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William Belsham - On Liberty and Necessity
Essays Philosophical and Moral, Historical and Literary,
Volume I, Book I, Essay I. (London 1789)

The celebrated controversy on the subject of Liberty and Necessity has from the earliest ages, and in various modes, attracted the attention and employed the sagacity of philosophical and speculative minds. Whether the course of human events is fixed and unalterable, or uncertain and contingent, is a question in the highest degree curious and interesting; but at the same time involved in difficulties of such magnitude, that it may be justly doubted whether it is capable of a solution so clear and satisfactory, as to preclude a difference of opinion on this subject amongst enquirers equally, candid, impartial and intelligent. In modern times indeed the

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controversy has assumed a more regular and scientific form; and the utmost force of the human understanding has been exerted, the utmost powers of ratiocination displayed by the advocates on each side, in their attempts to establish or confirm their respective systems. Yet the question does not seem to approach to a decision, and the greatest names in the republic of letters are still divided in opinion on this important point.

First, the Necessarian Writers — amongst whom Hume, Hobbes, Collins, Leibnitz, Hutcheson, Edwards, Hartley, Priestley, and perhaps Locke, are to be classed — strenuously maintain, that the course of human events is absolutely fixed and unalterable; and that nothing could possibly, or at least without a change in the fundamental laws of the universe, take place otherwise than as it is, has been or is to be. This they affirm is not merely a probable conclusion, but a conclusion demonstrably resulting from the following considerations. Whatever begins to exist must have an adequate cause of its existence; for if the smallest particle of dust, or the most transient emotion of the mind, could come into existence without a cause, it is evident that the whole universe and all the inhabitants it contains might also exist without a cause: and consequently it would be impossible to prove the existence of

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the great and original Cause of all things. This primary truth then being established, they affect further, that the same causes in the same circumstances must produce exactly the same effects: this axiom being consonant to all the phenomena of nature, and indeed the basis and foundation of all just philosophy. To affirm that the same causes do not in the same circumstances produce invariably the same effects, is in reality to assert that a cause of existence is not absolutely necessary. For if nothing in the cause corresponds to the variation in the effect, that variation exists without a cause: consequently this truth is equally incontrovertible with the first. And they proceed with confidence to a third proposition, necessarily resulting from the two former, viz. that a man in any given situation must form certain or definite volitions or determinations. For if nothing exists without a cause, and the same causes in the same circumstances produce the same effects, the volitions referred to must have had a cause, and the cause which was adequate to the production of those volitions was inadequate to the production of any other than those; for a variation in the volitions would necessarily imply a variation in the cause. Hence it follows by easy and irrefragable deduction, that in every possible situation in which a human or thinking being can be placed, his volitions must be
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determinate and certain; that the volitions of all mankind are so; and finally, that as every event comes to pass in consequence of causes previously existing, the whole series of events is under the influence of an absolute and uncontrollable Necessity.

Again, it is urged as an undeniable matter of fact by this class of metaphysicians, that no volition ever takes place in the mind, without some motive. As this proposition is too plain to be called in question, it must be allowed that when different motives present themselves to the imagination, the mind will be invariably influenced by the stronger motive consequently the volition must he in the strictest sense necessary.

The prescience of the Divine Being affords also a collateral argument of the greatest weight in support of the doctrine of Necessity. For if future events arc in their own nature uncertain and contingent, Omniscience itself cannot see them to be otherwise than they actually are; and it is a gross and palpable contradiction to assert, that God can with absolute certainty foretell that a particular event shall take place; and at the same time to affirm, that the event foretold depends upon the free-will of man for its accomplishment, if the determinations of the will are themselves lawless and uncertain.

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To these very powerful and cogent arguments the advocates for Philosophical Liberty, viz. Clarke, Beattie, Butler, Price, Law, Bryant, Wollaston, Horsley, etc. reply to the following purpose.
Here is Peter Strawson's Naturalism argument for belief in free will
As all mankind have an internal consciousness of freedom, and as it is impossible for any metaphysical subtleties so totally to overpower the original and genuine dictates of nature, as to excite a real belief in the mind of any rational being that he is not master of his own actions, but that he is a mere machine, and as incapable of controlling the events of this life or the determinations of his will, as a puppet to resist the impulse of the wires by which he is put in motion, it might seem sufficient to appeal to common sense for the refutation os assertions so extravagant and absurd. But in order more completely to expose the fallacy and detect the sophistry of those arguments by which their antagonists attempt to reason men out of their reason, it is proper, say they, to enter into a more full and accurate investigation of them. And with respect to the so much boasted argument from the necessary operation of causes and effects, they profess their readiness to acknowledge the necessity of a cause to the production of any effect; but they can by no means admit the application of this axiom to the support of the hypothesis in question, nor by any means allow that motives
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are to be considered as the efficient causes of volition. The man alone is the agent, and forms the volition, upon the view and consideration of motives indeed which may be, and usually are, the occasion of the volition, but which cannot with any degree of propriety be stiled the impellers, or the true and physical causes of it. To set this proposition in a clearer light they observe, that amongst other wonderful and incomprehensible powers with which it has pleased God to endow the human mind, is the faculty of self-determination of beginning motion, of putting itself in action. And though no reasonable person will exert this power in a total disregard to motives, yet must the power indisputably be allowed to exist independent of the motive;
Belsham describes the case for agent-causal libertarianism
and though two different volitions be supposed to take place in the same precise situation, they cannot surely with any shadow of justice be represented as existing without any adequate cause, when the self-determining power is itself the cause of each volition.

In various instances the different motives presented to the mind appear equally forcible. At other times we cannot, with the utmost attention, perceive our minds to be influenced, previous to the act of chusing, by any motive whatever to a definite choice. In such cases, can any one be so absurd as to imagine that the man is not at

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liberty to act at all? Has not a man a power of walking, because he is not incited by any particular motive to turn either to the right hand or to the left? Or is a traveller incapable of proceeding to the place of his destination, till he has formally considered and decided whether the shorter and rougher or the farther and easier road be the more eligible? No: doubtless he has a power of instant determination, notwithstanding the impossibility of ascertaining the preponderance or even the existence of any motive which could in any manner influence the volition. Even in those cases where the preponderance of any motive is visible and notorious, no man can truly say that the action consequent upon it was strictly speaking necessary; for great as the weight of the motive may be supposed, if it was not actually of a violent or compulsive kind, the self-determining power might have decided in opposition to that or any other motive whatever. So that the weakness and fallacy of that reasoning must be apparent to every unprejudiced enquirer, by which it is pretended that the mind will be necessarily and invariably, influenced by the strongest motive.

In the multifarious and eventful business of life, it perpetually happens that the mind is agitated and perplexed by a conflict of opposite and contending motives; and we too frequently find

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virtue and reason ranged on one side, passion and inclination on the other. In this unhappy situation what is to be done? Are men quietly and passively to submit to the strong and violent impulse of passion, and refuse to listen to the still and feeble call of reason? No: they must exert their own inherent power of self-determination; and form their resolutions, in spite of the superior force of those inclinations which they know to be highly culpable and unworthy. If it is sufficient to say in vindication of a vicious action, that the motives which influenced us to the perpetration of it were at the time predominant in the mind, no villany could over want an adequate apology, the very foundations of virtue would be subverted, the ideas of virtue and vice would be totally confounded, and the moral character of the Deity himself, as the author of a constitution of things which necessarily and inevitably led to the commission of every species of immorality, would be highly reflected upon, and most injuriously, not to say profanely traduced and misrepresented.

And in regard to the collateral argument deduced from the Divine Prescience, it may he said in the language of Scripture, that as the Heavens are high above the Earth, so are God's ways higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts: and it would be most unreasonable

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and presumptuous to expect that men should be able to comprehend or explain the mode in which the Divine attributes exist or operate. We know by intuition as well as induction, that the will of man is free : and we know from the accomplishment of Prophecies, as well as by the express claims and declarations of the Divine Being, that all futurity lies open to his immense survey. And these truths, if separately proved, must undoubtedly be consistent with each other, however inconsistent or irreconcileable they may appear to our weak and limited capacities. But even if it should be allowed that the free-will of man, and the fore-knowledge of Deity, when understood in its utmost latitude, are express contradictions, it would surely be much less derogatory to the honor and glory of Almighty God to acknowledge, that the attribute of prescience is not absolutely and strictly speaking without limitation, than to assert the existence of it in such a sense, as to imply the impossibility, of imparting to man freedom of agency, the glorious and inestimable privilege os self-determination. If it is in the nature of things impossible that the attribute of prescience can subsist in its fullest extent without depriving men of that faculty which can alone render them moral or accountable agents; with profound submission and reverence we may venture to affirm,
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that in this sense, and to this extent, it does not subsist: though doubtless that Almighty Being, to whom all hearts are open and all desires known, cannot fail to judge with a degree of precision, to us wholly incomprehensible, concerning the effects which will arise from causes actually existing. His foresight extends to every possible contingency, and his power and wisdom will infallibly make every event subservient to the most glorious and salutary purposes.

The Necessarians, far from being silenced by these popular reasonings, with great ardour and confidence thus resume the argument: - "It is acknowledged by our opponents, thus, that nothing can come into existence without a cause. All the affections, emotions, and feelings of the mind, however modified, and however distinguished, are the real and genuine effects of some real and adequate cause. The question therefore to be decided is this:— 'Whether those mental affections are produced by a regular concatenation of circumstances or motives, operating as real and adequate causes, or whether they arc the result of a certain faculty of the mind, fortunately discovered for this very purpose, and dignified with the appellation of the self-determining power.'" He who affirms that the self-determining power is the cause of volition, must doubtless intend to convey some farther

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idea, than that the power by which our volitions are determined is the cause of volition; for this is a mere identical proposition, which can never be seriously proposed as the subject of philosophical discussion. By the self-determining power therefore must be meant, if indeed it has any meaning, either the actual exertion of volition, or the mental energy which precedes volition, and which is the efficient cause os it. Is it means the allual exertion or volition, then the assertors of this power evidently confound the cause with the effect, making the act of volition prior to itself, distinct from itself, and the cause of itself. But if it means the mental energy, preceding and producing volition; it is then equivalent to the term motive, and the question is reduced to a mere verbal controversy. For this mental energy, denoting only a particular disposition and state of mind, must itself have resulted from a previous disposition of mind, as likewise that previous disposition from one yet more remote. A regular and uninterrupted concatenation of volitions, thus extending itself backwards to the original source of agency, each volition or mental state, like wave impelling wave, arising from preceding, and giving rise to succeeding states, or definite situations of mind analogous to itself, and corresponding to those immutable laws by which the mental, no
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less than the material world, is governed by infinite wisdom and power. But the term motive, according to the Necessarian definition, includes all those previous circumstances which contribute to produce a definite volition or determination os the will. To what purpose then attempt to distinguish between the power and the motive of determination, when the ideas precisely coincide; the definite cause of a definite volition being all which is really meant by either? Or where is the difference between the Libertarian, who lays that the mind chuses the motive, and the Necessarian, who asserts, that the motive determines the mind, if the volition be the necessary result of all the previous circumstances? The distinction in this case can only amount to an idle and trifling evasion: and it is evident, that in order to preserve a shadow of liberty, its advocates make no scruple to adopt a gross impropriety of expression. To boast that the mind chuses the motive when the mind is restricted to a definite choice, is ridiculous; and it is in fact as great a solecism, as to affirm that the volition chuses the motive: For the choice of the mind is not prior but subsequent to the motive: it is therefore not the cause but the effect of the motive; and this pretended mental choice is manifestly neither more nor less than the necessary determination of volition.

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After this, it is needless to enlarge upon the absurdity of the idea, that this pretended power of self-determination is capable of deciding in contradiction to the most powerful motive. For if it is considered as the real and proper cause of volition, its decisions must be definite and certain, and it is perfectly ridiculous to apply the term, most powerful, to that motive which is not actually prevalent. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, the existence of a power in the mind, the reality of which, as distinguished from the power of motives, it is impossible to distinguish by even the shadow os a proof, it is evident it can exist only as the cause of volition in general; for so far as it is not biassed and influenced by motives, so far it bears an exactly equal relation to each particular volition, and therefore cannot possibly be the cause of any specific determination; just as matter endowed with a similar power of self-motion would remain for ever inert, in consequence of its possessing an equal tendency to move in every possible direction at the same instant of time. So far as it is an independent principle, therefore, it is a nugatory and useless one. But even if it could he proved the true and proper cause of every particular volition, still we insist that the volitions produced by it must be certain and definite; for it will ever remain an incontrovertible axiom, notwithstanding
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all metaphysical refinements and subtleties, that the same cause in the same precise circumstances must inevitably produce the same effects. To appeal to the internal feelings and consciousness of mankind, as the advocates for liberty affect to do in confirmation of their principles, will avail them little. The only species of liberty that any man is, or can be conscious of, is a liberty or power of voluntary agency, or of acting as he pleases or wills: and this is a power which we are so far from contesting, that we consider it as an essential part of the Necessarian System. The fact is, that the question so much contested among philosophers, viz. whether volitions are definite in definite circumstances, never occurs to the generality of mankind, and if it were stated would not be understood. To philosophers only, then, let the appeal be made, and surely every attentive and impartial examiner must be compelled to answer in the affirmative. As to the immoral and pernicious consequences which our adversaries pretend to deduce from Necessarian principles, it is easy to show that they are founded in a gross misapprehension of their nature and tendency. The philosophical idea of liberty will not indeed be included in the Necessarian definition of virtue, but it will still remain as distinct from, and opposite to vice, as excellent in itself and as much the object of
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love and admiration, as it can possibly be upon any hypothesis whatever. To incite us to the practice of it, and to deter us from the commission of vice, motives must, agreeably to the frame and constitution of the human mind, be held out to our view: peace and happiness be annexed to the one, shame and misery to the other. These associations once implanted in the mind must produce the most beneficial effects. And the importance of early inculcating just sentiments, and of urging men to the practice of virtue by every laudable motive, cannot appear in so striking and important a light upon any other ground, as on that which ascribcs to them a certain and invariable operation.

That objection to the doctrine of Necessity, which charges it with involving the character of the Supreme Being in the guilt of moral turpitude, is an accusation equally weak and ill founded. If the Deity acts immorally in decreeing vicious actions, how can our adversaries, upon their own principles, vindicate God's moral government, in permitting those irregularities which he could so easily have prevented? The truth is, the difficulty is the very same on each, and indeed every hypothesis; and the Necessarians are under no peculiar obligation to solve that great problem, the introduction of evil into the universe. However; as we have the
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most convincing proofs, derived both from reason and Revelation, of the moral attributes of the Deity, we may surely rest satisfied that very wise and important ends are to be answered by it; and we may safely conclude that all things shall terminate in pure and perfect happiness; and that the power, wisdom, and goodness of God shall be at length fully displayed and illustriously vindicated.

It is farther observable, that the consequences flowing from the system of Necessity, and which appear to the assertors of free-will so alarming and dreadful, are light and trivial when compared with those which must necessarily result from the denial of the Divine prescience; which may be said to wrest the sceptre from the hand of the Creator, and to place that capricious and undefinable principle, the self-determining power of man, upon the throne of the universe. If the absolute fore-knowledge of God is admitted, every one must see that Contingency is excluded; and consequently the whole fabric reared upon the shallow and visionary basis of man's free-agency must instantly dissolve, "and, like an insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a wreck behind."

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