Thursday, March 17, 2011

Edwards, the Will, and Determinism

This is taken from:

Edwards’ article here touches on the faculty of the will, moral responsibility and agency, and God as the source of morality. From the source article itself, it seems one of his presuppositions is that the will has to have some determining reason it chooses as it does. In philosophy, “determine” is that which causes the will to choose. It is not simply a reason, it is a coercion. Essentially, he is asking “what causes the will to choose as it does?” However, to ask such a question implicitly presupposes a denial of the will as it is explained! That is, we must assume the definition of the will as given is false. This is begging the question. A true conception of the will is that one may either choose or refrain from choosing. Something may act as a persuasive influence on the will, but there is nothing outside of the agent himself that causes the will to act as it does.

Edwards also presupposes the will is the faculty of choice. He presupposes the will is the property of a person, thus making each person a rational, choosing agent. This seems basic in the normal discourse, and thus I feel it needs little to no defense.

It is also clear Edwards views the will as identical to desire, or motive. This is to say every action is in effect the greatest desire. He seems to view actions as having causal consequences for the actions of others, or even of future actions of the self. “By determining the Will, if the phrase be used with any meaning, must be intended, causing that the act of the Will or choice should be thus, and not otherwise: and 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.” As one can see, his presupposition that the will is not indeterminate (or rather, self-determined) leaves the only other option to be causally-influenced decisions.

Edwards does not offer much biblical evidence, but that is primarily because this is a philosophically-themed article. The Bible was not written to be a textbook on philosophy so it may not expound clearly (e.g., the Bible affirms the reality of the will but not the exact nature of its operation). He does mention Genesis 1:26-27 (and 9:6) as the passages which show God created man in His own image. He does this after establishing that God is the moral lawgiver and a moral agent. Thus, we are moral agents as well. He does not present external or outside evidences, except for a passing reference to the determinist philosopher John Locke.

Edwards’ logical construction is actually very rational assuming one grants his presuppositions. If his premises are true we may extrapolate that either someone or something determines the will (presumably God). He hints at this by placing the argument concerning our being in God’s image right after the argument for the determining of the will. However, one may challenge his presuppositions.

For instance, a couple of thought experiments should be used against the conception that the will is identical to the “greatest apparent good,” “motives,” and/or “desire.” First we should examine motives/desire. Suppose Gary is at a subway station, with a trapped baby on a left track, and a trapped baby on a right track. Suppose Gary further notices both babies at the exact identical moment from his vantage point. Two trains are coming: one down the left track and one down the right, at identical rates of speed and at identical distances away. (This would never happen, but it is logically possible.) The babies are an identical distance away from Gary and he has no prejudice or predisposition toward either of the baby. Gary only has time to save one of them. We shall also stipulate Gary is altruistic and wants to save both babies equally. According to the desire/motive theory, given the circumstances, what would Gary do? Indeed, what could Gary do? The answer is “nothing.” Gary would be frozen, unable to act.

There are a couple of objections that could possibly be pursued. 1. One may admit to the outcome, but contend it would never happen. Answer: This just misses the point. It does not matter if the scenario would happen but if it could. That Gary logically could not act suggests this desire theory is not sufficient for a philosophy of action. This is especially true in light of the fact that we intuitively believe in such a situation Gary could act (which itself requires a denial of one of the parameters). 2. One may say it is impossible that Gary should value two things equally, and thus the experiment is invalid. Answer: Aside from being ad hoc, it seems nothing precludes two things being desired equally in the realm of logical possibility. I know of no non-question-begging argument for this as of yet. In any case, Edwards does not mention it.

A second thought experiment is relevant to the “greatest apparent good” theory (and possibly to all three conceptions of the will). Suppose you are in a shady part of town in New York City. As you pass an alley, you witness a mugging in progress. You are somewhat of a fearful person and you believe you will be beaten up if you interfere. Nonetheless, you do interfere. Yet your greatest desire, your greatest apparent good, is self-preservation! This suggests we may override our instinct or desire for self even if no apparent good comes out of it. Objection: One would only engage in this choice if he believed it was the greatest apparent good/or desired to do this act the most. Answer: The latter objection is easier than the former. In this logically-possible scenario you desire to avoid punishment the most. You do in some way desire to help, but you are making a rational, not a longing-type, choice. That the greatest apparent good is not the impetus behind this choice is, I think, clear. The reason? The one doing the act is convinced his efforts are futile and will indeed result in harm to him, thus violating his greatest desire. Now, if Edwards identifies will with desire, and desire with the greatest apparent good, then the greatest desire (to stay alive) is also the perceived greatest good. This suggests the will is not a mere cause-and-effect.

Edwards’ conception of the will extends to God. However, if something causes God to act, then what? The laws of logic? Edwards does not here say. However, a troubling entailment from this is that God Himself would be forced to act the way He does: God, as a necessary being, could not have done anything differently. This means God was forced to create us (note not simply forced to create, but forced to create the world in which we now live. This means you and I could not have failed to exist!). Such a philosophy leads down a dark road that ironically ends up denying God’s sovereignty, which is exactly what Calvinistic thinkers seek to preserve.

With respect to moral agency Edwards takes it that we are morally responsible (he seems to believe this is axiomatic). He thinks we are morally obliged because God has given moral commands. While this is perfectly reasonable, in light of his view on the will, I would think man is not morally responsible. On a causally-deterministic view of the will, man is no more responsible for his actions than is a baseball bat. If such a bat struck a window, and I were to take that bat and scold it, you would think I was a lunatic. Why? Not because the bat is inanimate, but more potently: because the bat was not the primary cause of the act. Now suppose it had been revealed that I had slammed the bat into the window. The primary cause of the act is myself and the secondary cause is the bat. Just as the man who pushes the rock with the stick is said to be the cause of the rock’s moving, so is any primary cause the true bearer of actually objective moral responsibility. In Edwards’ conception of the will man is not the primary cause of the will; he is the secondary cause. The primary cause is something external, whether it be other acts, or ultimately God Himself. In that case it is that external cause which is morally responsible for the act.

All posts, and the blog Possible Worlds, are the sole intellectual property of Randy Everist. One may reprint part or all of this post so long as: a) full attribution is given (Randy Everist, Possible Worlds), b) all use is non-commercial, and c) one is in compliance with the Creative Commons license at the bottom on the main page of this blog.


  1. Hey Randy, this just randomly popped into my head, but what do you think about this as a possible determinist response to the subway dilemma. I'm not sure exactly how to phrase this, but, basically, what if, instead of a human agent deliberating over the two options, we instead have a dog specialized to rescue people in this very same kind of situation. Now, assuming that the dog does not have libertarian free will, I think there is very strong intuitive support to think that the dog would choose an option in that situation, even if he does not have libertarian free will, and thus, a fortiori, a person without libertarian free will would as well. What are your thoughts?

    -Paul Kelly

  2. Hi Paul! Hope all is well. :) This scenario goes back to the days of Spinoza (if I am remembering correctly) and took the form of "Buridan's Ass." The donkey, placed between identical bales of hay and noticing them at the same time, would be unable to act. In your scenario, however, the dog has been trained to act. I think on further examination we will see determinism in play. For instance, if the dog was not trained to specifically choose one person in this exact scenario, then it just smuggles in that which it tries to prove. That is, if the dog was just trained to rescue people from tracks in general, and it noticed both people at the same time, then what motivates the choice? Even if we grant the dog further capacity for rationalization, assuming all else is equal from the perspective of the dog and he notices it as precisely the same time, how could he do anything but stand there? Now if the dog has been trained in precisely this situation, he will choose based on these factors. For instance, were he trained to always go to the left, that's what he would do: but only because he has a propensity to do so. Or if the one on the right was nearer to a meat-vendor. In any case, the man would have to have these determining factors just "put in," and then we lack will, but have full-on determinism (and on theistic determinism, God could just cause the man to save one or the other). The alternative is that the man chooses for precisely no determining reason; but this is precisely what he wished to avoid.

    In short, the dog scenario fails only because the only way we could conceive of the dog moving to save someone in identical circumstances is if he is determined by something else (prior instruction or instinct to recognize irrelevant differences [as this scenario postulates no relevant differences]). Good thoughts!

  3. Hey Randy
    Following the other subject on determinism, here I am following to this topic! Please understand, I am not so fanatical about determinism that I have to argue about it (if in heaven I discover I am wrong, honestly so be it haha, not emotionally attached to it).

    But I will try to respond to each point in turn. This helps me in sorting out my own thoughts...

    1. Buridian's ass, or the rescuer of babies! I would suggest that the rescuer has a clear deterministic motive to save at least one baby instead of none, and so would 'choose' as it were a decision strategy which determines an outcome. Flipping a coin somehow, even mentally. I would think flipping an actual coin is also deterministic. (I am tempted to point out how slight differences, being right handed for instance, would tend towards an outcome, but that is a squalid consideration for the thought experiment...)

    2. the second thought experiment suggested Edwards may have some sort of confusion between the greatest desire and the greatest good, which I agree wouldn't always match up. This area merges somewhat with the old philosophical area of the dilemma between doing what is right and doing what is prudential for oneself. Alturism is a hardish thing to account for but I suspect a determinist is ok about it, the alturist has a greater desire to do the right thing even though it is not the most prudential thing to do for ones own bodily good? is that problematic?

    3. Consistently deterministic about God too... I suspect would have to say that the predetermining factor has to be somehow internal to God's own nature, thus redeeming sovereignty. Similar moves are made in divine command theory, not sure how successful. Issues arise on whether all choices have sufficient reason to determine them (similar to buridian's ass above). I have more complicated things to think about that but won't expand too much on them now (basically forms of incommensurable choices also increase the range of 'coin flipping' scenarios.) Not sure what to think of God flipping coins... problems... However I doubt if this is only a problem for determinists...

    4. the last point is to do with secondary causes not being responsible, which came up in the other thread. Without rehearsing everything, I rather see things as a sequence of causes, but at each stage there is moral responsibility. This can only be if we reject the Kantian 'ought implies can' as clearly a determined agent could not do otherwise. Would have to replace with 'ought implies could do if my motives were different' sort of thing. Plus more emphasis on virtues etc as the nature of morality.

    Many thanks for the article, I've not read Edwards enough on this, although you'd think I really should!


    1. Hello! Technically, that thought experiment is specifically against compatibilism and its account of free will, so that determinism could indeed be true even if this thought experiment survives. But my point is to ask why does he choose? If it's merely determined, then it's not a matter of the will. If it's in accordance with his desires, I guess we could just bite the bullet and say he just stands there. But that seems to be a highly-implausible reaction. As to (3), I am not comfortable with stating that God cannot do anything differently than He does redeeming sovereignty--even the divine command theorists don't say this. The reason is that just anything counts as sovereign so long as it is possibly instantiated and can do something. As to moral responsibility, again, how could it be without assuming the truth of the premise! Anyway, just my view. I'm partial to the idea that without a libertarian-style free will, one cannot rationally affirm anything (including the fact he is determined). For even the affirmation that one is determined is determined, so that you might well be determined to believe you have said "I eat monkeys" when you really said "John, take out the trash," but it also so happens you have been determined to believe that the content of "I eat monkeys" is equivalent to "John, take out the trash." But since it's all determined, you have no way of knowing, even if the outcome is correct. :)

  4. Hey there and thanks for the engaging thoughts Randy.

    I think you are right to identify the central issue as being about whether a rational will depends on some sort of libertarian choice.

    To try and scetch a compatibilist determinist alternative, to begin with it seems plausible that such a theoretical compatibilist agent can still have dilemmas of choice. The streams of self-reflective consciousness on the state of their desires... the nature of those desires can fluctuate according to the small adjustments of information moment by moment... As the thought experiment is aware, the ultimate choice must correspond to the greatest desire (whether that greatest desire is alturistic or self prudential) and furthermore, the fluctuations can still continue after the decision, leading to what seemed like a good idea at the time of choice quickly dropping after the choice, leading to some kind of regret!! Or indeed if the relative weighings remain the same post decision, one can still have a kind of rational regret about the option you were unable to realise. "Sorry I missed the appointment but I just had to take my kid to the doctors" kind of thing.

    I think all of that and more would be consistent with a compatibilist determinist position, and may go some way towards competing with a libertarian case.

    Tempted to suggest that such a compatibilist approach to rational agency may fit with an externalist epistemology, although I wouldn't really want to limit the position by tying it closely with one epistemology over another.

    The 'I eat monkeys' example is very intriging. Indeed there are diseases and examples of brain injury which lead to exactly just that sort of thing. I suggest such damage might be exposing just how predetermined our responses etc can be. However I would hold that exactly due to the damage (loss of 'proper function' perhaps?) this is what allows us to say such senarios are not fully rational, without blaming the predetermination. Again this sounds like close to externalism, although it need not be as one could still hold that being fully aware of the processes/what is going on could be a requirement of internalistic rationality.

    I will leave it there before I ramble much more!



Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!