Tag Archives: Freedom of the Will

What Does Inability Mean? (On Freedom of the Will, Part I Section 4b)

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The previous explanation of natural and moral Necessity may also shed light on the concepts of natural and moral Inability. Someone would be naturally unable to do something when he cannot do it because nature does not allow it or because of some “obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the Faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.” However, none of those things constitutes moral Inability, which may be defined simply as a want of inclination.

Some examples of moral Inability are the following. A person “of great honor and chastity may have a moral Inability” to engage in prostitution. A child who is devoted to and truly loves his parents may be morally unable to kill his father. “A very malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy.” Strength of virtue and a great degree of holiness may result in one’s being morally unable to “love wickedness in general.” On the other hand, the strength of one’s habitual wickedness may make him unable to “love and choose holiness.” Such a person may be “utterly unable to love an infinitely holy Being, or to choose and cleave to him as his chief good.”


Saul Attacking David by Guercino

Regarding this idea of moral Inability, I think it is useful to draw a distinction between the general/habitual and the particular/occasional. A general/habitual moral Inability is “an Inability in the heart to all exercises or acts of the will of that kind.” Thus, a person “whose heart is habitually void of gratitude” may be unable to show gratitude through his actions. By contrast, a particular/occasional moral Inability is an Inability relating to a particular act at a particular point in time. If it is true that “the Will is always determined by the strongest motive,” it follows that the will is always unable (a particular/occasional Inability) to “act otherwise than it does.” It is not possible for the Will to “go against the motive which has now, all things considered, the greatest advantage to induce it.”


The second of these kinds of moral Inability is commonly referred to simply as “Inability.” because the word’s original meaning related “to some stated defect.” In addition, as we noted before, Inability is most commonly used as a relative term; it relates to a will and endeavor that is “insufficient to bring to pass the thing desired and endeavored.” Whether occasional or habitual, a will and endeavor against present acts of the will cannot even be supposed; “that would be to suppose the Will, as present, to be otherwise than, at present, it is.” There conceivably could be, however, will and endeavor “against future acts of the Will.” There is no contradiction in saying that acts of the Will at one time “may be against the acts of the Will at another time.” One might desire to prevent a future act of the Will, but that desire might be overcome by the strength of a fixed habit. “In this respect, a man may be in miserable slavery and bondage to a strong habit.” On the other hand, it may be much easier to prevent future acts that “are only occasional and transient.” In this way, the moral Inability associated with fixed habits “especially obtains the name of Inability.” So just as the will may, in this sense, resist itself in vain, reason may resist a present act of the Will, although its resistance may be insufficient.

Again, with each kind of moral Inability, the word “Inability” is being used very differently from its original meaning. The word refers to a natural Inability, those cases where it can be supposed a person is inclined to do an act, but is unable. Under the ordinary definition, we cannot say that “a malicious man . . . cannot hold his hand from striking.” Strictly speaking, a man is able to do something “if he has it in his choice, or at his election”; we would not say that a man cannot do a thing “when he can do it if he will.” It is incorrect to say that someone is unable to do a thing (something that depends on an act of the Will) that “would be easily performed if the act of the Will were present.” It would be even worse to say that he is unable to “exert the acts of the Will themselves.” That would be a contradiction; to say “he cannot will, if he does will.” Therefore, we should not attribute non-performance to a lack of power or ability. What is lacking is not ability, but one’s being willing. A person may understand, and have the natural ability and everything else necessary, except a disposition. The only thing missing is a will.

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The Distinction Between Natural & Moral Necessity (On Freedom of the Will Part I, Section 4a)

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Section IV.

Of the distinction of natural and moral Necessity, and Inability.

The Necessity which has been explained above can be distinguished into more and natural Necessity. I will not delve into whether this distinction is a perfect one, but this is how the terms are understood and it is how I will use them below.

Moral Necessity is used in different ways. We use it to mean the Necessity of moral obligation, as when a person “is under bonds and duty of conscience from which he cannot be discharged.” Sometimes moral Necessity refers to “that Necessity of connexion and consequence” that arises from moral causes, such as the strength of inclination or motives, and the connections between those and “such certain volitions and actions. This is the sense in which I will be using the phrase “moral necessity.”

As applied to men, I define natural necessity as the Necessity we are “under through the force of natural causes” as opposed to moral causes, e.g., “habits and dispositions of the heart, and moral motives and inducements.” Thus, in certain situations, men experience particular things by Necessity: “they feel pain when their bodies are wounded;” they see things in a clear light when their eyes are opened; they acknowledge a truth as soon as they understand the terms (such as 2+2=4 or that parallel lines never intersect); “so by a natural Necessity men’s bodies move downwards, when their is nothing to support them.”

Note the following things about these two kinds of Necessity:

1. “Moral Necessity may be as absolute as natural Necessity.” Moral cause and effect may be just as perfectly connected as any natural cause and effect. Regardless of whether the Will is always “necessarily determined by the strongest motive,” anyone would accept, I think, that in some cases the motive is so strong “that the act of the will may be certainly and indissolubly connected therewith.” When a motive or bias is very powerful, it is generally accepted that it is difficult to go against them (and the difficulty increases in direct proportion to the power of the motive). At a certain point, the difficulty could become so great as to be insurmountable. Men have some power to overcome difficulties, but that power is not infinite; rather it has limits. Because it must be allowed that there can be a perfect connection between moral cause and effect, “so this only is what I call by the name of moral Necessity.”


2. Just because I distinguish between these kinds of necessity (moral vs. natural), that does not mean that if something comes to pass by moral necessity, “the nature of things is not concerned in it. I do not mean to say that when an act of the Will “infallibly follows” an insurmountable motive, “this is not owing to the nature of things.” Nevertheless, “natural” and “moral” are how these two kinds of Necessity have usually been distinguished and they must be distinguished somehow because there is a difference between them that has important consequences. The difference consists more “in the two terms connected” than in the nature of the connection. The cause of the effect “is of a particular kind,” namely something of a moral nature, “some previous habitual disposition, or some motive exhibited to the understanding.” Likewise, the effect is something of a moral nature, some “volition of the soul, or voluntary action.”

I suppose that natural necessity is so called “because mere nature,” as that word is commonly used, is not concerned with choice. “Nature” is often used “in opposition to choice” not because nature never has anything to do with our choice, but probably because our first notion of nature comes from our observation of things in which our choice plays no part. This is especially true with respect to the material world, in which we easily perceive “a settled course” or “manner or succession.” However, where we do not easily recognize “the rule and connexion” (although the connection truly exists) we refer to that sort of thing as something other than “nature.” Even some things in the material world that do not obviously occur “according to any settled course” are not called “nature,” but rather accident, chance, contingence, etc. Men distinguish between nature and choice “as if they were completely and universally distinct.” But I suppose it must be acknowledged that in many cases choice “arises from nature, as truly as other events.” It is not always obvious, however, how acts of choice and their causes are connected “according to established laws.” Choice appears to us to be a departure from the established order of things, showing itself most obviously in “corporeal things.” Choice also tends to “alter the chance of events” and causes them to go forward differently that they would have if left alone. “Hence it is spoken of as if it were a principle or notion entirely distinct from nature and properly set in opposition to it.”

3. Note that in explaining my term “moral Necessity,” the word Necessity is not used in its “original design and meaning.” As explained already, terms such as necessary, impossible, etc., as commonly used, are always relative; they always assume some “voluntary opposition . .  that is insufficient.” With moral Necessity, however, no such opposition can be assumed because it “is a certainty of the . . . will itself.” It is absurd to imagine an individual will opposing itself in its present act, just as it would be absurd “to talk of two contrary motions, in the same moving body, at the same time.”

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What Do We Mean by Necessity? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 3a)

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Section III.

Concerning the meaning of the terms, Necessity, Impossibility, Inability, &c. and of Contingence.

When discussing free will, words such as “necessary” and “impossible” are used frequently. Therefore, we must understand exactly how they are used.

We could say that something is necessary if “it must be and cannot be otherwise.” But unless we also explain the word “must” with something other than the phrase “there being Necessity” the phrase above is not a proper definition of Necessity. Words such as “must,” “can,” or “cannot” need to be analyzed just as much as “necessary” and “impossible.”

In everyday use, the word “necessary” is a relative term. To say that something is necessary is to say that it is (or will be) regardless of any supposed opposition to its existence. This is the same as saying that it is impossible for the thing not to exist. But the word “impossible” is also a relative term, referring to an effort to make something happen which turns out to be insufficient to bring it to pass. “Irresistible” is another relative term referring to a resistance made against some force or power which is insufficient to withstand the power or hinder its effect. Necessity and Impossibility imply something that frustrates endeavor or desire. Note the following.

1. Things are necessary in general if they exist or will come to pass regardless of any opposition. A thing is necessary to us if it exists or will come to pass regardless of any opposition from us.

2. Terms such as “necessary,” “impossible,” etc. are most appropriate to discussion about liberty and moral agency (in the sense just described of a thing being necessary/impossible to us regardless of any possible opposition by us).


Impossible triangle

3. In common usage, “necessity” is a relative term that always supposes some sort of opposition. So when we say something is necessary to us, we mean in relation to some opposition of our Wills, or some effort of ours to the contrary. The only sense in which we can say we make opposition to an event is in our voluntary opposition to it. Something is necessary as to us when, even if we do not want it or do not act to prevent it, the thing is or will be anyway. Our opposition is the opposition our wills (or implies as much).

It is plain that other similar words and phrases are commonly understood the same way. We say that something is impossible for us if we want it or try to make it happen, but our desires and efforts are or would be to no avail. We call something irresistible when all our opposition or efforts to the contrary are overcome. We say we are unable to do something when “our supposable desires and endeavors are insufficient.”

We grow up having learned to understand all of these terms as having a strong connection “to a supposed will, desire, and endeavor of ours.” The connection is so strong that they can never be separated. Certainly, all of these words can be used as terms of art, but unless we are very careful we will unconsciously slide back into the common usage of these words and we will apply them inconsistently in our line of reasoning, “even when we pretend to use them as terms of art.”

4. Therefore, when words such as “necessary,” “impossible,” “irresistible,” etc. are used in cases that do not suppose an insufficient will, they are not being used according to their proper meaning. To use them in such cases is to use them nonsensically. An example of this misuse would be as follows: it is necessary for a man to choose virtue rather than vice during the time that he prefers virtue to vice; and it is impossible for him not to have this choice “so long as this choice continues.” In this example, the words “necessary,” “impossible,” etc. are used either with insignificance or outside their usual sense. Their common meaning (as discussed above) refers to some kind of unwillingness or resistance, but here those things are excluded, “for the case supposed is that of being willing, and choosing.”

5. Thus, it appears that philosophers use words like “necessary” or “impossible” differently from the way they are used in everyday speech, by applying them to cases in which there is no supposable opposition. They use them “with respect to God’s existence before the creation of the world, when there was no other being.” They use them in the context of God’s loving himself, his loving righteousness, or his hating sin. They apply them to the actions of “created intelligent beings,” even in cases where it is supposed that “all opposition of the Will is excluded.”

“Metaphysical or philosophical Necessity is nothing different from their certainty.” By “certainty” I refer to “the certainty that is in things themselves” rather than to a “certainty of knowledge.” It is the former that provides the foundation for the latter.

Philosophical necessity is sometimes defined as “where by it cannot be otherwise.” This is a faulty definition for two reasons. First, the words “can” and “cannot” need just as much explanation as the word “necessity.” So if someone asks us what we mean by saying “it cannot be otherwise,” we might explain by saying “it must necessarily be so.” Second, “this definition is liable to the fore-mentioned great inconvenience.” The words “cannot” or “unable” are relative–they are connected to a power that is or may be exerted “in order to the thing spoken of.” But as already noted, philosophers do not use the word “necessity” in that way.

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What Influences the Mind to Choose? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2c)

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The previous post in this series ended as follows: “Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas.”

I. The nature and circumstances of the object. This may be whether the object, viewing it as it is in itself, appears beautiful and pleasant or deformed and irksome to the mind. It includes the apparent degree of pleasure or trouble resulting from the object (or its consequences). These must be viewed as parts of the object as it appears to the mind’s view of a proposed choice. Lastly, with respect to the nature and circumstances of the object, are the apparent state of pleasure or trouble as they appear across a span of time. All things being equal, the mind will choose a present pleasure rather than one at some point in the future. The nearness in time is a circumstance of the object by which it appears more pleasing than the alternative.

II. The manner of view. The degree of apparent pleasure is an influence, but so is the manner of view. Consider two ways that this bears on an object that is connected with future pleasure. First, think about the degree to which the mind believes the pleasure to be in the future. Certain happiness is more pleasing than uncertain. All things being equal, a mere probable pleasure will be chosen over a less probable one. Second, consider how well the mind grasps a future pleasure. We have a clearer understanding of some things rather than others. For instance, the things we can immediately sense are usually more lively in our minds that things we can only imagine. “My idea of the sun when I look upon it is more vivid, than when I only think of it.” Our idea of the sweetness of a fruit tends to be stronger when eating it than when we only imagine it. Still, sometimes our ideas of things that we can only think about are stronger than at others times. This strength of an idea is one thing that greatly affects the mind in acts of volition. When one must choose between two future pleasures, the one that is more vivid to the mind will be chosen even if both options are otherwise considered the same and equally certain. Therefore, if one is presented with several future enjoyments, each with varying degrees of apparent enjoyment and probability then, all things being equal, the agreeableness of a particular option will be a combination of all those factors along with the strength of the idea of that thing to the mind.

In addition, one’s state of mind in viewing a choice contributes to the agreeableness or disagreeableness of that choice. This includes the mind’s natural temper as well as modes of thinking developed by education, custom, or some other means. A choice may seem less pleasing to one person, but not to another. Similarly, the same choice might not always appear agreeable even to the same person. Some find satisfaction in following reason, while others follow their appetites or passions. Some find it more pleasing to “deny avaricious inclination than to gratify it,” but others prefer “to gratify the vilest appetites.” These are just a few examples, among many possible others, of how different things will be most pleasing not only to different people, but also to the same people at different times.

Perhaps, however, we do not really need to distinguish between the “state of mind” and the apparent nature and circumstances of the object or the manner of view. Strictly speaking, we might say that a different state of mind only alters the agreeableness of a choice by altering how the nature and circumstances of the object appear or by changing the manner of view of an object to be stronger or weaker. However, I think it is safe to say that volition always consists of the greatest apparent good (as already explained). All things considered, the mind will always choose the thing that appears most pleasing, given the direct and immediate object of decision. If the immediate object of one’s will is his own actions, then he wills the actions that appear most agreeable to him. If, at this moment, it is most pleasing to him to walk (or speak or remain silent) then he now will to walk (or speak or remain silent). If the experience of humanity has shown us anything that is obvious and universal, it is certainly that “when men act voluntarily, and do what they please, then they do what suits them best, or what is most agreeable to them. To say, that they do what pleases them, but yet not what is agreeable to them, is the same thing as to say, they do what they please, but do not act their pleasure; and that is to say, that they do what they please and yet do not what they please.”


Thus, in a sense it appears that “the will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.” “Understanding” must be defined broadly: it includes not simply reason or judgment, but rather “the whole faculty of perception or apprehension.” It would not be true to say that the Will always follows the last dictate of understanding, if we define the understanding to include only “what reason declares to be best.” This is a different matter from the thing that now appears most agreeable in light of all the factors that combine to form the mind’s present perception of a thing. The dictate of reason certainly plays a role in the combination of influences which move the Will. Indeed, reason ought to be taken into account “in estimating the degree the degree of that appearance of good which the Will always follows.” Reason may be consistent with other factors or it may fall on the other side of the scale, “resisting the influence of other things.” However, reason may sometimes be overcome by the greater weight of other factors, resulting in an act of the Will that “is determined in opposition to it.”

I hope the preceding discussion has illustrated and confirmed the assertion  I made at the beginning of this section [i.e., Section 2): the Will is always determined by the strongest motive. This is a crucial point to establish as the basis for the rest of the discussion. I hope the truth of it will be clear “before I have finished what I have to say on the subject of human liberty.”

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We Choose According to the Greatest Apparent Good (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2b)

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We must take note of two things to get a good grasp on the idea that the will and the apparent greatest good always coincide.

1. First, in saying “good” I mean “agreeable. What I call “appearing good to the mind” is that which seems pleasing to the mind. Certainly, if something appears disagreeable or even bad, it would not tend to engage the mind’s inclination or choice (and so also with something that appears indifferent, i.e., neither agreeable no disagreeable). If anything tends to move the Will it can only be because that thing appears to suit the mind. To say otherwise would be a direct and plain contradiction.

“Good” also means avoiding or removing things that are disagreeable, uneasy or evil. The removal of uneasiness is in itself please and agreeable. This is what Mr. Locke believes to determine the will. When he says that “uneasiness” determine the will, this can only mean that the aim that controls that act or preference is the avoidance or removal of uneasiness. That would be the same as choosing what is easier.


2. When I say that the will and the greatest apparent good always coincide, I am talking only about the immediate object of the act of volition, rather than some object that is only indirectly or remotely related to that act. Many volitional acts bear some remote connection to a goal or object that is different from the thing presently chosen. For example when a “drunkard” has a drink in front of him, the immediate objects are simply whether to drink it or leave it alone. If he chooses to drink it then that choice was more pleasing to him than to leave it alone.

There are, of course, objects to which that drunkard’s action are connected more indirectly and remotely: the present enjoyment he believes he will get from taking a drink and the future misery he believes will result from his drinking. He might decide that the future misery will be more unpleasant than it would be, at the moment, to abstain from drinking. However, neither of those two things is the object about which this discussion is concerned. The act of Will I am referring to concerns only present drinking or refusing to drink. Whether he choose to drink or abstain, that choice is the immediate object of his Will. If he chooses a present pleasure rather than a future advantage (to drink rather than avoid future misery), then we can say that that less present pleasure appears more pleasing to him than a future advantage at a distance. On the contrary, if he chooses a future advantage, then that is what suits him best. In either case, the present volition and the greatest apparent good coincide.

I have chosen to say that “the Will always is as the greatest apparent good” rather than “the Will is determined by the greatest apparent good” because I see very little distinction between the mind’s preferring and the appearance of being most agreeable to the mind. Strictly speaking it may be more precise to say that the voluntary action produced by the mind’s choice is determined by whatever appears most agreeable rather than the choice itself. But volition is always determined by those influences on the mind that cause it to appear most agreeable. Those influences include not merely the object itself, but also the manner in which it is viewed as well as the state and circumstances of the mind viewing it. Listing everything that influences the mind in its perception of something as pleasing would probably require its own book. Rather than do that, I will outline some general ideas [N.B.: in the next post].

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On Freedom of the Will (Part I, Section 1)

In the American theological tradition, there is perhaps no greater mind than that of Jonathan Edwards. Among his many writings, Freedom of the Will is considered to be one of both his best and most important works. The editor of Yale’s collection of the works of Jonathan Edwards wrote that “This book alone is sufficient to establish its author as the greatest philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene.” More recently, John Piper has called it “probably the greatest defense and explanation of the Augustinian-Reformed view of the will.”

That it is a work that deserves the attention of serious students of the Bible and Christian theology seems obvious. For many, however, reading it is likely to be a significant undertaking (and I include myself in that number). Aside from the fact that Edwards was a bona fide intellectual giant, the style of writing employed in the 18th century makes parts of the book difficult to follow for today’s readers. Because it is a work that I want to understand and because I think others would benefit from grappling with Edwards’ ideas too, I plan to attempt to summarize, paraphrase, and “translate” his work into a form that might, I hope, prove to be more easily understandable for today’s Christian. There are resources out there for that purpose, but I look forward to the benefit to me, personally, that is sure to come from the exercise of trying to put his ideas into my own words.



I’ll attempt to go through his work one section at a time, keeping his section titles. I don’t intend to make this a word-for-word reworking of his writing, but I will try to follow his structure thought-by-thought as much as possible. I will also try to retain Edwards’ use of personal pronouns and capitalization to the extent that doing so won’t be confusing or obscure the argument. I’ll include an index to all the posts in this series at the end of this post. My hope is that I can summarize Edwards’ thoughts accurately, making them more accessible to my fellow Christians, and in the process come to a deeper understanding of these ideas for myself.



Section 1. Concerning the Nature of the Will

Defining  the Will might seem unnecessary because the Will can be understood just as easily as any other words we could use to explain the concept. On this topic, however, the waters have been muddied, so the rest of the discussion will be much clearer if we start by defining our terms. “The will,” says Edwards, “is that by which the mind chooses anything.” Therefore, to say that something is an act of the will is the same as saying that it is an act of choosing or a choice.

One might think that a more complete definition would be that the Will is how the soul chooses or refuses. I could accept that definition, but I think it is enough to say the Will is how the soul chooses. I say that because in every act of will we choose one thing instead of something else; we choose either something or “not-something.” So by refusing we are actually choosing to have the absence of that same thing. Put differently, a voluntary act of the soul is always an elective act, a choice.

Mr. Locke wrote that while “preferring” is the best way to describe the idea of volition, even that is imprecise, because one might prefer flying to walking , but we would never say that a person wills it. This example, however, fails to show that “preferring” is an incomplete description of willing something. Whether it’s walking or any other external action, we must consider what the present goal of the will is. The goal is not getting from Point A to Point B regardless of whether we do so on the ground or through the air. Those preferences are far removed goals, but the immediate goal or purpose of the will is simply the present physical action. When we choose to walk, our first choice (or preference) is not whether we would rather be at Point B instead of Point A; our first choice is whether to make our legs and feet start moving in the direction we ultimately want to go. Willing the body to move right now is nothing but choosing or preferring that the body move right now, or liking movement better than standing still. Because of the way that God made us, our souls are so united with our bodies that the instant our soul chooses to move or change the position of our bodies, it happens. When we walk, our only conscious act is the choice to walk; we expect that our feet and legs will obey because of our experience. The same cannot be said of flying: someone might say that he chooses to fly, but in reality he cannot choose to actually do the things that would make flight possible. A rational person has no reason to think that he can fly under his own power; he knows from his experience that any attempt to fly under his own power would be useless. Therefore, if we properly distinguish between various objects of the will, it seems clear that there is no distinction between volition and preference.

Locke also says that the Will is completely distinct from desire; in one action his desire might be at odds with what his will directs him toward in that same action. For instance, says Locke, I might feel compelled by someone to try to persuade another person, despite the fact that I do not really want him to be persuaded by my words. In that case, he says, the Will and Desire contradict each other. However, I do not think that Will and Desire are so distinct that they can ever be truly contradictory. No one ever wills what he does not desire or desires something against his will nor does Locke’s example prove otherwise. There is some reason why Locke chooses (wills) to say certain words; that reason (whatever it is) influences him not to desire the contrary. In the end, he chooses to speak  and does not desire not to say those things. So the thing Locke says he desires–that his words will fail to persuade this other person–is not contrary to what he wills. He does not will that his words will be effective, but rather wills that they be ineffective and that is precisely what he says he desires.

To prove that Will and Desire may be contradictory Locke would have to show that they contradict each other in the same object of Will or Desire. However, in his example there are two objects. Looking at each of those objects separately, there is no contradiction between Will and Desire. Of course, they may contradict one another on separate topics (even if the separation is small). The Will might differ from the Will when it comes to different things (and likewise for Desire). This is the case even in Locke’s example: a person might have some reason to desire using words of persuasion at the same time that he desires those words will not succeed in persuading. In that situation, however, no one would say that Desire contradicts Desire nor would anyone count this as proof that Desire is something completely distinct from Desire.

Regardless of whether Desire and Will or Preference and Volition are exactly the same, I hope we can agree that in every act of Will there is an act of choice. Therefore, in every act of the Will, the mind or soul, prefers one thing to another or prefers the presence of something to its absence. In addition, in the complete absence of any choice or preference (in a state of perfect equilibrium) there is no volition.

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