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Myth Busters: Jonathan Edwards Committed a Modal Fallacy


You may not be attracted to Jonathan Edwards’ particular model of determinism and compatibilism. Such is fine. You may think you have good reasons to reject his system. Perhaps you do. But, that he commits an elementary fallacy in modal logic—confusing the necessity of the consequence with the necessity of the consequent—should not be one of those reasons. Unfortunately, this charge against Edwards is all-too-common. More unfortunately, it seems to come only from the pens of ostensibly Reformed theologians—who are allegedly friendly interpreters of Edwards. On the other hand, open theists like William Hasker seem to be more charitable to Edwards (cf. Hasker, God, Time, and Foreknowledge, 1989, 72). In this post I’ll explain why I think Edwards is innocent of such a charge.

Before continuing, let me explain the fallacy under discussion so that we can have it under our belts as we move forward:



If I drink a glass of water, then I must have drunk a glass of H2O.

The ‘must’ in this sentence creates an ambiguity. It can take what is called ‘wide scope’ or ‘narrow scope’. ‘Must’ is sometimes another way to write ‘necessarily’. Let me represent ‘must’ or ‘necessarily’ in shorthand, like this: ‘Nec‘. I’ll write ‘Nec‘ first in its wide scope form and then in its narrow scope form:

Wide Scope: Nec(If I drink a glass of water, then I drank a glass of H2O.)


Narrow Scope: If I drink a glass of water then Nec(I drank a glass of H2O).

See the difference? Now let me briefly explain the difference. In the first case, what’s being said is that it cannot be the case that I (or anyone, for that matter) drink a glass of water but do not, thereby, drink a glass of H2O. That is, there is no situation in which I (or anyone) drinks water and does not, thereby, drink H2O.  Suppose we think of these various “situations” as ‘worlds’. We can change some things from world to world, but not other things. One of the things we cannot change is that if someone, S, drinks water in that world (any world!), then S has drunk a glass of H2O.

In the second case—the narrow scoped case—what is being said there is that, if I happen to drink a glass of water, then, in every situation, I drink a glass of H2O. Let’s think of ‘situations’ again as ‘worlds’. We can change them in some ways, but not others. In the narrow-scoped example, one of the ways we cannot change any of the worlds is when it comes to me drinking a glass of H2O, and since H2O just is water, then every world contains me, drinking a glass of water. So let’s think of a situation or world different from ours, we’ll name this world, ‘w‘. In w, sadly, I die as an infant. But not to worry, there I am, in w, pounding down a glass of water. Or, we might think we could change things to get a world where I exist but without a body. But there I am, drinking a glass of water, and without lips, a mouth, a throat, etc.! Quite the feat. In fact, what this version says is that in every logically possible way we could change things around to get a different world, I am in all of them, drinking water.

Wide scope corresponds to “the necessity of the consequence” and narrow scope corresponds to “the necessity of the consequent.” It is a fallacy to infer the latter from the former. That is, the fallacy occurs when we transfer the wide scoped Nec to a narrow scoped Nec. Here’s the basic form the fallacy takes: if we let W = “I drink a glass of water” and H = “I drank a glass of H2O,”:

  1. Nec(If W then H).
  2. W.
  3. Therefore, Nec(H).

Again, the basic problem is that it doesn’t follow from the fact that I happen to drink a glass of water in one world, that I thereby drink a glass of water (H2O) in every possible world. Hopefully we can now better understand the charge that Edwards commits this fallacy.

Edwards and the Charge

It is in vogue as of late to argue that post-Reformation theology, prior to Edwards, showed no tendency toward determinism (cf. Muller, PRRD, v.1 2nd ed. 128-129; see this post for some context). Edwards was naughty and parted ways with the Reformed tradition, giving us in its place a deterministic spin on classic Reformed doctrines. One way it is argued that Edwards gives us a deterministic Reformed theology previously unheard of, is that he confuses the necessity of the consequence with the necessity of the consequent (i.e., wide and narrow scope confusion). Now, Edwards himself says he’s speaking of the necessity of the consequence. But that is not enough for some scholars. Thus Muller writes that, “Edwards, it should be noted, appears to confuse necessitas consequentiae [wide scope] with necessitas consequentis [narrow scope]: he uses the former term but clearly means the latter” (“Jonathan Edwards and the Absence of Free Choice,” Jonathan Edwards Studies vol. 1, no. 1 (2011), 14).

Realize what Muller’s claiming here. Despite Edwards’ insistence otherwise, Muller has it that Edwards thinks that if God happens to decree that <Washington will cross the Delaware>,  then in every possible world, Washington crosses the Delaware! God is thus not free to decree otherwise. Muller has it that Edwards’ view is that God can’t create a world without Washington, or one he is hydrophobic and is psychologically unable to cross the Delaware, or any other number of possible scenarios. But such a position is clearly denied by Edwards. So Edwards:

According to this supposition [which Edwards is against, P.M.], God has no freedom or choice in decreeing or appointing any thing. It is not at his choice what shall be future, and what not; no, not in one thing. For the futurition of things is by this supposition antecedent in nature to his choice; so that his choosing or refusing does not alter the case. The things in themselves are future, and his decreeing cannot make them not future; for they cannot be future and not future at the same time; neither can it make them future, because they are future already: so that they who thus plead for man’s liberty, advance principles which destroy the freedom of God himself.

Since Edwards seems to say here that it is up to God whether Washington crosses the Delaware or not, and each is a possible scenario for God to create, then Edwards simply can’t be committing that fallacy.

Similar problems can be found in this paper by one of Muller’s students. The author writes,:

What kind of necessity evolves from Edwards’ conception of causation? The kind of necessity that results from Edwards’ conceptual framework is what scholastics, and the Reformed Orthodox thinkers referred to as necessity of the consequent (necessitas consequentis), or absolute necessity. Here, Edwards’ appeal to logical and natural necessity, transposed to moral and metaphysical necessity, requires that: if p, then necessarily q. Here the necessity operator is on q, requiring that p being fulfilled, there is no possible world in which q does not obtain. This is opposed to necessity of the consequence (necessitas consequentiae), requiring that: necessarily, if p then q. Here, the necessity operator simply establishes that the relationship between p and q is necessary, but not that any of the individual operands are necessary. q only becomes necessary if p were itself necessary.

We see similar problems here. In the above, ‘p’ might be something like “God’s decree.” The author states that it is Edwards’ view that if p is fulfilled, then q—where ‘q’ is an action like, say, brushing your teeth at titself is necessary. This means that in every possible world, God must decree that you brush your teeth at t. Since, for Edwards, if God decrees something, it must come to pass (N.B. the ‘must’ here isn’t absolute (narrow scope) necessity), then the above author is saying that Edwards thinks that if God’s decree happens to include that you brush your teeth at t in our world, then you exist in every world, brushing your teeth. Indeed, God cannot even conceive of a world where you don’t brush your teeth. If he did, he’d think of a world where you do and don’t brush your teeth. Is Edwards really saying this about God? Isn’t it more likely that our sympathetic interpreters of Edwards have been unsympathetic at this point?

However, if the author merely means that it is Edwards’ view that ‘q’ is only true in every world ‘p’ is true, then he would be correct that this is Edwards’ view. But this wouldn’t commit the modal fallacy. In fact, such a view is guaranteed by the necessity of the consequence. The deterministic-making-features of Edwards’, and I say the Reformed tradition, is in how ‘p’—i.e., God’s decree—is understood. For Edwards, and the tradition, the decree is not contingent on anything external to God. Moreover, the decree is immutable. Furthermore, it’s causally relevant, and it is the basis of God’s ‘foreknowledge’. The idea is that the decree has a fixity about it that, once in effect, we cannot make it otherwise. This ‘fixity’ and ‘inability’ isn’t governed by Nec, but by another operator, one that expresses this “fixity” or “unprevenatability.” Let that operator be Nunp, for ‘now-unpreventably’. Edwards argument would then have this form:

  1. Nec(If God decrees that I brush my teeth at time t, then I will brush my teeth at t.)
  2. Nunp(God decrees that I brush my teeth at t.)
  3. Nunp(I brush my teeth at t.)

This is enough (with the addition of some qualifying points) to rule out libertarian free will. And, ‘Nunp‘ is a kind of necessity, it’s a contingent necessity, very similar to what has been called accidental necessity, or the necessity of the past (in fact, Edwards’ argument from foreknowledge makes use of accidental necessity). On this view, given that God decrees p, and necessarily if God decrees p, then p, then I cannot do other than p. This doesn’t have the nefarious conclusion that I do p in every world. For there are worlds God creates that, sadly, or perhaps happily, do not contain me. Or perhaps God decrees I do something other than p in them. Thus, on this view, ‘p’ isn’t absolutely necessary, i.e., necessary in itself.

Of course, Jonathan Edwards is making such an argument. As he states in memorable fashion in Freedom of the Will, “It is also very manifest, that those things which are indissolubly connected with other things that are necessary, are themselves necessary. As that proposition whose truth is necessarily connected with another proposition, which is necessarily true, is itself necessarily true.”


Nota Bene

There actually is a potential that Edwards unknowingly affirmed that all of our actions are absolutely necessary, i.e., Nec. This argument would employ Edwards’ statements on creation, the best of all possible worlds, and not free will. That is, the text used would have to be End of Creation and not Freedom of the Will. The argument here is succinctly stated in the SEP entry on Edwards,

An apparent consequence is that God must create a world to display his glory. End of Creation contends both that God’s perfections include “a propensity of nature to diffuse of his own fullness” and that it isn’t “possible for him to be hindered in the exercise of his goodness and his other perfections in their proper effect.” (End of Creation, 1765; Edwards 1957–, vol. 8, 447) It follows that God must diffuse his own fullness, i. e., God must create. Edwards also appears committed to the claim that God necessarily creates this world (call itw*). God necessarily does what is “fittest and best.” It is thus necessarily true that God creates the best possible world. Now God has created w*. Hence, w* is the best possible world. ‘Being the best possible world’ is an essential property of whatever world has it, however. It is therefore necessarily true that w* is the best possible world. It follows that it is necessarily true that God creates w*.

Presently, I don’t have time to explore this. Two points will have to suffice: (1) Whatever the merits of this argument, it’s not the argument Muller et al. are using, and (2), I think there are plausible ways to resist it on behalf of Edwards. I have made similar argument on behalf of Anselm in response to Flint.


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