Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 7: Is the Doctrine of Free Agency Absurd?

Thomas Ralston now begins to examine and respond to various objections posed by “necessitarians” against the Arminian view of self-determinism.  

WE propose in this chapter, to examine some of the principal objections which have been urged against the view taken in the preceding chapter of the freedom of the will. Those most worthy of notice are the following, viz.:

I. It is said to be absurd in itself.

II. It is said to be irreconcilable with the Scripture account of the divine prescience.

III. It is said to conflict with the doctrine of motives.

We propose a respectful attention to each of these grand objections.

I. It is alleged that the view we have taken of the proper freedom of the will is absurd in itself.

President Edwards has argued at great length, that the self-active power of the mind in the determination of the will, as contended for by Arminians, is absurd in itself, because it implies a preceding determination of the will to fix each free volition, and that this would imply an infinite series of volitions, which is absurd.

President Day, of Yale College, who seems to be an apt disciple of Edwards, has, in a late work on the Will, highly complimented the treatise of Edwards, as having furnished in this argument an unanswerable refutation of the Arminian notion of freedom. And truly we must say that the position, “that if each active volition is necessarily preceded by another, this would imply an infinite series, and consequently be absurd,” is a matter so obvious, that the numerous pages devoted by the learned author to this subject might have been spared. Indeed, he seems to have labored and proved, to an extent almost beyond endurance, a position which no intelligent mind can dispute. Had he shown the same solicitude for the establishment of his premises, and been equally successful in that particular, there could be no objection to his conclusion.

“…beyond endurance.”  Couldn’t help but chuckle a little at that one.

That the Arminian notion of the self-active power of the mind in determining the will, implies that each volition must be preceded by another volition, is what has been asserted, but has never yet been proved. The advocates of necessity, although they admit that by the self-determining power of the will is meant “the soul in the exercise of a power of willing,” yet, when they engage in argument, appear to forget this admission, and proceed as though the will were supposed to be an agent separate and distinct from the mind or soul in the act of willing. Hence they involve the discussion in confusion, and bewilder the mind in a maze of verbal contradiction and absurdity. In every act of the will, let it be distinctly understood that the mind or soul is the agent, and the will is only expressive of the act or state of the mind or soul at the time and under the condition, of willing.

Now let us inquire if every act of the soul in willing must, according to the Arminian notion of freedom, be preceded by another act of the soul in willing. Why is it that there can be no choice or act of willing performed by the mind itself, unless it is preceded by another act that determines it? Surely a choice preceded by another choice which determines it, is no choice at all; and to say that every free act, or self-determined act, must be preceded by another, by which it is determined, is the same as to say that there can be no free, or self-determined act. And this is the very point in dispute that ought to be proved, and not taken for granted. Indeed, we may directly deny it, and make our appeal to common sense to sustain us in the position.

For illustration, we refer to the first vicious choice ever made by man. Now, let us contemplate the history of this matter as it really transpired. The tempter came to man for the first time, and presented the seducing bait. Man willed to disobey. Here we see but one act of the mind. There is not an act determining to choose the evil, and then another consequent act choosing the evil. The act determining to choose is really choosing. Determining to choose in a certain way, and choosing in that way, [is] the same thing. Now to say that Adam could not, in the exercise of his own powers, independent of a predetermining cause operating upon him, choose between the evil and the good, is the same as to say that God could not make a free agent.

Indeed to say that a choice free from the necessary determination of a preexisting cause cannot exist, is the same as to say that there is not a free agent in the universe, and that the Deity himself cannot possess self-determining power, but is only acted upon by the impulse of fatality. If the Deity cannot choose or will without something external to himself determining his will, where are his self-existence and independence? For, if the divine will is always determined by something external to the divine mind that wills, then there must be something existing prior to all the divine volitions, separate and distinct from the Deity himself.

Again: if it be admitted that the divine mind can will or choose freely without being acted upon by a preceding choice, then it follows that it is not absurd in itself for the mind to determine its own acts, independent of necessary preceding causes. If it be admitted that the Deity can will by the free exercise of his own powers, then the only question will be, Can he confer this exalted power upon a creature? If we deny that he possesses it himself, we destroy his self-existence and independence. If we deny his ability to confer this power upon a creature, we deny his omnipotence.

Then the whole question concerning the absurdity of the Arminian doctrine of the self-determining power of the will, resolves itself into a question concerning the divine power. Necessitarians contend that God cannot create a free, self-determining agent; and Arminians deny the assertion, and appeal to the self-existence and independence of the Deity to disprove the absurdity in the case; and rely upon the omnipotence of God to prove that the creation of moral agents in the divine image, so far as the self-determining power of the mind is concerned, is not impossible. To say that God cannot make a free agent capable of determining within himself his own volitions, is to limit the divine power.

This is a very strong point against anyone who objects to LFW on logical grounds.  The only way to sustain the objection is to say that God can do what is incoherent, or that God cannot possess LFW which would make God’s actions necessitated in the same way that ours are.  If it is admitted that God can act freely without being necessitated, then there is no reason to believe that God cannot create mankind with the same ability.  If God can act freely then it is not illogical to think that we can as well.  There is no reason to assume that God’s free will is a part of the divine character that cannot be passed on to His creation, and there is certainly no Biblical evidence against God being able to endow His creatures with a measure of free will.

But Edwards again contends that “this self-determining power of the will implies the absurdity of an effect without a cause.” We deny the charge. We are not obliged to admit that because the will is not determined in every case by a preceding act of the will, or some previous cause external to the mind itself, that therefore there is no cause in the case. By no means. If the mind wills one way instead of another, there must be a cause for it; but that cause must not necessarily be either preceding or external, as necessitarians contend. It may be both simultaneous and internal – that is, it may originate in the mind itself at the time of willing.

If it be said that “then the mind itself must be the cause of its own volitions, and if so, there must always be a previous something in the mind to determine it to will in one way instead of another,” we reply, truly the mind is the cause of its own volitions, to such extent that they are not necessarily determined independently of its own action; but it does not follow that there must be something previously existing in the mind, necessarily determining it to choose as it does. All the previously existing cause essential in the case is, the capacity of the mind, in the exercise of its powers, to will at the time, either the one way or the other. If the causative power exists in the agent or mind to effectuate either one of two or more events or volitions, it matters not which one of these events or volitions may be produced, it will be as truly the resultant of an adequate cause as if the agent or mind had possessed no alternative power for producing another event or volition, instead of the one it did produce. Hence it is unphilosophical to say that a volition is uncaused, because the agent causing it had power to have caused another volition instead thereof. Our own consciousness testifies that we have the alternative power of willing or doing right or wrong; and our willing or doing either way does not prove that we might not have willed or done otherwise. In the exercise of this capacity, upon the principles of free agency, and not impelled by stern necessity, the particular will in a given case originates; and thus we see how it was in the case given of the first transgression.

Man had been endued with the power to choose, or to control, his own will. The tempter came: in the exercise of that power, man chose the evil. Here the cause was in himself, and originated in, and flowed from, the manner in which he exercised his powers. This manner of exercising his powers resulted, not necessarily, but contingently, from the nature of the powers themselves. He might have exercised them differently. The cause, or the determining power, was in himself. God placed it there; and for God to place it there to be exercised contingently for good or evil, implies no more absurdity, so far as we can see, than for God to have placed the cause in something preceding, external, and necessary. And thus we think the doctrine of free agency is successfully vindicated from the charge of absurdity and self-contradiction. So far from being absurd in itself, it presents the only consistent illustration of the divine attributes, and the only satisfactory comment upon the divine administration. (Elements of Divinity, pp. 196-199  Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

In our next post Ralston will tackle the objection that self-determinism is incompatible with exhaustive foreknowledge.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Ralston on Freedom of the Will Part 7: Is the Doctrine of Free Agency Absurd?

  1. Good stuff Ben!!! Reading some of Edwards’ arguments was like putting my brain in a spin cycle. I bet some folkes who pick up Edwards book become Calvinists just so they don’t have to keep reading. 🙂

    God be with you,

  2. Hey Ben,

    Does Edwards ever describe how God may have an “uncaused” or undetermined free-will, or is this another one of those things that is attributed to “paradox”?

    Once again, it is the Calvinist, rather than the Arminian, who limits God, insisting that God has “total inability” to create a being with an undermined free-will.


  3. Dear Richard,

    Edwards says God’s will is determined by His wisdom, which is determined by “the fitness of things”. In short, God doesn’t have LFW.

    God be with you,

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