Freedom of the Will

by Jonathan Edwards

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

The problem of the freedom of the will, like many of the traditional issues, remains a problem for many philosophers because of the manner of its formulation. Even determining the appropriate question is difficult. Is it whether the will is free? Or is it how the will is free? Or is it a question as to what the will is? Or freedom? Does it even make sense to talk about the will as free? A person can be free, but what is the sense of saying that the will—whatever that is—can be free? Or is the question whether the will is free or determined?

Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan philosopher of the eighteenth century, taking his cue from John Locke, whose An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he admired, recognized the difficulties involved in the formulation of the problem. Consequently, his careful study of the problem begins with explanations of the terms involved in discourse concerning freedom of the will; he begins with “will” and proceeds to “determination,” “necessity,” “liberty,” and other terms whose ambiguity and vagueness have made the problem a particularly troublesome one for philosophers. Also unlike many philosophers, Edwards did not use the occasion of definition as an opportunity for framing the problem to suit his own purposes. With analytic acumen, he hit on the meanings relative to common use, and he clarified those meanings without neglecting consideration of the function of terms in conventional discourse. Thus, in considering “liberty,” he noted that, “in the ordinary use of language,” the words “freedom” and “liberty” mean the “power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases.”

In recognizing that to be free is to be able to do as one pleases, Edwards prepared the way for his next point, that it is nonsense to talk about the will as free. It is nonsense because the will is not an agent, not a person who is somehow able to do as he or she pleases. Thus, Edwards wrote, “It will follow, that in propriety of speech, neither liberty, nor its contrary can properly be ascribed to any being or thing, but that which has such a faculty, power or property, as is called will.’” It makes sense to talk about a free person, for a person can be in a condition of being able to do as he or she pleases, but it violates “propriety of speech” to talk about a free will, as if a will could do as it pleased, could act as it wills.

If, then, to have free will is to be able to do as one wills, and if the will, the power of choice, is determined by the apparent values of the alternatives brought to the attention of the person, it follows that free will is determined: An individual, who is able to choose, is free if, when his or her choice is determined by various considerations, he or she can do as he or she pleases. If this is the resolution of the problem—and, except for introducing the careful definitions, the arguments, and the qualifications, this is the essential resolution as Edwards presents it—then it is apparent that the formulation of the problem is misleading. It is misleading to consider the “freedom of the will,” as if the will were an agent, capable of doing as it willed, and it is misleading to take the problem as the one put by the question, “Is the will free or is it determined?”—as if the alternatives were incompatible. Edwards deserves credit not only for resolving the problem...

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in a manner that continues to win the admiration of professional philosophers but also for making his method clear: the method of destroying a problem by clarifying its formulation.

A Strict Calvinist

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Edwards was a vigorous defender of Calvinism, a minister who was an effective combination of intellectual and emotional power. As minister at Northampton, Massachusetts, he argued for predestination, the depravity of man, and the doctrine of irresistible grace. He held with Puritan fervor to the conviction that God is unlimited in his use of grace; he can save whomever he chooses. In support of these hard doctrines, he employed a remarkable talent for developing, defending, and propounding ideas. However, he did not expect to win anything by the use of intellect alone; although he disdained religious emotionalism, he declared the necessity of conversion and faith. His extraordinary personality brought about an enthusiastic movement in support of the faith he defended; the church at Northampton became the origin and center of religious revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening.

His strict Calvinism eventually had its effect; as a result of an argument concerning the qualifications for communion, probably only the focal point of a number of doctrinal quarrels, he was dismissed in 1750 from the ministry of Northampton. He moved to the Indian mission at Stockbridge and continued work on the problem of the freedom of the will, an enterprise undertaken sometime in 1747. Written in support of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and of the necessity which it entails, the resultant work is nevertheless philosophically relevant to the general problem of the freedom of the will.

The Freedom of the Will was Edwards’s answer to Arminianism, a doctrine based on the ideas of Jacobus Arminius, a sixteenth century Dutch Reformed theologian. To Edwards, the most objectionable feature of Arminianism, which was a view calling for a moderation of Calvinist doctrine, was the claim that divine grace is resistible. Arminianism, in advocating a less strict conception of election and redemption, prepared the way for an increasing emphasis on the moral and the human, with decreasing emphasis on the divine and on the absolute dependence of humanity on God. The “modern prevailing notions” referred to in the title of the work are the Arminian notions, in particular the Arminian idea of the liberty of the will. According to Edwards, the Arminians regarded the will as acting contingently, not necessarily, and without cause—a conception often referred to as indeterminism of the will.

The Freedom of the Will has four major parts and a concluding section. The first part defines the terms of the inquiry and explains the problem. Part 2 considers the Arminian conception of the freedom of will, inquiring whether there is any possibility that the will is indifferent, that is, free from any influence by causal or determining factors. Part 3 deals with the question whether liberty of the will in the Arminian sense is necessary to moral agency. Part 4 continues the criticism of the Arminian conception of the freedom of will by examining the reasons offered in support of that conception. The conclusion reaffirms the basic Calvinistic doctrines: universal providence, the total depravity and corruption of humanity, efficacious grace, God’s universal and absolute decree, and absolute, eternal, personal election.

The Will Defined

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Edwards begins his treatise with an analysis of the meaning of the term “will.” He quite sensibly reminds the reader that definition would probably not be necessary had not philosophers confused the issue. The will, then, is “that by which the mind chooses anything”; it is the power to choose. There is no suggestion that the will is a substantial entity of some sort, an internal mechanism that hands out decisions. The will is what common discourse makes it to be: simply the faculty that a person has of choosing to do one thing rather than another. Where there is no inclination one way of the other, there is no act of will, no volition.

Next, he considers what is meant in talking about the “determination” of the will. The answer is that the will is “said to be determined, when, in consequence of some action, or influence, its choice is directed to, and fixed upon a particular object.” To say that the will is determined, then, means simply that choices are caused.

The “good” is defined as the agreeable, whatever wins acceptance or “tends to draw the inclination.” Thus, Edwards points out, “the will always is as the greatest apparent good is.” In other words, if the will is the power to choose, and if choices are inclinations toward some alternatives at the expense of others, and if the greatest apparent good is what most of all provokes the interest, the inclination, of the person, then what is chosen, in every case, is whatever is the greatest apparent good. The factors affecting choice are several: They include the apparent characteristics of the object considered (allowing for the possibility that the object is not precisely what it appears to be), the apparent degree of difficulty involved in attaining the object, and the apparent time it would be before the object was attained. The apparent good, according to Edwards, is a function not only of the apparent character of the object considered but also of the manner in which the object is viewed or considered, and the circumstances of the mind that views. There is no objection to saying that the greatest apparent good determines the will—indeed, that is a proper way of speaking—but to say that the will “is” as the greatest apparent good “is” serves to emphasize the point that an object’s appearing most agreeable and its being chosen are not two distinct acts.

The term “necessity” is critical in the problem of freedom of the will. Edwards states his intention of showing that necessity is not inconsistent with liberty. He rejects several customary definitions of necessity, showing that either they say very little or else they ignore the relativity of necessity: Anything that is necessary is so to us “with relation to any supposable opposition or endeavor of ours.” The necessity relevant to a consideration of free will is philosophical necessity, defined as “the full and fixed connection between the things signified by the subject and predicate of a proposition which affirms something to be true.”

A distinction is then drawn between natural necessity and moral necessity. Natural necessity is the result of natural causes other than such moral matters as habits, dispositions, motives, or inducements. Thus, by a natural necessity, falling bodies move downward. We are naturally unable whenever we cannot do something, even if we will it; we are morally unable when we are not sufficiently motivated to do a particular act. “Freedom” or “liberty” signifies the power to act as one wills.

The Arminian Concept of Free Will

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Having completed the definition of crucial terms, Edwards turns to an explication and criticism of the Arminian conception of the free will. According to the Arminians, the will is self-determining. Edwards points out the impropriety of saying that the will determines its own choices; after all, the will is not an agent. However, even if it be contended that not the will, but the soul, determines the will, and does so without causal influence of its action, the further difficulty remains that every act of choice would be determined by a preceding act of choice. If a first act of choice, in a series of acts, is self-determined, it must be the consequence of a previous choice and, thus, be not first: a contradiction. If, on the other hand, it is not self-determined, then it is not free in the Arminian sense. In either case, the Arminian notion is self-defeating.

The next important consideration is whether it would be possible for an event to occur (say, an act of volition) without a cause of its occurrence. Defining a cause as any antecedent on which the existence or nature of something depends, Edwards claims that no event could occur without cause. He affirms the principle of universal causation as one on which all reasoning about matters of fact depends, and he adds that no proof of the being of God would be possible without that principle. If no event could occur without a cause, then no act of volition could occur without a cause.

The argument that the will has the freedom of indifference—that is, that the will can choose any course indifferently, on its own, without being influenced, or that the soul’s power of choice is in that way indifferent—is rejected by Edwards because of the contradiction involved in the implicit claim that the soul, while indifferent (in a state of not being inclined one way rather than another), chooses (is in a state of being inclined one way rather than another).

Referring to the Arminian contention that the will is contingent in the sense that acts of will are free from all necessity, Edwards argues that there could not be any act free from both cause and consequence. He adds that, even if an act could in this way be free from necessity, it could not be an act of volition, for acts of volition are necessarily connected with motives. To will is to be moved to action by the greatest apparent good; volition, then, necessarily involves being moved, or motivation; consequently, an act entirely unnecessary could not be an act of will.

In order to strengthen further his point that volitions are not contingent, in the sense of being without necessity, Edwards maintains that God’s foreknowledge of events is possible only because of the necessity of those events, a necessity he recognizes.

Virtue and Necessity

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In part 3, Edwards argues that the Arminian notion of an indifferent will, a will free from all causal necessity, is not only not necessary to moral virtue but also inconsistent with it. To establish his point, he advances a number of considerations to show that necessity is not incompatible with virtue or vice. God’s moral excellence, the holiness of Jesus’ acts, the sin of humanity—these are all necessary, but surely God’s nature is virtuous and praiseworthy, as are Jesus’ acts; and the acts of the sinner, although morally necessary, are nevertheless instances of vice and blameworthy.

Having argued that necessity is not incompatible with virtue, Edwards then maintains that the freedom of indifference is not compatible with virtue, for virtue cannot reside in a soul that is indifferent; what common judgment requires is that one commit the self, that one be inclined toward commendable action.

The conclusion is that virtue depends on necessity; if a person could not be moved by exhortations, considerations, and inducements, neither virtue nor vice would be possible, and neither praise nor blame would be sensible. Even the commands of God would have to be acknowledged as senseless if a virtuous soul could not be moved by those commands without losing its moral freedom.

Answers to Objections

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In part 4, Edwards considers, among other objections to the doctrine he proposes, the claims that if choices are determined, people are machines; that if choices are necessary, fate rules people; that the doctrine makes God the author of sin and (ironically) encourages atheism; and, finally, that the doctrine is metaphysical and abstruse.

Answering the charges, Edwards argues that people are entirely different from machines in that people are able to reason, to will, to do as they will, to be capable of moral acts, and to be worthy of praise, love, and reward. According to the Arminian conception, however, people would be worse than machines, the victims of “absolute blind contingence.” If fate, as conceived by the Stoics, involves any limitations of human liberty, as Edwards has described it, then he rejects that notion of fate. It is misleading, Edwards continues, to argue that God is the author of sin, for even if God permits sin and so orders events that sin occurs, he does so for holy purposes and must be distinguished from the human agents who are the actual sinners. If atheists have embraced the doctrine of the determined will and have used it to defend their ways, Edwards argues, that in no way implies that the view is to blame. To the charge that his philosophy is metaphysical and abstruse, Edwards replies that it seems to be the other way about: The Arminian philosophy depends on vague and undefined ideas and self-contradictory suppositions.

Edwards concludes by claiming that the chief objections to Calvinism have been met by his discourse. The principal objections against the notions of God’s universal and absolute decree and the doctrine of personal election are that they imply a necessity of human volitions and of the acts of humanity; but the argument has shown that unless choices and acts are necessary, in the causal sense described, no volition is possible, and no judgment of moral action is justifiable.


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Additional Reading

Chai, Leon. Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Situates Jonathan Edwards in the context of the Enlightenment and shows his similarities and differences with that tradition.

Cherry, Conrad C. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966. Treating Edwards as a major figure in American literary and intellectual history, Cherry analyzes how Edwards’s philosophy and theology affect each other.

Elwood, Douglas J. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Emphasizing Edwards’s concern to integrate scientific, philosophical, and theological understanding, this work also explores Edwards’s views about evil and God’s grace.

Fiering, Norman. Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981. A study of seventeenth century moral philosophy and its influence on Edwards.

Jenson, Robert W. America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Clarifies Edwards’s views on personal freedom, sin, the meaning of history, and the nature of God.

McClymond, Michael J. Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Focuses on Edwards’s important philosophical understanding of religious experience.

McDermott, Gerald R. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. New York: Oxford, 2000. A study of the theology of Edwards in response to Deism and other religious thought.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: Meridian Books, 1959. A leading scholar on Edwards and American Puritanism focuses on Edwards’s views about human freedom and moral responsibility.

Smith, John Edwin. Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992. One of the most important Edwards scholars presents a reliable overview of Edwards’s multifaceted career and philosophical perspectives.

Steele, Richard B. “Gracious Affection” and “True Virtue” According to Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. An instructive comparative study that explores the life and work of two men who were among the most influential theologians and religious leaders of their day.

Stroh, Guy W. American Philosophy from Edwards to Dewey: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An introductory account that identifies Edwards as one of the key sources for an American philosophical tradition.

Yarborough, Stephen R. Delightful Conviction: Jonathan Edwards and the Rhetoric of Conversion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. This study shows how Edwards shaped his preaching, theology, and philosophy so that they would have a persuasive, converting effect on his listeners and readers.