Do we need to understand what we believe? Augustine says that our faith is “incomplete and unstable until it is replaced by knowledge.” He also said that we cannot understand unless we believe first, but it must be followed by knowledge which comes by sight.
He was a major Christian leader and writer who lived 1600 years ago. He was a prolific writer. I am including a condensed version of the introduction to his “On Free Choice of the Will.”
As you read the following, a few biblical thoughts come to mind:
“..grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” – 2 Peter 3:18
“..you shall know the truth, and it shall set you free.” – John 8:32
My main point and question: At what point do we conclude that we have all the truth?
(The following is from Augustine’s book, as translated by Thomas Williams.)
Augustine – On Free Choice of the Will
With Introduction by Thomas Williams
Despite its relative brevity, On Free Choice of the Will contains almost every distinctive feature of Augustine’s philosophy. It presents the essentials of his ethics, his theory of knowledge, and his views of God and human nature. In what follows, therefore, I concern myself chiefly with the two concepts that figure in the title: freedom and the will.
The word ‘freedom’ has many senses. One sort of freedom involves the absence of restraints. We might call this physical freedom.
I may still be physically free--- no one has locked me up or tied me down – but it seems that I lack freedom in some stronger and more interesting sense. I am free to act as I choose, but my choices themselves are not free. The freedom to choose in a way that is not determined by anything outside my control is what I shall call metaphysical freedom.
The view that human beings have metaphysical freedom is called ‘libertarianism’. Augustine was one of the great defenders of libertarianism; indeed, he was the first to articulate the view clearly. According to Augustine, human beings are endowed with a power that he calls the will. This feature of the will Augustine calls liberum arbitrium, which can be translated as “freedom of decision” or (more usually) “free choice.” Thus, the will is not determined by any external factors. This freedom is what allows us to be responsible for our actions; if outside forces beyond our control caused us to choose to act in a certain way, we could hardly be held responsible for acting I that way.
Thus far I have talked about being determined by external things. But it is not external states that determine our choices; it is internal states: beliefs, desires, states of character, and so on. And since it is my desires and my character that determine my choices, my freedom is not threatened.
A libertarian like Augustine would not be convinced by this sort of reasoning. The fact that this causal chain eventually wormed its way inside me, so to speak, determining my choices from within, no longer seems to guarantee my freedom. It is with such considerations in mind that Augustine rejects the view (known an ‘compatibilism’) that determinism is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility; and since he is convinced that human beings are in fact free and responsible, he must reject determinism as well.
Because human beings have metaphysical freedom, we are capable of making a real difference in the world. In this way we can truly be said to be in the image of God, who created all things distinct from himself by a free and unconditioned act of the will. Like God, human beings can introduce genuine change, can bring into being something that except for their free choice would have never existed.
Unfortunately, this metaphysical freedom can be used – indeed, Augustine thinks that it has been used – to introduce evil into the world.
Augustine’s answer is that human beings have metaphysical freedom, and so the blame for any evil action rests on the person who performed that action. Without metaphysical freedom, the universe is just a divine puppet show. If there is to be any real creaturely goodness, any new and creative act of love, rather than the merely mechanical uncoiling of a wind-up universe, if there are to be any real decisions other than those made in the divine will, then there must be metaphysical freedom, and such freedom brings with it the possibility of evil as well as the promise of goodness.
There is a third sense of ‘freedom’ that I shall call autonomy. Augustine describes autonomy as “the sort of freedom that people have in mind when they think they are free because they have no human masters, or that people desire when they want to be set free by their masters”. This sort of freedom is not freedom in the highest and most genuine sense, Augustine believes, and so he has little to say about it.
Augustine, however, would point out that if you are your own boss, you are ipso facto your own slave. And it is not right to be ruled by what is equal to oneself. One should be ruled only by what is in every respect superior to oneself, and that is Truth, which Augustine identifies with God. The unchanging divine truth about what we ought to do is what Augustine calls the eternal law. The morally grown-up human being recognizes this law for what it is: an immutable standard of divine authority, one that binds us unconditionally, quite independently of what we may happen to desire or believe.
The Kantian doctrine has an undeniable appeal, but Augustine would point out that evil always has a specious attractiveness and that error is most dangerous when it is parasitic on some truth. That is what Augustine means by saving that we must try to understand what we have already believed. If I think that the moral law has no higher authority than my own reason, I can easily come to think that it has no real authority at all.
Augustine, by contrast, insists on the absolute objectivity and authority of the eternal law.
This is not the arbitrary judgment of a killjoy God; it is the natural and inevitable result of trying to live in a law-governed universe while defying its laws.
This is one reason why Augustine thinks that it is important to understand what we have believed.
Our only security against this instability of moral belief is to attain understanding or knowledge, rather than mere belief, about moral matters. “Faith comes by hearing,” but knowledge comes by sight. “Unless you believe, you will not understand.
This may sound like arguing in a circle, or at least like a kind of proof texting. (“Here’s what I believe; now I’ll try to prove that I’m right”), but in fact it is a very plausible position. “You only say that because you’re a physicist.”
Moral truths are no different. Belief is required for understanding. ”You only say that because you’re a moralist”. So belief is necessary for the attainment of knowledge, but belief is incomplete and unstable until it is replaced by knowledge.
Where human beings are concerned, there is no such thing as being free from a law that is imposed from without; to deny the authority of the eternal law is not moral adulthood but moral perversity. Moral uprightness, therefore, consists in submission to this eternal and immutable truth, which is not of our own making.
But why does Augustine go on to say that not merely uprightness, but freedom, consists in submission to the Truth?
This brings us to the final sense of freedom. Since Augustine thinks of this sort of freedom as the highest and most valuable sort, I shall call it genuine freedom. Genuine freedom involves using one’s metaphysical freedom to cleave to the eternal law, to love what is good, to submit to the truth. So the soul that submits to the truth and loves the good will be free, while the soul that is fixed on lesser things is at the mercy of forces beyond its control.
The only genuine freedom, then, is submission to the truth. In other words, obedience to the eternal law, which is no arbitrary divine pronouncement but the rules for action that are stamped on our very nature, is our only security against frustration, dissatisfaction, confusion and the tyranny of bad habits and misplaced priorities.