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Argumentative Essays: Give me Liberty or Give me Death - Part II

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Edwards’s core premise in argument against Arminian free will

Edwards’ reasoning depends on a premise: that the faculty or power of will determines an act of volition. If such a premise is accepted, the consequence Edwards points out seems more or less unavoidable. In other words, determining choice requires something like an act of will. Thus the only way to avoid this consequence is to find some flaw in the premise. Now the precise wording of the premise indicates that the faculty or power of will determines an act of choice (Golf, 1998). 

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Affirming that the will determines acts of choice makes such acts clearly distinct from the will. After all, if they did not already exist, they would not even have the capacity to be determined. In fact, though, acts of volition occur only through being willed by the will. Thus they do not exist before the will itself acts. For this reason, it makes no sense to speak of them as determined by the will. 

What Edwards says next is meant to deal with another aspect of his argument against Arminian free will: that willing is equivalent to choosing.

Thus he asserts that “in every act of will, there is choice, and a power of willing is a power of choosing” (Edwards, 1997, p. 178). 

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Yet, it is not clear whether the statement that a power of willing is a power of choosing forms a consequence of the statement that there is choice in every act of will or whether the two statements are merely conjunctive. In any case, the statement that a power of willing is a power of choosing does not necessarily follow from the existence of choice in every act of will. With some individuals, for instance, acts of will might mean anxiety or doubt. Yet one would not identify the act of willing for those individuals with either of these emotions (De Prospo, 1999). Similarly, the presence of choice in every act of will might simply be associated with acts of will. However, the possibility of the two statements being similar in meaning poses some questions. A resemblance between the two statements implies that both statements be either true or false. Yet it is difficult to determine whether each of the above statements always holds true (Fiering, 1981). 

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After his discussion of a possible Arminian objection to his argument against free will, Edwards turns to a modified form of the same objection. He imagines the Armenians conceding that to determine an act of choice requires a distinct act, but qualifying their concession by the proviso that the will determines its own volition in the volitional process or even in the very act of volition itself.

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Briefly summarized, Edwards’ reasoning in arguing against Arminianism and promoting his own views of free will can be presented as follows: 

  1. An act of choice is equivalent to a selection among concrete objects of choice.  
  2. But the selection of a particular object of choice cannot be the same as that by which this act of choice itself is determined.  
  3. Thus the determination by which an act of choice is determined requires a preceding act, which Arminians do not recognize (Fiering, 1981).

Refuting himself: the failure to prove the argument against Arminianism

Since an act of choice represents a selection among various concrete choices, any determination of the act of choice itself would have to mean a determination of this selection. But obviously the determination of an act of selection cannot be identical to the act of selection. At the same time, to determine an act of selection distinctly implies an act of some kind. Consequently, if the act of selection or choice is itself determined, the process by which it gets to be determined requires an antecedent act (Golf, 1998)

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In one respect, however, the argument Edwards puts forward here is seriously defective. Its problem is one of circularity: Edwards assumes precisely what he needs to prove. His discussion of the difference between selection of a concrete choice and determination of the act of choice itself implies that the act of choice is invariably determined.

The later portion of his discussion confirms this explicitly: “The question is, what influences, directs, or determines the mind or will to come to such a conclusion or choice as it does? or what is the cause, ground, or reason, why it concludes thus, and not otherwise?” (Edwards, 1997, p. 190)

But in asking how a particular choice is determined, Edwards virtually assumes what he is supposed to prove. If the act of choice is determined, a determining act becomes logically unavoidable. And since this act determines the act of choice, it must be antecedent to such an act. Yet what allows us to assume an act of choice can be determined? (Golf, 1998). 

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In fact, acts of choice should not be determined by anything. At first glance, this may seem somewhat surprising. One of the basic rationalist assumptions, after all, had been that every act has some sort of cause. Similarly, Edwards had assumed that acts of choice necessarily imply some specific reason or cause. But the reason we choose a particular thing is, quite simply, that we prefer or desire it. Of course, various circumstances inevitably affect our choices. Nevertheless, they do not determine them.

On the contrary, if it were possible to explain our choices by means of external influences, any selection we make would no longer represent an act of choice. A genuine act of choice allows us to select something other than what we ultimately choose. Thus if our choice is determined by some antecedent influence or cause, the possibility of other choices does not, in fact, exist.

Conversely, the impossibility of any such determination confirms the proposition Edwards sets out to disprove: that “the exertion of the act [of choice] is the determination of the act,” or that “for the soul to exert a particular volition, is for it to cause and determine that act of volition” (Edwards, 1997, p. 193).  

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The fact that Edwards puts such care on whether acts of choice are determined by antecedent acts of choice underscores the significance of (e). Without (e), an infinite regress is impossible. Instead, what we have in (d) would merely be a special situation. Although the will determines acts of choice by antecedent acts of the same kind, determination of these antecedent acts need not involve still-prior volitional acts. Thus the regress Edwards hopes to create cannot be initiated solely on the basis of (d). Having (e), on the other hand, permits him to formulate something like a general principle. If acts of choice are invariably determined by antecedent acts of the same kind, (d) no longer amounts to a special case. Moreover, if (e) enunciates a general principle, it must apply even to those acts of choice by which other acts of choice are determined. 

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Hence Edwards can describe a situation in which acts of will determine other acts of will that are themselves determined by still-prior volitional acts as true by these principles. If acts of choice are determined by antecedent acts of choice as a general rule, there is no need for him to prove specifically that acts of choice determined by antecedent acts of choice necessitate still-prior acts similarly determined. The universal scope of (e) ensures its relevance to all such acts. Thus a regress becomes possible.

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The act of choice by which another act of choice is determined need not have the same objective as the act that is determined. Instead, the prior act must specifically have the determination of an act of choice as its objective. On the other hand, the act of choice being determined will presumably have its own enactment as its objective. But if the two acts are not identical, there is no reason to believe they necessarily share the same sort of cause. Free non plagiarized essays is not a solution. Buy argumentative essays if you need real help. 


Daniel, Stephen H. (1994), The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 
De Prospo C. (1999), Theism in the Discourse of Jonathan Edwards, Newark: University of Delaware Press. 
Edwards, Jonathan (1997), Freedom of the Will, (ed.) Paul Ramsey. New Haven: Yale University Press - revised edition. 
Faust, Clarence and Thomas Johnson (1998), Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, New York: American Book Co. – revised edition. 
Fiering, Norman (1981), Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 
Goff, Philip (1998), “Revivals and Revolution: Historiographic Turns Since Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind”, Church History 67, 1-12. 
Guelzo, Allen C. (1996), Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate, Wesleyan University Press. 
Hoopes, James (1990), From Puritanism and Ideas to Psychoanalysis and Semiotic, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
Locke, John (1997), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Roger Woolhouse (ed.), New York: Penguin Classics – reprinted edition. 
Miller, Perry and Donald Weber (introduction) (1981), Jonathan Edwards, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.