Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 2: Its Self-evident Nature

, posted by Ben Henshaw

We now continue with Ralston’s defense of free will from his Elements of Divinity. My comments are in bold print.

II. We proceed now to consider some of the leading arguments by which the free moral agency of man, as briefly defined above, is established.

1.We rely upon our own consciousness.

By consciousness, we mean the knowledge we have of what passes within our own minds. Thus, when we are angry, we are sensible of the existence of that feeling within us. When we are joyful or sad, we know it. When we love or hate, remember or fear, we are immediately sensible of the fact. The knowledge we possess of this nature is not the result of reasoning; it is not derived from an investigation of testimony, but rises spontaneously in the mind. On subjects of this kind, arguments are superfluous; for, in reference to things of which we are conscious, no reasoning, or external testimony, can have any influence, either to strengthen our convictions, or to cause us to doubt. In vain may we endeavor by argument to persuade the man who feels conscious that his heart is elated with joy, that he is, at the same time, depressed with grief. You cannot convince the sick man, who is racked with pain, that he is in the enjoyment of perfect health; nor the man who exults in the vigor of health and vivacity, that he is writhing under the influence of a painful disease.

Knowledge derived through the medium of consciousness, like that which comes immediately through external sensation, carries upon its face its own demonstration; and so strongly does it impress the soul, that we are compelled to yield ourselves up to the insanity of universal skepticism before we can doubt it for a moment. Here, then, we base our first argument for the proper freedom of the will of man, or, more properly speaking, for the freedom of man in the exercise of the will. Who can convince me that I have not the power either to write or to refrain from writing, either to sit still or to rise up and walk? And this conviction, in reference to a self-determining power of the mind, or a control of the will belonging to ourselves, is universal. Philosophy, falsely so called, may puzzle the intellect, or confuse the understanding, but still the conviction comes upon every man with resistless force, that he has within himself the power of choice. He feels that he exercises this power. (pg. 185)

Ralston begins by appealing to our intuitions. This is a significant argument because it establishes the fact that necessetarian dogma, in order to succeed, must overcome one of our most basic beliefs concerning human nature; not a belief that we have been taught, but a belief which we base on our own experience. Through the processes of the mind that we are all aware of, it seems painfully obvious that we do indeed have the power of self-determination.

We know the advocates of necessity admit that men generally, at first view of the subject, suppose that they are not necessitated in their volitions, but they assert that this is an illusion which the superior light of philosophy will dissipate. An acute metaphysician has advanced the idea, “that when men only skim the surface of philosophy, they discard common sense; but when they go profoundly into philosophic research, they return again to their earliest dictates of common sense.” In the same way, a mere peep into philosophy has caused many, especially such as are predisposed to skepticism, to assert the doctrine of fatality; but a thorough knowledge of true philosophy generally serves to establish our first convictions that we are free in our volitions. Can that philosophy be sound, or that reasoning correct, which would set aside the strongest testimony of our own senses? which would persuade us that it is midnight when we behold the full blaze of the meridian sun? No more can we accredit that mode of reasoning which would uproot the testimony of our own consciousness.

One may attempt to reason all sorts of absurdities but it is not improper to rely on our senses when such reasoning is brought to bear on us. That is not to say that our senses cannot deceive us, but to recognize that if our senses can be verified without difficulty, then any contrary suggestions should be rightly rejected. Ralston uses the example of trying to convince someone that it is midnight while in the presence of the midday sun. A clever person might derive some convincing arguments, but if someone were convinced by such arguments in the presence of the sun, we would likely reckon such a person to be quite the gullible fool.

That, in my volitions, I am free to choose good or evil, and not impelled by a necessity as absolute as the laws of gravitation, is a position which I can no more doubt from my own consciousness than I can doubt my own existence. This is evident from the fact that all men have a sense of blame when they do wrong, and of approbation when they do right. Am I charged with the commission of a crime? – convince me that the force of circumstances rendered its avoidance absolutely impossible, and I can no more blame myself in the premises than I can censure the tree that fell upon the traveler as he was journeying on the highway. Remorse for the past depends upon a consciousness of our freedom for its very existence. This conviction of freedom is so indelible and universal on the minds of men, that no human effort can erase it. It may be smothered or obscured for a season in the minds of sophisticated reasoners, but in the hours of sober honesty it will regain its position, and reassert its dominion, even over the minds of such men as Voltaire, Hume, and Edwards, who have discarded it in their philosophy (pg. 186)

Indeed, such convictions will eventually rise to the surface despite our best efforts to keep them submerged for the sake of our philosophy. For more on this see my post Struggling With Regrets

We will examine Ralston’s third argument in our next post.

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