14 December 2013

Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist Neuroscientist

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Despite the best of intentions, I keep finding myself drawn back into the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding novelist-blogger Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. The core premise — that humans are unable through introspection to understand their own thinking — is undeniable, though I’d regard human self-reflexivity as correctably presbyopic rather than blind. I’m also okay with regarding mind as coextensive with neural activities centered in the brain and distributed throughout the body. And while I believe that people do formulate intentions and act on them, I’m also in agreement that intents, like other natural processes, are the effects of causes. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

While Bakker frames and buttresses his contentions primarily with his interpretation of contemporary neuroscience, the controversy has a long history. When I was back there in seminary school, most of my profs were Calvinists, and so was I. Predicated largely on the Pauline New Testament writings, the core contention of Calvinism can be stated succinctly: the person doesn’t choose God; God chooses the person. And yet isn’t it true that the sinner who comes to God acknowledges his depravity, repents, accepts the salvation freely offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? In other words, doesn’t salvation hinge on the sinner’s intention as an autonomous agent to choose good over evil? Sure, said Calvin, but that intention is the result of God’s grace working in the sinner, causing him to form the necessary intentions leading to his salvation. And that grace is irresistible: he whom God chooses to save will invariably and inevitably make the intentional act of choosing God.

Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards as the author of the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards wasn’t just a motivational speaker; he was also a theologian, and a great one. In his multivolume Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards set out to explain that human intentions and the will to act on them are, like other natural events, the effects of causes and therefore not free. In particular, intentions are shaped by motives, which may conflict with each other. Motives jostle for preference outside of the person’s awareness, with the winner “exciting” volition and shaping the will. Though he doesn’t use the term “unconscious” to describe this internal conflict among motives, that’s what Edwards is talking about.

Educated at Yale and an enthusiastic student of Enlightenment science, Edwards traces a trajectory that leads into contemporary neuroscience. I suppose you could say that, when it comes to intentionality, I’m still a Calvinist but without the overriding determinations of the Prime Intender.

Here are some particularly telling excerpts:


Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754


The activity of the soul may enable it to be the cause of effects; but it don’t at all enable or help it to be the subject of effects which have no cause… Activity of nature will no more enable a being to produce effects, and determine the manner of their existence, within itself, without a cause, than out of itself, in some other being. But if an active being should, through its activity, produce and determine an effect in some external object, how absurd would it be to say, that the effect was produced without a cause!

…The mind’s being a designing cause, only enables it to produce effects in consequence of its design; it will not enable it to be the designing cause of all its own designs. The mind’s being an elective cause, will only enable it to produce effects in consequence of its elections, and according to them; but can’t enable it to be the elective cause of all its own elections; because that supposes an election before the first election. So the mind’s being an active cause enables it to produce effects in consequence of its own acts, but can’t enable it to be the determining cause of all its own acts; for that is still in the same manner a contradiction; as it supposes a determining act conversant about the first act, and prior to it, having a causal influence on its existence, and manner of existence.


Tis a thing chiefly insisted on by Arminians, in this controversy, as a thing most important and essential in human liberty, that volitions, or the acts of the will, are contingent events; understanding contingence as opposite, not only to constraint, but to all necessity. Therefore I would particularly consider this matter…

To suppose there are some events which have a cause and ground of their existence, that yet are not necessarily connected with their cause, is to suppose that they have a cause which is not their cause. Thus, if the effect be not necessarily connected with the cause, with its influence, and influential circumstances; then, as I observed before, ’tis a thing possible and supposable, that the cause may sometimes exert the same influence, under the same circumstances, and yet the effect not follow. And if this actually happens in any instance, this instance is a proof, in fact, that the influence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. For if it had been sufficient, it would have done it. And yet, by the supposition, in another instance, the same cause, with perfectly the same influence, and when all circumstances which have any influence, are the same, it was followed with the effect. By which it is manifest, that the effect in this last instance was not owing to the influence of the cause, but must come to pass some other way. For it was proved before, that the influence of the cause was not sufficient to produce the effect. And if it was not sufficient to produce it, then the production of it could not be owing to that influence, but must be owing to something else, or owing to nothing. And if the effect be not owing to the influence of the cause, then it is not the cause. Which brings us to the contradiction, of a cause, and no cause, that which is the ground and reason of the existence of a thing, and at the same time is not the ground and reason of its existence, nor is sufficient to be so.


[E]very act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is, in the manner which has already been explained; namely, that the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable…

I am sensible, the Doctor’s [Daniel Whitby, an Arminian] aim in these assertions is against the Calvinists; to show, in opposition to them, that there is no need of any physical operation of the Spirit of God on the will, to change and determine that to a good choice, but that God’s operation and assistance is only moral, suggesting ideas to the understanding; which he supposes to be enough, if those ideas are attended to, infallibly to obtain the end. But whatever his design was, nothing can more directly and fully prove, that every determination of the will, in choosing and refusing, is necessary; directly contrary to his own notion of the liberty of the will. For if the determination of the will, evermore, in this manner, follows the light, conviction and view of the understanding, concerning the greatest good and evil, and this be that alone which moves the will, and it be a contradiction to suppose otherwise; then it is necessarily so, the will necessarily follows this light or view of the understanding, not only in some of its acts, but in every act of choosing and refusing. So that the will don’t determine itself in any one of its own acts; but all its acts, every act of choice and refusal, depends on, and is necessarily connected with some antecedent cause; which cause is not the will itself, nor any act of its own, nor anything pertaining to that faculty, but something belonging to another faculty, whose acts go before the will, in all its acts, and govern and determine them every one…

And let us suppose as many acts of the will, one preceding another, as we please, yet they are everyone of them necessarily determined by a certain degree of light in the understanding, concerning the greatest and most eligible good in that case; and so, not one of them free according to Dr. Whitby’s notion of freedom…

If liberty consists in that which Arminians suppose, viz. in the will’s determining its own acts, having free opportunity, and being without all necessity; this is the same as to say, that liberty consists in the soul’s having power and opportunity to have what determinations of the will it pleases or chooses. And if the determinations of the will, and the last dictates of the understanding be the same thing, then liberty consists in the mind’s having power to have what dictates of the understanding it pleases, having opportunity to choose its own dictates of understanding. But this is absurd; for it is to make the determination of choice prior to the dictate of understanding, and the ground of it; which can’t consist with the dictate of understanding’s being the determination of choice itself.


That every act of the will has some cause, and consequently (by what has been already proved) has a necessary connection with its cause, and so is necessary by a necessity of connection and consequence, is evident by this, that every act of the will whatsoever, is excited by some motive: which is manifest, because, if the will or mind, in willing and choosing after the manner that it does, is excited so to do by no motive or inducement, then it has no end which it proposes to itself, or pursues in so doing; it aims at nothing, and seeks nothing. And if it seeks nothing, then it don’t go after anything, or exert any inclination or preference towards anything. Which brings the matter to a contradiction; because for the mind to will something, and for it to go after something by an act of preference and inclination, are the same thing.

But if every act of the will is excited by a motive, then that motive is the cause of the act of the will. If the acts of the will are excited by motives, then motives are the causes of their being excited; or, which is the same thing, the cause of their being put forth into act and existence. And if so, the existence of the acts of the will is properly the effect of their motives. Motives do nothing as motives or inducements, but by their influence; and so much as is done by their influence, is the effect of them. For that is the notion of an effect, something that is brought to pass by the influence of another thing.

And if volitions are properly the effects of their motives, then they are necessarily connected with their motives. Every effect and event being, as was proved before, necessarily connected with that which is the proper ground and reason of its existence. Thus it is manifest, that volition is necessary, and is not from any self-determining power in the will: the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself…

There is such a thing as a diversity of strength in motives to choice, previous to the choice itself. Mr. Chubb himself  [Thomas Chubb, a deist] supposes, that they do “previously invite,” “induce,” “excite” and “dispose the mind to action.” This implies, that they have something in themselves that is inviting, some tendency to induce and dispose to volition, previous to volition itself. And if they have in themselves this nature and tendency, doubtless they have it in certain limited degrees, which are capable of diversity; and some have it in greater degrees, others in less; and they that have most of this tendency, considered with all their nature and circumstances, previous to volition, they are the strongest motives; and those that have least, are the weakest motives…

[N]ow if motives excite the will, they move it… And again (if language is of any significance at all) if motives excite volition, then they are the cause of its being excited; and to cause volition to be excited, is to cause it to be put forth or exerted… To excite, is positively to do something; and certainly that which does something, is the cause of the thing done by it. To create, is to cause to be created; to make, is to cause to be made; to kill, is to cause to be killed; to quicken, is to cause to be quickened; and to excite, is to cause to be excited. To excite, is to be a cause, in the most proper sense, not merely a negative occasion, but a ground of existence by positive influence. The notion of exciting, is exerting influence to cause the effect to arise or come forth into existence.


  1. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

    We always want to hear this, so it won’t sound so annihilating, but I think this may well be the first time I’ve heard anybody go on and be explicit about; they usually just act on it in some peevish way, as if the autonomy was still definitely there, but just not to be emphasized or given importance in discourse.

    I can’t, though, bring myself to read the Edwards. I did like reading the summaries of Calvinism and ‘where God’s grace comes from’. It’s certainly no more believable in a modern-logical way than anything in Greek mythology. All it does is prove God’s powerlessness at leaving us alone.


    Comment by Patrick — 15 December 2013 @ 1:16 pm

  2. “All it does is prove God’s powerlessness at leaving us alone.”

    This is an altogether excellent remark.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 December 2013 @ 1:56 pm

  3. The reason I assent to the mirage of autonomy is tha there are clinical conditions in which it is felt to be absent- most notably severe depression. My worry, or one of them, is that an absolute elimination of autonomy would result in a collapse. The illusion of autonomy is entirely pragmatic and probably necessary for organismic survival.


    Comment by arranjames — 9 January 2014 @ 2:48 pm

  4. Cheers, arranjames. What comes to mind are those old learned helplessness lab studies conducted on rats and dogs: no dummies relative to plenty of other creatures, but with pretty limited claims to conscious intentionality or reflexive awareness of (or self-delusions about) their autonomy. Even when the shocks stopped being administered, the animals’ neural pathways had been altered so as to inhibit food-seeking even in the absence of aversive stimuli in the environment. But avoiding pain also has survival value. Through manipulating the environment the experimenters induced a sharp shift in these creatures’ neural balance point between two self-preservation behaviors: away from reward-seeking, and toward risk-aversion. But it’s not like these psychically damaged animals had lost the urge to survive. They just stopped being effective at it, having inappropriately imported adaptive behaviors for surviving in a hostile environment into a more benign environment.

    You’d hope that, through self-awareness and rational agency, depressed humans experiencing helplessness could intentionally reset their balance point between autonomous action and self-protective refusal to act. But as you know from professional and perhaps also from personal experience it doesn’t work very well. Many if not most therapies try to find another way to achieve this rebalancing via behavior change, desensitization, working on the unconscious, pharmaceuticals, etc. For a depressed person to be willing even to try any of these treatments testifies to at least a couple of things: first, even in their helpless state they are exercising a modicum of autonomy by seeking help; second, they are willing to have their conscious intentional autonomy overridden for the sake of being able to take action spontaneously — i.e., to act, unconsciously and unintentionally, without having to think so hard about it, without having to exercise so damned much will power.

    On a not unrelated note, artists and fiction writers have been known intentionally to abuse substances that compromise their conscious intentionality, in order to tap into unconscious and unpremeditated sources of creativity. People do the same sort of thing at parties and bars when they want to get laid. Sometimes rational informed decision-making just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 January 2014 @ 9:38 pm

  5. I liked your link to the article about the limited effectiveness of antidepressants. The amplified placebo effect is interesting — that a pill’s having any sort of subjectively noticeable effect increases the likelihood and magnitude of its ability to reduce symptoms. I wonder what is the relationship between belief and intent in the placebo effect. Does believing in a treatment unconsciously “cause” the patient to try harder, to become a more proactive participant in the treatment? The relationship between faith and effort is an inverse one in Pauline Biblical psychology, or at least in the orthodox Protestant interpretation of it: believing in the efficacy of Christ’s “treatment” means you don’t have to work to achieve the desired outcomes (salvation, righteousness, love and joy and peace, etc.). There’s a sense of the believer re-envisioning him- or herself a godly, righteous, joyful person — “putting on the new man,” as Paul puts it — even before any sort of apotheosis has been wrought by the Holy Spirit in the believer’s psyche/soul. Maybe playing the role of a non-depressed person helps a person identify with that role, with that “new man” the treatment is promising to bring into existence as a kind of psychologically intact doppelganger. I don’t know, just thinking along with this Calvinism theme…


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 January 2014 @ 10:22 pm

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