An Interaction & Explanation of John Gerstner's

A Primer on Free Will

John Gerstner's Primer on Free Will is short work on the concept of the freedom of the will. It could really be considered a summary or introductory work to Jonathan Edwards much larger treatise on The Freedom of the Will. Some people seem to misunderstand what Gerstner is speaking about exactly, especially in regards to the arguments he is making, the first time they read through the short work. The intention of this interaction is to shed some light on what Gerstner was arguing and to clear up misunderstandings about his approach. This article will follow a sort of discussion approach in Question and Answer format.

The Misconception:

One of the tendencies when reading Gerstner's work is to think he is arguing that the person was predestined to read the book and has no choice in the matter, and then "proves" it by then pointing to the fact that they are reading it. The argument made that Gerstner is guilty of "affirming the consequent," a logical fallacy that goes like this: "If you are predestined to read this book you will therefore read it. You are reading this book, therefore it is proved that you were predestined to read it."

What Gerstner Was Actually Saying:

However, Gerstner did not start his booklet by saying that the reader is "predestined" to read the booklet, nor does he say that one has no "choice" in the matter. He simply says, "One thing I know is that you did not pick up this book of your own free will." (Primitive Theology, p.223) He then later explains what he means by "free will":

"I take it that when you say, 'I picked up this book and am reading it of my own free will,' this is what you mean: 'Spontaneously, without anything forcing me to make this choice, I did, of myself alone, arbitrarily if you please, choose to pick up this book and read it.' At least that is what 95 percent of the persons who use that term, 'free will,' mean by it. They mean their choices are free of any factors in the background influencing them, let alone compelling them." (p.224)

What Gerstner was writing about is what most people consider by the concept of "free will," that is, a will that is arbitrary and with no reasons as to why the will is acting the way it is acting, or responding the way it is responding. Gerstner does not deny that people make choices. People do make choices. He writes:

"That is actually not the way you came to make this choice at all." (p.224)

"I mention a factor like that because if there were other considerations that demanded your time more than this book does, they would have prevented you from choosing to read this book at this time." (p.225)

"But I can conclude by the fact that you have chosen to read it, and are continuing to read it, that those considerations, however potent they were, were not as strong as the consideration that led you to pick up this book and read it." (p.227)

The point is that one does make choices, but these choices are not arbitrary. Rather, there are reasons why one makes the choices that he or she makes.

As for whether the person was "predestined" to read the booklet or not, Gerstner would agree that this would be the case because he believed all things were foreordained by God (see the Westminster Confession of Faith 3:1). However, this is not specifically what he was dealing with in the early pages of his Primer on Free Will, but rather is answering the common notion of "free will."

Since the statement that Gerstner asserts in the positive that the reader is reading the booklet because "predestined" to do so is erroneous (Gerstner does not begin the booklet by stating such), but rather he is stating the negative that the reader did not pick up the booklet to read of his or her own "free will" and then defines what he means by free will, the "logical fallacy" thus fails. It fails because it is not applicable. It is not applicable because it is not what Gerstner said. Gerstner did not say: (1) I will prove to you that you were predetermined to read this book by the fact that (2) you are reading this book, thus (3) the fact that you are reading this book is proof that you were predetermined to read this book. He is replying to the notion that people have concerning "free will" by exercising their wills without any reasons for exercising their wills. One states that for a person to be responsible he or she must have a "free will" and for that will to be free there must not be any reasons for the volition acting in the way it acts, if there were it would not be free. Gerstner is stating that by definition there must be reasons for the will acting. The will is not arbitrary in it's willing.

To further clarify as to why the logical fallacy of "Affirming the Consequent" is not applicable, Gerstner's line of reasoning could be better summarized as such:

(1) I will prove to you that you are not reading this of your own free will.

(2) You are reading this book.

(3) The fact that you are now reading this makes it evident that you are not reading it of your own free will.

(4) I now go on to explain what I mean:

(4a) I define free will by what most people mean by free will (i.e. arbitrary, without reasons, etc.).

(4b) Conversely, the choices we make are based upon reasons / there are reasons by which we make such choices rather than being strictly arbitrary, etc.

So in other words, if he had stopped at point (3) he would have been guilty of "Affirming the Consequent" but rather he goes on to explain what he means by free will and why the person is not reading the book of his or her own free will defined as such. And so according to Gerstner the choices we make must have motives or reasons behind them rather than being arbitrary and thus by very definition point (3) must be the case.
This page was last updated: 2/3/2017
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