This article is a brief critique of Jonathan Edwards’ views on the will and freedom. I won’t be presenting the alternative view, LFW, nor will I attempt to demonstrate the logical outcomes of Edwards’ view (i.e. God is the author of sin, God’s offer is insincere…). Instead I will just be looking at the internal consistency of Edwards’ view. I really think that the more people understand Edwards, the less they will agree with him.
Brief Outline of Edwards’ view of Freedom
Except where specifically cited, all quotes taken from Part 1.
Edwards defines the will as “that by which the mind chooses any thing” and describes it as “for in every act of will whatsoever, the mind chooses one thing rather than another; it chooses something rather than the contrary or rather than the want or non-existence of that thing.”
What Determines the Will?
Edwards goes on to ask the question “What determines the will?” Edwards responds that the will is determined by “the strongest motive” and states that “the will always is, as the greatest apparent good is” and that “the will follows the last dictate of understanding”. To Edwards, the understanding perceives the alternatives, weighs them, projects the consequences of acting on them, finds one most agreeable and dictates which is best. Then the will follows suit.
Why does the understanding dictate this, not that option is best? The understanding operates deterministically; given certain inputs, you get certain outputs. For Edwards the mix of 1) a man’s state of mind, 2) the mind’s view of the objects and 3) the perceived qualities of objects under consideration cause the understanding to dictate to the will that an option is best. The state of mind is a product of a person’s nature and experiences. The mind’s view is a question of how certain a person is of an outcome and how clearly he understands the object. Given a person’s present state of mind and the mind’s view of the object, the object “causes it to appear most agreeable”. So under the right circumstances, if you look at an ice cream cone, it will cause your understanding to declare it best, which causes your will to choose it, which causes your body to eat it.
Necessity and Freedom
Edwards carefully classifies freedom and necessity into two buckets: common necessity and philosophical necessity. People talk about “common necessity” in day to day discussions; “philosophical necessity” is used in the Calvinism/Arminianism controversy. For Edwards, something is necessary, in the common sense, if the opposition to hinder it is insufficient. He defines philosophical necessity as the certainty of the thing itself. Philosophical necessity may or may not have something opposing it, but common necessity always supposes insufficient opposition. This is a bit abstract. An example of philosophical necessity is God’s existence. No one’s opposing God’s existence, but it must be. An example of common necessity would be: I couldn’t stop the running back from getting a touchdown.
Edwards defines freedom, in the common meaning, as “the power anyone has to do as he pleases”. This type of freedom is opposed to compulsion (i.e. someone’s got a knife to your throat) and inability (i.e. you wish to fly, but can’t). Edwards denies there is such a thing as freedom, in the philosophical sense – everything is necessary in that sense.
For Edwards, common necessity is incompatible with common freedom and philosophical necessity is incompatible with philosophical freedom (there is no such thing as philosophical freedom). Supposing that something is necessary and free, in the same sense, is a contradiction.
But Edwards does state that philosophical necessity is compatible with common freedom. Since Edwards established two alternative definitions for necessity, common and philosophical, something can be necessary in one sense and not necessary in another without contradiction. An example that Edwards gives is a drunk whose nature necessitates (in the philosophical sense) that he drink, but since no one is preventing his executing his choice to drink, he’s free (in the common sense).
Freedom of the Will
Does Edwards believe in freewill? The answer isn’t as clean cut as you might think, given the title of his book: “the Freedom of the Will”. But what you have to realize is this title is abridged from the one Edwards gave: “A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame”. Approximately, 85% of the book is dedicated to critiquing libertarian freewill, which Edwards admits is a modern prevailing notion, but denies is either true or essential for moral agency. So perhaps the abridged title misleads people into thinking Edwards believes in freewill.
In fact, Edwards distinguishes between freedom of persons and freedom of the will and claims “to talk of liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very will itself, is not to speak good sense; if we judge of sense, and nonsense, by the original and proper signification of the word”. (Part I.V) A close reading of Edwards reveals that when he speaks of liberty, he isn’t talking about an ability of the will, but rather he’s typically speaking of the ability of the person to physically execute what they choose. For Edwards, the adjective free describes the person, not the will.
Edwards doesn’t use the term freewill to describe his view throughout his book, but he does use the term “free choice” approvingly once. (Part II.V) So perhaps he does believe in freewill? But in this section Dr. Whitby (an Arminian) cited several church fathers claiming we have freewill. Edwards responds by saying the fathers’ position is the same as the Calvinist one and quotes back the fathers’ words in an approving way saying: “The soul acting by its own choice, men doing good or evil according to their own free choice, their being in that exercise which proceeds from their own free choice, having it in their choice to turn to good or evil, and doing what they will.” But Edwards goes on to say “if men exercise this liberty in the acts of the will themselves [then the term “free choice” is reducible to an absurdity]. [brackets my summary of what Edwards said] But if freedom doesn’t apply to choice, why use the term free choice? Edwards explains what he means by free choice by saying: “if any say [that liberty consists in the acts of the will themselves], one of these two things must be meant, either, 1. That a man has power to will, as he does will; because what he wills, he wills; and therefore power to will what he has power to will…[or 2 an absurd option].” So for Edwards’ free choice either means a person wills what he wills, or it’s absurd. But this sense is a very rare one through Edwards’ book, and what he commonly means by freedom is a person’s ability to do what they have chosen.
Inconsistency Related to Choice and Alternatives
Edwards’ definition of choice does involve alternatives, but there’s a problem. The understanding, which precedes and determines the choice, does all the heavy lifting when it comes to the alternatives. The understanding perceives the alternatives, weighs them, projects the consequences of acting on them, finds one most agreeable and dictates which is best. So what exactly does the will have to do with the alternative not acted upon? The understanding already eliminated the alternatives before the will comes into the picture. Edwards’ view of the will is so far from the will being able to choose between the alternatives that it actually seems as if he’s inconsistent to say choice has anything to do with alternatives at all.
Two Different Meanings for Necessity
Edwards splits two different senses for necessity (“common necessity” with insufficient opposition and “philosophical necessity” without opposition). I disagree these are two alternative senses- it’s one sense in two different contexts. Why this matters will be much more apparent when we get into Edwards arguments against libertarian freewill.
Edwards on Compatibilism
I will just point out that Edwards has to mix “common freedom” and “philosophical necessity” to get compatibilism to work and that this sense of compatibilism seem different that the one advocated by Calvinists today.
The Freedom of the Will vs. Freedom of the Body
Edwards’ advocation of “common freedom” is about freedom of the body to execute choices. Although this sense of freedom is intuitive and compatible with “philosophical necessity”, it’s just not relevant to discussions about freewill. Interestingly, Edwards admits that this sense of freedom isn’t the one debated between Calvinists and Arminians and is not what he’s talking about when he says man is unable to obey God, grace is irresistible or God’s commands apply directly to the will, not the body. But he still pushes this sense of freedom into the discussion, creating confusion.
As for the other sense of freedom of choice Edwards uses (i.e. a person wills what he wills), first off, it’s tautological, second it’s not what people generally mean by freewill, third, it’s not a freedom regarding future possibilities, but rather present actualities, fourth, it’s not a freedom of the will from something (i.e. necessity) or to something (i.e. to choose either alternative). So for these reasons I would say this sense of free choice isn’t relevant to the Calvinists/Arminian debate and I am glad Edwards only used it once.
So in short, Edwards doesn’t use the term freedom in any sense relevant to discussions of freewill, except to deny it. I personally would find Calvinists far more consistent if they would just go ahead and deny freewill.