Being and Freedom: The Metaphysics of Freedom

by Frederick Sontag

Frederick Sontag is Robert Denison Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College, Claremont, California.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 180-185, Vol. 8, Number 3, Fall, 1978. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Is human volition, which gives freedom to fix what otherwise would remain indeterminate, an exception in the natural order, or does freedom belong to Being?


It was Duns Scotus who said: There can be no contingency in any second cause in causing unless there is contingency in the first cause in causing (De Primo Principio, Ch. 4). Scotus, of course, had God in mind, but his comment still sets the issue of freedom nicely where metaphysics is concerned. We often deal with the question of human freedom internally to humanity, our wishes, and our acts. However, ultimately the problem of human freedom reduces to a metaphysical issue of the basic structure of the world. It would be difficult, if not strange, for human beings to be the only part of nature subject to contingency. It is possible, of course, but it certainly makes the defense of human freedom more difficult if we have to prove that we somehow stand alone within a natural system governed by necessity.

All, of course, do not want to argue for any such exception for human nature. It has been thought that the scientific study of mankind would be facilitated if human nature observed the same kind of necessary cycle which the stars do or the elements of chemistry. But I leave those who are content with determinism aside, those who assume no action could be other than it is, that is, necessary. Instead, I find abroad in the world today the loudest clamoring for freedom and self-determinism human history has yet witnessed. If this social and political goal — the ability of the individuals to decide for themselves and to guide the course of their own destinies free from higher determination — is to find philosophical support, it must be grounded in a contingency which is characteristic of nature itself. Our question is whether freedom, more than, say, unity or necessity, is the key characteristic of Being-itself. Being has been approached via form, nothingness, time. Can we also understand Being with freedom as our primary category of approach?

Sartre has suggested that we understand Being via ‘nothingness and Heidegger has suggested ‘time’. If our metaphysics is fixed by the approach we first choose, whether or not we start with freedom is a matter of crucial importance. As an example and test case, I propose to consider freedom as an attribute of God. In the way that substance functions in Spinoza’s ethics, I believe ‘God’ is a central concept the analysis of which gives us a clear model to observe how basic structures relate. Of course, God has been subject to much controversy and is thought to add not only obscurity but an element of partisanship into metaphysics. The continual controversy over God is evident, but I still believe this swirl of differing opinions deepens the insight possible rather than blocking it. God is a good metaphysical test case.

In traditional theology, we can phrase the question as one of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. If contingency is real in the nature of things, and if human beings are free to make selective choices which fix the future course of events, God’s power cannot be unlimited and his knowledge cannot be complete. In other words, we return to our dictum from Duns Scotus: There must be contingency in the divine nature, a free determination not fixed in advance of the moment of choice, or else human freedom is a fiction. Of course, Spinoza defines freedom so that it means “from the necessity of its own nature,” in which case freedom can be interpreted so as to be compatible with necessity. But I am assuming that such interpretations of freedom are unsatisfactory, that we seek an element of genuine contingency dependent on human or divine will to determine, and that some actions are undetermined in advance of the moment of decision.

Of course, all events need not be so indeterminent. To be genuine, however, freedom requires that, at least in some crucial instances of decision, the movement of the act of will be the decisive factor. In spite of Hume, the sun need not make a decision to rise each morning, but perhaps human beings must. Certainly Kierkegaard is correct that many of us allow events to be determined for us by our failure to act decisively in time, in which case forces outside our own nature take over and fix the future. The question is not whether human beings can fail, but whether, if we intervene to act in time, the consequence of our decision is at least one factor in determining the direction of the future. The question is not whether God intervenes constantly to disrupt or to fix the course of human affairs, but whether this option is open to him if he chose to exercise the power of his will.

In modern thought the mood of many has been to abandon the notion of divine omnipotence. If we wish to make freedom the primary attribute in a notion of God, this tendency is inevitable. The issue, I believe, is not so much whether liberty, freedom, and contingency are our prime considerations today, as it is whether the power over Being-itself is still lodged in a divine Being. An unrestrained use of freedom leads to chaos and a lack of control. Can we, then, use freedom as a central concept in understanding Being and its structure without the risk of losing all rational order? Sartre approached Being through Nothingness, an even more radical concept, and Heidegger found in a new analysis of Time his key to the grasp of Being. Both, I believe, wanted to increase the sense of human freedom and the role of contingency in the structure of all beings. But wouldn’t this be more easily accomplished if freedom were taken to characterize Being-itself?

But what does it mean to say this, when we admit that the sun does not need to decide to arise each morning, and that many men fail to exercise the indeterminate options they have? We return to the notion of God as our illustrative concept for understanding metaphysical structure. The question, then, is not whether the sun has options and contingencies in plotting its daily course, but whether God, as the Being who establishes the structure of Being-itself, had options and a genuine freedom open to his exercise before the astronomical system was fixed as we find it. Could other bodies be and the sun not be? Could light and heat be provided by alternative means? Need the form of nature be as we find it? If not, then freedom extends to Being-itself because it need not be as it is, and in fact is not complete in itself. As Plato concluded, Being includes not-being. On our account, what we call Being-itself is not necessary, but is only one election from an infinity of possible systems and structures.

If freedom characterizes Being-itself, in that it need not be as it is but is subject to infinite variety of form, the prime question is not Heidegger’s “why something rather than nothing at all” but “why was this structure given to Being rather than some other possible structure?” Yet, in shifting the basic metaphysical question to this form, we also get an insight into how to keep a stress on freedom from dissolving into disorder and chaos. We see before us one particular order of Being and a structure to nature we can probe rationally. We may have our doubts along with Hume about the certainty of our knowledge of the sun’s course, but we do find an order established and not no-sun-at-all. Thus, a decision was made to elect one out of an infinity of possible natural orders. Will must be strong enough — in some instances at least — to face unlimited freedom and still to establish order by a definite decision.

Theologically and religiously, God has served as a model for many, even if we admit that his nature is viewed in a variety of ways. Metaphysically, God becomes a model for the use of freedom. He is the Being who deals with contingency and is capable of decision in time so that order is established over chaos by the action of a will backed by the power necessary to sustain it. Of course, we have to admit that human beings have neither the unlimited power that characterizes divinity with respect to humanity nor the scope of insight and knowledge which has been characterized in the tradition as omniscience. Given our stress on freedom in the divine nature, we need to reinterpret omniscience of the future so that it means not a fixed knowledge of every coming event held in a timeless instant, but the simultaneous grasp of an absolute infinity of possibles — a capability we human beings lack — and an instantaneous calculation of the odds for all future possible events and actions.

We often fail for lack of a complete knowledge of the options before us, but God has no such limitations. We often are unsure of the outcome of an action, and so we refrain, while God knows not the actual outcome but at least the likely result of every move. He can know the odds but not the actuality, because his freedom to set the future comes up against the limit of the freedom he originally decided to grant to man and deny to nature. We know he does not change his mind on these primal decisions quixotically as we often do out of ignorance or insecurity, because the course of nature has remained fixed since its unfolding was set — at least as far as we can determine this. Of course, our freedom fails to be perfectly exercised more due to our limited power rather than any restriction on our knowledge or predictive powers.

God may quite likely feel a sense of insecurity, but it does not stem from an uncertainty about any earlier decision or a worry about his ability to sustain an announced course due to insufficient power. A divine sense of insecurity comes through the original grant of freedom to human nature, so that he knows what we might do and the odds for various options, but not what in fact we human beings will do in detail. God could have blocked out the effect of insecurity in his own life by denying freedom, but he could not decide to create (which means to choose an option for actual existence) and at the same time deny the most basic feature of his nature to the elected created order. He is not grudging, as Plato observed, and so holds nothing of his own powers completely to himself. However, he cannot bestow his own freedom on any other being perfectly, as Plato and Spinoza both argued. Ironically, we men and women face divine problems of choice with only inferior powers at our disposal.

Thus, Being as we know it is not characterized by a full and perfect freedom. The regularity of the particular pattern of nature before us and the weakness of persons who fail to exercise the options before them make it possible for philosophers and ordinary people to fail to see that freedom is the primary attribute of Being-itself. Because we restrict the meaning of Being to the observable structure, we fail to see that Nature itself is the result of a choice from an infinitely wider range of possible orders. Thus the question over Being is really the question of whether metaphysics must take as its object all that possibly could exist and not simply what has in fact come to exist. If we take the widest possible range of objects (all that is possible) to constitute Being, our particular order appears less necessary in its constitution than fixed Nature as we find it.

Aristotle, for instance, approaches the metaphysical task with two primary concepts: first, that necessity characterizes what is good; and second, that thought forms the essence of what is divine (Metaphysics 1072 b10). Thus, Aristotle excludes change from his first principle. Not to be capable of being otherwise (i.e., necessary) is best, and so contingency is excluded. Actuality must always be metaphysically prior and regulative. This defines for Aristotle what is divine, and this excludes contingency and freedom, except in the way in which Spinoza uses freedom. In any case, uncertainty does not enter in, nor can freedom mean that the future is undetermined. Life becomes thought, and actualized thought at that. Certainly emotion is excluded from such a life, although it might be appropriate if the future were indeterminate. Moreover, unlike human thought, divine thought does not change. This would be an imperfection, and so what is divine excludes movement (1074 b25).

A God modeled on Aristotle’s metaphysical principles has the freedom of Spinoza’s substance, that of being cause of itself and dependent on nothing other than itself. Aristotle first takes omnipotence, using theological language, and defines the freedom of his first substance in that light. Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle in citing actuality first where God’s perfection is concerned. Freedom involves dependence and potentiality, we know, so that freedom in the sense of contingency is excluded from Thomas’s God. Immutability becomes God’s perfection too, and succession is excluded. In God, Thomas says, will follows on his intellect (Summa Theologiae, Pt. I Q19, Art. 1), and God’s will is entirely unchangeable. Given this situation, freedom as human beings know it is impossible. Passion is also excluded from God (Pt. I, Q20, Art. 1), yet freedom as we know it involves such emotional power. Evidently, if freedom is to be constitutive of Being, we must not only see Being in its widest sense, but the contingencies of our life must find a base in Being itself.

Thomas subjects the exercise of free will to divine providence (Pt. I, Q22, Art. 2). Given the Aristotelian metaphysical base on which he constructs his notion of God, we know that free will cannot involve indeterminacy. Thomas admits a contingency in events, but, like Spinoza’s use of freedom, all events are still foreseen from eternity as happening. The crucial point is that, for Thomas, there is no distinction between what flows from free will and what is from predestination. Necessity embraces all, although God is further from being the direct cause of some events than others. Interestingly enough, Thomas expands the meaning of Being to include all possible worlds, but God’s will is not involved in the actualization of one possible order (ours). The power to actualize is not the result of an act of will on God’s part but follows from his nature (Pt. I Q25, Art. 5). God’s nature will determine his will, not the other way around, as Sartre would have it.

If we are to exercise genuine freedom of choice, and if this contingency is to be reflected in the structure of Being itself, will and intellect cannot be the same, but Thomas will not allow this (Pt. I, Q27, Art. 3). Freedom requires a basic diversity in the attributes of Being, not the dominance of unity, as so many have thought. Will can restrict its scope in actualizing in order to allow other wills their option of choice, restricting foreknowledge and prediction but not necessarily the power of one who voluntarily limits what might otherwise be full control over the future. Thought prefers completion, omnipotence, form, necessity, and actuality. But volition and affection are compatible with freedom and an openness to the future. Freedom involves changeability, incompleteness, and the absence of necessity — not always, but at least at crucial junctions in the affairs of man and nature.

The aspects of impulse and caprice in will as a source of freedom have often caused metaphysicians to bind God to necessity in order to avoid what they consider arbitrariness. But affection can use intensity and passion as a way to open alternatives, rather than to close them off arbitrarily. We need to distinguish the kind of volitional force which is a liberating and not a binding power on others. If we do, Being-itself can be characterized by some degree of contingency and does not need an unrelieved necessity to insure its consistency. God may alter the dominant qualities in his own nature at times, and Being is self-regulating and self-sustaining but not immune to the emergence of novelty. Emotion will find its base in God and in Being-itself, as that which sustains consistency during change, rather than necessity.

God could have fixed the world on a necessary course. Power allows that. Being could be all that exists or will exist and allow no alternatives. But our human experience of contingency and the press for freedom and self-determination in our time indicate a different notion of God and a more flexible structure to Being-itself. We need to turn our attention away from grasping necessity and more toward discerning how choice is made and control is exercised. Some decisions are determinative, others not. We need to understand how and when volition can be successful in changing presently fixed structure. Our experience has more the quality of a lottery and a gamble than of a succession of events fixed by necessity. Eternity seems more to mean “not subject to failure” than it does “untouched by time or motion or contingency.” There is no novelty without risk, and we seem to live in a universe capable of accepting the excitement of risk. We should not exclude God from this experience.

Is the world like a labyrinth in which we wander, more than a fixed course set out in advance? If so, freedom must be constituent of Being and be prized by God in his own life. Freedom need not lead to license and lawlessness. We began by asking if human volition, which gives freedom to fix what otherwise would remain indeterminate, is an exception in the natural order or if freedom can belong to Being-itself. Kant, of course, answers that we will never know, but that result comes from the metaphysics he constructs, not so much from the impossibility of the structure’s being other than necessary. Kant’s analysis is confined to phenomenon as they present themselves to him, and, of course, other possible worlds never appear in space and time — except as constructs of our imagination. But hasn’t human imagination grasped something real?

We easily visualize other orders, a variety of modes for the future, and we deliberate over which direction to commit volitional energy. These are as real in human experience as space and time, and the way contingent future events are sometimes altered by volitional decision makes us unwilling to see that human effort is of no avail. The past is what it is, but we seldom think of the future in the same way. Are past and future distinct in the structure of Being-itself, and what does it mean to say this? I think it means that Being is not full, can never actualize all possibilities, and that its structure is given final form in time. In its outer limits and sensual shape, this is the result of God’s volitional action, since the Being within which we live and move has its shape defined by divine decision. What must remain unactualized is infinite. Human volitional action operates on a much smaller scale and sometimes renders itself ineffectual. But when it acts, it structures Being in the same way God structures himself.



1 For a more detailed, and contrasting, exposition of this point, see my The God of Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).