new continuous wholes in which the meanings of other events are transformed. Even in a world governed by physical law, nothing governs the action of the will but its own agency. Every element of a dancer’s motions is governed by the laws of gravity, but the unity of each gesture is not another element in this series. Freedom is not the lack of causality, but the creation of new levels of causality that exist within each new integral event. How something like the will could arise in such a world is, of course, another question. But in a world of entities governed by physical law, what will create new events that transform the meaning of these entities? What will create freedom? The will will.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Professor Ed Mcgushin is the twelfth profile in the series.

In this interview, Professor McGushin talks about his interest in literature, the philosopher Michel Foucault, and his experiences teaching philosophy to prisoners at the Women’s Prison in Goffstown.

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Bready Chair Lecture

March 15, 2007
Fr. Ronald Tacelli, SJ
Boston College

Why Does God Hide?

click on the link above to go to the podcast.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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(Saint Thomas Aquinas died March 7, 1274. which was traditionally his feast day. After Vactican II, his feast day was changed to January 28.)

For the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas

In honor of St. Thomas’s feast day, I think it is fitting to call to mind the great spirit of his work. What I mean by this mostly is his intellectual courage. St. Thomas never shied away from truth of any kind. In fact, when one reads his Summa theologiae, one is amazed to find how strong his objections to his own position are. In many cases, the objections he formulates are stronger than the arguments presented by those who actually proposed them. He has no interest in the easy way out, no desire to dodge tough objections. The truth is sacred, wherever it is found.

This is great example for all of us in the intellectual community. We should have no fear of truth, no matter its origin. Just as St. Thomas faced with confidence and mastered the subtle philosophy of Aristotle—the science, ethics, political thought, and metaphysics—so we should not fear but welcome whatever truths contemporary science, ethics, and metaphysics have to offer.

As St. Thomas was sustained in his endeavor by a deep belief in the intelligibility of reality and in the duty of living the best possible life, so should we be. As it is impossible to understand St. Thomas’s attitude toward truth without taking into account his devotion to the moral good, so it is impossible to understand that devotion without recognizing his great faith, hope, and charity.

As we celebrate the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, let us call to mind his own words of prayer. (This prayer is found in Jacques Maritain’s book St. Thomas Aquinas.)

Ineffable Creator, Who out of the treasures of Thy wisdom has appointed three hierarchies of Angels and set them in admirable order high above the heavens and hast disposed the diverse portions of the universe in such marvelous array, Thou Who art called the True Source of Light and supereminent Principle of Wisdom, be pleased to cast a beam of Thy radiance upon the double darkness of sin and ignorance in which I have been born.

Thou Who makest eloquent the tongues of little children, fashion my words and pour upon my lips the grace of Thy benediction. Grant me penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and facility in study, subtlety in interpretation and abundant grace of expression.

Order the beginning, direct the progress, and perfect the achievement of my work, Thou Who art true God and true Man and livest and reignest for ever and ever. Amen.