Edwards on Action

, posted by Godismyjudge

Outline of Edwards’ arguments in part V.II

  1. Arminians say that without self-determining power, we have no power of action, acts are not our own, and we must be passive.
  2. This isn’t the way people use “action” in common speech.
  3. Used this way action is either causeless or an infinite regression of causes.
  4. When we speak of a first cause, if nothing causes something, nothing could prevent it, so therefore it is necessary.
  5. The common notion of action is the effects of the will.
  6. Arminians think of action as self-determination, because the motion of our bodies is caused by our wills – so they assume the same applies to the motion of our wills.
  7. God is necessarily good yet responsible, which disproves the idea that our actions must be free from necessity for us to be responsible.

My Response

#1 is correct, but let me add a bit more to avoid equivocation. Edwards is getting to the difference between agent and event causation. The two key concepts here are:

  1. the difference between acting and being acted upon
  2. the range of possibilities intrinsic to things

Agents possess the intrinsic possibility of both acting and being acted upon. Things besides agents can only be acted upon. They cannot act in and of themselves; that’s not an intrinsic ability they possess. They do have a range of effects that can be produced in them; but they can only be passive since the source of their action must come from something else.

Imagine a man on a bench and his bike. Wouldn’t you be shocked if the bike hopped up and rolled off? But you wouldn’t be surprised if the man stood up and walked away. This is the intuitive distinction we make between agents and other things.

Let’s say the bike is a 10 speed. The bike can be switched into any of the 10 gears but can’t be switched into an 11th gear. This is what it means to intrinsically possess a range of effects. But another object must act on the bike for the gears to switch, so this is why we say it’s passive and the starting place of action isn’t intrinsic to the object.

Points #2, 5 & 6 will be discussed when we get to parts IV.III and IV.IV. Points #3 and #7 were dealt with here and here.

I did want to say a bit about #4, the idea that if nothing causes something, nothing could prevent it. Part of the issue here is that Edwards ignores necessary causes (X is a necessary cause of Y if without X, Y cannot happen, but with X, Y may or may not happen). For more on the difference between necessary and sufficent causes please see this article: link.

But let’s adapt Edwards’ argument for him: if nothing is a sufficient cause of something, nothing could have prevented it. In this form, is it true? No. Just because we self-determine our actions, does not mean God could not prevent us from doing so. He could get rid of our freewill, or even us. But what about this further adaptation: if nothing is a sufficient cause of God’s action, nothing could prevent it. Is this true? No. An event is either: necessary, impossible or possible (i.e. neither necessary or impossible). One cannot reason that something is necessary just because it is not impossible. It may simply be possible. The issue is not what can prevent the agent from doing something, but rather, what can the agent do?

Part of a Critique of Jonathan Edwards’ Enquire into the Will at Arminian Chronicles.