November 21, 2006

Descartes, Spinoza, and Free Will or Rufus Visits the Coffee Shop

Although Descartes and Spinoza were not of the same generation, we can imagine them together in a coffee shop to explore the concept of free will. These two philosophers would surely have a lot to talk about since Descartes established a complex tradition and Spinoza worked on those terms in order to refute Descartes’ system and establish a radically different understanding. A gentleman named Rufus joins them at their table and interrupts their heated debate on substance. Rufus tells them that he chose a double mocha drink since he has free will and did not really know what he wanted when he came in. He responds to their inquisitive stares by explaining that he believes in free will and is glad he has such a feature essential to human dignity, a feature that allows the freedom to make important choices. He remarks that either of these men had the freedom to avoid damnation from religious authorities by not sharing their views.

Descartes agrees that will does involve a sense of freedom but denies that Rufus sees free will in the proper light. The freedom of will, Descartes explains, is the ability to choose what is good based on the knowledge that one has. The will itself is quite a powerful faculty because one’s capacity to choose can encompass anything that is presented to it. Obviously, one cannot will just anything to happen and make it so because one’s body is limited in its capabilities and what the mind is allowed to grasp due to limitations of the senses. Clearly, one’s abilities are finite, but the will itself in contrast is infinite. Though it borders on sounding like a heretical notion, it appears that human will is similar to God’s in its infinity, though obviously God’s power is infinite because his will is coupled with other infinite faculties and infinite knowledge.

So the intellect is rather finite, Descartes summarizes, and the will is infinite. However, by the infinity of the will he says he does not mean that it could be composed of any smaller units of an indefinite number. The will is the faculty to make choices on anything presented to it, but it is not the kind of thing that can be divided, thus it would make no sense to speak of dividing it in any fashion. The will is a unitary entity, much like the mind, though the will is an aspect of mental substance.

Descartes empahsizes this point for Rufus: The more one is inclined to make a particular choice over another, the more freely he chooses. His inclination is not at all external; it is an internal function of his will. The more knowledge one has about an issue that faces him, the less he will have to deliberate because the good choice will be clearer. Deliberation is needed when his knowledge is vague and indistinct. God, of course, does not deliberate because he is perfect and lacks no knowledge. Descartes tells Rufus that if he chose his double mocha only because he had the freedom to pick anything on the menu then it was a random choice. Choosing randomly is hardly freedom at all, but being moved by the intellect with knowledge is what allows one to choose freely. Rufus’s choice would have been freer if he had asked the barista to explain the ingredients, if he had known what effects the caffeine and milk would have on his body, and so forth.

Descartes tells Rufus that now he understands what will is, he can begin to see what the freedom of the will really is. Is it not the case that people seek what is good or true in their actions? Of course it is, so people seek or avoid things based on whether they are believed to bring good or bad. However, one most certainly does not always know what is good or bad, and this is due to the finity of the intellect. So it is clear that in order to be certain that one’s actions really will have good results, his finite intellect must clearly perceive the truth when his infinite will is presented with choices.

While Descartes was making his speech, Spinoza was listening patiently and occasionally closing his eyes as if he were making mental notes at crucial points. He now waits to make sure Descartes is quite finished before clearning his throat and taking a deep breath. Spinoza tells Rufus that he hopes Descartes has helped him stretch his mind to begin thinking about human will so that now he can begin to understand what its true nature really is. First, there are some technical points Spinoza wants to get out of the way before he corrects the errors that Descartes has made by dragging centuries of misunderstandings into his arguments.

First of all, says Spinoza, will and intellect are really the same thing. Descartes pointed out a moment ago that the inclination of the will is automatic in light of knowledge, but that is because they are the same. Indeed, one does not have to deliberate when there is sufficient knowledge; there is no separate act by another entity called will that is required to make a judgment. Does not a triangle’s three angles equal two right angles? Of course, but does it take a separate act of will to affirm that is the case? No, because the idea cannot even be conceived without acknowledging that that is the case.

It is also silly, insists Spinoza, to think that the will is infinite even if it were separate from the intellect. The capacity to confirm or deny anything that ever may be conceived by the intellect is simply something universal. Just because an indefinite number of facts could be considered does not mean that the capacity of the will is infinite or indefinite. Is it not possible that one’s eyes can see any of a limitless number of things? Does that mean that vision is infinite? Of course not. Both the senses and the will deal with the universal nature of sensing and volitions.

With those details aside, Spinoza begins to clear up what he sees as the biggest misunderstanding. There is no such thing as free will, he declares. People’s actions really are determined by the sequence of cause and effect in nature. Spinoza says that Descartes seems to grasp this truth even though he arrived at it the wrong way. To stretch Rufus’s mind a little further, Spinoza asked him if he could remember when Descartes said that one is moved to make a specific choice when he has sufficient knowledge. By this account, one is moved toward what is good or true. However, he asks Rufus what determines what is good and bad and why one always tries to pursue something good.

Rufus remains quiet because he is not prepared to challenge the assumptions about good and bad with a pre-eminent philosopher. Spinoza continues:

Determination is what it is all about. Everything that exists, including Rufus, is in God. Only God is a free cause because he necessarily exists in an eternal sense. In fact, God exists and acts according to the laws of his own nature, so even God does not have free will! Everyone in this coffee shop and everything around it has been determined by God. Anything finite is the effect of a finite cause which itself is an effect of a previous finite cause and so on, and everyone is a part of that sequence. God is responsible for that sequence, but he has not crafted it with some mysterious goal because he simply acts from his own necessity. One’s intellect or will is a part of the chain of finite causes and effects, and since it has been previously determined, it is a necessary cause of the things it affects.

Rufus appears shocked and sad, and Descartes shakes his head emphatically, finally interrupting.

Descartes counters that rational experience indicates otherwise. Of all things that can be clearly and distinctly perceived, the first is the state of one’s own thoughts, and among those thoughts are volitions and judgments. One distinctly perceives that judgment is a separate process from the apprehension of perceptions and also that the process of making a decision is different from considering a judgment. One cannot be confused because these thoughts are clear and distinct, and furthermore one cannot be deceived about this by God because he, being perfect, lacks nothing and thus has no need to deceive. Spinoza just said that an external cause determines the actions one takes, but that is a crucial error. It is clear that one’s movement to a choice is purely internal, and therein lies the freedom of will.

Descartes smiles with satisfaction, and Rufus appears relieved.

Spinoza begins to speak carefully in a low voice and reminds Descartes how he admitted that humans are created by God (created, in Descartes’s terms; caused, in Spinoza’s). Spinoza says that by this it is clear that the nature of one’s own desires is also created -- which means determined -- by God. One is conscious of his desires and the intellectual processes that he goes through to satisfy them, so of course he experiences what Descartes just described. However, one is not aware of the causes that determine what human desires are and what is good or bad, so he easily reaches the misconception that he is free. This misconception is also attached to the notion that people have free will in order to choose actions that help God achieve an ultimate purpose. This is utterly wrong because this is mistakenly anthropomorphizing God based on the experience that people must work towards their own ends such as survival. God is timeless, acts from necessity, and lacks nothing, so he is not waiting for people to achieve some far-off goal, which means that there is no point to having free will.

So the question of whether free will exists is not answered at this table in the coffee shop. Rufus does not need to worry about human dignity, though, because the concept of free will should not be rejected. Importantly, the concept of free will is part of human experience. Spinoza agrees that human experience exists. If human experience exists, then free will exists. If free will does not exist, then human experience does not exist, which is absurd.

This argument seems rather simplified, so how does it work? We heard Descartes explain how free will is part of human experience, and Spinoza clearly believes in human experience. The error that Spinoza makes in rejecting free will is that he is applying a concept of human experience to a philosophy that is suitable for studying nature. His analysis of cause and effect is done from a perspective that is remote and ultimately scientific. Yes, there is a series of natural causes that affect human bodies, and all of the body’s activities can be explained in terms of chemical and neural activity. Furthermore, human behavior can be explained by the effort to achieve survival in a world where humans are affected by external things. However, this does not describe the subjective experience of consciousness, and it is within this phenomenon that free will is experienced. Likewise, the experience of an emotion like love is within consciousness, although outside of consciousness love is another chemical and neural event connected causally to the world around the human body. This does not mean that any element of human experience does not exist, so free will should continue to be respected and studied. Rufus is free to reject Spinoza’s theory.

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