Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 9: The Doctrine of Motives

, posted by Ben Henshaw

This post completes our series on Ralston’s defense of the Arminian belief in self-determinism. This is the grand finale where Ralston tackles the favorite argument against free-will, the doctrine of motives as presented primarily by Jonathan Edwards. This is especially relevant since Calvinists continue to argue along these same lines today and often hold up Mr. Edwards’ work as un-refuted and irrefutable. The following treatment by Thomas Ralston would suggest otherwise. I will not be interrupting his treatment with my comments so as to preserve the flow of his thought in this important critique. Enjoy.

III. We will now consider the objection to the view taken of free agency, which is founded upon the doctrine of motives.

Necessitarians have relied with great confidence on their arguments from this source. In illustrating their views of the doctrine of motives, they have chosen different figures, all amounting substantially to the same thing -leading necessarily to the same conclusion.

Dr. Hartley has represented the thoughts and feelings of the soul as resulting from the various vibrations of the brain, produced by the influence of motives, or surrounding circumstances. He admits frankly that his scheme implies “the necessity of human actions;” but he says, “I am sorry for it, but I cannot help it.”

Lord Kames represents the universe as “one vast machine composed of innumerable wheels, all closely linked together, and moving as they are moved.” Man he considers as “one wheel fixed in the middle of the vast automaton, moving just as necessarily as the sun, moon, or earth.”

President Edwards has represented “motives and surrounding objects as reaching through the senses to a finely-wrought nervous system, and, by the impressions made there, necessarily producing thought, volition, and action, according to the fixed laws of cause and effect.”

According to all these three general systems, the conclusion in reference to the influence of motives, etc., is the same – that is, it appears that the mind is like a machine or a pair of scales, only a passive substance, moving as it is acted upon by force applied to the wheel, or weight to the scale. Here is the leading principle in the systems of all the advocates of philosophical necessity; and upon this grand point the advocates of free agency join issue.

That we may see distinctly the point upon which the issue is made, we may here observe that advocates on both sides have very frequently mistaken or misrepresented the views of their opponents. First, then, let it be understood that necessitarians, by motives as influencing the will, do not maintain that the strongest motive, considered in reference to its real and proper weight, always prevails; but, by the strongest motive they understand the motive having the greatest influence over the individual at the time, and under all the circumstances of the case. This is the same as saying that the prevailing motive always prevails; which is only the assertion of a simple truism, which no one can dispute.

The point, therefore, in which the matter of controversy is involved, is not whether the strongest motive, considered in reference to its real weight, always prevails. This, necessitarians are misrepresented, if they are charged with holding. Nor is it in dispute whether the strongest motive, considered in reference to its influence over the individual at the time and under the circumstances, always prevails. This the advocates of free agency do not deny, for that would be the same as to deny that the prevailing motive is the prevailing motive. Nor is it a matter of dispute whether motives and surrounding circumstances have any influence in determining the will. That they do have a powerful influence, metaphorically speaking, none can deny.

What, then, we ask, is the real point of dispute? It is simply this: Do motives presented to the mind, and surrounding circumstances, have an efficient, absolute, and irresistible influence over the will, so as in all cases to make it necessarily what it is? This is the real and the only point in the doctrine of motives on which the controversy turns. Necessitarians affirm on this question, and the advocates of free agency deny. We will endeavor impartially to examine the question.

That we may understand the true doctrine concerning the influence of motives on the will, we observe,

1. God the Creator must have possessed within himself the power of action, otherwise creation never could have taken place; for, previous to creation, nothing existed but God, and consequently if he could only act as acted upon by something external to himself, as there was nothing in the universe but himself, he must have remained forever in a state of inaction, and creation could not have originated. Now it must be admitted, either that God has created beings capable of acting without being necessarily acted upon by something external to themselves, or he has not. If he has not, then it will follow that there is but one agent in the universe, and that is God; and angels and men are only patients, no more capable of self-motion than a clod or a stone. This theory at once destroys the distinction between matter and mind, is directly repugnant to the whole tenor of Scripture, and most recklessly subversive of the plainest dictates of common sense! And yet it will appear that it is the only theory consistent with the views of necessitarians on the subject of motives.

Now let us take the opposite position, and suppose, according to common sense and Scripture, that two distinct classes of substances have been created – material and immaterial. In other words, that God has not only created dead, inanimate matter, capable only of moving as it is moved, but that he has also created intelligent beings, endued with self-moving energy, capable, not of themselves, but in the exercise of their derived powers, of voluntary action, independent of external and necessary force, and it will be at once apparent that there is a radical and essential distinction in nature between lifeless matter and these intelligent beings. If this distinction be admitted, which cannot possibly be denied while the voice of common sense or Scripture is allowed to be heard, then it will follow that lifeless matter and intelligent beings are regulated by laws as different as are their essential natures.

Here we find the origin of the grand metaphysical blunder of necessitarians of every school, and of every age. They have made no distinction between matter and mind. The ancient Manichees, the Stoics, the atheistic and deistic philosophers, Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, and others, have been followed, in this confounding of matter and mind, by many learned and excellent men, such as President Edwards of Princeton, and President Day of Yale College.

Indeed, the whole treatise of Edwards, in which he has written three hundred pages on the human will, is based upon this blunder. His almost interminable chain of metaphysical lore, when clearly seen in all its links, is most palpably an argument in a circle. He assumes that the mind is similar to matter, in order to prove that it can only act as acted upon; and then, because it can only act as acted upon, he infers that, in this respect, the mind, like matter, is governed by necessity. Although he turns the subject over and over, and presents it in an almost endless variety of shape, it all, so far as we can see, amounts to this: The mind, in its volitions, can only act as it is acted upon; therefore the will is necessarily determined. And what is this but to say that the will is necessarily determined, because it is necessarily determined? Can any real distinction be pointed out between the labored argument of Edwards and this proposition? But we shall soon see that this assumed position – that the mind can only act as it is acted upon – is philosophically false, This grand pillar upon which the huge metaphysical edifice has been reared, may be shown to be rotten throughout, yea, it may be snapped asunder by a gentle stroke from the hammer of reason and common sense; and then the edifice, left without foundation, must fall to the ground.

Let us now contemplate these motives which are said to act upon the mind so as necessarily to influence the will. Let us look them full in the face, and ask the question, What are they? Are they intelligent beings, capable of locomotion? Are they endued with a self-moving energy? Yea, more: Are they capable of not only moving themselves, but also of imparting their force to something external to themselves, so as to coerce action in that which could not act without them? If these questions be answered in the negative, then it will follow that motives, considered in themselves, can no more act on the mind so as necessarily to determine the will, than a world can be created by something without existence. If these questions be answered in the affirmative, then it will follow that motives at least are free agents – capable of acting without being acted upon, and endued with self-controlling and self-determining energy. Necessitarians may fall upon either horn of the dilemma; but upon which horn soever they fall, their system must perish.

If the attempt be made to evade this by saying that motives do not act themselves, but God is the agent acting upon man, and determining his will through the instrumentality of motives – if this be the meaning, then I demand, why not call things by their right names? Why attribute the determination of the will to the influence of motives, and at the same time declare that motives are perfectly inefficient, capable of exercising no influence whatever? Is not this fairly giving up the question, and casting “to the moles and to the bats” the revered argument for necessity, founded upon the influence of motives?

Again, to say that motives exercise no active influence, but are only passive instruments in the hands of God by which he determines the will by an immediate energy exerted at the time, is the same as to say that God is the only agent in the universe; that he wills and acts for man; and, by his own direct energy, performs every physical and moral act in the universe, as really and properly as he created the worlds; and then that he will condemn and punish men everlastingly for his own proper acts! Is this the doctrine of philosophical necessity? Truly it is. And well may we say this is fatalism! This is absurdity!

Now, let us turn from the absurdities of the necessitarian scheme, and see if we can perceive the true doctrine on the subject of motives. Suppose, as I pass the street, I perceive in the shop on my right the choicest liquors most invitingly displayed. I am tempted to drink to excess. I parley with the temptation. I long for the delicious wines. I think of the dreadful consequences of inebriety; but then returns my love of strong drink, and I determine in my will to yield myself up to intoxication. Here we perceive an act has been performed by which the will is fixed in a particular way; but the question is, Who is the agent in this act? Necessitarians would say the motive to intoxication has been the active agent, and man has been the passive instrument. But we ask, What motive, or what surrounding circumstance, in this case, has put forth active energy, so as not only to move itself without being acted upon, but also to communicate an irresistible impulse to something external to itself? Can the wines in the bottles exhibit their eloquent tongues, and plead with the passer-by to quaff them? Surely not. They are themselves as passive as the bricks in the wall. Can the love for strong drink assert a separate and independent existence, and rise up as an active agent, independent of the man, and use arguments with the understanding, and coercively determine the will? This is so far from being the case, that these motives have no existence itself, independent of the man. They only derive their existence through the exercise of the active powers of man; and shall it be said that they necessarily control those powers, and even that those powers cannot be exerted except as they are necessarily impelled by motives? Can motives be the cause and the effect in the same sense, at the same time?

The plain truth is, motives do not act themselves at all. It is the mind that acts upon them. They are passive, and only move as they are moved. The mind of man is the active agent that picks the motive up, turns it about, and estimates its weight. This will be rendered somewhat plainer when we reflect that two objects both passive can never act upon each other: some active power must first move the one, or it can never move the other.

Suppose two blocks of marble placed near together in the same room: can the one arise up and impart a direct and resistless influence to the other, so as to cause it necessarily to change its place? Certainly not. And why? Simply because they are both passive. Now, as motives, arguments, and surrounding circumstances, are obviously passive in their nature, incapable of moving themselves, it necessarily follows that if the mind is also passive, the one cannot act upon the other – neither motives upon the mind, nor the mind upon motives. Hence, agreeably to the assertion of necessitarians, that the mind is passive, the will cannot be influenced by motives at all.

The fallacy of the reasoning of Edwards and others on this subject consists in their considering the influence attributed to motives as an independent and active influence, whereas motives are all the time passive, and are really acted upon by the mind, soul, or feelings of man. So far from motives actively determining the will, through the mind or soul, it is the mind or soul that determines the will, and, by its own active energy, gives to motives all the influence they possess.

This is evident from the very nature of motives. What are they? Are they not arguments, reasons, or persuasions? Now, if the mind can exercise no free agency of its own, in attending to arguments, examining reasons, or yielding to persuasions, why address them to man, and exhort him to give them their due weight? The very fact that they are motives, arguments, reasons, or persuasions, is proof sufficient that they are designed to influence the will, not necessarily and irresistibly, but only through the agency of man. So that when we admit that the motive having the greatest influence, at the time and under the circumstances, always prevails – or, in other words, that the prevailing motive always prevails – the question is still before us, Why does it prevail? What gives it the greatest influence? Does it exercise this influence of itself independently? We have already shown that it cannot. What, then, gives it this prevailing influence? It is the free and uncoerced agency of the man himself which determines the influence of the motive, which gives it that influence, and thereby determines the will.

If it still be asked why the mind determines to give to a particular motive a certain influence, and to fix the will accordingly, we reply, the reason is in the mind itself. God has endued us with this power. Without it we could not be moral agents; we could not be accountable; we could no more be rewarded or punished than the earth on which we tread.

We think we have said enough to show that the argument against free agency from the doctrine of motives is fallacious, and alike repugnant to reason, common sense, and Scripture. And whether, in this chapter, we have successfully vindicated the doctrine of free agency from the objections that it is absurd in itself, and inconsistent with the divine prescience, and with the doctrine of motives, we submit to the decision of the reader. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 203-209, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

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