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Fate & Free Will

His (man’s) spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. II).

Fate and free will collide in the topic of this post: providence. Beginning with the reality of change we will show the infallibility of God’s providence, as well as its compatibility with free will.


In the absolute broadest sense, change is the transition from can to is. My hand can type away at this computer and now it is. I can reach over to pick up my cell phone, now I am.

Change cannot be a transition from what is to is because without the appearance of something new, change, obviously, cannot be said to have occurred.

Change also cannot be a transition from not to is because from nothing, nothing comes. Unless, we suppose that for every single change, there is also occurring, a complete “out of nothing” creation of something new. 

But even here, we wouldn’t have change, since change presupposes the same thing becoming different. However, in the case of creation, it is not the same thing becoming different, but nothing becoming something.

Unchanged Changer

Change also presupposes something entirely unchanging. 

Think of it like this, when my hand goes from can move to is moving, it can only do so because the muscles in my hand which can contract are contracting, which can only contract because some series of my motor neurons that can fire is firing, and so forth and so on…

And if this causal series only contains is-receivers, without simultaneously some non-receiving is-generator at its origin, then the series could never begin.

It would be analogous to trying to pass the dinner salt, without the salt itself existing. How could anything receive and pass along a new is without the is itself existing, and how could this new is exist without a non-receiving is-generator?

Thus, for every single change that occurs, not only must some unchanging change-generator exist, but it must also be the initiator of the change, sending a new is through change-receivers all the way down to the lastly changed thing.

Divine Attributes

But we can say more about this unchanged changer.

As an is or “actuality” non-receiver, this unchanged changer must have absolutely no can or “potential” within it. If it did, then it would be an is-receiver, itself, just like everything else.

Further, whatever completely lacks potential, including the potential to be perfected (whether in power, goodness, knowledge, etc…) while at the same time being the cause of all increases in perfection, is itself necessarily perfect.

And whatever is thoroughly perfect, or completely actual, without any potential for improvement is thereby also all-good, all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, etc…In short, God.


What follows from all this is quite remarkable. If all change must come from God as its origin and initiator, then it follows that no change occurs without God willing it. In Jesus’ words:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will (Mt. 10:29).

In the words of the Catholic Church:

But God sustains and governs by His providence all things which He created, “reaching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (cf. Wis. 8:1). For “all things are naked and open to His eyes” (Heb. 4:13), even those which by the free action of creatures are in the future (Vatican Council I, Session III, Ch. I).

The council’s definition is also a great segue into the relationship between God’s providence and free choice.

Wrong & Write

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, over time there has been three prevalent errors in reconciling God’s providence with free choice:1

Error #1: That God’s providence does not extend to all things. This error is exemplified in the phrase “Evil exists in the world because God, in bestowing creatures with free choice, is unable to intervene in certain choices.” However, as we saw above, all change must find its origin and initiative in God which includes even the changes of our mind and will. 

Yet, God cannot be said to be the cause of evil, since evil (qua evil) does not have positive existence (see Evil as Proof of God).

Error #2: That God’s providential plan can change. This can’t be because God (as unchanged changer) cannot change—at all.

Error #3: That all things happen by necessity. Some things do happen by necessity, like the pen necessarily falling to the ground once pushed off the table; but other things do not happen by necessity, like a person going to Mass on Sunday.

This because, our choices follow upon the deliberations of our mind, which, being immaterial (see Evidence for the Soul), have not the mechanical-like necessity inherent in material things. 

Yet, even our deliberations must find their origin in the Divine initiative, as St. Paul writes:

Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5).

In this way, our choices can come both from us and also from God. C.S. Lewis explains the relationship between the two this way:

Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth (is)…Now of course this is only an analogy…My point is that, if God does exist, He is related to the universe more as an author is related to a play…(The Seeing Eye).

No analogy is perfect, but just like the playwright and his players, our choices come freely from ourselves and also freely from God—just in different ways. 

The takeaway from all this is that we can truly entrust ourselves to the Divine providence, from whom all change comes, not in a lazy childish way, but in a trustful child-like way, remembering Jesus’ words:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?…Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well (Lk. 12: 22-23, 25, 31).

1. Cf. Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Q. 23, A. 8 & Q. 103

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