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Philosophy of Action

Essential and Effective Freedom: Reflections Based on the Work of Bernard Lonergan

Marc E. Smith
St. Thomas University

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ABSTRACT: The theory of agency, it has been claimed, seems to involve two strange notions: on the one hand, that of a self who is not merely an event, but a substance; and that of causation, according to which an agent, who is a substance, can nevertheless be the cause of an event. The understanding of the conscious subject as constituted by the operations of experience, understanding, judgment and decision, proposed by the Canadian philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan, might resolve the puzzle, and provide the basis for an understanding of human freedom that is the affirmation of neither determinism nor arbitrariness. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments in the proposal's favor is that any attempt to refute it in theory would entail its adoption in practice.

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I. Introduction

The theme of freedom is an early and enduring one in the works of the Canadian philosopher and theologian, Bernard J. F. Lonergan (1904-1984). It was the subject of his 1940 doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (subsequently published as Grace and Freedom in 1971). Lonergan devoted further explicit attention to the topic in his study of human understanding, Insight, and again, in 1972, in Method in Theology. Since the focus of the doctoral thesis is centred on supernatural grace, I shall turn to the two later works, and other articles, for the elaboration of Lonergan's understanding of human freedom.

II. Consciousness and Subjectivity

What Lonergan wants to propose concerning human freedom cannot be understood apart from his view of the human subject who is free. In many ways, in fact, Lonergan's understanding of freedom, like his cognitional theory and his theological methodology, is simply an application of a more basic theory of subjectivity.

In Lonergan's view, while there is a great emphasis on the human subject in contemporary philosophy, the understanding attained is either incomplete or mistaken. The study of the subject is nothing other than the study of oneself inasmuch as one is conscious, and should proceed as follows:

It attends to operations and to their centre and source which is the self. It discerns the different levels of consciousness, the consciousness of the dream, of the waking subject, of the intelligently inquiring subject, of the rationally reflecting subject, of the responsibly deliberating subject. It examines the different operations on the different levels and their relations to one another.

One's view of human subjectivity will be inaccurate or mistaken to the degree that one either does not advert to all the different operations of consciousness, or to their inter-relationship. As we shall see, Lonergan proposes a view of the human subject as a dynamic structure of consciousness operations, each of which presupposes and complements its predecessor. The structure is characterized as dynamic, since the components are operations, or acts, and because the structure is self-assembling, in that each conscious operation summons the one which succeeds it.

The first operation of the conscious subject is experience, the act of apprehending and attending to data, whether of sense of consciousness (the latter being the conscious operations we are discussing). And while an animal is content simply with the data, humans will (on occasion, at least) ask a question (Insight, p. 10). And that question, prompted by what Lonergan calls our "pure, detached, disinterested and unrestricted desire to know," prods us from the first level of experience to that of understanding.

This second level (or type) of consciousness is characterized by direct insight, by which the subject grasps the unity-identity-whole given in the data, but not itself a datum. This act of insight is pivotal in Lonergan's cognitional theory, for it mediates the transition from the experiencing subject to the knowing subject. As intelligent understanding, this operation does not yet, however, yield knowledge, properly so called. The product of insight is simply a 'bright idea'; but it presupposes and completes the conscious acts of experiencing. And while insight answers a question posed by experience ('what is it?'), it prompts yet another: 'is it so?'. In other words, one questions the adequacy, the accuracy, the truth of one's insight, one's grasp of the intelligibility in the data.

The answer to this further question is answered by yet another type or level of consciousness, that of judgment or reflective understanding. And it is with this third conscious operation that the subject can claim to 'know', in the proper sense. Thus, knowing, for Lonergan, is not simply one act or operation; it is the cumulative achievement of several acts, which mutually presuppose and complement one another. Lonergan dismisses as 'myth' the position that holds that "knowledge is like looking" i.e. experiencing (Method in Theology, p. 238). The achievement of insight, by itself, is not knowledge; only with the judgment that my insight is adequate, and that there are no further relevant question, does the subject become a knowing subject.

However, this 'cognitional structure', as Lonergan terms it, does not exhaust the dynamism characteristic of human consciousness. The three operations thus far identified are likewise presupposed and completed by yet another, the act of deciding or choosing. For, while the act the third level answers a question posed by the second, it too raises yet another, i.e., whether one's doing is consistent with one's knowing.

Man is not only a knower but also a doer: the same intelligent and rational consciousness grounds the doing as well as the knowing; and from that identity of consciousness there springs inevitably an exigence for self-consistency in knowing and doing. (Insight, p. 599)

One final note on these four operations characteristic of the rational self-conscious subject: while this order of exposition would seem to suggest that the fourth level of decision can and should only follow acts of experiencing, understanding and judging, in point of fact the order of occurrence can be—and commonly is—the reverse. While the acts at the fourth level complement operations at the third, the activities of cognitional consciousness do not occur without the guidance and control of the fourth level of operation. One can choose what one is to know, or to experience; while paradoxical, it is nonetheless the case that a mutual inter-dependence exists between the fourth level of consciousness and the others.

III. Freedom and Consciousness

In all that has been said so far, no mention has been made of freedom—and, indeed, it might appear that there should be none. After all, have we not been speaking of the necessary components in cognitional structure? Does not Lonergan himself speak of inevitable questions and demands that characterize each level of conscious operation? If so, how are these operations, and especially operations at the fourth level, to be considered 'free'?

We should note, as does Lonergan, that these 'laws' of conscious operations are unlike laws which obtain in the physical order. These 'laws of the spirit', as Lonergan calls them, differ in nature and content from physical laws. The former "reside in the dynamic structure of [...] cognitional and volitional operations, and their concrete application is effected through spirit's own operations within that dynamic structure" (Insight, p. 618). Accordingly, then, insight, judgment and decision have a legislative function, not as being subject to laws, as physical objects are, but as making " the laws of the distinctively human level of operations" (Insight, p. 617).

In fact, these four levels of conscious operation are characterized by a special type of contingence, and are thus not characterized by necessity. In the first place, the contingence of these acts is based upon the fact that conscious agents are themselves contingent. In the second place, the products of each level of operation can be other than they are: data can be variously interpreted; interpretations may or may not be affirmed; various courses of action may be considered and rejected; and even if there be only one possible course of action, it may be rejected.

Lonergan notes:

Intelligent grasp of a possible course of action need not result automatically in its execution, for critical reflection can intervene to scrutinize the object and evaluate the motives. Critical reflection cannot necessitate the decision, for consistency between knowing and willing becomes an actuality only through the willing. (Insight, p. 619)

And again:

To claim the sole reasonable course of action is realized necessarily is to claim that willing is necessarily consistent with knowing. But that claim is preposterous, for it contradicts the common experience of a divergence between what one does and what one knows one ought to do. (Insight, p. 619)

In fact, the possibility and actuality of such inconsistency is the "most obvious" evidence of the freedom of human conscious operations at the fourth level. The will (or rational deciding) is not necessarily determined by antecedent conscious operations, either in fact or even in principle, "for actual consistency between knowing and deciding is the result of deciding reasonably," and not of rational judgment alone.

However, while rational decision may not be necessitated in principle, in fact it sometimes is. Lonergan distinguishes between essential freedom and effective freedom. While a discussion of the latter is meaningless unless the former obtains, it is also the case that a denial of the latter does not entail a denial of the former (see Insight, p. 620). The reason why this is so becomes clearer once one understands the distinction between them.

The difference between essential and effective freedom is nothing other than the difference "between a dynamic structure and its operational range" (Insight, p. 619). The conscious subject enjoys an essential freedom because the subject as conscious is constituted by a series of operations whose achievements may be other than they are, and which may be prevented from occurring at all. The essential freedom of the subject is nothing else than the structure of conscious operations. "Man is free essentially inasmuch as possible courses of action are grasped by practical insight, motivated by reflection, and executed by decision" (Insight, p. 619).

However, while all human subjects are essentially free, they may be effectively free to a greater or a lesser extent, "inasmuch as this dynamic structure is open to grasping, motivating and executing a broad or a narrow range of otherwise possible courses of action" (Insight, p. 620). Accordingly, effective freedom will be conditioned by actualities relating to the four levels of consciousness. External circumstances offer only a limited range of concretely possible alternatives; one's psycho-neural state can restrict one's capacity for effective deliberation and choice; the less developed one's theoretical and practical intelligence, the more limited the range of possible courses of action; and, finally, one's willingness to be consistent in knowing and doing may not be unrestricted or disinterested, and so one might exclude some possible courses of action.

Perhaps it might be put this way: while essential freedom is a gift, effective freedom is an achievement. And if the latter has to be won, it is not won easily. The process of achieving such effective freedom will be the attaining of authentic subjectivity, that is, being attentive, being intelligent, being reasonable, being responsible. It is nothing other than becoming what one is;

"it is a development of the subject and in the subject and, like all development, it can be solid and fruitful only by being painstaking and slow" (Insight, p. xxiii).

Within the realm of effective freedom, Lonergan further distinguishes horizontal and vertical exercises of liberty. Horizontal liberty, he writes, "is the exercise of liberty within a determinate horizon and from the basis of a corresponding existential stance" (Method in Theology, p. 40; see also p. 237). It is the exercise of choice and decision within a field determined by one's knowledge, interests, social background, milieu, education and personal development. Vertical liberty, on the other hand, is the exercise of freedom which selects one's horizon and one's corresponding stance (Method in Theology, pp. 237-237).

Clearly, Lonergan's understanding of freedom as a special type of contingency excludes necessity (see Insight, p. 619). But there is more to freedom than simply the lack of necessity. If, on the one hand, the will is not necessitated in its choices, on the other, there also vanishes "the notion of a will as arbitrary power indifferently choosing between good and evil." Positively, then, the notion of freedom here elaborated embraces the aspect of responsibility. There is no room for "the notion of pure intellect of pure reason that operates on its own without guidance or control from responsible decision" (Method in Theology, p. 121). What emerges is, rather, the view of the human subject "who makes himself what he is to be, and he does so freely and responsibly; indeed he does so precisely because his acts are the free and responsible expressions of himself" ("The Subject," p. 79). Liberty, in other words, is not indeterminism, but self-determination; for "our choosing affects ourselves no less than the chosen or rejected objects, and [...] it is up to each of us to decide for himself what he is to make of himself" (Method in Theology, p. 240).

IV. Conclusion

It seems to me that this account of the freedom of the human subject might be a profitable contribution to a puzzle in the theory of agency. The puzzle, as Richard Taylor notes, is that the theory of agency seems to involve "two strange metaphysical notions that are never applied elsewhere in nature." The first is a notion of the self "who is not merely a collection of things or events, but a substance and a self-moving being." The second is "an extraordinary conception of causation, according to which an agent, which is a substance, and not an event, can nevertheless be the cause of an event" (Metaphysics, p. 51).

Taylor finds the first notion, that of self, 'strange', because we certainly do not know that a man is anything more than an assemblage of physical things and processes, which act in accordance with those laws that describe the behavior of all other physical things and processes. (Metaphysics, p. 51)

But if there is insight in Lonergan's perspective, then we do know that the conscious subject is more than an assemblage of physical processes; that, in particular, the conscious subject is constituted by acts, not only of sensation, but also of insight, rational judgment and deliberate choice.

Moreover, the strangeness of the view that a subject 'substance' can cause events also disappears. On the view that I have been expounding, the subject as conscious is constituted by acts or operations; and these operations—attending to data, grasping by insight the unity-identity whole in them, affirming or denying the reasonableness of one's insights, and making decisions on the basis of them—determine the horizon and constitute conscious subjects and the world in which they live.

Finally, let me suggest what is perhaps most provocative about Lonergan's view of the human subject and its freedom: any attempt to deny or refute it in theory, affirms it in practice. For only the reality of essential freedom would allow for the possibility of new data, divergent insights, and subsequent judgments of affirmation or denial. And the actuality of such conflicting data, insights, and judgments constitutes the effective exercise of that freedom, both in the theoretical realm and in the practical order that might emerge from it.

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