Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 2: Its Self-evident Nature

We now continue with Ralston’s defense of free will from his Elements of Divinity

II. We proceed now to consider some of the leading arguments by which the free moral agency of man, as briefly defined above, is established.

1. We rely upon our own consciousness.

By consciousness, we mean the knowledge we have of what passes within our own minds. Thus, when we are angry, we are sensible of the existence of that feeling within us. When we are joyful or sad, we know it. When we love or hate, remember or fear, we are immediately sensible of the fact. The knowledge we possess of this nature is not the result of reasoning; it is not derived from an investigation of testimony, but rises spontaneously in the mind. On subjects of this kind, arguments are superfluous; for, in reference to things of which we are conscious, no reasoning, or external testimony, can have any influence, either to strengthen our convictions, or to cause us to doubt. In vain may we endeavor by argument to persuade the man who feels conscious that his heart is elated with joy, that he is, at the same time, depressed with grief. You cannot convince the sick man, who is racked with pain, that he is in the enjoyment of perfect health; nor the man who exults in the vigor of health and vivacity, that he is writhing under the influence of a painful disease.

Knowledge derived through the medium of consciousness, like that which comes immediately through external sensation, carries upon its face its own demonstration; and so strongly does it impress the soul, that we are compelled to yield ourselves up to the insanity of universal skepticism before we can doubt it for a moment. Here, then, we base our first argument for the proper freedom of the will of man, or, more properly speaking, for the freedom of man in the exercise of the will. Who can convince me that I have not the power either to write or to refrain from writing, either to sit still or to rise up and walk? And this conviction, in reference to a self-determining power of the mind, or a control of the will belonging to ourselves, is universal. Philosophy, falsely so called, may puzzle the intellect, or confuse the understanding, but still the conviction comes upon every man with resistless force, that he has within himself the power of choice. He feels that he exercises this power. (pg. 185)

Ralston begins by appealing to our intuitions.  This is a significant argument because it establishes the fact that necessetarian dogma, in order to succeed, must overcome one of our most basic beliefs concerning human nature; not a belief that we have been taught, but a belief which we base on our own experience. Through the processes of the mind that we are all aware of, it seems painfully obvious that we do indeed have the power of self-determination.

We know the advocates of necessity admit that men generally, at first view of the subject, suppose that they are not necessitated in their volitions, but they assert that this is an illusion which the superior light of philosophy will dissipate. An acute metaphysician has advanced the idea, “that when men only skim the surface of philosophy, they discard common sense; but when they go profoundly into philosophic research, they return again to their earliest dictates of common sense.” In the same way, a mere peep into philosophy has caused many, especially such as are predisposed to skepticism, to assert the doctrine of fatality; but a thorough knowledge of true philosophy generally serves to establish our first convictions that we are free in our volitions. Can that philosophy be sound, or that reasoning correct, which would set aside the strongest testimony of our own senses? which would persuade us that it is midnight when we behold the full blaze of the meridian sun? No more can we accredit that mode of reasoning which would uproot the testimony of our own consciousness.

One may attempt to reason all sorts of absurdities but it is not improper to rely on our senses when such reasoning is brought to bear on us.  That is not to say that our senses cannot deceive us, but to recognize that if our senses can be verified without difficulty, then any contrary suggestions should be rightly rejected. Ralston uses the example of trying to convince someone that it is midnight while in the presence of the midday sun.  A clever person might derive some convincing arguments, but if someone were convinced by such arguments in the presence of the sun, we would likely reckon such a person to be quite the gullible fool.

That, in my volitions, I am free to choose good or evil, and not impelled by a necessity as absolute as the laws of gravitation, is a position which I can no more doubt from my own consciousness than I can doubt my own existence. This is evident from the fact that all men have a sense of blame when they do wrong, and of approbation when they do right. Am I charged with the commission of a crime? – convince me that the force of circumstances rendered its avoidance absolutely impossible, and I can no more blame myself in the premises than I can censure the tree that fell upon the traveler as he was journeying on the highway. Remorse for the past depends upon a consciousness of our freedom for its very existence. This conviction of freedom is so indelible and universal on the minds of men, that no human effort can erase it. It may be smothered or obscured for a season in the minds of sophisticated reasoners, but in the hours of sober honesty it will regain its position, and reassert its dominion, even over the minds of such men as Voltaire, Hume, and Edwards, who have discarded it in their philosophy (pg. 186)

Indeed, such convictions will eventually rise to the surface despite our best efforts to keep them submerged for the sake of our philosophy.  For more on this see my post Struggling With Regrets.

We will examine Ralston’s third argument in our next post

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7 Responses

  1. I agree that we think we have free will. But I would take it further. Why do we think we have free will if we don’t yet are made in the image of God? As I have previously posted,

    The claim that freewill does not even exist but is only a false belief of our mind is not consistent with the other attributes. It is the odd one out. The claim is not that part of the image of God is broken, it is a claim that we think this way despite being completely incorrect. And even worse, freewill is an attribute that God does have, and we falsely think he has given it to us.

  2. Dear Ben,

    I am sorry I have commented irrelevantly over here… but my email is not working at the moment. Thank you for your response concerning my friend. I will pray that God will lead all of this and if you so desire, please do feel free to comment or re-direct one of his many misleading teachings. Please let me know how you go if you do…

    🙂 God bless you always.

  3. bethyada,

    Excellent point. Here is bethyada’s entire post on the subject which is well worth the read:

    http://bethyada.blogspot.com/search/label/freewill

  4. Hello Bethyada,

    I believe that Bethyada makes a good point about the illusory nature of our daily experience if exhaustive predeterminism is true. Every time we believe that we have a choice in reality we do not have a choice, but can and will only do what we were predetermined to do. Bethyada you make this point very well and I believe it is a significant problem with calvinism.

    Another closely related problem that not many have noticed is that it also makes Jesus into a **liar** or **deluded** person as well. This is because Jesus sometimes said that he could do otherwise than in fact he ended up doing in a particular situation (i.e., Jesus Himself said that he had choices). Take one clear example (Matt. 26:53): as he was about to be arrested He declared that he could call upon legions of angels to rescue Him if he wanted to do so, but instead chose to allow them to arrest Him (though he did a little power display to make sure that everyone knew that He was **allowing** it to occur, Jn. 18:6). But if we never have a choice (where we can actualize either possibility in a situation), which is necessarily entailed by exhaustive predeterminism/calvinism, then Jesus did not have a choice either. He really could not have called upon the angels as **he said**.

    So he was either knowingly making a false statement (i.e., lying) or he knew it was not true but just said it in order to mislead people about his power (i.e., he mislead people with his words saying something about his power that was not true) or he really thought he could call upon the angels but was deluded about it (thought he could call on the angels when in reality He could not do so). Or HE WAS TELLING THE TRUTH, which means that he had a real choice and could have actualized either possibility if he chose to do so.

    If calvinism is true and all events are predetermined and we never have a choice, then Jesus was a liar, deceiver, or deluded. Compare this with C.S. Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” argument with regard to Jesus’ claim that He was God. I take all of Jesus’ words and claims to be true and absolutely authoritative, so calvinism is the lie, the untruth on this subject and Jesus’ words are the truth (He really had a choice, and could actualize whatever alternative possibility that He wanted to actualize).

    Robert

  5. Thanks Robert and Ben. The thing that gets me is that one could argue that fallen men’s thoughts are broken, but redeemed men as well. Even Calvinists because thought they claim their philosophy intellectually, in their minds they still think they are doing the choosing.

    I realise they claim that we do choose (just that we can’t help what we choose) but this strikes me as claiming squares are circles.

    But to your point, I guess I hadn’t applied it to Jesus. Of course God can have freewill as can Jesus as divine, but what of Jesus as man?

    Perhaps the calvinist can claim that pre-incarnation all decisions were made and during his earthly sojourn he did what the trinity had previously decided. If so then could he have done different if he wanted to and why did he get frustrated at people’s lack of faith when all was predetermined?

  6. Bethyada said:

    “Thanks Robert and Ben. The thing that gets me is that one could argue that fallen men’s thoughts are broken, but redeemed men as well. Even Calvinists because thought they claim their philosophy intellectually, in their minds they still think they are doing the choosing.”

    This is true, all of us, presuppose that we both have the ability to make choices and that we **have** choices facing us. This includes the theological determinist/calvinist as well because he lives in the real world that God created, the one in which we do our own choices and sometimes do have choices. He cannot avoid living in reality so he talks about and has and makes choices just like all of us do.

    “I realize they claim that we do choose (just that we can’t help what we choose) but this strikes me as claiming squares are circles.”

    The key distinction to keep in mind is that the calvinist/determinist can and does believe that we MAKE CHOICES (which involves committing to a certain course of action), but that their exhaustive predeterminism eliminates, precludes that we ever HAVE CHOICES (which involves being able to actualize this or that different possibility in the same situation; to do this but also do have been able to do otherwise). If you have to do something and it is impossible that you do otherwise, then with respect to that action, YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.

    “But to your point, I guess I hadn’t applied it to Jesus. Of course God can have freewill as can Jesus as divine, but what of Jesus as man?”

    My point with Jesus is that he makes claims/statements that he and others **have** choices before them (where he/they could do one thing or do another). So Jesus makes the identical claim that we do: that sometimes we have free will/we have choices/we can do otherwise. Now either his statements are true and trustworthy (in which case calvinism is then false because it does not allow for us or Jesus ever having choices) or his statements are not true, not accurate, and he is lying, misrepresenting things, or deluded (in which case calvinism is then true, and our belief that we have choices, and Jesus’ belief that he had choices, is ALWAYS FALSE).

    “Perhaps the calvinist can claim that pre-incarnation all decisions were made and during his earthly sojourn he did what the trinity had previously decided. If so then could he have done different if he wanted to and why did he get frustrated at people’s lack of faith when all was predetermined?”

    Bethyada you make a good point about God/Jesus getting frustrated. We only get frustrated when things do not go the way we would like, or had hoped. In scripture there are clear cases where God (or Jesus during the incarnation) gets frustrated. If everything were predetermined and so always going exactly according to plan, God would never be frustrated (unless he is faking the frustration). But he does get frustrated (and is not faking it) so things must not always go the way He would wish.

    My favorite example of this is the Lord’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament (over and over they did the wrong thing, went against God, disobeyed, complained, were unfaithful to Him, and God expresses Himself on this very clearly). If everything were going according to the secret all encompassing plan of God (which calvinists believe), then the statements in the bible about God getting frustrated and upset with people are just a sham, just make believe, not real. But if that is true then we cannot trust what the bible says. I prefer to simply trust what the bible says, that it is presenting what is really true, which is that God does sometimes get frustrated and upset and things do not always go the way He wishes they would go. This principle also appears in the New Testament for example, when Jesus says that we should pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven (i.e., in heaven God’s will is always and perfectly done, on earth it does not always get done). If God’s secret will were always being done perfectly then that prayer makes no sense.

    Robert

  7. Abigail,

    I have not forgotten about you. I would suggest for now that you leave comments at your friend’s blog with links to posts here or at other Arminian sites and blogs (you can find many of those in the side bar), or something to that effect. Maybe challenge him on a certain issue and refer him to one of those posts and see where he takes it from there.

    God Bless,
    Ben

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