snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Thursday, October 19, 2006

scientia media and Jonathan Edwards on the will

“Thus an act of the will is commonly expressed by its pleasing a man to do thus or thus; and a man’s doing as he wills, and doing as he pleases, are the same thing in common speech….I trust it will be allowed by all, that in every act of will there is an act of choice; that in every volition there is a preference, or a prevailing inclination of the soul, whereby the soul, at that instant, is out of a state of perfect indifference, with respect to the direct object of the volition. So that in every act or going forth of the will, there is some preponderation of the mind or inclination, one way rather than another; and the soul had rather have or do one thing than another, or than not to have or do that thing; and that there, where there is absolutely no preferring or choosing, but a perfect continuing equilibrium, there is no volition.”
-Jonathan Edwards, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (1754), I.i

If Edwards has identified the will aright, the will just is one’s preferring more to have or do a thing than not to have or do that thing, and Leibniz’s Law holds, then it would seem that the multiplication of possible worlds, scientia media (i.e., middle knowledge) and all the rest are ultimately irrelevant for the question of free will. Leibniz’s Law, according to Alvin Plantinga, is “For any property P and any objects x and y, if x is identical with y, then x has P if and only if y has P.”[1] It follows from this Law and the principle (x)  (x = x) that for every object x and for every object y, if x is y, then necessarily x is y; (x) (y) (x = y ⊃  x = y).[2] Thus, if the will is one’s strongest preference, then necessarily the will is one’s strongest preference, ergo, in every possible world the will is one’s strongest preference. If your strongest preference is part of your nature or your disposition, then it would follow that your preference or will is causally determined in every possible world because your nature is causally determined in every possible world. Nobody causes their nature to be, ultimately.
I've never seen a more persuasive analysis and definition of what the will is than Edwards' and so I've never been able to see how all this talk of middle knowledge is at all relevant to the question of predestination. I can appreciate the impulse behind definitions like that of Alvin Plantinga, "If a person S is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain; no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he will perform the action, or that he will not."[3] But being able to appreciate the impulse behind such defintions is not the same as being able to make sense of them. Such definitions never really grasp the nettle of why it is that a person S actually wills one thing rather than another. Edwards answers that question: S wills a thing x if and only if S prefers the having or doing of x to the not having or doing of x. In that case, one's nature, one's preferences, one's predilections and so forth are the antecedent conditions that causally determine what S wills. Freedom, or "significant freedom" as Plantinga and others like to call it, most naturally refers to the ability to do as you please (i.e., to act according to your preference). If you don't prefer one thing to another, you won't act. And that goes for every possible world. In every possible world S's will is causally determined. [4]
I can appreciate the impulse to shy away from definitions of the will like Edwards' because I suspect that it comes from a certain trembling introspective awareness of our own sinful nature. So often we look into our hearts and see that we prefer evil to good. If our will is bound to our sinful nature, to our evil preference, what hope can there be that we might do good and repent? That's easy. All you need is a new nature.

[1] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, p. 15.
[2] Kripke, Naming and Necessity,p. 3
[3] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, p. 166
[4] I cannot help but feel that it is necessary for me to express that Alvin Plantinga is one of my heroes and that I am greatly indebted to him for his writings. This is one of the very, very few points on which I am bold enough to differ with him.


Blogger R2K said...

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8:03 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Hmm. I've never found Edwards very persuasive on the will, but find my views shaped more by Anselm and Aquinas.

11:20 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

To my shame, I do not know how Anselm or Aquinas understood the will. If you wouldn't mind, it'd be great if you could outline their (and your) views on the will.

I can understand not finding Edwards persuasive on the will. I think we tend to have a strong intuitional allergy to the notion the will is causally determined. I've just come to think that that intuition is misleading in the long run.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Well, huge topic for another time, but I'll say that a big part of it is understanding what one might mean by "causally determined," the relation of divine causation to creational causation, and the recognition that not all causation is antecedent. And I'll leave it at that for now...

9:28 AM  
Blogger ritly said...

i agree that edwards has perhaps the most thorough definition and defense of the will. i'm afraid in most cases however, due to his being so thorough, people write his handling of this subject off as fancy foot work and little more; which is really shame since his point is actually quite simple and frankly the only definition that holds any water.

what i find interesting is that if we accept edwards definition of the will, autonomous free will is impossible before we ever get to the question of what part God has in our decision making.

3:52 PM  
Blogger ritly said...

i'd be interested hearing you expand on what you mean by, "not all causation is antecedent."

3:55 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I think that the other sorts of causation Joel is alluding to are Aristotle's "final causes." Aristotle distinguished between four types of causes: material, formal, efficient and final. Final causes are the ends for which things are done. So I flip a switch because it turns on the light. My having the goal of turning on the light causes me to perform the action of flipping the switch, but the light coming on is consequent, not antecedent to the that action.

I think Edwards would say that the desire to turn on the light outweighing reasons for not turning it on and the perception that flipping the switch is a necessary means to that end and having no reasons sufficient for making one want to abstain from flipping the switch are all antecedent causes for my flipping the switch, and such an antecedent state of affairs is both necessary and sufficient for me to flip the switch. All "final causality" is at bottom sufficient antecedent desire or motive.
Think of a criminal case. The prosecution has to establish a motive for the accused carrying out the crime or the really haven't got much of a case. We generally understand that without antecedent desire there is no volition.

4:39 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I guess the main thrust of my post is that if Edwards is right that the will is causally determined, then it is so in all possible worlds and so all of the arguments that wrangle about divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the problem of evil and so on that invoke possible worlds semantics are really misguided. The value of those arguments depends entirely upon the nature of the will. Would you agree with that analysis?

7:41 PM  

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