Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Edwards and The Freedom of the Will

To begin with, it is worth noting that in the Freedom of the Will, which is of course is a highly polemical work on a grand scale, on a central issue in theological anthropology, the footnoting is altogether different. We may note on one side his antagonists, Thomas Chubb the deist, Daniel Whitby the Arminian, and Isaac Watts, the Dissenter whom Edwards had a connection with, and who, perhaps for that reason, was treated anonymously in the text. Who else does Edwards cite? Well, Locke, of course, and Samuel Clarke, and lesser philosophers, such as George Turnbull, and eminent Arminians, such as Episcopius, and John Taylor of Norwich, who was to be his chief antagonist in The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. Thomas Hobbes, and John Gill, a fellow opponent of Whitby, and Andrew Baxter, and Philip Doddridge. The European market, in other words.

The Freedom the Will, more than other of Edwards’s writings, is in a significant Reformed tradition; in this case, a tradition of writing about the will, its metaphysical character, its bondage to sin, and its liberation. Edwards follows in the line both of Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, and of John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, whose treatments, especially Calvin’s, informed the growing Reformed dogmatic output. So Calvin’s work provides us with a significant point of comparison between Edwards and the earlier Reformed dogmatic outlook, on a crucial anthropological locus.

So what of Calvin and Edwards? The first thing to say is that the New England divine cut the cake rather differently from Calvin and from the tradition. For Calvin, the dominant question, what makes the freedom of the will a vital issue, is the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall. He argued at length against the semi-Pelagian divinity of the Roman theologian Albertus Pighius. Such a loss resulted in spiritual death, and restoration to life required the operation of the effective (or ‘effectual’) grace of God which immediately brings new life to the soul. In an earlier post we saw Edward, in his Religious Affections, with the help of his band of Puritan practical divines, contending for this radical view of conversion involving the imparting of a new spiritual sense. We might, for clarity, call this the moral or spiritual sense of freedom.

Calvin takes for granted that the Fall left the will of mankind intact, in the sense that fallen human beings were still able freely to exercise their choices between such alternatives as did not involve any spiritual issue. Though dead in sin, a person might choose to wear either a red tie or a blue one, and whether to marry Nancy or Natalie. While I believe that it is plausible to suppose that Calvin had a broadly compatibilist view of such freedom, such as Edwards espoused, he does not advise his readers of this in so many words. This is partly because the terms ‘determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’ are anachronistic when used of the thought of the sixteenth century. The issues were not contested in these terms. Rather the student of Calvin has to infer his position for what he regards as the criteria for human responsibility, in which the power to choose with the freedom of indifference is not mentioned, not affirmed but scarcely ever denied, but voluntariness, the awareness of alternatives, and the absence of external compulsion are stressed as conditions of responsibility. These signs provide clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook. There is some evidence of reliance upon Aristotle, but otherwise the amount of explicit reasoning is small.

When Aristotle distinguished what is voluntary from its opposite, he defines the latter as to bia e di agnoian gignomenon that is, what happens by force or through ignorance. There he defines as forced what has its beginning elsewhere, something to which he who acts or is acted upon makes no contribution.

Only very occasionally does Calvin express an explicitly compatibilist belief by denying libertarianism. For instance, in one place he argues against the idea that a person may possess the power to turn himself ‘in this direction or that, according to the mere freedom of his own will’. This implicit compatibilism is of course supported from another direction by Calvin’s convictions about predestination and particular providence.

The contrast with Edwards’s method at this point is rather stark. Edwards begins with a Lockean account of freedom, according to which freedom is choice that is the outcome of desire. This is drawn from the English philosopher’s chapter ‘Of Power’ in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which Edwards modifies somewhat. Equally significant is his commitment to Locke’s unified account of the self, according to which the question is not whether the will is free, (the faculty of the will in its relation to the faculty of the intellect), but whether the person is free. ‘For the will or the will itself is not an agent that has a will; the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul, and not the power of volition itself’.

So Edwards bids farewell to the faculty psychology that was characteristic of the Reformed Orthodox. He then proceeds to argue, throughout Part II, on purely philosophical grounds, that the Arminian concept of the human will as essentially possessing the freedom of indifference between alternatives, and as being opposed to causal necessity, is not possible. In Part III, he claims that such a view is in any case is not necessary for moral agency and responsibility, and in Part IV he considers the arguments given in support of the Arminian views of liberty. Each of these theses is argued for in a purely philosophical manner, examining the cogency of the idea of indifference and offering definitions, and then arguing against its being necessary for praise and blame, and considering the Arminian arguments given in support of it.

In a way The Freedom of the Will is an exercise in overkill. Establishing the thesis of Part I, that there can be no sense of freedom of the will such as is claimed by Arminians, is logically sufficient to establish Edwards’s position. But with characteristic relentlessness in the next Part Edwards argues that even if there were such a viable concept of freedom, it is not necessary for the ascription of praise and blame; while in Part IV he shows that the arguments used by the Arminians to support their view are insubstantial. So three times over Edwards offers a different, decisive attack on the Arminians, not the Arminians of the era of the Synod of Dordt, but contemporary, up to the minute Arminians, such as Thomas Chubb and Daniel Whitby.

Only in the Conclusion of the work does Edwards briefly consider the consequences of his philosophically-argued conclusions for certain theological topics, including ‘The Total Depravity and Corruption of Man’s Nature, Efficacious Grace’, to which he devotes precisely two pages. Why this brevity? It is not because he does not have strong views on the topic, as can be seen from his teaching about the new spiritual sense in the Affections. It is rather thatThe Freedom of the Will is dominated by one metaphysical thesis which Edwards deploys and defends in the different ways noted. He makes conceptual distinctions, presents arguments, and considers objections. This thesis is that necessarily, every event, including every human action, has a cause, a thesis defended obliquely in Part II by showing that the contrary thesis - that there are causeless events, namely actions of a libertarianly free will, acts exhibiting the freedom of indifference – are impossible.

To Edwards’s way of thinking human choice between alternatives is an instance of a more pervasive truth, that every event has a cause. Human choices cannot be uncaused, or self-caused, because nothing can be uncaused or self-caused.

[I]t has been already shown, that nothing can ever comes to pass without a cause, or reason why it exists in this manner rather than another; and the evidence of this has been particularly applied to acts of the will. Now if this be so, it will demonstrably follow, that the acts of the will are never contingent, or without necessity, in the sense spoken of, inasmuch as those things which have a cause, or reason of their existence, must be connected with their cause.

I think that it is fair to say that no claims as explicit as this are to found in Reformed thought before Edwards. For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.