James D. Strauss' Critique of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

In his article entitled "A Puritan in a Post-Puritan World" (in Grace Unlimited, ed., Clark H. Pinnock, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975, pp. 243ff) Strauss argues first that "a central fallacy, if not a lethal fallacy, in Edwards' argument is the ambiguity of his definition of the determination of the will" (p. 252). Secondly, he argues that "Edwards' massive and brilliant effort actually generates a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that 'moral agency' is logically reconcilable with any form of radical determinism" (p. 253). Finally, he argues that Edwards' view of God's foreknowledge entailing the necessary occurrence of what He foreknows is invalid.

The thesis of Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will (ed., A. S. Kaufman, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril Co., 1969) is that moral responsibility is not inconsistent with God's determining disposal of all events of every kind (p. 258). Edwards rejects the Arminian notion that the will has a self-determining power (p. 39). What determines the will "is that motive which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest" (p. 9). By "motive" he means "the whole of that which moves, excites or invites the mind to volition, whether that be one thing singly, or many things conjunctly" (p. 9). The "strongest motive" is "that which appears most inviting" (p. 10). Or as he puts it later: "the will always is as the greatest apparent good is" (p. 11f).

Edwards takes great pains to make his definitions clear. He says,

By determining the will. . .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 actions or influence, its choice is directed to, and fixed upon a particular object (p. 8).

Then he defines "will" as "that by which the mind chooses anything. The faculty of the will is the faculty or power or principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing" (p. 4).

1. Strauss sees a "central fallacy" in "the ambiguity of [Edwards'] definition of the determination of the will" (p. 252). I have great difficulty following Strauss' line of reasoning (the fourth and fifth lines from the bottom of p. 251 are unintelligible) but I will try to represent it fairly. Strauss says Edwards "has not demonstrated the 'necessity' of the connection between acts and motives but rather has committed the definitional fallacy by his a priori, i.e. tautological definition" (p. 252). What he means is that Edwards in the end treats the will and the strongest motive as identical: "Edwards' analysis of the will is simply that the will is the strongest motive or most powerful inclination of the mind" (p. 252). But Strauss sees that certain statements of Edwards don't fit this assessment; he quotes Edwards as follows: "If the acts of the will are excited by motives, those motives are the causes of those acts of the will: which makes the acts of the will necessary; as effects necessarily follow the efficiency of the cause" (p. 252), But then Strauss asks, "Is this description not in logical tension with Edwards' own account of the identification between strongest motives and acts of will?" (p. 252). Strauss thus accuses Edwards of logical inconsistency in that on the one hand, he treats the strongest motive and the will as identical and yet on the other hand, he treats the acts of will as effects and motives as causes.

It may be that there is some ambiguity in Edwards' definitions of will and motive and their relation. But ambiguity is not the same as fallacy as Strauss seems to imply (p. 252.2). If we stick to Edwards' clearest remarks the following picture emerges. Edwards does not treat will and strongest motive as identical. A motive is something "extant in the view or apprehension of the understanding" (FW, p. 9), That is, it is something distinct from the mind's volitional activity. It exists previous to this activity as the following quote shows: "Everything that is properly called a motive, excitement or inducement to a perceiving willing agent, has some sort and degree of tendency, or advantage to move or excite the will previous to the effect, or to the act of the will excited." (p. 10, my emphasis). This is an explicit denial of Strauss' charge that Edwards treats strongest motive and act of will as identical.

There is a sentence in Edwards which, if read carelessly, could lead one to Strauss' conclusion. Edwards writes,

I have rather chosen to express myself thus, that the will always is as the greatest apparent good, or as what appears most agreeable, is, than to say that the will is determined by the greatest apparent good, or by what seems most agreeable; because an appearing most agreeable or pleasing to the mind, and the mind's preferring and choosing [the function of the will], seem hardly to be properly and perfectly distinct (p. 12f).

Edwards is quite consistent here. He earlier defined will as the "power of mind" by which it chooses or prefers (p. 4). Here he admits that the activity of the mind in viewing a thing as most pleasing is in fact indistinguishable from the act of willing. The mind's esteeming something as most agreeable is the mind's preferring or choosing that thing; and this is the act of willing.

But this is not the same as saying that the will and the strongest motive are the same thing. Motives are things external to the mind's apprehension which "move, excite or invite the mind to volition" (p. 9). The motive is not the same as the mind's judgment of it. The connection between motive and voluntary action is much more complex in Edwards than Strauss seems to see.

2. The reason Strauss oversimplifies and thus distorts Edwards' view is because he tries to reduce it to "a machine model" (p. 254). On the basis of his false identification of will and motive Strauss gives the following mechanistic caricature, "Once a given motive (inducement) is strongest (it is not by choice that this is done), it causes a given bodily movement" (p. 253). His mechanistic conception of Edwards' view reveals itself in his restriction of responses to "bodily movement" and in his omission of the distinctively human links between motive and action.

Edwards was fully aware that his view elicited this common accusation. His rejoinder is completely overlooked by Strauss:

As to the objection against the doctrine which I have endeavored to prove, that it makes men no more than mere machines; I would say, that not withstanding this doctrine, man is entirely, perfectly and unspeakably different from a mere machine, in that he has reason and understanding, and has a faculty of will, and so is capable of volition and choice; and in that his will is guided by the dictates or views of his understanding; and in that his external actions and behavior and in many respects also his thoughts, and the exercises of his mind, are subject to his will; so that he has liberty to act according to his choice, and do what he pleases; and by means of these things is capable of moral habits and moral acts... (FW, p. 212, my emphasis).

Nowhere does Strauss discuss the role of reason or perception as they relate to motive and will. That is, he overlooks the character of the willer which for Edwards is where virtue or vice (i.e. accountability) principally inheres (FW, pp. 16ff). Accordingly, Strauss makes the superficial statement that "There is plainly no place for both 'being influenced by moral inducements' and any agency of the self in the determination of the moral quality of its actions" (p. 253). This is not true because it is precisely the character of the willer (i.e. the way he perceives, reasons, feels) which will largely determine what sort of motives he responds to. The moral quality of his actions is determined in great measure by the kind of person he is. By overlooking the human links between motive and action (i.e. human character) Strauss oversimplifies and distorts Edwards' view. He thus falls far short of disproving Edwards' reconciliation of determinism and moral agency, because he does not even grapple with Edwards' explanation of moral agency as it inheres in the virtuous or vicious characters of men.

3. Strauss makes one final attack, namely against Edwards' argument that if God infallibly foreknows all future events, then those events are necessary and must occur, else God will be found in error in what he foreknows (FW, pp. 115ff). On p. 257 Strauss gives a long quote from Donald M. Mckay's The Clock Work Image to show that Edwards' view of God's foreknowledge would involve God in a logical self-contradiction. I have tried and tried to make sense of these two paragraphs, but I can't. They are simply unintelligible to me, perhaps because I do not know their context. So I can not interact with Mackay's argument.

Strauss' own argument goes like this: "Scientifically, knowledge is imperative for predictive power but no one surely would say that the knowledge which enables scientists to predict future events, 'caused future events'" (p. 256). This, however, misses the point, for as Edwards says, "Whether prescience be the thing that makes the event necessary or no, it alters not the case. Infallible foreknowledge may prove the necessity of the event foreknown, and yet not be the thing which causes the necessity" (FW, p. 123). Indeed it can and, so far as I can see, it does. Strauss brings no clear argument to refute Edwards' detailed proof.

In sum, then, this article by Strauss succeeds in none of the three criticisms it levels against Jonathan Edwards' view of determinism, volition, and moral agency.