John Howard

People are still confused about Free Will and how it relates to morality, God, consciousness, and society. This is unfortunate, since Jonathan Edwards had it all figured out 300 years ago, as a twelve year old in the western frontier town of Windsor on the Connecticut River. He took in the Puritan Calvinism preached by his father, the brand new philosophies of Locke and laws of Newton, his own careful studies of natural phenomena and beauty in the wilderness, and probably some Indian spiritual beliefs as well, and combined them into a very modern philosophy based on abiding dispositions, ideas, appearances and expectations. But his early notes were put aside when Edwards was pressed into service, first studying at, then running Yale for a few years, and then, age 24, picked to replace his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, the powerful pastor of Northampton. Stoddard prided himself in bringing people to the church in "harvests" every few years, even if it meant relaxing the rules about church membership and causing a huge theological rift with the old guard back in Boston. But his "Halfway Covenant" was popular and Stoddard was revered in Northampton, so Edwards kept it in place, and kept his thinking under wraps too.

Edwards allowed his early understanding to show through in his sermons and books just enough to be filled in later by philosophers (see especially The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards by Sang Hyun Lee, 1988, The Visibility of God by James Carse, 1967) but not too much to worry the traditional Puritan leaders back in Boston and Harvard, and also not too much to betray his Grandfather's legacy or upset the townspeople who paid his salary in Northampton expecting him to carry on the Halfway Covenant liberal membership policy. For the first twenty years he carried on the job of harvesting souls with unprecedented success, sparking the Great Awakenings, in 1735 and 1741, when taverns were empty and church pews were full all over America. But just a few years later, across the globe and in Northampton, the piety receded and Edwards began to reproach the town for laxity and self-righteousness, for land-grabbing and lack of charity, and then children passing around an illustrated midwifing book, and finally caused a revolt by ending the Halfway Covenant and trying to return to the original Puritan practice of requiring a profession of faith to join the church.

Instead of agreeing with their esteemed pastor, Northampton voted to get rid of him in 1751. By that time the Great Awakenings had become embarrassing memories, and the Reformation principles as expressed in Luther's Bondage of the Will and Calvin's Institutes and brought to America by the Pilgrims and taught at Harvard College, were yielding to American self reliance and tolerance and Arminianism, the belief in free will, specifically that God's grace is resistible and men may choose it or not choose it. Edwards, now writing feverishly (literally and figuratively) at his six-sided rotating desk from his forced exile in Stockbridge, tried to warn how the modern belief in free will was wrong was in "An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame" in 1754, but it was so long and painstakingly argued that it was all but ignored by a country all too ready to declare Edwards "The Last Puritan" and allow Free Will and self reliance to form America into the moralistic, disrespectful, anti-social, manifest destiny, prosperous nation it would soon become. He wrote one or two more important books, but just as he was beginning to collect his thoughts into a summation he provisionally entitled "A Rational Account of the Main Doctrines of the Christian Religion Attempted" he died of a small pox inoculation.

To Edwards and the Puritans, belief in Free Will was tantamount to atheism, an insult to God, because it was a belief that God wasn't really in charge, that humans make our choices and God then deals with them. But Arminians thought that Calvinism's Determinism made God into a machine that was itself tantamount to atheism, and made God the author of sin, and that was an insult to God. We can see who won the battle, because today "determinism" is now almost synonymous with atheism, and Arminianism is now synonymous with religion.

Sam Harris, a modern famous atheist writer, presents a much shorter refutation of free will in his 2012 book Free Will, and, as many do, attributes the belief in free will to religion. That shows how completely Arminianism has taken over Christianity—now people don't even remember the vanquished Puritans didn't believe in a free will either, and fought it tooth and nail. Edwards is not even mentioned in Harris' book, but Harris and Edwards both come to the same logical conclusion: "free will" is an illusion. We can feel our mind assessing all of its inputs and making a decision, and that decision is ours and feels free, but is actually made by all the inputs which have formed our mind into its unique character and beliefs and dispositions and habits. We can't suddenly change to have a different personality with a different will. That way leads to an infinite regress. There was never a time when anyone's mind had control over its character or desire. Even if the mind was ever a blank slate, it had no control over what first entered it and began to give it its character and sense of being a unique individual, with habits and personality that are its own. It is always its own unique mind with its own will, but everything that forms it comes from outside it.

Where Sam Harris and Edwards differ is where they believe those outside influences and ideas come from. Harris is a materialist who believes that "outside" means the material world, the atoms and forces of the physical universe that have caromed around since the Big Bang, while Edwards was an idealist* who believed that the sense ideas and experience come from God, and the material world is believed into physical existence, projected out from everyone's consciousnesses which are tuned into God like radios all tuned into the same station and so constantly creating a shared physical reality, an "external world" that is absolutely real, like it is expected to be. To Harris, the universe would continue to exist even if there were no consciousnesses alive in it, just as it did before consciousness developed somehow from the matter. But Edwards (and modern physicists, especially John Archibald Wheeler) would say that the universe requires consciousnesses in it to actually exist physically. If all of the consciousness in the universe died, God would still exist, but the physical world would stop existing.

* Perry Miller refuted that Edwards was an Idealist, saying it was merely a hip thing to say after the teenage "Notes on the Mind" was published in 1830. It is true that Edwards did not go as far as Idealists in making a big point that the external world does not "really exist" and is only a figment of imagination. It is true Edwards said the material world is fully real, that "Things are where they seem to be" and that we may speak of reality "in the old way, and as properly, and truly as ever." But he refers to "the old way" because he saw the new way of speaking, informed by Locke and Newton, was more abstractly true, but also more confusing and unnecessary. He feared the new "way of expressing will lead us into a thousand difficulties and perplexities." So for practical purposes, he declared that it makes no difference to us, or to "any end that we can suppose was proposed by the Creator, as if the Material Universe were existent in the same manner as is vulgarly thought." However, he did not anticipate, and perhaps neither did Miller writing in 1949, that the seed of Arminian free will would take firm root in that vulgar Material Universe and grow into actual atheists like Sam Harris who would not only think in the "old way" but would go so far as to deny a Creator and humanity's divine constitution completely. Edwards, like Miller after him, was too practical and wary of sounding too "metaphysical" to his conservative critics. In so doing, he not only lost the battle against Arminianism that he was losing anyway, but paved the way for atheism and allowed Scientific Determinism to claim logic and science from Calvinism. Perhaps we are coming full circle, as Harris' book makes a convincing case against free will and Arminianism, and a very Puritan case for moral responsibility and working within nature rather than trying to elevate humanity above nature and controlling it.

Here is Harris in Free Will:

Even if you have struggled to make the most of what nature gave you, you must still admit that your ability and inclination to struggle is part of your inheritance. How much credit does a person deserve for not being lazy? None at all. Laziness, like diligence, is a neurological condition. Of course, conservatives are right to think we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefit to society. But this does not mean we must be taken in by the illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and people can change. We do not change ourselves, precisely—because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing—but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. It may seem paradoxical to hold people responsible for what happens in their corner of the universe, but once we break the spell off free will, we can do this precisely to the degree that it is useful. Where people can change, we can demand that they do so. Where change is impossible, or unresponsive to demands, we can chart some other course. In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.

By "nothing but nature" Harris probably means there is no God to work with, no higher power to beseech to intervene. But even though Edwards believed there was a God, Edwards also believed God didn't intervene and there was nothing but nature for us to work with, because we were within nature ourselves, not above it. And we can each work with the forces of nature only from our fixed, determined place in it. Arminianism's sin, which was the original sin, is thinking of man as apart from nature, rather than a part of it. Thinking we can reach from above into the rushing stream of nature and divert it before it gets to us, refusing to accept that we are already swimming in it.

Edwards saw nature not as the material universe, but as the divine laws, dispositions, habits, tendencies and patterns, that create nature, by consciousness. And people are created from that same substance of dispositions and habits and tendencies, as part of nature, subject to the same physical laws.

Another word we can use in place of "habits, dispositions, etc" is Expectation. A disposition is an expectation of future behavior, a pattern follows an expected sequence, laws are expectations too. Expectation is what comes first and actually causes the existence of both the subject and object. "Expectation" could be also be another word for the "Quality" in Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics Of Quality, in that both words describe the pre-conscious event that creates both the subject and object. It could also be another word for the "Word" of Genesis that was in the Beginning and came before everything, since words are expectations, of whatever we think they mean. Expectations exist independently of subject and object, as patterns or habits or dispositions, which comprise the mind like God in Edwards' ontology. The word Quality is too static (adding a "Dynamic Quality" doesn't quite fix it). "Expectation" better conveys a sense of time passing, and the imperative of it happening, and better conveys that the subject and object are created from the same event that happens abstractly, in a mental, conscious realm, creating the subject and object materially. Expectation implies a snap-to-it imperative that time is always passing from future to past, things that are expected to happen soon happen, most of the time.

The expected future that will become the present is entirely a product of the past, because expectations are formed from respect for experience ("respect" is to look to the past, "expect" is to look to the future). The creative force of Expectation is the inseparability of the two meanings: it describes what is desired and demanded, and also it makes a dry prediction. The key is that they are the same thing, even if we don't always desire what is expected, and even if we don't appreciate what is respected. When we try to separate the two meanings, by refusing to respect something that happened if we didn't like it, and refusing to see the good in a bad thing happening as expected, we are making the same Arminian mistake of separating ourselves from nature and judging God. But if we don't make that mistake, and we understand that expectation is what becomes reality, then we see the only alternative, if we want a good life that comports with our values, is we just have to truly expect it. If we expect good things, good things will become real, but we don't have the free will to expect just anything, and we have to work within nature.

Our expectations are formed by our respect of nature, that is, by looking back at history we create a present that is a continuity of it, or more precisely, they aren't "our expectations" but God's expectations for each of us, which form both conscious subjective experience and the objects being experienced, continuing a reality that a continuity of each of us, and the rest of nature. We can't know exactly what to expect because God is the author of each new expectation, we can only expect what to expect. Sometimes our expectations change at the very last instant, to merge with everyone else. The present always was the most recent expectation our minds had, even if a split second before we expected something else. But we can only expect what we expect, we can't just expect whatever we want to expect, just like our wills. Our expectation and our will are both just out of our grasp, we can't control them, just like we can't believe something we don't believe, and we find out what we truly believed, willed, and expected after the fact, they all merge into reality, which is expectations of the future.

Edwards and Harris both made the same airtight logical arguments against free will and explained how the belief harmed society. They were both responding to the objection that without free will, people have no dignity and cannot be held responsible for their actions, and they'll succumb to apathy and irresponsibility. And they both made airtight cases that really the opposite is true. Yes, people sometimes use determinism as an excuse for apathy or crime, saying it was society's fault or God's will. And they are right about that, their apathy is God's will and they can't help it, but that doesn't mean they aren't jerks, in fact only a jerk would say that lack of free will excuses anyone from judgement. Determinism doesn't absolve people from responsibility or punishment, because it is still them that committed the crime. The owner of the flawed character deserves punishment, but society and God are responsible too. Saying only that criminals are responsible for their own actions is a way to shirk our own responsibility and justify our selfish isolation and carelessness. It wasn't us that robbed the bank or hurt someone, but it didn't happen randomly, it happened because of prior causes. Things other people did led to it, directly and indirectly. But wondering what might have caused a person to commit a crime can offend victims and gives too much comfort to the criminal, so we rightly blame and shame on the criminal by saying they had the free will to stop, in spite of their influences, and not commit their crime. That's okay, but it's also not true. If they could have stopped, they would have stopped, just like all the people who didn't commit a crime couldn't have committed a crime. But they aren't heroes for not committing a crime. Things had to happen exactly the way they happened, there can be only one reality, and it is created merging expectations for the greatest happiness and excellency, and so the cause of bad character expands to everyone, the whole race.

Most of the Ten Commandments are really just statements about what to expect: "You probably won't kill anyone, you probably won't steal, you probably won't commit adultery." That's just the fact. They aren't just saying that it's wrong to do these things so don't do them, they are telling us that we don't do those things, so it is wrong to do them. The imperative to do what is expected, the "moral" part, is rooted in expectation itself, at its most basic. Good is the result of expectation becoming real, even when it isn't what we wanted.

JOHN HOWARD lives in Medford, Massachusetts.