Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Note on Free Will

At the beginning of The Freedom of the Will, Jonathan Edwards mentions that the will is a concept taken for granted by most people. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that needs a lot of rigorous thinking in order to understand. But since philosophers have said so much about it, he feels compelled to make his own contribution to the topic.

I’d like to mention something else along those lines: Arminians often take the term “free will” for granted, as if it’s clear to everyone what that means. But I think the notion of free will is actually quite nebulous, and difficult to define on its own terms. I say this because free will is so often defined with reference to determinism. That’s curious to me. It’s as if definitions of free will depend on a counter notion of determinism.

To illustrate, let’s look at a few basic definitions of free will. I realize that some of these aren’t from philosophically sophisticated sources, but I think they still represent the standard way in which most people would define free will. This first one is from
Free will: “the doctrine that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.”
If this definition were limited to only the first half, then Calvinists could accept such a notion of free will: “the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice.” But then the definition goes on to further define free will in a way that explicitly precludes any notion of determinism: “and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.”

Here’s another definition from The Oxford Dictionary of English:
Free will: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion”
We can say basically the exact same things about this definition of free will. Calvinists could agree with one half: “the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” But the other half explicitly precludes determinism: “acting without the constraint of necessity or fate” (or providence, we might add).

Now look at a definition from a source that is more philosophical in nature – William Reese’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion:
Freedom: “The quality of not being constrained by fate, necessity, or circumstance in one’s decisions and actions.”
Wow. Here’s a definition that is totally dependent on determinism. Freedom might as well have been defined as “the thing that makes all forms of determinism not true.” Isn’t this a little bit odd? Why is it that free will must be defined with reference to determinism, rather than on its own terms? Can it be adequately defined any other way? If this kind of definition is insisted on, it means that when a person says “I believe in free will” all they’re really saying is “I don’t believe in determinism.” They’re not positively affirming anything; they’re just denying something else.

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