Grace and brain scans

Okay, I promise I’ll stop with these theological puzzles soon.  One more first.

There is a great deal of diversity in how the Christian tradition understands grace, but everyone agrees that it is supernatural.  That is, God doesn’t just use miraculous means to restore us to a state of natural virtue, he infuses virtues that go beyond human nature.  It’s usually assumed that being in a state of grace affects how one acts, e.g. allowing you to avoid sin and perform acts of charity.

So, does this mean that the laws of physics are being violated in the brain of a person in a state of grace?

If we assume that the brain is a deterministic system, then it would seem hard to get around this conclusion.  Neurons are large compared to the scales where quantum indeterminacy is usually expected to be important, so this seems like a reasonable assumption.  In that case, someone could measure your exact brain configuration, feed it into a giant computer, and predict your future behavior.  For ordinary heathen, the computer’s predictions would always be accurate.  For Christians in a state of grace, they would sometimes be wrong, and systematically wrong in a virtuous direction.  One could thus empirically  prove that someone is in a state of grace.

But wait, doesn’t this assumption of determinism violate the Christian doctrine of free will?  Not at all, because there is no Christian doctrine of free will.  That’s a Pelagian doctrine.  Christians believe man is born a slave to sin, but acquires freedom through grace, i.e. being elevated above his own nature.

Even if there’s some truly stochastic (presumably quantum) influence going on in the brain–so the brain is effectively running Schroedinger’s cat experiments inside itself to make decisions–this would just add an element of pure randomness to human decisions.  This could be statistically distinguished from grace, because the latter has a systematic bias towards piety and charity that the former lacks.

So, it would seem that grace is empirically discoverable.  Of course, I just mean in principle.  In practice, the brain is probably too complex for any such study to be carried out in the forseeable future.

One way around this would be to embrace an epiphenomenal philosophy of mind, and say that grace only affects mental but not physical states.  It doesn’t change your brain states or your acts, but it affects the qualia associated with those brain states or the moral quality of those acts.  This would keep grace out of the reach of brain science, but it would seem to flatly contradict the tradition, which confidently asserts that grace helps man avoid sin.

22 Responses

  1. You might wish to consider Michael Bañez’s theory of premotion, which became the traditional Dominican view.

    From the idea that God is the primal cause (causa prima) and the prime mover (motor primus), it is concluded that every act and every movement of the thoroughly contingent secondary causes (causae secundae) or creatures must emanate from the first cause, and that by the application of their potentiality to the act. But God, respecting the nature of things, moves necessary agents to necessary, and free agents to free, activity — including sin, except that God is the originator only of its physical entity, not of its formal malice. Inasmuch as the Divine influence precedes all acts of the creature, not in the order of time, but in that of causality, the motion emanating from God and seconded by free intelligent agents takes on the character of a physical premotion (proemotio physica) of the free acts, which may also be called a physical predetermination (proedeterminatio physica), because the free determination of the will is accomplished only by virtue of the divine predetermination.

    In this premotion or predetermination is also found the medium of the Divine knowledge by which God’s omniscience foresees infallibly all the future acts, whether absolute or conditional, of intelligent creatures… For just as certainly as God in His predetermined decrees knows His own will, so certainly does He know all the necessarily included determinations of the free will of creatures, be they of absolute or conditional futurity.

  2. So do you believe that the laws of physics are being violated in everyone’s brains?

  3. No

    God eternally decrees, not only the events that come to pass, but the causes of them and the order in which those causes operate. In the case of bodies, that order constitutes the laws of physics (miracles apart). Thus, God supplies the physical premotion of of our free acts; grace is not efficacious because free will consents, but conversely the free will consents because grace efficaciously premoves it to the willing and performance of a good act. It would be a contradiction to assert that the consensus, brought about by efficacious grace, can at the same time be an actual dissensus. This historical necessity (necessitas consequentiae), involved in every act of freedom and distinguishable from the compelling necessity (necessitas consequentis), does not destroy the freedom of the act.

    For although it be true that a man who is freely sitting cannot at the same time be standing (sensus compositus), nevertheless his freedom in sitting is maintained by the fact that he might be standing instead of sitting (sensus divisus).

    This led to a famous dispute between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over God’s knowledge of counter-factual hypotheticals, e.g. what a person’s life would have been, had he not died in childhood.

    On the Dominican view, the answer is no – What might have happened, but didn’t, is simply nothing at all and so intrinsically unknowable.

    To ask the question is to ask what would have happened, if God had willed otherwise than He wills – which is absurd, for He is eternal and unchageable.

  4. “But wait, doesn’t this assumption of determinism violate the Christian doctrine of free will? Not at all, because there is no Christian doctrine of free will. That’s a Pelagian doctrine. Christians believe man is born a slave to sin, but acquires freedom through grace, i.e. being elevated above his own nature.”

    I’m always good for quotations from other sources. From the canons of the Council of Trent, session on justification:

    “CANON IV.-If any one saith, that man’s free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema.

    CANON V.-If any one saith, that, since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with only a name, yea a name without a reality, a figment, in fine, introduced into the Church by Satan; let him be anathema.”

    Granted, I don’t know what Latin phrase “free will” is the translation of. I think holding that we have free will is relatively important. It is only Pelagian to say that one can come to merit something supernatural without grace, on my understanding.

    Genesis 4:6–“Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

    An interesting point on whether the laws of physics are continually being violated in your brain: C.S. Lewis, and perhaps others, have argued that if what you think is simply the result of physical movements–whether or not it is an epiphenomenon of them or not–then you have no reason to think that what you think is true. Because, after all, the necessary physical motions of a tree blowing in the wind are neither true nor false–they just are. Similarly, if the motions of the subatomic particles in your brain just are necessarily, then attributing “truth” and “falsity” to them is absurd–in fact, when we show that someone’s opinion comes simply from physical circumstances (“You simply believe in cult X because you were raised in it and brainwashed by charismatic leader Y”) it is often regarded as a refutation or important point against the position. Arguably, then, all knowledge is useless unless you allow something peculiarly a-physical about human thinking.

  5. The Latin is “liberum arbitrium,” traditionally translated as “free will,” although “free choice” or “free decision” is closer to the clssical sense of “arbitrium.” “Free Will” can be misleading, if we take it to mean the faculty of willing, rather than the concrete act of willing, choosing, deciding.

    Now, of course, Bañez (1528-1604) was acutely aware of the Reformers’ doctrines of total depravty and irresistable grace and was trying to defend the Thomist doctrine, both against the Reformers, on the one hand and the Pelagians, on the other. His position, grossly over-simplified is that we can choose whatever we want, but what we want, and how badly we want it, is not something we can choose.

    I never found Lewis’s argument convincing. Whether someone’s conclusions are rational or irrational is settled by considering the chain of reasoning that he gives and whether his conclusions follow from it. When we are giving a causal account of this thought, e.g. an account of the physiological processes which issue in the utterance of his reasoning, we are not considering his utterances from the point of view of evidence, reasoning, valid argument, truth, at all; we are considering them merely as events. Just because that is how we are considering them, our description has, in itself, no bearing on the question of “valid”, invalid”, “rational”, “irrational”, and so on.

  6. Thank you. I’ve always thought there was something off in Lewis’ argument, but I had never stated why as clearly to myself as you just did.

  7. I’m afraid that Lewis argument has been misinterpreted in here. Lewis objections are about “truth” and “false”, not about rational or irrational. Rational conclusion can be false, while irrational can be correct. While rational reasoning can be formally right, it can also lead to false conclusion if premises are false, although chain of reasoning is valid following of false premises.

    You have said: ” Whether someone’s conclusions are rational or irrational is settled by considering the chain of reasoning that he gives and whether his conclusions follow from it. ”

    Is this true or false? By assuming that Lewis arguments are “not convincing”, you assume that his claims are not so true as your claim.
    From what chain of reasoning comes this statement?

    You have said: “Just because that is how we are considering them, our description has, in itself, no bearing on the question of “valid”, invalid”, “rational”, “irrational”, and so on.”

    But you already assume that this statement of yours is true and valid.

  8. Changing the issue between rational/irrational and true/false doesn’t change anything. The implication of Lewis’ argument–at least in the form that we’re using it–is that any kind of intentionality is incompatible with the brain being subject to physical laws. If brain states can’t be “rational”, they can’t be “true” either.

    On the other hand, if one makes an argument that intentionality is incompatible with complete materialism, I think there may be something to that. But one doesn’t have to be a materialist to accept my form of determinism.

  9. I don’t deny that actually existing men have free will, because they have been offered grace. The question is, would men in a state of pure nature (or–what’s the same for our purposes–fallen, unredeemed men) have free will, save in a compatibilist sense? My answer of “no” is probably a minority opinion, but I don’t think it has been authoritatively condemned.

  10. I think that Lewis point is criticism of vulgar materialist reduction of mind and will to physiological bio-chemical processes of the brain.

    I don’t see why we have to make identification between brain and will? A car can be subject to particular rules of technical laws , but this does not mean that biological driver is subject of these same laws.

    While brain is natural object, thus is subject to material laws, soul (the subject) as immaterial is not.

  11. Miss Anscombe put the objection to Lewis’s argument like this, “You can talk about the validity of a piece of reasoning, and sometimes about the validity of a kind of reasoning; but if you say you believe in the validity of reasoning itself, what do you mean? Isn’t this question about the validity of reasoning a question about the validity of valid reasoning? Suppose that you are asked to explain “valid,” how will you do it? The most obvious way would be to show examples of valid and invalid reasoning, to make the objections which, in the examples of invalid reasoning, show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises; in the cases of valid reasoning, to elucidate the form of the argument: if the piece of reasoning under consideration is elliptical, to add the statements which are required to enforce the conclusion. Whether you would adopt this method or some other (though I do not know of any other), I suppose you think it somehow possible to explain to yourself or someone else what “valid” means, what the distinction between “valid” and “invalid” is? Now if the naturalistic hypothesis (that human thought is the product of a chain of natural causes) is proposed to you, you say: “But if this were so, it would destroy the distinction between valid and invalid reasoning.” But how? Would it imply that you could no longer give the explanation you gave, point to and explain the examples, say which arguments proposed to you are valid and which invalid in just the same way as you did before the naturalistic hypothesis was supposed? “But,” you may say, “though I should of course know which arguments to call valid, or which I should have called valid, I should not now feel any confidence that they were really valid.” But what do you mean by “really valid”? What meaning of “valid” has been taken away from you by the naturalistic hypothesis? What can you mean by “valid” beyond what would be indicated by the explanation you would give for distinguishing between valid and invalid, and what in the naturalistic hypothesis prevents that explanation from being given and from meaning what it does?”

    We certainly do not have to identify brain and will, but, if one takes a dualist view of soul-body (which Aristotelians and Thomists do not), then you have to explain how an act of the will can move a body, e.g. I wave to a friend.

  12. Seems that Miss Anscombe has made an error, since Lewis is concerned about “true” or “false”, not about “valid” or “invalid”. Its not about validity, but about truth. She already assumed that truth=valid.Valid reasoning can lead to false conclusions:
    1. All Greeks were Americans
    2. Socrates was Greek
    3.Therefore Socrates was American
    This is logically formally valid reasoning, and formally valid answer,but false.

    As for body-soul question, material object is not the same thing as physical law. According to your reasoning material object could not behave following physical law, since these two are two different things.

  13. Predestinationists, most famously Calvin, but including Lucidus, a 5th-century priest, Gottschalk in the ninth century, and later revivers, taught predestination to evil, before the prevision of demerits, and consequently must have denied the existence of sufficient grace; for, according to them, those who are damned lack the power of doing good; and those who are saved are so necessitated to the good that they cannot resist grace.

    On the contrary, the Church teaches ““We have a free will for good, anticipated and assisted by grace, and we have a free will for evil, devoid of grace.” (2nd Council of Orange)

  14. Lewis said in Chapter 3 of Miracles, “no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes” It was to that that Miss Anscombe was responding.

    In reply to Miss Anscombe, Lewis said “I admit that valid was a bad word for what I meant; veridical (or verific or veriferous) would have been better.” So, clearly he had used precisely that word.

    That does not much mend matters, for a piece of reasoning cannot be true or false, although its premises may be.

  15. Ok then, but conversation was generally about Lewis quote provided by Anodos, not about this provided by you.

    By the way is your claim: “That does not much mend matters, for a piece of reasoning cannot be true or false, although its premises may be.” …true or false?

    Or is it simply statement like: “I like this”, “This is nice”?

  16. My claim: “That does not much mend matters, for a piece of reasoning cannot be true or false, although its premises may be.” is an analytic statement about the meaning of language and true, in that sense.

  17. Ah. Ok. That is different . . . I shan’t argue, as arguments about states of pure nature tend to be interminable.

  18. My understanding of Lewis’ argument was not (I don’t think) susceptible to the criticisms that have been offered here, or even to that offered by Anscombe–although, for all I know, it wasn’t Lewis’ own understanding. Allow me to illustrate with an example taken from a different philosopher.

    Suppose you are on a train, look out the window, and see, in white letters made of rocks on a hillside, the words “Welcome to Brighton.” Now, one could hold that the rocks came there by necessity because of natural forces over thousands of years. Alternately, one could hold that humans put them there to tell you that you were entering Brighton. What it would be irrational to hold is that (1) natural forces put them there and (2) they are actually telling you that you are entering Brighton. Unless the rocks are an accomplishment of human responsibility, then attributing any truth or significance to the rocks just seems unjustifiable.

    Similarly, Lewis’ argument (as I understand it) doesn’t depend on the impossibility of attributing intentional states to natural physical phenomenon. Let mental states and beliefs be epiphenomenon of natural states, and let the two not be the same for all I care. The point is, so long as there is a one-to-one correspondence of mental states and brain states, and so long as brain states are always the necessary results of anterior causes, then the physical is always causing you what you think is true to be true–just like the physical thinks a brainwashed individual to think what is true is true.

    Alternately stated, as the modern philosopher Sokolowski might put it–truth is the accomplishment of an agent. To make the mental state–that of which we predicate truth–simply the result of anterior forces is to destroy it as accomplishment, and destroy the agent’s role in it. And so it seems to be to destroy truth.

    But hey, maybe no one disagrees with the argument as thus stated.

  19. What is analytical in that statement? To be honest I don’t see nothing analytical about it.
    How come that piece of reasoning cannot be true or false?
    (A->B)->A and (A->B)->B are a forms of pieces of reasoning aren’t they?

    P.S
    Sorry if I this may sound nerdy and boring, but I just want to understand few things.

  20. The naturalistic hypothesis is that causal laws could be discovered which could be successfully applied to all human behaviour, including thought. If such laws were discovered they would not show that a man’s reasons were not his reasons; for a man who is explaining his reasons is not giving a causal account at all. “Causes,” in the scientific sense in which this word is used when we speak of causal laws, is to be explained in terms of observed regularities: but the declaration of one’s reasons or motives is not founded on observation of regularities. ‘Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.

    If we have before us a piece of writing which argues for an opinion, we can discuss the question: “Is this good reasoning?” without concerning ourselves with the circumstances of its production at all.

    As for Wrangle’s question, the premises of a piece of reasoning may be true or false (i.e. correspond to some fact or event), but the deductive process itself can only be valid or invalid, being concerned exclusively with the relationship between terms or propositions.

  21. ‘but if you say you believe in the validity of reasoning itself, what do you mean? Isn’t this question about the validity of reasoning a question about the validity of valid reasoning? Suppose that you are asked to explain “valid,” how will you do it? ‘

    I get a textbook on mathematical logic and decree: “Mathematicians get to decide what “valid” means.” Of course this is a utopian claim, and I don’t expect most philosophers to defer to mathematicians.

    However, the enterprise of using the foundations of mathematics as a foundation for all of philosophy is a very practical enterprise – it’s just a difficult project, and it’s been on-going since before the Logical Positivists.

    Incidentally, the “free will” thing is important to several (mathematically important) branches of artificial intelligence.

  22. The difficulty is that you can only explain “valid” ostensively, by pointing to examples of pieces of reasoning that are, or ar not valid.

    Now, if someone claims that all human reasoning is “invalid,” the term is an empty one: it applies equally to all pieces of reasoning whatsoever. For the word “valid” to be meaningful, it must have some application.

    That is the thrust of Miss Anscombe’s objection to Lewis

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