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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jonathan Edwards, A Gross Misrepresentation

In Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian, edited by Paul Helm and Oliver Crisp we find the following quote:

On Edwards understanding, a conditional analysis is in the offering here. “I can A” is always “I can A, if I choose,” which in turn goes to “If I choose to A, I will A.” So to say I can lift this rock is to say that if I choose or will to lift it, I will lift it. So far, so good, perhaps. But if responsible freedom belongs to the operations of will as well as to overt action it must also be the case that I can choose to A, and – to turn Edwards’s own argument against him – there the analysis clearly doesn’t work. We get, “If I choose to choose to lift this rock, then I will choose to lift it,” which is completely implausible, and leads to a regress. We can improve things somewhat if we ignore Edwards’ failure to distinguish choice from prevailing desire, so that “I can choose to lift this rock” becomes, “If my strongest desire is to lift this rock, then I will choose to do so.” But this really isn’t plausible either. For one thing, there are many situations in which we think the exercise is actually impaired by the strongest desire – for example, when the agent suffers addiction or psychological compulsion, or is affected by post-hypnotic suggestion. Such cases deserve special treatment, but surely if determinism were true we should not consider the freedom of such agents to be impaired, since certainly their decisions would be different if they were not afflicted by compelling motives. So it doesn’t work in this case to submit the concept of freedom to conditional analysis. And why should it, after all? This analysis treats the will as thought it were imprisoned in the natural order – as thought its operations were no more spontaneous, and finally of no greater moral interest, than those of our house pets. Why should we expect this to be our concept of freedom, if the phenomenology of willing is entirely opposite?
I'll interact with the post in small bites. 

What, then, shall we say about the formula according to which such freedom comes to nothing more than the ability to act differently if we please, or if we will? On Edwards understanding, a conditional analysis is in the offering here. “I can A” is always “I can A, if I choose,”

Edwards does not utter a word such as “can” without enormous qualification, for one reason because of the vulgar-language baggage that comes with such a word. These qualifications that are embedded throughout Edwards’s writings are a deterrent for most people to try to muscle through Edwards’s view of the will, or any other treatment of his, which spanned a vast multitude of subjects. But in any case, given such a broad-brush portrayal of Edwards view of the will in light of conditional analysis, it can safely be said that “I can A, if I choose” can only mean for Edwards that “I can A, only if my strongest inclination at the moment of choice is to A.” Also, “I can” must presuppose no external prohibitor, for “can” in this discussion is not a matter of natural ability (a common use of the term, hence Edwards’s qualifications) but rather must be thought of as metaphysical claim that also implies “I cannot A, unless I’m inclined to A.” (I can grab a taco, only if my strongest inclination at the moment of choice is to grab a taco.)


“I can A, if I choose,” which in turn goes to “If I choose to A, I will A.” So to say I can lift this rock is to say that if I choose or will to lift it, I will lift it. So far, so good, perhaps.

Given the terms being employed, the statement, again - if it is to reflect Edwards’s thought, must mean “If my strongest inclination at the moment of choice is to lift the rock, then I will lift the rock.” It is most equivocal to use “will” in two different ways in the same sentence, and to equate “choose” with “will”, especially without explication, is hazardous. It’s doubly criminal to do so when trying to critique another person’s view, especially one who was hyper-careful in this regard.

But if responsible freedom belongs to the operations of will as well as to overt action it must also be the case that I can choose to A, and – to turn Edwards’s own argument against him – there the analysis clearly doesn’t work. We get, “If I choose to choose to lift this rock, then I will choose to lift it,” which is completely implausible, and leads to a regress.

The interpretation of Edwards that leads to “If I choose to choose to lift this rock, then I will choose to lift it,” is based upon a gross imprecision having to do with the tagging of terms. Anyone even half-way acquainted with Edwards appreciates that he denies that one ever chooses his inclinations, and that his argument against such an Arminian implication took the form of a  reductio that led his opponent into that very problem of regress. So only a reckless (or malicious) interpretation of Edwards can construe that Edwards's arguments implied such a thing. In fact had his arguments been so blatantly flawed, one would expect such gross inconsistency to have been observed and exposed even moments after he penned such notions. But the reason that didn't happen is not because the philosophers of his day didn't see the inconsistency; rather, the inconsistency was not there to be seen, for the inconsistency is based upon a formulation that is not Edwards's. At the very least, I know of no person who claims to be Edwardsian that holds to that supposed formulation of Edwards's view of the will, which in turn leads to inconsistency. The contributors for JEPT have erected a classic straw man by employing equivocal terms, and then knocked it down. Again though, given the terms being employed, the statement, if it is to reflect Edwards’s thought at all, may only be taken to mean, “If my strongest desire / inclination at the moment of choice is to lift the rock, then I will lift the rock,” which does not imply a position that under analysis implies regress, let alone an internal contradiction within Edwards's own view.

We can improve things somewhat if we ignore Edwards’ failure to distinguish choice from prevailing desire, so that “I can choose to lift this rock” becomes, “If my strongest desire is to lift this rock, then I will choose to do so.”

Edwards’s failure to distinguish choice from prevailing desire?! Is there anyone in the history of the world who spent more time defining and distinguishing ideas such as desire and choice? Not only did Edwards do so; he did so ad nauseum.

But this really isn’t plausible either. For one thing, there are many situations in which we think the exercise is actually impaired by the strongest desire – for example, when the agent suffers addiction or psychological compulsion, or is affected by post-hypnotic suggestion.

That remark is even more obviously confused. Granting any one or combination of such effects on inclination, the simple response is that when one’s inclination is altered, the consequent-action still follows an antecedental inclination. Indeed, the inclination that might have otherwise been present apart from such factors is no longer present, but that does not undermine the plausibility of the thesis as it narrowly pertains to the mechanics of the will. It can only lend implausibilty to the question of responsibility, though it doesn't. 

Now we’ll turn to the driving emotive force behind the attempt to make much out of impaired thinking. 

Such cases deserve special treatment, but surely if determinism were true we should not consider the freedom of such agents to be impaired, since certainly their decisions would be different if they were not afflicted by compelling motives.

Determinism does not rule out an impaired mind, let alone inclinations that can be altered to something other than what they might have been apart from alteration.

So it doesn’t work in this case to submit the concept of freedom to conditional analysis. And why should it, after all? This analysis treats the will as thought it were imprisoned in the natural order – as thought its operations were no more spontaneous, and finally of no greater moral interest, than those of our house pets. Why should we expect this to be our concept of freedom, if the phenomenology of willing is entirely opposite?

Spontaneity, properly understood, is not undermined by conditional analysis that is true to the position in question. Emotive phrases such as “imprisoned in the natural order” have little value in a discussion such as this, but I suppose they can be deemed necessary when there's not much more to be said. Regarding mind-alteration as it applies to moral responsibility, maybe the contributors hadn't considered that responsibility need not imply potential for guilt, though it usually does.

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7 comments:

john_wesley1 said...

I was watching you on Greenbaggins and then I found this on your blog by linking to the label on probability. It was written by Dr. Peterson at Drexel.

http://reformedapologist.blogspot.com/2008/08/sometimes-we-do-agree.html

"I fully agree that this problem is quite often presented in ways that do not really yield the supposed answer of 2/3 -- perhaps even on our site. Very likely some teachers or authors see the problem as a good one to share students up, but when they present it they either don't quite understand it themselves, or they are trying to oversimplify it, and the result is that they convince a lot of students that math is nonsense."

At least the good doctor admitted that the profs don't understand their own problems but they present them as facts.

John

Colin said...

Nice handling of the text...What should anyone expect though from these guys? Philosophers and theologians disagree all the time so why should we be surprised that a dead Calvinist theologian and philospher should not be misrepresented fairly in a book that even supports libertarianism? It even says that if compatibilism is correct then it should be just as easy to get someone to believe a contradiction as it would be to get them to believe compatibilism is correct. These guys are absolute idiots. I don't agree with all Edwards says about all things but on this matter this book does not touch his form of compatibilism.

Colin said...

I meant "represented fairly"

Reformed Apologist said...

John,

People learn to work problems a certain way but if they don't understand why the problem should be worked that way, then when a subtle distinction is added to the problem they won't see that it changes the manner in which the problem must be worked. Fine distinctions are often overlooked for various reasons, but I think that is one reason. One of the professors actually acknowledged or at least implied if memory serves that the teachers don't always understand what they're teaching. I run into that sort of thing all the time in the area of theology and philosophy. For instance, many historians end up teaching systematics and it ends up being disasterous. It applies to the philosophy realm as well, sometimes more so. People confuse knowing a lot of facts with a working knowledge of the facts.

One last thought - imagine if the professors in the department dismissed my arguments because I don't have a PhD in math? What if they said "nobody does that famous problem that way?" Well, the point is that I was right and most people don't understand the semantics of the problem. In that sense, the philosophy department has something to say to the math department.

Reformed Apologist said...

Colin,

They're not idiots. They're just wrong (for some reason).

Colin said...

Yes you're right. My problem is that certain people have an obvious axe to grind and they don't know the historical arguments from within.

Any trips to the UK scheduled anytime in the future?

Reformed Apologist said...

The problem is, they let libertarian Hugh J. McCann write on Edwards' metaphysics! Shame on the editors! Another scholarly work on Edwards, buried in a footnote on page 300 something, criticized this very argument that McCann advanced.