Feser and Free Will – Characters in a Story

Feser and Free Will – Characters in a Story September 29, 2019

I am presently editing a book by Gunther Laird, who has a keen interest in critiquing Thomism and Edward Feser’s defence thereof. The book has a working title of The Unnecessary Science, and is solid and hefty refutation of the core tenets and claims of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy as often formulated in natural law theory.

Here, Laird quotes Feser concerning free will, and I thought the quote was so full of issue, it would be worth posting it here:

Dr. Feser might say that human beings have free will in the same sense characters in a novel have free will. As he said in Five Proofs:

Consider once again the analogy with the author of a story. Suppose it is a crime novel and that one of the characters carefully plots the murder of another, for financial gain. We would naturally say that he commits the murder of his own free will, and is therefore justly punished after being caught at the end of the novel. It would be silly to say: ‘Well, he didn’t really commit the murder of his own free will. For he committed it only because the author wrote the story that way.’ The author’s writing the story the way he did is not inconsistent with the character’s having freely committed the murder. It’s not comparable to (say) some further character in the story hypnotizing the murderer and thereby getting him to commit the crime—something which would be inconsistent with the murder having been committed freely. If we got to a point in the book where such hypnotism was revealed, we would say ‘Ah, so it wasn’t an act of free will after all.’ But we don’t say that when we reflect on the fact that the story had an author. It is perfectly coherent to say that the author wrote a story in which someone freely chooses to commit a murder.[1]

[1]FP, 200-215.

Laird critiques the quote as follows:

As you can imagine, there are several problems with this. First, to say that “characters in this novel only behave according to the will of the author” might be silly, but it isn’t wrong. We call such a statement silly because most of us already know that all the characters in a novel are figments of the author’s imagination and do exactly what the author says. Fictional characters and mere figments of the imagination cannot truly have free will, but we pretend they do—suspend our disbelief—in order to enjoy fiction. To say that fictional characters have free will in the context of a story is to admit they do not have free will in reality. But Feser isn’t talking about fiction here, he is ostensibly talking about the world we live in. And if the real world is analogous to a story written by God, to say we have free will in the context of that “story” is to admit we don’t actually have it in an objective sense.

This is easy to understand by looking at how we criticize novels and other works of fiction. Take Star Wars, for instance. The character Jar-Jar Binks was notoriously annoying, loathed by nearly everybody who watched The Phantom Menace, and George Lucas was excoriated for writing such a stupid character. It would not have made any sense for Lucas to defend himself by saying, “It’s not my fault! In the context of the story, Jar-Jar freely chose to act stupid and annoying, it wasn’t like he was being controlled by a Sith or anything!” Nobody would take such a defense seriously, because regardless of how characters within a story might be expected to react to other characters in that story, as a matter of what is true in the real world, everything the characters do is ultimately determinate upon the author’s will—the story might be constructed in such a way that its characters seem like they have free will, but by dint of being a story constructed by an author, that free will is ultimately an illusion. If it were not, no-one could ever criticize the plotting or characterization of any novel or script because the author would be able to blame all of his mistakes on the characters.

Second, Feser’s analogy makes God’s power over His “story” rather difficult to make sense of. The human author of a story can change it as he wills. For instance, if a character dies in the first draft of a novel, the author can re-write it so she lives in the second draft. But God is apparently unable to do so, because such a thing would be a sort of change—that is to say, a first draft submitted to an editor on Monday would be different from a second draft submitted on Friday, and Pure Act cannot change. But this would seem to limit God in ways human beings are not. It would make the Author of the universe itself less powerful over His own creation, in a way, than mere human authors are over theirs. While perhaps not incoherent in the sense of being self-contradictory, this is certainly unintuitive, given God’s supposedly unlimited majesty and power.

Third, Feser’s analogy also vitiates his doctrine of Essences and final causes. In most stories, the characters inside it can never really be certain of the “true Essences” of anything they encounter—indeed, in many cases, the authors of such stories construct them in such a way that such knowledge is entirely inaccessible to the characters (and often to the consumer!). Was Rick Deckard a replicant in Blade Runner? He could never tell you in the context of the story, though Ridley Scott could. Was Childs an alien doppelganger by the end of The Thing? Only John Carpenter knows for sure. That being the case, wouldn’t similar epistemic uncertainty attend to us, characters in God’s “novel?” How can we be sure blacks or Jews or Catholics actually possess the Essences of human beings (and the moral rights and obligations entailed) as opposed to the Essences of doppelgangers God designed to merely resemble humans? How can we be certain the Essence of anything we encounter actually is what it seems to be? Perhaps squirrels have some purpose beyond reproducing and eating nuts known only to God. And, of course, the million-dollar question—how can we be sure Christ actually did possess the Divine Essence as opposed to being a magician or trickster who only seemed as if He had died? It is not enough to say that God would not lie to us. Just as Ridley Scott and John Carpenter had reasons for keeping the truth about who was a replicant or doppelganger away from Rick Deckard and R.J. Macready, perhaps God would have reasons for permitting some sort of magician (as Celsus would say) to pretend to be Him.

Indeed, if we think about the implications of Feser’s analogy, it seems as if Christ absolutely could not have been God Himself. If the world of our everyday existence is analogous to a story held in God’s mind, then wouldn’t the Incarnation of Christ be analogous to the author of a novel inserting himself into it as a character? But if you think about it, it is metaphysically impossible for an author to literally put himself inside a story. For instance, imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story in which he was transported from his study into Middle-Earth and helped defend Minas Tirith. But Tolkien-the-author and Tolkien-the-character could not literally be the same person, because they are crucially different in both characteristics and actions. If they were the same, Tolkien-the-author would have to be yanked from his study at the very same time he was sitting down and writing about Tolkien-the-character being plunged into Middle Earth. Thus, we can conclude that Tolkien-the-author is essentially different from Tolkien-the-character, the latter simply being a representation of the former, a fictional character who might resemble in all particulars the author, but is otherwise a separate entity.

The exact same consideration applies to Jesus Christ: It is impossible for God to show up in His own “novel,” because simply being part of a novel necessitates certain characteristics God must not have: God is timeless, but the events of His “novel” take place across and in time, God is changeless, but His self-insertion obviously changes in a variety of ways, and so on. We could say Jesus represents God within the context of our story, but the doctrine of the Trinity demands that Jesus was not a mere “representation” of God but literally and essentially God Himself. Thus, while Jews and Muslims might find the Divine Novelist analogy to be useful, it deals a rather severe blow—to say the least—to the preferred religion of the Thomist.

It is similar to the common sort of defence of free will and divine omniscience/foreknowledge – the claim that by knowing that certain things will come to pass, indubitably, it supposedly doesn’t mean to say that they are caused by that knower. Except that the knower knew this in advance of designing and creating the world to be so. Any defence of this scenario is always wholly inadequate.


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