Review of Edwards, Freedom of the Will

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Puritanboard Clerk
Edwards’ argument, despite the close logic and dense prose, is fairly simple. The will is that by which the mind chooses. It chooses by its perception the greatest. The will isn’t the cause of action. It is the effect. The will isn’t just a faculty. It is the mind choosing. Every act of the will presupposes a cause. This cause is the “motive.” The strongest motive determines the action of the will.

That’s the argument in a nutshell. The trick, however, is seeing how this cashes out. Edwards anticipated the discipline of analytic and philosophical theology. He gives extended treatments concerning necessity and identity. He uses the concepts (if not the language) of Possible Worlds Semantics that we would later see in Plantinga, Chisholm, and Lewis.

Edwards sees our actions, if not all of reality, as a string of necessary connections. A thing is necessary when it cannot be otherwise. Necessity is a fixed connection between things (e.g., the subject and predicate of a proposition). Contingency is when something has no previous connection. If we deny necessity, then we will have something like atoms in the universe which aren’t connected to each other.

For Edwards, to even speak of free will is a category confusion. Liberty is the power to do as one pleases. It doesn’t belong under the category of “Will,” but agency. Agents are free, wills are not. Here is where he begins his refutation:

JE sees a chain of causes in each act of the will. The key question: is this first act of the Will free or not? If it is free (in the sense of uncaused), then we have an uncaused Cause (God). If it isn’t free, then the Will is not free.

Even if the Arminian wants to salvage some aspect of free will, for Edwards he must come to grips that even that (relatively) free will is still determined by something, so it can’t be truly free. He won’t let the Arminian claim indifference as the necessary (!) condition of free will. If the mind or will is indifferent between two options, then it cannot choose between two options, for it has no reason to choose either! Further, it entails a contradiction; namely, that the mind is both in a state of inclination and a state of equilibrium.

In the last section of the book Edwards rebuts final Arminian charges about authorship of sin, morality, etc. He does give one interesting observation: an Arminian will say that we can’t be held responsible for our actions if they are necessarily caused. Edwards counters: We condemn or praise an act, not in its cause, but in the nature of the act. If we blame the cause of an act, then we have to ask why that Cause is evil, which moves the discussion back to a previous cause, and so on. When someone does wrong, it is because he is doing as he pleases, and we blame him for doing as he pleases. We do not speculate on the Causes of his actions (at least not immediately).


This book rightly established Edwards as the greatest philosopher from American soil. True, some of his arguments need more elaboration and discussions of free will have advanced, but Edwards must be dealt with in any discussion of the issue.
McDermott and McClymond had a good way of summarizing the whole issue:

The will itself doesn't have a will, so it can't will anything.
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