Eleonore Stump in her recent work sketches an account of Aquinas’ teaching on faith that is as fascinating as it is puzzling. The very thing that fascinates in Aquinas’ view (that the will moves the intellect to assent to propositions that it would otherwise not have) is the thing that puzzles the most (just how is the resulting belief justified?).
The Will and the Intellect
Stump explains the complicated interaction between the will and the intellect in Aquinas: Far from being unrelated faculties operating exclusively in their own spheres, the will often works with the intellect to form beliefs. In such instances, the will can command the intellect to attend or to refrain from attending to something. But even more than that, the will sometimes has a direct role to play in the intellect assenting to certain propositions. This is clear when Aquinas describes the nature of faith.
Now according to Aquinas, intellectual assent can be brought about in different ways. For example, assent to a proposition can be brought about by the object of the intellect itself. Such is the case when an individual assents to first principles (those propositions or assumptions that are not derived from any other) or to the conclusions of demonstrations. Here, the first principles or conclusions are themselves sufficient to move the intellect to assent. There is yet another way intellectual assent can be obtained. In this second way, it is not the object of the intellect that moves the intellect, but the will itself. “[I]n such a case”, Stump says, “the intellect assents to one proposition rather than another under the influence of the will and on the basis of considerations sufficient to move the will but not the intellect” (emphasis mine).
Faith and the Will
Stump gives an example:
In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Casaubon finds her friend and admirer Will Ladislaw in a compromising embrace with the wife of one of his friends. Although it is possible (and in the novel is in fact the case) that there is an exonerating explanation of Ladislaw’s conduct, the evidence available to Dorothea strongly suggests that Ladislaw’s behavior is treacherous. But because of her commitment to him, Dorothea, in spite of the evidence, cleaves to her view that Ladislaw is a good man, not a scoundrel and a traitor. As becomes clear to Dorothea and to the reader of the novel, Dorothea’s belief based on her desires about her relationship to Ladislaw is veridical. Without the influence of her will on her intellect, Dorothea would have formed a false belief about Ladislaw.
Dorothea’s attitude toward Ladislaw, Stump says, illustrates the will’s role in faith. The propositions of the faith, say, the proposition ‘Jesus is the Son of God’, is not sufficient to move the intellect (in this life). But this proposition is sufficient to move the will. The intellect assents to such a proposition, but only because the will has directed it to do so. This then, is the nature of faith.
Now it is evident that the proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God,” is sufficient to move the will if we understand Aquinas’ view of the will. According to Thomas, the will by nature is an appetite for the good. The will esteems that the greatest of goods is the happiness of the willer. But it is also manifest that the greatest good is God Himself, so union with God is perfect happiness for the willer. The proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God” then, directs the willer to the highest Good and the will, because of its natural hunger for goodness, is inclined to be moved by it.
Stump realizes, however, that there is a serious problem to address: This account seems to leave faith as having no epistemic justification. Moreover, Aquinas seems to invite the charge that religious belief is simply a case of wish fulfillment. For if the believer’s intellectual assent to the proposition, “Jesus is the Son of God” is primarily the result of the will, then what reasons are there to suppose that the proposition is justified for her?