“Henry P. Stapp is a theoretical physicist at the University of California–Berkeley who worked with some of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He does not seek to prove that the soul exists, but he does say that the existence of the soul fits within the laws of physics.
It is not true to say belief in the soul is unscientific, according to Stapp. Here the word “soul” refers to a personality independent of the brain or the rest of the human body that can survive beyond death. In his paper, “Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory With Personality Survival,” he wrote: “Strong doubts about personality survival based solely on the belief that postmortem survival is incompatible with the laws of physics are unfounded.”
He works with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—more or less the interpretation used by some of the founders of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Even Bohr and Heisenberg had some disagreements on how quantum mechanics works, and understandings of the theory since that time have also been diverse. Stapp’s paper on the Copenhagen interpretation has been influential. It was written in the 1970s and Heisenberg wrote an appendix for it.
Stapp noted of his own concepts: “There has been no hint in my previous descriptions (or conception) of this orthodox quantum mechanics of any notion of personality survival.”
Why Quantum Theory Could Hint at Life After Death
Stapp explains that the founders of quantum theory required scientists to essentially cut the world into two parts. Above the cut, classical mathematics could describe the physical processes empirically experienced. Below the cut, quantum mathematics describes a realm “which does not entail complete physical determinism.”
Of this realm below the cut, Stapp wrote: “One generally finds that the evolved state of the system below the cut cannot be matched to any conceivable classical description of the properties visible to observers.”
So how do scientists observe the invisible? They choose particular properties of the quantum system and set up apparatus to view their effects on the physical processes “above the cut.”
The key is the experimenter’s choice. When working with the quantum system, the observer’s choice has been shown to physically impact what manifests and can be observed above the cut.
Stapp cited Bohr’s analogy for this interaction between a scientist and his experiment results: “[It’s like] a blind man with a cane: when the cane is held loosely, the boundary between the person and the external world is the divide between hand and cane; but when held tightly the cane becomes part of the probing self: the person feels that he himself extends to the tip of the cane.”
The physical and mental are connected in a dynamic way. In terms of the relationship between mind and brain, it seems the observer can hold in place a chosen brain activity that would otherwise be fleeting. This is a choice similar to the choice a scientist makes when deciding which properties of the quantum system to study.
The quantum explanation of how the mind and brain can be separate or different, yet connected by the laws of physics “is a welcome revelation,” wrote Stapp. “It solves a problem that has plagued both science and philosophy for centuries—the imagined science-mandated need either to equate mind with brain, or to make the brain dynamically independent of the mind.”
Stapp said it is not contrary to the laws of physics that the personality of a dead person may attach itself to a living person, as in the case of so-called spirit possession. It wouldn’t require any basic change in orthodox theory, though it would “require a relaxing of the idea that physical and mental events occur only when paired together.”
Classical physical theory can only evade the problem, and classical physicists can only work to discredit intuition as a product of human confusion, said Stapp. Science should instead, he said, recognize “the physical effects of consciousness as a physical problem that needs to be answered in dynamical terms.”
How This Understanding Affects the Moral Fabric of Society
Furthermore, it is imperative for maintaining human morality to consider people as more than just machines of flesh and blood.
In another paper, titled “Attention, Intention, and Will in Quantum Physics,” Stapp wrote: “It has become now widely appreciated that assimilation by the general public of this ‘scientific’ view, according to which each human being is basically a mechanical robot, is likely to have a significant and corrosive impact on the moral fabric of society.”
He wrote of the “growing tendency of people to exonerate themselves by arguing that it is not ‘I’ who is at fault, but some mechanical process within: ‘my genes made me do it’; or ‘my high blood-sugar content made me do it.’ Recall the infamous ‘Twinkie Defense’ that got Dan White off with five years for murdering San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.”
“What is the difference between God’s causing something to be and my causing something to be? Francesco Silvestri, a.k.a. Ferrariensis (1474–1528), gives us some helpful tips to isolate these two main kinds of cause-and-effect—God’s causing something and a creature’s causing something.
There are a lot of different kinds of beings, and these beings don’t always have a lot in common. Sure, polar bears, ostriches, and earthworms are all animals, but how the moon or the wind or fire are all alike isn’t obvious. Furthermore, what about the kind of being that the act of scratching your head has? Or your posture? Certainly, actions and positions exist—sort of.
What absolutely everything has in common is that they all are, or they exist somehow, even though what that means in each case—for animals, actions, positions, colors, and anything else you can think of—can differ widely. Everything is alike insofar as everything has being. If something is not—it does not have being—then there’s nothing to talk about. It doesn’t share what everything else has, but it’s also not included in everything—it’s nothing (no + thing).
With this in mind, now consider what kind of cause God is. God produces things out of nothing. That means that by creating, he gives something existence—he gives something what it needs to be anything at all. He gives it being. No creature does this.
But suppose you, in your budding artistic practice, paint a canvas red to include in a museum of abstract art. You cause, not being, per se, but redness. Yet you would also seem to cause being; you cause the canvas to be red. And this should seem strange. God is absolutely the cause of being; but you also seem to be a cause of being. Is there a conflict?
Ferrariensis helps clarify how mere creatures cause being in a rather intriguing way. He explains that nothing at all can truly be separate from its being or its existence. Everything, insofar as it is anything, is. That is not to say that there is no distinction between what a thing is (essence) and its being (existence). But a thing’s essence relies on its existence at least in some way if you want to talk about anything at all.
Therefore, when you, a creature, cause a canvas to be red, there’s no way to understand your causing redness without your causing the redness to be. That is, you cause the canvas to be red. Otherwise, you would not cause anything at all. How could you cause redness in a canvas without causing the canvas to be red?
This does not mean that you, mere creature that you are, cause being out of your own resources—out of nothing. You really cause the canvas to be red, but that whole process of creaturely cause-and-effect depends on God’s causing the whole chain of causes to be at every moment.
Ferrariensis helps us to understand how we creatures cause being as a secondary effect. For you, the artist, redness is the primary effect of your painting, but being is a secondary effect, because by causing red in a canvas you cause the canvas to be red. But God causes all of it—you, your act of painting, the canvas, and the red in the canvas—to be absolutely. He holds everything in being: Being is God’s primary effect. And because you cannot cause something without causing it to be—being is a secondary effect of anything you cause—you depend on God to cause anything at all.
This means that at every moment and in everything we do, we depend fully on God to act. But it also means something very beautiful. We’re not like mere characters in a fictional book, who are not only dependent entirely on the author, but also do not have any real causality (unless you suspend disbelief). We creatures are real causes of our effects. We depend on God completely, but our actions are, in a very real way, our own.”
(Ed. it is helpful to go all the way back to Plato’s ideas of ‘forms’ first. The good father goes a little fast past primary definitions for the novice.)
Ipsum Esse Subsistens, Existence or Act of Existence Itself, subsistent of Itself or subsisting by Itself, i.e. God. God is being itself. God exists outside of time, i.e. transcendence. God is. God just is. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 4, a. 2)
“Metaphysics is the [philosophical] study of the basic structure of reality. It is, in Aristotle’s words, the study of being as being, rather than the study of any particular being per se. Metaphysics is the framework by which we understand reality. We can’t avoid metaphysics — every act of understanding entails a metaphysical framework, a perspective. One might say that our metaphysical perspective is that by which we understand, contrasted to nature itself, which is that which we understand.
Our own metaphysical framework is often opaque to us. We use it, like we might use an intuitive political bias, without really examining the framework we are using. We each have a metaphysical bias — it’s unavoidable, and the important question is: does our bias lead us toward or away from the truth? Gaining metaphysical insight is not easy, but it pays big dividends. It helps us to know the truth — indeed, it is that by which we know the truth.
A Rigorous and Consistent System
St. Thomas Aquinas developed a rigorous and consistent system of metaphysics. He was the first Christian philosopher to insist that faith and reason, properly understood, are never in conflict. Belief in God is not contrary to knowledge of the natural world. St. Thomas’ doctrine was controversial in his day, but it was accepted by the Church in the centuries after his death, and it became the intellectual foundation of the modern world, including the cornerstone of modern science.
Ironically, the correspondence of faith and reason is controversial today, especially in the atheist community. The denial of the compatibility between faith and reason is a lynchpin of atheist arguments for naturalism: atheists insist that science tells us the real truth about the world, and faith in God is superstition. The Thomistic reply is that genuine faith and reason both point to the same truth. The Thomistic understanding of reason and its correspondence with faith offer a powerful reply to atheistic naturalism. For readers who are interested in metaphysics and in these modernist controversies, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at the principle that is the cornerstone of Thomistic metaphysics.
Essence and Existence
The cornerstone of Thomistic metaphysics is the doctrine of essence and existence. It is this: essence is absolutely distinct from existence. This doctrine, which St. Thomas was the first philosopher to assert unequivocally and demonstrate with rigor, has profound implications for our understanding of reality, of nature, of science and of God. What does St. Thomas mean in saying “essence is absolutely distinct from existence”?
First, definitions. Essence is that which makes something the sort of thing it is. It is, succinctly, all the characteristics that are knowable about something. The essence of a cat is everything about the cat that makes it a cat. Its cat-shape, it’s furriness, its meow, its animality, etc. Some things about the cat, things the cat may do or what may happen to it (projectile vomiting or be eaten) — are not parts of the essence of a cat. They are extraneous to it, although in rare circumstances, they may be true of it. You can see here where that modern notion of “essence” comes from. Essence is what’s important about something, what tells us what something really is. [ Ed. A cat is still a cat, maintains the “essence” of cat-ness, even when it is not projectile vomiting or being eaten. These question arise practically in artificial intelligence.]
And Now for Existence
Existence is that a thing is, rather than what a thing is.The existence of a thing is different from the essence of a thing. I can know the essence of a rock, but it is the rock’s existence by which I stub my toe. I can’t stub my toe on essence, no matter how hard it is.
Prior to St. Thomas, many philosophers considered existence to be a property of something, part of its essence, i.e. Plato. We might say that my cat Fluffy’s essence is that she is shaped like a cat, purrs and meows, likes to play with yarn, and exists.
An Utter Metaphysical Distinction
St. Thomas emphatically pointed out that existence is not, and cannot be, any part of essence.Existence and essence are metaphysically utterly distinct — existence is not a genus, in scholastic terms, but is above every genus. Existence is not a characteristic or property of a thing. It is something much more fundamental.
To understand what Aquinas is getting at, consider again my cat Fluffy. I will describe her to you: she is calico, weighs nine pounds, hates baths, purrs, says “meow” several times a day, is three years old, and is expecting kittens. If you want to know more about her, just ask. I can describe her in any degree of detail you would like.
Now tell me this: does she exist? I have given you her essence, to any level of detail you want, but the fact or fallacy of her existence is not knowable from knowing her essence. In fact, I don’t have a cat. I have a dog. But I can describe my cat completely, and you still can’t know if she really exists.
I can describe anything you like in whatever detail you like, but you can’t know whether it exists or not merely by its description. You can’t know existence merely by knowing essence…unicorns. Essence is not existence.[Ed. Essence meant here as a philosophical term is more than merely creative writing. We all know what an acorn is. That is its essence. That we know what an acorn is. Specific acorns exist, but that is not what we are talking about. We are not discussing a specific acorn when we are discussing or imagine acorns.] In modern terms, [unicorns mean] the Venn diagram of existence has no overlap with the Venn diagram of essence.
In Thomistic terms, in order for something in nature to exist, its existence must be joined to its essence.[Ed. Essence, in philosophical terms, is a reality outside the mind of any one or group of persons. We know there are planets in the galaxy, even if we cannot currently see them. We have an idea of what a planet is. The abstract philosophical construct of a planet would still exist even if there were no intelligent creatures to understand the essence of a planet. It merely requires an intelligent creature to discover the concept of philosophical essence. Essence was there in philosophical thought all along. When we discover a new planet its essence, the concept of planet, and its existence, the planet we found, coexist. It is the essence of planet that even impels us to look for such a thing as a planet, having not discovered the next actual planet we find.] In fact, that is what nature is: distinct essences joined to existence. Things that exist are composites of existence and essence, and existence and essence are really distinct things [philosophically].
So what does this matter? It seems too esoteric to have any relevance to anyone not in a cloister. But its relevance is profound and extends to many aspects of theology and science [i.e. artificial intelligence].”
“Domingo Báñez (1528-1604) was a feisty Basque Dominican Friar and a leading theologian of his era. He was part of the third generation of scholasticism’s Silver Age, centered around the University of Salamanca in Spain where he occupied the prestigious first chair of theology for nineteen years. His fierce intellect was often embroiled in theological controversy in an age when doctrine was a matter of life and death. He deployed his sometimes scathing prose—a departure from the usual academic reserve of the scholastics—in service to the adoration of God and the defense of Catholic teaching. He taught Saint John of Ávila, counseled King Phillip II, and was confessor and defender of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
Βáñez is best known for his leading role in the De auxiliis controversy concerning the grace of God. All Catholics agreed (and still agree) that we cannot be saved without God’s grace. Though we were broken by original sin, God deigns to dwell in our souls and raise us to new life. Our path to salvation has God as its first source at every step and in every good work. Unfortunately, some Protestants taught that there is no such thing as free will because God determines everything, and Catholics in the sixteenth century were divided on how to respond.
Some began to argue that God only gives grace to those whom He knows will make good use of it. Báñez, however, thought this theory was a disaster, worrying that it meant the ultimate reason for salvation was found, not in the mercy of God, but rather in the free choice of man. God would only be reacting to future human choices, instead of giving the grace to choose the good in the first place.
This touches upon many of the deepest and most difficult questions plumbed by man. What is free will? How does God relate to creatures? Why is there evil in our world? Báñez attacked these questions with the full force of the doctrine of the Master, Thomas Aquinas. He attended always to the authority of Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils, particularly the writings of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. Báñez contended that the difference between a sinner and a saint is first of all the mercy of God. Yet God never takes away our free will. Rather, he gives us the grace to use it well.
This may sound rather pedantic, but for Báñez the whole Christian life was at stake. Referring to a passage of St. Augustine in which he found his position articulated, the Dominican writes:
“I say before God who judges me, that reading this in St. Augustine and citing him, it gives me great wonder that men who teach prayer and the spirit come to feel so feebly the movement of the grace of God. . . . Because even I, being a sinner as God knows and a man of little spirit and less prayer, but knowing that I am the work of his mercy and that each day he suffers me my ingratitude, reading these words of St. Augustine, have held back tears and, knowing my faults, have invoked the mercy of God that it may efficaciously carry me to him. May God give light to all so that with humility we may attribute to God what is his own, and to ourselves what is our own, that is, sin, in which God has no part, although being able to impede the sin he permits it on account of his secret judgments” (Translated by the author of this post).
For Βáñez, doctrinal arguments mattered because God matters. He fought hard to secure what he believed to be the metaphysical foundation for any sound spiritual life. He remains controversial to this day, even within his own Order, for the views that he defended so vociferously. Nonetheless, when he died, the faithful Dominican commended all his teachings to the judgment of the Church.
May we, too, burn with the zeal for truth that once fired this towering intellect of the Order of Preachers.”
“Throughout the wide world of creation, God has left all sorts of signs that point right back at him. Often these clues tell us more than that a divine being exists; they often tell us what kind of divine being exists. Some of these clues lie right under our noses in the world around us, whereas others lie deep inside us at the level of immediate subjective experience. Among these interior signs is the conscience, which points toward the existence of not merely a God, but a personal God.
In his “Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent,” St. John Henry Newman sets out to demonstrate how we come to approve or “assent” to the reality of God. Newman does this by appealing to the human conscience, demonstrating the significance of this mysterious interior faculty and showing how its presence and effect upon us suggest the reality of a divine moral legislator. Newman writes:
“Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).”
But where does our conscience come from?
The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty—yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us. We often find ourselves going where we do not want to go, doing what we do not want to do, or saying what we do not want to say; our conscience informs us of this.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right,” affirmed Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, “A Proper Sense of Priorities.” Truly, the conscience demands unconditional obedience, respect, and loyalty—often at a cost. Yet to disobey our conscience is often the more immediately painful option, at least on an emotional level. Strangely, in a culture so averse to moral authorities, despite the potential consequences of choosing the right decision over the popular decision, almost no one would say it’s okay to disobey one’s own conscience. It may not even be possible to say, “It’s okay to disobey your conscience” without disobeying your conscience.
But where on earth does such firm and unshakable authority over humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:
“Conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.”
Newman draws the same conclusion when he calls conscience the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.” He too was in awe of the mysterious authority of the conscience and believed that the best explanation behind it was a supreme and authoritative personal authority, which he characterizes powerfully in this reflection:
“Man has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others . . . what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands; that it praises, blames, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses of the unseen. It is more than a man’s own self. The man himself has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it.”
It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing. Feelings (unless bridled according to right reason) are often fleeting, impulsive, and irrational. Conscience, on the other hand, is abiding, authoritative, and reasonable. These distinctions are key. Kreeft points out, “If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.” Feelings may accompany our conscience, but they are not synonymous with it.
Newman suggests that such a relationship between conscience and the feelings it potentially invokes makes sense only if there is a personal explanation behind it. In his “Essay,” he wrote, “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear.”
Through our conscience we discern not only a moral law, but a moral lawgiver. When we transgress our interior moral compass, we feel a genuine sense of guilt, as though we have let someone down. On the other hand, when we obey our conscience, we feel invigorated—particularly if such obedience requires great courage—as though we have been praised by another. But merely impersonal objects like brains neither praise nor blame. The feelings we experience when we respond to our conscience are distinctly relational and point to a personal being who is holding us accountable for our actions.
“There is no moral authority outside of oneself,” asserts the spirit of the age. Yet despite this popular attitude, there is a common human experience of something dangerously akin to moral obligation. There does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal opinion; there does seem to be an interior voice within us that commands us to do good always and to avoid evil.
Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct. Our inclination to do what is right, they say, exists in order to keep the peace among the human species. The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.
But conscience is different from instinct. My instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child. The moral choice may be more evolutionarily undesirable, yet in such cases, conscience still tends to overrule instinct. But even in cases where there may be natural advantages to following our conscience, this does not rule out God as evolutionarily obsolete. As philosopher Mitch Stokes reflects:
“I have no doubt that our moral code(s) provide survival advantage over many of the alternatives. But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically. It may be, for example, that a divine lawgiver hardwired us with knowledge of moral laws, and one of the benefits of following them is that things will generally go better for us, as well as for others.”
So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.
It might be tempting to reach for Occam’s razor at this point. Perhaps this just sounds as though we’re superfluously adding God into the picture. But that is not the case at all. The unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from somewhere, and as we have noted, there is good reason to believe that a personal agent is behind it all. But the only kind of personal agent that could have such absolute authority over humanity is a divine lawgiver—so from this we are reasonable to conclude that the authoritative personal lawgiver behind the irrepressible “law written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15) is God.”
“Something that is often misunderstood about St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical psychology is his definition of the will and the intellect. Although he calls the will the “intellectual appetite” many are concerned that he is promoting a type of robotic approach to spirituality.
To put it simply, the “intellectual appetite” to Aquinas or the “will” is concerned with two things: to know and to love. From this vantage point we can summarize the spiritual life of any Christian. The intellectual appetite is not simply a machine that wants to know, but it wants to know God so that it can love God. Aquinas makes this point rather simply when he says we cannot love what we do not know, and therefore we seek to know God more, so that we can love Him more. This makes sense out of St. Thomas who leaned his head against the Tabernacle weeping because his mind was trying to grasp more about God but was coming up against great difficulty.
Now the will can be described in more ways than that it is free, according to Aquinas. The will itself has a voluntary and involuntary dimension to it. The involuntary dimension is that it is ordered towards God as the Supreme Good. Aristotle explained this as Happiness, which is nonetheless the same thing. In every practical choice we make it is tethered to this quest for happiness in God. What is the choice, is not that our will is ultimately oriented toward God, but that we can choose the means – be it making Money or Honour or Power or Pleasure or God – our means to that end. In this way we often make grave errors, and insult God by replacing the uncreated and Supreme Good with something corruptible, created, and base in contrast to God. The voluntary dimension therefore is always in reference to the means – the path we take on our journey toward happiness. For this reason Jesus reveals to us that He is the Way – and that we ought to enter through the narrow gate. He is speaking to a rightly ordered free-will, that disposes itself to Him, and all created goods to be considered prior to Him.
If we want peace, a first step may simply be in acknowledging that what we are is only going to find its perfect rest in God. Everything else will be eaten up by the moths.”
With free will, we truly are responsible for our own actions. We are even responsible for proper formation of our own moral compass and informed conscience. And, also those of our brothers and sisters. Gen 4:9
-by Bahar Gholipour, 9/19/2019, for The Atlantic, a New York–based tech and science journalist who covers the brain, neuroscience and psychology, genetics and AI.
“The death of free will began with thousands of finger taps. In 1964, two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of a dozen people’s brains. Each day for several months, volunteers came into the scientists’ lab at the University of Freiburg to get wires fixed to their scalp from a showerhead-like contraption overhead. The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit.
The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants’ brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world—when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph—but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone’s brain actually initiating an action.
The experiment’s results came in squiggly, dotted lines, a representation of changing brain waves. In the milliseconds leading up to the finger taps, the lines showed an almost undetectably faint uptick: a wave that rose for about a second, like a drumroll of firing neurons, then ended in an abrupt crash. This flurry of neuronal activity, which the scientists called the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential, was like a gift of infinitesimal time travel. For the first time, they could see the brain readying itself to create a voluntary movement.
This momentous discovery was the beginning of a lot of trouble in neuroscience. Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people’s choices—even a basic finger tap—appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition.
As a philosophical question, whether humans have control over their own actions had been fought over for centuries before Libet walked into a lab. But Libet introduced a genuine neurological argument against free will. His finding set off a new surge of debate in science and philosophy circles. And over time, the implications have been spun into cultural lore.
Today, the notion that our brains make choices before we are even aware of them will now pop up in cocktail-party conversation or in a review of Black Mirror. It’s covered by mainstream journalism outlets, including This American Life, Radiolab, and this magazine. Libet’s work is frequently brought up by popular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari to argue that science has proved humans are not the authors of their actions.
It would be quite an achievement for a brain signal 100 times smaller than major brain waves to solve the problem of free will. But the story of the Bereitschaftspotential has one more twist: It might be something else entirely.
The Bereitschaftspotential was never meant to get entangled in free-will debates. If anything, it was pursued to show that the brain has a will of sorts. The two German scientists who discovered it, a young neurologist named Hans Helmut Kornhuber and his doctoral student Lüder Deecke, had grown frustrated with their era’s scientific approach to the brain as a passive machine that merely produces thoughts and actions in response to the outside world. Over lunch in 1964, the pair decided that they would figure out how the brain works to spontaneously generate an action. “Kornhuber and I believed in free will,” says Deecke, who is now 81 and lives in Vienna.
To pull off their experiment, the duo had to come up with tricks to circumvent limited technology. They had a state-of-the-art computer to measure their participants’ brain waves, but it worked only after it detected a finger tap. So to collect data on what happened in the brain beforehand, the two researchers realized that they could record their participants’ brain activity separately on tape, then play the reels backwards into the computer. This inventive technique, dubbed “reverse-averaging,” revealed the Bereitschaftspotential.
Images from the 1964 experiment show the Bereitschaftspotential (left) and one of the finger-tapping subjects. (Lüder Deecke)
The discovery garnered widespread attention. The Nobel laureate John Eccles and the prominent philosopher of science Karl Popper compared the study’s ingenuity to Galileo’s use of sliding balls for uncovering the laws of motion of the universe. With a handful of electrodes and a tape recorder, Kornhuber and Deecke had begun to do the same for the brain.
What the Bereitschaftspotential actually meant, however, was anyone’s guess. Its rising pattern appeared to reflect the dominoes of neural activity falling one by one on a track toward a person doing something. Scientists explained the Bereitschaftspotential as the electrophysiological sign of planning and initiating an action. Baked into that idea was the implicit assumption that the Bereitschaftspotential causes that action. The assumption was so natural, in fact, no one second-guessed it—or tested it.
Libet, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, questioned the Bereitschaftspotential in a different way. Why does it take half a second or so between deciding to tap a finger and actually doing it? He repeated Kornhuber and Deecke’s experiment, but asked his participants to watch a clocklike apparatus so that they could remember the moment they made a decision. The results showed that while the Bereitschaftspotential started to rise about 500 milliseconds before the participants performed an action, they reported their decision to take that action only about 150 milliseconds beforehand. “The brain evidently ‘decides’ to initiate the act” before a person is even aware that decision has taken place, Libet concluded.
To many scientists, it seemed implausible that our conscious awareness of a decision is only an illusory afterthought. Researchers questioned Libet’s experimental design, including the precision of the tools used to measure brain waves and the accuracy with which people could actually recall their decision time. But flaws were hard to pin down. And Libet, who died in 2007, had as many defenders as critics. In the decades since his experiment, study after study has replicated his finding using more modern technology such as fMRI.
But one aspect of Libet’s results sneaked by largely unchallenged: the possibility that what he was seeing was accurate, but that his conclusions were based on an unsound premise. What if the Bereitschaftspotential didn’t cause actions in the first place? A few notable studies did suggest this, but they failed to provide any clue to what the Bereitschaftspotential could be instead. To dismantle such a powerful idea, someone had to offer a real alternative.
In 2010, Aaron Schurger had an epiphany. As a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, Schurger studied fluctuations in neuronal activity, the churning hum in the brain that emerges from the spontaneous flickering of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. This ongoing electrophysiological noise rises and falls in slow tides, like the surface of the ocean—or, for that matter, like anything that results from many moving parts. “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather,” Schurger says.
From a bird’s-eye view, all these cases of noisy data look like any other noise, devoid of pattern. But it occurred to Schurger that if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach, the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks). There would be no purpose behind these apparent trends—no prior plan to cause a storm or bolster the market. Really, the pattern would simply reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.
“I thought, Wait a minute,” Schurger says. If he applied the same method to the spontaneous brain noise he studied, what shape would he get? “I looked at my screen, and I saw something that looked like the Bereitschaftspotential.” Perhaps, Schurger realized, the Bereitschaftspotential’s rising pattern wasn’t a mark of a brain’s brewing intention at all, but something much more circumstantial.
Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.
But Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.
Other recent studies support the idea of the Bereitschaftspotential as a symmetry-breaking signal. In a study of monkeys tasked with choosing between two equal options, a separate team of researchers saw that a monkey’s upcoming choice correlated with its intrinsic brain activity before the monkey was even presented with options.
In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.
In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.
When Schurger first proposed the neural-noise explanation, in 2012, the paper didn’t get much outside attention, but it did create a buzz in neuroscience. Schurger received awards for overturning a long-standing idea. “It showed the Bereitschaftspotential may not be what we thought it was. That maybe it’s in some sense artifactual, related to how we analyze our data,” says Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University.
For a paradigm shift, the work met minimal resistance. Schurger appeared to have unearthed a classic scientific mistake, so subtle that no one had noticed it and no amount of replication studies could have solved it, unless they started testing for causality. Now, researchers who questioned Libet and those who supported him are both shifting away from basing their experiments on the Bereitschaftspotential. (The few people I found still holding the traditional view confessed that they had not read Schurger’s 2012 paper.)
“It’s opened my mind,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London who collaborated with Libet and reproduced the original experiments.
It’s still possible that Schurger is wrong. Researchers broadly accept that he has deflated Libet’s model of Bereitschaftspotential, but the inferential nature of brain modeling leaves the door cracked for an entirely different explanation in the future. And unfortunately for popular-science conversation, Schurger’s groundbreaking work does not solve the pesky question of free will any more than Libet’s did. If anything, Schurger has only deepened the question.
Is everything we do determined by the cause-and-effect chain of genes, environment, and the cells that make up our brain, or can we freely form intentions that influence our actions in the world? The topic is immensely complicated, and Schurger’s valiant debunking underscores the need for more precise and better-informed questions.
“Philosophers have been debating free will for millennia, and they have been making progress. But neuroscientists barged in like an elephant into a china shop and claimed to have solved it in one fell swoop,” Maoz says. In an attempt to get everyone on the same page, he is heading the first intensive research collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers, backed by $7 million from two private foundations, the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute. At an inaugural conference in March, attendees discussed plans for designing philosophically informed experiments, and unanimously agreed on the need to pin down the various meanings of “free will.”
In that, they join Libet himself. While he remained firm on his interpretation of his study, he thought his experiment was not enough to prove total determinism—the idea that all events are set in place by previous ones, including our own mental functions. “Given the issue is so fundamentally important to our view of who we are, a claim that our free will is illusory should be based on fairly direct evidence,” he wrote in a 2004 book. “Such evidence is not available.””
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Most recently the author of The Idea of the World: A Multi-disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality, Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in philosophy (ontology, philosophy of mind) and another in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence). He has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and authored many academic papers and books on philosophy and science. For more information, freely downloadable papers, videos, etc., please visit www.bernardokastrup.com.
“At least since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, one of the most central questions of human existence has been whether we have free will. In the late 20th century, some thought neuroscience had settled the question. However, as it has recently become clear, such was not the case. The elusive answer is nonetheless foundational to our moral codes, criminal justice system, religions and even to the very meaning of life itself—for if every event of life is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, one may question the point of it all.
But before we ask ourselves whether we have free will, we must understand what exactly we mean by it. A common and straightforward view is that, if our choices are predetermined, then we don’t have free will; otherwise we do. Yet, upon more careful reflection, this view proves surprisingly inappropriate.
To see why, notice first that the prefix “pre” in “predetermined choice” is entirely redundant. Not only are all predetermined choices determined by definition, all determined choices can be regarded as predetermined as well: they always result from dispositions or necessities that precede them. Therefore, what we are really asking is simply whether our choices are determined.
In this context, a free-willed choice would be an undetermined one. But what is an undetermined choice? It can only be a random one, for anything that isn’t fundamentally random reflects some underlying disposition or necessity that determines it. There is no semantic space between determinism and randomness that could accommodate choices that are neither. This is a simple but important point, for we often think—incoherently—of free-willed choices as neither determined nor random.
Our very notion of randomness is already nebulous and ambiguous to begin with. Operationally, we say that a process is random if we can’t discern a pattern in it. However, a truly random process can, in principle, produce any pattern by mere chance. The probability of this happening may be small, but it isn’t zero. So, when we say that a process is random, we are merely acknowledging our ignorance of its potential underlying causal basis. As such, an appeal to randomness doesn’t suffice to define free will.
Moreover, even if it did, when we think of free will we don’t think of mere randomness. Free choices aren’t erratic ones, are they? Neither are they undetermined: if I believe that I make free choices, it is because I feel that my choices are determined by me. A free choice is one determined by my preferences, likes, dislikes, character, etc., as opposed to someone else’s or other external forces.
But if our choices are always determined anyway, what does it mean to talk of free will in the first place? If you think about it carefully, the answer is self-evident: we have free will if our choices are determined by that which we experientially identify with. I identify with my tastes and preferences—as consciously felt by me—in the sense that I regard them as expressions of myself. My choices are thus free insofar as they are determined by these felt tastes and preferences.
Why, then, do we think that metaphysical materialism—the notion that our choices are determined by neurophysiological activity in our own brain—contradicts free will? Because, try as we might, we don’t experientially identify with neurophysiology; not even our own. As far as our conscious life is concerned, the neurophysiological activity in our brain is merely an abstraction. All we are directly and concretely acquainted with are our fears, desires, inclinations, etc., as experienced—that is, our felt volitional states. So, we identify with these, not with networks of firing neurons inside our skull. The alleged identity between neurophysiology and felt volition is merely a conceptual—not an experiential—one.
The key issue here is one that permeates the entire metaphysics of materialism: all we ever truly have are the contents of consciousness, which philosophers call “phenomenality.”’ Our entire life is a stream of felt and perceived phenomenality. That this phenomenality somehow arises from something material, outside consciousness—such as networks of firing neurons—is a theoretical inference, not a lived reality; it’s a narrative we create and buy into on the basis of conceptual reasoning, not something felt. That’s why, for the life of us, we can’t truly identify with it.
So, the question of free will boils down to one of metaphysics: are our felt volitional states reducible to something outside and independent of consciousness? If so, there cannot be free will, for we can only identify with contents of consciousness. But if, instead, neurophysiology is merely how our felt volitional states present themselves to observation from an outside perspective—that is, if neurophysiology is merely the image of conscious willing, not its cause or source—then we do have free will; for in the latter case, our choices are determined by volitional states we intuitively regard as expressions of ourselves.
Crucially, the question of metaphysics can be legitimately broached in a way that inverts the usual free will equation: according to 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, it is the laws of nature that arise from a transpersonal will, not the will from the laws of nature. Felt volitional states are the irreducible foundation of both mind and world. Although Schopenhauer’s views are often woefully misunderstood and misrepresented—most conspicuously by presumed experts—when correctly construed they offer a coherent scheme for reconciling free will with seemingly deterministic natural laws.
As elucidated in my concise new book, Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics, for Schopenhauer the inner essence of everything is conscious volition—that is, will. Nature is dynamic because its underlying volitional states provide the impetus required for events to unfold. Like his predecessor Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer thought of what we call the “physical world” as merely an image, a perceptual representation of the world in the mind of an observer. But this representation isn’t what the world is like in itself, prior to being represented.
Since the information we have about the external environment seems to be limited to perceptual representations, Kant considered the world-in-itself unknowable. Schopenhauer, however, argued that we can learn something about it not only through the sense organs, but also through introspection. His argument goes as follows: even in the absence of all self-perception mediated by the sense organs, we would still experience our own endogenous, felt volition.
Therefore, prior to being represented we are essentially will. Our physical body is merely how our will presents itself to an external vantage point. And since both our body and the rest of the world appear in representation as matter, Schopenhauer inferred that the rest of the world, just like ourselves, is also essentially will.
In Schopenhauer’s illuminating view of reality, the will is indeed free because it is all there ultimately is. Yet, its image is nature’s seemingly deterministic laws, which reflect the instinctual inner consistency of the will. Today, over 200d years after he first published his groundbreaking ideas, Schopenhauer’s work can reconcile our innate intuition of free will with modern scientific determinism.”
“For those who reject the notion of free will, our experience of making our own decisions is nothing more than a deep-seated illusion. “The reality is,” insists biologist Anthony Cashmore, “not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”
Those who argue for the nonexistence of free will often do so on scientific grounds. And those who offer a scientific “proof” against free will point to one type of experiment more than any other—namely, those done and inspired by neurobiologist Benjamin Libet.
In 1983, Libet seemed to prove that the unconscious processes of the brain—the interaction of molecules, electrical discharges, and the like, which are associated with decision-making—are ultimately in control. In other words, our voluntary decisions begin unconsciously in the brain. So it is the brain, not the person, that decides the actions we “feel” to be voluntary.
Libet-style experiments involve having a subject carry out a simple prescribed behavior (flexing the wrist, bending a finger, etc.) whenever he feels the urge to do so. Watching a special clock while he executes his movement, the subject notes the specific time at which he decided to move. The goal of the researchers is to plot a timeline of averages, noting the typical sequence of brain activity (e.g., by EEG), muscle activity (e.g., by EMG), and conscious urging (by subjective reporting). The expectation is that if our intentional actions are truly free, associated brain activity will follow the moment of decision. But this is not what Libet found.
Why does this matter? Well, it has obvious implications for the truth of the Catholic worldview. It also concerns human nature and how we understand ourselves as human beings. For if we don’t have free will, then this may dramatically change how we govern ourselves and interact with others. Much of how we operate as individuals, communities, states, and institutions presuppose that we are personally responsible for our actions. But if it were proven that we are not, this would entirely undermine our rationale for structuring and governing society on the assumption that we are free creatures.
So did these experiments really succeed in proving that free will is an illusion? They did not.
First of all, the experiments look exclusively at spontaneously willed behavior with brain activity. Participants were asked to act when they felt the urge. These experiments, then, say little about choices resulting from rational planning. At most, they suggest the nonexistence of free will in the restricted case of willful spontaneity. The voluntary actions with which they are concerned are barely more than split-second reactions. As some critics have observed, such studies tell us more about “picking” than “choosing.”
But even that conclusion might be overly hasty, for the concept of free will is not as plain as often presumed. Free will is a spiritual appetite for the intellectually known good. A decision, moved by free will, is not a quantifiable event like a neuronal discharge. Nor is it reducible to an instantaneous impulse or urge. And a willed movement is not always a purely linear cause-then-effect event like a cue ball striking an eight-ball into action. The activity of the will is more “smoothed out” and pervasive than an impulse. And it is enacted in layers. Thus, even in a setting like the Libet-style experiments, the free will cannot be isolated as cleanly as many assume.
For each study participant, in carrying out the prescribed movement, the will to move in this way at this time is nested within a multiplicity of other intentions motivating the same action. A singular act of wrist flexion is driven also (presumably) by the will to participate in the study; by the desire to follow the specific instructions given; by the desire to contribute to neuroscientific advancement; and in the will to do something for the common good. Additionally, the subject may bend his wrist because he desires to fulfill a class requirement—a class he desires to pass—or because he thinks it will hold the attention of the attractive research assistant across the room. The point is this: due to the complex integration of intentions involved in a single choice to move a body part, these studies cannot account for all the reasons that cause a person to conduct a singular movement. There is a sense in which the free decision of the research subject to flex his wrist “now” originated even before he entered the research lab.
We find ourselves here at an important juncture. It shows that once we have started making claims about free will’s reality or unreality, we have turned from all observation, measurement, and data analysis. We have reached the far side of the physical and have (perhaps unwittingly) thrust ourselves into the realm of philosophy.
Let’s turn to some further considerations. The Libet experiments relied on machines to capture brain and muscle activity. But it must be noted that neither EEG nor fMRI, nor any other form of advanced imaging, can capture the qualitative content of brain activity. When researchers carry out Libet-style experiments, they note the onset of brain activity and compare it to that of muscle activity and, more importantly, the time when the subject reports consciously willing the prescribed movement. But there is no precise way for scientists to know—even when the subject acts on an urge—whether the brain activity recorded or observed is representative of decision, or decision-making, or planning to make a decision.
In fact, more recent research shows the same brain activity believed to induce conscious decision-making is also found in subjects even when they do not make a conscious decision. Libet’s initial conclusion was “that cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act . . . can and usually does begin unconsciously.” But these recent studies call such a conclusion into serious question.
There are several other critiques and limitations that have a significant impact on how much (or little) Libet-style studies actually prove. For an excellent detailed discussion of these limitations and their philosophical implications, read Alfred Mele’s little book Free.
At most, Libet-style experiments prove that a constrained subset of willed behaviors is not as freely executed as we are inclined to assume. But as we have seen, they hardly prove even that much. As far as Catholics traditionally conceive human freedom, such experiments pose little threat—and thus, the human person has every reason to believe that he remains infinitely more free than a bowl of sugar.”
What is conscience?
God creates us with a capacity to know and love him, and we have a natural desire to seek the truth about him. Fortunately, we don’t search for God unaided; indeed, he calls us to himself and writes his law on our hearts to help us draw closer to him.
Conscience helps us hear the voice of God; it helps us recognize the truth about God and the truth about how we ought to live. Conscience is “a judgment of reason”1 by which we determine whether an action is right or wrong.
Jesus told the apostles, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We deepen our relationship with God by following him, and in doing so, we become more fully ourselves.
Importance of a Well-Formed Conscience
Have you ever made a decision that turned out badly, but if you had more information beforehand, you would have made a better decision? Sometimes, we may have the best of intentions to do good, but choose an action that is, in itself, wrong.
For example, think of learning a new language. We can only speak with the language we have, and if we have not received good education in vocabulary and grammar, we will communicate poorly, and others will not understand us. It is similar with conscience.
If our conscience isn’t well-formed, we aren’t well-equipped to determine right from wrong. All of us have the personal responsibility to align our consciences with the truth so that, when we are faced with the challenges of daily life, our consciences can help guide us well.
How to Form Our Consciences
Wherever we are on our journey with Christ, we can grow deeper with him by continuing the work of forming our consciences well, so that we may follow him ever more closely. Although not a complete list, these suggestions can help us as we seek to inform and strengthen our consciences with God’s truth.
Through prayer and participation in the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, we encounter the living God. Spending time with the Lord, such as in silent adoration, opens our hearts to him. In drawing closer to the Lord, we allow God’s grace to conform our minds and hearts to Christ, so that we might better discern in every moment how we ought to act.
Without a foundational, practical formation, it is difficult for our consciences to guide us well in concrete situations. As Catholics, we have the immense gift of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and can turn to it for help forming our consciences. For example, learning about Christian moral principles, reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or researching what the Church says about a challenging teaching will help us grow in knowledge of the truth. In turn, this helps us understand a little more how to live in a way that leads to our true happiness.
We are formed by the stories we hear and tell. We may be uncertain how we ought to respond to various challenges as followers of Jesus, but there are many saints who have faced similar questions throughout the ages. Immersing ourselves in the stories of holy women and men can encourage us and help us develop habits of mind that allow us to grow. Stories help us hone our instincts.
A life of following Jesus is exceedingly difficult without help from a community. When we devote energy to holy friendships with people who are also trying to know, love, and serve the Lord, we gain partners who can lighten the load. Conversation with other Christians about how to respond to challenges in the life of discipleship are vital.
A couple challenges we may face in following our consciences are worth noting.
When we are bombarded with news, images, stories, and sound bites, it’s easy to become numb to other people and the world around us. Conscience requires us to be attentive. We must listen to God, who speaks to us. Having a well-formed conscience doesn’t mean we have all the answers to the complex problems in the world, but it does mean that we are sensitive to the needs and struggles of other people.
Increasingly, we are seeing that certain groups use the power of the media and even of the state to coerce people to violate their consciences. We can see how unjust these types of actions are that insist that popular opinion, rather than conscience, should be our primary guide for action.
Inspired by the example of Sister Agnes Walsh and her mother superior, let us devote ourselves anew to following wherever the Lord leads. Let us take courage from their example of faith and, when facing our own trials, remember what Jesus promised his apostles before ascending into heaven: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Be not afraid; God is with us.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., 1778.
-Archdiocese of St Paul/Minneapolis
What does it mean to have a well-formed conscience?
The formation of a good conscience is another fundamental element of Christian moral teaching. “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, no. 1796). “Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary” (GS, no. 16).
Conscience represents both the more general ability we have as human beings to know what is good and right and the concrete judgments we make in particular situations concerning what we should do or about what we have already done. Moral choices confront us with the decision to follow or depart from reason and the divine law. A good conscience makes judgments that conform to reason and the good that is willed by the Wisdom of God. A good conscience requires lifelong formation. Each baptized follower of Christ is obliged to form his or her conscience according to objective moral standards. The Word of God is a principal tool in the formation of conscience when it is assimilated by study, prayer, and practice. The prudent advice and good example of others support and enlighten our conscience. The authoritative teaching of the Church is an essential element in our conscience formation. Finally, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, combined with regular examination of our conscience, will help us develop a morally sensitive conscience.
Because our conscience is that inner sanctuary in which we listen to the voice of God, we must remember to distinguish between our subjective self and what is objectively true outside ourselves. We can be subjectively in error about something that is objectively true. On the objective level, if our conscience is “correct,” then there is no error between what is internally perceived to be true and truth itself. If there is an incorrect conscience, that means that the conscience is erroneous in its view of truth.
On the subjective level we can have a “certain” conscience, which means we believe that our conscience is in conformity with what is objectively true. A person can have a “certain” conscience on the subjective level but an “incorrect” one on the objective level. For example, a person thinks that Ash Wednesday is a Holy Day of Obligation and chooses to miss Mass anyway. The person thinks it is a Holy Day (certain subjectively but incorrect objectively) and acts on it. This person has a certain but incorrect conscience. But because the conscience acted against what it perceived to be objectively the good, the conscience chooses to sin.
There are some rules to follow in obeying one’s conscience. First, always follow a certain conscience. Second, an incorrect conscience must be changed if possible. Third, do not act with a doubtful conscience. We must always obey the certain judgments of our conscience, realizing that our conscience can be incorrect, that it can make a mistake about what is truly the good or the right thing to do. This can be due to ignorance in which, through no fault of our own, we did not have all we needed to make a correct judgment.
However, we must also recognize that ignorance and errors are not always free from guilt, for example, when we did not earnestly seek what we needed in order to form our conscience correctly. Since we have the obligation to obey our conscience, we also have the great responsibility to see that it is formed in a way that reflects the true moral good.
Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and the right solution to many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. (GS, no. 16)”
“The Church is not called to micromanage consciences – because a conscience is a throne for Christ living in a unique way in the individual, whereby their own subjective experience of objective reality is called to become docile to God’s will in freedom (aligned). Micromanaging the conscience is ultimately dehumanizing, trivializing the the sacredness of the individual will in relationship with God’s particular call in that person’s life.
Egalitarianist tendencies can govern the mind of any form of leadership, whereby seeking “sameness” in all things is perceived to be equalizing, fair, and simple. This however is contrary to the gospel which expounds on the unity manifest in diversity. These two dimensions of unity and diversity are sometimes exaggerated or not integrated and in such a case one has not reached what we might call an intellectual or affective maturity in discernment.
Sacred Scripture indicates that the ‘body of Christ’ is made up of members who accept diversity for the sake of unity, and unity for the sake of accepting diversity. These two dimensions, when rightly ordered to God’s mission, not man’s vision, embody the Church as the hands and feet of Christ. When diversity is emphasized to the neglect of unity we become individualists or “rogue” or “lone-rangers.” However, every extreme generates the other as a result of tribalism. Thus, those who emphasize unity at the neglect of diversity find themselves promoting an oppressive type of conformity. With this, what we discover is an abuse of power. With the former we discover an excessive acquiescence of power.
A healthy understanding of the moral law helps us understand why the Church needs to butt-out of people’s decisions, while also enforcing others. Both respecting a person’s individual conscience and enforcing certain disciplines are for the sake of the common-good. Typically the enforcement of law is seen as the sole proprietor of working towards the common-good, however to Aquinas this is an incomplete truth. In fact, he would state, that if a law isn’t followed by the masses, it may be the case that the law needs to he changed.
Developing a deeper understanding of the law that gives way to the subjective discernment within the Church that does not require a micromanaging paternalism is discoverable in the distinction between positive precepts versus negative precepts. Negative precepts require solid teaching that is unwavering because they are “negative” statements that involve the rejection of what is always objectively the case. The term we would use here is “intrinsically wrong/evil.” Negative precepts of the law are universal, and as such, teachings on contraception according to the Infallible Document of HV are considered as such. These therefore require enforcement.
Positive precepts however can pertain to what is licit, but not necessarily in every circumstance. For instance, pregnant women cannot receive the vaccine due to health concerns since the vaccines themselves are still in the experimental phase and we do not have enough information pertaining to the effect they may have on both the mother and child. Another example could be in regard to evangelization. It is true that we are all called to evangelize as baptized Christians, but not in every circumstance. For instance, when I sleep, I am not consciously able to dialogue with another using my charisms as such to explicitly generate faith in the lives of others. What of vocations?
To some degree, it is both the discernment of the Church and the discernment of the individual. Thus involving both in this discernment process, like a marriage involves listening to the voice of Christ who speaks through the conscience/discernment of what Christ is saying. Therefore one does not force a person against their will to enter into a vocation (arranged marriage/enslaved-priesthood). What of the number of children a couple have? Although there are given principles that are universal, the application of those principles to their concrete circumstances are not always clear: health conditions, mental health, and as such: grave-impediments. The priest does not dictate to the family that no matter what they must have 8 children. In an egalitarian manner, the priest does not say: all couples must have 8 children.
Being formed in our family or origin, our relationships, or even our monastery/convent/seminary, in the way these principles are set forward will have an impact on how we live out our vocation. If in one environment conscience is not respected or the law is not enforced when it ought to be, then this disordered approach to unity (egalitarianism) or diversity (individualism) will be copied, reacted to (thus opposed in its opposite extreme).
The Church, government, in respect to human wisdom is never perfect. Thus it must ongoingly examine the complexities of the day, and do its best to first ask the question: “What do you will God?” How we listen to that voice, while in humility and mortification suspending our own natural vision, and preferences, will give us the interior freedom to be led by Christ and navigate a healthy integration of these two principles. We must be patient in the discernment process, accepting that some mistakes will be made, because it can be challenging to know how to integrate two principles that exist in a perpetual state of changing tension (cf. Cardinal St John Henry Newman)”
“Augustine’s magnum opus not only answered the immediate objections of his contemporaries; it provided (and provides) a foundation of authentic Christian historical perspective. As a young man, Augustine had known well the pagan mentality, as he rejected the Faith and embraced the cults of false gods. Eventually, through the patient prayers of his saintly mother Monica, Augustine converted and found peace. The pagan scapegoating of the Church disturbed Augustine, so he dedicated thirteen years to writing a response and developing a Catholic understanding of history. Subtitled Against the Pagans, the City of God is a Catholic manifesto on interpreting history and maintaining a proper perspective of human events.
The work comprises two parts containing twenty-two books. Part one (books I-X) articulates a defense of the Faith in response to the pagan charge that the Church was the reason for the empire’s decay. Part two (XI-XXII), which forms the majority of the work, illustrates Augustine’s historical perspective, wherein history is viewed as a great drama between two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. The City of Man, founded on self-love, is where pride, ambition, greed, and expediency reign supreme. In contrast, the City of God is founded on selflessness and love of God, and in it humility, sacrifice, and obedience are paramount.
Membership in the City of God is not exclusionary. As Augustine wrote: “So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band.” The cities are distinct yet comingled in time. Each individual struggles with membership in both cities. At times, the citizen finds himself immersed in the City of Man and at other times he is safely ensconced in the City of God, but, more often than not, he bestrides the two. Augustine’s construct is meant to illustrate that the “meaning of history lies not in the flux of outward events, but in the hidden drama of sin and redemption.” For Augustine, the sack of Rome, as devastating as it was, did not constitute the end of the world, as some feared, nor a repudiation of the Faith, as the pagans claimed. Rather, the event can be understood through the prism of an authentic historical perspective as the free-willed action of inhabitants of the City of Man, focused on selfish goals.
Embracing Augustine’s perspective gives us the ability to maintain calm and hope in the midst of earthly calamities. Sadly, that perspective is sorely lacking in the modern age.
Modernity has lost a proper sense of historical perspective and lacks historical memory. Perhaps this mindset is widespread because modern man is too entrenched in the City of Man and has rejected, or at least ignores, the City of God. The Catholic author, historian, and politician Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) opined on this modern mindset in his 1929 work Survivals and New Arrivals. In it he analyzed the strength and vitality of the Church in the modern world by focusing on the various forms of attacks against it and how likely the Church was to survive these assaults. He categorized these attacks into survivals and new arrivals. Survivals were centuries-old attacks that were not sustainable into the future. The main opposition came from the new arrivals: attacks present in Belloc’s day, such as nefarious political ideologies that seek to replace the Church with the state as the citizen’s object of love and obedience. Within this group Belloc included also the modern mind, which he qualified as not so much an attack as a resistance—something that tries to render faith unintelligible. With its three main vices of pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth, the modern mind impedes a vibrant faith life.
It also views history with disdain, believing that modernity is superior to the past. As a result, the present becomes the sole focus of human activity and thought. Reflection on the past in order to learn from history is rejected. The future is ignored because it cannot produce immediate and tangible results. God is ignored, partly because the principal benefit of a relationship with him is in the future (eternal life), and instead, modern man worships himself. Belloc argued that changing the modern mind proves extremely difficult, because indoctrination in this false mindset is achieved through universal compulsory education, which is centered on the accumulation of information rather than on forming virtue.
Additionally, Belloc noted that the modern mind lacks the skill of critical thinking, in part, because it focuses on the pursuit of temporal pleasures in the present and because the popular press enables this “sloth by providing sensational substitutes.”
“Those who leave out the context really leave out the conception. They have a mysterious power of making the world weary of a few fixed and disconnected words, and yet leaving the world entirely ignorant of the real meaning of those words.”
– G.K. Chesterton
“The preunderstanding of the interpreter, even when it includes a faith posture and a rigorous historical approach, generally incorporates a wide variety of other assumptions as well. These other assumptions will influence the outcome of the hermeneutical effort. Across the history of the church these assumptions have generally revolved around the nature of the Bible and more particularly the intersecting concepts of revelation, the Word of God, inspiration, authority, tradition, and function.”
– Duncan S. Ferguson
“A lack of wisdom often occurs to us based upon our own personal hermeneutics. What I mean by “personal hermeneutics” is the pre-established categories/language by which we have already accepted and ascribe to, consciously and unconsciously. The mind itself becomes “closed” when we remain unopen to licit, new categories or distinctions that can help us discern the truth, nuance it and understand its application in more dynamic manners. For instance, if all we have is the moral imperative of following the law, then when a tornado chases us down the road while we are driving, we will continue to follow the speed limit because “we must follow the law.” And while the latter quote is quite right, if we add the nuancing truth from St. Thomas Aquinas about appropriate times when we should suspend a secondary precept/law to preserve the principle or primary law which roots speed-limits in saving lives, then we will speed away, hopefully to safety.
According to Josef Piper, there are two scholastic categories of thinking: ratio and intellectus. Ratio pertains to the discursive, systematic approach to thinking and knowing. This part of our intellect is what “seeks” or is “active.” The intellectus is the more spiritual side of things, where understanding exists or what we might call “integration.” Here there is not so much a discursive logical process occurring, but rather an immediate type of knowledge which Aquinas considered superior to ratio. This part of our intellect is the closest to the angels and is considered to be docile and passive/receptive. Both of these parts of our thinking are important: for those who eat (active) must also digest and assimilate (passive).
Let’s apply this to the spiritual life – scripture often speaks about eating as a spiritual exercise – eating a scroll, eating the word, eating Christ’s flesh. It can taste sweet, but when digesting it, it often becomes bitter and difficult. The bitterness we experience is the consequences of the good consolations changing our world-view, our internal hermeneutics, leading us to a type of spiritual maturity in Christ where we meet the cross He calls us to carry. It is the prophet who falls in love with God, yet must also face the crowd.
Now, the intellectus is typically grown by the grace that comes from virtue. When speaking about having a relationship with Christ, having the discipline/virtue of a deep, abiding relationship with Jesus, generates an interior hermeneutic whereby we can interpret the law, the prophets, all of revelation, our life, and everything through this lens.The intellectus becomes unconscious, perceiving all things in conjunction with a love for Christ in the same way that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing. This type of “automatic” wisdom that does not require an exerted effort from our ratio means that our entire way of thinking, our way of approaching life, has become integrated, or infused.
Now if we run into a Christian, baptized or ordained, that does not have the transcendent type of relationship with Christ, but only a ratio relationship (head-knowledge, entirely discursive) with Christ, things will constantly be interpreted incorrectly. It would be as though the person chews on the word, but then spits it out.
Imagine it like this: the unconscious or passive or automatic aspect of our soul has boxes or totes that assimilate content, events, and experiences. They enable the soul to “digest” the truth, to safeguard it, “to treasure it in her heart”. If we do not have a transcendental relationship with Christ, but an entirely natural, almost-secular type of relationship with Him, then we will only be capable of digesting (understanding) the Gospel in an earthly manner. We will read His parables incorrectly, twisting the narrative to only fit in the totes of worldly categories, and like the crowd seek to make Him a worldly King rather than enthrone Him in our conscience. To be puzzled by His parables therefore may suggest to us that we are missing something that helps us assimilate/understand the content to which He communicates. And if we, in our pride insist that as a teacher we understand the parable, we will teach it incorrectly, likely in the process contradicting ourselves. How many would see the parable about the wages as unfair? Yet a deeper understanding of grace seems to be the tote which enables this parable to be received, accepted, digested, and in fact a way of living.
So if we hear prelates, or laity, proclaim a type of secular humanism, or idolatry of externals, and rarely mention a relationship with Christ that involves the will, the heart, the mind, and all our strength, then God is possibly revealing to us a deficit in that person’s life. They may not be able to identify it in their own life, but as evangelists we might be able to. What it reveals to us is a need to return or engage the soul in the life of the supernatural: in a deep, penetrating way, where the soul seeks not the accidental (non-essential) realities of the faith, but rather its Substance: which is communion with the Divine.
We cannot be moralistically critical here, but we must be like doctors to the soul, pointing to an awareness of a need to grow in our relationship with Christ.”
“We trust ourselves to a doctor because we suppose he knows his business. He orders an operation which involves cutting away part of our body and we accept it. We are grateful to him and pay him a large fee because we judge he would not act as he does unless the remedy were necessary, and we must rely on his skill. Yet we are unwilling to treat God in the same way! It looks as if we do not trust His wisdom and are afraid He cannot do His job properly. We allow ourselves to be operated on by a man who may easily make a mistake—a mistake which may cost us our life—and protest when God sets to work on us. If we could see all He sees we would unhesitatingly wish all He wishes.” — Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure, p. 90, an excerpt from “Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence“
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom