Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 6: Conclusions to the Positive Argument

, posted by Ben Henshaw

Thomas Ralston now concludes his positive arguments in favor of self-determinism. My comments are in bold print.

(4) In conclusion, upon this part of the subject, we think it proper briefly to notice the absurdity of attempting to reconcile the doctrines of necessity with the proper freedom and accountability of man.

This, President Edwards and many others have labored hard to accomplish. They have contended that, although the will is irresistibly fixed by necessity, yet man is properly a free and accountable moral agent, merely because he has a will, acts voluntarily, and is not, by natural force, constrained to go contrary to his will. The names by which things are called cannot, in the least, alter their nature. Hence, to load man with the ennobling epithets of moral agency, freedom, liberty, accountability, etc., while we bind him fast with the cords of necessity, can never tend in the least to slacken those cords, or to mend his condition.

To say that a man enjoys freedom merely because he has liberty to obey his will, when that will is fixed by necessity, is as absurd as to contend that a man enjoys freedom in a civil sense merely because he is at liberty to obey the laws under which he is placed, when those laws are enacted by a cruel tyrant over whom he has no control, and are only a collection of bloody edicts. Would any man contend that because he had the privilege of acting according to such a system of laws, thus arbitrarily imposed upon him, he was therefore in the enjoyment of freedom in the most rational sense? Far from it. And why? Simply because the oppressed subject would require an agency in making those laws. So long as this is denied him, and he feels upon his neck the galling yoke of tyranny, in vain might you endeavor to solace him by enlarging upon his exalted privilege of obeying the law. You might assure him that no natural force could constrain him to go contrary to the law, and that consequently he is possessed of freedom in the proper sense, but all would be in vain. He would only feel that you were mocking at his chains!

We now appeal to the candid mind to determine if this is not precisely the kind of moral freedom which President Edwards allows to man, on account of which he strongly pleads that he is properly a free agent and justly accountable. Most unquestionably it is. He contends that man is a free moral agent because he may do as he wills, when his will is as unalterably fixed by necessity as the pillars of heaven. Such liberty as the above can no more render its possessor a free, accountable moral agent, than that possessed by a block or a stone.

Indeed, there is no difference between the liberty attributed to man by the learned President of Princeton College, and that possessed by a block of marble as it falls to the earth when let loose from the top of a tower. We may call the man free because he may act according to his will or inclination, while that will is determined by necessity; but has not the marble precisely the same freedom? It has perfect liberty to fall; it is not constrained by natural force to move in any other direction. If it falls necessarily, even so, on the principle of Edwards, man acts necessarily. If it be said that the marble cannot avoid falling as it does, even so man cannot avoid acting according to his will, just as he does. If it be said that he has no disposition, and makes no effort, to act contrary to his will, even so the marble has no inclination to fall in any other direction than it does. The marble moves freely, because it has no inclination to move otherwise; but it moves necessarily, because irresistibly impelled by the law of gravitation. Just so man acts freely, because he acts according to his will; but he acts necessarily, because he can no more change his will than he can make a world.

And thus it is plain that, although necessitarians may say they believe in free agency and man’s accountability, it is a freedom just such as pertains to lifeless matter. If, according to Edwards, man is free, and justly accountable for his actions merely because he acts according to his own will, when he has no control over that will, upon the same principle the maniac would be a free, accountable agent. If, in a paroxysm of madness, he murders his father, he acts according to his will. It is a voluntary act, and necessitarians cannot excuse him because his will was not under his own control; for, in the view of their system, it was as much so as the will of any man in any case possibly can be. The truth is, it is an abuse of language to call that freedom which binds fast in the chains of necessity. Acting voluntarily amounts to no liberty at all, if I cannot possibly act otherwise than I do.

The question is, not whether I have a will, nor whether I may act according to my will, but What determines the will? This is the point to be settled in the question of free agency. It is admitted that the will controls the actions; but who controls the will? As the will controls the actions, it necessarily follows that whoever controls the will must be accountable for the actions. Whoever controls the will must be the proper author of all that necessarily results from it, and consequently should be held accountable for the same. But man, say necessitarians, has no control whatever over his will. It is fixed by necessity just as it is, so that it could no more be otherwise than the effect could cease to result from the cause.

According to this, we may talk as we may about free agency, the liberty of the will, accountability, etc., but man, after all the embellishment we can impart, is a free, accountable agent, just in the same sense as the most insignificant particle of lifeless matter. Here we will close the present chapter by calling to mind what we have endeavored to exhibit.

1. We have endeavored to explain what is implied in the proper free moral agency of man.

2. We have endeavored to establish that doctrine by the evidence of consciousness; by an observation of the history of the world; and by an appeal to the divine administration as set forth in the Scriptures. Let the reader decide. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 193-194, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

It is hard to improve on Ralston’s critique. He has effectively pushed back the curtain and revealed that the “wizard” is nothing more than illusion and clever sophistry. It is one thing to deny genuine free agency and embrace determinism, but it is an abuse of language and an insult to human intelligence to pretend that determinism is compatible with responsibility and accountability. Having concluded his positive argument for self-determinism, Ralston will now focus on tackling the objections and arguments put forth by the necessetarians against the reasonableness of man’s free agency as Ralston has defined and defended it. Stay tuned because Thomas Ralston is really just getting started and the best is yet to come…

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